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Superman: Birthright (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

You gotta love a good Superman origin. It seems like there are just so many of them floating around, especially in recent years. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run, Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin and Mark Waid’s Birthright were all published within the last decade. You could throw in Kurt Busiek’s Secret Identity if you aren’t too bothered about the weight of shared universe continuity.

All of these stories are interesting on their own merits, worthy additions to the character’s back catalogue, but none of them really completely define Superman as a character. None of them really encapsulate everything essential about the character in the way that a strong origin story really should.

Birthright is a fascinating take on Superman’s origin with several clever twists and wonderful ideas, but it feels somehow inessential. It’s an alternative take, a version which feels – by its nature – somewhat secondary. It doesn’t encapsulate everything essential about Superman, but instead allows as a glimpse at the hero from a different angle.

This looks like a job for...

This looks like a job for…

That’s really the problem with all these different Superman origin stories floating around. Each take offers a glimpse of a particular iteration of Kal-El, but they stand so distinctly apart. Grant Morrison literalises Superman’s journey from Golden Age crusader to Silver Age protector. Johns celebrates the paragon of virtue and the ideal. Mark Waid explores the alien from another world, the Superman who fell to Earth.

These are all potent facets of the character, but they somehow feel rather incomplete. Naturally, some readers will favour one story over the other, but that’s just down to personal preference. Which writer’s depiction of Superman lines up closest with your vision of the character? The problem is that none of these versions of the Man of Steel feel “whole”, in the way that – for example – the origin of Batman in Batman: Year One feels “whole.”

The Superman who fell to Earth...

The Superman who fell to Earth…

Superman has been the subject of several different origin stories in the past decade, but nobody bats an eye. At worst, it’s become something of a pop culture punchline. When Scott Snyder announced his plans to write Batman: Year Zero, he had to assure readers that he still respected and revered Frank Miller’s powerful origin story; even if he did wind up tweaking it a little. It seems strange that so many efforts to provide Superman origin, but one that has yet to tie all the pieces together satisfactorily.

There’s a lot to like about Birthright. Most obvious is the fact that it’s a decidedly “modern” reimagining of Superman’s formative years without feeling like it’s trying too hard. Waid acknowledges that times have changed, and even if what Superman stands for has remained static, he needs to update the way that he defines and portrays that. The best chapters of Birthright are the early issues, when it seems like everything we know about the character is up for grabs. The weakest occur towards the end, as we rocket towards the standard-model Superman.

Faster than lots of speeding bullets...

Faster than lots of speeding bullets…

Man of Steel borrowed a lot of the details of Superman’s origin from a lot of different sources. Clark’s response to the revelation that he is not biologically a Kent was lifted directly from Secret Origin. However, Birthright is a very clear and strong influence. There are lots of little touches – from the implication that Lois had been investigating Superman before he was Superman through to Jonathan Kent’s scepticism about his son’s heroism. (There are also several references to lines featured here, including the whole “are we alone in the universe?” bit.)

However, the most striking (and effective) similarities concern Clark Kent himself. Like Man of Steel, Birthright has Clark doing more than merely hoping on a bus from Smallville to Metropolis. He explores the world first. He broadens his horizons. Man of Steel had him saving oil rigs and excavating buried extraterrestrial ships, but Birthright goes even further. While Man of Steel makes a few polite nods to Superman being a citizen of the world rather than completely unquestioningly American, Birthright actually has Clark spending time in the wider world.

It came from another world... or a LexCorp lab...

It came from another world… or a LexCorp lab…

It opens with Clark investigating tribal wars in Africa, a rather pointed metaphor and the kind of thing I’m disappointed that Man of Steel didn’t attempt. (Instead, Clark’s exploration seems to be primarily American.) Given that Birthright was written in the early years of the naughties, Clark’s presence on the continent – and particularly Birthright‘s emphasis on tribal on conflicts – calls to mind the various atrocities and conflicts which extended across Africa in the nineties and through to the present day.

Superman will always be an American character, despite the difficulty that poses for some writers. Superman is the embodiment of the American Dream, whether or not he is a citizen or whether or not he smashes expense drones out of the sky to make a political point. So putting Superman in Africa and having him witness these horrors gives the character a sense of weight and relevance, particularly when Western (and particularly Bill Clinton’s) guilt over Rwanda still defines our relationship with the region.

It begins again...

It begins again…

“Something happened in Africa,” Clark confesses early on. “Something pretty awful.” It’s a powerful image, and it concedes a sense of collective responsibility for some of the atrocities committed on the continent – a willingness to turn a blind eye to that sort of slaughter and destruction. It’s not easy to digest, and it shouldn’t be. It’s not a problem that Superman can easily punch into submission, and allowing Clark to face that reality as part of his origin (rather than some relativist philosophy lecture) helps make it seem like Birthright is set in the modern world.

Waid also pushes the theme of alienation and isolation to the fore. Birthright is somewhat ahead of the curve on this, underscoring a uniting theme between Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. The world is a different place than it was in the middle of the last century. Superman’s trip from Krypton to Earth once stood for the optimistic voyage to America for European immigrants looking to make a life for themselves in the country. The “huddled masses” could help build something new and more impressive.

Fly-by...

Fly-by…

It wasn’t always ideal. Immigrant communities never really had it easy, despite what the publicity materials might have promised about “the land of opportunity.” Still, that romantic ideal was – perhaps – more convincing back then than it is today. Today everybody entering the country is asked whether they are a terrorist or a criminal, while more work is being done to expand on the fortification of the Mexican border during the nineties. Polls and surveys suggests that America is becoming more racist.

When we’ve reached a point in world history where the President of the United States is asked to produce his birth certificate, it makes sense to focus on Superman’s alieness. After all, given the abundance of ugly conspiracy-theory nonsense that goes on about the leader of the free world, it’s very hard to believe that people today would be entirely cool with a man who can flip tanks and shoot lasers out of his eyes. I’m waiting for the issue where Donald Trump demands Superman’s birth certificate.

Worth a shot...

Worth a shot…

So race and identification are a major part of Birthright. Clark even signposts it on his trip to Africa, with a line which makes me doubt he’s going to have too much skill with the whole journalism thing. “I didn’t think racial barriers existed here,” Clark suggests. His colleague explains, “They don’t. Therefore, in absence of racism, man — sadly — tends to find other ways to discriminate.” Waid hits on that theme quite well. He makes it clear that skin-colour isn’t the only difference that can spark this sort of trouble.

Rather shrewdly, Waid even suggests that Clark is something of an alien in Metropolis. It doesn’t matter that he looks like these people, he’s from the country. Society has become so hostile and so fragmented that even the size of your home town is a something that serves to distinguish you from others. Clark is hassled in the street for the simple fact he’s from Smallville. “Then why don’tcha go back where you came from, cornboy?” His mother even appeals on him to come home. “It didn’t work out like we’d hoped. There’s no shame in that. You’ve done a lot of good, son, but you have to pick your battles. Clark, come home. It’s okay.”

Apparently super-nerdiness is another of his abilities...

Apparently super-nerdiness is another of his abilities…

That’s the beauty of Birthright, and it’s strongest asset. Waid understands that just because America and the world are more consciously and overtly divided doesn’t make Superman any less relevant. In fact, it’s the opposite. Superman matters more now because he represents an ideal that has a significant value. Birthright is best when it talks about Clark and Superman in those terms, and when it sets Lex Luthor up in opposition to those ideals.

Waid’s Lex Luthor is a human being who has succumbed to that isolation and alienation, somebody who has become so convinced that the world is laughing at him that he’s allowed his anger to drive him. “I’m never going to fit in here, am I?” Lex asks. Clark responds, “What, Earth?” Clark is the alien who tries to fit in. Luthor is the human who refuses to. Some of Waid’s dialogue is a little too on-the-nose, and his Luthor never feels as developed as he should be, but it’s a very effective contrast.

Ruth-Lex...

Ruth-Lex…

This makes it clear why Superman and Luthor exist is such sharp contrast. Superman exists to prove “that Luthor’s wrong. It isn’t fear that drives people.” Superman exists to give Metropolis something to aspire towards, while Lex takes great pride in trying to force others to sink to his level. One of the best moments in the book – and one of the best Luthor moments ever – sees the villain breaking some vital info to his rival.

“Ready?” he asks. “Okay. Your homeworld… your race… your parents…? All dead. Gone. Scattered to the celestial winds. As far as the universe is concerned, Superman… You are completely and utterly alone.” It’s a scene which tells us a lot about both characters. Luthor wants to see Superman break. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, he wants to confront Clark with all that loneliness and bitterness and present it as an absolute reality. Luthor wants his own view validated by Superman, his own hatred and anger and isolation. And Superman doesn’t.

If looks could kill...

If looks could kill…

There’s a wealth of other clever ideas here. I like the idea that Clark is confronted with Kryptonian history as “text [he] couldn’t possible decipher integrated with images of a world [he doesn’t] at all remember.” As he asks his mother, “Obviously, we can’t read the text, but I could look at the pictures all day. Couldn’t you?” Superman’s history is a comic book, which is a delightful little idea that works wonderfully.

Waid also provides a pretty solid explanation for the costume, which is a major stumbling block for a lot of Superman origin stories. Clark explains it as “a way for me to use my abilities and yet not feel totally isolated by them.” Waid even rationalises the glasses that Clark wears at the Daily Planet, with Martha offering, “The way the light refracts through the lens, it doesn’t change the colour — but it does cut it.” That perfectly sums it up, doesn’t it? The Clark Kent at the Daily Planet is just a dulled version of Jon and Martha’s adopted son.

Knocking it all down...

Knocking it all down…

Birthright also does a lovely job balancing these modern revisions to Superman’s origin story with a clear affection for the various source materials. Superman refers to Luthor as a “diseased maniac”, a line it’s hard to read without hearing Christopher Reeve’s voice. He also saves Lois from a helicopter. In a delightful nod to the Silver Age comics, he winks at Lois after she thanks him for his intervention. (I also like Luthor’s use of pseudo-science when faking his invasion.)

Leinil Yu provides some wonderful artwork here. It’s weird to see the artist’s rough pencils coloured so brightly, but it works surprisingly well. Yu gives Birthright a decidedly rough edge, reinforcing the idea that this is a version of Superman who is being pulled into the modern age. (Then again, it helps that I am a massive fan of Yu’s work in general.) In particular, Yu gives the final chapters a sense of scale.

Nice catch...

Nice catch…

That said, there are problems. There are times when Waid’s script feels a little too anchored in the nineties. The suggestions about lingering guilt over Africa work fine, and they provide a nice modern context for Superman’s heroism. That said, watching Superman stop a high-school shooting feels just a little bit on the nose – particularly when it’s a small incident with a couple of pages devoted to it. These sorts of murders are still far too common and are still absolutely horrifying, but the whole thing feels anchored in Columbine.

It can’t help but feel like Waid is reworking this twenty-first century Superman as a response to the nineties specifically, which is a little jarring when we consider how dramatically American politics shifted after 9/11. The only real attempt to tackle some of that post-9/11 fear comes when Luthor threatens to detonate a number of suicide bombers around the city, but it doesn’t really feel as potent as it might. For one thing, these bombers are failed invaders; for another, they lack the horrifying fanaticism associated with those sorts of terrorists.

Don't you just burn when you face me?

Don’t you just burn when you face me?

Birthright also suffers a bit as it barrels towards its conclusion. Everything scales up absurdly fast, and so the characters tend to get lost a bit. One of the reasons that Luthor feels a little disjointed or on-the-nose is because he’s only really introduced in the second-half of the story. It feels a bit like Man of Steel, with the more interesting origin stuffed aside in favour of gigantic spectacle and broad-strokes drama. The status quo shifts too rapidly, with the reversal of Superman’s fortune (and even his redemption) feeling to sudden and sharp to have the maximum impact.

Still, as Superman origins go, Birthright is a keeper. It’s a clever and well-written story, presenting an updated origin for the lead character. It’s no coincidence that Man of Steel owes the book a considerable debt. That said, it does lose a lot of its charming intimacy towards the end, as it seems like Waid and Yu feel obligated to give the reader some impressive visuals and epic conflict. It also occasionally feels a little bit muddled, as if uncertain whether this is the origin of a Superman for the late nineties or the post-9/11 political climate.

 

4 Responses

  1. Fantastic review. Love this comic and some elements of it are a great way of doing a Superman origin. You mentioned the way they “create Clark Kent” and I don’t think its ever been done as well as it is here.

    The finale gets slightly too confusing and lost in what its trying to do but I have always thought that Birthright would have been the perfect way to launch Superman on the big-screen. Familiar but different.

    • I actually thought that Snyder did a decent job channeling the first half of Birthright. It might have been nice to see more of Clark traveling, but I liked the delineation the film made between “real Clark” and “Metropolis Clark.” The wheels came off quite quickly, as they do towards the climax of Birthright.

  2. Birthright is Mark Waid as a whole in a nutshell. His take on Superman was so perfect and contemporary, but as a story it’s mediocre. We got a fascinating take on Krypton, great scenes of young aspiring journalist Clark Kent, etc. I remember enjoying the hell out of this. Then once Clark enters Metropolis it becomes a very standard Superman/Daily Planet story, and Lex’s fake alien invasion was too contrived.

    As I said, that’s Mark Waid in a nutshell. Great concepts and solid craft, but thematically weak story.

    I’m interested to hear your thoughts on Morrison’s Action Comics, I haven’t checked if you reviewed it or not.

    • Haven’t reviewed it yet, alas! Waiting for the third hardcover. I think it’s a bit all over the place. I like the ideas, but the execution feels too rushed. And not just in the hyper-compressed “read it ten times to get it” value that Morrison adds sense, more in a “it’s like Morrison’s Batman ended after RIP” sense. And I still appreciate RIP more than I enjoy it. It’s my least favourite part of Morrison’s Batman run. (I love The Return of Bruce Wayne, because I love trippy high-concepts and the “wrongness” of a time-travelling Batman dealing with hazily-defined meta-physical constructs as he invents his own legacy is really the most off-kilter part of the whole run. Although Batman & Robin is marginally stronger, and the jury’s out on Inc.)

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