Superman: The Exile and Other Stories Omnibus (2018)
Reprints Adventures of Superman #445-460, Superman v2 #23-37, Action Comics #643-646, and Action Comics Annual #2
Written by Jerry Ordway, George Pérez, Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, Tom Peyer, and Keith Giffen
Art by Jerry Ordway, Mike Mignola, Kerry Gammill, Dan Jurgens, Paris Cullins, Curt Swan, George Pérez, Keith Giffen, Dennis Janke, P. Craig Russell, John Beatty, Brett Breeding, John Statema, Art Thibert, Klaus Janson, Tim Gula, and Andy Kubert
I have reached that age. You know it. The age where a guy with graying hair on his head and beard says things like, “I liked [insert] character here better when I was a kid.” I see this and acknowledge the silliness of it. A character like Superman has never been a static thing, but exists in a never-ending flow state where tweaks are happening to the narrative and mythos with every new issue that comes out. Superman couldn’t fly for his first few appearances, and things like Smallville were rectons. There is no ultimate version of Superman and the one you like is probably the one you first encountered. I was always a Christopher Reeve fan because that was my first Superman and when it came to comics the post-John Byrne era was when I joined in.
This omnibus encompasses the first year and a half from Byrne’s departure. Where he left Superman was at an interesting point in the character’s life, he’d just had to kill three supervillains. Superman had never killed anyone before and the writers who picked up the torch and ran with it expanded that guilt & PTSD into an epic storyline that addressed the history of Krypton in the post-Crisis DC Universe. Byrne had touched on Krypton just a bit but never made it a core focus of his run. Jerry Ordway continues his tenure on The Adventures of Superman issues while Roger Stern takes over for Byrne on the Superman title. Action Comics was experimenting with a weekly phase during this time, an anthology of rotating characters hearkening back to the book’s original format as a monthly grab bag of superheroes.
Jerry Ordway plants the first seeds of an eventual breakdown for Superman by having the hero face off against the Milton Fine version of Brainiac. The villain coincidentally harms Superman’s friends Jimmy Olsen and Cat Grant leading to a battle where Brainiac leaves massive psychic scars against the Man of Steel’s mind. Brainiac appears to be unconscious and is secretly transported into the grip of Lex Luthor who sees him as a useful tool in the near future.
Following these events, Superman’s dreams are haunted by the reminders of what he did to General Zod and his lieutenants. The hero knows that there was no other way given the circumstances but that doesn’t soften the blow of taking three lives of people who were somewhat connected to his heritage. In the background, Max Lord, president of the Galaxy Broadcasting System (GBS), continues to secretly operate as the head of Intergang. There’s also the return of vigilante Gangbuster which seems impossible. Jose Delgado was Gangbuster but he’s been confined to a wheelchair since suffering injuries to his spine. This new Gangbuster focuses his efforts on taking down Intergang almost every night of the week across Metropolis.
All that goes down in Adventures written by Ordway. Meanwhile, in Stern’s Superman the format mostly follows a Superman vs. format where the hero is pitted against a different villain each issue (Silver Banshee, Rampage, Brainiac, Baron Sunday). This changes up when the issues crossover with the Invasion event. During this we see elements of Ordway’s Intergang arc coming into the Superman title. It culminates in a showdown between The Guardian, a Golden Age carryover who has been cloned…just, it’s a long story, and this mysterious Gangbuster.
In the fallout of the Invasion, Superman chooses to exile himself to outer space. The reasoning is that the psychological impact of killing the three Kryptonian villains and Brainiac’s mental attack have made him a tad schizophrenic. He doesn’t want to harm anyone so going to space feels like the only option. He says his goodbyes and sets up a ruse so that his parents will send his writing in The Daily Planet from Smallville in chunks. The story is that Clark Kent is going into hiding because things are getting dangerous with his expose on Intergang. He says goodbye to Ma & Pa Kent, Lana Lang, and Matrix. Matrix is the Supergirl-like being that survived the events of Byrne’s last arc, the weird half-attempt to bring the character back but also ensure Superman was the last survivor of Krypton.
The Exile arc is a strange & interesting one. The Superman portions of the story are all very solitary, just the hero flying through space encountering various phenomena while having conversations with himself about who he is in the scope of this vast universe. Meanwhile, back on Earth, we keep cutting to subplots about Lex Luthor coercing Jose Delgado into working for him, Intergang trying to take out Clark Kent as they operation is exposed in the newspaper, and Matrix attempting to become more like Clark/Superman via their shapeshifting powers. This is the point where Dan Jurgens comes on board, starting with art but eventually moving into writing as well. Jurgens was the architect for the Superman books around the time I started reading them so it was interesting to see his art style moving towards the aesthetic I was familiar with.
The most interesting part of the Exile story happens in the second half when an unconscious Superman is kidnapped and taken to Warworld. Part of this arc involves reintroducing Mongul into the post-Crisis mythos. Pre-Crisis I have never really had a great handle on what Mongul was supposed to be other than a sort of Darkseid knock-off and the villain in that Alan Moore story “For the Man Who Has Everything.” Here he’s reframed as the ruler of Warworld, an artificial mobile planet (a la the Death Star) which has a continuous stream of gladiatorial contests. His reigning champion is the hulking Draaga but I’m sure you can guess how his fight with Superman goes.
The more intriguing part of this story is the introduction of Mentor, an alien being who once visited Krypton centuries prior to its destruction. He lives in hiding near Warworld and one of the workers there has befriended him. The worker brings news of a Kryptonian arriving in the ring and Mentor eventually meets Superman. Through him, Superman learns the history of his people, particularly the xenophobia & arrogance that led to his culture’s destruction. The story also introduces The Eradicator, no not that one, a Kryptonian device whose full properties and purpose are left a mystery for now. Through Superman’s trials on Warworld and due to the power of this device, he is able to regain his sanity and head back to Earth.
The big return to Earth coincides with Action Comics return to a monthly, Superman-only format and the addition of the late, great George Perez as a writer & penciller. This returns more to the way things played out at the start of this collection, a lot of one-off stories with subplots going on in the background. There’s a pretty good confrontation between Superman and Matrix who has been posing as Clark Kent in Metropolis. An alien virus that Supes brings back alters Jimmy Olsen’s DNA making him into an elastic lad of sorts. The alien princess Maxima arrives on Earth to demand Superman as her suitor. The Prankster surfaces and attempts to kill Morgan Edge who is in the ICU following the takedown of Intergang. Superman deposits the Eradicator in the Antarctic which sets the stage for the Krypton Man arc which comes next.
Overall, this is not a collection you can just dig into with no previous reading. I see the Byrne two-year run as pretty much mandatory before tackling this. The 1980s were an era where DC Comics stopped being new reader friendly and did begin to require a more regular attendance or you might be a little bit behind. With three monthly Superman comics, all sharing subplots, that was a lot of reading. I don’t think these are landmark Superman stories, there’s a lot of duds, but for someone who grew up reading in this era it had a nice home-y feeling. It would not surprise me in the least if younger readers found the pacing and characterization not to their taste. My read through of the post-Crisis Superman era continues though and while it may not be centered in Truth, Justice, and the American Way, I am having fun getting lost in these stories.
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