In lists of great Superman stories (a common thing these days with both a new movie out and the 75th anniversary of the character), you often see John Byrne’s miniseries Man of Steel showing up somewhere. This always strikes me as a bit strange, because in some ways, Man of Steel isn’t really a story. In spite of some connecting narrative elements, it’s a more of a succession of episodes that give us an overview of the newly revised origin and background of Superman and his universe. So it makes a great series, even if it is only six issues long. Now in a lot of ways, this is actually better than a story. Especially at the time, it served as a kind of promise of what was to come.
See, when Man of Steel came out, all the Superman titles were suspended. DC Comics was preparing to revamp the character following the reality-changing events of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Three new or revised titles were about to launch (or resume) largely under John Byrne’s creative control, but before they did Man of Steel was released as a way to re-orientate the readers to their flagship character. Superman didn’t appear anywhere else, to my knowledge, during that time, with even his role in the DC crossover series Legends delayed until after Man of Steel had ended. So if you wanted Superman, this is where you had to go to find him. And if you wanted to know what Superman was going to be like from now on, this was your chance to find out.
And so we got nifty little vignettes that introduced to us various core concepts of the mythology. So there was a cold and sterile Krypton. A baby Kal-El who really was his planet’s last survivor. A young Clark Kent who needed learn humility more than anything else. An ongoing relationship with living foster parents. A slightly less powerful Superman who was learning how to be a human and alien at the same time. A Lois Lane who doesn’t fall head over heels for Superman. A Lex Luthor whose first response to Superman is to attempt to buy him off. A mistrust with Batman, which created a dynamic which while not exactly original was still deeply influential to every comic featuring the characters that’s come out since.
All of this was an invitation to the reader. Come check out Superman, it’s going to be like this. And not only is this the status quo now, but you can watch us re-grow the character from the ground up. And for years, that’s what we got. Eventually, many of the old pre-Man of Steel concepts were brought back again (greater level of powers, Supergirl, Phantom Zone villains, etc.) But it was always in the context of the new lens on the character that Byrne had established. Even later retellings of the origin which took very different approaches to the character (Mark Waid’s Birthright; Geoff John’s lamentable Secret Origin) were never able to forget the deeper connection we the readership now had with Superman the man.
And re-reading it now, as I recently did in trade paperback, it serves as a reminder of my favorite era of Superman. The stories are good and the art pleasing. (John Byrne seems considered by many to be one of the best artists in the business, although one friend of mine feels that he basically drew heroes posing rather than actually in action, and unfortunately inspired legions of imitators. I don’t mind him but I’m not in awe, if you know what I mean). But more significantly, years of stories by Byrne and his successors which gave me great enjoyment pass through my mind: The Secret Revealed. The Supergirl saga. Superman in Space. Dark Knight over Metropolis. Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite. Panic in the Sky. Krypton Man. Doomsday. Reign of the Supermen. And lots more.
But Man of Steel is where it all began. And though the individual stories it contains are good (in some cases, great), I think it’s largely because of what followed that it is remembered so fondly today.