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New in Paperback: Superman Secret Origin

Superman: Secret Origin

by Geoff Johns (writer) and Gary Frank (artist)

DC Comics, 2011

When the original six-issue mini-series of “Superman: Secret Origin” first came out in 2009, writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank probably didn’t have any idea they were creating a period piece – in fact, quite the opposite: they probably thought they were updating a period piece, bringing the origin story of the Man of Steel into the present day and finally getting it in sync with the ongoing mess of DC’s comics continuity. The mini-series, now reprinted in a single-volume paperback, cleans up and concentrates a good deal of diffuse hints and allusions scattered through the various “Superman” monthly comic books of the previous few years and smooths them all into one clear narrative – one clear narrative that’s now, only a couple of years later, almost completely obsolete.

It certainly doesn’t feel obsolete in these pages. Here fan-favorite Johns very consciously goes for a simple, almost mythic approach to the oldest superhero origin story of the modern age. For forty years, that origin story held pretty much the same shape: Jor-El, famous scientist on the fantastic, scientifically-advanced world of Krypton, fails to convince the leaders of his world that their planet is doomed, so he and his wife Lara place their infant son Kal-El in a prototype rocket and send him to Earth just before Krypton explodes into a million radioactive lumps of kryptonite. The rocket ship crashes on the farm of Jonathan and Martha Kent, a kindly, salt-of-the-earth couple who decide to raise the infant Kal-El as their own, naming him Clark.

The Kents instil Clark with their moral values, and under Earth’s yellow sun and lighter gravity, he begins to develop a wide array of super-powers, which he and his parents decide to conceal from the world. Clark dons the familiar red-blue-and-yellow costume while still a teenager, flies to the rescue of all those in need, and even travels to the far future to have adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes. After he graduates from college, he gets a job in Metropolis at The Daily Planet, where he meets Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and of course Lois Lane. Metropolis is also where he encounters such super-villains as Metallo (the man with the kryptonite heart), the Parasite, and his arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor.

This was the basic story, that is, until the dark year of 1986, when DC Comics, looking at deflating sales figures, allowed comics giant artist-writer John Byrne to re-imagine/desecrate the Superman mythos from the ground up. Gone was the heroic, Barsoom-like planet Krypton, replaced by a cold world full of emotionless goons who deserved to get blown up. Gone was the baby in the rocket ship; Byrne’s Kryptonians were too ‘advanced’ for such barbaric things as live birth – they used special gestation-chambers to bring their infants to term, and it was one of those chambers that was jettisoned to earth. Gone the super-powered teenager who donned a costume to help people – this Clark Kent didn’t fully develop his powers for years, never wore the costume as a boy, never met the Legion of Super-Heroes. Gone was the sympathetic cast of The Daily Planet – Perry White became a clod, Jimmy Olsen became a small boy, and Lois Lane became a shrewish harridan. Gone also was the Man of Steel with whom readers had become familiar: Byrne’s Superman was much weaker and quite a bit denser (in the mental sense, that is). In other words, Superman became just another superhero.

It took the various “Superman” writers decades to reverse the damage Byrne did, but it eventually happened. Piecemeal and haphazardly, the character’s origin and powers drifted back to their pre-Byrne contours. The TV series Smallville re-introduced an old idea from the comics: that Clark Kent and Lex Luthor had known each other in Smallville before either embarked on his life’s path, and the comics gradually brought back the concept of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Superman: Secret Origin takes all of the resurrected elements and shapes them into a singularly well-done story. Johns’ Clark Kent is a nervous boy, worried about the strange super-powers he possesses, curious about his origins. His parents reveal to him the rocket ship in which he crashed to Earth, and when he touches it, the ship comes alive and he sees recordings made by Jor-El explaining his Kryptonian heritage. There’s the costume, the cape, the Legion, and the move to Metropolis, where he meets the old familiar cast, restored to their recognizable patterns and realized by Johns with wonderful energy and grace (the grace is often mirrored by Frank’s artwork, which is far less furtive and crouching in these pages than in most of his work).

Johns’ Lex Luthor is an embittered psychopath; his Metallo is a rogue soldier; his Parasite is refreshingly sub-human, and in the middle of it all, his Superman is once again an incredibly powerful and selfless hero, fighting when all hope is gone and saving Lois Lane along the way (including a helicopter rescue-sequence that will gladden the heart of Christopher Reeves fans everywhere). There’s none of the moral ambiguity Marvel Comics made so fashionable – indeed, the most charming thing about this graphic novel is the way the mere existence of Superman serves to make a frustrated Lois Lane an even more fervent believer in the potential merit of mankind. Rescuing her from falling out of a helicopter is only one of the ways he saves her, and it’s the least important. This is the heart of the Superman character: the ability to inspire others to heroism – needless to say, it’s typically been tempered, warped, or eliminated by the cynical writers of the ghastly Dubya decade, but it’s back in this hopeful graphic novel.

Hopeful, and once again entirely undercut by the very parent company that should most protect it. DC Comics recently ‘rebooted’ its entire line of superhero comics, and although cinema-friendly characters such as Batman and Green Lantern remained relatively unscathed, Superman (currently languishing in the purgatory of having no recent cinema blockbuster) has once again been unevenly and carelessly revamped out of all recognition. Decades more will be required, perhaps, to bring the character back to the archetypal mythos that serves him best.

In the meantime, we have Superman: Secret Origin to tide us over.