Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cruel Summer: Cyborg Superman

I totally thought it was Steel.

When Reign of the Supermen was going down I was 11 and very much caught up in the fervor of trying to guess which of the four newbies was the real Superman. Even though Superboy was my favorite, he came right out in his first appearance and said he was a clone, so he was off the list (and besides, I always figured he’d end up as Superboy some way or another). The Last Son of Krypton actually seemed the logical choice as a new more violent Superman would seem par for the course in the 90’s and fitting with what audiences at the time were into; but call it my youthful optimism or the spirit of heroism I admired about comics to begin with, I just didn’t think a shades-wearing, bone-breaking Superman would last (and again, I was 11, so I absolutely thought one of these guys was going to be around to stay).

So yeah, I thought it was Steel. I bought the argument put forth in one of his issues and then expounded upon in letters columns that John Henry Irons died during Doomsday’s rampage around the same time as Superman and somehow inherited his soul at least in part. I thought it seemed cool and warmed to the idea that an armored black man with a big ol’ hammer was going to be the new Superman.

I was of course wrong (though the real guy being a fifth latecomer was a total gyp), but there was one thing I was entirely correct about: I knew it couldn’t be the Cyborg, because that guy was bad news.

Even when they were trying to make all four guys seem like heroes and even though I was just a kid, I never had any doubt that the Cyborg Superman was a villain and would be exposed as such. Dan Jurgens did too good a job in his design making him terrifying as a bizarre perversion of such a familiar, iconic and reassuring figure like Superman for me not to distrust the character.

Yet despite the fact I was waiting from day one for the Cyborg to go bad, the issue where he beats the piss out of The Eradicator and then yells out “Earth be damned!” as Mongul nears before him and Warworld descends on Coast City is one of the coolest heel turns in comics history from where I recline.

And more credit to Dan Jurgens in that while the Cyborg was very creepy as an enigma wearing half of Superman’s face, he became even more sinister as he was—excuse the pun—fleshed out using the creator’s own prior stories to tell his origin. Hank Henshaw’s role as the Reed Richards of a tragically doomed Fantastic Four analogue was perfect as, quite frankly, Reed is only a step or two away from being a fantastic bad guy himself. Jurgens’ twist of the screw for Henshaw’s motivation, that Superman tossing The Eradicator into the sun may have caused the solar activity that doomed the flight and ultimately killed the future Cyborg’s friends and wife was also brilliant as it gave him a totally legitimate reason to hate our hero plus a tie to another important character in the whole saga.

That driving impetus, Jurgens’ design work and even the way Henshaw initially embraced technology over humanity as way to communicate with his wife following his demise but ended up driving her to kill herself, making his new powers another layer of tragedy, all worked for him, but let’s be honest: at the end of the day, those were just contributing factors to the Cyborg’s quality as a villain whereas the thing that pushed him over the top was that he was the big bad at the end of the entire Death and Return of Superman opus; anybody who got that spot was going to get major cred.

What I saw as the Cyborg Superman’s undoing early on in his villainous career, however, was a result of that same earned cred. He was such a hot commodity after his Reign of the Supermen role that he was rushed back into circulation way too quickly in my opinion. There are of course some classic super villain like Doctor Doom and Lex Luthor who can show up every other month and still be great because they’re that awesome, but those guys are few and far between; for the most part, if you’ve got a really special bad guy, you need to rest him between appearance so the next time he shows up the situation really has that “Oh shit, if this guy’s back it means trouble” feeling.

This is particularly true with villains who are the epicenters of big events. For two decades following Crisis On Infinite Earths, we didn’t see The Anti-Monitor again, and that only made his legend grow. Apocalypse only comes around ever few years if that in the X-Men books and when it happens, it feels special. Contrast that to something like Eclipso getting his own regular series following Darkness Within or The Beyonder going from disembodied voice to bopping around every Marvel title in his leisure suit and you get what I’m saying.

The Cyborg returned almost immediately after his big defeat in Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey and I always felt that was a big mistake. To begin with, a story that already has Doomsday—another great villain who came back way too soon and too often—and Darkseid is not going to be one in which Hank Henshaw can really shine. For another, it at least felt like it took years for Superman to beat the Cyborg the first time around, so the fact that we knew it would only take a few issues the second just cheapened him.

After that story, I think the Cyborg quickly became damaged goods. What should have been a money confrontation with Hal Jordan after he destroyed his city and wrecked his sanity was relegated to a five-page side confrontation during Final Night. Then for years Henshaw would show up with annoying frequency either as the predictable mastermind or unwitting foot soldier in whatever big plot was menacing Superman that month; a real fall from grace.

However, in 2006, it was Geoff Johns to the rescue.

Noted villain rejuvenator Johns brought Cyborg Superman firmly over into the Green Lantern mythos to serve as a foil to the reinvigorated Hal Jordan which felt long overdue. He spun Henshaw into being the mysterious new Grandmaster of the Manhunters following months of buildup, restoring that sense of danger and grandeur from those early appearances nice and quick. Johns gave him weight by making him one of the first characters aware of the 52 alternate universes following Infinite Crisis and didn’t cheapen him as a threat since it took several Green Lanterns working together to bring him down.

But it was Johns’ follow-up in the classic Sinestro Corps War storyline that has really given Cyborg Superman the staying power I think is going to sustain him.

In that arc, Cyborg Superman joins with Sinestro and his new ally The Anti-Monitor for one reason: he wants to die and thinks they can make it happen. He’s sick of this tortured existence devoid of anybody he loves and wants to end it, but sadly, he seems to have made himself indestructible over the years. It’s a tragic and complex reason for doing bad that I think sets Henshaw apart these days.

And that scene at the end where he thinks he succeeds in courting death by trapping himself in an explosion but then his skull is recovered by the Manhunters and he sheds a single tear—classic.

I knew that Cyborg was trouble from the start and was certainly no Superman, but he sure does make a perfect bad guy. It’s crazy that a villain with so much going for him from origin to look to impetus almost ended up a footnote, but I guess we’re all lucky one of the millions of people who read his first misadventures had the power to make sure that didn’t happen.


Unknown said...

Well said good sir.

Ben Morse said...


Wait...you're not me, are you?

IADW said...

That's a great post! I loved Reign of the Superman - especially the issue where Cyborg Superman went to the White House.

The Jurgen's era was pretty full of great stories.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, you and I would have gotten into such a fight if we had met that Summer during Reign of the Supermen. I was completely in the bag for the Cyborg Superman and was convinced that he was the real deal.

After all, STAR Labs confirmed that the robotic portions of the Cyborg match the most damaged portions of Superman! The Cyborg's betrayal completely floored me and made the entire story extra momentous.

Ben Morse said...

Well that's part of what I loved about Reign of the Superman back in the day: that every candidate (except Superboy) had at least a somewhat reasonable claim.

Anonymous said...

Typo FYI: '“Earth be damned!” as Mongul nears[sic] before him'

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