Comic Book Review – Superman: Man of Steel Volume 3 (2021)

Superman: The Man of Steel Volume 3 (2021)
Reprints Superman v2 #12-15, Superman v2 Annual #1, Action Comics #594-597, Action Comics Annual #1, Adventures of Superman #436-438, Adventures of Superman Annual #1, Booster Gold #23, and Superman: The Earth Stealers
Written by John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Ron Frenz, Dan Jurgens, and Jim Starlin
Art by John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Arthur Adams, Ron Frenz, Dan Jurgens, and Curt Swan

The post-Crisis Superman is such an interesting bridge between the Silver Age Superman and the contemporary image of the character now. The writers and artists on this reboot period were tasked with reimagining the very stories they grew up with and revered. So it’s to be expected that some elements harken back to those classic tales while other aspects of Superman’s mythos are injected with new life. This collection opens with a trio of one-shot annuals and concludes with an original graphic novel drawn by the legendary Curt Swan. The result is the feel of a reboot wherein the creative forces weren’t exactly sure how willing they were to drift away from the original.

In Action Comics Annual #1, we get a vampire story with Superman & Batman teaming up out of their element in a Louisiana swamp. Their relationship post-Crisis was much more contentious and mistrustful than the chummy Silver Age pals they had been portrayed as. For most of this story, the two don’t directly interact, each engaging with the vampire mystery in their own way. In the final pages, they finally discover the other’s presence. It’s a very moody piece helped by the stylized art of Arthur Adams. This is followed by Superman Annual #1, which is a retelling of the origins of Titano the Super-Ape. It’s relatively close to the Silver Age original with some modern tweaks. Titano was always a King Kong pastiche, and that’s clear here in this retelling. Compared to the Action Comics story, this reads like something right out of the Silver Age in its light tone. Adventures of Superman Annual #1 sees Jim Starlin bring his cosmic take on superheroes to Superman with a small town invasion by a hivemind alien presence. Of the three annuals, this is probably the most complex story, and it features art by Dan Jurgens, a creator who would come to make an indelible impression on the modern Superman mythos in the years to follow.

In the main titles, we start with a two-part crossover into Booster Gold’s book. As part of the team-up stories in Action, the Man of Steel is attacked by a seemingly rogue Booster Gold. This issue also features the first post-Crisis meeting between Superman and Robin (Jason Todd) when the hero asks Batman to help investigate a scrapbook that Luthor has used during his obsession with discovering Superman’s identity. It’s interesting how young Robin appears here when in just a couple years, he’d be portrayed as a brooding older adolescent by Jim Starlin in the pages of Batman, ultimately leading to his demise at the hands of the Joker. The Booster Gold story is fine, but I just think that character didn’t hit his stride until his inclusion in the Justice League.

Continuing the revisitation of the Silver Age, we get a retelling of the romance between Superman and mermaid Lori Lemaris. It’s a decent character-driven story but not one that will come to have any lasting impact on this iteration of Superman. This is followed by the introduction of Silver Banshee, one of the new post-Crisis additions to Superman’s rogues’ gallery. After Byrne left the books, this character really faded into obscurity, only popping up in the backgrounds of large villain gatherings. In the modern comics, she’s become associated with Supergirl but certainly not one of her core villains. 

Things begin to go off the rails when the Millennium event crosses over with the Superman books. Millennium was the first significant event post-Crisis and gave a chance to play with a newly established history. The story is predicated on the Guardians of the Universe’s first creations, the Manhunters, a legion of android peacekeepers gone rogue. Readers were teased in the lead-up that every book would reveal a character who had been a Manhunter sleeper agent this whole time. Things being innocuously in Superman #13 with Byrne clearly not too interested in Millennium. Instead, he reintroduced Winslow Schott, the Toyman. At the end of this story, Lana Lang shows up and reveals herself to be a Manhunter, and Superman pursues her back to Smallville. He discovers the entire population are Manhunters who became aware of Superman’s arrival on Earth as a child. Almost immediately, they flocked to the planet, systematically replaced every resident of his small town, and remained there for the next thirty years up to the point the story is taking place. Byrne manages to wiggle his way around the horrible corner this would back him into by pointing out that the actual citizens were kept in stasis where they aged and still have all the memories of the Manhunters but aren’t evil. It’s horrible stuff.

In Action Comics, Superman teams up with the celestial Spectre to help him save the souls of his beloved townsfolk. This is followed by a team-up with Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) in Superman as a group of heroes attempts to take out the Manhunter home base. Still under the Millennium banner is a story in Adventures of Superman, which has nothing to do with that event. Instead, we get parallel stories: Lex Luthor’s attempt to seduce one of the New Guardians to the dark side and Lois Lane’s date with Jose Delgado, which goes wrong very fast. It’s a reminder of the potential Delgado/Gangbuster had in these early days and how he was sadly forgotten.

There’s a pretty clever take on the outdated Lois & Lana jealousy over Superman tales of the Silver Age in Action Comics. Instead of a Superman team-up, it’s a team-up between these two ladies and is a pure talky issue. It’s just all about characters, the complexity of Lana & Clark’s relationship, delving into Lois’s feelings for Jose. This is the sort of comic that was undoubtedly fresh and new for its time and the kind of thing we don’t get much of now. Byrne did an excellent job of highlighting the humanity of Superman and his supporting cast in issues like these. 

There’s another new villain intro in Superman #15 with the creepy Skyhook. I really like the pivot into horror some of the issues have, and Skyhook is a beautiful piece of body horror. This is also one of many issues to spotlight Maggie Sawyer, Metropolis’s Special Crimes Unit leader. Sawyer is a remarkable character in that she was openly gay from almost her first appearance. Her sexuality is a part of her story, but she’s never made to be a tragic figure because of it. She has a daughter from her now failed marriage, but she also has a partner with whom we see her showing affection. I have to imagine this must have incensed some of the pearl clutchers of the time who saw it as “indoctrinating” their children. 

This collection also sees the rebooted introduction of Superman’s nemesis Brainiac. I have to imagine this was a pretty controversial one. Luthor’s changes weren’t too radical; he went from an evil scientist to a maniacal businessman. With Brainiac, he’s introduced as a human circus mentalist named Milton Fine. We quickly find out that Fine claims to be in contact with the disembodied spirit of an alien presence named Vril Dox. In the concluding pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the robotic husk of Brainiac is shown adrift in space, but it appears Byrne decided to scrap carry over anything from before and start the character fresh. This is a radically different Brainiac, but over time other writers would inch the character back to where he once was, and now we have a villain who is more or less the same as his Silver Age persona.

The book wraps up with The Earth-Stealers, seeing Byrne writing and classic Superman artist Curt Swan penciling. It’s a good story, very deeply embedded in the one-off alien encounters of the Silver Age. There are some big fun concepts working here, but it doesn’t really bear any weight on the rest of the stories. It feels like an excellent idea for a 1980s era Superman movie with a large scale. Overall, this is a decent collection of stories. I think Marv Wolfman stepping away from Adventures helped in making Superman more cohesive. However, there’s still a sense that DC didn’t really know where they wanted these stories to go or what carried over from Crisis, a failure to lead that still continues to plague DC Comics.

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