The thing is, it’s really hard to build actual stories on a sound bite. And in another sense, hard as it may be to believe, Superman as seen in the comics hasn’t had a coherent origin for the better part of a decade now.
Superman’s backstory was fairly consistent for decades, from its first full telling in 1948’s Superman #53 to 1961’s classic Superman #146 all the way through 1986… notwithstanding lots of retroactive detail that got inserted over the years (especially under Mort Weisinger’s editorship in the ’60s) and a few minor tweaks to accommodate the Earth-1/Earth-2 split. The cumulative history was enough to justify a Superman Encyclopedia in the late ’70s compiling it all. Then all that was swept away in 1986, in the aftermath of the continuity-reshaping Crisis on Infinite Earths, with John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series and the simultaneous relaunch of all the Superman titles. It was controversial at the time—particularly for the way it retroactively erased Superboy—but it provided a clean slate on which to create new Superman stories in the new DCU continuity.
For a while.
Then in 2000, as part of a change of creative teams, Superman experienced a “time storm” that left his backstory in doubt. In 2003, DC published Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright mini, which confused things even more, as it contradicted MoS in many respects but was never acknowledged as fully canonical either in-story or by the editorial PTB. In 2006, Infinite Crisis shook up the DCU again, though not as severely, and in the aftermath hints were dropped about a whole new set of changes to Superman’s backstory—nothing comprehensive, though, just various tweaks like another new look for Krypton here and a revised introduction for Mon-El there. The thing is, there was still a relatively unbroken sequence of stories tracing back to MoS in 1986, and characters and events from many of those stories were still being used or referenced regularly. Confusion reigned.
Now, after a seemingly interminable wait (for those of us who care about these things), comes Superman: Secret Origins—issue #1 was released this week—by writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank. It’s the new Definitive Version. And it’s… not bad.
First impressions first: visually, this book is gorgeous. I enjoy Gary Frank’s clean, clear art style, and it’s well-suited to these characters. He clearly models his portrayal of Clark on Christopher Reeve, but I’m okay with that; it’s a nice tribute and fits his style. The other characters aren’t modeled so obviously, but still capture a real sense of individuality, something many comics artists can’t manage. The faces and body language are emotionally evocative; the storytelling is dynamic. And Brad Anderson’s coloring, wonderfully vivid without being garish, deserves a mention as well. The definitive Superman artist for me will always remain Curt Swan, but time marches on.
As for the story?…
I tend to have mixed reactions to Geoff Johns’ work. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes painfully lacking. But he’s obviously DC’s go-to guy for character revamps in recent years (from the JSA to Green Lantern to the Legion to the Flash), and he’s been involved with the latest Superman relaunch from the start, so it’s no surprise that he was tapped to write this as well. It’s also no surprise, since we’re talking about DC’s flagship character, that he’s playing it pretty safe.
This is where we get to see how much prior planning really went into the bits and pieces that have been revealed so far. This isn’t a from-scratch reboot, and it’s not nearly as radical a reimagining as Byrne’s post-Crisis version was. Johns isn’t totally wiping away Byrne’s contributions: Clark still develops his powers in adolescence (although he was no longer a high school football star), and Lana Lang still knows his secret (in fact, she discovers it even earlier), and we know (just to remain consistent with current comics) that Clark’s adoptive parents will survive into his adulthood. Nor is Johns completely reintroducing Silver Age elements, at least not without a modern twist—although we know that Superboy (in a more sub rosa form) is back in the mix, as is the Legion of Super-Heroes.
What’s perhaps more significant than the comics influences, though, is the way he’s integrating themes and tropes from film versions of the story, ranging from Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman movie (Johns is a friend and former assistant of Donner) to the Smallville TV series. It’s not just details like the data crystal in Kal-El’s rocket, or basing the S-symbol on a Kryptonian emblem; it’s characterization as well. The depiction of Clark as lonely and isolated, uncertain about his developing powers, certainly evokes those versions more than anything from past comics.
(This is hardly unexpected, given DC executive editor Dan DiDio’s expressed goal to have the comics present the “most recognizable” versions of DC’s characters and concepts… which more often than not, at least in his view, tends to equate with mass-media portrayals. This editorial agenda is only likely to strengthen in the wake of Time-Warner’s recent management restructuring at DC.)
The result is a remix. A mélange, a mosaic. It’s the “greatest hits” version of Superman’s history… or at least, what the current decision-makers consider to be the greatest hits. Johns borrows elements from every era and every portrayal without quite imitating any of them.
The actual storytelling is formulaic, although skillfully executed formula. Johns has never been one to eschew anvil-dropping symbolism (like having Lex Luthor living literally on the wrong side of the tracks) or easy plot contrivances (like having a tornado spring up and threaten Lana to prompt a rescue by Clark). Still, most of the character relationships and motivations feel convincingly genuine, and the exposition (central to this whole project, after all) is integrated smoothly into the story.
As a reader who cares about continuity, so far this doesn’t look like a revamp that forces any drastic changes to the character we know from the past 23 years of history. As a general principle, I try to reconcile published post-Crisis stories to the greatest extent possible, so my operating assumption is that any aspects of older stories not explicitly contradicted here still remain valid… which actually leaves most of Superman’s history relatively intact. The reinterpreted Krypton (perhaps the most blatant manifestation of the “mosaic,” as currently being explored in the World of New Krypton mini) is probably the most dramatic change, but still we know that Superman’s “death” and resurrection happened, and thus the elements of Kryptonian culture and technology that saturated those stories must be retained in some form.
The most troubling aspects to me thus far, in terms of both continuity and storytelling, are twofold. First is the reinsertion of Luthor as a presence in Smallville during Clark’s teen years. Yes, this was a (retconned) aspect of the Silver Age Luthor, but never a convincing one. It was greeted with great skepticism when it was incorporated into the Smallville TV show, and with good reason (notwithstanding Michael Rosenbaum’s talented acting). Personally I think one of the best aspects of the ’80s reboot was the version of Luthor who was a ruthless businessman and self-made billionaire, who was a contemporary of Perry White rather than Clark Kent, and who never met Superman until adulthood. That version is sadly gone now. In its place the teen-in-Smallville version was reintroduced in Birthright, then recapped somewhat differently in Countdown #34, and the portrayal here seems somewhat different again from either of those. Where Johns is going with this remains to be seen, but presenting Luthor as a cackling, antisocial egotist from his very first appearance doesn’t seem at all promising.
Second is the reintroduction of Superboy. I don’t mind having the new/old Legion back (although the way it was restored was hamfisted and needlessly confusing), but having Clark don the red-and-blue tights as a teen rather than an adult seems a step too far. Indeed Johns seems to recognize as much, given the self-aware ironic twist he adds via Clark’s own unenthusiastic response to the costume on this issue’s final page. Next issue is the Legion spotlight, though, so we’ll see how prominent that teen costumed career actually turns out to be.
It’s understandable why creators keep going back to the well to retell the origin stories of longstanding characters. One of the shortcomings of serial fiction is its tendency to embrace the status quo, and an origin story is too often one of the only points in the “mythos” that allows a real character arc with dramatic change. That said, there’s also a danger in retreading familiar territory too many times. In this case the goal seems to be to present a version of the story that’s enjoyable and accessible both to readers who know the character from the comics, and to those who know Superman through other media portrayals… and likewise a version that’s timely and contemporary, but can also stand on its own and remain a consistent foundation for storytelling into the indefinite future. In other words, to be definitive.
So far it’s a decent story reasonably well-told. Honestly, it was more enjoyable than I expected. Whether it will succeed at all of those more ambitious goals, with their inherent tensions, remains to be seen.Tags: continuity, Dan DiDio, DC Comics, Geoff Johns, Legion, Lex Luthor, super-heroes, Superman