Monday, September 15, 2014

The Greatest Hero of Them All - Action Comics 591

Action Comics #591 (August 1987)
"Past Imperfect"
John Byrne and Keith Williams

Doug: I was in a Twitter conversation with some of our followers a couple of weeks ago and we were discussing this series. The other guys remembered it, and we turned the talk shortly to Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" I think you'll also get a sense of one particular scene from that tale, as we move through this one. Coming just about a year after Moore and Curt Swan bid farewell to the pre-Crisis Man of Steel, in this issue John Byrne would basically bid adieu to the Boy of Steel. Let's check it out.

Doug: When last we saw our heroes, Superman had been in fierce combat with some teenagers unknown to him. He'd fought four members of the Legion of Super-Heroes in a quarry outside Smallville. The heroes from the future had landed there after an adventure involving Superboy going rogue on them and paralyzing four of their teammates. Mistaking the Man of Steel for his younger self, the Legion took it to him largely out of self-preservation (with more than a hint of revenge). But as cooler heads eventually prevailed and explanations were given, the Boy of Steel did show up -- with his time-stasis ray. And he zapped these good guys as well! So we pick it up there with Superman and the four Legionnaires frozen. Superboy tells them that the Legionnaires must die, so that the universe may live! He hops down from the roof upon which he was perched, and explains to everyone that they won't be permanently harmed. He says he's taking them to his "master"... all except Superman. Superboy gets close to him and comments that this is not the Superman he will become. And then he piles up his teammates and flies away.

Doug: Superman feels his muscles slowly begin to "thaw", and recognizes that the stasis effect must have lasted quite a bit shorter than Superboy intended. Chance? Fate or not, Superman takes off after his younger namesake. It's only moments later that he spies the Boy of Steel with the Legion's time bubble, picking up speed. John Byrne really uses this issue to differentiate the old Superman mythology from the "new" and revised mythology. Superman thinks to himself that he must hurry -- the super-teens had told him of Superboy's strength and speed. Light speed. Superman thinks to himself that there's no way he could do that himself. As he gains on Superboy Superman knows what is about to happen -- Superboy will eventually reach a velocity whereby he can break the time barrier, and while pushing the time bubble. Superman gets just close enough to grab an adolescent-sized red boot, and hold on for dear life! As he worries about blacking out from the strain, something happens -- an explosion in the time stream!

Doug: Superman loses his grip on Superboy's boot and plummets to Earth. But Earth-when? Wouldn't you know it -- he lands back in Smallville, near where Pete Ross has been keeping vigil. Pete rides his bike over to the crater made by Super"boy", and calls to his friend Clark. We cut to outer space, where Krypto the Super-Dog is chasing meteors while going over the rationale for such activity in his Super-Dog brain. But the canine is distracted by his keen senses -- his master needs his help, and now! So off toward Earth rockets Superboy's dog. Sceneshift again to the end of time, where the Time Trapper is simply beside himself with the glee of his impending victory. And in that state of euphoria, the Time Trapper pats himself on the back at the genius of his plan -- the Pocket Universe (reproduced below for your scrutiny).

Doug: Back in Smallville, Pete helped Clark out of the crater he'd made when he'd fallen to Earth. But Pete can't get over how big his friend is, and asks him if he was exposed to Red Kryptonite. Superman thinks to himself that he's no idea what Red Kryptonite is... Superman looks at Pete, and thinks to himself that the kid sure looks like Pete, but everything is off a bit. There's no way Pete Ross ever knew about Clark Kent's super powers, and this Smallville doesn't look like it should. Pete walks his friend through the downtown area, saying he'll take him home. But Superman knows that the Kent homestead is a farmhouse, 20 miles away! They eventually make it to a small two-story -- the home of Jonathan and Martha Kent! But upon entering, the Kents are shocked and ask Pete just why he's brought Superboy to their home. Pete says not to worry, there's no time for charades -- he's known about Clark for years. Superman must feel like he's on drugs, because even though the Kents don't look quite like his parents, they "feel" like them. But in the midst of all the confusion, it's about to get worse. Suddenly a voice rises from stage left -- Superboy has found Superman. And as before, he's not happy.

Doug: I guess Superboy wasn't too concerned about his father's roof, because with one punch he launches Superman right through it and into the nighttime sky! Superman is still ascending when Krypto flies by. The dog wheels, heading back to help his master when he gets a good look at the human projectile. Dog and man have an interesting meeting of they eyes and senses. Superboy, though, is about to clear things up as he flies right past his dog and into Superman's gut. For the third time in this story, Byrne draws a line between old and new. First it was speed, then colored Kryptonite, and now it's strength. Despite the fact that Superman is nearly twice his age, Superboy brags that he is the stronger of the two. But Superman says that experience is on his side, and puts a move on Superboy that allows him to create separation. But Krypto is having none of it, and latches onto Superman's cape (what did Jim Croce say about that?). But as the dog tries to rend it, Superman gives a big tug of his own; the cape rips and Krypto goes spinning off into the distance, shocked that the fabric gave way (#4).

Doug: As the two Kryptonians battle in the sky, Krypto uses his X-ray vision to analyze the Super-imposter. And sure enough -- Krypto learns that he is indeed bona fide. Knowing then that there is only one way to save Superboy from a Superman, Krypto flies to the Kent house and to Superboy's cellar laboratory. Behind a secret panel, Krypto locates samples of all the known colors of Kryptonite, each with its own unusual properties. Using his paw, he pops open the lid of the Gold Kryptonite; John Byrne had now given readers a coda to the punch-to-the-gut ending of the Dog of Steel written just a year earlier by Alan Moore. Soon Ma and Pa Kent heard barking coming from the cellar. Lifting the doors, they found Krypto -- acting like a normal dog. Pa quickly deduced what had happened, and understood what Krypto must have intended.

Doug: Racing to the area below the battle, Pa Kent urged Superboy to fly clear so that he could play the ultimate trump card -- a container with nuggets of every known color of Kryptonite. But Superman landed and took the container from Pa's hand. Nothing in that cylinder was going to harm this Man of Steel (#5). Superboy is aghast that his enemy now holds the key to his (Superboy's) weakness. But Superman says wait just a second -- Superboy wanted it to play out like this.

Doug: Pa asks his son if all of this is true. Superboy confesses that he wanted Superman to beat him, so that he wouldn't have to betray the Legion. Superman says he knew that young Clark's heart wasn't in any of the goings-on, and that once he met the Kents he knew for sure that Superboy would never do anything to harm his friends. It's a big group hug, and then Superman says it's time to get after the Time Trapper. But the newly-revived Legionnaires say "uh uh" -- Brainiac says they cannot risk Superman getting killed by the Time Trapper, or lost at the end of time. He must remain in the 20th Century so that he can be its champion, ensuring that the Legion's future will eventually come to fruition. So a short time-hop later, and Superman exits the time bubble, safe and sound in 1987. And off the Legion goes, into the timestream and into the pages of Legion of Super-Heroes #38 (next Monday!).


Doug: I have a real split personality on this story. Part of me wants to love it, to regain the excitement that was DC Comics back from 1985-88 or so. But the other part of me looks at the tremendous collateral damage of the Crisis -- Barry Allen, Kara Zor-el, and of course Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. It certainly helps here that John Byrne has held our hands through these middle chapters, and indeed wrote the explanation of the Pocket Universe. I'm totally betrayed by the very notion of such a thing. Talk about a Bobby Ewing shower scene! Overall, the result of the decision to use the Pocket Universe as the out was just one huge corporate kick in the groin to readers/fans of the Legion, many of whom had been with the teens from the future since the dawning of the Silver Age. And you know what? What did all this end up being for? Eventually there were enough special stories, Elseworlds stories, new Supergirls, etc. that most of what the Crisis wrought has been put back in one fashion or another. And you know what I saw on Twitter last week? DC is considering a Crisis for their New-52 Universe. Imagine that...


Pat Henry said...

Stories like these serve mainly to demonstrate the impoverishment of the Superman Mythos, post-Crisis. That Mythos wasn’t for everyone and, yes, probably needed some paring for a new generation of comic readers, but the “real” Superman in this story comes across as outclassed and boring. He admits as much. Mostly, I find the stories of this era lack charm.

In retrospect, I have to wonder about the entire raison d’etre of Crisis. It certainly wasn’t a *fan* driven concept. Some of the rationale delivered at the time about reducing the complexity of the DC universe for fans and writers strikes me, years later, as weak. I only occasionally dipped into DC, but I never found its multiverse particularly bewildering. Sure, there were five or six different concepts for Atlantis that probably drove the writers nuts, but strip *those* down, deal with *those.* Don’t strip the polish from your finest trophies.

The biggest problem with COIE is it did not make the subsequent stories or storytelling much better, so what was the point?

Anonymous said...

Is it just me or does the pocket universe make anybody else think of the dope smoking scene in Animal House? "A sliver of time so slender it could not be measured. Yet containing an entire universe." Kind of like an atom on Pinto's fingernail containing an entire universe prompting him to ask the prof "Could I buy some pot from you?" ol' Greenskin might have said (the child-like one), "Hulk understands none of this".


pfgavigan said...

The Roy Thomas effect.

Thomas, while a talented writer, always seemed to have a compulsion to show where everything fit in a comic universe. Sometimes this could work very well, the return of the 1950's Captain America was his initial idea and worked very well as a story arc. His attempts at explaining the difficulties of moving the Black Canary from one dimension to another were, in my opinion, far less successful.

I always got the initial concept of the Multi-verse 'crisis', the elimination of conflicting histories. I just never got the necessity of it. To be rather cruel in my description of the situation, it always seemed that the continuity issue was something that was always far more important to the comic fanatic than to the comic fan.

In the end, the worst thing about the shift in the status quo that was the justification of the 'Crisis' story, was that it was so temporary in nature. The lack of a strong editor-in-chief virtually insured that elements of Pre-Crisis DC wouldn't creep but rather stride back into storylines whenever writers chose to utilize them.


Anonymous said...

Count me in among those who find this Crisis multi-universe stuff too convoluted. While I enjoy a time-travel/multiple dimension story as much as the next guy, one has to be careful not to overdo these types of stories otherwise it becomes an exercise in confusion.

I enjoyed reading this story; the plot and art are good (hey it's Byrne after all!) but at the end I kept saying to myself 'What was the point of all that?'.

- Mike 'one-dimensional' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Murray said...

The aftermath, immediate and years later, of Crisis on Infinite Earths burst my last naive bubble. It really showed that the inmates were running the asylum, that the dumber monkeys had the keys to the zoo. When I was a kid, I was in awe of comic creators. As a teen, I thought it must be so cool to be in such an elite, fun job. A couple of years after Crisis, I had enough life and work experience to recognize a mob of low-watt hacks mostly getting in the way of the minority of genuine talent.

Harsh, but it only seems more obvious as the years of hindsight pile up.

The stated reason for Crisis that the multiverse confused the fans? I don't buy it. I support the theory that DC had all these fanboys-turned-pro and they felt all the decades of olde farte stuff were harshing their, cool, hip buzz. They totally had "Marvel envy".

Anyway, I agree with Pat Henry. This story arc only served to spotlight how insipid the new "Man of Steel" was compared to the mythos being torched. Byrne and DC took the "World's Original Superhero" and made him, essentially, an X-Man in a sea of mutants. His powers bloom at adolescence and he's off to be nothing but the newest cape in a long line of capes.

Sorry for the rant. Hit an old patch of scar tissue, this did.

Anonymous said...

"Marvel envy". Did Wolfman prefer the Marvel method to DC. Just curious. This is a new theory to me. Byrne drawing the Legion is fun to see.

Eric C

Anonymous said...

"Byrne and DC took the "World's Original Superhero" and made him, essentially, an X-Man in a sea of mutants. His powers bloom at adolescence and he's off to be nothing but the newest cape in a long line of capes."

You're absolutely right. So much for that "Superman must be unique" bad excuse to remove everything that Byrne and Wolfman hated from the mythos...

I never bought that "Sole Survivor of Krypton" garbage/rationalization because Byrne's Superman was NOT Kryptonian. His DNA came from Krypton but he was born in Earth, felt American and Krypton was "anathema to him". So, how is he unique? He's just another super-hero. Being the sole survivor only matters if it's a tragedy, but Byrne's Superman considered himself to be lucky to lose his homeworld and couldn't care less for Krypton. Hence, that "title" is irrelevant.

Unless there's someone -like a certain blonde cousin- around to remember him he had a blood family loved him and saved his life, and a whole world and its inhabitants are gone forever.

Supergirl actually made Superman feel he really fit. But that's anathema to John "He mustn't care for his birth world because I don't care for my origin country" Byrne. It isn't a wonder he hates her.

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