by Jarrod Jones. This is RETROGRADING, where this is it for you, Cyborg! This… is YOUR Doomsday!
THE STORY: “Back for Good!”, being the last chapter in “The Reign of the Supermen!” saga, Superman #82. (Or, if you’re going by Triangle Numbers, Superman 1993 #30.)
THE TEAM: Dan Jurgens (words/pencils), Brett Breeding (inks), Glenn Whitmore (colors), John Costanza (letters), Frank Pittarese (associate editor), Mike Carlin (editor). Published by DC Comics.
THE YEAR: 1993, the year Jurassic Park was decimating the box office, the retail blight Beanie Babies was first foisted upon the populace, and DC Comics was riding high with the continued publication of one of the most daring modern Superman stories ever told.
RECOLLECTIONS: If you read Superman comics in the Nineties odds are you were buying them on a weekly basis. Seems kind of wild to think about it now, but there was a time when the four published Superman comic series—each operating with entirely different creators, from writer to letterer—operated in tandem, each series furthering the Man of Steel’s Neverending Battle every single week. Action Comics, Superman, Adventures of Superman and The Man of Steel, each one passing the storytelling baton to the next in a monthly cycle that operated like a well-oiled machine.
(How did we keep track of all this swift narrative progress? Numbers framed in a triangle, right there on all the covers—and they worked like a charm. Anyway.)
Then, seemingly out of the blue, DC killed Superman. (You’d heard about that, right?) For the three months that followed the seminal “Funeral for a Friend” storyline (which ended with quite the dramatic flourish in Superman #77), all Superman-related publications ceased. And, for just a little while, eager Super-readers began to grimly realize that—Great Scott!—Superman might actually stay dead.
Three months later, “The Reign of the Supermen!” storyarc (which technically kicked off in Adventures of Superman #500) showed up and knocked readers to the floor with Lois Lane’s shocking discovery that Superman’s casket was super-empty, followed swiftly by the sudden appearance of four super-powered (or enhanced) men zooming around Metropolis and flying the Super-standard as though any of them actually held claim to it.
Four Supermen, whose adventures would continue from that point on in an established series once headlined by our beloved Man of Steel: There was the the almost comically grim Eradicator in Action Comics (who seemed designed to be a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the “dark” anti-hero fad that permeated most of the Nineties); John Henry Irons, the earnest, hammer-wielding Man of Steel in… well, The Man of Steel; the spritely and antagonistic Clone Superboy in Adventures of Superman (which had the killer follow-up tagline in issue #501: “… When He Was a Boy!”). Then there was the enigmatic Cyborg Superman who appeared in the flagship Superman series, whose origins were being kept conspicuously quiet by his creator and series writer, Dan Jurgens.
Surprise, surprise: The Superman who looked like a flying Terminator with heat vision (nightmare fuel if there ever was) turned out to be the villain of this particular melodrama. His actual name: Hank Henshaw, formerly the quasi-Reed Richards of an astronaut family unit featured in Adventures of Superman #466. Bombarded by deadly cosmic rays, Hank and his family gained fantastic powers that soon began to kill them—and after two issues, a crazed Henshaw had transferred his consciousness to Superman’s Kryptonian birthing chamber (which had been floating in Earth’s orbit at the time) and shot off into space, presumably never to be seen again.
Henshaw would later discover an opportunity for vengeance against Superman (he felt the hero had run him off of Earth out of fear for his burgeoning superpowers, instead of realizing he had evolved into a whacked-out technological liability). Following the untimely demise of the Last Son of Krypton, ol’ Hank returned to Metropolis masquerading as a cybernetic Man of Tomorrow from beyond the grave, and no one—not even certain readers (me)—was the wiser.
(Even in retrospect, I still can’t imagine how my pre-teen brain never once considered the possibility that this shiny new Superman might not be all he was cracked up to be. It’s not like Jurgens was being subtle about it.)
By the time “Reign” was really picking up, Henshaw had betrayed the trust of the Clinton administration (yes, really), the Eradicator, and even the Clone Superboy (in the fairly disturbing Adventures of Superman #503) by destroying Green Lantern’s home town of Coast City in a devastating nuclear blast courtesy of the alien despot, Mongul. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the country, a Kryptonian warsuit had come crashing onto the shores of Metropolis carrying curious cargo: A man in black claiming to be the one true Superman.
After a quick explanation and a rather convincing smooch with Lois (which writer/artist Jurgens would have deliberately recall Superman and Lois’ final kiss in Superman #75), we were flying off to the remains of Coast City alongside the Clone Superboy, John Henry Irons (soon to be rechristened as Steel), and this be-mulleted Strange Visitor—a literal Superman Revenge Squad dead-set on dismantling the nefarious Cyborg Superman for good. The hype was real.
THE BOOK: Which brings us to Superman #82, an issue operating with the momentum of nearly a full year of incredibly dramatic storytelling behind it. As a showdown issue, the most important task set before Superman #82—beyond establishing both the defeat of Hank Henshaw and the bonafide return of Superman—was to explain how Superman could possibly return from the grave without diminishing the impact of the previous year’s “Doomsday!” storyline.
That explanation would require some glorious pseudo-Krypto-science, delivered plainly by the Eradicator between the issue’s frequent bursts of action. (“You were categorically deceased, Kal-El,” he tells a bewildered Superman. “Another day, another set of circumstances… and your resuscitation might not have been possible.”) The short version? The Eradicator had absconded with Superman’s dead body and brought it to the Fortress of Solitude (hence the empty super-casket from before), left him poaching in the healing baths of an egg-like Kryptonian birthing matrix, and let life—and the Fortress’ solar receptors—find a way.
It was comic book silliness cranked up to “Olympian”. Superhero logic explained away with a smirk and a shrug. And it worked. After all, why shouldn’t the source of Superman’s powers also allow him a post-Doomsday mulligan?
Besides, Superman’s resurrection wasn’t the source of dissonance I had found in Superman #82—it was the decision to let the purportedly under-powered hero come to Coast City packing an ordinance of laser blasters and rifles. Late in the issue, Superman and the Eradicator found themselves trapped in the core of Engine City with Henshaw, who used the city’s energy source—Kryptonite, because of course it was—against our shaggy Man of Steel and he still managed to knock Henshaw’s jaw right the hell off with a single punch. So what was with the guns?
Superman with shoulder-length locks, decked out in black and blasting lasers, is an entire mood. And I respect it. It also made a killer action figure. But to herald the mighty return of Superman with the dude blasting a path towards his Cyborg imposter was the exact kind of “eye-for-an-eye” vengeance that Superman has never stood for. (“We’re playing for keeps!” he bellows, hilariously, at one point.) It’s one of the few components in the “Reign of the Supermen!” saga that just doesn’t fit.
That aside, Superman #82 was a glory to behold. It boasted the strongest visuals Jurgens & Breeding had conjured since Superman #75, and colorist Glenn Whitmore amped up the fidelity of Superman’s reds and blues (seen in most of the issue draped blasphemously over the Cyborg Superman) to remind us what Superman was fighting for. Even John Costanza’s reliably workmanlike letters reflected the fury in the voices of Kal-El and Hank Henshaw. A nigh-perfect confluence of creators, character, and narrative momentum that coalesced into an audacious, can’t-be-topped finale.
So. With the Eradicator making his final sacrifice, standing between Superman and a tremendous blast of Kryptonite energy (thus protecting the sanctity of Kryptonian life), Superman was restored. And the Cyborg Superman was about to get his. (That moment being one of the few times I screamed with joy while reading a comic book.)
Superman #82 remains an iconic grudge match for the ages. It boldly ushered in a new era for the Superman line… though wholehearted attempts to out-do the “Death and Return” saga came frequently in the years that followed with diminishing returns. (I’m looking at you, Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey, Doomsday Wars, etc.) We’re still feeling the effects of Superman’s death and subsequent return to this day—both in the DCU and in our very real comic-collecting lives—but it’s heartening to know that this is one super-saga that still lives up to the monumental hype that surrounds it.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Superman #82 didn’t just cap off the most ambitious Superman story told up to that point—it sent the Man of Steel soaring towards an optimistic tomorrow with our hearts flying with him.
RETROGRADE: 9 out of 10