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Curt “The Franchise” Swan teams with John “The Usurper” Byrne to craft a forgettable Superman one-shot – Superman: The Earth Stealers

April 21, 2012

There came a day when Curt Swan, the longtime Superman artist of record whose soft lines and earnest faces had defined the Man of Steel for decades, was shunted to the side. He didn’t disappear completely. He still had little stints with the character (who owed more to him than to anyone not named Siegel or Shuster), whether they were token centerfolds in a revamped Action Comics or what have you. But he was largely gone. He didn’t die or anything, but it was a smaller version of what it must have felt like when FDR passed at the start of his fourth term. People forgot what it was like to have any other President, and with Swan people forgot what it was like to have any other flagship Superman artist.

I liked what John Byrne did in his reinvention of Superman, and his reworking of the Kryptonian mythos stood the test of time down to the present. (Though I’m not certain what in God’s name is going on with the New 52 garbage. And I don’t care to find out.) I’m old enough to remember the switchover, but I was too young at the time to grasp the seismic shift that it represented. I could see the difference in my Supermans, but I couldn’t grasp the difference, if you catch my drift, much less imagine that anyone’s feathers might have been ruffled by the exchange.

Was it a smooth baton handoff? Were there hard feelings? Those were things outside a youngster’s purview, and they’re also things for another post at another time. Instead, I today I bring before you a brief glimpse at a comic — published in 1988, two years after Byrne revamped Kal-El with The Man of Steel – that brought together scripter Byrne and penciller Swan for a Superman tale. The new guard and the old. Disco and Big Bands. 3-D and Cinerama. Together at last. ONE NIGHT ONLY.

The Earth Stealers, with this dream tag team, could have been sublime. Or it could have been God-awful. Or it could have been middling.

I’m here to tell you that it’s middling.

It’s a simple story that owes much to Swan’s Silver Age heyday. Outlandish outer space shenanigans threaten Earth + Superman’s friends doubly imperilled by malicious villains = your money’s worth. You know the drill. But here it feels tired, as if the old formula has been laying out with the cap off for far too long and all the fizz has gone out of it. Like Byrne was trying to hard or something, or maybe a bit out of his element. It’s just. Not. All. That. Great.

What’s mildly interesting about The Earth Stealers is that, though Byrne handled none of the artistic chores in the book, the art nevertheless, thanks to Jerry Ordway’s inking, looks like a melding of the newer and older visual takes on Superman (Ordway was a big part of the post-Crisis revamp, and the artistic majordomo on the “new” Adventures of Superman). There’s a lot of Ordway in this Superman, but when you see him flying like in this scan, with a pose and perspective seen hundreds of times before, all you can think of is Swan:

I miss that.

There are moments where you really want to get into the action, and just sit back and enjoy the fusion of the old with the new. But the story gets in the way. It feels like something rushed out in a “just because” flurry. Plus, who wants to read a story where the primary alien antagonist looks like he should be eating haggis and puffing on bagpipes?:

I’ve busted Byrne’s balls on here before, but he’s a reliable comics talent, and I’ve liked reading far more of his output than I’ve hated. Swan I adore (whether Superman’s dealing with swords or hamburgers), and Ordway I have no issues with whatsoever. But this is a dud from all three of them. A missed opportunity, and something that can only be read for its minor importance in comics history as a unique artistic collaboration. Like when Elvis met the Beatles, but with pencil shavings and ink stains and outer space Scotsmen with jaundice.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 12:59 pm

    I remember it. In fact, I’ve still got it. And yes – it was a little underwhelming. Wasn’t it good to see Swan back on a high-profile Superman project ‘though? There actually exists a photo of Swan symbolically ‘passing the baton’ (a pencil) to Byrne. It must have been hard for him to pose for it and smile at the same time.

    • April 27, 2012 8:44 pm

      Swan’s Superman never gets old. A part of me wishes they’d discover lost Swan stuff every now and then, like those old reels of Lang’s Metropolis that they find in Brazilian mines or something every few years.

      I’ve seen that Swan/Byrne picture. Byrne’s smile is a lot bigger, let’s put it that way.

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