RETRO REVIEW: Superman #22 (October 1988)

by

Or – “I Hear There’s This Movie Thing…”

As often remarked on the Major Spoilers Podcast, I don’t necessarily rush out to see any movie, even those based on the comic books that I enjoy.  As such, I often hear all about the films long before I check them out myself, such as with the recent release of ‘Man Of Steel,’ whose plot-points have caused many fanboys to name-check a certain 25-year-old Superman issue.  Quarter-century old comics?  This looks like a job for ME!  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

SUMMARY

Pros
Trying to tie up loose ends.
John Byrne art at the peak of his powers.
Cons

Justifications that are unneeded.
Frickin’ Matrix Supergirl.

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

READER RATING!

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (4 votes, average: 2.75 out of 5)


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Superman22CoverSUPERMAN #22
Writer: John Byrne
Artist: John Byrne
Colorist: Petra Scotese
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Mike Carlin
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 75 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $4.00

Previously in Superman: There were decades of stories, years upon years of divergent continuity, a Legion of Super-Heroes from the future, a dog, a cat, a monkey a fish, all with super-powers.  (The fish was interesting.)  That all ended with the Crisis on Infinite Earths, as the history of the entire DC Universe was rewritten, and Superman changed accordingly.  Under the stewardship of John Byrne, Superman entered a new age, but a few questions remained, such as: Who was Superboy?  Through a series of time-manipulations, an ancient evil known as the Time Trapper had created a pocket universe with a younger version of the Last Son of Krypton, a world where the Trapper’s powers reigned supreme.  Now, that world has been destroyed by a trio of villains who escaped from the Phantom Zone, and now Superman has to face an unthinkable choice…

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The architects of this world’s destruction are General Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora, three Kryptonian ne’er-do-wells, none of whom are named Ursa or Non.  This particular lack of research has been all over the internet recently, forgive me for wanting to stab it in the heart repeatedly.  Speaking of lethal intent, General Zod shows his own lack of restraint while engaging a human freedom fighter with an oddly familiar name…

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The combined powers of three pre-Crisis Kryptonians also take down Supergirl (a superhuman protomatter creature created by Lex Luthor with the mind of Lana Lang), and brutally murder alternate versions of Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen before Pocket Universe Luthor realizes what the heroes cannot and do not: These villains won’t stop until they are dead.  He sends Superman off to find the abandoned Kent homestead, only for the Man of Steel to discover the hard way how over-matched he really is…

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Byrne’s layouts in this issue are extremely confusing to try and decipher, by the way, consists on wide-angle double-page spreads laid out like a stained glass window, making it occasionally confusing how to follow the story.  Quex-Ul, by the way, in addition to NOT being Non, is not a new character, though in the pre-Crisis world, he looked and acted somewhat different.  Either way, the villain chases Superman straight into Superboy’s hidden underground lab, where Supes uses the inside info he got from Lex Luthor to great effect…

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GOLD MOTHA#$&@$IN’ KRYPTONITE!!!  For those who aren’t fluent in Silver Age, Gold K removes the powers of a Kryptonian PERMANENTLY, with no known recoveries or replacements.  (Write that down.  It’s important in a minute.)  Sadly, this revelation comes too late for Lex Luthor, the last surviving human being of this pocket Earth, who expires in the arms of a man who looks just like his greatest enemy.  It’s actually quite sad, and leaves the Man of Steel in a very agitated state.  Worse still, after seeing AN ENTIRE WORLD die at the hands of people who are, essentially, him without scruples, Superman is horrified to hear their plans for the future…

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… I don’t like where this is going…

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Nearly three decades down the line, and I still don’t like that resolution.  I have to hope that it was the hopelessness of the destroyed Pocket-Earth that made Superman react in this manner, but from what I understand from the reactions to ‘Man of Steel’, I’m in the minority.  Zod actually DOESN’T die by Superman’s actions in this story, by the way.  Duplicitious to the core, he tries to turn on Quex-Ul and Zaora, and is strangled to death by Quex-Ul, as both men die.  Zaora expires moments later, after promising to be Superman’s sex-kitten, another moment which is quite disturbing.  The darkness at the core of these characters informs Superman’s lethal decision, certainly, and Byrne does his best to make it clear that they’re stone-killers, irredeemable and untrustworthy, with blood in their eyes and murder in their black, black hearts.  Returning to his home universe with Supergirl/Matrix, Clark is still haunted by the actions he had to take…

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The death of the Phantom Zone villains causes this iteration of Superman to lose sleep, though a series of changes in the creative team make this plot-point somewhat muddy over upcoming issues.  Byrne’s seeming intent with this issue was to give a solid rationale to support Superman’s vow against killing, but many fans (myself included) have questioned why such an explanation was necessary.  Indeed, it was only a year or two earlier that DC published the Alan Moore story “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?”, widely viewed a the last Silver Age Superman tale, a story in which the taking of a life causes Superman to decide that he must stop being Superman, having broken the one unbreakable vow.  More importantly, the effect of Gold K was repeatedly shown to be utterly permanent (a fact which, admittedly, this Superman couldn’t know), which does undermine, for the informed reader, some of the thought process behind the executions.

Still, what was shocking in 1988 seems quite tame by today’s standards, in a world where heroes who kill their foes are lauded for being more “realistic” and are celebrated for their lapses into brutality.  (Yes, I am talking about Batman, but also Wolverine, Superior Spider-Man, The Punisher, The Authority and dozens, perhaps HUNDREDS more.)  In the eyes of some, this issue is irretrievably awful for its flaws, but I don’t know that I would go that far.  Two universal revamps down the line, and this Superman who kills and angsts over it seems positively quaint and retro, leaving Superman #22 with a mixed-bag 2.5 out of 5 stars overall.  Byrne’s final issue ends up being emblematic of his entire Superman run, intriguing but troublesome, flawed but good-looking, examining deep themes but ending in a manner both abrupt and frustrating, failing to stick the landing on something that could have been a game-changer.  (Check out this coming week’s Major Spoilers podcast for more on that subject.)

Rating: ★★½☆☆