When I started this series, I debated with myself as to whether characters directly inspired by Superman within the same shared universe should be considered as analogues. There are certainly DC Comics heroes that are Superman analogues, like Shazam, Apollo and Icon, and while they’ll definitely be covered in the future, I was on the fence about covering other members of the Superman family, be they allies or enemies. I ultimately settled on including those kinds of characters and decided to start this week with a look at a supervillain that speaks to me on a surprisingly personal level; Hank Henshaw aka Cyborg Superman.
Content warning: This article discusses the concept of suicide; please reconsider reading if you think it may trigger suicidal thoughts or actions.
While he’s been known as a Superman analogue for nearly thirty years, Hank Henshaw actually started out as an analogue for a very different character… Reed Richards. Hank was introduced in Adventures of Superman #466 as a NASA scientist aboard the Lexcorp space shuttle Excalibur, alongside his wife Terri Henshaw as well as pilot Jim Garrison and a crew-member only referred to as Steve. When a solar flare disrupts their systems, they’re flooded with radiation and forced to crash-land back on Earth where they start to experience transformations similar to the Fantastic Four, but with a more tragic bent.
Steve’s body becomes a walking reactor, Jim’s body reconstitutes itself from the metal and rubble from the crash and Terri’s body starts slowly phasing into another dimension. The only effect Hank seems to experience is that of what would happen to a regular person whose body was flooded with radiation, as the skin starts to slough off his bones. Excalibur’s crew goes to Lexcorp to try and find a way to reverse the process but after a misunderstanding gets into a fight with Superman which costs them precious time and ultimately, only Terri survives.
Upon his death, Hank’s consciousness transfers itself into the computer terminal he was working at and he is able to reconstitute a body out of scrap metal; he tries to reunite with his wife but the stress of everything drives her to suicide and Hank, no longer having any human attachments to the planet Earth, beams his consciousness into space to explore the stars. It seemed like that was the last time anyone had heard from Hank Henshaw and no-one made any connection between the story of a tragic scientist and the new Cyborg Superman who appeared in the wake of Superman’s death.
Cyborg Superman spent enough time convincing people that he was in fact the real Superman back from the dead in order to set up and execute his plan to destroy Coast City and ruin Superman’s name forever. However, the real Superman returned from the death and Cyborg Superman was revealed to be Henshaw, who had come to blame Superman for the deaths of his crew as he had caused the solar flare which flooded their shuttle with radiation. Cyborg Superman was ultimately defeated by Superman and the other replacement Supermen who appeared following his apparent death and although he’d come back here and there, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that he’d get a reinvention that really made him stand apart.
In 2006, Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis reintroduced Cyborg Superman to the DC Universe towards the start of their run on Green Lantern. Hank Henshaw was the key figure behind the destruction of Coast City, so while he was primarily a Superman villain it made absolute sense to pit him against Hal Jordan after the hero had finally overcome the trauma that event had caused him and everything that came after it. However, Johns introduced a new motive to Hank Henshaw’s villainy that stood out to me at the time as surprisingly sympathetic; Hank Henshaw just wants to die.
Henshaw is reintroduced as hating life in Green Lantern but when he returns as part of “The Sinestro Corps War” storyline, it’s expanded to be more nuanced than that. Henshaw is someone that craves the sweet release of oblivion but his unique cyborg nature has prevented him from ever truly dying. The only reason he sides with Sinestro in his assault on Earth and the Green Lantern Corps is because their mutual ally the Anti-Monitor has promised to destroy Henshaw for good. At the start of this, I said that I found Henshaw’s motivations as a villain surprisingly sympathetic and this may be sharing too much in what is blog about comic books, but I too want to die.
You may think “Oh, well if you want to die, just kill yourself” but it’s not as simple as that. Suicides at home often don’t work and result in long-term or permanent injuries and societal attitudes towards suicide make it a painful experience for those left behind; I don’t want to kill myself because I might fail and even if I succeed, my family would be sad. If we lived in a world where people could make informed decisions about ending their lives, we’d remove the societal stigma around suicide and people could end their life in a safe, painless way administered by a professional.
Additionally, there’s a difference between people who have made an informed decision about their choice to die and people who commit suicide because they don’t see a future. With the proper resources in place, we’d be able to filter these two distinct categories out, allowing the former access to end of life treatment with dignity while helping the latter with whatever help they need to not commit suicide. Ultimately, access to end of life care would reduce the number of total suicides while allowing grown, adult members of society to choose to end their life if they so wish.
So when I see Cyborg Superman, a villain who just wants to die, I see a lot of myself. Now, I haven’t destroyed any population centres and don’t plan to anytime soon, so we’re not exactly alike but I know what it feels like to resent the physical and conscious form that has been thrust upon you and the yearning to be free from it. When his eye flashes red at the end of “The Sinestro Corps War” and a tear rolls down his cheek, I feel that pain. When I see Superman, I see a character full of all the things I wish I could be but when I see the Cyborg Superman, I see me as I am, minus all the murdering.
Postscript: If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or urges, please do seek help before doing anything rash. I may want to die but I still went to the hospital last January when the urge became too strong. There are resources available depending on where you are reading this, I have listed a few below, but I found them just by searching “[country] suicide prevention” so if your region isn’t listed and you need help, please do seek it out.