Superman: The Trial of Superman


By Louise Simonson, Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, David Michelinie, Roger Stern, Stuart Immonen, Jon Bogdanove, Ron Frenz, Tom & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-331-5 (DC)                    978-1-85286-856-2 (Titan)

The Man of Steel has proven to be all things to most fans since his dynamic debut in 1938. Although largely out of favour these days with all the myriad decades of accrued mythology being re-synthesised into an overarching all-inclusive multi-media film-favoured continuity, the stripped-down, gritty post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Action Ace, as re-imagined by John Byrne and built upon by a succession of immensely talented comics craftsmen, resulted in some stunning highs…

Almost as soon as the Byrne restart had stripped away much of the mythology and iconography which had grown up around the Strange Visitor from Another World over fifty glorious years, successive creative teams spent a great deal of time and ingenuity putting much of it back, albeit in terms more accessible to a cynical and well-informed audience far more sophisticated than their grandparents ever were.

Collecting Action Comics #716-717, Adventures of Superman #529-531, Superman volume 2, #106-108, Superman: Man of Steel #50-52 and Superman: Man of Tomorrow #3 (spanning November 1995 to January 1996), this hyper-charged space opera thriller reads best if taken in conjunction with a working knowledge of the characters, but outright newcomers can soon get up to speed by paying attention to the carefully administered snatches of expository dialogue, and if all you’re after is a heaping helping of far-flung Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy you’re in for a real treat…

The star-spanning saga begins with ‘Split Personality’ (by Louise Simonson, Jon Bogdanove & Dennis Janke from Superman: Man of Steel #50) as an alien armada approaches Earth. The Metropolis Marvel doesn’t notice. He’s busy losing a fight with murderous energy-eater the Parasite

The situation gives super-powered Alpha Centurion and his Team Luthor mercenaries an opportunity to move in. The Roman hero had spent two thousand years away from Earth winning intergalactic renown with his alien arsenal, and on his return home became a flirtatious rival for Lois Lane’s attention. Although generally a decent sort, he’s still always happy to prove his innate superiority to Superman…

He doesn’t get the chance, however, as a cadre of extraterrestrials beam in and arrest the power-drained Man of Steel. He’s so debilitated the hulking Brute brought along to subdue him is unnecessary. As they all fade away, Centurion returns to the battle with Parasite and can’t help but wonder what agents of the famed and just Tribunal want with Superman…

Aboard ship, the enervated hero is baffled to find himself accused of cosmic crimes but cannot find what exactly he’s supposed to have done. The confusion only increases when Brute tries to murder him by throwing the emaciated Kryptonian into the sun…

As Alpha Centurion finally defeats Parasite on Earth, 93,000,000 million miles away, Brute rectifies his mistake: battling with recapturing a now fully re-powered Superman, all the while thankfully babbling that now he’s proved his worth, his hostage “milk-brother won’t be executed”…

When they get back on the Tribunal ship, however, a panel of alien judges sentences Brute to death by solar incineration before getting around to charging Superman with a billion counts of murder and of causing the destruction of Krypton……

The confrontation continues in Superman #106 (Dan Jurgens, Ron Frenz & Joe Rubenstein) as the astounded Man of Tomorrow pleads ‘Not Guilty!’ The case is laid out by Tribunal Prime who relates that a distant ancestor of the Last Son of Krypton instilled a genetic flaw in his entire race by means of a miraculous device dubbed the Eradicator. It prevented them from ever leaving the planet and now Kem-L’s descendent Kal-El bears the responsibility for their extinction…

Aghast but unbowed, Superman struggles free but is easily pacified by a mysterious power of the Prime and dumped in a vast cell. That only exacerbates the crisis as one of the other inmates is brutal alien Massacre who instantly tries to slaughter his despised enemy…

When the catastrophic clash is broken up by the guards, Superman is horrified to witness the sadistic response the Tribunal considers to be justice served…

Back on Earth, Lois has been working on the Centurion. She wants the arrogant champion to use his super-spaceship Pax Romana to trace the avenging Eradicator Brute mentioned when Superman was initially abducted. After learning the eerie antihero (an uncanny merging of a dying human scientist with Kem-L’s recovered wonder-weapon) is no longer on-planet, Lois starts on the next stage of a rescue plan…

Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen & José Marzán Jr. contribute the next chapter (Adventures of Superman #529) as, aboard the Tribunal flagship, Superman meets other inmates awaiting judgement/execution and makes unlikely new friends.

On Earth the now fully-engaged Centurion contacts some of the Action Ace’s old ones – Steel, Supergirl and Superboy – and sets off in pursuit of the Tribunal, even as, back in the cosmic adjudicators’ gigantic jail, Superman and his new chums stage a ‘Jail Break’

Having picked up Eradicator en route, Alpha Centurion’s rescue party surges on, unaware that the man they’ve come to liberate has crashed onto a distant planet where, thanks to one of his fellow escapees, they all find refuge in an inter-dimensional bolt-hole called Haven

When said fellow escapee then tries to take over the place, the runners experience surprisingly fair ‘Fugitive Justice!’ (Action Comics #716 David Michelinie, Kieron Dwyer & Denis Rodier)…

The Tribunal have not been idle. With their special Police Agents scouring the local systems, Prime engages the service of flamboyant bounty hunter Freelance who promptly locates and captures the harassed runners only to fall for one of them.

Earth’s finest are doing less well. The “S” symbol most of them wear is all over the interspacial networks and cash-hungry hunters from every star-faring species just assume they must also be ‘Wanted’ (Simonson, Bogdanove & Dick Giordano, Superman: Man of Steel #51)…

‘Bottled Up!’ (Superman #107, Jurgens, Frenz & Rubenstein) finds Superman’s Rescue Squad abandoned by the Centurion. Piling into a salvaged ship they head onwards to the Tribunal’s homeworld, unaware that the object of their concerns – and his fellow escapees – have all returned to Haven to save a wounded comrade.

The consultation with infamous wizard Tolos is deeply disturbing. The creepy mage has a thriving city in a jar and amiably offers to cure ailing Mope in return for a promise of future favours. That price comes due whilst far away the super friends are ambushed by avowed enemy Hank Henshaw, the undying Cyborg-Superman, who is apparently working for the intergalactic arbitrators…

Tolos plans to live forever. His bottles are filled with beings whose bodies he will inhabit and burn out, but with a Kryptonian in his sights, the wizard thinks he might have all he’ll ever need. He attacks but completely misjudges the resolve of the mighty Man of Steel…

In ‘Different Demons’ (Adventures of Superman #530 Kesel, Immonen & Marzán Jr.) the fugitive Superman is diverted by a mercy mission to a magical world to clear Mope’s name, whilst on the Tribunal world Alpha Centurion has been arrested and thrown in cell with Superboy… who believes the Roman is actually Henshaw in disguise…

As the far-flung Action Ace and Mope war with invisible aliens and more mages in ‘Fighting Back’ (Superman: Man of Tomorrow #3, Roger Stern, Tom Grummett & Brett Breeding), elsewhere, evidence of collusion between a high official and Henshaw starts to emerge…

Superman and Mope however have now moved on to fully-automated murder-metropolis ‘H’Tros City’ (Action Comics #717 Michelinie, Dwyer & Rodier), but as the cosmic conurbation continually attempts to eradicate them, the seemingly ubiquitous Henshaw take control of its programs to finish his enemy off in person.

The blockbuster battle instead goes Superman’s way, but the hero typically sacrifices his victory to save the cyborg and is rewarded with betrayal…

‘Crime and Punishment’ (Simonson, Bogdanove & Giordano, Superman: Man of Steel #52) once more finds the valiant champion in front of the triumphant Tribunal. Sentenced to immediate execution he battles on, but seems doomed until the impatient Henshaw – who always planned to double cross the judges – seizes control of the planet’s computers, inadvertently allowing the rescue squad to break out of jail and mount a last minute save…

In the aftermath of a shattering final battle the cyborg appears beaten at last but despite his clear guilt there’s ‘No Escape!’ (Superman #108 by Jurgens, Frenz & Rubenstein) for the Last Son of Krypton either…

The court of catastrophe explosively descends into all-out civil war and by the time the dust settles and our heroes head home there’s precious little ‘Justice!’ (Adventures of Superman #530 Kesel, Immonen & Marzán Jr.) to be seen anywhere…

Clever drama, spectacular action and rollercoaster pace, coupled with the usual high standard of character interplay, smart writing and fabulous art, all underscore this hugely enjoyable yet largely forgotten extraterrestrially epic diversion in the amazing life of Superman, but this starry saga is truly deserving of a second look and honest reappraisal.

A British Titan Books edition is also readily available from on-line sellers.
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