Thursday, May 30

Superman: Birthright (DC 2005)

I was motivated to reread Mark Waid's retelling of the Superman origin for the 21st century by my growing awareness to near certainty that the upcoming Man of Steel movie is going to depend heavily upon it, much as the Nolan-helmed Batman Begins drew a great deal from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. Having done so, I must say I am astonished that it does not appear among the “Six Must-Read Superman Stories” posted on the DC Comics website and blog just a couple of days ago.

Just to mention a some themes that the 2003-2004 miniseries and the 2013 movie obviously have in common: It was in Birthright that the \S/, which originated simply as a stylized “S” but with the 1978 movie became the crest of the Kryptonian House of El, was first explained as a Kryptonian symbol meaning “Hope”; the Kents exhibit a very realistic sense of trepidation and unease as to what might be the consequences should their son reveal himself to the world; Lois Lane tracks rumors of some kind of mysterious guardian angel; Kryptonians invade the Earth. Especially the latter element seems to be handled differently in the movie, where it appears that the invasion is very real, rather than being an elaborate ruse on the part of Lex Luthor, but the previews could themselves be deceptive. Part of me hopes not – if that is indeed a plot twist in the movie, it could be compared unfavorably to Iron Man Three even though Man of Steel is based on a prior source. And, to be sure, Zod doesn't play any part in Birthright. Some lines from Birthright seem to have made their way into Man of Steel, albeit differently: Ma Kent – “'Are we alone in the Universe?' is a question man has asked since time began … and you're the answer (trade paperback, p. 74); Here it's Clark who assures Pa Kent, “You are my [father]” (p. 81). There are plenty of visual images, some of which are iconic and not at all original to Birthright, but striking nonetheless when reading it in light of the Man of Steel previews that have been appearing of late (Clark lifting part of a building on p. 40 is exactly the same angle as the movie's image, albeit without the flames). I hope we'll get an homage to the cover of the original Action Comics #1 in the movie as Birthright gives us on p. 50.

Just to clarify one point, let me emphasize that I am not saying that I think Man of Steel is based upon Waid's Birthright.  Batman Begins incorporated plenty of thematic material from many other Batman stories besides Year One, along with the writers and Christopher Nolan's own ideas (all covered exhaustively by Julian Darius in Improving the Foundations:  Batman Begins from Comics to Screen), and I am certain we will see the same approach taken here.

This is only the second time I have read Birthright. During the period it originally came out as a twelve-issue mini-series, I was trying to restrict my comic purchases to some reasonable number – an effort I obviously failed at in the end – so I did not pick it up as issues, nor even as a hardcover collection, waiting for the trade paperback to appear. Part of the reason was also that at that time I was not really eager to see another reworking of the Superman origin story, even one written by Mark Waid, because I firmly believed that nothing could really surpass John Byrne's mid- to late-1980s accomplishment in … well … Man of Steel. Although it's not quite the Superman I grew up with and I was in my mid-20s when it appeared, Byrne's vision quickly became “my” Superman.  (I still go back to that miniseries and subsequent two years when Byrne oversaw the "post-Crisis" Superman  which I have library-bound in three fine volumes  when I want some good, old-school Superman with modern sensibilities.)  And when I did acquire and read Birthright, I found it hard to get past the art of Leinel Yu, which I have never cared for. Actually, this may be the first place I ever took notice of it, but my opinion has not changed. Finally, I read Birthright during a period, a couple of years into its run, when I was disenchanted with the WB's Smallville to the point that I had given up watching it, and had no interest in elements of that story penetrating the comics. All of which went together to leave me with a distinct Meh... reaction to Birthright. And it fairly quickly seemed to be rendered irrelevant as a foundation for current stories by the changes wrought by DC's Infinite Crisis and Geoff Johns' tenure on Action Comics, which culminated in yet another retelling of the Superman origin in Secret Origin … which was itself swept away in 2011 by the post-Flashpoint New 52 “Nottaboot.” In short, I've had little incentive to go back and revisit Birthright since the first reading.

For whatever reason(s) – reading Birthright in the context of the Man of Steel previews; an ever-growing regard for Mark Waid as a writer whom I have always generally enjoyed but whom I increasingly see as perhaps the all-around best writer in the industry, every bit as innovative as his more flashy “superstar” peers; yes, even a renewed respect for the Smallville TV series to which I returned in its last few years on the air (and have been enjoying even more in its digital-first comic continuation in “Season 11”); and finally something of a “destabilization” of what I might consider the “canonical” standard for the origin story wrought by the quick succession of retellings in a fairly short span of time – I enjoyed Birthright much more this go'round than I remember most of a decade ago. Leaving aside the radical retelling of the story by Grant Morrison in the New 52, I think the story stands up particularly well against Superman: Secret Origin of just a few years later. Although the latter returned certain elements to the story that I had missed since the 1980s, most notably the link between young Clark Kent and the 31st-century Legion of Super-Heroes, I find that the former works much better as a 21st-century origin for the classic Superman. It's quite simply a better-written, tighter, more cohesive tale that better incorporates – perhaps simply because of proximity in time – the new realities of the post-9/11 world. I still wish the story had been graced with an artist more to my liking than Leinil Yu, but even that annoyance did not impede my enjoyment of this fine volume.

The collected edition which I have in paperback includes an appendix which I certainly hope all involved in Man of Steel have read and taken to heart. There Waid outlines the thought process that he went through in pitching his vision to DC and how he managed to balance reverence for the at-that-time sixty-plus year history of the character in all its various incarnations with the needs of the new century. That essay alone is worth the price of admission. Bearing in mind that previews are not the finished product, and sometimes the most promising of previews can lead into the most disappointing of movies, I am filled with hope. If the creators of Man of Steel have taken Waid's points to heart – and the previews thus far seem to indicate they have – I feel we can have confidence that Superman is in good hands.

Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!

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