Thursday, August 05, 2004

Thoughts on Superman: Birthright

It’s a funny thing, trying to reinvent a character without appearing to change anything about him. In the past 18 years, DC Comics has tried it twice with Superman – the first time, with wholesale revisions in John Byrne’s 6-part Man of Steel, and now with the just-concluded 12-part Superman: Birthright, written by Mark Waid with art by Leinil F. Yu and Gerry Alanguilan. Ironically, Man of Steel tried to do a lot in a short time (each issue came out bi-weekly, so it was over in 3 months), whereas Birthright wasn’t so ambitious (at least in that respect) and took 12 monthly issues.

The differences are ones of purpose. With Man of Steel, the changes were the point. DC wanted to "revitalize" Superman over the course of a summer so it would build momentum going into the 3 revamped monthly titles. With Birthright, the changes are more subtle – tonal and thematic. This is partly because Birthright builds on Man of Steel, and even mentions it obliquely. Birthright had a couple of other advantages -- it didn’t have the pressure of Big Event Status that its predecessor did, and it was twice as long. No wonder it turned out to be a better story.

Man of Steel is still an important part of the Superman mythology. It is best thought of as a bullet-pointed outline (faster than a speeding bullet-point?), hitting highlights and giving details through heavy exposition. It makes the not unreasonable assumption that its audience knows what the "old" Superman was like and can see the contrasts. In other words, it is a quick and dirty means to an end.

However, because Man of Steel was the foundation for 18 years’ worth of weekly Superman stories, many readers focused on Birthright’s changes, rather than its narrative. The biggest changes were made to Krypton and Lex Luthor. The Krypton of MoS was a cold, sterile place which took its attitude from the planet portrayed in the first Christopher Reeve movie. Birthright’s Krypton seems more earthy (pardon the pun) – not quite the Flash-Gordon-esque, pulp-influenced wonderland of pre-1986 comics, but certainly more colorful than Man of Steel’s.

From Krypton, Birthright draws its central motif, the "S" symbol itself. This is a change which specifically contradicts the symbol’s genesis in Man of Steel. There, Clark’s adoptive parents design the icon. Here, it is a Kryptonian symbol of great, although loosely defined, importance; probably something like the Stars and Stripes. The symbol ties together Luthor’s obsession with Krypton and his plan to discredit Superman. Luthor knows from studying the planet that the "S" is Kryptonian; and thus realizes that Superman is Kryptonian. This inspires him to create the specter of a Kryptonian invasion force and frame Superman as its vanguard. Naturally, when the "invaders" appear, they display the "S" proudly. Regardless, by the end of the story, Superman has reclaimed the "S" as his own. In fact, it is a key element in Superman accepting his home planet’s destruction.

The changes to Luthor actually brought him closer to his pre-1986 character. For decades, Luthor’s origins were tied to Clark’s career as Superboy. Luthor and Superboy were contemporaries in their hometown of Smallville, and Superboy even built Luthor a fully-stocked laboratory. One night, Luthor was working late and fell asleep at the lab. When a fire started, Superboy saved Luthor, but the lab – and the life-form Luthor had created – were total losses. The fumes from the chemicals also caused all of Luthor’s hair to fall out. Distraught over the loss of his creation, Luthor blamed Superboy, and the seeds of a lifelong enmity were planted.
When Superman was restarted in 1986, writer Marv Wolfman created the new Luthor and Byrne incorporated him into Man of Steel. Luthor was reimagined as a corrupt billionaire who considered himself the most powerful man in Metropolis. Clark had no Superboy career, so the two men first encountered each other in Metropolis as adults. After seeing Superman in action, Luthor decided to co-opt him, staging a terrorist attack on his yacht to draw out the hero. Disgusted at being manipulated, Superman refused to work for Luthor. Because Luthor had put his guests in jeopardy, the mayor of Metropolis deputized Superman on the spot and ordered him to arrest Luthor. The humiliation caused Luthor to swear eternal vengeance against Superman.

Birthright changed all of that. Once again, the teenaged Luthor had a Smallville connection, but it was short-lived. Luthor, a budding astrobiologist with absolutely no social skills, managed to build a device for communicating other planets, and actually made contact with Krypton. He showed young Clark Kent the device, which was powered by Kryptonite. Thus, Clark recoiled when he saw the machine, and Luthor took that as yet another rejection. Luthor flew into a rage, a fire started, and thanks to the Kryptonite, Clark was powerless to stop it. The fire killed Luthor’s father and destroyed his hair. Luthor left Smallville, and the town erased any indication he was ever there.

When Clark got to Metropolis, Superman stopped a LexCorp-built attack helicopter run amok. Luthor tried to spin the situation to his advantage, but Superman would have none of it, and from this humiliation the latest iteration of Luthor’s hatred was born. Luthor realized Superman was an alien, perfected his transceiver, and began a campaign to paint Superman as an evil invader. In Luthor’s mind, his discovery of extraterrestrial life would have finally elevated him above the humans who always shunned him – but the E.T. he encountered turned out to be Superman, who shunned him anyway. Thus, Luthor set up an elaborate invasion hoax to convince the people of Earth that Superman was no good – and since Superman was the only perceived threat to Luthor, discrediting him would once again put Luthor on top.

The Luthor "origin" presented in Man of Steel is clearly simpler and easier to explain, and from that it draws a certain raw appeal. The Birthright revisions restore a personal connection between Clark and Luthor, and establish a new one between Luthor and Superman: Luthor tells Superman about the destruction of his homeworld, and crows that Superman will always be alone in the universe. Luthor’s frame-up also undermines Superman’s attempts to have the people of Metropolis trust him. (Not wearing a mask as part of his costume is a big part of that plan.) Still, both Man of Steel and Birthright root Luthor’s vendetta in his own ego, and contrast that against Superman’s willingness to serve. In a sense, Birthright merely trades Man of Steel’s terrorist hoax for one done on a much larger scale. At one point I was ready to compare the Luthor of Birthright to Spider-Man’s newspaper-editing nemesis Jonah Jameson, but Jameson never wanted to rule Metropolis. Birthright shows clearly that Luthor wants no one at the top of the food chain but himself. Nevertheless, a final bit of irony suggests that Luthor’s transmissions to Krypton may have inspired Superman’s father Jor-El to send his infant son to Earth.

All this and I haven’t mentioned Clark’s early adventures in Africa, the relationships with his foster parents, the evolution of his costume, or his own sense of alienation (pardon the pun) from his co-workers. The meat of Birthright is the interplay between Superman and Luthor, and the rest is almost prologue. Future comics will decide whether the themes of Birthright take hold as strongly as the changes wrought by Man of Steel, but both characters have been through a lot since these events occurred. Superman and Luthor have both "died" and been revived; Clark has married Lois; and Luthor was President of the United States. On its own terms, Birthright is a good introduction to Superman, but it would be worthwhile for future creators to build on its changes.


Captain Qwert Jr said...

So ya got ta set up a freakin' blog to post a comment. Eh, maybe I will blog something eventually. but that would mean having to learn how to spell!


I ain't buying birthright, cause I know Superman's orgin, as does the majority of the civilized world, and any details Waid adds will be brushed aside depending on the writer. but I sense something deeper than than just a changing of the details. Taken as a whole with other books DC is putting out, I sense a general repudiation of Crises.
For instance, Grant Morrison seems to have considered it a catastrophe, going so far as to bring back an Earth 2, and Identity Crises uses the Satilite Era JL. What is Smallvile but an update to the Adventures of Superboy?
If this is so, I like it. DC should stop trying to be Marvel and be itself.

Tom Bondurant said...

Wow, a comment! I think you're my first, Qwert! (Same guy from TrekBBS, I'm assuming.) Sorry it was so hard to post.

I know what you're saying about "everybody knows Supes' origin." These are just details -- whether Luthor staged a terrorist attack or an alien invasion, for example. I'm not sure if Birthright is part of a larger plan, and I don't know if I want another wholesale revision after 20 years of post-Crisis DC. (It took 50 for the first Crisis, after all.) That's why I say we'll see what future writers do with this.

I appreciate that Birthright restored some personal history to Clark/Supes and Luthor. Hope somebody else (Azzarello in the Luthor miniseries, perhaps?) does something with it.

Shane Bailey said...

Excellent commentary on Birthright. I enjoyed it, but found it kinda wavered in the end. The revalation on the last page saved the series for me.

Tom Bondurant said...

Thanks for the good word! By the way, I've enjoyed the heck out Near Mint Heroes.

Captain Qwert Jr said...

Yep, tis' the same guy from the Trekbbs. Sorry about the late response, this stuff is tricky.

I'm not talking about a big event. It's just given a choice the DC's writers have chosen the Silver Age as their preference. Examples:

Mark Waid: Luthor is back as a scientist, and his smallville connection is reestablished.

Frank Miller: DK2: Bilge that it was, he used Hal Jordan and Barry Allen when given a choice. No to mention Kandor and the Braniac/Luthor alliance

Brian Meltzer: ID Crises: More Jordan and Allen! And the Satellite team returns.

John Byrne and Chris Claremont: The Doom Patrol returns, and also their Batman is clearly the Neal Adams/Marshal Rogers version.

Grant Morrison: Can't seem to get enough of the Silver Age. thematically or directly. Aside from the already mentioned Earth 2, JLA one million coming to visit the past team was right out of the Silver Age handbook.

Alan Davis: the two Nail series: Hal? Check! Barry-? check! Adams/Rogers Batman? Check! The Inferior Five? check!

Alan Moore: Almost half his career is riffing on the Silver Age

Whoever is writing The New Frontier: Someone tell these people Hal and Barry are dead! They are back again. I think they have more monthly appearances now, than when they were alive!

Also things like the return of a comprehensible Supergirl, and Green Arrows resurrection and subsequent lightening up point to a return to roots.

In fact the only thing preventing DC slipping from the 80s restructuring completely, is Luthor’s presidency. Of course, given the strange stupor the citizens of the DC universe live in. (The routine destruction of cities, alien invasions, a holocaust every few years. none of this raises eyebrows. Hell, we are all exercised by one Middle East war. There appears to be about 5 different recent Middle East wars going on in DC right now),I doubt they will even remember it.

Tom Bondurant said...

To a large extent I think it is just nostalgia. However, in San Diego Brad Meltzer talked about "reclaiming" the Silver Age stories. I took that to mean reaffirming that they mattered to the present. Still not sure how Identity Crisis does that, but there you go.

Anonymous said...

I think Birthright is the best Superman comic I've ever read. The only origins for Lex Luther that I've ever seen were the ridiculous one I saw as a kid that Luther went bald in a fire and hated Superman for not saving him first and then there's the just Luther happens to be the main man in metropolis when Superman shows up storyline of Superman the Animated Series. Birthright gives Luther a real origin. Not to mention that rather than just stabbing Superman with a kryptonite shank or sending some goons with guns after him, Luther attempts a massage discrediting of Superman. Finally Luther is a real villain as opposed to a petty thief or corrupt business man.

Anonymous said...

Oh...and I almost forgot. The wimpy "oh I can't hurt anyone" Superman was replaced by a Superman who fires a gun at a bad-guy's face but catches the bullet right before it hits him. You gotta love that!

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peter said...

I saw as a kid that Luther went bald in a fire and hated Superman for not saving him first and then there's the just Luther happens to be the main man in metropolis when Superman shows up storyline of Superman the Animated Series. Birthright gives Luther a real origin. Not to mention that rather than just stabbing Superman with a kryptonite shank or sending some goons with guns after him, Luther attempts a massage discrediting of Superman