Superman’s origins have been explored and revised many times throughout his 70+ year history. We’ve had Golden and Silver Age origins, numerous media adaptations, and John Byrne’s post-Crisis series, Man of Steel. This six-issue series written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Franks gives us a Man of Tomorrow for the twenty-first century.
If nothing else, it provides DC readers with some superhero stories removed from Blackest Night and New Krypton.
Title: Superman Secret Origin #1-3
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank, John Sibal
This doomed planet explodes, but one survivor (for now) escapes. The baby, sent to earth in a rocket, lands in Smallville, Kansas, where an older, childless couple, who are paradigms of virtue raise him to be…. You know, this guy who wears tights and has a thing for people with the initials “L.L.?” Look, stop me if you’ve heard this one, okay?
Secret Origin begs comparison with Byrne’s 1986 series, Man of Steel. That felt more like a single, coherent piece, and it gave us a more down-to-earth Superman. Johns gives us one that’s more fun. This series recaptures the feel of Silver Age escapist flights without completely losing sight of the ground. Young Clark can e-mope a bit, in the fashion of his Smallville incarnation, but he’s a hero at heart and a childhood adventure from the start. DC also restores the Legion of Superheroes and a Superboy career (though one unknown to the general public).
Fifty-two and some of the related material implied that Lex Luthor would be Smallville-ized, given wealthy parents and a teenage friendship with Clark Kent. Secret Origin restores his childhood poverty, but makes him a resident of Kansas instead of Suicide Slum. He and Kent only briefly interact, and Luthor’s post-Crisis role in his father’s death, and the origins of his fortune, remain intact. He’s both the scientific and financial genius that he’s been at various times in his history, and I look forward to his role in the remaining three issues.
I wish we’d seen more of Lex Luthor’s gradual turning to darkness, but this isn’t really his story.
Since I forgive some of the story gaps in the scores below, I’d like to address them here.
Frank Miller set the standard for reinventing an established hero with Batman: Year One. It dropped some pieces of the puzzle—Selina Kyle’s development, for example—but overall it felt like a unified work. Secret Origin, by comparison, feels like fragments of an origin story. I know we cannot have every detail in six issues, and I know that most readers can fill in the gaps because of the character’s popularity. Still, readers might reasonably wonder why Krypto briefly appears and is not seen again or why the young Clark Kent’s adventures with the Legion have no apparent effect on his adult life. Lana Lang also disappears from the story—but we may see her again in the next three issues.
Originality: 2/6. It is very difficult to do anything original at this point with Superman. At best, the writer can find creative ways to integrate the elements of the mythos that DC considers in play at the moment. In its own, less literary way, Johns recalls Malory, who integrated years of Arthurian lore, interpreting and revising rather than inventing. Much of what we see in the first three issues seems more derivative than it needs to be, in that Johns draws heavily from well-known media models, such as Smallville and the Donner film (The adult Clark Kent clearly recalls Christopher Reeve). Yet he also finds interesting ways to explain aspects of the mythology. Whereas Man of Steel significantly altered Clark Kent’s personality and had him change his appearance as a young adult, Secret Origin shows Clark gradually develop his mild-mannered persona. We have plausible reasons (well, for a comic about a super-powered, cornfed alien in tights) for why he starts wearing glasses at a young age, retreats from the rougher aspects of teenhood, and wears his costume years before he reveals himself to the world.
The third issue features the most original element: The Daily Planet, the only media outlet in Metropolis that does not kowtow to Lex Luthor, has fallen on hard times. Of course, we know that’s about to change.
Artwork: 6/6. DC gets this right: conventional comic-book artwork, thoughtfully crafted, recalling more than a little All-Star Superman. I especially like the scenes of Clark’s childhood and youth. We’re plausibly two or three decades in the past, and yet the artwork conveys the sense of some mythic America, a pastoral setting in all our twentieth century pasts, when we might dream of adventure and heroics.
Story: 5/6. Thus far, the familiar story moves along nicely. Many gaps appear, to be filled in with later stories or our past experience of the characters. Some elements prove difficult to balance. Clark seems genuinely, gee-whiz, overwhelmed by Metropolis when he first arrives, farm boy in the Big City. The Clark Kent persona is partially real. This makes perfect sense, until one recalls that secretive Superboy has an indeterminate number of adventures in the distant future, hanging with the Legion of Superheroes.
Characterization: 4/6. The story features a number of breaks in the development of character. Johns assumes that most readers can fill in the missing information, that we already know Lois and Jimmy and Steve Lombard. The characters have been written consistently, however. I also liked that Lois Lane recognizes early in their relationship that Kent may be putting on an act.
Emotional response: 5/6. See “High Points.”
Overall: 5/6. The dialogue is very hokey; I cannot decide if that’s a flaw or an asset.
In total, Superman Secret Origin #1-3 receives a score of 32/42.