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The End of History

"Wendy Pini said I'd created a Krypton that deserved to blow up."

- John Byrne

John Byrne and Marv Wolfman, two of the key forces behind the 1986 revamp, spoke at the time on what their plans for Superman were:

The Coming of Shadows

DC Comics had been contemplating a revision of the Superman mythos for years.  Marv Wolfman recalls, "Before I left Marvel, Jenette Kahn," DC's publisher and president, "used to have poker parties at her house, and I'd go there and talk to Jenette, and almost always we'd be talking about Superman.  That's always been my pet project, and I'd talk about all the changes I'd like to see, and why I thought the book wasn't working for the market that was coming up.   Jenette always liked my ideas on Superman.

A Marv Wolfman "nuance"
Superman #422
by Marv Wolfman
"When I first came to DC, one the the assignments I was given was Superman, but because I was only one writer [among several on the character] and I was not asked to make the changes I wanted, I tried to write as closely to the style the book was written in as I could, while putting in my own little nuances.  But I really didn't change much. It was still Julie Schwartz's Superman, which, for what it was, was real good."

Later, Jenette Kahn asked for concepts for a revised version of Superman.  Regular Superman writer Cary Bates came up with one concept for a revision that would work into ongoing continuity. On the other hand, Wolfman wanted to start Superman continuity over from the beginning, as did Frank Miller and Steve Gerber. "Frank Miller and Steve Gerber suggested one concept," Wolfman says, "and I suggested another one that was not too dissimilar in intent although it was dissimilar in plot.  Frank, Steve, and I all wanted to get rid of Superboy, cut down on Superman's powers, make changes in Luthor, and make Superman the last survivor of Krypton:  they did it different than I did."

But time passed without any concept for a revised Superman series being given a go-ahead.  But DC still wanted to revamp Superman, and in May of 1985, editor Andrew Helfer was assigned to find the creative people to do it.  Helfer began talking to various people in the business about working on a revised Superman.

Then, Wolfman says, "sometime last summer [1985] I discovered that John Byrne was no longer under contract to Marvel.  I called John and offered him a Teen Titans story, which he accepted.  I essentially said to John, 'This may cut my own throat, but DC is interested in a new version of Superman.  If you're interested, now that you're freelance, why don't you get in touch with them?'  I didn't think he would, but I was hoping.  I honestly felt that John's version of Superman and mine would be fairly similar because we were both fans of the same material: the Jerry Siegel and Jerome Shuster stories and the Paramount cartoons." (the early 1940's Max Fleischer cartoons)  Exhibiting a lack of concern about the quality of the stories, Wolman also notes that having John Byrne on the book "would make it sell, and that's more important than anything else, as far as I'm concerned."

John Byrne says about this same phone conversation with Wolfman, "He mentioned that DC was going to do a 'fix' on Superman and I instantly broke out in a cold sweat.  And he said that he thought that I should try to do it.  I thought about it for a while, but I hadn't really left Marvel entirely at that point.  I was sort of waffling back and forth and I finally decided I would go freelance when I moved to Connecticut.

"So we moved to Connecticut, and we had a big housewarming party" - Saturday, July 20, 1985 - "we invited Dick Giordano, and at the party Dick said, "Come, tell me about Superman.' So I dropped some broad hints about what I would do with the character, and Dick was sufficiently interested that I finally said, 'Well, okay, let's talk.'" (The housewarming party figures as the turning point in all three accounts - Byrne's, Wolfman's, and Helfer's - as to how the deal for Byrne to do the new Superman came about.)

Some days after the party, Byrne recalls, "Dick and Andy Helfer came up to my house and we sat out on the screened porch and talked Superman. I told them everything I wanted to do, and they agreed with about 99 percent of it."

Wolfman continues, "Once they settled on John, they got back to me, and asked me if I'd handle the other book," the new The Adventures of Superman, which will take over the numbering of the original Superman title.  "And I said, yeah, I'm interested, but hold on."  Wolfman had years before come up with a concept for a revised version of Superman's archfoe Lex Luthor.  "I called John, and essentially told him the concept and said 'What do you think?'

"He liked it.  Part of the reason I think he liked it was because my reason why Luthor hates Superman was identical to what he was thinking. I didn't tell John at the time that his decision on Luthor determined whether or not I'd take the book.  The fact that he did like the Luthor idea meant that our views were so similar, as I had hoped, that we could work together.  I then called DC back and accepted the other book."

For a time, it seemed that Alan Moore would write the new Superman team-up series, which became Action.  However, Moore proved to be too busy with his other commitments and withdrew.  John Byrne will write and pencil Action as well as the new Superman series.  According to Byrne, "Action is going to be... action.  I'm just going to break everything."

This is not Superman

Superman Discarded

"I have taken my standard 'Back to the Basics' approach," John Byrne says about his work on Superman. "All of the debris that has accumulated over the years has been the result of people trying to do something different.  So now I'm taking Superman back to the basics, and that becomes different because it hasn't been done in so long.  It's basically Siegel and Shuster's Superman meets the Fleischer Superman in 1986."

Many key elements of the Superman legend are being discarded. Superman will be the only Kryptonian who survived the destruction of Krypton, for example, and he will never have had a career as Superboy or a dog named Krypto.  "I'm trying to structure this in such a way," Byrne says, "that if it's really important to you that Comet the Super-Horse was around somewhere, you can fit him over here between these two panels. I'm never going to say there weren't other Kryptonians who survived, but I'm going to do everything I can to make it obvious that there weren't.  We're not tossing everything out, just on the off chance that we might need Terra-Man, for example, But we are trying to structure the series in such a way that we can ignore those characters we want to ignore."

At first Superman will not know that he is an alien being.  "That kind of bothers him a bit," Byrne says: "he doesn't know where he's from. Ma and Pa Kent found him in the rocket.  They think maybe he's from Russia.  They don't want to think the American space agency put a baby in a rocket and shot it into space.  Pa Kent thinks maybe he's a Martian but Ma won't buy that."

He does not have any super-powers when he arrives on Earth from Krypton. "He's about eight years old when he first discovers he's invulnerable, he's about 13 when the 'X-ray vision' first turns up, and he's about 18 the first time he flies.  It's a natural sort of progression." Superman derives his powers entirely from the energy of the Earth's sun, which his body stores like a solar battery.  As he grows older, his body stores more energy, and thus he becomes more powerful.

Byrne believes that Superman's super-powers basically consist of being able to do anything a normal human being can do, but to do it better. Hence he is stronger that a normal Earthman, for example, and he can see farther.  He still can see through solid objects, but although he calls this power "X-ray vision" for convenience's sake, he does not actually project X-rays from his eyes.  Instead he uses a combination of his telescopic and microscopic visions to "see through the atomic structure" of an object and focus past it, "as a camera focuses beyond the dust on a lens."

Nonetheless, Superman's powers are still virtually the same, although they will no longer be at the seemingly near-infinite level they have been in past stories. However, Superman will no longer be able to exist indefinitely without oxygen.  If he travels outside the atmosphere, he must first fill his lungs up with air.  His costume is no longer indestructible in and of itself; Superman's body will instead generate a force field that renders any material with which he is in close physical contact, such as his costume, virtually indestructable as long as it is within the field.

Byrne had considered not giving Superman the power of heat vision, but changed his mind, saying, "well, it's a manifestation of all the solar radiation that he's absorbed, and I gave it a different visual."  His heat vision will now manifest itself as a red glow within his eyes.

In Byrne's new version of Superman's past, Clark begins secretly using his powers to prevent disasters after his powers reach a certain level, but he does not have a public career as Superboy.  As seen in the first issue of Man of Steel, Clark does not begin a public career as a superhero until he has become an adult and is mobbed by people after he is seen using his powers to rescue a "space-plane" on which, by the way, Lois Lane is a passenger. (Originally, the "space plane" was a space shuttle, but that was changed after the recent Challenger space shuttle disaster.) Clark returns home to his parents, and they help him to design his costumed identity of Superman.  As Superman he can perform super-powered feats, and escape unrecognized to his everyday identity of Clark Kent, who now begins wearing glasses to keep from being recognized as the now famous Superhero.

Although Byrne says he will not directly say so in the story, Pa Kent comes up with the idea for the costumed identity of Superman because he remembers the many costumed superheroes of the 1940s.  In the DC continuity that has emerged as a result of Crisis on Infinite Earths, all of DC's superheros live on the same Earth and there is no longer any record of there being a Superman in the 1940s.  Hence, in this new DC history, Superman was not the first superhero.  He is no longer the source of inspiration - his career now begins long after those of the heroes of the Justice Society of America and their contemporaries in the 1930 and 1940s.

"What I've done is to reverse the flow," says Byrne, "so instead of starting with Superman, we have built to Superman."  Hence the appearance of the 1940s superheros now preceeds the appearance of Superman himself.

Mild-mannered Football Jock

Byrne claims that his depiction of Clark Kent is inspired by George Reeves' Clark Kent on the 1950s television series.  "I loved the way he played Clark Kent," Byrne says, "He was grittier, tougher.  He wasn't the mild-mannered reporter.  He had some guts to him, and that's the way I'm trying to play Clark.

"There won't be as much difference" between the personalities of Superman and Clark anymore.  "Clark's not as timid anymore."  In the fourth issue of Man of Steel Clark and Lois run into terrorists, "and Clark immediately steps in front of Lois, saying, 'Look out, Lois!'"

Commenting on Byrne's vision of Clark, Marv Wolfman says, "I have no problem with that.  I would just like him to have occasionally, not a timid side, but a less volatile, less action- oriented one.  I don't think Clark would be the one who'd rush into a fire. Even the George Reeves Clark occasionally feigned weekness."

Byrne's Clark does not pretend to be out of shape. Instead, he pretends to work out, so as to explain his muscular build. In fact, he even has Nautilus equipment in his apartment.

Clark's importance to Superman is a major reason why Superman has no Fortress of Solitude in the new continuity.  Byrne says, "Superman doesn't collect souvenirs," as he did in the previous continuities and stored them in the Fortress.  The Fortress and what was in it "all go by the board; it's all nonessential."

Byrne also decided to keep Clark's foster parents the Kents alive, rather than killing them off as in the previous continuities. "I've always felt their deaths were unnecessary.  In my version he's still got Ma and Pa Kent to go home to, and they are his links to the ordinary world.  They make no demands on him apart from the fact that he is their son.  They don't make demands on him as Superman. They don't make demands on him as Clark Kent, reporter.  He is just their son, and they love him as their son.  Ma and Pa Kent are his hook into normal life, something he very much needs, especially as the world makes greater and greater demands on Superman."

Whereas in the previous continuity Clark Kent was both a Planet reporter and an anchorman for the Galaxy Broadcasting System's local TV news in Metropolis, now Clark will work only as a newspaper reporter, while being a novelist on the side.  "He's only done one novel so far," says Byrne, "but it was a bestseller."

Why isn't Clark a TV anchorman anymore?  "You don't roam as an anchorman," Byrne claims.  "The whole point of his being a reporter is so he can travel around and go where the stories are, and go where he's needed, and snoop about like a detective.  An anchorman is too visible, too tied down."

Paradise Lost

"I'm throwing in a little twist of the knife in every issue," John Byrne says, "so if you think you know" the Superman mythos, "there's going to be something in there to let you know that you don't." The first slap to hit readers is the new look that John Byrne has given Superman's native world of Krypton.  The next is the new visualizations of Superman's parents, Jor-El and Lara.

Byrne has previously stated that he wanted to "update" the look of Krypton, which he claimed remained "stuck" in a 1930s Buck Rogers-like art style for decades.  "I liked the cold, antiseptic Krypton that I saw in the movie, but we couldn't do it for copyright reasons.  So Dick and Jenette said, 'Redesign Krypton.  That's the first thing that we're going to see in the new series.  The very first page should tell us that everything is different.'

"So I sat down and over a process of four sketches designed Jor-El, and what Jor-El looked like told me what the rest of Krypton looked like.  And that was a weird experience, doing that first issue and drawing this guy called Jor-El who doesn't look like Jor-El, because Jor-El has a headband and a sun on his chest.  For me, it made it spooky. I realized, 'Whoa!  I am really changing things!'  And the fact that I was allowed to change that much just sort of snowballed, and we ended up with this totally different Krypton, where Jor-El and Lara have not physically been in each other's presence until that moment in the first issue.  The baby was created by artificial insemination."

Andrew Helfer reveals that the baby who becomes Superman "is hatched, essentially.  You get the impression there's no sex on this world. If you can judge the sexual mores of a society by how high their collars get, on Krypton they go around their heads so just their eyes and mouths are exposed.  They're really uptight people."

"When I showed the first issue to Richard and Wendy Pini, Wendy said I'd created a Krypton that deserved to blow up," recalls Byrne. "And that was my intent.  I don't want nostalgia for that place.  It's very clear in that first issue that Superman is lucky to have come here."  Eventually, when Superman learns he is from Krypton, he will declare, "'I'm a human being,' because he doesn't want to be Kryptonian.  Krypton is anathema to him."

So this Superman will not be upset over losing a beloved paradise-like home planet.  "One of the things we always asked," says Helfer, "is why the hell does Superman say 'Great Krypton!' or 'Great Rao!'?  Krypton is dead, why should he adopt the attitudes and beliefs of that planet?"

Byrne, Wolfman, Helfer, and the powers at DC agreed that in the new continuity Superman would indeed be the sole survivor of Krypton. Supergirl, Krypto, the Phantom Zone, and the bottle city of Kandor are gone. The one exception that Byrne had originally wanted was rejected by DC: "My original plan," Byrne reveals, "was to have the pregnant Lara come to Earth instead of the baby.  I explained that I needed that because if Superman was once again going to be the sole survivor of Krypton, the only way we could demonstrate how lethal kryptonite is would be to kill Superman.  So I came up with the idea of having Lara come to Earth so we could have a Kryptonian who could find kryptonite and die, so we would know it was lethal. But they thought that might be messing with the legend a little bit too much."

Kryptonite No More

Previously, the nuclear explosion that destroyed Krypton transformed the debris of the planet into radioactive green kryptonite, which was lethal only to super-powered Kryptonians.  Tremendous amounts of kryptonite ended up landing on Earth.  In the new continuity, there will only be one piece of Kryptonite on Earth.  It will be lethal green kryptonite, as the other colors of kryptonite will not exist in the new continuity. Byrne wants to have only one piece of kryptonite on Earth because in the past, "there was too much of it, and why would there be more than one piece on Earth if Krypton was as far away as it apparently is?"

According to Byrne, kryptonite "drives the solar radiation out of Superman's body so he becomes weaker and weaker.  The kryptonite radiation replaces the solar radiation.  Once the source of kryptonite radiation is removed, the kryptonite radiation is driven out of his body by the returning solar radiation," and Superman becomes as healthy and powerful as was before being exposed to the kryptonite.

In the new continuity, too, kryptonite radiation can call an ordinary human being is he or she is exposed to it long enough, although it affects ordinary human beings at a far slower rate than it does Kryptonians. 

Dark Night

In the previous Superman continuities, Superman and Batman were the best of friends.  In the new continuity, as in Frank Miller's Dark Knight series, the relationship between DC's two greatest superheros is now very different.  Byrne says that he establishes "right from the start that these are two men who would appreciate each other's abilities and who would respect each other. But here are two men who are so different at every point that there's no way they can be friends.  They're on the same side, but they're far too different in their approaches and even their personalities.  Batman is obsessive and Superman is not; Superman does not need to be."  Superman works within the law, whereas the Batman does not.  Byrne agrees with Miller that the Batman represents a darker vision of the world than Superman does.  Wolfman observes, "Superman's the sun and Batman's the moon."

In fact, Byrne talked to Miller about the Batman so that in The Man of Steel "I could suggest the kind of Batman he was going to do."  Similarly, Miller talked to Byrne so that the Superman in Dark Knight could be based on his version.

Go ahead... Make my day

"The traditional DC characters have been perceived as dull and bland because they don't 'abuse' their powers the way that Marvel characters do," Byrne claims.  "The appeal of Wolverine is not that he is a tortured soul who struggles against his inner demons.  The appeal of Wolverine is that he cuts people up.  The appeal of Spider-Man is (a) no matter how bad your personal life is, his is worse, and (b) he puts on a costume and goes out and beats up people who get in his way, which is what we would all really like to do.
Superman does not kill
The first murder
DC characters traditionally - but no longer - have instead put the costume on and gone out to do Noble Stuff.  These days Batman breaks people's legs."

So in addition to Superman's enjoying his powers, he is also going to indulge in what Byrne calls "a very controlled 'abuse' of his powers."  Byrne takes pains to point out that "abuse" is not quite the right word: "Superman would never abuse his powers; that's what makes him Superman."  But within the limits he imposes on himself, Superman will get "tougher," Byrne says, with his adversaries than he has been in the past.  It is this new, tougher, more aggressive attitude which Byrne is referring to when he compares Superman to Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry in interviews.

"The subtlest example of this," Byrne says, "and my favorite Superman line in my stories so far, comes in the second issue when Superman's flying Lois back to her apartment and she says, 'You know where I live?'  And he says, 'Of course, Miss Lane.  I know where everyone lives.' And maybe he does.  Why wouldn't he?  He certainly could if he wanted to.  It's Superman as Santa Claus: you'd better watch out."

Excerpted from an article by Peter Sanderson, originally presented in Amazing Heroes #96, June 1986

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