Friday, September 25, 2009

Review: Superman: Secret Origin #1 (of 6)

Superman: Secret Origin #1 (of 6)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Gary Frank
Inker: Jon Sibal
Released: September 23, 2009

The origin of the world's most recognizable hero is itself the worlds most recognizable origin story, perhaps only surpassed by that of one Jesus of Nazareth, and I would bet good money more people can give the story of the boy from Krypton with greater detail than that of the good carpenter. (I believe it had something to do with a virgin and somehow myrrh was involved.) A doomed planet, filled with a race of beings who have ascended beyond their warring past, and reached a height of peace and prosperity marked by great scientific achievements, faces it's very destruction. In a desperate move to preserve their race, one scientist decides to send his newborn son shooting off into the great breach of the universe on a rocket. Landed on Earth, this small child is found and raised by a kindly couple of farmers in the breadbasket of America. Developing powers beyond those of mortal men due to the yellow sun that orbits our planet, and gaining a rich helping of moral integrity from his human adoptive parents, this boy grows to become the greatest hero the world and the universe will ever know. Bearing the crest of his families house, the House of El, this man will fight for truth and justice and be known the universe over as Superman. The end.

This story has been told over and over again, in countless comics, in film, and most recently has been the basis of the television show "Smallville". The journey of boy to man, of child to adult, of immigrant to citizen, of lost foundling to sure hero, is a story that has captivated generations and proved to be worthy of the label of mythology. The true origin story is also one that is becoming more and more well known and equally mythic, that of two Jewish kids from Cleveland who created a hero who embodied the spirit of the age and spoke of their need to transcend their everyday realities. In the process, they created a corporate entity, a franchise and a brand, and this, according to detractors, is what separate it from the likes of the classic heros such as Achilles and Zeus. The names of the Greek gods are not followed by copyright symbols and encircled trademark stamps. They are not the subject of very public and bitter lawsuits. Superman was created to sell comic books, comic books that were used as tools to sell breakfast cereals and novelty items to children. While there is some truth to this, it is an unfair assessment, and it belittles the true intention of the creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as well as the works of all writers and artists who have ever worked on the great slab rock, busily chiseling away their own piece of the grand sculpture of Superman. Siegel and Shuster cared very deeply for their creation and the origin they created for him, and it's everlasting appeal, is evidence of this.

What Superman shares with his Greek sisters and brothers, amongst many things, is that his origin story is one that many artists feel compelled to tell again and again. The great stories of the Greek gods were told by countless poets, historians, philosophers and playwrights, notable amongst them Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, Plutarch, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Seneca. The scholars and historians worked from a perspective of attempting to record the myths and stories as they were told by the people they belonged to, and to flesh out the various alternative versions that sprung up throughout the ancient world. Many of the playwrights used the myths as templates for comedies and tragedies that reflected their own societies and cultural times, concerned less with preserving exact details, more with presenting great cathartic drama.

Parellel to the above list of writers we may place another list of writers: Jerry Siegel, Otto Binder, Edmond Hamilton, Alan Moore, John Byrne, Mark Waid, and Grant Morrison; writers who have been responsible over 70 years for providing many of the stories of Superman considered to be the most definitive. Siegel, Binder, and Hamilton were the three most acclaimed writers on the Superman family of books during the famed Silver Age, and under the guidance of editor Mort Weisinger, created much of what is associated with the Superman mythology to this day. Moore is responsible for the one story considered to be the ultimate coda on that Silver Age, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow". Byrne was the architect and writer of the relaunched Superman title The Man Of Steel, which, upon it's release in 1986, sought to re-establish the character for the modern age. Morrison most recently wrote the highly acclaimed best-selling mini-series All-Star Superman, a 12 issue story chronicling the last days of Superman on Earth, itself beginning with a one-page retelling of the origin story. Waid's most prominent Superman story is entitled Superman: Birthright and it was billed as the definitive telling of the origin story upon it's release in 2003, and it served as canon - mostly - until now.

The story is retold for many reasons; to update the characters and bring a more modern sensibility to the story, to introduce elements into continuity that fit better with the overall universe in which Superman resides, to remove elements that are no longer seen as useful or necessary to the character, and to re-introduce elements that had been removed for these reasons in prior re-tellings. What this all points to is, of course, the confusing and convoluted problems of dealing with a character in terms of it's placement in the greater continuity of a superhero comics universe. It also points to something greater, and far more important; that of our human need to tell the stories of our heroes, especially those stories concerned with their beginnings and their endings. Of the writers and their stories mentioned above, they all are concerned with these two subjects; how Superman came to be, and how he would cease to be.

Upon learning of the impending release of Superman: Secret Origin, I was initially struck by how underwhelmed I was at the prospect of being fed yet another version of the Superman origin story. How many times can this be tread over, how many times can we be emotionally invested in a story when the story beats are ones we can already see coming before the page is turned? Having to re-invent the wheel with each page, whilst incorporating all the above checklist of editorial mandates can make the task of writing such a story both daunting and thankless. Enter writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank. Johns and Frank are most recently responsible for a run on Action Comics credited with reviving the Superman franchise, and it is their acclaimed collaboration that most likely brought about their being teamed for this new telling of the origin.

All of the hallmarks, all the characters and places we expect and who need to be there or else it's just not Superman, are present and in most recognizable forms; Jonathan and Martha Kent are still the loving and warm ideal middle-American husband and wife, Lana Lang is still the first love and still a redhead, Pete Ross is still Clark's best friend, Smallville High School is still populated by an endless stream of fresh-faced mid-Western teenagers, the girls of which Mr. Frank seems most fascinated with dressing in knee socks and mini-skirts. Yep, nothing out of the ordinary at all. Much of it seemed to really owe a good solid debt to the "Smallville" television show, as well, such as Clark's ensemble of primary red jacket over primary blue t-shirt and his heat-vision being activated by his adolescent sexual awakening. (In a knowing wink to the TV show, one of the signatures that adorns the cast on Pete Ross's broken arm is that of one Chloe S. *wink wink*) In fact, upon initial reading, I felt still to be somewhat underwhelmed by it all, hard pressed to understand the need for this new version now if so much of it was not really telling me anything new nor presenting what is known in any new way. After several readings, it occurred to me that I was missing the point.

Sure, I could read this issue as a cynical comic book nerd who knows too much and finds the need to compare what I am reading against what I supposedly know to be true. I could do this and turn the act of reading a comic book story into an exercise in pointless bookkeeping, issue in one hand, pen and legal notebook in the other, ready to check off points that don't seem to jibe with what I already perceive to be truth. I could do this and completely ruin the enjoyment of what is a solid, humorous, and spirited story. What matter is it if something is canon or not, especially when the notion of canon is so amorphous in the comic book world? All that matters is the pure enjoyment this first issue brought me. Life is short and pleasure is often in short supply, so why concern myself with the triviality of continuity when I can watch a boy shoot fire from his eyes and rescue the girl of his dreams from a rampaging tornado?

What I have always been struck by is how the origin of Superman has the capacity to fill readers and viewers with the thrill of wonderment. When compared to the brutal and cruel origin of Batman, that being of the young Bruce Wayne witnessing the bloody and senseless murder of his parents in front of him, the coming of age of young Clark Kent on the sun-kissed fields of Kansas, brought up by two loving salt-of-the-Earth parents, discovering his god-like powers, fills one with hope. It is these feelings of good-will and amazement that the character of Superman is meant to conjure, to allow us to dream big and strive to be better. Reading Superman comics or watching the many cartoons, films and television shows has caused many children to wrap towels around their necks and run around their backyards with outstretched arms, imagining what it would be like to fly. Even for those of us who preferred Batman over Superman, if we had a choice to be one of them, we would always, ALWAYS, be Superman. Superman had the ultimate powers, he had the happy family, he got to be with Lana and, later, Lois (hubba hubba!) In short, Superman was happy and he spread this sense of happiness and joy just through his very presence. Batman is doomed to sadness and loneliness for his entire life, a sacrifice that makes him tragic, noble, and revered in the hero community, certainly, but that also makes him someone no one envies. Superman is envied, but because he brings about so much hope, that envy is superseded by joy. We are happy to have him around. We want to be him.

The best stories are the ones that convey this sense of wonder, that make one want to be Superman. When I stripped away all my cynicism, reading Superman: Secret Origin, I found myself succumbing to these emotions, to the amazement I first felt as a child watching Super Friends on Saturday mornings, beach towel safety-pinned around my neck. Johns and Frank show us that these stories can never grow old or tired, not if they are told with sincerity and heart, both elements these creators bring to this work. They demonstrate that the most indestructible part of Superman are the stories we tell, over and over again. Details may change, continuity may ebb and flow, the needs of editors, lawyers, estates, and corporations may adjust with new modern sensibilities, litigations, and bottom lines, but there will always be a Superman, if we believe in him.

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