09 June 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #1: Superman: Birthright

Here's a new feature. Before he left for St. Louis last August, my friend loaned me his collection of DC comic trade paperbacks. I added them to my pile and, of course, am only getting to them now. Being me, I arranged them into a rough in-universe chronological order, and you get the pleasure of journeying through them with me over the next couple months!

Comic trade paperback, ~314 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2003-04)

Borrowed from a friend
Read June 2008
Superman: Birthright

Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: Leinil Francis Yu
Inker: Gerry Alanguilan
Colorist: Dave McCaig

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: March 2002

(To get that date, I'm being generous and assuming that the joke on p. 88 about the terror alert system was made before such jokes had been beat into the ground, which narrows the story down to the week after the system was announced. But I'm confused as to how this story can take place 13 years ago in March 2002. Is it 2015 now? Or did September 11th happen in 1994 in the DC Universe?)

It's another Superman origin story. The comic book world needs these like it needs more Batman angst. In my mind, the perfect Superman origin hasn't been done, but it would fall somewhere between John Byrne's The Man of Steel and Superman: The Movie. With Braniac there, like he was in the 1990s Superman cartoon. But until this perfect origin is created, I've got no interest in a new origin story.

So perhaps I was a bit biased going into the story. It irked me right from the start. The opening pages didn't help me. I like John Byrne's Krypton-- mostly because of the sterility of the culture there. That sterility has one important consequence: Kryptonians do not engage with one another on any physical level. They do not have sex; they procreate via machines. Their babies are born out of machines. And when little baby Kal-El is launched towards Earth, he has not yet been hatched from the machine. The Last Son of Krypton is born on Earth. I think that's great; that's my favorite part of Byrne's reboot. I think it's perfect in every way. Which means that when this story has a virile-looking Jor-El (he's no Marlon Brando, that's for sure) kissing his wife as the rocket launched off carrying their infant son, my thought is "I liked it better the other way."

Another thing not to like: angst. Superman doesn't have angst. He's not the new series Doctor Who. He's the last of his kind... but he's okay with that. (Except in Superman Returns, where this is executed well. For once.) The family he left behind is one he never knew, one that was never relevant to him in any way, shape, or form. He doesn't spend his time agonizing over how he's not one of us... because he is one of us. He's just a better one of us. Better not because of superpowers, but because of the upbringing he received from his parents. The Kents are perfect parents, who raised a son who does the right thing not because his parents were gunned down in an alley or because his uncle got murdered by a guy he should have apprehended, but because it's the right thing to do. And Clark Kent does not have father issues that result in a twenty-plus pages of a graphic novel being taken up by juvenile arguments, hissy fits, and other antics. Seriously.

Yet another thing not to like: Lex Luthor should not be from Smallville. Lex Luthor hates Superman because Superman is better than he is. Lex Luthor does not hate Superman because Superman was the reason that Lex's hair was burnt off of his head. How small world is that? It's terrible. Lex shouldn't be a mad scientist, either. My ideal Lex is the one from the 1990s cartoon... the corporate villain who can't be matched for sheer power... except by Superman. Yet this comic tries to have it both ways. Lex spent some time in Smallville... yet (ostensibly) has no memory of Clark. Lex has a major corporate empire... yet is bizarrely referred to in all the news reports as "astrobiologist Lex Luthor". Though apparently his astrobiological skills lead him to be able to make wormholes to the past of other galaxies. Of course. It's doesn't help that the story just stops for thirty pages so that Clark can explain Lex's backstory to his father... a backstory his father was present for and already knows.

So: bad Krpyton, bad angst, bad Lex. What else can Waid get wrong? Bad plot. Do you know what I hate? When superheroes save the world from problems that wouldn't have existed without the superhero's presence. How does that make a superhero useful or wanted? That's one of the (many) problems of the Fantastic Four movie-- Doctor Doom was only a danger because he was trying to take down the Fantastic Four. Here, Lex's only reason for invading Metropolis is to discredit Superman. If there was no Superman, there would have been no invasion. Less people would have died if Superman had never existed. Wow, way to affirm the existence of your hero.

Furthermore, I don't think Waid gets Superman. In his afterword, he talks about how Superman is the real person and Clark Kent is the disguise. This same hogwash was peddled in the closing minutes of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, resulting in a generation of teenagers who believe this because they've never correctly experienced the saga of Superman. The real person... is Clark Kent. But not the Clark Kent that hangs out with the staff of the Daily Planet. He's the Clark Kent that helps his parents. Who can be "super" and a good son at the same time. Superman is an exaggeration in one direction, the Metropolis-Clark in another. The Smallville-Clark, however, is the real deal. And though Waid might espouse his view in the afterword... it doesn't come through in the text. The moments we feel closest to Clark/Superman are the moments where he's with his parents, able to be who he truly is without any sort of pretense. No capes, no forced meekness. Just Clark Kent talking to his folks.

Also: the art is horrendous. Just look at that cover. How could anyone think that's attractive? Clark Kent/Superman should be good looking. Lois Lane should be good looking. No one is this book is remotely attractive. Jimmy Olsen looks more like a monkey than a human being. (Maybe that's intentional, though.)

And some of the pictures in this book are just goofy. I mean, what's up with this:

So... did I like anything about the book? Well, Clark's adventures in Africa were pretty good. A good look at what a pre-Superman Clark might have done with his powers. But that's a largely irrelevant thirty-plus pages in an otherwise horribly misconstructed 287-page graphic novel. Oh, and Perry White was well-written. I like the bit with his list of reasons to keep or fire Lois Lane. Actually, most of the Planet staff was well-written, even Lois.

Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu.... I'll just keep on imagining that some day my perfect Superman origin story will actually happen. Until then, I'll crack open The Man of Steel again, pop Superman: The Movie in my DVD player, and keep on dreaming.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

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