By James Quinn
Despite what the movies would have you believe, Superman has a lot of great stories in the comics that have not been adapted into film such as Superman: For All Seasons, Superman: Man of Tomorrow, Superman: Red Son, and even All-Star Superman.
However, as well-regarded as those stories are, many of the good Superman stories are stand-alone graphic novels and one-shots. Many of the best superhero characters have good runs: Frank Miller on Daredevil, Dennis O’Neil on the Question, Mike Grell on Green Arrow, Brian Azzorellow on Wonder Woman and many others. Most of the comic book discourse isn’t on the great Superman runs but merely the most famous story-arcs and changes to the lore.
For this post, I would like to shine some light on what I would consider one of my favourite runs not only on the big blue boy scout, but for comics overall: John Bryne on Superman.
John Bryne is a long-time comic book veteran with brilliant runs under his belt such as She-Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and most notably his artwork with comic legend Chris Claremont on the X-Men. Unfortunately, I have little knowledge on his creator-owned work such as the Next Men but I hope it’s just as well-written and engaging as his work with DC and Marvel.
DC comics gave John Bryne the monumental task of rebooting and stream-lining the Superman comics after the 1986 comic book event Crisis on Infinite Earths. Crisis essentially rebooted and reshaped the DC universe to make it less complicated for newer readers to jump on board. If you think rebooting and remakes were just a modern move from big industries to rehash old ideas, you’d be surprised to know that after Crisis all the major characters from Superman, Batman, to Wonder Woman and others were rebooted back to square one.
Frank Miller at the time had already gotten a hold of Batman having written his fascist end with The Dark Knight Returns and his humanist beginnings with Batman: Year One, and George Perez had made the Wonder Woman comics into a feminist Greek mythological fantasy. While it would’ve been tempting to revamp everything about Superman and write a completely different character, Bryne knew that the DC publishers needed some familiar resemblance of the Clark Kent everyone knows and loves.
John Bryne’s Superman was inspired mainly by the characterisation of George Reeve’s Superman from the Adventures of Superman show of the 1950s, where Clark Kent wasn’t a bumbling nerd but just as confident as his super-powered counterpart. It was this interpretation of the character that made its way into Bryne’s run as Clark is first shown playing football for Smallville High.
Bryne’s Superman is distinct in that by having Clark not learn about his Kryptonian origins, the decision to become a superhero comes from his need and desire to help people with his powers and not from an instruction from his alien father. Other substantial changes to the character is de-powering Clark so that he’s a little more relatable and so it was easier to write his stories.
One of the best changes to the Superman mythos that John Bryne brought was to make Lex Luthor an untouchable billionaire that used his wealth to take advantage of people and who is insanely jealous of the man of steel. Admittedly, Bryne stated that it was actually Marv Wolfman’s idea to turn Lex Luthor into an evil billionaire, but it was Bryne’s decision to ultimately write that interpretation into the comics. Thanks to Bryne’s decision to alter the character of Lex, most depictions of Lex Luthor in other media from Smallville, to Superman: The Animated Series, and even Batman Vs Superman are as an evil billionaire.
While John Bryne would say that he eliminated most of the silver age aspects of the character I believe some of his interpretations and integrations are nicely written given the style and tone of the comics. For example, John Bryne’s Supergirl is a shape-shifting alien that took on the form of a woman and mimicked some of Superman’s powers. Bryne even still kept Clark’s mermaid girlfriend in his college years. Even Superman’s foe Mr. Mxyzptlk from the 5th dimension makes an appearance Bryne’s run as well.
Bryne took Superman back to basics by making him more human again. Stripping away all the cosmic stories, the villains, and the alien backstory and all you’re left with is a man with powers trying to do the right thing. The last lines of Bryne’s Man of Steel cement the thesis on his Superman; growing up as an immigrant himself Bryne understood the duality between being born somewhere else with a totally different culture and being raised somewhere different. Bryne ultimately settles on Earth and the loving parents that raised him that made him into Superman:
Recently in an interview with Sy-Fy, John Bryne was asked in an interview on how he would reflect on his time on Superman, and he unfortunately said that he wouldn’t have done it. Bryne said that the mandates from the editing room, and the overall big workload he had writing and drawing two Superman titles a month left him fairly tired and not eager to work with DC again.
It is kind of shameful that Bryne’s best works are considered the work-for-hire stuff he did for DC and Marvel and his original ideas never flew off in popularity. Maybe they weren’t that great, but we’ll never get to know since Bryne’s retired now. Writers and artists make up the stories we tell ourselves over and over again and construct the characters we look up to. Companies like Marvel and DC tend to take too much control over an artist’s expression for the sake of franchising and keeping the status quo. Marvel a little more so than DC, but problems are apparent in the major two comic book companies.
It’s unfortunate that John Bryne’s original work never took off, but as someone who respects creators and their work, I wanted to use this time to say thank you to John Bryne and by extension other comic creators for making our dreams reality, and for evolving the characters we love to keep them fresh and new for generations to come.
Full interview with John Bryne for reference and for readers to watch at the end. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjNIQk03AmE