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Superman: Birthright
Written By Mark Waid
Drawn by Lenil Francis Yu
Published by DC Comics; $29.95 USD

Superman: Birthright is an attempt to re-tell and re-imagine the origins of arguably the most recognized comic book character in the world. It’s a story that’s etched well into the minds of those that read comic books, as well as quite a large number that don’t. Kal-El’s origin has become a proper American myth.

To most, it’s a simple story: A child from a doomed planet Krypton crash-lands on Earth and is raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, simple Kansas folk, as one of their own. The good they instill in him leads him to a dual life, that of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, and his real identity of Superman. It’s a tale that has been told by many, but it was originated by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster while both were in high school.

The idea behind Superman’s creation was also simple, a super-savior that could protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. Their origin of the character was also rich in Jewish symbolism (both Siegel and Shuster were Jewish); his Kryptonian name, Kal-El means “All that is God” in Hebrew, and his spiriting away in a rocket ship by his parents is remarkably similar to the story of how baby Moses survived the Pharoah’s decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons.

It’s a story that has largely stayed intact since its inception. There have been multiple additions and subtractions to it, however. The biggest perhaps being in John Byrne’s radical re-imagining in the '80s, Richard Donner’s film, and more recently, Miles Millar and Alfred Gough’s successful Smallville television show.

Now it’s Mark Waid’s turn. With Birthright, Waid seems to meld components from all three of those with Siegel and Shuster’s original vision of the Man of Steel into a more modern take on the character. Gone are the timid, simplistic Jonathan and Martha Kent, replaced respectively by a father who worries his son will reject his human heritage, and a mother who not only embraces Clark’s Kryptonian side, but has become slightly obsessed with the extraterrestrial.

Not only has Superman's family gotten new images and personalities, but his friends have as well. Lois is already a world-renowned writer when Clark meets her, but she retains much of the same attitude afforded her in the last decade or so. Jimmy isn’t quite the “aw-shucks” Olsen boy that most are familiar with; he does still possess a slight air of naivety, and his insistence on everyone calling him "Jim" just adds to that, but he’s also got a very open crush on Lois (possibly Waid acknowledging a once popular tune by the spin doctors called Jimmy Olsen’s Blues), so much so that she has a restraining order against him. This speaks a great deal on both of their characterizations in Waid’s new vision. While we don’t believe for one minute Jimmy Olsen is harmful, it’s completely something you’d expect from this incarnation of Lois Lane, and it still maintains that child-like nature of Olsen while hinting at his need to feel more mature.

Then there’s Perry White, who remains pretty true to his core, possibly even a bit more laid back than a few of his depictions. His attitude towards Lois becomes evident while, during a conversation, he’s making a list of reasons to both fire her and keep her. Later, when she’s stuck with newcomer Kent, one can draw the conclusion that this is indeed Perry getting a bit of revenge.

Possibly the most drastic change to the supporting cast is to Lex Luthor, the ever-present (at least, since 1940) thorn in Superman’s side. Whereas most versions of Luthor paint the man as megalomaniacal and bent on world domination, Waid’s version presents us with a tragic figure, someone to be pitied as much as he should be feared. It adds much-needed depth to the character’s back-story, something that Millar and Gough have also added with their interpretation in Smallville.

Probably the most fascinating thing in the book is its portrayal of Clark Kent’s early life, post-college, trying to find his place in the world. Waid seems to be able to cast aside the “big blue boy scout” cookie-cutter image, with which the character is often saddled, with relative ease. The young Clark is very unsure of his place, like most young adults, and is striving very hard to find out exactly where he fits in a world that isn’t his own.

While his choice to become a hero to the world around him is one that you know is coming, the events that cause that decision are very surprising. Waid also manages to subtract quite a few of the goofier elements added in from some of the earlier origin stories.

The “S” that adorns his chest has evolved into a Kryptonian crest, a constant reminder to Clark of his alien legacy. His glasses become a necessity to hide his distinguishing eyes, and much is made about the way he should carry himself as Clark. The clumsiness, while not original to the film version, feels very much like homage to Christopher Reeve’s portrayal. Clark’s link to Krypton comes in the form of an alien-looking laptop, explained by his birth father, Jor-El, to be a history of the hopeless world.

Another, smaller, yet just as important element to the story is Kryptonite, something that wasn’t even a regular part of the comics continuity until after it was introduced on the Superman radio show in the '40s, along with Jimmy Olsen. Fortunately it’s not even as remotely prevalent here as it is in the television show, Smallville, where it’s sort of used as a McGuffin to move the plot along and add villains that can stand up to the young Kal-El. Here, Waid makes it quite the rare element, something that Lex discovers and uses to his own advantages. It also plays an integral part in shaping the villain that comes after, similar to what Millar and Gough crafted on the television show. Again, it adds so much to the character that the fact that Waid has fallen back on a super-hero staple, tying the origins of the villain into the actions of the hero, never even crosses your mind until you’ve put the book down.

Among its minor flaws, Birthright adds more modern elements to the legend, specifically Earth technology. Thus Waid has almost ensured a dated feel to the material for future readers, much like the usage of George Reeve’s hat in the '50s television series, or Byrne’s '80s-era self-involved interpretation. While a good majority of what Luthor seems to be using feels very advanced, such simple things as e-mail, or even just the computers in general could stand out as a bookmark for when the story was written. The story would have also benefited from more information about Clark’s Smallville roots. Perhaps Waid decided to leave that to the fellows running the television show, but the two stories don’t exactly fit together. The disappearance of Lana seems to be a nod back to John Byrne’s '80s re-telling, wherein she goes missing after young Clark reveals his powers to her. Unfortunately nothing is ever made of that in these pages. Perhaps because Waid wanted to leave a little breathing room for himself or anyone that comes after to explore in this new continuity or it could be simply to add a bit of mystery to the Man of Steel’s past.

Yu’s art, like Waid’s script, takes the look of some of Superman’s greatest eras and blends them all together into something fresh and exciting. His Clark Kent and his Superman feel as if they are, indeed, worlds apart. His Lois Lane looks both beautiful and tough, and Jimmy Olsen gets a much-needed new look. While he’s still recognizable, he no longer looks the part of the geeky outcast trying desperately to fit in with the adults. And Luthor is drawn the same way he’s written, equal parts evil and desperate. Much like Waid’s script, Yu seems to borrow from and blend various styles until we’re left with something that feels both modern and classic.

Not only does he borrow heavily from the Man of Steel’s many interpretations, he also manages to add some of the more iconic illustrations. One of Siegel and Shuster’s first ideas for the character was that he is a man powerful enough to lift a car over his head, and the duo saw that dream come to light on the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938. Yu’s version of that cover appears early on in the first chapter of Birthright, but whereas Shuster’s cover presents a self-assured, more mature Superman, Yu’s panel provides us with a young Clark Kent trying desperately to use his powers to help, carelessly disregarding his identity and endangering the lives of the men in the vehicle. The two are strikingly identical and yet paint two completely different portraits of the character.

Then there’s the oft-duplicated “changing” image, Clark Kent ripping his shirt open to expose the “S” underneath. It’s an image we've all seen many, many times, but I can’t recall an instance when it was more awe-inspiring or exciting, perhaps simply because both Yu and Waid make it feel like this will be the first time the Man of Tomorrow will take to the skies. Most amazing, perhaps because of its simplicity, is Yu’s pencil illustration of the picture that adorned the Christopher Reeve’s Superman film. It’s as chilling as I’m sure the picture that inspired it was when it first appeared. It almost begs to have the words “You Will Believe a Man Can Fly” floating a top it. Even such small things as some early Action Comics and Superman covers get integrated into the story, particularly the image of Superman stopping a bullet train.

While not immediately similar, Yu also manages to add the feel of many other Superman eras into the mix. Both his takedown of a helicopter and his battle with some pseudo-Kryptonian technology have the distinct vibe of the short lived Fleischer cartoons. And there are quite a few Byrne-like illustrations as well, specifically during some of the more heated battle sequences.

It may sound like Yu has done nothing but dig his way through the Man of Steel’s visual history; quite the contrary. Between each homage to the many eras Yu manages to add in his own iconic depictions of the character. Probably the most striking of those would be his pencils of Clark Kent swooping from the skies flying over a herd of zebra, or wrestling with a lion, which is even more notable for the fact that Yu takes a small panel on a much larger page to show something that could very well have been a two-page spread. His first full rendering of Superman is as beautiful as the character has ever looked, and the image of him shielding a helpless child with the gigantic symbol of his people is inspiring.

Much like Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent, both Krypton and Earth have astonishingly different styles. Yu’s rendering of all things Earth is indeed gorgeous, but his Kryptonian designs are far and away the most visually stunning drawings in the book. Part of that is due, in no small amount, to the colors of Dave McCaig and the inks of Gerry Alanguilan.

While most modern comics, especially ones filled with action, tend to take a more cinematic approach with the page layout, full page and two-page spreads filling up most of the book in an attempt to create jaw dropping moments, Yu does the exact opposite. He saves the biggest moments for just the right time, and uses each one to maximum effect. The book feels very much like a well-shot dramatic film, with each small scene building up the tension. You can count the number of full page illustrations with two hands, and the number of two-page spreads on one, no small feat for a book that’s well over 250 pages.

Both Waid’s script and Yu’s art combine for a superbly haunting, and extremely emotional ending to this chapter of the Superman mythos. It’s obvious both have a great fondness for the character and all of the baggage that may come along with him, evident by the way both meld what has come before them into what they feel should be the foundation of what comes after them.

The hardcover collection also includes an introduction by Smallville creators Millar and Gough, along with a cover gallery, and excerpts from Waid’s proposal, detailing his thoughts behind various changes in the mythos. It’s a beautiful-looking collection, well-written, marvelously illustrated. While forging ahead into new territory and paying tribute to what has come before, Waid and Yu have given us a definitive take on one of the world’s biggest icons, laying the groundwork for a possible new era, should anyone choose to follow up on what has, and more importantly, what hasn’t, been said within Birthright’s pages. They've provided a jumping-on point for both readers and writers of modern comics. Birthright manages to do what no other Superman comic book has in quite sometime, get the character back to his basic concepts, to tear away all the things that threaten to stifle the monthly stories and present us with something that is infinitely classic and yet amazingly modern.

Projects like Birthright, Red Son, and Secret Identity show that, when given a fair amount of creative freedom, both writers and artists can turn out extraordinary tales that fall under the banner of “Superman comics.” Too often, and for far too long, the monthly books have been editorially-driven, languishing in mediocrity. Perhaps the time has come for DC to take note of the damage done to one of comics’ oldest franchises by simply preserving the status quo, and poorly at that. Meanwhile writers like Mark Waid and others have proven they are ready and willing to turn out excellent work on one of their, and the world’s, most beloved characters. Most longtime readers expect All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly will no doubt be phenomenal, but shouldn’t Superman always be phenomenal? Shouldn’t DC be vigilant about maintaining the quality on all of the books (if there must be more than one)? Not with just big name creators, but with people who have a great passion for the character and want push him past the ordinary, who have committed to giving their best, and editors who will allow them the creative freedom to do so. Works like Birthright should not be anomalies, relinquished to the realm of “alternate reality” by both the company and fans alike. Instead they should be the precedent that all future stories are built upon, a beacon that draws in those who can and will tell good stories. The Man of Steel deserves no less. Grade: 5/5

-- Logan Polk

The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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