DC's "Rebirth" Roster Could Look Very Familiar
Summer is officially over, so this is a little late, but I’ve been meaning to talk about a certain arc from the summer of 1993. It was the height of the speculator bubble, when everything came with cover enhancements, trading cards, unfortunate hairstyles and/or superfluous pouches.
For many DC Comics readers, 20 years ago was also the summer of “Reign of the Supermen!” That’s not necessarily enthusiasm — the exclamation point was part of the title, which in turn was inspired by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s early proto-supervillain story, “The Reign of the Superman.” The third (and by far the longest) chapter of the “Death of Superman” saga began with teasers at the back of Adventures of Superman #500, published around April 15,* and ended with Superman Vol. 2 #82, published around Aug. 26.** Those four and a half months may not seem like much, but they saw 20 issues of the four regular Superman books (including Action Comics and Superman: The Man of Steel) spread over 20 weeks. In fact, “Reign” was front-loaded, with all four titles marking the official start of the arc on April 29 or so, two weeks after Adventures #500. That meant there were some weeks without a new installment, and those were sometimes hard to take.
“Reign of the Supermen!” is not the greatest Superman story ever memorialized in print. On one level it is very much a product of its era. However, for the Superman books, that era was energized not just by the efforts of their creative teams, but by the overarching framework the books had developed. While “Reign” wasn’t the only big DC event of the summer — for one thing, the debut of DC’s imprint Milestone Media has much more historical significance — it’s a reminder of the ebbs and flows of serial superhero storytelling, and it remains instructive today.
Warning: This is a very long post, because I think there’s a lot of background to be explored.
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We begin in 1986, with the Superman reboot headlined by writer/penciler John Byrne. He and his collaborators — writer Marv Wolfman, penciler Jerry Ordway, inkers Dick Giordano, Terry Austin and Mike Machlan, and editors Mike Carlin and (initially) Andy Helfer — made a clear stylistic break from the previous 25 years under editor Julius Schwartz. Those pre-reboot comics, produced by writers including Cary Bates, Elliott S! Maggin and Wolfman, and unified visually by prolific penciler Curt Swan, had become reliable but unremarkable. They weren’t necessarily bad comics, and they were true to the Silver Age mythology that had helped make Superman popular in the 1950s and ‘60s; but DC wanted a more streamlined approach.
Byrne and company did just that, dropping elements like the Superboy career, Supergirl and the Fortress of Solitude (Byrne explained that the Clark disguise would provide enough “solitude”); not killing off the Kents; and bringing radical changes to Lex Luthor and Kryptonian society. Pre-reboot, there were three regular Superman titles (Action, Superman and the team-up book DC Comics Presents), but they weren’t always interconnected. With Byrne writing and drawing both Superman and Action, that changed. Wolfman and Ordway’s Adventures had its own distinct style, but it too did its best to acknowledge Byrne’s work. That became moot after a year, when Byrne succeeded Wolfman as Adventures’ regular writer.
However, Byrne left with Superman #22 (cover-dated October 1988). The issue was the conclusion of the “Supergirl Saga,” and it featured a new, non-Kryptonian Girl of Steel, but it didn’t leave her in such great shape. Come to think of it, that also came out of a continuity tangle, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When Byrne departed the Superman titles, he was no longer on Action Comics, as the series had transformed into a weekly anthology some four months prior. Superman himself stayed in Action, in the form of a two-page “Sunday-comic” feature written by Roger Stern and penciled by Curt Swan. The artist’s presence — both here and in the Byrne-written one-shot Superman: The Earth Stealers — was no doubt designed to appeal to readers who had missed him in the two years since the reboot. In any event, Adventures and Superman remained interconnected; and when Action reverted to monthly single-story status in the summer of 1989, it was slotted back into the rotation.
I mention all of this to show both how the creative and big-picture-storytelling aspects of the Superman books developed over the course of the reboot’s first three years. Initially they were two-thirds Byrne and one-third Wolfman/Ordway; then they were all written by Byrne, with Ordway penciling Adventures; and following Byrne’s departure, Roger Stern and Kerry Gammill became Superman’s writer and penciler, with Ordway taking over writing duties on Adventures (and Dan Jurgens occasionally subbing for him). Action’s return also featured the debut of George Pérez as writer and penciler.
Pérez didn’t stay long, however (he was also working on Wonder Woman and New Titans); and the next few years featured a number of creative shuffles, including the debut of Man of Steel in spring 1991. Writer Louise Simonson and penciler Jon Bogdanove were distinctive talents, so it would do them a disservice to say MOS merely filled in space on the shipping calendar. However, the first week of every month had been free of a regular Superman book to that point, so for all intents and purposes, MOS upgraded Superman’s adventures from three times a month to (almost) every week.*** After it led off the month, Superman followed, then Adventures, and then Action. This regular monthly rotation remained unchanged for the next several years.
In fall 1992 the books’ creative teams were similarly steady: Simonson and Bogdanove on MOS (with Dennis Janke inking); Dan Jurgens writing and penciling Superman (inked by Brett Breeding); Ordway writing Adventures, with Tom Grummett penciling and Doug Hazlewood inking; and Stern writing Action, with Jackson “Butch” Guice penciling and Dennis Rodier inking. These teams produced the “Death of Superman” and “World Without a Superman” storylines — and except for Ordway, who left Adventures with #500 and who was succeeded as writer by Karl Kesel, these were the teams in place for “Reign of the Supermen!” Seven years after the reboot, the Superman books had developed from the creative efforts of “John Byrne et al.” into a squad of creative teams running a smoothly functioning storytelling machine.
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At this point, though, let’s go back to the “Supergirl Saga,” because it highlights one of the biggest ripples the reboot caused. Removing “Superboy” from Superman’s history had a significant effect on the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which after all was inspired by the teenaged Kal-El’s heroic example. The solution was the Pocket Universe, a sliver of pre-reboot history plucked out of the timestream by the omnipotent Time Trapper and shaped into the Legion’s “specialized past.” Essentially, whenever the Legion needed to visit Superboy, the Time Trapper would send them into the Pocket Universe, and the “Superboy” who visited the Legion would likewise be the one from the Pocket Universe. This was all explained in a 1987 crossover between Byrne’s Superman books and Legion of Super-Heroes.**** Therein, Superman met the Pocket Universe’s Superboy and a handful of pre-reboot-minded Legionnaires, all was explained, and Superboy returned to the Legion’s future, where he died saving the Pocket Universe from the Time Trapper. The Pocket Universe was sealed off from the Legion as a result.*****
However, the Pocket Universe kept going — and when its version of the Phantom Zone criminals escaped, there were no superheroes to stop them. After Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora laid waste to Pocket-Earth, Pocket-Lex Luthor created his version of Supergirl, who traveled to DC-Earth looking for Superman’s help. Superman eventually defeated the Phantom Zone criminals using Gold Kryptonite, and — in an extremely controversial move that some of you may find familiar — decided that the only way to stop them for good was to kill them with Green Kryptonite. Superman then returned to DC-Earth with Pocket-Supergirl (now called “Matrix” because she’d reverted back to a protoplasmic form and had no other identity), and left her with his foster parents.
Executing the three criminals weighed heavily on Superman for a long while. Eventually he decided to leave Earth for exile in deep space, where he met a cleric who had visited Krypton and acquired one of its ancient relics, the Eradicator. The cleric and the Eradicator helped Superman make peace with his actions. After defeating Mongul, who’d captured all of them and imprisoned them on his Warworld spacecraft, Superman returned to Earth in summer 1989, just in time for the relaunched Action Comics.
Again, though, I want to highlight the timing of these stories within the larger scope of the 1986 reboot. The two Pocket Universe stories happened within its first two years. The first was a major continuity patch on one of the reboot’s most radical changes, and the second not only proceeded directly from the first, but informed the Superman titles (and, indirectly, the eventual Supergirl ongoing series) for years to come. This came about precisely because DC only rebooted a few of its books in the mid-1980s. To be sure, these included prominent books like the Superman titles, Wonder Woman and Shazam!, while equally prominent series like the Bat-books, Green Lantern and Legion were left apparently untouched. In other words, if you were frustrated by some aspects of the New 52 reboot, the alternative might have been an ad hoc “we will speak no more of this”-style solution.
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In fact, Superman’s “Reign” revival turned out to be comparably unique, even as the larger arc built on stories from previous years — and, for that matter, used a number of elements from the “Superman in Exile” saga. The story of “Reign” revolves around five characters who each claim at least part of Superman’s legacy. It was structured so that each of the four Super-titles told the story of at least one “Superman,” with the main Superman book (Jurgens/Breeding, if you’ve forgotten) eventually spotlighting Kal-El himself. MOS got the Man of Steel, John Henry Irons; Superman started out with the Cyborg Superman; Adventures had “The Kid,” who bristled at the name “Superboy”; and Action featured “the Kryptonian.” Matrix/Supergirl also appeared in Adventures and Action along the way.
While Dr. Irons only claimed to be inspired by Superman (although at first there was some talk of Superman’s ghost inhabiting him), the other three each had roots in post-reboot stories. Superboy was a product of Project Cadmus, reintroduced in 1988’s Superman Annual #2 and used mostly as a way to revisit concepts from Jack Kirby’s run on Jimmy Olsen. The Kryptonian was the Eradicator itself, transformed from an egg-shaped handheld device into a humanoid that thought it was Kal-El. Even the Eradicator-built Fortress of Solitude (where much of the reviving took place) went back a few years, to a Pérez-written storyline from fall 1989.
The Cyborg Superman had the most convoluted origin. Jurgens created scientist Hank Henshaw and his three colleagues for Adventures of Superman #466 (cover date May 1990). Collectively they were analogues for the Fantastic Four — Superman saved their crashing space shuttle, and each of them gained not-quite-familiar powers — but each met a bad end, and Henshaw blamed Superman for his wife’s death. After Superman transferred Henshaw’s disembodied consciousness into the Kryptonian matrix-pod that brought baby Kal-El to Earth, Henshaw set out for deep space, where he encountered Mongul and came up with a plan to take over Earth.
Said plan involved a) impersonating Superman and b) using Superman’s reputation as cover for allowing Mongul to turn Coast City and Metropolis into the engines of the new Warworld. Thin as it is, that plan was the spine of “Reign,” with the stories of the other Superman intersecting as needed. Steel’s unrelated subplot involved an arms dealer called the White Rabbit; Superboy acquired a new supporting cast and was basically comic relief; and the Eradicator was practically a “grim ‘n’ gritty” parody in a Superman suit. (Stern even worked in a group of Superman-worshipers from an Action Comics Weekly storyline.) Once Henshaw’s plan kicked into high gear and Mongul destroyed Coast City, the various Supermen, Supergirl and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) teamed up to stop him.
Steel and Superboy graduated to ongoing series in the months following “Reign’s” conclusion, with Simonson writing Steel and the Adventures team producing the first few years of Superboy. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how their respective stints headlining MOS and Adventures were clearly setting up those series, but at the time, part of “Reign’s” appeal was in trying to figure out whether these disparate elements would contribute to Superman’s return.
Ultimately, that was accomplished under a never-to-be-repeated combination of Kryptonian science and a dash of mysticism, whereby Superman’s soul (guided by a near-death Jonathan Kent) was reunited with his slowly regenerating body, and his powers were restored by the Eradicator’s intervention. “Reign” also left Superman with a lustrous, full-bodied mullet, which he (and Clark) maintained for three years. Three long years.
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The Superman titles never followed “Reign of the Supermen!” with anything quite so ambitious. There was “Dead Again” (Brainiac tries to convince Supes that he’s not the real thing), the “Trial of Superman” (the Cyborg Superman frames Supes for an interstellar disaster), the “Death of Clark Kent” (Clark sends his family into hiding after a villain from Smallville comes after them), and “Superman Rex” (under a villain’s influence, Supes and robot duplicates try to take over the world), but none of them had the urgency or scope of “Reign of the Supermen!” Even the 1997-98 “Electric Superman” period was more of a stylistic shift than a sweeping epic, and it ended with virtually no in-story explanation. The “weekly” format itself was phased out in 1999, when a new set of creative teams assembled under new editor Eddie Berganza. (Mike Carlin had left the Superman books in 1995. After a brief stint by KC Carlson, Joey Cavalieri was the books’ editor from the last half of 1996 through fall 1999.)
Accordingly, “Reign” can be seen as the crest of a tremendous wave, built up by the accumulated force of four monthly titles rearranged into one weekly saga, and propelled by the creative energies of a small army of comics professionals. They had succeeded in killing Superman, but that was the easy part. The hard part would be not just bringing him back, but making it seem like an organic part of the books themselves. This they did by focusing on the world their collaborations had made. In the four-plus years between Byrne’s departure and Adventures #500, DC published more than 180 issues****** of the regular Superman books, which collectively provided a lot of space in which to build that world. In other words, they were used to writing stories about Lois, Perry, Jimmy, Cat Grant, Ron Troupe, Bibbo, the Kents, et al., and the “Superman in Space” storyline had already given them some practice.
Indeed, having a different “Superman” in each title allowed those creative teams a bit more freedom than they had regularly. As mentioned above, Simonson and Bogdanove got to develop Steel into a unique character, as did Kesel and Grummett with Superboy. The latter two teams drove more of “Reign’s” plot: Stern and Guice’s Eradicator split his time between busting bad guys’ heads and musing about his origins at the Fortress of Solitude, while Jurgens’ Cyborg worked on convincing everyone from Lois to the President that he was the revived Superman.
While the latter tended to move the overall plot forward, they also showed Jurgens at his stiffest and most bombastic, with huge figures dominating expansive spreads and making portentous pronouncements.
Still, “Reign” never collapsed in on itself. It featured a tight three-act structure (introductions, conflicts, resolutions) and, despite wild shifts in creative styles, flowed together pretty well. Again, it was not the deepest of Superman storylines, but it drew on much of what these creative teams (and their predecessors) had established since 1986. Although “Reign” capitalized on the early-‘90s “Dead and Replaced” trend that would play out across the Big Two superhero publishers over the next few years, it didn’t feel derivative. Instead, its roots went back to “Superman in Space,” which itself was a sequel to the “Supergirl Saga,” which followed up on the “Pocket Universe” crossover.
To be sure, these were all marketed as important events in the development of post-reboot Superman. However, the books’ interconnected structure allowed the individual events to be stitched together almost organically, such that a real sense of cooperation and collaboration came through in the result. In that light, “Reign” is the weekly period’s magnum opus — a 20-issue mega-arc that both re-established a familiar status quo and spun off new characters (and, since I hadn’t mentioned it yet, led directly to Green Lantern’s apocalyptic “Emerald Twilight”). And it all happened seven years into the reboot.
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Now, clearly we’re not seven years into the latest Superman reboot, but we can still compare and contrast. The New 52 began with two regular Superman titles, each featuring an A-list creative team: Action written by Grant Morrison and penciled by Rags Morales, and Superman written and penciled by George Pérez. Neither was explicitly connected to the other, particularly considering Morrison’s run began with an extended flashback storyline. Pérez left under bad circumstances, and Superman went through several months of transition before settling on writer Scott Lobdell and artist Kenneth Rocafort. For their part, Morrison and Morales stayed on Action for some 20 issues, and their departure also resulted in some creative turmoil, but next month sees the new creative team of writer Greg Pak and artist Aaron Kuder. Meanwhile, DC has added two more regular Superman books, Batman/Superman (written by Pak and drawn by Jae Lee et al.) and Superman Unchained (written by Scott Snyder and penciled by Jim Lee), neither of which looks to be interconnected with Action or Superman.
Thus, instead of the “Byrne et al.” lineup that characterized the first two years of the 1986 reboot, the New 52 has seen a hodgepodge of creative approaches, with few signs of express interconnection, and Lobdell’s work being one of the few unifying elements. (Dan Jurgens has also been involved here and there.) In this respect, the Superman books of 1986-93 were fortunate to have relatively little creative turnover, with whatever turnover there was being handled with little (if any) apparent trouble. Of course, after a certain point those books were designed to be interconnected, so the creative teams had to have viable working relationships or the whole thing would fall apart. Today, Superman Unchained has a different editor (Matt Idelson) than the other Super-titles (most edited by Eddie Berganza), which makes any interconnection more difficult. That is not to say that interconnection is always the best option, just that it worked under somewhat-comparable circumstances from the late ‘80s well into the ‘90s. If DC can put together four equally-compelling creative approaches to Superman, and they don’t necessarily refer to each other, that’s fine too.
Generally, I look back at “Reign” as the product of a period where the Superman creative teams tried to be as inventive and entertaining as possible, where their accumulated contributions described a well-functioning narrative environment, and where the structure imposed upon them generally raised everyone’s game. “Reign” played out a few years after the Superman books lost their most prominent writer/artist, but it shows how the Superman group rebounded, and even thrived. I’ll be curious to see where the New 52 Superman books have gotten by the end of their seventh year.
While “Reign of the Supermen!” is bound pretty tightly to comics culture of the early ‘90s, and specifically to that summer of 1993, I almost think it can exist apart from that culture. As much as the Superman books had tried to separate themselves from the mythology of the previous few decades, the Superman creative teams of the early ‘90s came from pretty traditional perspectives. These were not “Image-style” comics, nor did they aspire to be. Accordingly, while “Reign” doesn’t need to be duplicated any time soon, neither should it be forgotten.
* [I’m pretty sure New Comics Day was still on Thursdays back then.]
** [The issues of Adventures (#505) and Action Comics (#692) that followed Superman #82 featured epilogue-style stories, with the Action issue establishing where Clark Kent had been since Doomsday’s rampage.]
*** [There were still holes in the schedule caused by “fifth weeks,” but starting in 1995 Superman: The Man of Tomorrow plugged them for a few years.]
**** [LSH Vol. 2 #37-38, cover-dated August-September 1987), were written by Paul Levitz, penciled by Greg LaRocque and inked by Mike DeCarlo.]
***** [The DC Cosmic Teams website has an exhaustive history of the Pocket Universe.]
****** [55 issues each of Superman (issues 23-77) and Adventures (445-99); 44 issues of Action (643-86); and the first 21 issues of Man of Steel; their various Annuals from 1988-93; and the post-“Death” Supergirl & Team Luthor and Legacy of Superman specials.]