Like any sensible human being, I have tremendous regard for Cyborg Superman. Not the version that debuted during the “Reign of the Supermen” arc and eventually blew up Coast City, but the later version that was buddy-buddy with Sinestro and ripped apart his wife’s dug-up corpse:
Part of it was his costume. Gone was the robotic spin on Superman’s getup. In its place was a menacing black-and-red number that, for once, made Hank Henshaw look deadly serious. His S-shield is a Sinestro Corps symbol! That’s badass.
The other part was his tragic backstory. It had been explored before, but Alan Burnett’s interpretation of the character’s origins in Tales of the Sinestro Corps: Cyborg Superman made him seem less like a cartoon villain and more like a tragic figure who would never escape his own suffering. Sure, he killed 7 million nameless, faceless residents of Green Lantern’s hometown, but everybody has bad days.
I spent an incredible amount of time looking for Adventures of Superman #466, the issue that contained Hank Henshaw’s first appearance. Whenever I walked into a comic book store, I headed straight for the Superman back issues. I decided that ordering Adventures #466 off eBay would be cheating; I had to find this issue on my own, like in the good old days before I had a credit card and was left with no choice but to sift through hundreds of bagged-and-boarded titles in long boxes.
It took me a couple years before I found a store that had it, and when I finally pulled it out out of the box I remember feeling like I’d found the holy grail of comics. There it was! In my hands! I eyed the other customers suspiciously, expecting a mob to form once they’d realized what I was holding. Turns out nobody cared, including the store. I think the total for this golden chunk of Superman history was about $3.
Written by Dan Jurgens, the story, entitled “The Limits of Power,” concerns the return to earth of the space shuttle Excalibur, piloted by a crew that includes captain Hank Henshaw, his wife Terri, and crew members Jim and Steven. The flight is interrupted by a solar flare that damages the ship and gives its occupants super powers. Hank’s body begins to change, Terri starts to disappear, Jim becomes a hulking monster, and Steven turns into a giant flame.
If that sounds a little familiar it’s because the Excalibur crew is a pastiche of Marvel’s most fantastic team, straight down to the power-granting “cosmic ray” that crashes the ship. The late ’80s/early ’90s was a heyday of homage at DC, with versions of Thor (Wandjina), Scarlet Witch (Silver Sorceress), Yellowjacket (Bluejay), and Quicksilver (Captain Speed) appearing in Justice League America alongside a Silver Surfer approximation called the Scarlet Skier.
Unlike Reed Richard’s crew, the Excalibur gang’s transformation isn’t a wake-up call to save the world. For one thing, Jim is in excruciating pain, and Henshaw can sense that he’s quickly dying of radiation poisoning. His plan? Get to S.T.A.R. Labs ASAP and see if science can save their lives. The clock is ticking…but will they make it time?
Short answer: no.
Their arrival at S.T.A.R. is greeted by a panicky guard who delays their entry to the facility, and the situation is exacerbated by an unnecessary fight with Superman. Once the air is cleared and everyone’s inside the lab, Hank’s flesh begins rotting off his skeleton, Terri is slowly pulled into another dimension, Steven goes mad with power and kills himself, and Jim commits suicide in an MRI machine:
During the “Reign of the Supermen” arc, it was established that Henshaw wanted revenge because he believed the solar flare that crashed the Excalibur was caused by Superman throwing the Eradicator into the sun. This theory is negated by Terri herself at the story’s conclusion:
Things don’t end there, of course. It’s revealed two issues later that the seemingly-okay Mrs. Henshaw is now a hospitalized nutcase and Hank has become living energy, able to manipulate computers and electronics:
Hank eventually realizes he’s doing more harm to his wife than good and exiles himself to outer space, Terri is left in a catatonic state but will presumably recover in the future, and Superman retires to the Fortress of Solitude to write in his diary (don’t ask).
This incident was later retconned so that after seeing her husband resurrected as a robot, Terri immediately jumps out of the nearest window. Instead of fleeing for space, Hank Henshaw now seeks revenge on the Kryptonian who (allegedly) ruined his life:
The rest is history: Hank pretends to be a resurrected Superman, blows up Coast City, vacations on Apokolips, becomes leader of the Manhunters, joins the Sinestro Corps, and winds up being one of the most enduring antagonists in Superman’s history.
Adventures of Superman #466 is pretty spifftacular for a few reasons. It’s the first appearance of Hank Henshaw/Cyborg Superman. It’s a twisted funhouse-mirror version of the Fantastic Four’s origins. It’s a rare instance of a seemingly innocuous one-off having long-reaching repercussions. It’s a silly homage that’s later granted canonical legitimacy.
And, even without the subsequent breakdown/suicide of Terri and supervillian makeover of Hank, it’s a pretty dark tale, especially for a Superman book (it ends with the deaths of three characters, two of which died by their own hands). Maybe not Joker’s-face-pinned-to-a-wall macabre, but certainly worthy of checking out.