Superman: The Man of Steel volume 4


By John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, Paul Levitz, Jerry Ordway, Greg LaRoque, Erik Larsen & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0455-6 (TPB)

Here’s a classic compilation – and series – which has inexplicably been allowed to drop out of print and is thus long overdue for re-issue. At least this one’s still available in digital editions…

In 1985, when DC Comics decided to rationalise and reconstruct their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they used the event to regenerate their key properties at the same time. The biggest gun they had was Superman and it’s hard to argue that change came none too soon.

The big guy was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. So how could a major makeover be anything but a pathetic marketing ploy that would alienate the real fans for a few Johnny-come-latelies who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced? The popular wisdom amongst fans was that this new Superman was going to suck. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Superman titles were cancelled or suspended for three months, and yes, that did make the real-world media sit up and take notice of the character for the first time in decades. But there was method in the corporate madness.

Beginning with 6-part miniseries Man of Steel – written and drawn by mainstream superstar John Byrne and inked by venerated veteran Dick Giordano – the experiment was a huge and instant success. So much so, that when it was first collected as a stand-alone graphic novel in the 1980s, it became one of the industry’s premiere break-out hits. From his overwhelming re-inception the character returned to his suspended comicbook homes with the addition of a third monthly title premiering that same month.

Superman, Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics (which became a fan-appeasing team-up book guest-starring other heroes of the DC Universe) were instant best-sellers. So successful was the relaunch that by the early 1990’s Superman would be able to sustain four monthly titles as well as Specials, Annuals, guest shots and his semi-regular appearances in titles such as Justice League.

It was quite a turnaround from the earlier heydays of the Man of Steel when editors were frantic about not over-exposing their biggest gun. With Byrne’s controversial reboot a solid hit, the collaborative teams tasked with ensuring his continued success really hit their stride with the tales collected in this fourth volume.

First published between July and September 1987 and re-presenting in paperback (if you can find it) and eBook formats (if you can’t) the contents of Superman #7-8, Action #590-591 and Adventures of Superman #430-431, this epic tome also includes two critical issues of Legion of Super-Heroes (#37-38) and the wonderment is necessarily preceded here by Introduction ‘Superman or Superboy?’ which outlines the dilemma that occurred after the Man of Tomorrow’s recent retcon eliminated his entire career and achievements as the Boy of Steel…

This event provided a classic back-writing exercise to solve an impossible post-Crisis paradox whilst giving us old geeks a chance to see a favourite character die in a way all heroes should….

The drama kicks off with ‘Rampage!’ by Byrne and inker Karl Kesel (Superman volume 2 #7) as a petty colleague sabotages an experiment at a Metropolis lab and accidentally transforms his boss Dr. Kitty Faulkner into a super-strong rage-fuelled monstrosity. Thankfully, Superman is on hand and possessed of a cool head…

Adventures of Superman #430 then sees the Action Ace ‘Homeward Bound!’ – courtesy of Marv Wolfman & Jerry Ordway – in pitched battle against metahuman bandits the Fearsome Five whilst in Action Comics #590 Byrne & Dick Giordano explore ‘Better Living Dying Through Chemistry’, wherein a bizarre toxic accident turns ambulatory waste dump Chemo into a giant Superman clone. Happily, its old adversaries The Metal Men are on hand to aid in the extremely violent clean-up…

Legion of Super-Heroes #37 (August 1987, by Paul Levitz, Greg LaRoque, Mike DeCarlo & Arne Starr) then sets the scene for ‘A Twist in Time’ as a team of Legionnaires heads back to Smallville to visit founding member Superboy only to find themselves attacked by their greatest ally and inspiration…

The tale continues in Byrne & Kesel’s ‘Future Shock’ (Superman #8): a strange squad of aliens appear in his boyhood hometown. Mistaking Superman for Superboy, the Legionnaires attack and after the inconclusive clash concludes begin to piece together an incredible tale of cosmic villainy that has made suckers of them all…

When a kill-crazed Superboy shows up the tale shifts to Action #491 where Byrne & Keith Williams reveal a ‘Past Imperfect’ as the youthful and adult Kal-El’s butt heads until a ghastly truth is revealed leading to Levitz, LaRoque & Mike DeCarlo’s stunning and tragic conclusion in Legion of Super-Heroes #38 where the manipulative reality-warping mastermind behind the scheme falls to ignominious defeat at the hands of ‘The Greatest Hero of Them All’

Back on solid ground and his own reality the one-and-only Superman then battles a new kind of maniac malcontent in ‘They Call Him… Doctor Stratos’ (by Wolfman, Erik Larsen & “India Inc.” from Adventures of Superman #431): delivering a crushing defeat to a weather-controlling would-be god to wrap up the never-ending battle for another day…

The back-to-basics approach perfected here lured many readers to – and back to – the Superman franchise, but the sheer quality of the stories and art are what convinced them to stay. Such cracking, clear-cut superhero exploits are a high point in the Metropolis Marvel’s decades-long career, and these chronologically-curated collections are certainly the easiest way to enjoy one of the most impressive reinventions of the ultimate comic-book icon.
© 1987, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.