Thursday, September 24, 2009

Superman: Secret Origin #1

The artist takes a pencil and traces an oval where the face will be. Rather than touching the pencil to the paper and drawing it in one solid curve, the oval is composed of many shorter arcs, parallel, intersecting, concentric. Each one nudges the outline from where the previous faint lines had begun, adjusting them, repositioning the curve, correcting it. The pencil is flipped and the eraser rubs some graphite off the page; a sleeve wipes the rubber and dust away, and then the pencil goes back to work. At some point, a mannequin-like shape is there, and then a face is drawn inside, outside, and over it, without ever erasing the original imperfect outline. Eventually it will have life. Eventually it will be a face. Little strokes keep touching it up, making it better, or at least different. 

Superman is a work in progress. I first realized this when I was nine and he was forty, when the movie portrayed details differently than the comics I'd been reading. Jor-El had white hair instead of black. He wore a shining robe instead of a green shirt. And many other details, important to me, had been changed. The unescapable conclusion was that the movie must be flawed; I preferred the familiar to the new.

Around that time, my teacher asked me if I could bring a comic book to school. They wanted to have one of the art teachers make a poster featuring Superman and needed an example for her to draw him from. I proudly brought in one of my late-Seventies comics, with its two dozen pages of Superman drawn by Curt Swan, countless panels for the art teacher to choose from as the basis for her poster. When I saw the final product, three feet tall hanging inside the main doors of the school, I was aghast -- she had chosen the best drawing in the comic for her purposes, but it was the wrong Superman -- the Earth Two Superman, who was posed heroically in an ad for DC Comics, unrelated to the story. Something about his face was wrong, but -- more appalling for me -- his chest symbol was flat at the bottom instead of coming to a point. I felt like a traitor to the cause of artistic truth; given a chance to personally select the vision of Superman that my whole school would see, I had introduced the "wrong Superman". It distinctly upset me, in a way I couldn't explain to anyone.

A decade later, I was in college. I hadn't read many comics over the previous six years, and had totally missed the changes wrought by The Man of Steel. When I picked up Time Magazine's 1988 article on Superman turning fifty years old, and read that Luthor had been turned into a businessman who had dated Lois. I felt about this Lex Luthor probably like Pope Leo X had felt about Martin Luther. The article didn't explain that there had been a "reboot", so I imagined that somehow old Silver Age Lex had figured out a way to woo devoted, Silver Age, Kurt Schaffenberger Lois away from Superman, and I didn't much like the thought of it. It seemed to be not merely an artist decision in one serial but a sign that somehow the whole world had gone sick and wrong.

If the editors had known how sour my reaction was, they would have winked at the camera, Clark Kent style, when they saw me, a few days later, buying a Superman comic at the college bookstore. This was a turn of events that surely would not have taken place if the Time article had led me to believe that everything in Superman's world was just as it had been when I'd stopped buying comic books. And when I picked up that issue to see that Brainiac had also been radically transformed from the android I'd known him to be, I didn't like it, but I was interested. This sent me down the path that led to buying large numbers of back issues, eventually owning the entire sequence from Man of Steel to the then-current day. It would have been foolish not to be self-aware enough to recognize that my reborn interest in the Superman series was a product of the new directions they had taken. And when an artistic decision provides me with something I enjoy, I can't readily call it bad.

And yet, having accepted the principle of reinventing periodically The Man of Tomorrow, having learned about his past versions as well as those that followed Byrne, I had recently come to worry about Superman. I knew that many fans still yearned for the same Superman I had been raised on in the Seventies while, contrarily, other fans who had embraced (or known only) the post-Byrne Superman were upset by the reintroduction of Silver Age elements in recent years. Overwhelmed by the many little tweaks in Superman's mythology -- and big ones -- coming from Dan Jurgens, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Darwin Cooke, and many others, I felt like the pencil drawing from my opening paragraph had been made, irrevocably, into a smudged and smeared blur, with every facet of Superman's visage sitting on the page for only moments before someone sought to erase it. While many fans were bothered immeasurably by some detail of Superman's latest version, I felt like he was more than anything lost in the multiplicity of version. How could I really care what kind of tail fins the rocket that Superman rode to Earth had if the absolute rock-solid canonical version from the Bronze Age was reimagined on an almost biennial basis?

If you'd asked me, even days ago, I would have told you that the Byrne reboot had retroactively become the worst thing that ever happened to Superman because it opened a Pandora's Box of relative truth in Superman's mythology, making every detail not only tentative, but evanescent like vapor. Whereas once it made sense to print a Superman encyclopedia, logging all of his significant history in a prestige volume, now Superman was lost in the multiple accounts, never again to be an icon, just the central figure in a cluttered scrapbook full of so many alternate versions of Bizarro, Krypto, and Supergirl that you couldn't tell the current one from any of the outdated ones. I feared that Geoff Johns had no chance of meaningfully setting the record straight with his upcoming Superman: Secret Origins, and that all he could do was add another voice to the cacophony.

When I read the first issue, just hours ago, I was very pleasantly surprised.

I expected good writing. What I didn't expect was the approach. Maybe Johns' notion of Kryptonian guilds should have tipped me off. The genius of this issue is how well it weaves different eras of Superman together. Johns neither embraces the Superman of my (and his) childhood slavishly nor invents, with a flourish, his own. He begins the issue almost exactly like Man of Steel began, showing young Clark coming to acknowledge his burgeoning powers during a game of football. He changes Clark's age, and moves the game from a stadium to the sandlot, but clearly Johns, suspected by many of being a shill for the Silver Age opened with conciliation, giving Byrne's version the first say. Later, of course we saw Silver Age touches and "Movie" Superman (before moving from film to comics, Johns was Richard Donner's assistant). And if you'd asked me this morning, I would have told you that seeing homages to Smallville was the last thing I wanted to see in this series, but when I saw the red jacket and the hormonally-inspired flashes of heat vision, I admired the spirit of peacemaking. And, crucially, the grace with which it was done, doing no damage to the overall fabric. By the time we saw the issue end with another pinpoint nod to Byrne's first issue, with Clark putting on a Martha Kent rendition of the world's most famous tights, we had a story whose seams were evident only to those who'd seen the constituent parts before the sewing began.

Superman is the Great American Hero, and America is a country that was saved by a quirky Constitutional fiat called the Great Compromise. If Superman was being torn apart in a creative tug of war, Geoff Johns has refused to pick sides. He's come down hard on the side of not favoring sides. Ultimately, the kind of tail fins the rocket has don't matter so much as the adoption of a version of Superman that reminds a plurality of fans of Superman. What could be more pleasing to Superman than to have everybody win?


  1. I couldn't agree more, and I couldn't help but nod in approval as, even with the nods to Smallville and other revisionist histories, the tights are on by the end of the first issue. Proper.

  2. I totally agree with your thoughts on the first issue. Everybody wins. That's what I love about Johns, if he can keep what's gone before he will but he always puts his own spin on it. He keeps the baby and runs new bathwater.