Why JOHN BYRNE’S SUPERMAN Was the Greatest Man of Steel Ever

Considering a classic, more than 30 years later.

UPDATED 7/6/17: It’s John Byrne’s 67th birthday today and the anniversary of The Man of Steel this week. This column ran in somewhat different form a year ago. What’s different? The payoff at the end. Check it out…

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I was not a huge fan of Superman comics as a kid. Curt Swan’s art just didn’t do it for me and it was hard for me to root for a god when my favorite character had to dodge bullets and skulk in the shadows.

That’s not a knock on those who wrote and drew Superman — it’s just a matter of taste.

Then along came 1986 — 3o years ago now — and the announcement that John Byrne, after years as one of Marvel’s heaviest hitters, was coming to DC to revamp Superman post-Crisis on Infinite Earths.

If you don’t remember, or weren’t there, it’s hard to explain what a big deal that was — even in that pre-Internet era. This was huge news. Byrne, to a lot of people, was Marvel in those days. This was as if Boston’s clean-up hitter came to the Yankees.

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The more I heard, the more I liked: Superman would start over from scratch with a biweekly, 6-issue miniseries called The Man of Steel. It would feature a Kal-El who really was the Last Son of Krypton — no Supergirl, Krypto, Kandor, none of it. And Clark Kent was never Superboy. (Again, not to knock Superboy but I always thought that idea was an especially long stretch.)

It sounded an awful lot like Superman: The Movie, which was my favorite version of Superman (and remains so today).

So when Man of Steel came out that summer — Issue #1 evidently came out July 10 — I was blown away. This was the Superman I’d been waiting to see on the page.

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The art was bright, clean and powerful — soaring even. The characterization was humane and distinct. Superman was made of steel but he was also a man. Like the previous version, Clark liked being Superman and was likeable — but now he was relatable. He was a contemporary — and no longer “Uncle Superman.”

And it wasn’t just when he was in the cape. Clark Kent was more an affable guy than buffoon — and got his own makeover in the process. Gone was the blue two-piece and red tie.

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Lex Luthor got a similar update: He no longer wore purple-and-green costumes — choosing instead Fortune 500 tailored suits. The Luthor you saw in the Bruce Timm cartoons was pretty much lifted whole cloth from Byrne. Lois, meanwhile, was a stylish cross between Margot Kidder and Barbara Stanwyck. Classic, but up to date.

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To this day, I’ve never liked a comic-book Superman better.

This was a stripped-down but still mighty Man of Steel, one that should have been allowed to flourish.

Sadly, it didn’t last. Byrne only worked on Superman for about two years. Some of the elements — like LexCorp — remain to this day but Superman’s origin has been retconned so many times now that The Man of Steel and the issues that followed have become something of a relic.

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Over the years I’ve tried Superman again and again, in a vain attempt to capture that magic. I’ve never really lasted — until now.

DC is in the midst of another era, with Rebirth. The Kal-El we’ve been getting for the last year has his roots in the post-Man of Steel era — and is the most entertaining Superman we’ve gotten since the Byrne days: Soaring, humanistic and exciting.

A recent Jorge Jimenez variant cover

It’s not exactly the same, but it’s close.

So like Superman, I remain ever the optimist — and my optimism is being rewarded.

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Author: Dan Greenfield

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13 Comments

  1. Not my favorite version of Superman but a close second. I’m a huge 70’s Curt Swan / Garcia Lopez fan. Byrne’s however the best Reboot ever done! It maintained enough classic elements that it wasn’t jarring but was very fresh.

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  2. I tried to like Byrne’s Superman (and I DID like the art!), but his post-Crisis version of Superman told me that the stories I had enjoyed for the previous fifteen-or-so years were pointless, worthless, and… NO, that’s not the way to revamp a character or universe — certainly no way to win over old fans. Yes, there were many good elements to his stories, but just as many problems/
    mistakes. (While stopping by Clark’s apartment, Lois tries out his weight-training equipment, and she finds his weights a bit “light.” Clark’s thoughts tell us he has a hard time estimating things like the amount of weight a grown, athletic [Earth] man should lift, as if that was an adequate excuse for his goof. He couldn’t go to the library for Arnold’s book? He couldn’t visit a gym to see what similarly-built men lifted, or buy a bodybuilding magazine off the newsstand? Please!)

    When Byrne left Superman (taking his wonderful art with him), I left the character, too. I’ve occasionally returned to visit Metropolis, spurred by this cover, or that storyline, but, sorry, no. My Superman is gone. I hope he returns someday (he did, in a way, in “All-Star Superman”). It’s not likely, but I have hope.

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    • The stories weren’t worthless or pointless if you enjoyed them. And how can you reboot a universe AND keep all the old stories as canon? Virtually impossible and no reason to try. It goes against the point of rebooting.

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  3. I have to agree with this article 1,000 %.

    It became a very relatable and frankly accessible launch point for me, as a young reader to dive into this super “farmer’s son” slash god figure / investigative reporter.

    Byrne may not have been the greatest writer to tackle Suped, but his world felt complete and expansive, engaging and full of possibilities.

    He distilled the Superman myth to its core meaning: timeless optimism, a champion for truth, and an ultimately human alien-god , out of water amongst we troubled mortals.

    I’d look forward to Rebirth bringing him back to this type of core mythology & iconography.

    That and a little dash of Morrison’s super-science celebrating All Star Superman approach, could be a real winner in my book.

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  4. Good article, but give credit where it’s due. Thee Luthor revamp was more Marv Wolfman than Byrne

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  5. The printing was awful, very poorly done, an I chalked that up to the then_new Flexographic system

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    • “The Man of Steel” wasn’t printed using Flexography. It was traditional comic book printing (which was not great back then). I think DC pretty much abandoned Flexography the year before when the first issue of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” turned out so poorly.

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  6. I still have some of these the funny part is i found them at a dollar store quite some time ago and bought one of each that they had

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  7. I completely agree with Dan’s sentiments. While I’d always liked the character, Man of Steel was what made me become a Superman reader and collector in earnest.

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  8. I second everything you wrote. I was 13 in 1986. I loved the Christopher Reeve Superman movies (at least the first two) but I just couldn’t get into the Superman comics back then (I know Curt Swan has his fans, but like the author, his art just never appealed to me). But “Man of Steel” was something special. Even today I think it still holds up as the best Superman comic I’ve read (much better than the inexplicably overrated “All-Star Superman”). It’s not perfect: John Byrne’s dialogue is a little creaky 30 years later, and I wish the story had been more novelistic in its structure (like “Batman: Year One” was) and less episodic. But, man, Byrne really did freshen up the character in a way that still feels relevant today. “Man of Steel” the movie owes so much to this mini-series (in a good way). And Byrne’s artwork (especially paired with Dick Giordano’s inks) never looked better.

    I know the book is available in paperback but I really wish DC would re-issue it in a more durable Deluxe Edition.

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  9. Byrne’s Superman is the best Superman of all time, and the truest to what Siegel & Shuster did with the character. He is SuperMAN, not SuperALIEN, Byrne handles Superman as he was always suppised to be. I want a Byrne Superman Omnibus so bad.

    As for Rebirth, it is hot grbage, New Fifty-Screw rebranded, and the costume “redesign” (distortion) is horrendous.

    Without the yellow belt and red trunks, the Superman suit has no color balance. The new suit is ugly as sin. The true costume with the red trunk and yellow belt is perfect in its design, it is timeless, which is why it lasted for over 70 years. There is no reason why Superman should not be in his correct costume, and I will not be giving DC or Warner Butchers a cent of my money or praise until Superman is back in his correct and true costume. Do not fix what was never broke.

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  10. Sorry, but I hated Byrne’s run. He burned Superman dow and left nothing for other storytellers to work with. Krypton was changed from a near-utopia to a eugenics-focused dystopia that deserved to die. The wealth of characters built around Superboy? Gone. They’ve been trying for 30 years now to make Superboy interesting again, and it weakened the LSH. Lex Lithor was just another stereotypical, ruthless exec, only now he was a sadist and a pervert (remember him forcing his secretary to undress before reporting to him?) Superman was reduced from a starfaring hero whose expwrimces wpuld give him a broadened consciousness to a parochial farmboy who never even considered the idea that he shouldn’t take a life. And son’t het me started on the bit where he and Big Barfa make a porn film. The writers that followed had to try to meet ne the past, coming up with only shadows of Bizarro, Braniac, Superfirl and others. Yes, the stories were pretty, but the writing was hollowand lacked the heart and morality that only recently has been restored.

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    • I don’t understand why so many comic fans feel the need to relate to super heroes for them to be able to enjoy them or their stories. If you won’t like superman because bullets don’t hurt him or because he wears bright colors, good chance you probably are better off reading batman. Or vice versa really.

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  1. 13 QUICK THOUGHTS: Why CHRISTOPHER REEVE Was the Greatest SUPERMAN | 13th Dimension, Comics, Creators, Culture - […] Age, the Bronze Age or the Modern Age. The closest were John Byrne’s Man of Steel era (click here) and Geoff […]

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