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Shadowhawk reviews Mark Waid’s 2003 ground-breaking origin story of the Man of Steel.
“A fascinating story about relationships, consequences, and identity that also helps to establish Superman as more than an American hero.” ~The Founding Fields
I don’t often re-read graphic novels. In fact, I rarely do that at all. But, there are some stories that are worth visiting again and again, which is where Mark Waid’s 12-issue origin story about Superman comes in. One of the other reasons I revisited this story was because I’m taking an online comics course through Ball State University – Gender Through Comics – and this graphic novel was part of our week 2 reading. It has been a really fun course so far (week 4 starts tomorrow), and I’ve really enjoyed some of the discussions that we’ve had till now, covering everything from comic book covers to portrayal of women in the various comics: Strangers in Paradise, the new Captain Marvel, Birthright, Ms. Marvel #1s from 1977 and 2006, and so on.
The course has been extremely fun and the one thing I’ve really enjoyed coming out of this are the interviews with the writers and editors. Interviewees so far have included Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise and Rachel Rising), Mark Waid (Daredevil, and Birthright, and Irredeemables), and then Kelly Sue DeConnick and her editors on the current Captain Marvel book, Stephen Wacker and Sana Amanat. If ever there was a chance to get into the minds of these creators about the work they do, this is it. While I haven’t enjoyed DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, her insights into the character and her beliefs regarding the same have been very much an eye-opener. The same applies to what Wacker and Amanat said during the interview. This coming week the guest is Gail Simone and for that I’m really excited, since she’s currently one of my top favourite comics writers, with all the work she’s done so far on Batgirl for New 52, and her Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle graphic novel. Fun times!
Anyway, moving on, Superman: Birthright is a very unique book. For one, it contains a very big retelling of the Superman origin mythos, in that the core idea behind the hero is not one borne out of Clark’s daily struggles in Smallville (or even Metropolis), but from his experiences of a civil war in a war-torn African nation. Second, there are some heretofore unmentioned powers and abilities that were a surprise to me. Third, this is the only origin story I know of where Lex Luthor and Clark Kent knew each others as kids in Smallville, the other source being the hit TV show starring Tom Welling which I also loved and enjoyed. Fourth, the second half of the book is taken up with how Luthor is able to manipulate Superman’s inherited Kryptonian legacy and turn it against him, a concept that came up repeatedly in Smallville, but not in any other story as far as I can tell. Admittedly, I’m not conversant with a lot of the lore about the character over the 75 years of his existence, but I don’t think it has come up so starkly before, or so forcefully either. And fifth, this is a Superman story that sticks to the modern times, that feels relevant to a modern audience because of how Mark Waid shows the world and the characters catching up to modern technology: Superman able to avoid electromagnetic transmissions because he can see them, Lois Lane blogs on the Daily Planet’s site, Martha Kent and Clark exchange regular emails, and so on.
Another reason that this book is so good is because it goes back to the core elements of what the character and his world have come to mean to readers over the last 75 years. Lois Lane, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, the Kents, and Lex Luthor are all here. Together, they represent the core cast of Superman characters, and Mark Waid shows them all off in the story to a great degree. Every character does something meaningful and relevant, with their relationship to Clark Kent and Superman also being explored throughout. This is the kind of writing I expected and wanted out of the current New 52 version of Superman, and this is precisely what has been missing from it.
Let me clarify. Superman is just one side of a character with a double identity. Clark Kent is just as important and significant in the mythos as much as Superman is. Without one, the other is nothing. In Birthright, Mark Waid gives as much importance to the Clark Kent persona as he does to the Superman one. In fact, it is not up until Clark is in Metropolis and rescues Jimmy and Lois from a damaged news helicopter that we even see the red-and-blue caped costume, and this is happens in the middle of issue 4. Until then, it is very much like Smallville: Clark saves people while he is himself, without any thought towards hiding who he is. His experiences in Africa lead him to the conclusion that the only way he can fit in normally with other people is if they don’t know the truth about him, and to safeguard that truth, he needs to hide who is, and become someone else: Clark Kent the lion-wrestling global journalist becomes Clark Kent the mild-mannered, goof-up reporter for Daily Planet.
The way that Mark Waid builds up the character through those first three issues is remarkable, and since he is focusing only on Clark and his adoptive parents, he is able to give some real page-time towards making Clark Kent into a real character with motivations and beliefs.
Once Superman steps into the limelight, things kick off spectacularly since now we are getting into the meat of the story (excuse the pun – Clark is a vegetarian!) and by now Mark Waid is hitting his stride with the story. Now we get introduced to Clark’s (or Kal-El’s rather) Kryptonian legacy, to Lex Luthor, to Kryptonite, and we also find out how Clark and Lex know each other from Smallville. In all of this, if there was one major disappointment for me, it was that we are never told just why Lex Luthor does not recognise Clark Kent at all since they used to be good…. friends, and Lex’s time in Smallville was a very huge formative experience since that is when he got started on being a serious astrobiologist. Other than that however, I definitely loved how Waid portrays Lex as a manipulative, secretive, and relentless man who will take by force anything he wants and the lengths he will go to in order to get his revenge on those who wrong him, no matter how unintentionally.
Birthright establishes Lex Luthor as a major villain in the mythos, which is as it should be since along with Brainiac and Darkseid, he is one of Superman’s greatest enemies, possibly the greatest, akin to Batman’s relationship with Joker or Hal Jordan’s relationship to Sinestro.
Of course, in all of those, it might have been easy for me to gloss over Lois Lane’s portrayal, but given that with the recent 75th anniversary, DC has shown an appalling lack of any promotion for the character, and me taking the Gender Through Comics course, I was much more aware of what Mark Waid did with her. His Lois is not the Lois of Smallville, or the Lois of the first year of the New 52 Superman book. His Lois is strong and assertive. She calls out her bosses if she sees them doing something wrong, like bullying her co-workers. She is not a mere damsel in distress who needs the hero to save her at every turn without being able to contribute towards events in any meaningful way beyond the cliched. She is always there in the thick of action.
Lois in Birthright is a compassionate individual in that she cares about those around her, but she is not shown in a way that makes her weak or reduces her to a stereotype. She challenges authority, is not put off by that same authority, and she always does what she thinks is best. In short, she is a character who changes the entire atmosphere of a setting with her presence. She defines her relationships on her own terms, not on terms dictated by society and the people around her. She is a female character with agency, with control over her own actions and thoughts.
Ultimately, that’s how female characters should be written. Not the way that Brian Azzarello has handled Wonder Woman in the current ongoing Wonder Woman, or how Lois has been treated in the first 12 issues of the new Superman.
The art was a bit iffy for me at times, I’ll admit. The particular style that is used, the pencils and the colours/inks alike, some characters have these weird expressions on their faces, or some details of their face are just unclear. That takes away from the impact of the larger story that is at work. The colours/inks themselves are a bit muted and often tend to go towards more simple colours, with simple contrasts, rather than anything rich or glamorous. In a way, that complements Waid’s writing, since he is writing all the characters as flawed everyday people we can relate to, even Clark Kent, Lex Luthor and Superman. He is humanising all these characters so we can identify more with them. The art team of Leinil Francis Yu as the principal penciller, Gerry Alanguilan as inker, and McCaig as colourist have done an overall wonderful job with this maxiseries and delivered one of the visually great books of all time.
I would definitely recommend this book to all fans of Superman. It offers something new, something different that you are not going to find in Superman right now. This book is in fact so good that I wish Mark Waid was writing the ongoing Superman, although that may not be as relevant a fact since I have yet to read Scott Lobdell’s current run. Still, I wish that either J. Michael Straczynski or Mark Waid were doing something with Superman right now, an ongoing series and the like.