The last thing the world needs is another telling of Superman’s origin story, particularly in comic book form. Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu and company just did a perfectly good job of retelling it for the 21st century in Superman: Birthright, a twelve-part series that started just six years ago, and even more recently Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and company reminded readers they knew the story like the back of their hand already, so why not just fast forward right through it, in the first four panels of their All-Star Superman?
Of course, DC’s been fiddling with their continuity, and one of the changes of their 2005-2007 Infinite Crisis/52 continuity reboot that many of the things that were done away with in the previous continuity reboot were gradually restored, which left a lot of questions in the minds of those of us who worry about things like when Superman first put on his suit or first met the Legion of Super-Heroes.
So here comes Superman: Secret Origin #1, the first in a six-issue series by the “Superman and The Legion of Super-Heroes” team of Geoff Johns, Gary Frank and Jon Sibal to put our anxious minds at ease.
Johns rather wisely skips over the destruction of Krypton, the rocket ship, the Kent discovery and so on, opening with young Clark Kent already a teenager at Smallville High. He, his parents and his confidant Lana Lang all know he’s a lot stronger and tougher than he should be, but Clark doesn’t know why. When his heat vision shows up, Ma and Pa reveal the rocket ship hidden in the barn, and Clark begins to learn about his origin, which has been kept a secret from him all this time (See? Secret Origin. That works perfectly).
By starting here, Johns stakes out territory that’s less well-explored than Superman’s time as an infant and/or a young man moving to the big city of Metropolis for the first time. His teenage years were obviously covered quite thoroughly decades ago in the Superboy series, and on television in the form of Smallville, but not in as great detail in the comics as Johns covers it here.
Aspects of this have contradicted facts in John Byrne’s post-Crisis origin, and Birthright and Man For All Seasons and and probably any number of other Superman stories before all is said and done, but it does so in a genial, less-aggressive way than it could have.
The execution is pretty solid, and Johns clearly knows what he’s working on is something important and meant to last—the more effective he tells this story, the longer it’s going to last.
The writer has always been skilled and explaining superhero silliness in a way that makes it sound plausible, and he engages in a lot of it here—Why does Clark wear glasses? Why does he wear that suit he wears?
I can certainly appreciate that sort of thing, although at this point in my comics reading life, I’m more inclined to just roll with the sillier aspects of Superman. Of perhaps greater interest is John’s Marvel-ization of the Superman origin, in which Clark Kent manifests his superpowers at puberty (Lana’s kisses bring on heat vision, for example), which is a scary time for Clark, as he faces uncontrollable physical changes that alter the world around him.
Frank and Sibal have already proven how well they work with both Superman and Johns, and the artwork is quite strong, the artists doing a great deal of effective acting through the faces and posture of their players. The one weakness is their use of the late Christopher Reeves as a model for Superman’s appearance.
It works fine when they’re drawing Superman, but here they’re drawing a Superboy, and there are a few panels where it looks like the full-grown Reeve’s head has been attached to a boy’s body, and the results are a terrifying little homunculus. Granted, this is only a few panels, but pages three-thorough-five are going to make it awfully hard to fall asleep at night, as I worry if the tree branch tapping against my window in the wind might actually be Frank’s Clark goblin trying to get into my house.
Wait, did I say the last thing the world needs is another version of Superman’s origin? I apparently spoke too soon, as there are certainly things it needs far less.
Much easier to dismiss than Superman: Secret Origin, and thus to miss, is the second issue of Blackest Night: Superman, the middle chapter of three-part story in which the zombies of Earth-2 Superman and Lois Lane come to Smallville to mess with the grown-up, modern day Superman.
It’s probably unfair to judge this particular comic against Secret Origin, despite their shared setting and characters, since the latter was specifically designed to compete with a couple of classic works and to do as timeless as any DCU comic can be. Blackest Night: Superman, however, is designed to be disposable and unimportant, a little something extra for hardcore fans who are enjoying Blackest Night and want as much of it as they can get.
It’s written by the very busy James Robinson, although there seems to be less writing involved than there is merely applying some particular horror movie clichés, now personalized for this Green Lantern/DC Universe story, to a particular group of characters.
It’s all fight scene, and flies right by. Superman and Superboy fight Black Lantern Earth-2 Superman, who, true to Black Lantern form, tries to hurt the heroes’ feelings as much as possible before attempting to kill them. Meanwhile, Black Lantern Earth-2 Lois Lane stalks Ma Kent on the ground, Black Lantern Pyscho Pirate drives civilians insane with his Medusa Mask powers and, on New Krypton, Black Lantern Supergirl’s Dad menaces Supergirl.
There’s definitely some cool superhero gore, if you like that sort of thing, but I found the whole conflict remarkably small. God-like Superman versus an even more God-like Superman seems like the sort of battle where the combatants should get knocked from planet to planet, but this is basically just a schoolyard fight conducted a few thousand feet in the air.
Pencil artist Eddy Barrows’ ugly, rushed-looking art doesn’t help give the proceedings any additional weight. He acquits himself well with the gross stuff—I liked Pyscho Pirate’s little Johan Hex-like skin-flap, for example, or Supergirl’s dad growing the top half of his head back after she literally knocks his block off— but his tenuous grasp on anatomy doesn’t serve him well when drawing the many characters who aren’t desiccated corpses in the issue.
It is a comic book which ends with a full-page splash of Martha Kent in a ripped skirt, holding a torch aloft and shouting “…it’s on!” In this context, art is really only so important, and if you make it all the way to that page and still feel the need to spend $2.99 to see what happens next, you clearly don’t care all that much about it.
(Note: My colleague O.J., a much bigger Superman fan than me—no images of the Man of Steel, his symbol or his supporting cast adorn my flesh—reviewed Secret Origin #1 on the main site, and you can read his piece right here).