With last week’s release (and lukewarm reception) of the long-awaited Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice, it’s time for a look back at some of the classic source material. I’m obviously talking about Frank Miller’s 1986 classic, The Man of Steel Returns, which was a heavy source of inspiration for the new movie.
1986 was a hell of a time for changes in the comics industry and Superman in general. The Crisis on Infinite Earths had just wrapped up and John Byrne was launching his controversial The Dark Knight relaunch series. Naturally, it was time for someone to do a similar revamp of DC’s other flagship character, Superman. Enter Frank Miller, who unlike Byrne, decided to revamp his character at both ends of his life. Miller’s Superman: Year One was a four-issue reinterpretation of Superman’s origins. However, The Man of Steel Returns worked as a “bookend” series that looked at Superman at the end of his career.
You need to understand, Miller’s grim, violent interpretation of a flagship comic character was very controversial at the time. Mainstream audiences still based their image of Superman off the innocent 1950s George Reeve television series. Nobody had ever seen a Superman who worked behind the scenes for the goverment as a military secret weapon who carried out covert missions for President Reagan. Nor were they expecting the fourth issue, where Reagan astonishingly sent Superman to Gotham City to take down the rogue vigilante Batman who’s been running unchecked. Superman and Batman had been buddies from the 1940s until then. Nobody expected two of comics’ greatest giants to be slugging it out to the death.
But ultimately, we’re concerned with covers here, and The Man of Steel Returns delivered on that front. The first issue is iconic in its simplicity, as Miller reduced Superman to his most recognizable elements: a muscled silhouette highlighted by his trademark “S” and a red cape. Even without the details, Miller’s silhouetted Superman would be instantly recognizable, although the “S” certainly cements the essence of the character. He projects power, confidence, and urgency all in that instantly recognizable pose.
Of course, a lot of credit has to go to Miller’s better half at the time, Lynn Varley. If Miller baked the cake, then Varley added the frosting. Before 1986, we’d have expected to see Superman flying through blue skies and white, fluffy clouds. Here, Varley’s turned that image on its head by putting Superman against dark, stormy skies. The lightning bolt (impressive for an era when computer-generated colors were just starting) accentuates the tone of the story: this was a darker, more urgent Superman for the last days of the Cold War era.
The Man of Steel Returns‘ iconic cover continues to influence today, and not just in last week’s movie. Greg Capullo homaged it in the New 52 “Zero Year” origin, and it’s occasionally been duplicated by artists elsewhere (though often in parody form, sadly). It was even copied in an episode of FOX’s Fringe a few years ago, where the characters went to an alternate universe with twisted comic covers (Batman appeared on the cover instead). The fact that a simple image of Superman’s shape against a lightning bolt is so seared into our consciousnesses truly illustrates what makes for a memorable comic cover.