Review: Superman: Secret Origin deluxe hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Geoff Johns's Superman: Secret Origin seems to take as its dual purposes to provide some basis for the 1950s Silver Age elements that have returned to Superman comics of late after the Infinite Crisis crossover, and to set up events currently taking place in the Superman titles. The origin Johns presents is tenable and the story is entertaining, with lush buoyant art by Gary Frank, though at times the book seems more concerned with hitting the origin touchstones than telling a cogent story.

Over twenty years ago, John Byrne wrote and drew a stripped-down version of Superman's origins for a new DC Comics era (of which I'm very fond), and the lack of Silver Age elements must have been somewhat surprising for comics fans at the time. Johns's origin might seem similarly unfamiliar to comics fans proper, but whereas Byrne recreated Superman whole cloth, Johns's story is a pastiche of Superman elements from television and movies that will be exceedingly recognizable to those audiences.

Johns's biggest change to the existing Superman mythos is to reintroduce Superman's time as Superboy in Smallville. After young Clark saves Lana Lang from a tornado (a la Smallville), his parents fashion him a costume in the style of the World War II Justice Society -- Clark, we find, likes saving people, but feels adolescent embarrassment at the underwear-on-the-outside costume. This is Johns's attempt at "modernizing" Superman, if that's necessary -- Superman was Superboy, perhaps the corniest of corny Silver Age concepts, but in a reluctant rather than whole-hearted way that makes it still "cool" for modern audiences.

If "legitimizing" Superman's Superboy years seems unnecessary (if you're going to introduce Superboy, might as well do so enthusiastically), I did like that Johns depicts Superboy getting over his initial embarrassment with the support of the Legion of Super-Heroes. The return of Superman's childhood friendship with the Legion is the best part of Johns's Silver Age revitalization, and it's clear here how the Legion's influence fits in with Clark Kent's overall development. The Legion's influence implicitly shapes Superman's later actions; just as the Legion befriends a down-and-out Clark, Superman does the same for Jimmy Olsen, and just as the Legion miraculously promises Clark a better tomorrow, Superman does the same for the previously-faithless Metropolis.

Yet, for an audience out of the comics mainstream reading Superman: Secret Origin on its own, that elements like the Legion only appear once in the story and then never reappear might seem strange -- Secret Origin is a strong and more traditional Superman story than J. Michael Straczynski's Superman Earth One, but Earth One is more self-contained and thematically complete. As with the Legion and Superboy, Johns returns Superman's dog Krypto to his Smallville origins, but only off-panel -- we see Krypto's rocketship land, but never see the dog itself nor does it appear again in the book. It's unclear whether Johns says all he thinks he needs to, or if this is a setup for a Secret Origins sequel or a Superman storyline, but it seems too casual for an origin story. Superman's Kryptonian parents Jor-El and Lara, and Clark's friend Lana Lang, all similarly disappear after the first half of the story, making the Smallville and Metropolis halves of this story feel in part like two separate books.

It's obvious both Johns and Frank let Richard Donner's Superman movie heavily influence this book; gone is Byrne's 1980s-era Superman saving Lois from a crashing space shuttle, replaced with his catching Lois and a helicopter as they fall off a building (Johns stops just short of having Lois actually say "You've got me -- who's got you?" but only barely). Whereas Byne's more modern Clark Kent disassociated itself from the mild-mannered reporter of the past, Johns's Clark Kent is Christopher Reeves's classic bumbling oaf, his secret identity hidden by Frank under too-big glasses and a goofy smile. This approach wouldn't be my first choice, but it's hard not to like it (Johns plays the clumsy Clark especially well in the first chapter of Superman: Brainiac); in addition, Johns offers one of the best beginnings of the Lois and Clark relationship I've seen in having Lois be the only one who can tell Clark's awkwardness is an act, even if she can't necessarily figure out why.

Indeed, at its core I'll say Superman: Secret Origin makes a lot of sense. Johns's Metropolis, in the beginning, is one where the citizens would just as soon trip over as help their fellow man, and the highest they would look up would be to see where Lex Luthor might grant them a windfall. Lois is a crusading journalist, but her exposes become repetitive in that she has no faith in the inherit goodness of anyone; Lois, like Lex Luthor and the people of Metropolis, doesn't believe in miracles, and Superman's appearance is exactly that -- a reason to believe in miracles, in honesty, and in things greater than oneself. I'd reject assertions that this is hokey -- if you can't be heartfelt in a Superman comic, then where can you? -- and certainly I like this better than in Superman Earth One, where Metropolis has to inspire Superman to heroism and not the other way around.

It's interesting that the major villain of Superman: Secret Origin turns out to be the US government. This is obviously meant in part to lead into the later events of Superman: New Krypton, but I think the significance of Superman vs the US government in an origin story can't be understated. For all the loving Superman cliches in Secret Origin (we get "Up, up and away" at least twice), "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" never comes up, and "the American Way" gets a little bit of tarnish. The late-2000s Superman: Secret Origin emerges a long way away from the 1980s' Dark Knight Returns, where Superman was a patsy of the Reagan administration; Johns's Superman is the traditional superhero, but also a free-thinker, someone more suited to playing on the world stage of modern sensibilities than Supermen of the past.

As has been Johns's wont in revamping other DC Comics superhero origins, what is exterior for Superman here ties back to the interior. Lex Luthor officially emerges from Smallville as Clark does (though, showing some restraint, Johns portrays Clark and Lex as acquaintances but not friends). The Parasite is a Daily Planet janitor transformed into a monster by Kryptonite (again, a la Smallvile) and Metallo is now Sergeant John Corben, favorite of Lois's father Sam Lane and obsessed with Lois. Johns also reveals that Lois is now essentially an orphan, estranged from her father and having lost her mother at a young age (canceling years worth of 1990s Superman stories and hewing, again, closer to Smallville), something that immediately endears her to Clark. Items like Metallo's connection to Lois were present in the recent Superman: New Krypton storyline but still vague enough, pre-Secret Origin, to be effective; as Johns is not specifically writing Superman as he was Green Lantern after that character's Secret Origin, I'll be curious to see whether any other writers actually pick up on the varied interrelationships that Johns has established.

Ultimately I think that's what will determine the success of Secret Origin -- whether DC makes sure other writers adhere to it or not. Byrne wrote Superman just after Man of Steel, as did Jeph Loeb after the Superman for All Season soft reboot, and Lex's renewed Smallville origins caught on handily after Superman: Birthright. However, since Infinite Crisis we've already seen an origin for Jimmy Olsen in Superman: 3-2-1 Action and the first meeting of Superboy and the Legion in DC Universe: Legacies that both differ from Secret Origin, such that readers can't be blamed for still being confused. The monster Doomsday's revamped Kryptonian origins, hinted at since just after Infinite Crisis, also get a reference in Secret Origin, and the ongoing Reign of Doomsday storyline will be one such test of Secret Origin's pervasiveness.

[Introduction by David Goyer. Contains full, variant, and unused covers. Printed on glossy paper.]

I'll always have a soft spot for John Byrne's Man of Steel, but Geoff Johns's Superman: Secret Origin is a satisfactory outing -- different than Man of Steel, to be sure, but without quite the sense of sweeping difference that I think Birthright carried with it. Secret Origin is Superman for the masses -- the comic book Superman overlaid with the Donner movies, Smallville, even bits of Superman: The Animated Series. The purist in me wants to reject that, even as I know that it's probably the Superman with the best chance of reaching the multimedia audiences that DC Comics (and their multi-genre product arm DC Entertainment) needs to reach right now.
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17 comments:

  1. I think it's clear that DC is updating their core heroes to make them instantly familiar to the more casual movie/TV fans. Not saying it's wrong; they hope that people seeing the movies/shows will give the comic the chance, with the thinking that they are more likely to stick with a character who feels like the same one from the other media.

    You mention DC: Legacies has a different Supes/Legion meeting; I find that interesting, as the two series (Legacies and Secret Origins) were not very far apart. You would think they could coordinate better on that!

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  2. I don't want to criticize too much a book I haven't read, but I understand DC: Legacies is all sorts of confusing, from characters and costumes drawn at Superman's funeral who shouldn't have been there, to the Silver Age Supergirl making an appearance. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a trip back through DC's history for the sake of it, but as this book was promoted as the next "History of the DC Universe," it seems to me it does more harm than good.

    See our friends at Comic Box Commentary about said Superboy/Legion meetin.

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  3. I liked Superman: Birthright, although I still have problems with the art.
    Superman: Secret Origins... I JUST LOVED IT!!!. Maybe because I'm a huge fan of the movies, and the way Jones and Frank handle it, well, it was like watching Christopher Reeve doing his thing again.

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  4. I picked up Legacies in singles (as I was unsure if it would be collected), but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. I tend to read the few mini-series that I buy in singles the same way I read collections - wait until I have it all and then read them together.

    Anyway, I just checked out that Comic Box Commentary link and it seems the Legion/Superman meeting is not meant to be anything but non-continuity fun. So I retract my earlier statement about coordinating with the story in Secret Origin.

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  5. And I'm not anti-fun, but it would seem to me that DC: Legacies -- purely because of the way it was advertised -- isn't the place for non-continuity antics (though I thought the story was pretty funny).

    That I found myself holding single issues until I had them all, and then reading them all together, was one reason why I went wait-for-trade. I wonder if that's common among readers to wait until they have all the single issues to dive in.

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  6. Some people regard Superman: Birthright as a classic, but I could never get past what I saw of the art. Just a major, major turn-off. Sometimes I feel bad, like I should look past that, but, well, the art's half the experience.

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  7. If I may, I'd put SECRET ORIGIN firmly in place with Geoff Johns Superman (and an addition to Superman by Geoff Johns Omnibus when it comes out). Just as the way ALL STAR BATMAN & ROBIN THE BOY WONDER falls in place with Miller's other work....like if the way Bruce treats Dick in ALL STAR is any indication, it's no wonder Dick turns out to be against him in THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN.

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  8. For my two cents, I'd adhere to Waid's BIRTHRIGHT or Byrne's MAN OF STEEL. They were consistent, most loose ends wrapped entertaining reads. BIRTHRIGHT was most entertaining, while MOS was serviceable, but it seemed with SECRET ORIGIN as Geoff had a checklist of events & was checking them off as he wrote them. The only reason I'd buy this one would be to complete Geoff Johns Superman run or to enjoy Frank's dynamic art.

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  9. Great point Aalok; thinking about it now it does seem like there was a checklist involved so DC could make this origin fit with what was going on in the DCU at the time.

    X has a good point too. Reading Secret Origin makes me feel like watching those Donner films. Frank does a dead-on Reeve/Supes and when I see his Supes work it just brings me back to my childhood.

    Birthright is my origin. I still enjoyed SO quite a bit - moreso because of Frank's art, but also to complete Johns' run. It seems people aren't into Lu's art, I thought it was great and would love to see BR in deluxe or absolute edition.

    On that note, I just picked up my first absolute - six of them: All Star Superman, DKR, New Frontier, COIE, For Tomorrow, and Long Halloween. I'm super excited. Ofcourse, this means I'll probably be hooked and will have to buy more.

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  10. I started buying trades when I got back into comics a few years ago in order to catch up to current events (which I STILL haven't done - waiting for Blackest Night to come out in softcover). I did start buying The Brave & The Bold monthly, as is was pretty continuity-light (especially after JMS took over), but I had a few problems with it:

    - It's a hassle making sure you get to the comic store to pick up your copy before they're sold out.
    - Sometimes the order comes in late, so you have to come back again in a few days/next week.
    - I have a lot more things on my mind than when I was a kid, and comics these days generally don't have a few panels of the characters thinking to themselves and recapping recent events to remind you of what's going on. So if you wait a month between reading issues, it can be hard to remember what happened last month.
    - Because of this, I started waiting until I had the entire storyline (pretty easy to do with B&tB, as the arcs were short and self-contained) so I could actually clearly follow what was going on.
    - I find it distracting reading with ads, because many of the ads are very kiddy-oriented, even when the content of the comic is pretty PG-13.

    Those are many reasons why I decided to stick with trades (although I did complete my B&tB singles collection - speaking of which, DiDio recently mentioned that the series is now officially over). The problem I have now, is DC seems pretty intent on putting out hardcovers first, and then waiting a year for the softcover release. This leaves me stuck behind, which can get annoying when you're anxiously reading those darn "Flashpoint Friday" posts every week! I was torn on switching to hardcovers, but I don't like the higher price and I HATE dealing with dustjackets.

    The solution, for me, is to try to go digital. Even without day-and-date, the Comixology releases of Flash and Green Lantern are maybe 5 months behind (I believe this puts them ahead of the hardcover releases), there are no ads, and I put a stop to the growing pile of longboxes (I don't have any shelf space for my trades). As well, as your site has shown, DC has released issues digitally that were never part of a collection. Plus their cost (at $1.99/issue) is better than singles and generally not much worse than softcovers (better, in fact, here in Canada, where I still get the US price digitally but pay a higher Canadian price on the books).

    Digital has its own problems of course, such as the whole licensing vs ownership thing, not being able to lend them to your friends, not being able to resell them, etc. I don't think I will stop buying trades completely, but I will be limiting my trade purchases to titles that I really want to "own" (e.g. Blackest Night) vs titles that I just want to "read" and move on (e.g. the many tie-ins to Blackest Night).

    Anyway, sorry to post this in the Superman: Secret Origin article, but it was in response to CE's question about singles vs wait-for-trades. I hope no one minds!

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  11. I was in the same boat Mark. When I started reading comics a few years ago trades were a great way to catch up. I too didn't want to shell out the extra $ for hardcovers and the paperbacks look nice and even on my shelf.

    But I soon began to tire of waiting so long for the paperback releases and started getting hardcovers. I think they're more durable but I'm with you in that I hate the dust jackets. I wish DC would do what they did with Earth One and just have the cover on the actual cover, I think it turned out nice.

    I tried monthly issues and couldn't stand it. I would usually forgot what happened by the time the new one came out. Also, I didn't like taking them in and out of bags. Plus, if you follow trades and monthlies you run the risk of spoiling arcs.

    Spider-man was the monthly I followed and because I'm current with him it ruined the whole "death" arc in Fantastic Four. I heard that one member was going to die but I stayed away from message boards and such to wait for the trade but that didn't happen. When my ASM issue came in the mail with a flaming 4 on the cover it pretty much shot my hopes of waiting for the trade.

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  12. @ Abu
    I liked Yu's art, or maybe I got used to it. It didn't turn me off. Besides Marvel took Yu later on for SECRET INVASION, so he can't have been as unpopular as it seems. Then again, they took Tan for SHADOWLAND so I might be a tad mistaken. Though it wasn't as clean as Byrne or Frank, it was decent enough. The only thing I hated with Birthright was that the 1st 2 issues seemed inspired from a previous SUPERMAN: THE ODYSSEY by CHUCK DIXON & GRAHAM NOLAN, though the overall theme was rendered better in BIRTHRIGHT, this & the portrayal of Jimmy Olsen ticked me off a little. Also, I loved Lex's portrayal. Seeing him in smallville as evil as later on made me feel pity for him, & also appreciate the character development. Also Waid provides closure in the last 2 pages...Jor El & Lara see Kal grown up, as Superman & take satisfaction in the fact that he made it. Full marks!

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  13. Yeah, the only way to enjoy DC LEGACIES is to see it as one guy's interpretation of the events in the DCU. The last few pages of the last issue make me think we're not even supposed to believe even _that_.
    The implications that the creators and editors see the people who love the ongoing stoiry of the DCU as an addled kook are a little disturbing but at least we'll be spared writers trying to make sense of it all in the future.
    I've said this elsewhere, but my recurring nightmare is that at one of the DC Panels over convention season, someone will ask how canonical LEGACIES is. And Bob Wayne or Dan Didio will say- despite having not read it- that it's THE OFFICIAL HISTORY. On the other hand, you'd get to see Geoff Johns spontaneously implode when he realizes he'll have to come up with CRISIS at FLASHPOINT in 2017 to make everything (not) work.

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  14. Well it sounds like I should move Legacies up my reading list to know what you're talking about here! I didn't want to start reading it in case it went up past Blackest Night (which I haven't read yet), but it looks like the last issue deals with Infinite Crisis, so that's okay with me for avoiding spoilers.

    I'm okay with Legacies being slightly different, provided that it's purpose it to get current readers a synopsis of the DCU up to a certain point, where they can use that knowledge to understand current and future storylines. But it shouldn't be used as a "Bible" for new stories to go back to and say "this is exactly how it happened" as that's likely to lead to inconsistencies that require Geoff Johns to come in and explain it all! :-)

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  15. Actually, this conversation inspires me to move Legacies down even farther on my reading list than it was already. A history of the already established DC Universe -- one that may or may not be canon, and doesn't explain the current Wonder Woman/Wonder Girl Donna Troy conundrums, among others? Count me out.

    Though, I was thinking today, I take a fairly simple view of continuity -- what's in canon is what's referenced in the book I'm reading. As far as the Nightwing series was concerned, Robin: Year One was in canon; in Batman: Life After Death, the contradictory Batman: Long Halloween is in canon. That's OK -- I can go from this equals this to that equals that pretty easily, and the timeline works much the same.

    It's when this equals this and that equals nothing that I get annoyed -- Superman didn't kill Zod anymore, so he never met the cleric in Superman: Exile, so he never brought the Eradicator to Earth, and yet there's an Eradicator running around in Outsiders. With an iota of explanation, I'd be satisfied, but one writer using one origin and one writer using another origin at the same time seems sloppy to me; that's my pet peeve. And to that end I don't have much use for a "kinda" History of the DC Universe.

    On Birthright, I rather liked the Clark Kent/Lex Luthor friendship as Mark Waid portrayed it; I was surprised Geoff Johns short-cutted said friendship, though it made sense to me Johns's way, too. And I thought the last two pages were sheer brilliance; only that Waid went a little too far in giving Superman aura-vision and making him a vegetarian, things I think the "average" Superman fan (not the comics reader necessarily, so much as the TV or Halloween costume Superman fan) wouldn't ever have accepted.

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  16. Just finished reading SO.
    But Krypto does actually appear on one panel I think.
    It's when Superman and Jimmy meet on the roof of the Daily Planet and Jimmy asks "What'd your parents say?"
    Anyway, thanks for the great review again!

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  17. True, now that you mention it, Krypto is in that panel. For me, though, imagining if I was someone who really knew nothing about Superman, I imagine I'd think that was just a dog, and still be confused about a second rocket ship that lands and no overt follow-up about it. Maybe Johns felt that panel explained it, but it didn't quite coalesce for me.

    Glad you enjoyed the review, Danny; thanks.

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