The Beginning of the Triangle Era
Superman #51-53, Adventures of Superman #474-475, Action Comics #661-662; Triangle Numbers 1991 – 1-7
Writers: Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, Roger Stern; Pencillers: Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, Bob McLeod, Kerry Gammill; Inkers: Dennis Janke, Art Thibert, Brett Breeding; Colorist: Glenn Whitmore; Letterers: John Costanza, Albert De Guzman, Bill Oakley
Welcome to one of my biggest pieces of comfort food: The Superman Triangle Era. What is that, you ask? Well it’s the period from 1991-2001 where the Superman line of books wove a story through first three, then four, and then eventually sometimes five, books a month. It was an era of consistently good stories, and tightly interwoven sub-plots. It is also very much the era that got me into comics, and without it I wouldn’t be here today. My very first comic was Superman #75 (Triangle Number 1993 – 2), which is an odd place to start, but it’s what got me hooked.
Okay, but why is it called the Triangle Era, and what’s a Triangle Number? To better answer that I need to talk about what came immediately prior to this era. In 1986, John Byrne relaunched Superman with his Man of Steel mini-series, followed by taking over both writing and pencilling duties on Action Comics and launching a new Superman series where he also did both roles. The series formerly known as Superman became Adventures of Superman with the same numbering. Marv Wolfman was the writer on that one, with Jerry Ordway on pencils. Eventually, Wolfman would leave, and Byrne would take over writing of that title as well. But then, as Byrne tends to do, he decided he was done with his run, and abruptly quit.
“What does any of that have to do with the previous question?” you ask. While not only did Byrne leave in a hurry, he also set fire to the toy box on his way out the door. His last arc on the books had Superman execute the Phantom Zone prisoners of a parallel dimension. Now Superman traditionally doesn’t kill, and this left the Superman office in a weird place. They were suddenly without writer and artist for several books, and in a conundrum story-wise because Superman had done something many fans considered wildly out of character. Enter Roger Stern and Jerry Ordway (the writer). While Ordway had been pencilling Adventures of Superman since the beginning, now he was suddenly thrust into the role of writer. Roger Stern would come on as the writer for Superman and for the two page stories in what had now become Action Comics Weekly. Working in concert, Stern and Ordway began telling a story that became known as the “Exile” saga, in which Superman left Earth because he had a nervous breakdown after killing Zod and the other Phantom Zone prisoners.
“Get to the point!” Okay, okay! From that point forward the Superman books began tying closer together and started telling longer form stories with subplots building in the background that would lead to bigger plots later. As comics with a cover date of 1991 began to hit shelves and spinner racks there was a change to the cover. Previously, the Superman books had been utilizing “Next Issue” boxes in the letter columns and the UPC boxes on Direct Market versions of comics to inform readers of the Reading Order of the Superman books. They wanted readers to get the whole story, and it wasn’t commonly the case in that era that stories would spill into multiple titles on a regular basis. In 1991, they made the move to put the reading order directly on the covers. Superman #51 had a triangle on the cover with the year and the number 1. Likewise Adventures of Superman #474 would have the number 2. Now readers had an easy way to track the order in which to read the titles, and could tell if they had missed an issue.
Now the Triangle Era started in much the way it would often work in the years to come, with a series of stand alone issues, rather than a big story-line. The stand-alone issues would still have interwoven characters and subplots however, and those subplots would often get brought to the front for larger stories. So what do we need to know going into the Triangle Era proper? Well in Superman #50, Clark Kent and Lois Lane got engaged, though Clark still had not yet told her that he was Superman. And then in Action Comics #660 (the last issue before the Triangle Era started), Lex Luthor looked to have killed himself by crashing a plane into a mountain. He seemingly did this to die on his own terms, since he was slowly dying of radiation poisoning caused by his Kryptonite ring.
Over the course of the first seven issues of the Triangle Era we’re introduced to a new villain, Mr. Z. Mr. Z was a remarkably evil, and an even more remarkably long lived man, who spent his free time trying to capture unique souls in the gem of his staff. He claimed to have met Superman before during World War II, but neither Superman nor the readers could remember this event occurring. After Superman broke free from his gem, Mr. Z seemingly died on the spot, but at the end of the issue we see him rise from the morgue and live to terrorize lives once more.
The first subplot we really see working it’s way into the Triangle Era is that of Perry White’s leave of absence from the Daily Planet, leaving Sam Foswell as the acting Managing Editor. Perry’s leave comes after his son Jerry died at the hands of a villain named Blaze as the result of gunshot wounds. Foswell’s tenure at the Planet would be contentious and filled with strife, but one of those remarkably good subplots that this era would become known for.
Other issues in this opening salvo include a team-up with Plastic Man, the return of the ecoterrorist Terra-Man, and a villainous collaboration between Kilgrave and Toy Man, both villains from the Byrne years on the book, now working for the notorious Intergang. All the while in the background, Lex Luthor’s company begins to flounder without him at it’s head, while his lawyers scramble to find some sort of will.
But there are two issues during this first bit of 1991 that are more important than the others. The first is Adventures of Superman #474, which is the comic book equivalent of a “very special episode”. The Dan Jurgens written and drawn issue is a cautionary tale about the dangers of drunk driving. It tells a story of Clark’s youth where he didn’t do enough to prevent a friend from getting behind the wheel after drinking, and the lifelong guilt and consequences that came with that moment. It’s a somber tale, and one that gets the point across without being too preachy.
The other remarkably important issue is Action Comics #662, which which brings back both Blaze from the previous year’s “Soul Search” arc, as well as the Silver Banshee, a villain thought to have perished during the last encounter she had had with Superman way back in Superman #23. But the returns of those two villains pale in comparison to the importance of the last two pages of this issue, and the first few of Superman #53. As I said above, though Lois and Clark were engaged, he had not made her privy to his biggest secret as of yet. In fact, at this point in continuity, Lois thought that Superman was raised as a sort of brother to Clark, both of them raised by the Kents. You can thank John Byrne for that one, and the disservice it does to Lois as an investigative journalist. Anyway, when the reveal is finally made, Lois takes it about how you’d expect, needing some space to digest it. The fact that even after the pair get engaged we can see that the relationship isn’t immediately all sunshine and roses makes the relationship that much more compelling. The Lois and Clark relationship is the heart of the Triangle Era, so it’s very fitting that it’s at the forefront of the book right as that era launches.
That’s about a wrap on the first small section of the Triangle Era, where we saw a bunch of very loosely connected one-story issues. Next time, we’ll be diving into the first of the longer story-arcs, which is something that defined the era and made it a must-read, “Time and Time Again.”