Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review: Superman Secret Origin #1

Superman Secret Origin #1 was released last week and began a six issue miniseries which will provide a reorganization of Superman's history as we move forward into the 21st century.

John Byrne's Man of Steel felt more like a reboot, removing key elements of Superman's mythos such as Supergirl, multi-colored Kryptonite, Superboy, etc. Mark Waid's Birthright brought back some of these more historical elements to Superman's origin but Infinite Crisis then blurred that story as well. Superman's origin was known in broad strokes but many details now seemed missing.

Here comes Geoff Johns and Gary Frank to the rescue. This first issue reads less like a reboot and more like a re-imagination of the Silver Age. It is a love letter to the Superman origins that I grew up with, bringing back small flourishes that I haven't seen in a while.

If any creative team is going to be able to pull this off, it is Johns and Frank. We have already seen them bring back several Silver Age elements into Superman's history, updated for current sensibilities. In the past couple of years in Action Comics we have seen the reintroduction of the classic Legion, including Superman being a member. We have seen a rethinking of Brainiac. And, of course, we have seen Argo, Kandor, Zor-El, and Alura all brought back in updated fashions, their Silver Age tarnish scrubbed away into something classic but modern.

So why shouldn't DC let Johns take a look back at the last 70 years of Superman stories and let him glean those things that work, reweaving the tapestry of Superman's mythos.

The book opens up with a pre-teen Clark looking to the sun, to the sky, as if he is looking at his destiny. But he is alone, surrounded only by a large field. He looks alone in this shot. And the truth is as the last Kryptonian he is alone.

The panel is a bit of a set-up as Clark is actually soaking in some rays as he plays football with his schoolyard pals. The game goes slightly awry as Clark's emerging powers lead to a Pete Ross broken arm.

And just like that we see that Clark's powers have manifested themselves early in his life, a difference from Byrne's vision.

The book's opening line is 'why are you here' and it is a pertinent thing for Clark to be thinking. Why is he here? What should he do? This opening scene with the backyard football nudged me to remember Pa Kent's line from Superman:The Movie ... 'you aren't here to score touchdowns'. There has to be a bigger purpose than that.

I do like the fact that this first issue starts in Smallville and not on the dying planet Krypton. The true origin of Superman begins in Smallville. Sure, his Kryptonian genetics give him his powers. But it's the Kents that made him Superman and not ... let's say ... Ultraman or Red Son.

We see the fallout of Pete's broken arm in school the next day when we are introduced to one of the most important people in Clark's early life, Lana Lang. Frank really draws her practically oozing 'girl next door' cuteness.

Clark has already revealed his secret strength to Lana. Here he tells her how he has manifested XRay vision ... how sickening it was to hear Pete's bone snap.

It turns out that Clark has already rescued Lana once from a wheat thresher, as seen in this flashback. I love this panel showing a super-confident boy of steel standing amidst the broken blades and shouting about his strength. Johns does a good job of showing the dichotomy of Clark's powers ... how they can be exhilirating and frightening at the same time ... how it tough to be both special and different.

In this scene, Lana kisses Clark, igniting his heat vision for the first time and setting off the school fire alarms. This hearkens back to an early episode of Smallville where Clark's heat vision is triggered by his lust for a sexy substitute teacher.

After the events of the last 2 days, Pa realizes that it is time to come clean with Clark about how he arrived on Earth. He shows Clark the rocket he crashed in.

Clark's proximity triggers a recorded message from Jor-El, embedded in crystals within the ship. We get a very brief recap of Krypton's destruction and Jor-El's plans to save his son. The look of Krypton is clearly based on the Donner movie right down to the crystal technology.

Of course when faced with his alien origins, Clark appropriately snaps, lashing out at the rocket with fists and heat vision before running away.

In one of the most powerful moments in the book, Pa consoles Clark. Clark cries that he doesn't want to be different, how all he wants is to be Pa's son.

And Pa tells him the truth ... he is his son. This splash page is a nice foil to that opening one. Here there isn't bright sunshine. Here things are a little darker. But most importantly, here Clark is not alone. His father is there hugging him.

With a sudden emphasis on protecting others from Clark's expanding powers, Martha adds a crucial piece to the Clark persona ... his glasses.

Ma was able to fashion them out of some crystal shards from the ship. The crystals were able to block Clark's heat vision, effectively shielding the world should Clark's eyes light up suddenly. Once again, this is a reimagination of the Silver Age glasses composition (those made from pieces of the rocket's window). These glasses are horribly over-sized and were very reminiscent of the glasses worn by Christopher Reeve in the movies.

On top of the glasses, Clark doesn't want to break any more of his friend's bones, so he begins bowing out of football games. He uses the most anemic excuses ... pollen, new clothes, ear infections. It is the beginning of the mild-mannered Clark persona.

Earlier in the book we are introduced to Lex Luthor, showing that he most likely grew up in an abusive household. We even saw that he had a younger sister ... could it be Lena!

Clark meets Lex at the town fair where Luthor has set up a booth about extra-terrestrials. I love that Lex disparages Dr. Erdel's theories on aliens. Erdel, of course, brought J'onn J'onzz to Earth.

Lex has found a chunk of Green Kryptonite in the woods of Smallville and has brought it to the fair. The stone incapacitates Clark. As Clark faints, the jar the Kryptonite is in falls, shattering the glass and cutting Lex. I wonder if that is the beginning of a Kent/Luthor rivalry/feud.

Luthor already reads as arrogant and creepy.

A sudden tornado whips up forcing Clark to again rush to Lana's rescue. First off, his superhearing picks up her cries for help. Next, he is able to fly for the first time, soaring into the storm and taking Lana to safety.

Lana's thank you kiss does set off Clark's heat vision again proving Ma's theories on the crystal glasses properties.

That rescue triggers Clark's desire to use his abilites to help people. If he has been given these powers, he should use them for good.

It is a wonderfully warm scene as Clark overjoyed by his good deed announces he is going to keep doing it! It shows the type of boy the Kent's have raised.

Ma realizes that more acts of daring will mean a tattered wardrobe. Clark will need a 'work suit'. While she was examining the rocket, Ma received some images of Kryptonian culture. It is a nice moment for Ma who wants to help Clark be understand and be proud of his heritage. She has an idea to make Clark a Kryptonian outfit out of the blankets he was sent to Earth in. Clark will need to use his heat vision as scissors to help Ma craft the suit.

Again, I felt a wave of nostalgia as I read this origin of Superman's costume. This was the origin I grew up with, right down to Clark needing to cut the cloth.

And so we see our first look at Superboy!

As an old timer, I have to admit I really loved this book. It is as if Geoff Johns decided to grab some of the best parts of Superman's Silver Age origins and dust them off, polish them, and represent them in a sparkly new package. Yes, there isn't much completely new here. But all these small ideas need to be refit into current continuity and the modern world. Glasses made from part of the ship? A uniform from Kal-El's swaddling blankets?? It was such a treat for me.

I think the best thing that Johns does here is bring a sense of nostalgia for the established fan but not make it overwhelmingly saccharin. It doesn't read as a moldy retread of old material but rather as a recreation of a great story, the rougher patches smoothed over.

As usual, Gary Frank's art is perfect.

Overall grade: A


Saranga said...

I elected not to pick this up, partly due to money, partly because I've got (and love) Birthright and don't want a duplicate.
Having read your review however, I think I will see how it pans out and possibly pick up the trade.

Rick said...

I really enjoyed this issue also.