In the early 1980s, Superman and Action Comics were in a bit of a tailspin and was suffering a bit of creative burnout as they retreated a lot of the 1960s and 1970s. Byrne was just what just what Superman needed.
From Byrne’s forward to the Man of Steel trade paperback:
“Now, nearly thirty years after I saw that listing for a new television program [George Reeves’ Superman], DC Comics has hired me to guide the reshaping of the Superman Legend. To try to pare away some of the barnacles that have attached themselves to the company’s flagship title. To try to make Superman of today as exciting in his own right as was that primal Superman of yesterday. To try to re-create Superman as a character more in tune with the needs of the modern comic-book audience. A much smaller audience than when I was ten years old. But a much more demanding one, too.
Man of Steel was a six issue limited series that then led to the kick off a new Superman #1, Action Comics #584, and The Adventures of Superman #424 (by Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway, and taking over Superman’s numbering.) Byrne took us back to Krypton and reimagined the Kryptonians and their society. And then not only did Byrne get to retell how Clark made his way to Metropolis (Byrne actually made Clark Kent a jock!) and established himself as Superman, but he had fun playing Superman’s relationship with DC’s holy trinity, Batman and Wonder Woman. I loved the conflict that arose from Superman and Batman not really getting along in their initial encounters.
At his core, Byrne’s Superman was human. The nurture won over the nature. From the first issue, we have Clark seeking refuge in his Smallville room after being overwhelmed by the public reaction to his super powers. Ma and Pa Kent support him and help him design his classic costume. And those last 5 panels of Man of Steel #1 still make me smile today. It’s interesting that Byrne didn’t recreate the Fortress of Solitude, which would have watered down the ties to his Smallville family.
In issue #2, the modernized Lois Lane took center stage and Byrne cleverly plays on the damsel in distress stereotype to force a confrontation between her and Superman. Despite her cleverness, Lois doesn’t get the big scoop as she was beat to the story by an up-and-coming journalist named Clark Kent.
Not only did Byrne get to retell how Clark made his way to Metropolis (Byrne actually made Clark Kent a jock!) and established himself as Superman, but he had fun playing Superman’s relationship with DC’s holy trinity, Batman and Wonder Woman. I loved the conflict that arose from Superman and Batman not really getting along in their initial encounters. In issue #3, the first encounter between Superman and Batman was an uncomfortable one at best with Superman branding Batman an outlaw and Batman intentionally keeping the powerful alien at a distance. Unfortunately, the new villain Magpie wasn't that much of an antagonist, but it served the story purpose to force the confrontation between Superman and Batman.
With issue #4, a revamped Lex Luthor got to test his new adversary. Byrne changed Luthor from a diabolical super-scientist to a 1990s industrialist and ruthless capitalist. I know a lot of hardcore Superman fans didn’t like this change, but I felt Byrne’s take on him added more dimensions to what was pretty much a one-dimensional character. And in this issue, Luthor quickly learned that Superman's integrity couldn't be bought.
Issue #5 allowed Byrne to flex a bit of his action muscles as it had Superman take on Bizarro, a Luthor cloning experiment gone wrong, in a good old fashioned slug fest.
The miniseries wrapped up with issue #6 and solidified Clark's human roots. Up until that point, Clark knew he was different and had seen his space ship, but didn't really have any connection with his Kryptonian parents. Well that changed with this issue and Clark was suddenly immersed with Kryptonian information and met his biological parents for the first time. Byrne cleverly grounded Clark back in the reality of Smallville as he's forced to recognize the emotional damage his alien heritage and powers can cause, particularly for Lana Lang as Clark's former high school love and confidant.
This classic story ended with Superman's affirmation of his Kryptonian origin, but firmly grasping his human heritage.
“I hope you’ll stay with us as Superman sets forth into the eighties, the nineties, and with any kind of luck, on into the twenty-first century. And who knows, maybe in thirty years or so someone will sit down at word processor and write about how Superman began with a miniseries called The Man of Steel, which was an introduction to a world of wonder and a fascination that lasted a lifetime. Maybe that someone will be you!”
Byrne was right about that last part in so much that it did kindle within me a love for Superman that had been absent until his revamp of the iconic character. I really enjoyed Action Comics as well since it really showed Byrne at his best, allowing him to play with other DC characters.