Last updated: February 4, 2002
Previously, I reviewed the stories leading to the death of Superboy, including Superman's visit to the Earth of the Pocket Universe. The Pocket Universe was the creation of a villain as well as an invention of necessity. Since John Byrne had his re-booted Superman begin his career as an adult, the new DC Universe did not have a Superboy. This caused a big problem for the Legion of Super-Heroes creative team, since Superboy had been an integral part of the Legion's history since 1958.
The solution to this dilemma was to reveal that the Legion's Superboy was created by their nearly omnipotent enemy, the Time Trapper. Living at the end of time, the Trapper observed the formation of the Legion and saw how the Legionnaires modelled themselves after "a long vanished champion known as Superboy!" However, the Trapper discovered that the Legion's history was in error -- no Superboy ever existed.
So the Trapper somehow reached into the far past and snared, "a sliver of time so slender it could not be measured. Yet containing an entire universe!" He culled this universe to shape Krypton and Earth, culminating in a Superboy that matched the Legion's legends. Whenever the Legion entered the time stream, the Trapper diverted them into his Pocket Universe.
Superman visited the Pocket Universe in Action Comics #591, where he noted that Superboy's Smallville was "an idealized version of a typical small town." Superman's role in the battle against the Time Trapper was limited and he returned to his Earth at the urging of the Legionnaires, who told him, "You belong to the 20th Century, Superman. There is still too much for you to do there to make our time possible!"
The Supergirl Saga
Superman was to return to the Pocket Universe's Earth one more time in a three part story arc called "The Supergirl Saga" that ran in Superman#21, Adventures of Superman #444 and, Superman #22. The arc was John Byrne's final, and most controversial, story during his Superman run.
Superman #21 opens on a scene of devastation as tremendous forces barrage a dome containing a golden citadel. All around the dome is a cratered wasteland. Inside the dome a group of men and women desperately discuss their plan to recruit Superman to assist them.
The story cuts to Superman, who is flying through the blue skies of Kansas when he senses someone following him. At super speed, he circles around and grabs the ankle of his pursuer. He stares in surprise at the blonde bombshell before him, "Great guns! A flying woman in a variation of my costume! Is it some kind of illusion?"
Suddenly, the girl's face changes into that of Lana Lang and tells him that her powers aren't like his and that, "they're very, very different, as my chameleon power should tell you. As to how I got them ... they were given to me by Lex Luthor!"
Superman asks how 'Lana' could have dealings with "scum like Luthor!" They argue, with a confused Supergirl calling Luthor, "the greatest hero, the most brilliant leader in the world!" She also mentions that "Metropolis is gone! Destroyed!" As Superman attacks her beliefs and memories, Supergirl becomes convinced that Superman is "one of them". Accusing him of trying to deceive her, she knocks Superman away with a "psycho-kinetic blast" and then turns invisible.
Superman flies to Lana's farm, where he finds Lana and Ma and Pa Kent bound and gagged. Lana warns him about the crazy woman posing as her, but Superman answers, "she's not posing, Lana. Even down to the molecular level, she is you. I've checked!"
Superman's synapses suddenly supply a solution to the strange situation as he says, "Of course! If it was a snake, it would have bitten me!" and takes off to do "some serious disillusioning".
Drawing Supergirl after him, he heads to Metropolis and introduces her to the big and bald Lex Luthor. Stunned, Supergirl says, "... Luthor?? ... but he's not ... I mean he's nothing like ..."
Retreating to talk, Superman explains the Pocket Universe to Supergirl. Her memory restored, Supergirl activates a device that transports them to her home. She also mentions that it has been 10 years since Superboy disappeared, while Superman says that it has only been a few weeks for him. As they appear in the Pocket Universe, a handsome, young, red-haired Lex Luthor greets Superman with "Welcome to the end of the world!"
The Phantom Zone Criminals
Adventures of Superman #444 has a great cover of Superman kneeling before the graves of Jonathan and Martha Kent, with his fists raised in anguish. The story picks up from the cover as Superman looks past the cemetery at the devastation beyond the dome.
Lex relates how he arrived in Smallville during the funeral for Jonathan Kent. Both Kents died shortly after the disappearance and presumed death of their foster-son. Lex told Lana and Pete that he came hoping to meet his greatest hero, Superboy, as he may have discovered a cure for kryptonite poisoning. With no reason to keep Superboy's identity a secret, Pete asked if Lex might be able to use his scientific knowledge to find Superboy.
The three gathered at the Kent home and discovered Superboy's secret lab. Lex, investigating on his own, activated a Phantom Zone viewer. A man appeared, calling himself Von-El, brother of Superboy's father, Jor-El. He claimed that he and his family hid in the "Survival Zone" to avoid Krypton's destruction.
Convincing Lex that the young man's brilliance might free them where Superboy's efforts failed, he guided Lex in the construction of a projector that freed 'Von-El' and his 'family'. Immediately, they destroyed the projector and revealed themselves to be General Zod, Zaora, and Quex-Ul --Kryptonian criminals who intended to make the planet quake at their names, "as once our native Krypton did!" Destroying the lab, they burst out of the Kent home and, over the next three years, wrought havoc around the globe.
Lex, blaming himself for releasing them, leads the resistance against the villains from his home base in Smallville. While there were no costumed heroes on this Earth other than Superboy, Lex is joined by ordinary people, including Bruce Wayne, Hal Jordan, and Oliver Queen. Lex also explains to Superman, "Two years ago, I found a way to give Lana super-powers. She adopted a variation on Superboy's costume as a rallying symbol to the people of Earth."
The efforts of Lex and his team were not enough, and the villains continued to conquer until General Zod decided that he'd had enough of the futile resistance by humans -- "I have conceived a plan by which we can eliminate all resistance ... by eliminating all life on Earth!!" With those words, each of the Kryptonian criminals burrowed through the Earth's crust to the core. The super-heated steam boiled away the seas and ripped away "the slender envelope of the Earth's atmosphere." Only Smallville survived, due to Lex's protective force field.
Unwilling to concede victory to the villains, Lex found a way to transport Supergirl to Superman's Earth, in the hope that he would save them. At the end of the issue, Superman vows, "Five billion humans, uncounted billions upon billions of life-forms have perished horribly because of these so-called Kryptonians. It's time Zod and his murdering crew were made to pay in full for their actions!"
And pay they do. The ominous cover to Superman #22 shows Superman, wearing an executioner's mask and holding open a box of kryptonite in front of his shield. As the deathly green glow permeates the cover, he says, "You're responsible for the death of a billion beings -- for that you must die!"
Inside, Superman leads the attack against the Kryptonians. The villains quickly decimate the human warriors and blast Supergirl with their combined heat vision. Supergirl's body becomes an oozing mess as it falls toward the ground. Lex tells Superman to let her go as, "the protomatter will regenerate itself soon enough." Superman has no time to follow up on Lex's comment as Lex gives him new, secret instructions.
Reluctantly Superman leaves the battle and heads back to the ruins of Smallville. Battling the super-powered Quex-Ul, Superman eventually finds the Kent home and Superboy's lab. Quex-Ul continues his attack and Superman realizes, "when the Time Trapper created this universe, he made these Kryptonians very different from me. The way they process solar energy is much more efficient than the way my body does. Quex-Ul is powerful enough to kill me."
Fortunately, that isn't the only difference between the Kryptonians of this world and Superman. In the Pocket Universe, kryptonite exists in a variety of forms, unlike Superman's Earth, which has only the deadly green kryptonite.
Superman finally locates the lead cylinder containing gold kryptonite (which permanently removed Kryptonian super powers) and exposes it before Quex-Ul. Quickly creating a prison, Superman uses the gold K to remove General Zod's and Zaora's powers and then captures them.
Searching, Superman finds the dying body of Lex Luthor -- the last human alive on the planet. Lex apologizes for the deception with Supergirl, "Lana was one of the first killed. I used her ... molecular matrix ... to create ... pattern for protomatter ... artificial life form" and that Supergirl "never knew she wasn't real."
Superman asks Lex why he hadn't used the gold kryptonite if he knew it was there. With appropriate Luthor hubris, Lex admits, "call it ... ego, Superman. It was my fault Zod and the others escaped from the Phantom Zone. I ... wanted it to be by my hand that they were defeated. This world ... has paid ... a terrible price for my folly ... Superman. You must ... make sure ... it never ... happens ... again".
Lex ... then ... dies ... as ... my ... supply ... of ... periods ... ends.
Superman stands amidst the ruined planet"[Lex] was the last living human on this world. Now there is nothing more to keep me here. Nothing ... except the disposition of the three last survivors of the Krypton of this
Superman confronts the villains. They taunt him, claiming that they will find a way to restore their powers and come to his reality to destroy Superman and his world.
Superman admits he does not know how to rebuild the Phantom Zone projector. "Nevertheless, I am forced to find a way to stop the three of you once and for all! You have ruthlessly murdered all the people of this planet -- five billion humans! That is a crime without equal! The Nazi holocaust pales by comparison."
Removing the container of green kryptonite from its storage he continues, "What I must now do is harder than anything I have ever done before. But as the last representative of law and justice on this world, it falls to me to act as judge, jury ... and executioner.
He exposes the villains to the deadly kryptonite rays. For long moments he stands while they beg and plead for him to stop. Zod's claim that the others duped him leads Quex-Ul to crush the life from him so that he dies by Quex-Ul's hand. Zaora offers to be Superman's slave and show him pleasures undreamed, but she too weakens and dies. Superman stands resolute at his task until all signs of life are extinguished -- only a tear escaping from Superman's eye shows his sorrow.
Burying the three bodies, he prepares to leave when he notices Supergirl's protoplasmic form moving in the rubble. Picking her up, he returns to his own Earth (exactly how he returns is not explained -- presumably by the same device used by Supergirl to transport him). He leaves Supergirl to the care of his parents and Lana.
He tells them, "I have to ... be alone for a while. I need to think." He doesn't tell them of his actions in the Pocket Universe but adds, "it's something I have to resolve myself." The issue ends with him thinking that, to the people of Earth, "I am still Superman, still the untarnished champion of humanity. When I know that from now on, things can never truly be the same again".
There Is A Right And A Wrong In The Universe
Many fans were, of course, outraged by a story in which the iconic Superman intentionally kills. The justification for Byrne's story -- that this would give a strong, realistic basis for his code against taking human (or any sentient) life -- did not sit well with fans who believed that Superman's moral code had stood the test of almost 50 years without the necessity of murder.
Fans accepted that Superman's code was a combination of the morals he developed from his small town heritage at the hands of his beloved foster-parents and from Superman's own inherent sense of justice and the knowledge of right and wrong.
As Elliot S! Maggin, Silver Age Superman writer, wrote in his novel, Superman: Last Son of Krypton, at page 54: "There were certain fundamentals, however, that he did not question -- axioms at the bottom of his thoughts on any subject that approached his mind that there was a right and a wrong in the Universe, and that value judgment was not very difficult to make."
Mark Waid, in homage to Maggin, used a similar line (ironically spoken by the villain) in the special, New Year's Evil: Gog #1 and again in The Kingdom #1: "There is a right and a wrong in the universe and that distinction is not hard to make."
The Silver Age Superman had no difficulty in knowing the difference and in consistently choosing right over wrong, refusing to compromise his principles in his search for truth and justice. And readers had no difficulty in accepting Superman's inherent morality.
While the god-like Silver Age Superman may have been morally and ethically superior to ordinary humans in his ability to distinguish right from wrong and to preserve life in all it's forms, the newer version was the very human Clark Kent -- with more emphasis on the "man" than the "super". Byrne puts Superman in a very difficult dilemma.
I expect that many, and probably the majority, of humans would agree that execution is an appropriate sentence in this case. The Phantom Zone criminals were unrepentant mass murderers who had threatened further crimes against humanity. Had Byrne chosen to leave survivors of this Earth (rather than Superman) to execute the criminals, most readers would have felt that justice had been done.
Instead, Byrne chose the more controversial ending and had Superman slowly and deliberately kill the villains, by his own hands.