Superman: Secret Origins finally delivers its last issue. We looked at the first half of the series here; today, we review the second act.
BONUS: Four Faces of Superman
Title: Superman Secret Origin #4-6
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank, John Sibal
The final three issues tell a more unified story than the earlier ones, as we learn about Superman’s early career in Metropolis and see the outlines of his future relationships with the supporting cast. The faltering Daily Planet, through their association with Superman, becomes a leading newspaper. Johns emphasizes the relationship between Superman and Lex Luthor, and shows Superman’s ascendancy as the hero people trust—a role Luthor once held in Metropolis, though for less altruistic reasons.
Superman’s pretty cool, huh, Miss Lane?
Yeah. Superman’s pretty cool, Jimmy.
This represents the best comic-book depiction of the early relationship between Superman and Lex Luthor. In the Golden Age, they simply ran up against each other and an enmity developed. The Silver Age version introduced the interesting concept of a childhood friendship, but damaged it with a rather silly origin story for Lex’s villainy. Nevertheless, it made their conflict personal. Man of Steel had the pair meet as adults, but gave a plausible new version of their personal conflict. Johns basically takes and develops that most recent twist, while respecting aspects of Lex Luthor’s many incarnations.
Some people will roll their eyes at Johns’ unabashed cornball tone, but they would be missing the point. This is Superman, for Pete’s sake. His core character is unabashedly cornball. A kid could safely read this origin, and the rest of the population would recognize the character as Superman, even if they’d never picked up a comic in their life.
While Man of Steel had its flaws, Byrne wisely powered-down Superman, making it possible for writers to find believable conflicts. DC currently seems bent on reviving as much of the Silver Age as possible. While Johns handles many of these elements cleverly, the redialing of Superman’s powers back to something near Silver Age levels strikes me as an error.
I get the significance of the final scene with Luthor— he frames the last three issues well—but I find it a stretch, even in a comic-book, to believe that no one turned up at the end of #6. A few people in the crowd would be truer to human nature—and would arguably look worse for Luthor.
Originality: 1/6. As I wrote earlier, one cannot do much that’s original with Superman and still have 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. Much of what we see 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, and Superman’s own comic-book past. The second half features some developments that, while original for the character, have been used many times in other comics. Superman briefly becomes a misunderstood hero—before establishing himself as the super boy scout generations have known.
Artwork: 5/6. The artists give us conventional comic-book art, drawn well and in vivid color. An interesting touch: When Kent arrives, Metropolis looks much more like a contemporary urban city than we’ve seen before. We get a clear sense in the last issue that Superman’s example will lead to it become the idealized metropolitan center so often depicted in comics.
Characterization: 4/6. I many respects, Johns has written a traditional comic, and he keeps the characterization fairly two-dimensional.
Emotional response: 4/6
Flow 5/6 These issues tell a coherent story. Despite the appearance of many familiar characters, it did not feel cluttered.
In total, Superman Secret Origin #4-6 receives a score of 29/42.
Four Faces of Superman
One must not hold these categories as absolutes. The Golden Age Superman gradually became the Silver Age version. Man of Steel made a definite break with pre-Crisis continuity, but many elements gradually returned, setting the stage for the current incarnation.
|Man of Steel
|Krypton was a Buck-Rogersesque futuristic world of superhuman beings.
|Krypton was a Buck Rogersesque futuristic world whose inhabitants develop powers only when under the influence of a yellow sun (Krypton’s is red).
|Krypton was a technologically advanced world, but its people had grown emotionally sterile, and Jor-El looks with some envy at our planet. Kryptonians do not have powers under their own red sun.
|Krypton contains features of all previous versions of the world, which represent the planet’s diversity. Kryptonians only develop powers if they absorb “yellow sun radiation.”
|The elderly Kents (initially named Eb and Mary, later John and Martha) find the baby and raise him. They tell him to hide his powers until he can use them to benefit humanity. He becomes Superman after they die. Working far away from his home town, Clark adopts a cowardly, inept personality in his civilian life. The Superman costume is made of ordinary fabric, and patterned after a circus strongman/acrobat’s tights.
|The elderly John and Martha Kent find and raise the baby. He has a very public career as Superboy (based out of Smallville), and adopts a mild-mannered but pleasant persona from an early age. Superboy often travels to the future and has adventures with the Legion of Superheroes. His costume is Kryptonian and indestructible.
|The slightly-less-elderly Kents find and raise the baby, who is birthed from the matrix in his ship. Kent plays football and uses his power to his advantage growing up. His personality, based on the 1950s Superman tv show, suits an athletic, determined reporter. He has a brief, secret career, before becoming Superman as an adult. The costume is made of earth fabric, and has no special abilities.
|Clark has the stereotypical life of an all-American boy, and initially plays sports. As his powers increase and he inadvertently injures his friends, he shies away from rough play and conflict. This gains him a reputation for being a coward. He has a secret, Smallville-inspired hero career, and begins wearing the invulnerable costume to protect his clothes. The public remains unaware of Superboy’s existence, though he does occasionally join the Legion of Superheroes in the future, where he acts openly. Only as an adult does Superman make himself known.
|Superman could “leap an eighth of a mile… hurdle skyscrapers… raise tremendous weights… run faster than a streamline train… and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!”(Superman #1). He soon gained the power of sustained flight, and his abilities increased as the years continued.
|Superman has godlike powers: he can move planets with his strength, fly at faster-than-light speeds, and does not need to breathe in space or underwater. He has super senses and can shoot beams of heat from his eyes.
|Superman remains the strongest of the superheroes but DC took down his strength several notches. He can fly, but he cannot exceed the speed of light and he requires oxygen—though he can compress quite a bit into his super-lungs.
|This Superman comes very close to the Silver Age over-powered version, though he isn’t quite so strong and invulnerable. He once again can survive in space without breathing.
|Lex Luthor is a megalomaniacal mad scientist and wannabee dictator, with bright red hair. He and Superman first meet as adults. Soon after, Luthor loses his hair as a result of an artist’s error.
|Lex Luthor went through several incarnations: mad scientist, entrepreneurial con man, and body-armor-wearing supervillain. He and Superboy share a childhood friendship, but he turns to crime early on, after an accident destroys a key experiment and causes him to lose his hair.
|Lex Luthor, born in poverty in Metropolis’s Suicide Slum, collects insurance after the suspicious death of his abusive father. He builds himself into the billionaire head of a technology-based enterprise. He targets Superman after the Man of Steel arrests him for endangering the lives of innocent people.
|Lex Luthor, born in poverty in (or near) Smallville, collects insurance after the suspicious death of his abusive father. He becomes a genius inventor, and builds a multi-billion-dollar scientific enterprise. Although he and Clark Kent have a passing acquaintance, they aren’t close friends, and Luthor leaves Smallville in adolescence. A developed conflict between the two leads to Luthor regarding Superman as his archenemy.
|Lois Lane is an edgy female reporter, a character type that had come into her own in the twenties and thirties. She loves Superman, but despises Clark Kent.
|Lois Lane becomes an annoying busybody and an implausible danger-magnet. She often engages in her own adventures, though she may need Superman to save her. Later, she becomes a tough, no-nonsense newswoman able to hold her own in a fight.
|Lois, a hard-edged reporter, has a past relationship with Lex Luthor. She initially dislikes Kent because he scoops her. Years later, she learns he is Superman and they marry.
|Pulitzer-Prize-winning Lois Lane stays with the faltering Daily Planet for reasons of principle. She finds herself attracted to Superman, but she also sees things to admire in Clark. They remain married in current continuity.