Though it stars the non-Kryptonian “Matrix” Supergirl, the reently released Superman: The Man of Steel Volume 9 is a must-read for anybody enjoying The CW’s Supergirl.
The latest and final volume in DC’s long-in-development collections of the John Byrne/Marv Wolfman/Jerry Ordway era of Superman comics features a number of stories which, directly or indirectly, inform Supergirl (as well as other elements of the DC mythology on TV and in the best-selling Rebirth comics).
First off, let’s rip off the “Matrix” Band-Aid: When she first showed up, either through confusion between the creative team or a coloring error, she was often (and remains on the trade paperback’s cover) colored as a redhead, easily confused with Lana Lang, who was a major character in the comics around this time. Ironically, the shapeshifting Matrix would briefly assume the form of Lana Lang in-story.
“That was my idea,” Byrne says of creating a new Supergirl for the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe on the Byrne Robotics FAQ page. “I felt it was probably not a good idea to let the copyright on the name slip away, and, what the heck! It was a chance to do a storyline guaranteed to mess with some heads, a significant part of my job description! Unfortunately, several coloring errors — Supergirl being a redhead when she should have been a blonde, etc, tipped the hand and made the story, probably, even MORE confusing than it was meant to be! I planned to have her as a recurrent character in the Superman titles. When I left the book, Roger Stern came up with the ‘Matrix’ angle, and progressed her story from there.”
Ironic, of course, that it’s coming out at a time when Lana Lang is active as “Superwoman” in the comic of that same name — although it’s unlikely DC timed it that way.
Not impossible, though, as there are a number of other key coincidences (?) that fill the book.
For instance, it ends with “Love’s Labors,” a short story that strongly implies Metropolis Special Crimes Unit officer Maggie Sawyer is a lesbian.
Like last week’s episode of Supergirl, in which it’s made clear to the audience but never overtly stated by the characters that Alex is in love with Maggie, the “outing” of Maggie Sawyer — implied to be a lesbian almost from her first appearance — happens largely because when her longtime partner and friend Dan Turpin went to proposition her. All we really know is that she turned him down, but it’s pretty clear from another woman in Maggie’s apartment, hearing the conversation unfold and looking shocked, what’s going on.
Maggie Sawyer, a longtime Superman supporting cast member who would later relocate to Gotham and ultimately become engaged to Batwoman, was one of DC’s first recognizable gay characters.
Maggie Sawyer not the only thing that might feel familiar to Supergirl fans, though: Metallo, Reactron, and Cat Grant all play prominent roles in the trade paperback, which also includes The Supergirl Saga, the first appearances of the aforementioned Matrix Supergirl — and a story that was as controversial at the time of its writing, as it would be 25 years later when they adapted elements of it for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.
The last full-length issue in the collection, titled “The Cadmus Project,” features The Guardian — who will make his first appearance in the next episode of Supergirl — and depicts the Project as an antagonist. That’s a status they’re using in Supergirl, but which wouldn’t last long in the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint comics, where Superman often teamed with Dubbilex, The Guardian, the Newsboy Legion, and other Cadmus regulars.
How do the stories themselves hold up? Mostly remarkably well. Ignoring the controversy itself, The Supergirl Saga allowed Byrne to go out on a high note, with a well-executed story that reintroduced many of the pre-Crisis elements that his own 1986 reboot The Man of Steel had lost from Superman’s world.
Ordway’s art was really starting to feel like “home” on the Superman titles around this time, and every page he draws is a breath fo fresh air. He and Stern, while not the architects of the world they were all playing in, understood the characters and gave a sense of grandeur that served Superman well — perhaps they understood that element of the character better than Byrne, who had spent his career at Marvel working with deeply flawed and relatable characters.
There are a few issues that feel like filler — you can probably skip over some of the material if you’re not actively invested with what was going on in the Superman books at the time. That said, none of it is bad. There’s an issue in the middle that resolves a long-dangling plot thread from Marv Wolfman’s run on The Adventures of Superman, which was already in the past by the time these comics came out as singles, let alone in this trade paperback nearly 30 years later…but the character work, dialogue, and art are good enough that you should be able to remain invested straight through. The Superman family of titles in the late ’80s through the early-to-mid ’90s were consistently some of the best comics DC was publishing, and the Superman: The Man of Steel line of trade paperbacks has been a valuable resource in terms of providing new fans an opportunity to enjoy that material at a low cost.
With the end of that line, fans will soon get a new line of Superman: The Man of Tomorrow collections — apparently in hardcover — which will collect the era between the end of Byrne’s run in 1988 and the start of the Death and Return of Superman saga in late 1992.
Besides Byrne and Ordway, Volume 9 features work from writers Roger Stern and Paul Kupperberg, along with artists Ron Frenz, Erik Larsen, John Statema, Brett Breeding, Dennis Janke, Andy Kubert, Karl Kesel, John Betty and Gary Martin. It collects Superman #19-22, The Adventures of Superman #441-444, Doom Patrol #10, and Superman Annual #2.
You can pick up a copy at your local comic shop, Barnes Noble, or grab one digitally on ComiXology.