Friday, 10 September 2010

Superman: Secret Origin is the Mutt's Nuts!

This is an updated version of a post I wrote last year after the first issue of Superman: Secret Origin was released.

Last month DC Comics published the final issue of the six part Superman: Secret Origin, a retelling of Superman's early years by writer Geoff johns and artist Gary Frank.  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 understood 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 Birthright.

Man of Steel by John Byrne is the reason 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, 24 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 Yu is a fantastic artist I feel his style 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 is the guy with eerie white slits.  Despite this I do like Yu's art.  He's currently working on a Superman analogue called Superior with Mark Millar for Marvel Comics, which I'm looking forward to greatly.

Which brings us then to the latest attempt, Geoff Johns' and Gary Frank's Secret Origin.  I've argued that, at least in my opinion, there is a place for another Super-Origin tale, but is this one actually any good?  The answer is yes, yes, yes!  Rather than dump this one on our lap DC have wisely spent the past five years weaving the changes wrought by this origin into continuity and teasing fans as to what this new origin might involve. And it involves everything great about the origin from the past 70 years. Secret Origin contains aspects of Man of Steel and Birthright, for example the way Byrne let Lana Lang in on the secret identity and the way Waid returned young Luthor to Smallville. It contains aspects of the Silver Age, for example Clark's indestructible glasses, Superman's indestructible costume and the Legion of Superheroes. It brings in fantastic touches from other tales of Superman's youth.   Clark flies for the first time rescuing Lana from a tornado, just as he did in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Superman For All Seasons.  Perhaps most obviously Secret Origin uses a lot of imagery from the 1978 Richard Donner movie.  Frank's Superman is the spitting image of Christopher Reeve and Lois meets Superman for the first time while being rescued from a helicopter falling over the side of a building.

This isn't just a collection of greatest hits however.  Johns brings lots of new touches to the Superman myth.  The Parasite and Metallo are both given much needed updates.  Rudy Jones has always beeen depicted as a faceless nobody before he was transformed into the Parasite.  Johns depicts him as a parasite by nature even before his accident.  This new version of Rudy Jones is a chubby spunger who mooches sandwiches from Clark Kent and his transformation into the Parasite seems very fitting.

John Byrne gave Metallo a great update shortly after Man of Steel.  Byrne wrote him as a petty criminal who was rescued from a near fatal accident by a mad scientist who placed his mind in a robotic body in order to defeat Superman.   This is a perfectly good super-villain origin, but I was always disappointed that Byrne's Metallo design made him look like a Terminator rip-off.  In Secret Origin Johns returns the character to something resembling his classic look whilst simultaneously updating his backstory.  Metallo is now Sgt. John Corben, a military bully who was jilted by Lois Lane.  Whilst battling Superman on behalf of the military he is fatally wounded and subsequently revived and upgraded by Lex Luthor.  I like that Luthor's now involved in his origin, after all if you're gonna use a mad scientist, use the best.  I also like how Metallo has more of a personal grudge against Superman, it always makes for more interesting villains.

There's plenty more to admire about Secret Origin.  The inclusion of Lois' dad, General Sam Lane as an early adversary was particularly interesting as was Johns' depiction of Superman's relationship with Lex Luthor.  The final confrontation between the two of them in issue six is absolute gold.  But one of my favourite aspects of Secret Origin is the relationship between Lois and Clark.  Lois is not an idiot and she sees right through Clark's meek and clumsy act straight away.  Okay, she doesn't quite figure out he's Superman, but she understands that he's not a man to be underestimated and she's fascinated by his efforts to make everyone do just that.  Johns gives us an interesting new twist on Clark and Lois' relationship.  Clark is meek and mild but Lois doesn't just dismiss him out of hand as she did in the Silver Age comics or the Donner movie.  This Lois is clever enough to see that there's more to Clark than meets the eye and it's easy to believe that her curiousity will one day turn to admiration and then love.

One of the biggest stars of Secret Origin is the city of Metropolis.  Johns' Metropolis is a grubby, cynical place before Superman shows up.  It's as if Lex Luthor has poisoned the city from within.  Of course Superman changes all that just by being Superman.  His presence inspires Metropolis to reject Luthor and become the greatest city on Earth once again.  Johns understands that Superman's greatest power is his ability to inspire.  He can't save the world by ending all poverty and overthrowing dictatorships.  If he heads down that path he's just an alien imposing his will on mankind.  Through his example Superman inspires people to change the world for the better themselves.  For me, this is what Superman's all about.  The following speech that Superman gives in the final issue sums it all up for me. 

There's countless more reasons why I love this story.  It's filled with large, iconic images and beautiful small moments that all absolutely nail the characters and their world.  I haven't even mentioned the art of Gary Frank yet.  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?!

I honestly can't write enough good things about this story.  As much as I love John Byrne's Man of Steel I honestly believe it was time for a new origin story.  Superman: Secret Origin is an origin story that will endure, hopefully even longer than 24 years.


  1. Excellent post Paul. I also really really enjoyed Secret Origins and the changes you mentioned like Parasite and Corben.I wish I had more to say but you touched on pretty much anything I could mention, haha. But yeah, I'd recommend this as well, it's a greatly written comic.

  2. Thanks dude. I noticed there were lots of people slagging the story off on messageboards so I wanted to balance that out with some love. Some people are just so attatched to "their" Superman that anything that deviates from that is automatically dismissed by them. Glad you enjoyed the book too.

  3. Well written, Paul. Superman has always been an idealised person for all other humans struggle to attain to. Not the powers but the man inside. All great myths have been changed throughout time as different generations get their own handle on the stories.

  4. I was also surprised how many comic fans hated this, I love the factit brought something new. As for the Superman looking like Christopher Reeve, my argument there is that Christopher Reeve was picked as Superman because he looked just like the comics all them years ago. Fantastic blog!!!!!! Your love of the characters really shines through.

  5. I just want to say that I really liked Secret Origin, and it's thus far my favorite of all the origins, but I didn't really think any of the Superman origins thus far has been all that good. Although I read Byrne's version when I was a kid, there was always a subtle - yet very strong, if you're not an American, which I'm not - xenophobic sentiment to it that always, always made me uncomfortable. I never quite put my finger on it, but when I lived in the US for college, I finally did -- that last two pages was just that very strong pro-American "It doesn't matter where I'm from, you're in America now and this is how you should act; where you came from and all the old traditions don't matter" stance that made me uncomfortable since, you know, I'm not an American. Those last two pages have always, always tainted Man of Steel for me, even moreso now that I can put my finger on it.

    Gary Frank draws the best Superman I've ever seen. Period. I don't really see why people complain that he looks too much like Christopher Reeve - that is a good thing, because Christopher Reeve looks like Superman! Also, any excuse to not draw Superman with big, bulging muscles is good for me.

  6. I never really considered that before but it's a fair point. Maybe in bringing Superman down to Earth and making him more human/American Byrne threw the whole ultimate immigrant aspect of the character out with the bathwater? I remember reading somewhere that Byrne thought that Superman's pining for Krypton and outsider status never made sense since he was raised from a baby in America. But I think it's definitely possible to argue that Byrne went a bit too far in the opposite direction.

  7. I just finished reading Secret Origin this day..and "I Love It!" simple as that. the looks of supes is also great, looking like Christopher Reeve. superb job Geoff keep it up.......up, up, and AWAY!!!!!!

  8. I loved this origin story, how Geoff managed to meld the silver, bronze and modern Superman is a wonder! It is sad that DC dropped all of this in favor of DCnU. No doubt Grant will do an excellent job but it was never needed as Geoff gave us the Superman I love!

  9. Yeah, I just re-read this post and it's funny how I finish with "Superman: Secret Origin is an origin story that will endure, hopefully even longer than 24 years" when it was only in canon for a year! Oh well, it's still a great Superman story in it's own right and, as you say Anonymous, Grant Morrison will probably do an excellent job.



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