October 19, 2015

The Man of Steel - John Byrne

Comic books appear in our lives exactly at the right time, when we need them the most. I didn’t become a serious reader until I run into an issue of Byrne’s Superman. I had been reading comics for a long time but it was thanks to Byrne that I suddenly experienced a sense of urgency. Comics stopped being a simple distraction and became an obsession that would only be strengthened in subsequent years.

I remember I was familiar with the Pre-Crisis Superman, as I had checked out a few old stories from the late 70s, but I found them perhaps too tamed for my tastes, too clean-cut and simplistic. I had to wait until the mid-90s, to read Byrne’s Superman for the first time, long after he had left the title and even DC Comics. 

The 80s were a magical decade for DC Comics. Alan Moore was writing Swamp Thing and Watchmen, and revolutionizing the industry, and at the same time Frank Miller was writing The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, two seminal takes on the caped crusader that are still ranked amongst the very best Batman stories of all times. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC had embarked on a very interesting project: revitalizing their properties, thus reinvigorating heroes that had been languishing both creatively and economically.

The man in charge of resurrecting the Superman franchise was one of America’s most legendary and respected creators from that era: John ‘Big’ Byrne. Editor Dick Giordano had very clear goals: “to return Superman to his rightful place in the universe”, to make him again one of the most recognizable heroes in the world, to reestablish this iconic character so that it would continue influencing entire generations of readers. As Byrne himself explains in the epilogue “DC Comics has hired me to guide the reshaping of the Superman Legend […] To try to make Superman of today as exciting in his own right as was that primal Superman of yesterday […] And who knows, maybe in thirty years or so someone will sit down at a word processor and write about how Superman began with a miniseries called The Man of Steel, which was an introduction to a world of wonder and fascination that lasted a lifetime. And maybe that someone will be you”. And it’s an honor for me to write about it now, 30 years after Man of Steel was released; this is the only Superman I’ve cared about it and the only one that still reminds me how exciting and amazing comics can be. 
Jor-El & Lara

Published biweekly between July and September 1986, Man of Steel was a miniseries that redefined Superman. It was a passion project for Byrne, and it shows. A fan of the character since childhood, the British-Canadian author wrote and illustrated some of the best stories of his career in the pages of Superman. And that effort paid off: Man of Steel # 1 was a huge success, in fact, it was the highest selling comic book of 1986, as well as one of the most popular first issues ever printed. Byrne’s bold new reinterpretation of the world’s greatest superhero took everyone by surprise, so it’s no wonder that even today fans still talk about this comic. Sure, there were many debates, especially back in the day, as some readers thought the changes introduced by Byrne were too radical. Byrne actually streamlined the character, with a “back to the basics” approach. He eliminated all the redundant and superfluous baggage that had been cluttering the pages of the comic for years. Byrne decided that Superman would be the sole survivor of Krypton; and he wasn’t a god, he was a man, and despite his superpowers, Byrne found the way to humanize Superman like no other writer before him. 

“From Out the Green Dawn” (Man of Steel # 1), retells the origin of Superman. The planet Krypton was a metaphor for sterility. And amidst an emotionless and decadent society, Kal-El is born, son of Jor-El and Lara; he is sent to Earth in a spaceship, moments before the core of the planet explodes, thus annihilating all the Kryptonian race. Raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, a couple of farmers from Kansas, the young Clark Kent spends his childhood and adolescence in Smallville, until he decides to leave the small town and travel around the world. In his first “official” appearance, Superman has no superhero costume, and it’s Lois Lane, a famous reporter from the Daily Planet, who bestows upon him the sobriquet of “Superman”. For 21 pages, Byrne focuses on the man, and we don’t get to see Superman until the very last page.
Superman flying above the Kent farm / Superman sobrevolando la granja de los Kent
“I should never use my special abilities to make myself better than other people -- to make other people feel useless”, explains Superman. And that sentence is the essence of America’s first superhero. He is noble, and although other writers have failed at communicating this idea, Byrne nails it. Superman is the embodiment of an ideal, and perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to not be corrupted by power. 
Lois Lane

Byrne rebuilds Superman’s supporting cast from the ground up. And thus Lois Lane is the true protagonist of “The Story of the Century!” (Man of Steel # 2), a fast-paced adventure in which Lois literally hunts down Superman to get an interview… to no avail, as Clark Kent is the one who comes up with the definitive article on the Man of Steel. “One Night in Gotham City” (Man of Steel # 3) is a reexamination of the relationship between Superman and Batman. After Miller’s Dark Knight Returns it was obvious that the days of friendship between these two heroes were over. And so their first encounter is an open confrontation, and if it doesn’t turn into a fight it’s because Batman outsmarts Superman. Byrne explores the rivalry between two characters that are as day and night, each one a reflection of their particular cities: the bright Metropolis and the dark Gotham City.

In “Enemy Mine” (Man of Steel # 4) we get to know the new Lex Luthor. No longer a mad scientist, Luthor is the epitome of greed, ambition and cruelty. Of course, now he is a businessman, the second or third richest man in the world. He owns Metropolis, and the entire economy of the city depends on him. So the arrival of Superman affects his ego. No longer deemed as the most powerful man in the city, Luthor tries to bribe Superman and insists on hiring him as one of his employees, offering him vast amounts of money. Superman, of course, rejects Luthor’s offers. And when Luthor steps out of line, the Man of Steel arrests him. Luthor cannot deal with such a humiliation, and immediately after being rescued by his lawyers, he starts planning Superman’s downfall. One of Luthor’s first plans is the creation of a clone, which takes place in “The Mirror, Crack’d” (Man of Steel # 5). Luthor’s technology is unable to clone Superman’s alien body, and the result is a deformed version of the hero: Bizarro. 
Lois Lane & Jimmy Olsen

 “The Haunting” (Man of Steel # 6) is one of my favorite chapters. Clark Kent spends a weekend in Smallville and is forced to confront his alien heritage; at the same time, he also has a revealing conversation with Lana Lang, his high school girlfriend. Once again, Byrne emphasizes the elements that make Superman a more relatable character. The Man of Steel struggles with his Kryptonian past and his human present, with the possibility of love and his responsibilities with the world. 

Obviously, I could talk at length about all the things that I love about this miniseries, but then this would be a never-ending post. However, I do want to express my admiration for Byrne’s art. In the 80s, after his critically-acclaimed runs in X-Men and Fantastic Four, Byrne was one of the most prominent creators in the American industry. In Superman, Byrne was clearly at the top of his game; years of experience converge in these pages, and his talent shines in each one of them. So I’ve had a particularly difficult time choosing which pages I should post here. In the end I’ve kept the dramatic sequence of Jor-El and Lara saying goodbye to their only son (Byrne’s extraordinary designs remain just as fresh even decades later); Superman’s first flight in costume is also a remarkable and unforgettable splash page; Lois Lane talking to the reader (and Perry White) while Superman flies off in the background is a magnificent example of Byrne’s visual creativity (even the details are revealing: note Calvin Klein’s underwear ad that establishes a semantic correlation with Superman’s famous red trunks). In order to portray Batman, Byrne chose different perspectives and innovative compositions that really made his pages stand out; spot-on facial expressions add depth to Luthor’s scene, while the fight with Bizarro is very dynamic. Byrne wrote and penciled this miniseries, Dick Giordano inked it and Tom Ziuco colored it. Together, they gave us the ultimate version of the Man of Steel.
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Los cómics aparecen en nuestras vidas exactamente en el momento adecuado, cuando más los necesitamos. Me convertí en un lector empedernido gracias a un ejemplar del Superman de Byrne. Había estado leyendo cómics desde hacía mucho tiempo, pero fue gracias a Byrne que de pronto experimenté una sensación de urgencia. Los comics dejaron de ser una simple distracción y se transformaron en una obsesión que sería reforzada en años subsiguientes.
Batman
Recuerdo que estaba familiarizado con el Superman Pre-Crisis, y había ojeado algunas historias de fines de los 70s, pero me parecieron muy edulcoradas para mi gusto, demasiado ingenuas y simplonas. Tuve que esperar hasta mediados de los 90s para leer el Superman de Byrne, por primera vez, mucho después de que él abandonara el título e incluso a DC Comics.
Superman & Batman

Los 80s fueron una década mágica para DC Comics. Alan Moore estaba escribiendo “Swamp Thing” y “Watchmen”, y revolucionando la industria, al mismo tiempo Frank Miller escribía “The Dark Knight Returns” y “Batman: Año Uno”, dos influyentes sagas que todavía son consideradas entre las mejores historias de Batman de todos los tiempos. Después de las “Crisis en Tierras Infinitas”, DC se había embarcado en un proyecto muy interesante: revitalizar sus propiedades, revigorizando a héroes que habían estado languideciendo tanto creativa como económicamente.

El hombre a cargo de la resurrección de la franquicia de Superman fue uno de los creadores más legendarios y respetados de Estados Unidos en aquella época: John 'Big' Byrne. El editor Dick Giordano tenía objetivos muy claros: “devolver a Superman a su legítimo lugar en el universo”, lograr que fuese una vez más uno de los héroes más reconocidos del mundo, restablecer a este icónico personaje de modo que siguiese influenciando a generaciones enteras de lectores. Como el propio Byrne explica en el epílogo “DC Comics me ha contratado para guiar la reforma de la Leyenda de Superman [...] Para tratar de hacer al Superman de hoy tan emocionante, por derecho propio, como lo fue ese Superman primigenio del ayer [...] ¿Y quién sabe , tal vez en treinta años, más o menos, alguien se sentará en un procesador de texto y escribirá acerca de cómo Superman comenzó con una miniserie llamada “El Hombre de Acero”, que fue la introducción a un mundo de asombro y fascinación que duró toda una vida. Y tal vez ese alguien seas tú”. Y es un honor para mí ser el que escribe ahora sobre “Man of Steel”, 30 años después de ser publicado; este es el único Superman que valoro y el único que todavía me recuerda lo emocionantes y sorprendentes que pueden ser los cómics.
Lex Luthor

Publicado entre julio y setiembre de 1986, “Man of Steel” fue una miniserie que redefinió a Superman. Fue un proyecto en el que Byrne puso toda su pasión. Un fan del personaje desde la infancia, el autor británico-canadiense escribió e ilustró algunas de las mejores historias de su carrera en las páginas de Superman. Y ese esfuerzo valió la pena: Man of Steel # 1 fue un gran éxito, de hecho, fue el cómic más vendido de 1986, así como uno de los cómics más populares en décadas. La nueva y audaz reinterpretación de Byrne tomó a todos por sorpresa, por ello no es inusual que, incluso hasta el día de hoy, los fans todavía hablen de este cómic. Claro, hubo muchos debates, sobre todo en ese entonces, ya que algunos lectores pensaban que los cambios introducidos por Byrne eran demasiado radicales. Byrne en realidad modernizó el personaje a la vez conservó sus raíces. Eliminó todo el bagaje redundante y superfluo que había estado estorbando al mundo supermaniano durante años. Byrne decidió que Superman sería el único superviviente de Krypton; y no sería un dios, sino un hombre; a pesar de los superpoderes, Byrne encontró la manera de humanizar a Superman, algo que nadie más había conseguido hasta ese momento.

“Desde el alba verde” (Man of Steel # 1), vuelve a contar el origen de Superman. El planeta Krypton es una metáfora de la esterilidad. Y en medio de una sociedad fría y decadente, nace Kal-El, hijo de Jor-El y Lara; él es enviado a la Tierra en una nave espacial, momentos antes de la explosión del planeta y la aniquilación de los kryptonianos. Criado por Jonathan y Martha Kent, una pareja de granjeros de Kansas, el joven Clark Kent pasa su infancia y adolescencia en Smallville, hasta que decide irse del pueblito para viajar por todo el mundo. En su primera aparición “oficial”, Superman no tiene traje de superhéroe, y es Lois Lane, la famosa periodista del Daily Planet, quien le otorga el sobrenombre de “Superman”. Durante 21 páginas, Byrne se centra en el hombre, y recién vemos al superhombre en la última página.
Bizarro

“Nunca debería usar mis habilidades especiales para estar por encima de los demás - para hacer que otras personas se sientan inútiles”, explica Superman. Y esa frase es la esencia del primer superhéroe de Estados Unidos. Byrne da en el clavo, resaltando esta nobleza que otros autores han fracasado en comunicar. Superman es la encarnación de un ideal, y tal vez su mayor fortaleza es su capacidad para no ser corrompido por el poder.

Byrne reconstruye el entorno de Superman desde cero. Y de este modo Lois Lane es la verdadera protagonista de “¡La historia del siglo!” (Man of Steel # 2), una aventura trepidante en la que Lois literalmente acecha a Superman para conseguir una entrevista ... en vano, ya que Clark Kent es el que obtiene el artículo decisivo sobre el Hombre de Acero. “Una noche en Gotham City” (Man of Steel # 3) reexamina la relación entre Superman y Batman. Después del “Dark Knight Returns” de Miller era obvio que los días de amistad entre estos dos héroes habían terminado. Y por ello, este primer encuentro es una confrontación abierta, y si no se convierte en una pelea es porque Batman le gana en astucia a Superman. Byrne explora la rivalidad entre dos personajes que son como el día y la noche, cada uno de ellos es un reflejo de sus respectivas ciudades: la luminosa Metrópolis y la oscura Gotham City.

En “Enemigo mío” (Man of Steel # 4) conocemos al nuevo Lex Luthor. Ya no es un científico loco, ahora Luthor es el epítome de la codicia, la ambición y la crueldad. Por supuesto, es un empresario, el segundo o tercer hombre más rico del mundo. Es dueño de Metrópolis, y toda la economía de la ciudad depende de él. Así que la llegada de Superman afecta su ego. Ya no es considerado el hombre más poderoso de la ciudad, así que Luthor intenta sobornar a Superman e insiste en contratarlo como uno de sus empleados, ofreciéndole grandes cantidades de dinero. Superman, claro está, rechaza estas ofertas. Y cuando Luthor se pasa de la raya, Superman lo arresta. Luthor no puede hacer frente a tal humillación, e inmediatamente después de ser rescatado por sus abogados, empieza a planear cómo vencer al Hombre de Acero. Uno de los primeros planes de Luthor es la creación de un clon, tal como vemos en “El espejo se ha quebrado” (Man of Steel # 5). La tecnología de Luthor no es capaz de clonar el cuerpo alienígena de Superman, y el resultado es una versión deforme del héroe: Bizarro.

 “La evocación” (Man of Steel # 6) es uno de mis capítulos favoritos. Clark Kent pasa un fin de semana en Smallville y se ve obligado a enfrentarse a su legado extraterrestre; al mismo tiempo, también tiene una reveladora conversación con Lana Lang, su enamorada de secundaria. Una vez más, Byrne hace hincapié en los elementos que nos permiten identificarnos con Superman. El Hombre de Acero lucha con su pasado kryptoniano y su presente humano, con la posibilidad del amor y con sus responsabilidades en relación al mundo.
A ghost from the past / Un fantasma del pasado
Obviamente, podría hablar largo y tendido sobre lo mucho que me encanta esta miniserie, pero entonces este sería un texto interminable. Sin embargo, quiero expresar mi admiración por el arte de Byrne. En los 80s, después de sus aclamadas etapas en X-Men y los Cuatro Fantásticos, Byrne era uno de los creadores más destacados de la industria estadounidense. En “Superman”, Byrne estaba claramente en su mejor momento; años de experiencia convergen en estas páginas, y su talento brilla en cada una de ellas. Así que me ha resultado particularmente difícil elegir qué páginas incluir aquí. Al final me he quedado con la dramática secuencia de Jor-El y Lara al despedirse de su único hijo (los extraordinarios diseños de Byrne permanecen igual de novedosos incluso 3 décadas más tarde); el primer vuelo de Superman usando su traje es también una página notable e inolvidable; Lois Lane hablando con el lector (y con Perry White), mientras que Superman vuela en el fondo es un magnífico ejemplo de la creatividad visual de Byrne (incluso los detalles son reveladores: el aviso de ropa interior de Calvin Klein establece una correlación semántica con los famosos calzoncillos rojos de Superman). Con el fin de retratar a Batman, Byrne eligió diferentes perspectivas y composiciones innovadoras que realmente hacen que sus páginas se destaquen; las expresiones faciales precisas añaden profundidad a la escena de Luthor, mientras que la lucha con Bizarro es sumamente dinámica. Byrne escribió y dibujó a lápiz esta miniserie, Dick Giordano la entintó y Tom Ziuco la coloreó. Juntos nos dieron la versión definitiva del Hombre de Acero.

18 comments:

  1. It is a good story and one modern writers still borrow from. I used the splash page with Jor-El surprising Clark in the kitchen for one of the Comic Caption contests on my blog. Some of the material, especially the look of characters, is a bit dated.

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    1. It's a great story. Byrne did such an amazing job with Superman.
      I would love to see that comic caption contest. Link, please?

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  2. He was talking about you even then!? Cool!

    Now compare this great reimagining with The New 52's Superman (and any of the others), where they are simply made less noble, more violent and totally uininteresting (at least, to me).

    From the post-Crisis comics, I really loved Wonder Woman's. Ares and his children were really well used, and Pérez's art is always awesome.

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    1. Oh yeah, except that instead of a word processor I'm using my laptop...
      DC started to mess Superman up over 10 years ago. Trying to come up with new origin stories (Superman Birthright), changing continuity over and over again (2006 Infinite Crisis), and of course the disastrous New 52.

      I must write about Wonder Woman one day. I'm a huge fan of Pérez's run.

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    2. Well, software can be called "word processor", too. Microsoft's Word is one of them. So he WAS talking about you, after all.

      I can see how the original Crisis can bring about any change imagined, since it is mixing Infinite Earths (or around two or three of them) into a single one.

      But how can Flashpoint change reality so much? It should only affect things from when Barry was around 10 and onward. Not anything before then. So Diana should have the same history, Kal should have the same childhood, etc.

      If you do write about Pérez's WW and I don't see it, please let me know.

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    3. It's OK to have one Crisis, like the original COIE, but I think it's unacceptable to come up with a new Crisis every 5 years or so. Because it makes all the books sort of irrelevant.

      I wish I could write my Wonder Woman review right away but I'm afraid I don't have the comics anymore, so I'll have to get the trade paperbacks...

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    4. In some way, the New 52 ended up being good for me, regardless of how much I think it is bad. At that time I got money shortage and had to drop comics. The New 52 means I do not have to feel bad about DC's, it was the perfect jumping off point. I do feel bad about Marvel's, though. I miss them.

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    5. In that regard, the comics that I last bought remain relevant. The ones from the New 52 are the irrelevant ones. It is easier to say things like "DC Comics are dead to me".

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    6. "Jumping off point" I love that term. Although I was only getting a couple of DC titles at the time, my jumping off point was Geoff Johns' Infinite Crisis. I It's been over 10 years and I don't miss DC, not even one bit.

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    7. Oh, but I always buy old stuff from DC. I love everything they did in the 80s. Plus I still buy Vertigo titles now.

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  3. I love Perez's run. I loved Byrne's Superman at the time - still do; it's quite entertaining - but once I started getting into older DC, I came to see the Crisis and post-Crisis era in a new light. The late 50s through mid-60s Superman is my favorite era. So imaginative. Each issue is like a novel. A lot of what Byrne stripped away from the mythos was better than what he "restored."

    But, I still love 80s DC, don't get me wrong. :-) Just a shout-out to the Schwarz/Weisinger era.

    It's tough-going with a shared universe. I give it a shelf life of about 30 years. Then the inevitable reboots and reshuffled continuity, etc. DC had lightning in a bottle once, by introducing Earth-2 and thus sealing their Golden and Silver Age together. I don't blame them at all for Crisis or any of the Yet Another Crisis(es) since, but all that rebooting gets a little tiresome for me. I don't know what the solution is - I mean sooner or later, if your character fought in WW2 and you keep publishing stories with him, you've got to account for real-world-time and all.

    Anyway! Great blog. I was one of those kids who hoovered up Byrne's Superman. Re-read them a few years ago and greatly enjoyed them, even if, like I say, by that point I'd gotten to know more of Superman's backstory from before I was born. (in 1974.)

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    1. It's great to find another Pérez fan, his Wonder Woman was so impressive, the man proved he could excel as a writer and an artist.

      I haven't read older Superman stories, but I understand that Grant Morrison is also a fan of DC in the 50s-60s. I'm sure there must be some really fun stories there, and I wish I had access to the entire DC Archives library...

      Just like you, I'm tired of constant reboots. But to be honest I don't think I could suggest a solution to DC's problem.

      Thank you for such nice words and I hope to see you again,

      Cheers!

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  4. Great recap.
    I respect the series for breathing some much needed life back into the Superman mythos. While I bemoaned some of the things removed by the Crisis (Supergirl, Krypto, etc), I recognized that Superman was getting a bit ordinary and that isn't super.

    Byrne came in with an energy and vision which made this new vision start out in 5th gear as opposed to idling along like other reboots. He also seemed to 'get' Superman, something I don't always see in creators attached to his books.

    Great post!

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    1. Hi Anj! Thank you for your comment and welcome to my blog!
      Yes, I agree with you, Byrne did really get Superman in ways other writers didn't. To me it's still one of mt favorite superhero runs, and if I have enough time I'll try to write more about Byrne's Superman.

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  5. Arion, thank you for this write-up, which does a wonderful job of re-creating the feelings of reading the series, but in fast-forward. It's also great to get your personal experience, which is surely the same as that of many other readers, but different from others, depending upon when we each began reading Superman. My review, which emphasizes the changes since the previous era is here:

    http://rikdad.blogspot.com/2015/03/retro-review-john-byrnes-superman.html

    One quality that Byrne's Superman work had that separates it from so many other works is how powerfully it set the direction of the whole company. When I imagine late-Eighties DC work, I visualize a montage with Byrne's drawing of Superman right in the middle, with Byrne's art serving as a reminder of all of those other things about him – his backstory, his attitude, even his "new" and less-godlike level of power.

    It's something magical to be able to look back on it now, and see it in a broader context, or simply as a work in its own right, whereas at the time, however you felt about it, it was hard not to think of the fact that it was a revolution, and that some readers were not happy with the change. Now, I find it a pleasure to pick it up, read it for its own merits, and recall how it was once the center of the DC Universe. I could probably sit and read a whole book of fans' reflections on this series, because those feelings are so powerful for so many readers, and that may say more about Superman than any one writer or any one story. Your reflections are very well-expressed and serve that purpose superbly!

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    1. Thank so much for your words, it's always very reassuring to see that old the hard work I put into this is appreciated. In the 80s DC produced so many amazing titles, and like you said, Byrne's Superman was an important part of the DC Universe. I read your review and I really like it. In 2016 I hope to review more of Byrne's run on Superman.

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  6. Escribir Superman es una tarea muy difícil para cualquier escritor aun en estos tiempos ya que el personaje alienigena es un semi-dios entre humanos pero en los 80's el conocer un poco mas a fondo a los personajes hizo que la industria del cómic nos diera grandes arcos como este.

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    1. Es cierto, Superman debe ser uno de los personajes más difíciles para un escritor. Muchos lo han intentado y han fracaso, Byrne ha sido de los pocos que ha logrado ser fiel a la esencia del personaje.

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