Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Superman: Secret Origin. An Origin too far?

Be warned, this post contains potential spoilers for the first issue of Superman: Secret Origin.

If you're a superhero comics fan and you're not reading Superman: Secret Origin, sort it out! Every time I see this series mentioned on the web I notice that there's always someone complaining "Oh no, not another Superman Origin revamp, Superman continuity is a mess blah, blah, moan, moan, bitch, bitch". I never got the "mess" accusation. DC could put out a new Superman origin every year for the next 100 years and everyone of them would involve Krypton exploding, raised by the Kents, going to Metropolis and meeting Lois Lane etc, etc. DC will never reveal that Superman is really a reincarnated Egyptian Prince or the son of an Ancient Wizard. You want messy origins, try being a Hawkman or an Aquaman fan. As for the accusation that there's too many origin stories, how many is too many? Because in fact, while Supes' origin is perhaps the most retold origin in comics, there have only been two other official origin revamps in the past quarter of a century, Man of Steel and Rebirth.

Man of Steel by John Byrne is one of the reasons that I'm such a big Superman fan. Before reading it I preferred Batman and always thought that Superman was a bit of a pompous douche-bag. Byrne trimmed down Superman's power level and emphasized the importance of the Clark Kent side of his personality. At that point in my life I don't think I had ever read a version of Superman that was so easy to identify with. However despite it's awesomeness it's worth remembering that Man of Steel came out in 1986, 23 years ago. There's as much time between Secret Origin and Man of Steel as there is between Man of Steel and this version of Superman....

My point is, as great as Man of Steel is, a lot of time has passed since then. What's wrong with updating the myth a little bit?

Which is what happened in 2003 with Superman: Birthright. There's a lot to admire about Mark Waid's version of the origin. Interesting Silver Age aspects such as Lex Luthor's childhood in Smallville are placed back in continuity while new additions to the myth are added as well. For example, Superman has a new power, a sort of soul vision. This ability to see the life literally leaving a dying body led to Superman's decision to become a vegetarian. Familiar characters are given intriguing twists. For example, Pa Kent is initially resentful of Clark's developing powers, feeling that they are driving a wedge between him and his son.

As entertaining as this origin is however it never seemed to take. Perhaps it was because of the lack of appropriate advertising. When the first issue came out it seemed to come out of nowhere. DC dropped Birthright on us without commenting on whether it was "official canon" or not. This was later confirmed by Waid nine months after the first issue came out. Personally, it was Lenil F. Yu's art that prevented me from warming to the series. While it is very pretty to look at I feel it is inappropriate for Superman. It's too dark in tone and lacks that iconic, timeless feel of Byrne's art. This is no more evident than on the cover of the first issue where Superman is drawn without pupils in his eyes. This happens a lot with Yu's Superman, it pops up once again on the cover of the trade paperback. While removing the pupils from Superman's eyes can be a most effective image when drawing angry Superman, generally speaking he has lovely big blues that radiate kindness. Batman has eerie white slits.

Which brings us then to the latest attempt, Geoff Johns' and Gary Frank's Secret Origin. Rather than dump this one on our lap DC have wisely spent the past four years weaving the changes wrought by this origin into continuity and teasing fans as to what this new origin might involve. The answer is, it involves everything great about the origin from the past 70 years. Only one issue has come out so far and it has timeless classic written all over it. It contains aspects of Man of Steel and Birthright, for example the way Byrne let Lana Lang in on the secret and the way Waid returned young Luthor to Smallville. It contains aspects of the Silver Age, for example Clark's indestructible glasses and Superman's indestructible costume. It brings it's own fantastic touches to the myth, Clark flies for the first time rescuing Lana from a tornado.

Frank's art is clean, clear, timeless and iconic, just as it should be. A lot of people have complained about his Superman looking like Christopher Reeve but I say, who the hell else are you gonna make him look like? Dean bloody Cain?! In short, Secret Origin is shaping up to be an origin story that will endure, hopefully even longer than 23 years.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Birthright when I first read it (your copy, in fact), and even though there were a couple of mis-steps in it, it's obviously the main thing that inspired the direction of the Superman titles post Infinite Crisis.

    That said, I'm happy enough with having Johns and Frank replace it, especially if it's going to be the last bit of Gary Frank Superman art we're going to see for a while.

    I mean, we could argue that we've had endless retellings of Hal Jordan's origins too, from Emerald Dawns I and II, through New Frontier, the animated movie, etc. But GL Secret Origin was amazing.