Armagideon Time

Nobody’s Favorites: Byrned out

September 13th, 2016

In the realm of comics fandom, you either die happy in your nostalgia or live long enough to have to explain the virtues of something you cherish to folks too young to remember the hoopla firsthand.

You begin with “Well, you have to understand that…” pausing only to hike up your old man pants as you regale the young’uns with tales of a bygone world. Yet even as you dish out steaming piles of historical context and anecdotal data, there’s a nagging feeling in the back of your skull that maybe, just maybe, the kids might be on to something.

Perhaps it has been a while since you’ve actively revisited the thing you’re trying to defend, and your take on it has been colored by an excess of childhood nostalgia. You’re (hopefully) not the same person you were all those decades ago, so maybe a critical revisit is in order. You pull the funnybooks in question from a dingy longbox, sit down on the couch with a refreshing beverage, and proceed to wince as one fond memory after another implodes under a less starry-eyed re-examination.

This has been my experience with John Byrne’s post-Crisis reboot of the Superman franchise, particularly the restarted “v2” Superman series. It — and its lead-in Man of Steel mini — were huge factors in my drift back towards DC fandom after five years of Marvel Zombiedom. Any irritation I had about Byrne’s abrupt departure from Fantastic Four and The Hulk was offset by the promise of one of my favorite creators breathing new life into the most famous superhero on the planet.

Many of the criticisms I’ve seen — then and now — about Byrne’s take on Superman centered on his back-to-basics approach, jettisoning nearly five decades of continuity trivia which had accumulated around the core concept. From my perspective, that was the one thing Byrne got unquestionably right. I didn’t give a shit if Lois Lane no longer knew Kryptonian karate or if Luthor’s hair loss was natural or the Fortress of Solitude no longer existed. Those were the things that turned me away from the character in the first place, the stodgy formalism and ample arsenal of deus ex machina dodges which confounded every previous attempt to give the Man of Steel some post-Marvel Era relevance.

Byrne gave the character a welcome fresh start, rooted in the now, and with a stronger focus on defining who Clark Kent/Superman was as a person.

At the time, I loved it. And today?

It is very much a product of its times, and those times were unfortunately the mid-to-late 1980s. By contemporary standards, the stories are stylistically stiff and excessively wordy, locked into a temporal pigeon hole as oddly anachronistic as the Curt Swan era’s “Forever 1960” aesthetic.

And while Byrne was able to nail down certain crucial aspects of Superman and the world he inhabited, his additions to the character’s rogues’ gallery were, at best, underwhelming in the extreme…and the subject of this installment of Nobody’s Favorites.

First up is Bloodsport

…a cliche-spouting Rambo retread who slaughtered the citizens of Metropolis for not appreciating the sacrifices of The Troops. In truth, Bloodsport was a “cowardly” draft evader whose brother lost his arms and legs after taking his place at the induction center. Driven mad from guilt, Bloodsport was plucked out of mental institution by Lex Luthor to serve as a proxy in his war against Superman.

The whole concept was tacky beyond belief, but was able to get the go-ahead because coasted on the sleazy coattails of the then-contemporary fad-ification of the Vietnam War. The War Everyone Wanted to Forget suddenly became the War Nobody Could Shut Up About, a turn of events that spoke to the grotty underside of retro-culture mining and just so happened dovetailed nicely with the Reagan Era rehabilitation of military adventurism.

Platoon got an Oscar. Collections of 1960s pop hits got a boost in sales. Superman got Bloodsport. I got queasy.

Next on the list is Rampage

…who provided Byrne with a chance to sate his She-Hulk dependency while indulging in some Silver Age fake-out shenanigans.

While chatting with a lady scientist about a new and dangerous form of bio-energy, Lois Lane was caught in a catastrophic explosion which destroys the entire building. From the wreckage emerged the not-actually-named Rampage, a statuesque and ever-growing she-creature with powers to match Superman’s own.

Another scientist told Superman that Rampage was actually Lois Lane. Superman tried to stop the creature before it exploded and took Metropolis with it. A bandaged Lois showed up to explain that the creature was really the lady scientist. Superman went on to save the day. Otto Binder’s corpse rolled over in its grave, muttered “for fuck’s sake” with its moldering lips and tongue, then returned to its eternal rest.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t leave out Skyhook

…the rag-clad creature who mutated a gaggle of pre-teen runaways into bat-winged burglars. That’s really all there was to him. The bulk of the issue in which he appeared dealt more with the backstory of Metropolis PD Captain Maggie Sawyer, which explicitly stated (while not using the CCA verboten word) that she was a lesbian in a romantic relationship.

It was a pretty bold move for an all ages title in the late 1980s, and another example of the paradox that is John Byrne — in which forward-thinking moments are undercut by retrograde nonsense and public outbursts defending the same. It’s why I can still be moved to defend the man, though such defenses are necessarily packed with enough qualifiers to fill a couple of container ships.

Although not a Byrne creation, his depiction of the Joker in Superman deserves a mention here…

…if only how inexplicably bizarre it continues to be some three decades later.

Finally, this round up would not be complete without an appearance by the infamously icky Sleez, who showed up in the team-up incarnation of Action Comics which ran parallel to Byrne’s Superman run.

The mid-Eighties Superman reboot took place at a moment when Jack Kirby’s stable of “Fourth World” characters were transitioning from odd (and ridiculed) footnotes to core components of the newly streamlined DC Universe. Byrne approached them with particular gusto, giving them a prominent role in a several stories while making his own additions to the King’s cosmic mythos. Some were pretty clever and fit the milieu, like giving the demagogue Glorious Godfrey as subversive concern troll sister named Amazing Grace.

Sleez did not fall into that category.

I can see where Byrne might have been coming from. If Darkseid is supposed to be Space Hitler, then it makes sense that there might be a Space Julius Streicher in his employ.

Sleez was a discredited henchman of Darkseid who used his mind control abilities to run an illegal blue movie studio. The story features a concerned Darkseid screening a Big Barda porn tape for her horrified husband, Mr. Miracle. Sleez then tried to film a sequel with a both Barda and Superman.

Other folks have discussed this story in detail elsewhere. This is good, because it saves me from having to find a more eloquent way of saying HOW THE FUCK DID ANYONE THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA IN ANY FORM OR SHAPE WHATSOEVER DID NOBODY STOP AND CONSIDER THE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS IDIOCY BEYOND DURR HURR HURR LOOK WHAT WE GOT AWAY WITH FOR FUCK’S SAKE.

The other half of the Byrne paradox I mentioned above? There you have it.

For all the jaundiced glances and lashings of snark I’ve let fly in this post, if you were to ask me what my favorite Superman comics are, I wouldn’t answer with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” or “For the Man Who Has Everything” or All-Star Superman.

I would reflexively respond with “the John Byrne reboot.”

And I would truly mean it, because nostalgia is one hell of a drug.

5 Responses to “Nobody’s Favorites: Byrned out”

  1. Chris Wuchte

    I’m sure I’m overlooking something, but after re-reading Byrne’s runs on Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight in recent years, I’m left with the impression that creating effective villains wasn’t his strong suit. Working with pre-existing villains, he’s fine – he made a lot of tired FF villains relevant again. But when an issue of Alpha Flight is devoted to Northstar fighting a circus fat lady, then you know something’s not right.

  2. Thom H.

    I followed Byrne from Marvel to DC, too, and I have to agree that his Superman villains left a lot to be desired. For every Silver Banshee (who I really liked, mostly for the character design) there was at least one robotic-mummy-that-embodied-the-souls-of-an-entire-alien-race. Am I remembering that right? Anyway, even turning Lex Luthor into an evil businessman (which was a genius move) was Marv Wolfman’s idea, if I recall correctly.

    In fact, I was never as smitten with Byrne’s run on Superman/Action as I wanted to be. And I think the problem was the whole “back to basics” approach. I hadn’t read a lot of Silver Age Superman comics up to that point, but when I eventually did I thought, “oh, that’s what was missing!” The 80s revamp removed a lot of the confusing, convoluted aspects of Superman’s universe…and then didn’t replace them with anything. The character landscape felt so barren, especially with the onslaught of done-in-one villains mentioned above.

    And when the Superman brain trust started replacing the lost elements of the Superman mythos, like Supergirl and Brainiac, they became even more convoluted and confusing than ever. Matrix, anyone? I just never understood why Byrne, Wolfman, et al., couldn’t streamline Superman’s continuity without completely excising or seriously damaging so many completely workable characters. Sure, get rid of the Kryptonian dog and horse, but the guy can’t have a cousin to hang out with every once in a while? Or a group of friends from the future *who were currently starring in their own successful book*? “Why??” indeed.

  3. philip

    Despite several comics purges, this is still a series I can’t bring myself to get rid of. I am likely on the same nostalgia drug you are on, but this is one of the titles that hooked then-teenaged me. I wasn’t that familiar with Byrne at the time and something about his take on Supes was really exciting, at least at the time. I became a Wednesday comic shop regular for a solid 25 years across three different cities before I could no longer ignore the diminishing returns.

  4. Daniel

    Even with the flaws that you cite I still agree with you that this is my favorite comics version of the Superman character. Being five-years-old when the first Christopher Reeve movie came out I never liked all the goofy silver age aspects of the character and his cast that made up the comics prior to the Byrne revamp (and I still don’t like it (I’m talking to you, All-Star Superman)). The simpler, more streamlined approach to the character has always been my preference.

  5. CP Bananas

    I was a huge Byrne fan at the time and a huge Superman fan and it took me years to realize why this version of the character left me so cold. Like Thom H. above, I really wanted to like it more than I did. Part of it was simply the art–Dick Giordano’s scratchy inks were a poor fit for Byrne’s more organic lines, I think. And your “excessively wordy” is kind. I remember so many panels where there was barely room for a talking head among all the word balloons.

    And while the lack of memorable villains probably played a part, for me the main problems all stemmed from the rejection of Krypton as no more than a “curious memento.” (That last page of Man of Steel #1 still rubs me the wrong way.) People talk about Superman not being relatable. Well, when you take away the “Paradise Lost” aspect of Krypton you drain the character of his most relatable characteristics: his sense of loneliness and tragedy. Byrne’s Superman has it all. Even his adopted parents are alive. The Silver/Bronze Age Superman may have overdone the melodrama (particularly under Weisinger) but at least it gave the character some depth.

    I mean, just to beat this horse again, it seems borderline offensive to immigrants to say “nothing about my heritage matters.” And then DC tried to make us care with the World of Krypton mini? I couldn’t understand that. One of my favorite things about Mark Waid’s Birthright was the way he had Superman trying to carry on the ideals of a more idyllic Krypton. That’s a better immigrant story and a better Superman, in my opinion.

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