Saturday, June 23, 2007

It could have been worse: Part 1, the John Byrne reboot

In 1986, DC published Man of Steel by John Byrne. It was a recreation of the Superman mythos; a terrible one, I think. While beautifully drawn (Byrne's penciling at its peak, in my opinion), the writing just seemed to suck all the fun and wonder right out of him, taking Superman from being the super hero to being a super hero. But it's not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Byrne called his changes "scraping away the barnacles" and insisted that it kept true to the spirit of the character. I don't think it did at all. Byrne's Superman came from a cold Krypton that he wanted nothing to do with. He was far less powerful and Byrne went out of his way to explain how every power worked, it no longer being enough that they simply did. (He decided Superman's powers were all telekinetic in nature. When I was a kid the only answer I needed to "How can he lift a whole battleship without it falling apart?" was "Because he's Superman!") Byrne's Clark Kent was a star athlete and his Lex Luthor was a rich business man who lived down the street from the Daily Planet.

Some people like those and the others changes he made. Fair enough, he's still mostly recognizable as Superman. But the changes he didn't get to make, well, those take it to a whole new extreme. Compiled here are a series of quotes from interviews, Byrne's official FAQ, and various posts he's made to his message board detailing the changes he was not allowed to make.

The Man of Steel that didn't happen.

On the subject of Lana and Lois:
"If I had really had the free hand some fans are convinced I did, I would have dumped Lois altogether and brought Lana back as Superman/Clark's one true love. But there were somethings that had to remain inviolable, and one was the Superman/Lois/Clark relationship."

Although he would later say,

"There was never any plan to, or even consideration of, dropping Lois for Lana. That part played out exactly as I wanted it to."

When asked about his more radical ideas,

"Lois was married in college, just for a couple of years. Wanted to play with how Superman would react to/deal with this."

Lois was actually dating Luthor when Superman turned up (but not his mistress, as Wolfman wanted)."

On the subject of Superman's power levels:
"DC would not let me pare Superman all the way down to original Seigel (sic) and Shuster levels (the flying was too much a part of the character, for instance), but I was able to scale him back so that, as I said at the time, he would have to "grunt and sweat" in order to perform at least some of his super-feats."

The low-powered strong man that Byrne seems to have wanted wasn't around for very long. Siegel and Shuster's Superman developed most of the powers Superman is famous for while they were still working on the character.

On making the reboot in continuity with what had come before:
"Simply put -- and at the risk of creating a whole treasure trove of ideas others can steal -- my basic idea was to do a story in which Superman screws up royally -- so badly that the earth itself (and everyone on it) is destroyed. He then spends six months finding a Higher Power who says Sure, I can make it all better for you. But there's a price!

––Anything! says Superman.

––The next panel the rocket lands in that Kansas cornfield."

On Kryptonite and Superman's journey to Earth:
"My original plan was to have the pregnant Lara come to Earth instead of the baby. I explained that I needed that because if Superman was once again going to be the sole survivor of Krypton, the only way we could demonstrate how lethal kryptonite is would be to kill Superman. So I came up with the idea of having Lara come to Earth so we could have a Kryptonian who could find kryptonite and die, so we would know it was lethal. But they thought that might be messing with the legend a little bit too much."

On the setting:
"No Metropolis. The series would be set in New York."

Byrne's ideal Superman, gathered from what we see here and what saw print, was hardly Superman at all. He is a man responsible for global genocide who goes to find some deus ex machina to undo his mistake for him. He comes from a world that is cold and unloving; his parents are strangers. His birth mother travels with him to Earth, only to die in front of the infant and the Kents. He's got some super powers, but he can't fly or see through things, he's not invulnerable and he's only strong enough to lift a car or thereabouts. He lives in New York, romantically pursuing and being pursued by his childhood sweetheart.

There's no Metropolis, Lois Lane (or if there is, she's divorced and dating Lex Luthor); there's no Fortress of Solitude or Supergirl.

You know, it kind of makes sense, because many of those elements seem less like the 'higher power' giving Superman a second chance than they seem like punishing him.

When summed up, I really have to wonder if Byrne had ever even read a Superman comic before coming up with that stuff.

"It could have been worse" will continue with the fifth Superman film that didn't happen. Soonish.


Mr. Farrell said...

Funny, we were just talking about Byrne at Lundieworld. Here's what I was saying:

I think there's a lot of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in terms of Byrne's Superman. I don't think it was all bad or all mistaken. It was a valid, well-thought-out execution, one which had its time and is now over.

And while I don't think Byrne's run was great, I think what followed was much, much worse and not his fault.

In Byrne's favor: everyone (but me and maybe Grant Morrison) seems to like the Kents still being alive.

In terms of sentiment, I like them still alive. They're a sweet and kindly people: who'd want to kill them? But I think they're part of what lead to a less decisive, less adult Superman: his parents are still around. Superman shouldn't have people who take care of him: he takes care of the world.

It's kind of how I feel about married Superman and why I ultimately don't like it: Lois is the thing he can't have. He has all the power. He can do anything. He's the greatest man in the world... But he can't have the woman he loves. It's the cost of that power. He is apart. Likewise his parents, as he said when his father died in the movie: "All my power and I couldn't save him."

jtorres said...

that "planet blows up, Supes turns to God to fix things" seems like a pretty ballsy idea for a Superman analogue/Elseworlds book. it would be neat to see someone take the concept and run with it...

James Figueiredo said...

Ok, Thomas, don't throw rocks at me, but I *love* Byrne's Superman.

I like that his Clark Kent isn't a total moron/wimp/clumsy guy (though Grant Morrison plays that out nicely in ASS), I like his take on Lex Luthor, and I really, really like Krypton as a sterile, emotionless, alien world (the contrast between the childhood he'd have if he grew up on Krypton and the childhood he actually had with the Kents is starking, and strenghtens his bond with his adoptive parents and planet, I think) .

But you make some very good and valid points about why you don't like this incarnation of the character.

So let's agree that the art was awesome! ;^)


Mr. Farrell said...

I go back and forth on a sterile Krypton. I kind of like the idea of planets having a natural lifespan and Krypton having run its course. Also that it wasn't necessarily a paradise that Superman came from (of course, growing up with the movie instilled in me the idea that Krypton wasn't such a fun place, too). It gave earth an inherent value, that for all Krypton's majesty, they don't have home-cookin' and barn dances and Norman Rockwell whatnots.

But, if Superman is a myth of the immigrant who enriches his adopted homeland, it makes the Old World lousy place he was lucky to leave rather than a good place which was left with regret.

I don't think Byrne was completely wrongheaded on this one, either, but again don't fully support the notion.

thomas said...

I judge not, James. Superman is far too varied a character to say my version is absolutely right and Byrne is the devil. Even though he is. I just don't have any fun with Byrne's Superman, and I'm really annoyed at how he steadfastly refuses to admit how dramatic and sweeping his changes to the Superman mythos were.

And Jesse, about sterile Krypton, this a byrne quote, "Wendy Pini said I'd created a Krypton that deserved to blow up."

Aside from the issues you mention, my biggest gripe is that Byrne's Krypton is just fucking boring. The old Krypton had crystal mountains made from the corpses of flying glass beasts, animals that could read your mind and project your thoughts, places called Atomic City and the Scarlet Jungle, fire falls and gold volcanoes. It was amazing.

Byrne's Krpton had pointy buildings.

Anonymous said...

You should do an entire post detailing the wonders of Silver Age Krypton. Maybe you did, and I missed it.

I wasted too much time on this blog last night.


Millie said...

Interesting to know.

Anonymous said...

Supes had to have his power levels brought down, and Clark as the real identity rather than Superman/Kal-El makes more sense, IMO. The other stuff Byrne did, though I like most of it, wasn't necessary though.