When it seemed that Marvel might get the rights to Superman, John Byrne wrote an eight-page proposed plot for the first issue. My beat-by-beat description of Byrne’s plot yesterday generated a wave of very interesting, very insightful comments, among them these:
Marc Miyake said...
Thanks for summarizing Byrne's plot. I wish you had reviewed it, but maybe it's best that you didn't because we readers can then give our own evaluations without being influenced.
I wasn't terribly fond of much of Byrne's published revamp, but in some ways I prefer it to this unused plot:
1. The "searing radiation": This element is confusing and unnecessary. Could Lara have been poisoned by it? Maybe not, since Kal-El wasn't. Did it mutate them, just as cosmic rays changed the Fantastic Four? Whatever changes affected Lara -- if any -- obviously weren't enough to enable her to survive the crash ... despite Jor-El's prediction that the "additional factor [...] that will help them [plural!] survive." Maybe Byrne meant to introduce the "additional factor" in some later issue.
2. Lara dying on Earth. Byrne has mentioned this in an earlier proposal. This serves no purpose I can see other than to differentiate this origin from the classic one in which Jor-El and Lara die as a couple. I recall Byrne saying that Lara's death would serve a purpose: she'd die from kryptonite and thereby prove that it was fatal. Maybe he came up with that after he turned in this plot.
3. Martha's "pregnancy": IIRC, in the published revamp, Martha had a cover story: she was pregnant when the Kents were snowed in (sorry if I got this wrong). No cover story here.
4. Jonathan's death: In the late 30s version of the origin, the passing of both Kents marks Clark's manhood. This death just seems random. I guess Martha has to survive to sew Clark's costume.
5. The raid reminds me of Spider-Man's origin: in both case, a failure to act led to terrible consequences. Would Byrne's Superman have been perpetually haunted by this incident? Was this a conscious attempt to Marvelize Superman, to give him a psychological weak point? I don't like the idea of associating Superman with failure.
6. The subway rescue is large in scale, but not as spectacular as the space plane rescue in the published revamp.
It's still a decent done-in-one, though. I'm sure I'd have loved Byrne's art, and the conclusion cracked me up: "Sorry, the caped man says, he’s already given his story to someone else, Clark Kent." And I'm relieved to see that teenage Clark didn't become a football star which I've long thought was out of character. (Maybe he did off-panel.)
I wonder how readers who have read the New 52 relaunches of the Superman titles would react to this plot.
Ben Ronning said...
I remember hearing rumor that claimed John Byrne wanted Lara to give birth or Kal-El on Earth (and thus make him a native of Earth in a roundabout fashion) and this pitch confirms it. It would have been interesting to see the fan reaction if this agreement went through. Would other DC characters like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern (among others) have gotten a similar "reboot"?
Ben’s question got this reply from me:
Byrne wrote his plot for the potential first Marvel issue of Superman without being asked. I wouldn't have accepted his plot. I have significant, fundamental problems with it. His take on Superman was just that, his take, not at all what Marvel would have done under my watch.
There would have been a relaunch of all the characters, and some things, of necessity, would have been changed. The reboots would have not been "similar" to what Byrne proposed for Superman.
Which inspired this from Marc:
Marc Miyake said...
Could you briefly describe the "significant, fundamental problems" you have with the plot? I'm interested in your take on its mechanics.
Maybe I'm so tired of structureless and/or incomprehensible "stories" that I'm relieved to see a comprehensive story with structure, even if it has elements that just ... exist without much impact: e.g.,
- Lara's death (she might as well have died on Krypton and the story would still be the same)
- Jonathan's death (no visible effects on Clark; cf. the impact of Uncle Ben's murder on Peter Parker)
Also, what sorts of things about the DC characters would have to change in the revamps beyond simply restarting continuity from zero? Did you think some elements in their concepts and backstories were dated and/or somehow out of sync with 1980s Marvel standards?
For those familiar with Byrne's published revamp:
By coincidence, I happen to have The Man of Steel #1 (1986) and Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1 by my side right now for reasons unrelated to this post and it occurred to me that both Superman and Spider-Man publicly debut saving spacecraft.
This was my answer:
Briefly, Marc, it's a history, not a story. More documentary than drama.
If Marvel had relaunched the DC titles we would have made them work together as a universe. We would have started with the core concepts, everything that was good about/important to the characters and started from there. Changes and updates would have been made carefully and only as necessary.
Byrne didn't do that in this plot.
Later, this came in:
Craig Hansen said...
It's interesting to see what Byrne's plot consisted of. It's the opposite of decompression, for sure.
That said, I saw a lot of problems with it even before reading the comments section and Jim's remarks.
While there is room for criticism of Byrne's choices, both here and what he actually had published later on, I must say this:
Imagine having the kahunas to actually tackle a project like this!
Even back in the mid-80s or so when it happened, Supes had been around for something like fifty years. Now it's closer to eighty.
And he's the first superhero, a cultural icon and even the mildest changes ever made to him have caused people to trample baby seals in outrage, and use chihuahuas as boomerangs!
(Okay, maybe not, but close to it.)
Yet Byrne did it. He laid his kahunas on the table, knowing a lot of people were standing around with machetes, and said, "Here it is, here's my take, it's probably not perfect but nothing is, and this is the best I can do with it."
I was briefly contemplating a post saying, "Byrne's plot sucked, here's how I'd do it."
But really.... as I thought about doing that... it overwhelmed me a bit. Even though it's just Jim and his followers.
I mean, to redo anything and call it Superman... that's just huge.
One would almost be better off using those changes on an all-new, different character, rather than one as iconic as Supes.
Are there plot holes in Byrne's plot? Sure. But I trust Jim and John would have hashed them out before anything was drawn, had it ever happened.
The last line quoted above got me thinking…would Byrne and I have hashed out the problems I have with the plot?
I’d like to think so.
I never discussed the plot with him back then because there was no need to. When he gave it to me, the deal with Warner Communications was not yet consummated and, shortly thereafter, the deal died. As explained previously, around that time, First Comics sued Marvel on anti-trust grounds, which rendered swallowing up our largest competitor a non-starter.
As stated above, I think that John’s first attempt at an issue #1 plot feels more like a history than a story. It’s a long and winding road leading up to a villain showing up on the last page. Not doing anything—just showing up.
Think of the difference between seeing a film documentary about a German soldier during World War I as opposed to seeing All Quiet on the Western Front.
I also think that some of the changes John made unnecessarily strayed from canon, and some of his changes would have caused more problems than they solved. Lara’s body being on Earth, for instance. No mention of her body after she dies in the plot, but we, and her son, I’d think, would want to know at some point what was done with it, and depending on what was done there would be different ramifications.
What JediJones said cracked me up:
The biggest problem with that for me as Jim alluded to is wondering what happens to Lara's body? It adds an unnecessarily creepy and alien note to the Superman myth to think that his Kryptonian mother is buried somewhere on earth. You'd have to be reminded of it many times because he would naturally want to visit her grave. It also makes the Kents a little too aware of his alien origins. On an emotional level, it badly mars the joyous moment of Kal-El's arrival on earth and the Kents' discovery of him. Perhaps even worse, it would have been too tempting for later writers to build a plot around some villain exhuming her body or dissecting it. She probably would have ended up as one of those "Blackest Night" zombies.
A super-zombie! Good grief!
I have doubts about the “aura” that protects his clothing, more so the closer it is to the body, which was John’s way of explaining the need for the skintight costume. But, what about the cape? Can we expect to routinely see that in tatters?
I have various other problems with the logic and mechanics as presented.
Wouldn’t almost anyone report someone dying in front of them to proper authorities…? Even given the weird circumstances of Lara’s death?
Would upstanding citizens, described by John as “…standard issue rustics, American Gothic types, salt of the earth and try (sic) believers in those things that made, and make this country great,” somehow clandestinely dispose of Lara’s body, somehow, apparently, hide the wreckage of a spaceship (!) and simply assume custody of the baby? And go as far as to create the unlikely cover story that fifty-something Martha Kent got pregnant (!) and kept it secret. No mention in the plot of anyone so much as being a little curious or suspicious of this highly unusual pregnancy, conveniently hidden. Wouldn’t someone suspect that the baby wasn’t hers? No, not per the plot.
The foundling child who grew up to be the Superman I read about in the 50’s and wrote in the 60’s had been turned over to authorities by the Kents and later was legally adopted by them. There was no body to be disposed of, and if I remember right, Jonathan kept the small ship in a shed. That seemed to work.
It’s also hard to believe also that it never occurred to Clark before the raid to rescue the President that he might be able to do a lot of good with his powers. It is clear in the plot that it occurred to Martha Kent many years earlier. How dumb is this guy?
I had no particular plot in mind for the first Marvel issue of Superman. I had some ideas about things that could be done with the various characters, but nothing graven in stone, and nothing in the way of specific stories or plots. I was open to anything good, that worked.
All I really had for sure were the guiding principles of sorts stated previously: the titles would have to work together as a universe, we would stick to the core concepts as much as possible/practical, and changes and updates would be made carefully.
To that I’ll add that the stories ought to be good stories, that the #1’s especially ought to be wonderful, powerful, definitive stories.
So, if John was committed to his proposed plot as written, then, sadly, we would have had to get other creators. But if John had been willing to discuss the story, I think I would have been able to help him make it better. Possibly, he would have talked me into some of his ideas.
I was dead set against Phoenix coming back and several people, principally John, talked me into that. I’m not nearly as difficult to reason with as some allege.
John might have been willing to talk. He was enthused enough about writing and drawing Superman to write a plot on spec. It must have been important to him. Maybe he would have been willing to accept input.
In those days, at least as far as I knew, John and I got along well enough. Creators disgruntled about this or that here and there is normal in any operation where there’s a boss who sometimes says no. It’s background radiation. I don’t know exactly when all his animosity toward me went into high roentgen levels, but at that time it didn’t seem as toxic.
I’ve never had animosity toward John. When I saw him a few years ago when both of us were witnesses at a hearing, I offered my hand. He stared at my outstretched hand for a few seconds, then said, “Only because we’re temporarily on the same side (of the case pending),” and shook my hand.
John is one of the most talented people I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around a Hell of a lot of comics Hall-of-Famers and great creators outside of comics. He’s brilliant. Doesn’t mean he’s perfect, or that he gets it right the first time every time.
We hadn’t spoken about what my intentions for the potential new DC universe were. He couldn’t possibly have known all the parameters I had in mind.
He took a shot in the dark, and in my opinion, missed.
Maybe you like my opinion, maybe you don’t, but at the time, I had Stan Lee’s old job, and my opinion was the governing one.
If John and I had talked about the story, I believe we would have worked out the disagreements. I suspect he would have nailed it.
And wouldn’t the art have been nice….
NEXT: Really, More Tales to Astonish