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Superman: Secret Origin (Review/Retrospective)

March is Superman month here at the m0vie blog, what with the release of the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison’s superb All-Star Superman. We’ll be reviewing a Superman-related book/story arc every Wednesday this month, so check on back – and we might have a surprise or two along the way.

I have to admit that I quite enjoyed Geoff Johns’ run on Action Comics. Johns has been one of the most influential writers working at DC over the past couple of years, so it felt right to see him tackling Superman, after years of working on titles like The Flash and Green Lantern. It was an extra special treat because he brought Richard Donner with him for the introductory arc, which restored a sense of continuity between the comic book superhero and his cinematic iteration. You ask anybody to picture Superman, and I promise you that they will imagine Christopher Reeve with his cape flapping in the wind – it feels like the definitive version of the character. And I felt that Johns really tapped into that aspect of the icon. So, I have to admit that I was pretty excited when it was announced that Geoff Johns would be returning to tell the character’s origin story, his Secret Origin, if you will.

That's one super life he's lived...

Part of the thrill is the fantastic artwork of Gary Frank, who renders Superman as if he were still Christopher Reeve. His artwork was the highlight of Johns’ run on Action Comics, and it doesn’t disappoint throughout this eight-issue miniseries. It looks wonderfully impressive, whether the characters are chatting in a small room or brawling through the streets of Metropolis. Frank does great work with facial expressions, and handles each shot as if he were framing a film – which perhaps underscores just how closely tied to Richard Donner’s Superman this particular comic is.

I suppose that’s a strength or a weakness, depending on how you look at it. I can see the argument that the comic book character should be kept distinct from Donner’s version of the character, just as much as I can understand that perhaps the character needs to move on and forward, rather than wallowing in nostalgia for a film made over thirty years ago. Still, I get good feelings when I hear familiar lines like Jor-El’s projection reminding his son, “you are not one of them.” Similarly, I get a bit giddy when Clark delivers lines that remind me of Reeve in the role, whether it’s an innocent “gee” or remarking that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day.” I liked a framed headline referencing the plot of the first film, “Luthor’s Latest Land Grab.”

Johns doesn't shake things up too much...

Although I can understand the criticisms, I can appreciate that this isn’t necessarily the proper place for them. Unlike the origin of, say, Wonder Woman, there’s nothing in Superman’s origin story that especially needs to be repaired or mended. I would be amazed if you could find me a single person who didn’t know the broad strokes of Superman’s background. It’s simple, it’s snappy, it’s straightforward. It ain’t broke, so there’s no need to fix it. You could argue that this pretty much makes the entire effort pointless and redundant, but it explains the nostalgic tone. Unlike a character with a tangled backstory or origin, there’s no need for Johns to reinvent him.

It’s a very similar position to the one that Batman found himself in when Frank Miller was drafted to write Batman: Year One. It wasn’t that the character was altered by the recent sweeping continuity changes at DC – in fact, compared to Superman or Wonder Woman, Batman was relatively untouched. However, it was felt that it was the perfect time for Miller to go back to that one-page origin from Batman #1 and flesh it out a bit, putting his own slant on it.

The comic occasionally soars...

Of course, Miller found a lot of paydirt in retelling that one-page origin as a four-issue arc. Whatever David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan may say, there’s a lot of that story in Batman Begins, another wonderful look at Batman’s early years. However, this brings us to the main problem with Johns’ Secret Origin. Both Miller’s story and Nolan’s film found something wonderful in Batman’s background – they explained some pretty basic concepts about the character which we never realised needed to be explained. For example, we needed to learn why he chose bats – or why he needed to play dress-up instead of becoming a cop. Although the idea of a man putting on a cape and fighting crime was still ridiculous, the audience appreciated that his motivation had been explained – granting the character an almost emotional honesty which had previously been missing.

There is nothing like that in Secret Origin. Johns is primarily concerned with explaining the technical details. He explains why Superman’s costume is so tacky, for example – his mother made it for him, based on recordings of Krypton. He explains why Clark wears glasses – to control his heat vision, which develops at puberty as a sexual metaphor. These are all interesting little insights, and it’s to Johns’ credit that he handles them so well – there’s a lot of thought put into them. However, there’s very little reason given to why Clark puts on the costume and fights crime.

Jonathon Kent was a driving influence in his son's life...

Does he fly around the world helping people because he feels responsible with his powers? Does he do it out of a sense of debt to the planet that raised him? In the second chapter, the Legion of Superheroes (a team from the far future) show up and basically tell Clark that he’ll create a generational legacy of do-good vigilante activity – this is the closest that we come to establishing character motivation, which feels a bit cheap. It’s as if he’s saving the world because he’s been told that he will save the world. We get no reason, for example, why Clark (who has difficulty telling even the smallest lie) adopts a secret identity to help people. Given he’s one of the first major superheroes active since the Second World War, so it can’t be standard practice, it seems a cynical move from an otherwise optimistic character.

I don’t feel like I know Superman any better after I read the book. I’ve seen a series of big events featuring the character, a “greatest hits” sample from his early years, but I don’t think that there’s any true insight into the character and how he works. I’m not looking for the writer to fundamentally alter the character or revise him – Superman’s so iconic that it’s hard to imagine a major shift, and this really isn’t the place for it – but I would like to understand more about the superhero for reading the story. It’s as if Johns doesn’t quite have a grasp on this facet of the character.

Lex sees only green...

Which is a shame, because he very clearly understands the Clark Kent section of the equation. Clark is skinny nerd that we all used to worry about being. He’s insecure in his appearance and how his peers treat him. In a rather wonderful conversation, he meets a team of heroes from the future. They tell him something that every teenager deserves to hear. “You might not believe this today, but you won’t always feel like this,” Saturn Girl assures him. “Sometime soon the world will accept you for who you really are.” A lot of the story focuses on reflections – Clark is continuously catching his own self-image in a reflective surface.

The story is about how Clark sees himself. It’s about his identity and his place in the world. When Clark discovers his alien heritage, he cries. “I want to be your son,” he tells his parents, after discovering that everything about himself is a lie. Geoff Johns has always, in my opinion, been great at cutting through a character straight to their heart – discovering some facet of the character which resonates with the audience. Perhaps this is why he struggles with Superman, the dude who wears the costume. Superman is perfect by definition – he’s not something that the audience can ever relate to, and perhaps that’s where Johns runs into trouble. However, Clark is just a little boy who wants to have a normal life. He’s a scared kid – and that we can all relate to.

We can all be super, man!

This makes it somewhat more difficult to understand the “Superman” part of the equation. A lot of people wonder why a superpowered alien would bother to play human – if you could be “super” all the time, why would you ever be normal? Johns answers this question, but he begets another – if you wanted to be normal and could pretend to be, why would you ever be anything else? This is the missing part of the equation, for me.

It’s a shame, because Johns works quite well with the rest of the supporting cast. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White all get fleshed out a bit. Even relatively two-dimensional villains like the Parasite and Metallo get a hint of development. None of it is especially revolutionary, but I do like Johns’ take on Luthor. Luthor is, of course, a hero in his own eyes. And he, honestly, sees Superman as a threat to the planet (and, perhaps more importantly, his own ego). “And do you expect us to bow down before you in return?” he demands of Superman, highlighting his xenophobia.

A night in shining armour?

Of course Luthor fears what Superman could do with his power – what do you think Lex would do if he had that sort of power? Why should Lex comprehend that Superman could possibly be altruistic, when he honestly would use those powers for his own gain? It isn’t that he sees Superman as a “good guy” and himself as a “bad guy” – he simply considers Superman’s routine a “charade”. It isn’t that Lex loathes Superman because they are so different, it’s because he fears that they could be so alike.

Johns cleverly stays true to the character’s core. At its heart, Superman is essentially the story of the immigrant experience in America – the dream that you can come from anywhere in the world and help build the country. Of course, the main threat isn’t bald scientists or venture capitalists, it’s racism and xenophobia – the kind of thing that perhaps isn’t as explicit these days, but is still present. “But you’re not an American, are you?” General Lane asks Superman at one point. “I consider myself an American,” Superman responds, clearly wanting to help. “But you’re not,” the stone-faced military officer replies. As Metallo beats Superman, he demands, “So why don’t you leave?”

Same old Luthor, more or lex...

The comparisons are obvious – Superman finds himself a victim of prejudice. Of course, nobody calls it racism or xenophobia, but the implication is clear. Lex, ever the smart one, even uses it to push the public’s buttons – manipulating them while they remain unaware. The newspapers initially brand Superman an “outsider” – a more politically correct way of calling him a “foreigner”. Lex even warns General Lane about how close Superman is getting to Lois. “The relationship that these two are developing,” he remarks, calling to mind the racist attitude to mixed race couples, “It’s unnatural.”

All of this is good – very good, in fact – and there’s no doubt that Johns hasn’t done his homework. He knows the issues and ideas inside and out. He knows what it takes to write a good Superman story, and this storyline is certainly consistently entertaining. However, it’s lacking a certain “je ne sais que”. There’s never a “eureka!” moment, where suddenly I understand the Man of Steel better and more thoroughly than I ever did before. There’s no missing link uncovered which answers a question that I knew was sitting at the edge of my mind, but which I could never quite articulate.

Lois and Clark...

I think, given that the book represents a retelling of Superman’s origin story, it’s worth talking about “accessibility”. It’s one of those buzz words that gets thrown around a lot – something which merits discussion in this era when the medium is losing readers fast (and not gaining replacements). So, does the story work without an in-depth knowledge of the Man of Steel? Mostly. I’m really not sure why we needed a bunch of time-travelling teenage characters in the second chapter (and, even though I’m a bit of a nerd, even I’m not too hot on the Legion of Superheroes), and that’s the one bit which just throws the rest of the book off. I’d almost recommend that new readers skip that chapter, especially those who are looking for a Superman origin.

Perhaps that sounds a bit harsh, but I hope it doesn’t. I am very much looking forward to getting my grubby little hands on The Great Darkness Saga, perhaps the definitive Legion of Superheroes story. However, the team isn’t the most accessible franchise in the DCU by a long shot, and they slightly derail the story. Superman’s origin features all manner of iconic creations that any person on the street could recognise, and then these random characters show up and disappear again in the second chapter? I realise that there are continuity reasons that Johns or DC might want to include them in the narrative (Legion continuity is a thorny issue, even to uber-nerds), but I’m not sure that I’d hand a newbie the graphic novel, even if they wanted a Superman story. It’s not as “clean” as Frank Miller’s two Batman epics, which had a clarity of focus which the second chapter just prevents this story from every achieving.

Superman made John Corben green with envy...

That probably sounds a bit unfair. In fact, it probably is a bit unfair. Superman: Secret Origin is a very good read. It’s as interesting a take on Superman’s origin as I’ve read. It delivers thrills and action and character, while feeling like a proper old-fashioned Superman tale. I just get the sense that it really should be a little more than that.

You might also be interested in our reviews of other Superman stories including work from the author:

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5 Responses

  1. Johns pretty much just writes his elad character however he wants, with little regard to past characterisation. Barry Allen didn’t need dead parents in order to seem interesting (at least I hope he didn’t), and it’s frustrating that Johns is so dedicated to essentially writing his own version of comic book history – like the whole “Parallax possessed Hal” retcon.

    • I suppose you have a point, but I think that Johns typically manages to make his characters a lot more engaging. For example, a lot of the Silver Age DC characters (Hal Jordan or Barry Allen) were relatively blank slates, especially compared to their Marvel counterparts. I haven’t read enough of th erelaunched Flash to be able to tell yet, but Johns’ version of Hal seems more like a real character than the version in the first six versions of the archives. Similarly, his version of Sinestro makes the character seem three dimensional and has made him one of my favourite comic book villains.

      I like his Superman because Johns avoids humanising him so much. There’s still a great deal there – to Johns, Superman is the son of a salt-of-the earth farming couple, and that’s all he wants to be – but there’s a sense that Johns is more comfortable with Superman as a relatively “flawless” character (as compared to his own work on, say, Hal or the work of other writers to add “depth” or “edge” to Superman by making him more conflicted).

  2. I think his “Superman” persona is an expression of his “honesty”.

    Sure, he COULD pretend to be JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, but he needs an outlet for coming to grips with the fact that he ISN’T.

    He acutely hears screams, car accidents, and the like. As a reporter, he understands the extent of human suffering very well (especially with his x-ray vision.)

    When his heart goes out to people, he KNOWS he can do more about it than most people around him.
    …and at his base, he can’t go on pretending otherwise.

    • Yep, but why not be Superman all the time then? If he can make the world better by being Superman, why not devote himself to that, rather than living as Clark Kent. Hell, why not make Clark Kent Superman? Why hide his secret identity? Arguably to protect Ma and Pa Kent, even though it’s never brought up. It’s clearly not to protect Lois or Jimmy, as they both have strong ties to Superman as well.

      I like Johns’ story, but I think that he never explains how Clark, who has difficulty telling the smallest lie, can execute perhaps the biggest lie possible without batting an eyelid. He does hint that he’s very good at it (as with Quitely and Morrison’s version, he adjusts his voice, his posture, everything), and it’s more a mark of Lois’ keen ability that – over the course of the novel – she almost deduces his secret at least twice.

      Personally, I think that Clark is Superman shunting a little responsibility – it allows him to live the life he would have had if he really was Pa and Ma Kent’s son. I’m not pretending he doesn’t deserve it or anything, but it’s still curious how a man who vows never to tell a lie can have a secret identity. I understand why he won’t give that up – but I’m curious to know if Clark will acknowledge to himself he’s being a tiny bit selfish, or if he can’t admit it to himelf.

      I think that’s the missing piece of the puzzle to me, much like how Miller explained why Bruce Wayne didn’t become a cop or philanthropist or Christopher Nolan explained why he became a bat (in more depth than “it flew in through the window”).

  3. To use the word “selfish” to identify an act of satisfying a want puts the issue in another context.

    Keep in mind that honoring all of his commitments to regular superheroics, the Justice League, Legion of Superheroes, and his human family all take time and energy.

    It COULD be contextualized as “selfish” for him to abandon his family to be superhero 24/7.
    It’s a matter of where your wants are directed (and how they’re satisfied) that determine their moral value.

    That being said, even Superman is allowed certain character flaws while still being mostly good/right.

    If the secret identity IS still determined to be a “lie”, then along with his refusal to speak on political matters are flaws that can keep him interesting enough to write about, that aren’t going to CHANGE any time soon, that are kinda essential to maintaining the character as we know him.

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