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.