Comic Book Review – Superman: The Man of Steel Volume 4

Superman: The Man of Steel Volume 4 (2022)
Reprints Superman #16-22, Adventures of Superman #439-444, Action Comics #598-600, Superman Annual #2
Written by John Byrne, Paul Kupperberg, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern
Art by John Byrne, Ty Templeton, Karl Kesel, Jerry Ordway, Ross Andru, Curt Swan, Mike Mignola, John Statema, Ron Frenz

So it seems this will be the last volume in The Man of Steel collections which makes sense. These issues mark John Byrne’s final contributions to the Post-Crisis Superman, and the series title comes from his mini-series that rebooted the origins and supporting cast of the character. Volume Four manages to reintroduce some more elements from Superman’s mythos, updated for the 1980s. On reflection, this does not seem like a radical reimagining as it may have when the issues were first published. It’s very evident that Byrne is a fan of the Silver Age Superman but also wants to modernize the icon per his directive from DC Comics. This is also the first volume of reprints where Marv Wolfman was gone from Adventures of Superman, and thus Byrne was writing all three Superman titles monthly, plus penciling two of them.

Superman is kept incredibly busy throughout these stories. Byrne kicks things off in the team-up book Action Comics by helping Paul Kupperberg introduce Checkmate into the DCU. Checkmate is somewhat like DC’s version of Marvel’s SHIELD if you’re unfamiliar. Post-Crisis, it felt like this corner of the DCU was being fleshed out much more with Checkmate, the DEO, and Task Force X. Spy games and covert ops were hot in the twilight of the Cold War. The interesting thing about Checkmate’s introduction is how Lois Lane is used. Post-Crisis, her status as a military brat was played up much more, and her investigative reporting became a lot more perilous and hands-on. Gone was the damsel in distress, though she was never ungrateful for Superman showing up to shield her from bullets. I wonder how Byrne would have handled a solo Lois Lane book because he definitely has a handle on her personality. 

Byrne reintroduces the minor Superman villain The Prankster, and it’s a pretty clever narrative. Prankster is connected to WBGS, the Metropolis television station run by Morgan Edge. Edge has been a late addition to the Superman mythos in the 1970s, an evil businessman before Luthor took up the racket and a secret disciple of Darkseid. Luthor is caught up in the consequences of wielding a kryptonite ring 24/7 when he finds out he has cancer and the hand has to be amputated. I did enjoy that twist on one of Superman’s rare weaknesses and made more sense than the rock being dangerous to him. Instead, Byrne imagines it as a radioactive material from space that simply affects Kryptonians faster than humans.

After two years, we finally get more depth into what Krypton was like in the Post-Crisis DCU. Byrne had smartly kept Superman relatively ignorant about his homeworld, only really knowing what he could from the fragments sent with him to Earth. He puts aside an entire issue to focus on Superman traveling with Hawkman and Hawkgirl to where Krypton once was. As a result, he’s able to gain insight into the society his people made and the folly that led to its collapse. The issue is beautifully illustrated by Mike Mignola, who manages to give Krypton and its people a classic, almost art deco look. 

Byrne pulled out all the stops for his final story and presented his most radical reimagining of a character. Supergirl, who died in the Crisis, is apparently back and causing trouble in Smallville. Now, this was during that weird period where DC editorial had not made it clear if the characters remembered the Crisis or not. So, Supergirl never existed for Superman and the others, and he doesn’t know who she is. The big twist is that she’s not even a Kryptonian but a shapeshifting intelligent lifeform from a pocket universe. Byrne follows up on his Superboy arc where an attempt was made to fix the conundrum of the Legion of Super-Heroes being inspired by a version of Superman that never existed. Superboy was part of a pocket dimension created by Time Trapper to confound the 31st century Legion. In the Supergirl Saga, we find out that the pocket dimension is collapsing due to the actions of General Zod and his two cronies. Superman even meets Alexander Luthor, a heroic version of his nemesis. Luthor and Matrix, the actual name of this new Supergirl, are lovers in this world. 

The final moments of Byrne’s concluding issue are pretty harrowing. Superman realizes he cannot simply beat Zod into submission and that the only way to stop this destruction is to kill these villains. So he dons protective equipment and unleashes a piece of Kryptonite on them, killing the foes. This is carried out with a tremendous sense of moral weight, of our hero feeling he’s been pushed into a scenario he dreads. It works even more beautifully when juxtaposed against his recent visit to the ruins of Krypton in his dimension. Here he is with the chance to meet people from his world, albeit a parallel universe’s version, and he has to kill them to protect what remains of humanity. 

It’s very telling that Byrne concludes this monumental run on such a down moment for the hero. Matrix is horribly scarred during the battle, and he brings her to his dimension to be cared for by the Kents and Lana Lang. He won’t tell Ma Kent why he’s so distraught, which makes sense. He’s had to kill what for him were the last of his people, and his adoptive parents cannot relate to how he must feel. The final panel is of Superman flying off into the sky as text boxes narrate his inner thoughts. He thinks about how the planet’s population is going about their lives, thinking he’s a “champion of humanity” but never knowing he’s also a killer, someone who took life.

For the next twenty years, the Superman comics would adhere to Byrne’s foundations more or less. Roger Stern would pick up the mantle next, eventually bringing in people like Dan Jurgens and Louise Simonson. Between 2004 and 2011, the consistency in Superman’s origins would be played around with. At one point, Superboy was brought back into the picture but never really explored, and Supergirl was Superman’s cousin again. Matrix’s story would conclude in the pages of Peter David’s Supergirl book, which took an even more radical approach than Byrne ever did. It’s now pretty much impossible to say what version of Superman we have in comics today. He’s basically a mix of everything. I don’t imagine we’ll ever see something as hard a reset as Byrne did, which is why they are a fascinating read regardless of the consistency in quality.


One thought on “Comic Book Review – Superman: The Man of Steel Volume 4”

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