Man or Superman Part 1- What Byrne Did

This is an old blog post I did for my hubpages blog ( I'm thinking about ending that blog and just posting stuff here. This post is about my favorite comics hang-up: Why I don't enjoy Post-Crisis Superman. Enjoy:  

Superman is an icon. He was the very first comic book superhero and has been fighting for truth and justice since his first appearance in 1938. Yet he hasn’t always been the same man. In fact, the Superman we read in comics today has gone through many different changes to personality and power throughout his 72 years of publication. Taking this into consideration, I’ve come up with a theory as to why Superman has struggled to maintain his popularity in the Modern Age of comics (roughly the mid-80’s to today) and why a majority of his stories in this age seem to fall flat. I believe these failings in Superman’s modern mythology stem from the character’s revamp in 1986 by writer/artist John Byrne.

            Let me first get a few things out of the way: I don’t hate John Byrne. He’s one of my favorite creators from the 1980’s who gave my childhood some of the best X-Men stories ever put to page. I also like some of the things he did with his Superman revamp. Lois Lane was a very strong, admirable, career woman under Byrne. I also liked what he did with Lex Luthor by making the villain a corporate leader embraced by the public (this always made sense to me despite the criticism he got for it). I’m also well aware that I’m not the first to blame Byrne for Superman’s recent failings, and, in fact, people have been complaining about it since it was released. I’m also sure I’m not the first one to make this particular argument about Byrne’s Superman, but I feel like it really is the answer to Superman’s problems. If nothing else, I know I can shine some new light on the issue. My theory is this: Byrne weakened Superman as a character by making Clark Kent the man’s true identity.

            “HOLD ON!” Some of you shout. “Isn’t Clark Kent supposed to be Superman’s true identity?” The answer is yes and no. You see, since John Byrne and the late 80’s, the approach to Clark Kent has been that he is the real man and personality behind the hero while Superman is just the identity that Clark uses to fight crime. This was not always the case. In fact, prior to 1986, Superman was the man’s true identity while Clark Kent was more like an act Superman put on so he could interact with humans and protect his loved ones. You can clearly see this when you compare Superman stories from the Silver and Bronze Ages of comics (known as Pre-Crisis continuity to DC fans) to comics from the Modern Age (Post-Crisis or Post-Byrne if you like). In fact, let’s do some of that now just so I can show you how transparent the differences are.




Pre-Crisis- Before the Byrne overhaul, Superman had grown up in Smallville as Superboy. He wore his super costume and fought crime as an incredibly powerful and super intelligent young man. As Superboy he could fly so fast he could break the time-space barrier and was smart enough to build Superboy robots to protect his secret identity. However, his childhood was very lonely. Clark couldn’t take part in sports or even make too many close friends because he was afraid succeeding like that as Clark would tip people off to the fact he was really Superboy. He could only seem to identify with kids who had powers like his, but they were few and far between. His parents definitely had their hands full with him and the situation sometimes reads like two mortals trying desperately to contain a child who was a superior being. One of my favorite Superboy stories centers around his adopted father, Jonathan Kent, struggling to punish a child he can’t physically harm or outthink. In the Silver and Bronze Ages, Superman had a childhood that was just as epic and alienating as his adult life and reinforced the belief that Superman was meant for greater things than ordinary human existence.


Post-Byrne- When John Byrne went about rewriting Superman’s childhood, he basically decided to start from scratch. John Byrne threw out Superman’s colorful, heroic childhood as Superboy and replaced it with a more ordinary upbringing. For starters, Clark grew up believing he was human and didn’t even learn of his Kryptonian heritage until after he grew up and had started his career as Superman. This also meant that Clark never had a reason to act timid or weak growing up and didn’t feel alienated by his powers. Taking a nod from the Donner Superman films, Byrne’s Clark Kent was even a high school football star. Though Clark’s powers were budding as he was growing up, he didn’t reach full power until adulthood. The interactions between this Clark and his parents were also more in line with normal parents raising and guiding a normal child. In one post-Byrne tale, Adventures of Superman #474, we even get to see Ma and Pa Kent lecturing a young Clark on the dangers of under age drinking and drunk driving (one of the stranger Smallville flashbacks ever). As you can see, Superman’s childhood resembles a much more normal human upbringing than he once had and one that would reinforce his identity as Clark over his role as Superman.  




Pre-Crisis- The Superman of the Silver and Bronze Ages was more like a demi-god than a human man. By adulthood, this Superman was more alienated than ever having lost his parents before he left Smallville to a tropical disease from the past (no kidding). He was also insanely powerful. Superman could move planets, travel in time, mimic voices, and had an amazing super-intellect. In fact, Superman had such a keen intelligence to him that he was a genius level inventor, scientist, and problem solver (as I mentioned before, he built robots and he worked on scientific inquiries constantly). As Clark, he continued to act timid and weak to conceal the fact he was really Superman. He only chose for Clark to work as a reporter at the Daily Planet because he knew that would be the perfect job to keep him updated on situations that needed Superman. This Superman also avoids romantic entanglements at all costs. Whenever Lois or Lana would get too close or too aggressive in pursuing him, he would gently turn them down by reminding them of his responsibilities as Superman or by promising to end up with them someday in the far future. The Pre-Crisis Superman was focused on his career as a hero and was willing to give up all the comforts of human life to follow a noble path of truth and justice.


Post-Byrne- Just as he altered the man’s childhood, John Byrne made Superman into a completely different adult. For starters, Byrne left Ma and Pa Kent alive so they could continue to be Clark’s support system well into his time as Superman so he started off a much less alienated person than he used to be. Byrne also scaled down Superman’s powers significantly so he was no longer time traveling, pushing planets around, or even flying into space without a breathing apparatus. Most notably, Superman was no longer super-intelligent. Not to say that Byrne’s Superman was dumb, but he was no longer building robots, creating new inventions, or even outsmarting enemies nearly as much as he used to. In fact, a new character named Professor Hamilton was introduced to invent cool things for Superman since he was no longer going to be doing it himself. Byrne’s Clark Kent also never really pretended to be that timid or weak. Compared to the Pre-Crisis Clark, Byrne’s Kent is a well respected and well rounded guy. He even at one point had some serious aspirations to further his career as a reporter as evidenced by his eventual resignation from the Daily Planet in favor of an editorial position at a rival newspaper (happened in the post-Byrne Superman Vol.2 #39). Clark’s romantic life was very active in both of his identities during this period. Byrne’s Clark Kent was in a love triangle with vivacious career woman Lois Lane, promiscuous single mom Cat Grant, and townie girl next door Lana Lang and actively pursued these relationships. He viewed his identity as Superman as competition for Lois and by 1996 finally took the plunge and married Lois (something he’d successfully avoided for 58 years) as Clark Kent. Byrne’s Superman was far more human and more focused on his human life than his Pre-Crisis counterpart ever was and, from my view, these things would serve as distractions from his mission for ultimate good.




Pre-Crisis- Originally, Superman knew he was greater than human and that his Clark Kent persona would be nothing more than a play at being human. When the Silver Age introduced Superman’s origins as Superboy, Superboy is shown to have made a clear and conscious decision to KEEP his identity as Clark Kent as a secret identity rather than be Superboy 24/7. You don’t DECIDE to keep an identity if you actually feel like that person on the inside (you simply just are that person). This Superman was also so intelligent and powerful that living a human life was no challenge to him and there’s evidence that supports the idea that he could pick up and drop human identities like bad habits. He even shows on many occasions that he’s willing to drop his Clark Kent identity if need be. In Superboy #169, he’s almost forced to give up his Clark Kent identity after Clark is believed to have been shot and killed by most of Smallville. Superman did abandon his Clark Kent identity in Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” story which acted as the goodbye tale for the Silver and Bronze Age Superman. This Superman also took on secret identities outside of Clark Kent for various reasons like when he took on the identity of Chris Delbart to throw off a villain from discovering his Kent identity (in Superman #283). They also wrote a series of stories from the Bronze Age where we met Superman’s grandson, Superman-III, and learned that he maintains multiple human identities as a challenge (Superman #423). All of this suggests that this Superman didn’t see Clark as his true persona and in general felt a bit of distance from human identity and existence. In contrast, in Superman #174, Clark is lead to believe by an enemy that he is not and never was Superman and the experience is rather surreal and scary for Clark who realizes that without his Superman identity he’s stuck being cowardly Clark Kent in a mundane life. To me, this Superman embodies the phrase “Man of Tomorrow” by being something beyond a normal human man. This Superman lives an extraordinary life and his personality is larger than life to follow suit as he never really doubts himself or is shaken by fear. Rather than being human, his identity is something we humans aspire to be: Perfectly wise and noble with the power to back it up.


Post-Byrne- Beginning with his earliest work on the character, it’s transparently clear to see that the main thing John Byrne wanted to change about Superman was his relationship with the Clark Kent identity. Byrne obviously felt that Superman would be a more sympathetic character if he was seen as more human, and Byrne made the Kent identity a focus to further this goal. In issue #6 of the miniseries that introduced us to Byrne’s Superman, The Man of Steel, Clark outright tells you what he thinks of his Superman identity: “Superman isn’t real. He’s just a fancy pair of longjohns that lets me operate in public without losing my private life”(page 4). This clearly shows that Byrne’s Superman sympathizes more with his human identity and sees Superman as a construction. Byrne again reinforces this with another quote from Superman Vol.2 #1 when Clark is thinking about romantically pursuing Lois Lane he states: “If I’m going to win her it’s going to be as me, as Clark Kent”(page 7). Byrne was having Clark repeat things like this to reinforce the idea that Clark was the actual man now and Superman from then on would be an extra identity and an extra concern. Byrne even took Superman through a failed romance with Wonder Woman (long thought of as a perfect mate for Superman) where Superman ended it after realizing that Wonder Woman was basically a goddess while he still felt human on the inside. As I mentioned earlier, Byrne’s Superman didn’t discover he was an alien until he was an adult. After he discovered this, Superman was bothered by the idea that he wasn’t really human living on a world of humans and continually went through identity crises over the need to feel and act human despite this. Post-Byrne Superman constantly doubts himself and his actions like when he destroyed the military capabilities of terrorist nation Quarac or when he made a personal mission to try and convince Cat’s ex-husband to let her see their son. He also outwardly shows fear on occasion like when he first runs into magic after learning it can harm him. Where the Silver and Bronze Age Superman appears to be the ultimate step in human evolution, Byrne’s Superman appears to be nothing more than meets the eye: A Midwestern farm boy who happens to have super powers.


            And there you have it. Hopefully by now I have shown you how Byrne made his Superman completely different than the Superman that came before simply by focusing more on his Clark Kent identity. By setting up Clark as the true identity behind Superman, Byrne changed Superman from a noble demi-god to a human man with everyday concerns. I’m sure many of you are asking: Isn’t that a good thing? Normally in literature we want our characters to seem more human, so what Byrne did should have been more engaging, right? I’m arguing that in this case that approach was wrong because Superman was a character that was never meant to be human quite that literally. In my next entry, I hope to show you exactly why Byrne’s characterization of Superman fell flat and why the issue of Superman’s humanity isn’t quite as simple as it may seem.

15 Comments Refresh
Posted by pastfarpoint

Thanks for the interesting read. 
I'm not too familiar with "bronze age" superman, but I think it's interesting to consider the influence of golden-silver age Superman on Byrne's re-formation of SM. I think that some of the things you've mentioned Byrne doing represent his attempts to on one hand (1) reverse some of the Silver Age elaborations SM underwent, and (2) bring SM's character more in line with the grittiness of the modern era. 

Whether or not it's good for the SM mythology is a matter of taste of course. But it seems like you take issue with some of the choices Byrne made. 
My personal thoughts are that the attempt to hone SM's character and to modernize the SM character were both necessary. But I can certainly accept that there were different ways this could have been done, and I'll be interested to read about your thoughts regarding the issue of Superman's humanity - a concern which definitely reflects Superman's Modern Age mythos. 
I think it might also be interesting if, instead of just pointing out the limitations of Byrne's recreation, you could also offer your own suggestions. What I mean is, IF you accept that SM needed to be modernized, then how would you have done it for all the particular issues. And IF you don't, then it'd be interesting to know why not and how.

Posted by Theworldbreaker

I always liked byrnes version more then the Golden and silver age Superman.

Posted by PowerHerc

These are interesting points.  Maybe Byrne's revamp did significantly damage the character in the long term.  Or maybe it was how other creators have since followed his lead (or failled to follow it) that is to blame.  Superman should be, arguably, the most powerful superhero of all.  These days he rarely seems to use his powers to there fullest potential.  Instead he seems to be constantly in a state  
of doubt or over-analysis.  The creators these days don't use his powers properly or do his personality any justice.  Superman was THE MAN in the Golden Age, the Silver Age and the Bronze Age.  He was still the man when Byrne re-booted him and well after that as well.  Since then DC has allowed Wonder Woman to become his near-equal, Batman to physically defeat him on multiple ocassions, and allowed characters like Aquaman, Kilowog and Robotman to be compared to him strength-wise.  I truly like each one of the characters I just mentioned, but c'mon!   None of these power-level /descriptions/upgrades or victories should ever have happened.  The only other DC heroes who should be in Superman's class are Captain Marvel (Billy Batson), Mon-El and maybe Martian Manhunter.  Superman isn't as popular as he should (and deserves to) be because he's not allowed to be THE MAN anymore, so readers lose/lost interest in him because now he's just another superhero instead of being THE SUPERHERO. 
I do wonder, however, if Superman was having an unprecented run of popularity; would John Byrne get the credit?
Posted by weaponmaster

I liked Byrnes version as well. Less omnipotent but yet still very powerful. And Byrne is my favorite comic book artist as well. 
You should add some pictures to your post .
Edited by Jekylhyde14


First off, sorry it's taken me so long to reply to you, but I've been pretty distracted lately. I always enjoy having people respond to my work with well-thought-out comments and questions, so thanks for taking the time.


I know that John Byrne definitely had the Golden Age version of Superman in mind when he went about creating his revamp, and this is apparent in what he came up with. The power reduction was a bit closer to his Golden Age counterpart though I would argue that Superman was always meant to be the most powerful character in his stories in spite of what those specific power levels might be. He also got Superman back to social crusading by going toe-to-toe with corportate villian Lex Luthor much like the late-thirties Superman took down corrupt bussinessmen and politicians (though I admitted to enjoying that in my blog and it's not like the Silver Age and Bronze Age Supermen didn't do those things). Personality-wise, however, I don't see Byrne's Superman as having that much in common with the original. It's not like the Golden Age Superman had any moral meltdowns over his own actions, and the Golden Age Clark Kent did often pretend to be meek and cowardly unlike Byrne's. I also don't like Byrne's suggestion that the Silver Age Superman was a perversion of the Golden Age version next to his own. Keep in mind that Jerry Siegel (Superman's first writer) wrote stories well into the Silver Age, so the 60's version can't be THAT far off in characterization. I think of the Silver Age version as a natural evolution to the Golden Age original whereas Byrne was wiping the slate clean and creating a new man altogether.


Taking your suggestion to heart, I wrote up a second part to this blog explaining how I would like to see Superman return to who he was in the Silver Age and exactly what that means to me in the modern age. I hope you're able to take the time to read it and comment. This is my favorite comic discussion to have.

Posted by ghelba2

I guess DC must of agreed with you and decided to go back to Superman's roots of the character.  BTW excellent article I really enjoyed reading it, very well thought out.
Posted by Jekylhyde14
Thanks a lot! Superman has become an almost academic pursuit for me. I take the time to work out my points and explain why I feel exactly how I feel. In hindsight, I do wish I focused less on Byrne in this article (it wasn't JUST his fault), but I do see the root of Superman's modern problems starting there. I'm glad DC has decided to revamp him and I'm overjoyed they gave it to Grant Morrison. My favorite writer will once again be writing my favorite character. I'm hoping for good things in the future.
Posted by Timandm
@Jekylhyde14: if you could boil it down to three things you could change about post-crisis superman, what would those three things be?
Posted by Primmaster64

Byrne's Superman was very succesful...Can't say the same about the SA Geoff Version.

Posted by Jekylhyde14
1) More Self-Belief. Post-Crisis Superman seemed to sort of hate himself. He was constantly having emotional breakdowns over the things he did and questioning whether those things were right. Superman should have more confidence than that. He needs to believe that the things he's doing are for the greater good or we lose faith in him and he becomes a weaker character (and he did). 
2) Pride in That Which Makes him Different. Post-Crisis Superman longed to be human so much that it was almost like he felt it was superior to be human. Everything that was alien was demonized in Post-Crisis Superman stories. Supes was often feeling inadequate next to normal joes like Gangbuster (and his secret identity, Clark Kent). It was almost like Byrne was trying to hit you over the head with how humble Supes could be just so you would like him better. Superman is SUPERman. We call him that because he's naturally more capable than we are and therefore can walk the higher path when most of us have to compromise. There should be some pride in that. How can he be an example if he feels like everyone else is better than him just because they DON'T have powers?  It was almost like Superman was saying it's virtuous to conform.
3) Less Concerned About his Love Life. The way he pined over Lois almost right off the bat always came off as sort of strange to me. Byrne didn't even take the time to develop their relationship before Clark was head over heels for her (I guess he felt like he didn't need to since their realtionship was already so well established through the decades). It made romance a major concern of the book, though, to the point where it became a little too much like a soap opera. We were forced to deal with minor relationship concerns like the one between Cat Grant and Jose Delgado OR the possibility of divorce between Perry and Alice White. I mean, who cares? I'm not saying don't include romance in the book, but in Post-Crisis Superman it became a major distraction and lead to melodramatic domestic concerns that made the book slower paced.
Posted by Jekylhyde14
I hate it when Secret Origin is referred to as a Silver Age revival. It really wasn't. It was DC's way of trying to find a compromise between the resurgence of the Silver Age's popularity after All-Star Superman and a wish to keep Superman's personality and history as close to Post-Crisis as possible. Yes, they brought back the fact that he was Superboy and that he was in the Legion of Superheroes. That's where the similarities cease. His personality was still more like Byrne's Superman, they kept most of the Post-Crisis history intact (as evidenced by the Invasion easter eggs in the Daily Planet art work), they kept his power level at a medium (and medium is not how you would describe SA Superman's power level), they still had him actively pursuing Lois (which SA Supes never did), and they tried to gear the end of the story to lead up to New Krypton (which was nothing like SA Krypton). The entire series was one, big compromise and that's why it was weak (well, that and the fact that Johns was obviously more interested in writing Green Lantern).  
I'll grant you that Man of Steel was very popular when it came out, but a lot of that can be chalked up to the fact that it was a revamp. The Bronze Age was getting weak since that was yet another failed compromise between Silver Age Supes and something more "relatable," and everyone was excited to see things done differently. However, it's very telling to me that only five scant years after the revamp the Superman writing staff had run out of ideas and had to kill the character off. That tells me that Byrne's Superman wasn't lasting. It was also interesting that DC spent Byrne's entire run marketing Superman merchandise that was more like the Silver/Bronze Age version than Byrne's since that version was still more popular to the general public. That ticked Byrne off and forced him to quit after two years on the book. It's also pretty funny that in old issues of Wizard, right after Man of Steel, I could find reader complainst about how Superman was still "overpowered" and "unrelatable" (the two things Byrne's revamp promised to fix).
Let's compare that to the fact that Mort Weisinger, who called all the shots for Silver Age Superman, spent the better part of TWO DECADES on the book and made it so popular that he helped revive DC's superhero line. OR the fact that All-Star Superman, based on the Silver Age, has been more popular than any Superman story in the last decade and won Harvey, Eisner, and Eagle Awards. In the end, I'm not convinced that the Silver Age loses out to Byrne in a popularity contest.
Posted by OutlawRenegade

I prefer Byrne's Superman. It's what inspired Superman the Animated Series, which introduced me to the character.

Posted by Jekylhyde14

@OutlawRenegade said:

I prefer Byrne's Superman. It's what inspired Superman the Animated Series, which introduced me to the character.

Actually, the Animated Series Superman was a mix of both Pre and Post Crisis elements. He did have the same power level as John Byrne's Superman and his Parents were still alive. However, they used the Krypton from the Silver Age and many other Pre-Crisis elements likes Supergirl. They used a version of Kent that wasn't weak and timid, but they also never had Superman go through the identity breakdowns and weepy moments that Byrne's Superman did. I liked the Animated Series Superman better than the Post-Byrne version. I didn't throw everything about Superman's mythology completely out the window like Byrne did.

Posted by Squalleon

@Jekylhyde14: Great Blog! I always liked when superman considered himself to be clark kent(clark being the name he sees as his true name).I aprove with supes being the lead identity but only when he doesn't forget who he really is.Thats the mistake of "For Tommorow" superman started calling himself Kal, forgeting in a way the people who raised him.

Posted by Jekylhyde14


Thanks! I've always liked Clark and what Superman gains from his time as the humble reporter. I also think Kal and his Kryptonian lineage give him a lot of character. Superman is a big personality. He has room for both.