23 Mar 2016

From The Vaults: THE MAN OF STEEL #3

While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...

THE MAN OF STEEL #3
Writer: John Byrne
Art: John Byrne, Dick Giordano & Tom Ziuko
Colours: Tom Ziuko
DC

James R: When Matt C suggested we celebrate the release of Batman V Superman with a look at some of the two legendary characters' most famous meetings, I immediately thought of this. Bearing in mind that 1986 also saw the Batman-Superman clash that the movie is drawing stylistic inspiration from in the pages of Frank Miller's masterwork, The Dark Knight Returns, this may seem like a strange choice. However, I went for John Byrne's effort as in many ways in crystallises the relationship between Bruce and Clark and shows an understanding of their characters in a way that few other single issues have managed.

1986 is rightly held up as the high watermark for mainstream comics - within a calendar year, DC were publishing not only the aforementioned Dark Knight Returns, but also the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen (arguably the two most influential comics not of the 20th century, but of the 21st, setting the tone for countless superhero books and movies). At the same time, DC were rebooting their books in the wake of Crisis On Infinite Earths. Alan Moore had brought down the curtain on the Silver Age Superman brilliantly in the magnificent 'Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?' two-part story (If you've never read it, I can't recommend it enough.) The stage was set for a rebirth of Superman, and John Byrne was an obvious, yet brilliant choice.

Byrne had crafted some of the finest comics of the 1980s with his runs on Marvel's Fantastic Four and Uncanny X-Men, and had a clear love for Superman. His essay at the back of the first issue of the Man Of Steel miniseries makes this clear, and from that very issue onwards, you can see him crafting a version of Superman that's respectful to Siegel & Shuster's creation, whilst very much fashioning a new, modern Last Son of Krypton. Byrne took over creative duties on Action Comics and Superman (now that's some work ethic!) with the Man Of Steel six-issue run introducing all the main components of the new Superman.

After just two issues, Byrne brings in Batman with #3 (to give some sense of the importance Byrne places on their dynamic, Lex Luthor doesn't make an appearance until issue #4!). It's a relatively straightforward affair - Superman visits Gotham city and interrupts Batman mid-investigation. The Dark Knight is on the trail of a mysterious museum thief by the name of Magpie. In keeping with one of the classic Bat-Villain tropes, she's a good character gone bad (a là Poison Ivy or Harley Quinn) and the two heroes naturally bring her down in 22 pages. (The one moment where the issue shows its age is when Batman proudly shows off his crime lab & computer that's in the back of the Batmobile - digital scanning, and IT support from Oracle or Alfred seems a distant concept!) The caper itself is secondary though to the dynamic that Byrne establishes between Batman and Superman.

When they first meet, Superman attempts to apprehend Batman as an 'outlaw', but in true Batman-style he initially escapes Superman's grasp, and then keeps Superman at bay with a stark warning: he has a field surrounding him that, if broken, will trigger an explosive attached to a citizen of Gotham. Superman is aghast: "You'd place an innocent life in jeopardy, just to stop me? What kind of inhuman monster are you?" Batman's response is: "It's a touch Machiavellian I admit - but my end justifies my means." In a single panel, Byrne absolutely nails these two. Superman is a character who, in ethical terms, is the embodiment of Aristotle's man of virtue. Aristotle believed that goodness was not something to be considered or reflected on - it was a habit, an action, and as with any exercise, the more you did it, the better and more instinctive it would become. Superman is a hero that seldom has to pause or reflect - for Kal-El, the good deed is always apparent. Batman, by comparison is a classic utilitarian - as he says, 'The end justifies the means.' We know about the 'No Killing' rule, of course, but scheming, intimidating and outsmarting both friends and foes is fair game.

It's great to see how Byrne then plays on this tension between the two, before resolving it beautifully - after Magpie is apprehended, Batman reveals that the explosive was attached to him. He was the citizen of Gotham who would have been killed by the explosion. Once again, Superman is aghast, but now has a grudging respect, concurring with Batman that "Defending a planet and cleaning up a city are two very different things." Byrne's representation of Batman and Superman having an uneasy - but begrudging - friendship is one that now seems set in stone in comics, and beyond. The excellent World's Finest movie from Warner Bros. Animation copied this version of the Batman-Superman relationship, and is all the better for it.

Going in to the Batman V Superman movie, like many of us, I'm filled with a sense of trepidation - I am one of the few very loud supporters of Zac Snyder's Man Of Steel, but even I'm worried about how the relationship between the two will be realised on screen. My hope is that in the same way that Byrne's Man Of Steel provided a lot of the best elements for the movie of that name, so will this comic provide the blueprint for the blockbuster.

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