RTF Comic Book Review – “SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT”
By: Adam Basciano
Superman: Birthright is another re-telling of the Man of Steel’s origins. Ultimately, it is a modernization of a classic tale, a melding of old and new. Unlike Superman: Earth One, this was meant to be DC’s official in continuity Superman origin story. The tale begins on the planet Krypton, where chief scientist Jor–El, is testing a prototype rockets potential journey into space via computer. Jor–El’s wife Lara enters the room, with baby Kal–El in her arms. Jor–El recounts to the Council of Elders that the planet Krypton is doomed. The only way to ensure the safety of their son and preservation of their race, is to rocket him into space to another planet. Jor–El is insecure of this, as he is yet to find a civilization as advanced as Krypton. Lara reassures him it’s the right thing to do.
As the planet begins to tremor, the boy is placed in the rocket and Jor–El programs earth’s co-ordinates into the ship. Earth’s yellow sun will give Kal–El abilities far beyond those of mortal men. As the planet explodes and the ship departs, Kal–El’s parents wonder what will become of him. In the ship accompanying Kal–El, are a hand held holographic projector embedded with all of Krypton’s history and a quilt, bearing the symbol and colours of the House of El. The last minute finding of Earth offers even more of an element of risk and the unknown, in Jor-El and Lara’s decision but the story still shows hope from Jor – El and Lara about their son’s survival. I also like the role reversal, where Lara reassures Jor-El that their sun will survive! I like this, because Lara doesn’t get enough love in other versions of the story, in my opinion.
The story of Superman: Birthright then jumps forward 25 years. Clark Kent is in Africa, working as a freelance reporter. He meets a man named Kobe Azuru, who is an activist against tribalism. Kobe advises Clark to embrace his heritage. One day while covering a story on Kobe, assassins make an attempt on his life. Clark intervenes and saves his life. Here we are first introduced to Clark’s super strength and heat vision. The heat vision looks like the special effect on Smallville. It seems to intensify depending on his mood. I like this aspect because it adds realism to the ability, while differentiating heat vision from laser beams, ala Cyclops. There is a majestic looking sequence in the book, where Clark flies over a herd of Zebra’s in the African plains. As we know, this scene was transplanted into Man of Steel, with a few differences and was equally as beautiful. This origin story gives Clark a new power, “soul vision”. Clark is able to see the soul or aura around any living being. In an email to his Earth mother, Martha Kent, Clark says that the aura is a multitude of colours and when a living creature dies, everything goes dark. This is why Clark is a vegetarian in this version of the story. Many fans took exception with this, but I don’t because it makes sense in the context of this story and adds to Superman’s resolve against killing. Eventually, Kobe is killed in an assassination despite Clark’s efforts to prevent it, prompting Clark to return home to Smallville.
The Kent’s, Clark’s adoptive parents are younger than previous iterations. In both age and actions, they mimic their Smallville counterparts. Both have a hand in helping Clark shape his dual identity in Superman: Birthright. The main reason for them helping him do, this is so Clark can maximize his full potential. He can help people and feel connected to humanity. After deciding to adopt the look of his birthplace, Martha uses the quilt that was in the space shuttle to create a costume. Then the family begins crafting the “mild –mannered reporter” disguise. They put Clark in clothes that are slightly big on him, to hide his physique. They advise him to slouch, so he won’t stand out in a crowd and train him to speak in a higher pitch, changing his voice from when he’s in costume. Even after all this, his eyes still stand out, so the decision is made for Clark to wear his father’s glasses. While they don’t change the colours; “the way the light refracts through the lens, it cuts the colour.” Clark departs for Metropolis. This story gives Jonathan and Martha Kent a larger role in the creation of Clark’s dual identities, rather than Martha just acting as his seamstress. The Kent’s are now an integral part of their son’s past, present and future. I also enjoyed the explanation of every aspect of the disguise, especially the glasses and how they can actually slightly alter his appearance. It is the most in-depth and realistically plausible explanation in any medium.
When the story hits Metropolis, the reader is instantly put in a post 9/11 world. A cab driver informs Clark that the armed copters overhead are, anti-terrorist measures performing a test run. Putting this Superman: Birthright, in a world fearful of terrorism is smart because not only does it make the story more relatable, it allows the character to stay relevant in society. Terrorism is still a prevalent fear, even all these years later. This is why the character has lasted so long and will continue to do so. He adapts with society. Everyone at the Daily Planet is status quo. Perry White is a driven editor who wants the best from his staff and paper. Lois Lane is the ever-feisty female reporter. She is respected by her peers and fights for the “little guy.” Clark first encounters Lois protecting Jimmy Olsen from a public humiliation from the Planet’s publisher. Clark sees this and is enamored with her. I love the fact that Clark falls for Lois because of her personality, above and beyond her looks. That’s always been the case, but really highlighted here! During his interview with Perry White, Clark has perfected the bumbling, mild-mannered routine. He is jittery, soft-spoken and constantly looking at his shoes. The disguise almost costs him the job, until he makes a passionate argument as to why he deserves it.
An anti-terrorist copter crashes through the window of Perry’s office, just as Clark pushes him out of the way. The confusion in the office allows Clark to leap out the window unnoticed and change into Superman. Whether on the printed page or on screen, the “shirt rip” that reveals the “S” insignia is always intense. All the copters have malfunctioned and Superman proceeds to dismantle and stop them. In an attempt to follow the story, Lois and Jimmy board the Daily Planet helicopter. A problem with the throttle, causes Lois to hit one of the anti-terrorist copters. As the helicopter falls from the sky, Jimmy falls out while Lois is trapped inside. In an action packed two-page spread paying homage to Superman: The Movie, we see Superman holding the helicopter with Lois inside in one hand, while catching Jimmy with the other. The art by Leinil F. Yu, is exceptional in this scene. I stared at this page for quite some time. After averting the disaster, Superman discovers that Lex Luthor ,sabotaged the anti-terrorist weapons. When he confronts Lex, Superman speaks as if the two individuals know each other. Lex seems confused by the implication. When the media arrives Lex puts on a show, calling the attacks horrible and thanks Superman for his efforts. Disgusted, Superman flies away. The reader is left wondering what Superman and Lex’s past connection is, and why Lex doesn’t remember it? The people of Metropolis seem to adore Superman after his first appearance. Lois also wins praise for her article on the Man of Steel and Clark secures himself a job based on his expose on Luthor’s connection to the attacks.
The books focus shifts to Lex Luthor. Not only is he a businessman, he is also a scientist. This is a melding of Lex’s pre-crisis and post-crises origins. This serves to satisfy all fans, while making Lex a better rounded, more complex character. Lex’s company, LexCorp, also funds a scientific observatory devoted to the discovery of extra-terrestrial life. All research is based on a discovery Lex made when he was a child. This fascination adds another layer to the relationship of Superman and Lex Luthor. Superman is the validation of Lex’s findings but cannot be used to achieve Lex’s motivations, which frustrates Lex. Thus, when he reveals his data on Superman’s powers and birth planet to Lois and Clark, he puts a negative spin on it. It is also revealed that Lex possesses a green stone engraved with Superman’s insignia. Lex uses all this to discredit Superman to the public. Later, when Superman stops a train from derailing and asks if there is a doctor available to help the injured driver, bystanders cower in fear of Superman. Lex’s plan appears to be working. An explosion on a Metropolis bridge forces Superman back into action. As Superman is holding the cables, Lex sets off another explosion to make it seem like Superman is tearing the bridge apart. Superman tries to save a civilian but he is weakened by radiation from a green meteorite. To escape its effects, Superman jumps into the water under the bridge. The public’s trust of Superman deteriorates even further, due to these seemingly coward-like actions of leaving the scene in the midst of danger. Author Mark Waid, understands that Lex is a threat to Superman because of his conniving mind. He is an adversary Superman must outsmart constantly and due to Superman’s own moral code, cannot be eliminated by physical means. In addition to Mark Waid borrowing from Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum, Zack Snyder and Geoff Johns have admitted to referencing the Superman Birthright Lex, for BvS. This is obvious in his look and his machinations to discredit Superman to the people of Metropolis.
Clark and Lex knew each other because they went to high school together, as Lex was held back after doodling schematics for an invention on an aptitude test. Lex is a mere 3 years older than Clark. I like this take a little better than Smallville’s version because the T.V. version of his father being in town on business, then having Lex run a LuthorCorp plant in Smallville, seemed too coincidental and contrived. Clark and Lex befriend each other, due to their mutual belief in extra-terrestrial life and their sense of isolation, from the rest of society. One day, Lex shows Clark the wormhole device he invented that can communicate with past alien civilizations. Lex reveals the power source of the machine, the green meteorite. Exposure begins to make Clark ill and he cowers in pain. Lex misinterprets the reaction as fear, and throws Clark out of the laboratory. Just as Lex makes contact with the Kryptonian civilization, the power source overloads causing an explosion. The idea of Clark and Lex as friends, will make Smallville fans happy, though this aspect of the story has more in common with pre-crisis Superboy comics, as well as the TV series of the late 80’s. Not only is Lex’s research gone, his hair has been burned off his scalp and his father is killed. Yu’s art of Lex’s burnt scalp, is both grotesque, yet beautiful. Waid’s work in this segment of the book, embraces Superman continuity from several era’s and forms of media! You can tell he loves the character.
As the story progresses, Superman saves Lois once again, this time from mob gunfire. As he flies her to safety at sunrise, she tells him she trusts him and wants to help clear his name. This is one reason why Superman loves Lois; she is one of the few reporters who is concerned with reporting the truth, rather than selling a paper. Superman decides to confront Luthor. Here, due to his extremely large ego, Lex reveals to Superman information about his origins. He tells him about Krypton and its explosion and dubs the green meteorite that is lethal to Superman, “Kryptonite”. Lex enjoys the perverse pleasure of not only informing Superman that he is alone in the universe, but also revealing his plan to discredit and eliminate Superman. Lois being one of the only reporters to defend Superman and outright put herself in harms way, is another element that Man of Steel borrowed from. Also, Lex being the one who reveals more details about Superman’s full Kryptonian heritage, is cruel irony but a great story conceit, that heightens the animosity between them.
Like the Smallville flashback scenes, Lex has once again made contact with the Kryptonian’s, and uses the images, to fabricate reports of an alien attack on earth led by Superman. Here’s where the story gets a little sour for me. The warship is a giant robotic spider. No, don’t get your eyes checked, you read that correctly. Does it sound familiar? The Superman Lives script, was obsessed with a giant, robotic spider., This is one of the reasons I can’t give this book a perfect grade. Did Jon Peters hijack this segment of the script? Why did Waid use a spider? He is so knowledgeable in Superman lore, yet he chose to take one of the most dreaded plot devices from an unused Superman script and insert it into the book? Maybe it was an acknowledgement of that aspect of the characters history? My suggestion, take Maalox or Pepto Bismol before reading this chapter of the story. Anyway, Superman confronts the war craft, but Lex found a way to disperse Kryptonian radiation into the air. Weakened and being chased by the police, Superman has lost hope and decides to return home. As he watches from the sky, his symbol is being burned into the ground as a brand. Upset, he decides to stay and defend Metropolis.
Before he does so, he confides in Lois about Lex’s plot and the effects kryptonite has on him. He tells her that it is the key to Luthor’s whole charade and asks Lois for her help to expose Lex. Superman rejoins the war zone severely weakened by Kryptonite. Still, he goes toe to toe with Van-Gar, the “Kryptonian” leader. At the same time, he manages to reveal to Metropolis that the “invasion” is a hoax. Nearby, Lois manages to pull the kryptonite out of the control panel at LexCorp and as a result, half of Van-Gar’s army disappears. As the citizens witness Superman’s heroism, they pick up make shift weaponry and stand in front of him, ready to defend their city. I’m glad this was included, because it shows that Superman is a symbol of hope and inspiration, not because of his amazing abilities but because of his actions in doing good and helping others first and foremost. This book not only tells us that Superman is a symbol of hope, we get to see the citizens of Metropolis choosing to support Superman, in a real literal way. To me, this scene, both written and artistically, strengthens the connection between Superman and his new home.
In the final scenes of Superman: Birthright, Lex captures Lois after finding her with the kryptonite. Lex tries to “get rid “of Lois, by pushing her out the window. However, after defeating Van-Gar, Superman catches Lois just before she hits the ground. Following a battle with Lex at Lexcorp, Superman begins seeing video from Krypton. Superman is essentially watching his past, seeing Jor – El and Lara place him in the ship and rocket him to Earth. Prior to the end of the transmission, Superman somehow breaks through the time barrier sending his parents a message. Kal – El tells his parents he is fine and made it to Earth. Back at the Daily Planet, Lois and Clark share their first front-page story. Clark teases Lois about her feelings for Superman, which she denies, while doodling Superman’s insignia on a blank sheet of paper. The book ends with one of the most poignant scenes in a comic book. As the planet Krypton is falling apart, Jor–El and Lara receive their son’s message. Their son is alive and living a prosperous life. They will live on forever through him. They share one final embrace. This scene started my penchant of crying while reading comic books, for the first time, since reading The Death of Superman. When you read and see these moments, have a tissue on hand.
Superman: Birthright is an immensely satisfying Superman story. It has all the action, sci-fi, humor, and romance you expect from a good Superman tale. Mark Waid knows Superman lore well. The only thing missing from said lore in this story was the Fortress of Solitude, which could have been included instead of that ridiculous robotic spider, but I digress. Leinil Yu’s art is realistic and vibrant. It’s as if Yu tapped into the minds of Superman fans, and mapped out the artwork from there. Each character has a distinctly different look, a skill few modern comics artists have. Superman Birthright is a near perfect beginning to an ongoing, enduring saga.