In 1986, in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC chose John Byrne to helm the reboot of the Superman titles. Byrne was the popular artist of Marvel’s The Uncanny X-Men, which he had often co-plotted with writer Chris Claremont. Now, Byrne was given the privilege of remaking Superman, adapting the character for the 1980s.
The new Superman debuted in the biweekly six-issue mini-series The Man of Steel (Oct-Dec 1986), which retold Superman’s origin and key events from the subsequent few years, culminating in Superman learning his Kryptonian origin, shortly before the DC Universe’s present. The series established the new Superman as once again the “Last Son of Krypton,” doing away with Supergirl, Krypto, the more rarely-seen Superwoman, and the various other Kryptonians that had built up over the years. The series also established that Superman’s powers hadn’t materialized until adulthood, which eliminated his years as Superboy from continuity, thereby removing both a silly element of the Superman mythos and avoiding the continuity questions it had long raised. It was a streamlined, back-to-basics approach, which worked well as a way of reintroducing the character to new readers.
One of Byrne’s most successful changes was to Lex Luthor, no longer depicted like a mad scientist or an armored super-criminal. Instead, this new Luthor was a rich and vicious capitalist, reflecting the decade’s emphasis on selfish individualism. In many ways, the new Luthor more closely represented the Kingpin, the Marvel villain most closely associated with Daredevil, than Luthor’s earlier incarnations.
In September 1986, the month following Man of Steel, this new continuity took over Superman’s ongoing titles. A third ongoing title was added for the occasion. Superman Vol. 1, published under that title since 1939, was renamed Adventures of Superman. This allowed DC to offer a new Superman #1 (Vol. 2). Byrne would write and pencil both Superman Vol. 2 and Action Comics (still Vol. 1), while Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway handled Adventures of Superman.
In the three title’s first year in this new continuity (during which all three also got annuals), the titles only rarely and loosely connected with one another. During this time, characters from Superman’s past continued to be reintroduced in new forms, alongside new characters, some of whom survived to become important for many years, while others did not. While these stories were often primitive by the standards of later decades, especially because of plot holes, many contained mature elements — such as exploring the intersection of super-heroes and politics, or veiled allusions to sex and sexuality — that were remarkably progressive. More than anything, these stories felt remarkably new.
During this same year (1987), the Superman film series (which had inspired Byrne’s austere vision of Krypton) came to an end with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. While the film bombed critically and commercially, it did address nuclear proliferation, reflecting the somewhat more adult concerns of the Superman comics at the time.
For the three titles’ second year (beginning in September 1987), they more clearly took place in their order of publication, creating a more unified depiction of Superman. Marv Wolfman left Adventures of Superman, leaving it to Byrne and Ordway.
In the month prior to this second year, DC effectively began a year-long fourth Superman title in the form of three consecutive four-issue mini-series: World of Krypton, World of Smallville, and World of Metropolis, all written (but not illustrated) by Byrne. This was exceptional, in an era when mini-series were still rare, and the later two “World of” mini-series featured a cover layout reminiscent of that used on Man of Steel. Of particular note was World of Krypton, which featured art by Mike Mignola and took place both before and shortly after the Man of Steel mini-series.
This brief abundance of Superman material lasted only six months, however: Superman surrendered Action Comics, after 600 issues, to make way for that title becoming a weekly anthology series titled Action Comics Weekly. The extra-long issue #600 (May 1988), half by Byrne and George Pérez, would be fondly remembered, featuring Superman and Wonder Woman up against Darkseid.
In January 1988, Superman got his first prestige-format graphic novella: Superman: The Earth Stealers, written by Byrne, with art by Curt Swan and Jerry Ordway.
These were heady days of change for DC.
Byrne deserves credit for ending his run well. In Superman Vol. 1 #16, he introduced a new Supergirl, surprising readers because of this apparently defied this new Superman’s streamlined “Last Son of Krypton” focus. This Supergirl was later revealed to be a shape-shifter, not a Kryptonian, from a pocket universe. This universe was essentially a duplicate of the Earth-1 from before Crisis on Infinite Earths, which explained how the future Legion of Super-Heroes, which continued through Crisis, had interacted so frequently with a past that no longer existed. Once this past was revealed to be a pocket universe, however, it was suddenly available for dramatic change: and Byrne provided it, revealing that three Kryptonian criminals of that universe had decimated its Earth, killing all of its heroes. Superman thus encountered fellow Kryptonians (albeit ones from a pocket universe), only to find them the greatest evil he had faced. The excellent story concluded with Superman, realizing the Kryptonians would inevitably escape and spread their destruction, forced to violate his rule against killing by executing his fellow Kryptonians.
It was a masterpiece of a story, and its consequences would ripple through the next year of the Superman titles.
Of the 82 original issues in this era, only 14 (Adventures of Superman #424-435 and 443, plus Adventures of Superman Annual #1) were not at least partially written by Byrne — a remarkable accomplishment, given their rapid rate of publication.
The only major continuity problems are caused by those issues of Adventures of Superman without Byrne’s involvement. Issues #424-426 may be clearly placed, but issues #427-428 follow up on #424-425, despite a significant gap occurring between those issues. In general, Adventures of Superman follows its own developing plotlines, which the other two titles don’t reference. Although these don’t constitute outright errors, these different and continuing plot concerns (along with the different look and feel of Adventures) can be hard to reconcile with Byrne’s Superman Vol. 2 and Action Comics Vol. 1.
A bigger problem occurs with Adventures of Superman #430, which contains a page in which a week passes, during which the events of Action Comics Vol. 1 #589 and Superman Vol. 2 #7 (the two Superman issues published between Adventures of Superman #429 and #430) are said to occur. This attempt at establishing continuity between the three titles, however, fails completely. The page in question makes no reference of Action Comics Vol. 1 #588, which continued into the referenced Action Comics Vol. 1 #589. It also makes no reference to Superman Vol. 2 #8 and Action Comics #591, which take place between the final two pages of the referenced Superman Vol. 2 #7. Moreover, if one is inclined to keep the issues of Action Comics Vol. 1 in sequential order, the page in question also makes no reference to Action Comics Vol. 1 #590, which must take place between the two referenced issues. One can only guess that writer Marv Wolfman only knew the most basic of plot outlines Byrne would be covering. To make this matter even more complicated, the issue of Adventures of Superman in question (#430) states that Clark Kent hasn’t been home to Smallville in some time, although he visits Smallville in the aforementioned Superman Vol. 2 #8 (which continues into Action Comics #589). The best solution is simply to rule the page in question as incoherent (and in fact, it’s not necessary for the story, so it could be removed in collection). This also allows the issue in question to be placed directly after the previous one, which ends by setting up the themes of the issue in question. With a gap between the two issues (as the issues would demand, were the page in question included), the reader is left wondering (for several issues) if Superman returned home to Smallville (which the ending of Adventures of Superman #429 implies he’s about to do), if that’s what “go home” really meant at all, and why he didn’t, if indeed he didn’t. Removing the page in question and setting the two issues together clears up this confusion.
A less sticky situation arises around Superman Vol. 2 #9-10 and Adventures of Superman #431-432. All must occur after Superman Vol. 2 #8 and Action Comics Vol. 1 #591, the two-part Legion of Super-Heroes crossover mentioned above. In Superman Vol. 2 #8, Superman briefly experiences his powers going out of control. Lex Luthor, in the back-up in Superman Vol. 1 #9, mentions Project Overload, as if it’s his sole concern. This flows into Superman Vol. 1 #10, in which that project is revealed to have caused Superman’s symptoms in Superman Vol. 1 #8. The issue even refers to Superman Vol. 2 #8 as occurring a mere ten days before. The main story of Superman Vol. 1 #9 (featuring the Joker) begins a couple new plot threads and has no mention of Project Overload, which suggests that it might be moved to after Superman Vol. 1 #10, in order to keep the Project Overlord material as close as possible to Superman Vol. 1 #8, without introducing new plot threads amid this material. What virtually necessitates this shift is that Adventures of Superman #432 occurs immediately following the main story of Superman Vol. 2 #9, and it shows Lex Luthor concerned with a very different scheme, without reference to the ambiguous Project Overload, which is not only inconsistent but would almost certainly create needless confusion, as readers equivocate between Luthor’s two projects. Additionally, keeping the main story of Superman Vol. 2 #9 in place would require that Adventures of Superman #431 either be placed before the Legion crossover or (like the Joker story) between the Legion crossover and the resolution of Project Overlord. Moving the Joker story solves these problems, keeping the Project Overlord material as a kind of coda to the Legion story, while opening a place between it and the Joker story, into which Adventures of Superman #431 may be placed. Superman Annual Vol. 2 #1 (published near Superman Vol. 2 #9) may also be placed here, rather than after the Project Overlord material, and this has the added advantage of decreasing the separation between Adventures of Superman #432-434, which tell a single story (albeit with chapter breaks allowing stories to be inserted between issues).
It’s worth noting that the trade paperback series Superman: The Man of Steel, which reprinted Man of Steel and the first post-Man of Steel year of all three titles (along with annuals and some tie-in issues), attempts to place the issues it reprints in some kind of coherent order, yet fails completely. The second trade paperback, which reprints the first three post-Man of Steel issues of the three titles, ignores the continuity clearly established in the stories themselves. The next volume ignores the problem with that page in Adventures of Superman #430, placing that issue where that page would demand the issue be placed. This ignores (1) the fact that Action Comics Vol. 1 #588 isn’t mentioned, (2) the fact that this page in Adventures of Superman #430 violates the chronology of Superman Vol. 2 #7 (which it references), and (3) the fact that Superman Vol. 2 #8 and Action Comics Vol. 1 #591, placed subsequent to Adventures of Superman #430, clearly take place during Superman Vol. 2 #7. This incoherence is made more frustrating by the fact that a more careful analysis would have suggested simply removing the offending page (perhaps reprinting it in the back of the book for completists). While some placements are simply less than optimum, the fifth trade paperback contains Adventures of Superman #435, which is indisputably set between Superman Vol. 2 #12 and Action Comics Vol. 1 #595 — two issues reprinted instead in the sixth trade paperback. It’s nice that DC collected these issues, but their sequencing is a mess.
In the Superman titles’ second post-Man of Steel year, with Byrne at least co-writing each issue, continuity improved. Until Byrne’s departure, only two substantial holes are open to insert stories into: (1) between Adventures of Superman #439 and Action Comics vol. 1 #599, and (2) between Superman Vol. 2 #18 and Adventures of Superman #441. Superman: The Earth Stealers and World of Smallville may be comfortably inserted into the first. World of Metropolis and Adventures of Superman #443 (which occurs out of sequence) may be inserted into the second, which keeps them with the rest of Byrne’s work and avoids interrupting the first sequence of issues that follow his tenure.