Monday, 9 April 2012

Top Ten Best Superman Origins!!

This month has seen the release of Action Comics #8, the last chapter in the most recent re-telling of the origin of Superman. An appropriate time then, to revisit some of the best versions of that legendary story from the past 74 years! Fellow comics blogger Duy Tano and I put our heads together and compiled a list of what we agreed were the best, most iconic, and most influential interpretations of the Superman origin ever. Obviously not every version made the cut (apologies to all fans of Lois and Clark, Kirk Alyn's movie serials, Super-Friends and Superman:Earth One!) but we feel we've got a pretty definitive list here. As for the order of the list? Well, that's where Duy and I may vary. Check out Duy Tano's Comics Cube for his Top Ten Best Superman Origins. In the meantime, let's have a look at my list.....

10) Smallville (TV)

Of the list Duy and I compiled, this origin is my least favourite. I'll be honest, despite my love of Superman I'm not much of a Smallville fan. I watched the first series as it was originally broadcast and I got tired of the formulaic, monster of the week plots. I gave up after that but I've been told by many different people that it gets better so I may check it out again one day. But this isn't the reason it's my least favourite origin on this list. Smallville may not be my cup of tea but I've got a lot of respect for it. It brought many wonderful aspects of the DCU to a much wider audience; Green Arrow, Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg, the Justice Society and of course, the wonderful legend of Superman itself. It also featured Michael Rosenbaum, one of the best Lex Luthors ever seen in movies or TV.

So why then is Smallville at the bottom of my origin list? It's all because of the way the origin itself is depicted. I really dislike the fact that Clark's rocketship brings a meteor show to Earth with it which kills Lana's parents. I understand why this decision was made; in the DVD commentary of Smallville Season One, Al Gough, Miles Millar and David Nutter explain that the meteor shower helped forge the bond between Lana, Clark and Lex as they are all left without one or both parents as a result of it. But I hate the idea that Superman's arrival on Earth caused people to die. For me Krypton's destruction is the tragic part of the origin, Superman's arrival is Jor-El's gift to the world, it shouldn't cause more death.

Having said that, this is just a personal gripe, Smallville is a perfectly valid and immensely popular interpretation of the legend and it deserves a place on any definitive list of iconic and influential Superman origins.

9) All Star Superman (Comics)

In 2004, comics writer Joe Casey argued the following;
"DC has icons. Marvel has characters. And there's a huge difference. You can tell pretty much any story you want with a character. An icon basically has one story... their origin story. An icon allows for a myth. The best myths have beginnings, middles and endings. The only story that Superman really works in is his origin story: Alien baby sent to Earth. Raised by pure-hearted farmers. Discovers his true heritage. Moves to the big city. Becomes Superman (in other words, embraces his true heritage and puts that knowledge into action). As far as I'm concerned, once he puts on the cape and the tights, we've got our happy ending and the story is over. The myth is complete. Sure, you could throw in a few battles with his greatest enemies, but that stuff is just icing on the cake."

The following year Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Casey was talking out of his arse by getting the origin out of the way in one page and then proceeding to give us All Star Superman, twelve issues worth of arguably one of greatest Superman stories of all time. In your face Casey!

I don't believe this is, as some have argued, the greatest depiction of the origin ever. If you'd been living in a cave all your life and had never heard of Superman then this origin would tell you very little about the character, and certainly wouldn't convey the tragedy and the wonder of the full story. In the context of All Star Superman however it works a treat, and it certainly deserves a place on this list.

8) Birthright (Comics)

In 2003 Mark Waid wrote what should have been one of the all time greatest Superman origins ever. No matter what kind of Superman fan you are, Birthright's got something for everyone. Interesting Silver Age elements are placed back in continuity, elements from John Byrne's '80s Superman reboot are retained and new additions to the myth are added as well. The first chapter depicts Clark Kent travelling around the world, earning his journalism qualifications and learning about himself and his place in the world in the process. Clark meets and is inspired by a West African activist named Kobe Asuru, who at one point delivers a speech to Clark that may as well be Superman's official creed;
"I'm no hero Clark, I simply want to make a difference. If I do perhaps others will as well. Perhaps we'll all leave our mark. There's nothing more wonderful to hope for....If you wish to be part of the human race you have to get in the game. Otherwise you're simply sitting in the bleachers feeling like you don't fit in. We all have our roles and the world never changed for a man too timid to play his to the absolute limit."
Much of the story focuses on Clark's desire to find his role and his place in the world. He does indeed wish "to be part of the human race."  Waid uses this as a way to explore the similarities and the differences between Superman and Lex Luthor. The two characters are drawn to each other as teenagers, their special skills making both of them outsiders. Later, of course Clark finds his place in society while Lex seeks to set himself above it. Waid successfully adds an intriguing layer to Clark and Lex's relationship that has never really been explored elsewhere, other than in Smallville. 

So, why isn't this tale number one on my list? Two reasons! Firstly, as brilliant as this origin is, it never seemed to take in the way that previous origins had. This, I believe was down to 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. Secondly, it was Lenil F. Yu's art that prevented me from completely warming to the series. While Yu is a perfectly good artist I feel his style is inappropriate for Superman. It's too dark in tone and lacks that iconic, timeless feel that a Superman origin needs. 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. So while Birthright is a fantastic version of the origin, these two factors means it only reaches the number eight spot on my list.

7) Secret Origin (Comics)

Like Birthright, Geoff Johns' and Gary Frank's Secret Origin involves a lot of what's great about the origin from the past 70 years, but for me there are two things that make it stand out as one of my favourites. The first is its depiction of Lois Lane. In Secret Origin, Lois 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.

My other favourite thing about 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;

Gary Frank's art is clean and clear and very easy on the eye, but it's main flaw is that it relies too heavily on imagery from Richard Donner's 1978 movie. Frank even draws Superman to resemble Christopher Reeve. Don't get me wrong, I love Reeve's Superman and I love the movie, but this story would have featured much higher on the list if it had brought more brand new iconic images and concepts to the Superman legend.

6) Man of Steel (Comics)

Man of Steel was a 1986 mini-series by John Byrne that set out to revamp Superman for a new generation. It focused less on the lonely alien aspect of Superman's character and more on his human side. In Man of Steel, what Clark Kent had gained from his upbringing by the Kents was a much more important part of what made him Superman than his Kryptonian heritage. Indeed, unlike with previous versions of the character, Ma and Pa Kent were still alive and still an active influence in Superman's life. Superman was now an Earthman first and a Kryptonian second. As Superman himself put it in Man of Steel #6 "It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me Human!"

I've used this blog before to discuss in great detail why I love Man of Steel so much. It played a huge part in getting me into the character. But why does it deserve a place on this list?

I would argue that it earned it's place here by sheer virtue of it's courage! Unlike Birthright or Secret Origin, Man of Steel was radically different from anything that came before it. The survival of the Kents wasn't the only new twist to the Superman myth. For example, Krypton was depicted as a bit of a crap, boring place to live, as opposed to the wondrous sci-fi Utopia it had always appeared to be in the past. It's also worth remembering that Byrne's first issue of his ongoing Superman series, set straight after Man of Steel, sees Superman getting the absolute living crap beaten out of him by Metallo, and then getting rescued by Lex Luthor! Remember, this was back when Superman getting knocked on his arse wasn't just the first scene in your average episode of Justice League Unlimited. Just a year previously Superman had been juggling planets, and now he was lying bleeding in a pile of rubble!

And yet, Byrne's Superman is still recognisably Superman. The coldness of Byrne's Krypton didn't make the destruction of the planet any less tragic. The survival of the Kents didn't make their wisdom any less relevant to Superman's life. His new-found vulnerability didn't make Superman any less of a hero. If anything, all of these things were emphasised by the new status-quo. The ability to be new and exciting without throwing the Super-baby out with the bath water is what earns Man of Steel a place on this list.

5) DC Animated Universe (TV/Comics)

From 1996 to 2000 Warner Bros. gave us an animated Superman series in the style of their earlier successful Batman series. There's a lot to admire about this particular series of animated Superman adventures, particularly in its depiction of the origin. From a design point of view the animated Krypton is notable in that it successfully combines elements of the Silver Age Krypton with the John Byrne Man of Steel Krypton. This gives the animated Krypton its very own distinctive look that still doesn't seem dated twelve years after the last episode was made. But the most notable thing about the animated origin is that it turns the events leading up to Krypton's destruction into an adventure in its own right. Before this version of Jor-El can go down the well trodden path of rocketing his son off to Earth he must first battle a Kryptonian monster to gain the data he needs to confirm his theories, and then evade the Kryptonian police, who have been tricked into trying to arrest him! Why are the police after Jor-El? Because of Brainiac!

In a stroke of genius the makers of the Superman Animated Series made Brainiac into Krypton's very own computer servant. The people of Krypton had become far too reliant on Brainiac, and so they were victims of their own complacency when Brainiac decided that it would be far easier for him to just collect all the information on Krypton and bugger off, rather than warn the people about their impending doom. Only Jor-El saw what Brainiac was up to and so he was able to rescue his only son!  Not only did this new twist help turn Superman's animated origin into a compelling adventure, but it also forged a new relationship between Superman and one of his most popular enemies.

4) Superman #146 'The Story of Superman's Life! (Comics)

This particular take on the Superman origin from 1961 has everything. Everything! All the various and disparate elements that had been added to the Superman myth since 1938 are collected and explained in this one 13 page story, and that makes it loads of fun! Kryptonian society, Krypto, Supergirl, Superboy, Superman's robots, Ma and Pa Kent, Superman's costume, Kryptonite and the Daily Planet all receive their place in this origin story. Even Clark Kent's glasses get an explanation! But it's not just a list of cool stuff. All the elements that make the origin story so compelling are here too; the complacency of Kryptonian society, the wisdom of Jor-El, the massive role played by the Kents in making Superman the man he is, the story of a boy becoming a man, it's all here. Okay, so it's very much of it's time and it spends three panels chronicling the baking of a giant cake and only one panel in the Daily Planet, but it's still one of the most jam-packed, and one of the most fun versions of the origin ever!

3) Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Comics/Newspaper Strip)

In Action Comics #1 (1938) Siegel and Shuster gave us the very first version of Superman's origin. Krypton is "a distant planet killed by old age" and the Kents don't even get a mention but it was more than enough to set the character off on his path to legendom (is that even a word?). Siegel and Shuster were able to expand on this one page origin over the next few years. In Superman #1 (1939) Krypton and the Kents get named and in the 1939 newspaper strip we see a great deal more of Jor-El and Lara, or Jor-L and Lora as they were known then. Then in 1945 we saw much more of both Krypton and Smallville, as Siegel and Shuster brought us the first adventure of Superboy!

It's worth remembering that everything else on this list, whether it came from the comic, the radio, the TV or the big screen, is just icing on the metaphorical cake baked by two kids from Cleveland. Two kids who hastily cobbled together their newspaper strips into a 13 page comic book story and created one of the best things in the history of the world ever!

2) Superman: The Movie (Movies)

For his role of Jor-El in the 1978 Superman movie, Marlon Brando got paid $16,000,000, and he's on screen for about 15 minutes. This is clear evidence that everyone involved in the making of this movie realised that if you're going to tell the story of Superman you have to get the origin right. And let's face it, they absolutely nailed it!

The first two-thirds of this film cover the destruction of Krypton and Clark Kent's upbringing in Smallville and both aspects of the origin are treated by the film-makers with the utmost seriousness, like they're telling a tale from the Bible. As a result, when the film cuts loose a bit upon Superman's arrival in Metropolis and becomes a bit more tounge-in-cheek, it totally works because the film has spent the past hour giving the character of Superman a thoroughly solid foundation. We know exactly who our lead character is and we totally believe in him and so we're able to completely buy into his fairytale romance with Lois and Lex Luthor's barmy schemes!

The iconography and concepts introduced in this movie have influenced countless interpretations of the character ever since. The crystals, the glowing white suits, the domes, the spinning square of the Phantom Zone. If you stopped an average person in the street and asked them to describe the planet Krypton, chances are they'd be drawing on images from this movie in their description. Assuming of course they didn't look at you funny and walk swiftly away.

It's not just adults with fond memories of the old movies who recognise and relate to these iconic images. Children are discovering and falling in love with these movies all the time. I once worked with a teacher whose four year old son watched Superman II non-stop and would randomly shout out "Luthor, you poisonous snake!" in super-markets. This vision of Krypton was also used recently in both Smallville and Superman Returns. This vision of Superman's origin endures, even 34 years later and nothing so far has been powerful enough to shake it from the public conciousness. Zack Snyder, the ball's in your court.

1) Adventures of Superman Radio Serial/ Fleischer Studios Superman/ Aventures of Superman TV Show (Radio/ TV)

The Mighty George Reeves!

"Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound."

Look! Up in the sky! 
It's a bird!
It's a plane!
It's Superman!

"Yes, it's Superman--strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, race a speeding bullet to its target, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice."

This neat summary of who Superman is, what he can do, and where he came from is one of the most iconic things associated with the character. If you started reciting it to a kid on the street today they'd probably be able to figure out who you were talking about even before you exclaimed "It's Superman!" At the very least the kid would have figured it out before their parent or legal guardian had began to usher them away from the lunatic shouting about Superman in the middle of the street.

Variations on this summary have appeared as part of countless interpretations and parodies of the character over the years. It's part of the language with which we discuss Superman and super-heroes in general. But it was made famous by three interpretations in particular; The Adventures of Superman Radio Serial (1940-1951), the Fleischer/Famous Studios Animated shorts (1941-1943) and The Adventures of Superman TV Show (1952-1958). Each of these had their own slight variations on this summary, but they were pretty much the same.

Of course, both the radio serial and the TV show had different interpretations of the minor details of his origin. For example, according to the radio serial, Superman spent a few decades travelling in space and emerged fully grown from his rocket!  According to the TV show, Jor-El could build a rocket in his living room but needed a flip-chart to explain the imminent destruction of Krypton to "white bearded Roseanne" and the Kryptonian Council. (Yeah, I know it's probably not spelt 'Roseanne' but it made me chuckle.)

But details and intricacies aside, all three of these interpretations stuck to the version of Superman presented in that short summary. And y'know what, so has, pretty much every single interpretation of Superman ever! And that includes every single re-telling of the origin listed in this blog post! Whether Superman is in comic book, animated or movie form, whether he's a more human character or a more alien character, whether he's a street-wise champion of the oppressed or an avuncular defender of the status quo, some things will never change.

He'll always be a strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He'll always be disguised as Clark Kent. He'll always fight a never-ending battle for truth and justice. He'll always be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He'll always be Superman.

And that's the only origin you'll ever really need! Everything else is open to interpretation depending on audience and era.

So, what do you think? What, if anything, should Duy and I have featured on this list? Let us know. And come back soon for my thoughts on Grant Morrison's Superman and the Men of Steel, the most recent interpretation of the origin, as featured in Action Comics #1-8 (2011-2012).


  1. You said it better than I did regarding number 1, my friend!

  2. I personally enjoy the origin of "Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman" but I'm not 100% ready to say that is belongs in a top 10 because of how inconsistent the origin seemed to be from the later New Krypton arc, making it more difficult to figure out the backstory.

  3. "Well is it a dirt based stain, or an oil stain?"
    "I don't know Mom, it's a... bomb stain."

    Haha, Lois and Clark did an excellent job of humanizing Clark in a way that made his Superman antics seem... super.

    Have you ever read the novel "It's Superman!" printed several years back? It's a retelling of the Superman origin that takes place in 1938, and it's pretty darn good. I've got to admit I've always been more of a Batman guy... but there's something about a Superman origin done right... mild-mannered farmboy trying so hard to fit into the big city despite secretly being the most powerful being on the planet... that just grabs you in a very timeless, escapist way.

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