Thursday, May 28, 2009

Trade Waiting - Superman: Birthright

With another major retelling of Superman's origin around the corner with Geoff Johns's Secret Origin, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the last retelling - Superman: Birthright. I am not a big fan of Mark Waid and often find Superman to be hit or miss, but I do usually enjoy Leinil Yu's work, so I was going into this book with some mixed expectations. Hit the jump to see what I thought of Superman: Birthright.

Written by Mark Waid
Art by Leinil Yu
Collects Superman: Birthright #1-12

Superman: Birthright is a weird book for me because, while I enjoyed the overall narrative, the details ruin the story for me. Normally, for most stories, the narrative comes first and the details second, with their being obvious exceptions, like crime or detective stories. Birthright is also one of those exceptions, namely the origin story.

Origin stories, or, more accurately, retellings of the origin of an established character, are all about the details because the basic premise and history is already known to everyone. Of course, there is the possibility that the origin could change somehow, but that is highly unlikely nowadays.

So, first, what did I like about Birthright? As already mentioned, the narrative of the story is good, but not great. The two biggest problems that I had with the narrative were Clark Kent's time in Africa and then the Smallville flashbacks, but that was not because of weak storytelling, so I'll get into those later.

Waid does a good job of establishing both Clark and Superman in Metropolis and, unlike in Kingdom Come, has a good handle on the character here. He does a good job with the "mild mannered" Clark, in particular, while his Superman is also strong. Martha Kent is another wonderful character and her obsession with aliens and UFOs is a great addition to the character. It also makes sense given that her son is an alien. Lois is also a character that Waid has a good handle on, although he does nothing special with her in this arc. Just well written in what parts she appears in.

The strongest part of Waid's narrative is the end with Lex Luthor's fake Kryptonian invasion. I thought it was pretty good actually and, while I don't know if it's an original idea (not sure if it was a Golden/Silver Age story or what have you), Waid deserves a lot of credit for it if it is. I think it is a great way to firmly establish Superman in Metropolis. It allows Waid to show off a lot of what makes Superman work without having to resort to a variety of scenarios. The way he sets it up, he covers a bunch of ground with one extended scene, hitting various story beats that work well in a Superman origin story. I also loved the ending, which has a nice emotional impact and is a great way to end the story.

Yu's art, while hit or miss, is pretty good overall, but he is definitely not a Superman artist. His style simply doesn't lend well to it. The one thing that does standout, though, are his Kryptonian designs, which are fantastic. They are perfectly sci-fi with a nice modern sensibility. His character designs and character work are also good and his art lacks a lot of the problems that his New Avengers work had with inking, but that does creep in every now and then. While I said his art is pretty good, it just doesn't have that Superman "look." It's not that he is art is bad, per se, but the style doesn't mesh with what I think is a good look for Superman. Overall, it's a solid effort.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of problems with Birthright that have to do with the details that Waid adds to Superman's origin. The first thing is that Waid tries to work in some, well, not tragedy, but some motivation to Clark becoming Superman other than the fact that he's just that kind of heroic natured person thanks to his parents and upbringing. He spends the first part of the story in Africa where, eventually, Clark fails to protect a local tribal leader from being assassinated. It serves as that "last push" to get Clark to become Superman, but he shouldn't need that "last push".

What's even weirder is that, at the same time, Clark is looking through a visual history of Krypton and sees that the "S" symbol is an important part of Kryptonian history in which Clark felt he wasn't living up to. What more do you need than that? Why should a sense of failure be part of Superman's origin? Waid never convinces me on his take of why Superman decided to be Superman. He does hit some of the right points, but misses on the overall picture.

The other big problem I had with the series is Lex Luthor, who Waid absolutely mangles in almost too many ways to count. The biggest offense, to me, is that Luthor knows more about Krypton than Superman and is the one to tell him about the fate of his home world. What's the point and how does it add to the Superman mythos or the Superman/Luthor dynamic? Giving Luthor another reason to feel smug and superior to Superman? He doesn't need one and it only serves to weaken the dynamic in my opinion because it will always give Luthor a leg up over Superman.

The other big problem for me was the whole Luthor in Smallville thing, which felt forced, possibly for the television show at the time, but I don't know if I can completely blame Waid for that since it reeks of an editorial mandate. Still, Waid did nothing good with it. The biggest problem with the Smallville stuff is part of larger problem with the series - Waid tries to humanize Luthor, which completely misses the point.

The Luthor/Superman dynamic works largely because Superman, an alien, is more human than Luthor, a human, could ever hope to be. By humanizing Luthor, you weaken that dynamic and the character. The, "he just wants someone to talk to", aspect to Luthor does work within the confines of the series but not with the larger story of Superman. It helped to create a sense of why Luthor felt so superior to everyone else, but he does not need a sense of alienation to feel that way. He does because, lack of morals and ethics aside, he is. It seems as though Waid is trying to redeem the character to a degree, but it goes against what makes Luthor work.

Another problem with Luthor is that he pegs Luthor as an astrobiologist instead of just an all around genius. The larger problem is that he tries to explain too much about Superman's powers. You can't come up with explanations for Superman's powers using modern standards. He's an alien that looks completely human and is from the other side of the galaxy from a civilization that is many times older than ours. There is no rational explanation for that, on any level, and trying to come up other than "he gets his powers from the sun" just points out the absurd nature of the whole thing. Some characters can withstand the closer scrutiny of their more unrealistic aspects, but Superman can't, so it is best to just leave it alone.

There are some other problems I had with the series, like Superman's new "soul vision" power, Lois's restraining order against Jimmy, which is only mentioned once, and the publisher of the Daily Planet, who seems to have no reason to be in the story, but they are not major problems for me, just minor annoyances.

Verdict - Check It. Although I had many, many problems with the specifics of Superman: Birthright, I don't consider them fatal. It is a story where I am aware of how my prejudices are affecting the way I view the story. My disliking of the work has to do with the way I view Superman, not necessarily the quality of the story, which functions well according to its own internal logic. None of things that I dislike about the story are badly written by Waid. In fact, it's just that they don't mesh with the way I view Superman as a character. Birthright is a story that adheres to its own vision and, while I disagree with that vision, it still manages to entertain.

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Sebastian said...

I agree that Luthor's inconsistencies came from editorial mandate. Seeing as how Lex was absent from the comics for a year, year and a half, in between Superman/Batman #6, his return in Titans/Outsiders, and his unveiling in Infinite Crisis, the public really hadn't had a big Luthor moment in a while. I guess the shoving of Lex into a bigger part than he should have in Superman's origin is probably from the need to deliver an old-school Luthor story that would abate readers until he returned to mainstream continuity.

Feel free to shut me down, though; it's just a thought.

I think Yu's art is the only thing keeping me from buying this. It would be really weird to see his take on Superman.

Eric Rupe said...

I didn't have a problem with Waid using Luthor, I think he is necessary in a Superman origin story, but I didn't like the way he used him. That's all.

Sebastian said...

Well, I guess most people agreed with you since this was rebooted again a year later. Haha. I haven't read this yet, but I'm inclined to side with you, since those Luthor issues seem like things that'd bug the heck out of me. I remember a Lex/Clark story set in Smallville that I thoguht was handled pretty well. If I recall correctly, it was from the Superman/Batman Secret Files and Origins. There, Luthor was portrayed in the quintessential fashion: Brains and total dickery.

I think reviewing origin reboots would make a great series of posts. Superman: Secret Origin could make for some great discussion of Byrne's Man of Steel. Then again, there aren't that many, so it would come out pretty thin.

Steven said...

The Lex/Smallville was indeed editorial mandates, although I think these probably came from Warner itself, to fit in with the, at the time, extremely successful Smallville series.

While the story was only considered in continuity for a short while, I believe Lex spending some time in Smallville is actually still considered something that happened.

Eric Rupe said...

Sebastian - Yeah, after Secret Origin finishes up I think a comparison of Man of Steel, Birthright and Secret Origin would be interesting but, honestly, I'm not sure I'd make it through Man of Steel again. Didn't like it at all.

Sebastian said...

Hahaha. Eric, it wasn't that bad. It reads better if you follow it up with the relaunched titles. The World of Kryton, Smallville, and Metropolis were pretty interesting minis. But yeah. Well, at least it looked nice.

Ramon Villalobos said...

Very good review. I had tried to read this series because I like Leinil Yu's work and am still looking for something written by Waid that will convince me he is a really great writer but I had the same problems you did with and worse yet founding myself just not caring one way or the other for Superman or any one else in the book the further it went on. You know, like the opposite of what should happen when you read something. haha. You hit a lot of the stuff I couldn't articulate that was wrong with this book right on the head.

I only hope that Secret Origins will be a really awesome miniseries that doesn't focus too much on setting up a new event or status quo the way GL's Secret Origins seemed to because it would be awesome to get a really great modern Superman origin story.

Sebastian said...

Ramon, if you want a fantastic Waid book, check out his Fantastic Four (see what I did there?) run with Mike Wieringo. It's unbelievably hilarious but also pretty edgy. The art is really good, too. The first year of the last Legion of Super-Heroes series was awesome. I haven't gotten around to the remainder, but I've heard that the Supergirl issues are a bit off.

I liked Secret Origin. It had a lot of moments and Reis' art is really cool. I pass out those issues to friends a lot. I didn't think it was heavy on the Blackest Night cues. The Black Glove segments read better in context of the whole series, but I thought the story stood pretty well on itself. It really clarified a lot of storypoints and tied together a bunch of loose ends in Lantern continuity.

Eric Rupe said...

Ramon - That was the other reason why I checked this out, to see where Waid gets reputation as a good writer from. So far I've read his FF, JLA Year One, Birthright and Kingdom Come have been unimpressed though his Flash and Captain America runs seem to be his best works from what I've heard.

As for Secret Origin, I'm guessing it will somehow tie-in into this super story Johns is telling in all of the books he writes. You can't really pick up a Johns book these days and not have it somehow tie into something else of his, not matter how small or unimportant it is to the story you are reading.

Ramon Villalobos said...

Eric- Yeah, I was not really blown away by JLA Year One and I think Kingdom Come is a great way to introduce someone to comics and make the whole medium seem more serious but if you still think its fantastic after reading other, better comics, I'd be surprised. I enjoyed his Brave and the Bold miniseries with Hal and Barry. Though I did read that a long time ago so I'm not even sure if that holds up.

That is very true for Johns. I recall him commenting on how Rainbow Girl from his recent Legion Superman story has something to do with the Green Lantern color spectrum. To push that further, she's in that 3 Worlds Crisis tie-in which had Sodom Yat who is in his Green Lantern run and it also had Conner and Bart from his Titans run and Starman from JSA... So yeah, I'd say you are right in that assessment, I just wish he'd focus on a really awesome stand alone story. Aw well, I doubt by tying it in it'll be any better or worse.

Sebastian- I'll have to give FF a shot but I never liked how slick the Legion came off in that incarnation. I dunno, it's just one of those things where in my head, I have a much different version of that group of characters than what is generally presented. I really like them as like underground revolutionaries, kind of like Geoff wrote them in that Superman story. That's really not a fault on Waid though, it just never appealed to me for them to be so glitzy.

As for Origins, I had picked up a lot of that stuff over the course of John's run and I think there was a lot of retreading in the earlier issues and it bugged me.

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