The Superman franchise is under construction in 2004. This installment of NMM will look at today’s hulabaloo and put it in the proper context – as only the straight-talking scholars of NMM can!
The rebirthwrite of Superman
As I said in a previous review of Birthright (BR), it is clear that:
[BR scribe] Mark Waid is a comic book fan.
Mark Waid knows history and respects continuity.
Mark Waid strives to tell great stories.
Mark Waid won’t let his fondess for history hinder him from crafting a great story.
However, most of all, after actually having read DC’s Superman: Birthright offerings so far, I can also emphatically say that….
Mark Waid knows Superman.
In DC’s first significant retooling of the Superman mythology – since comics’ great John Byrne’s 1986 much-loved and much-maligned Man of Steel (MOS) mini-series – Mark Waid seems to have been tasked with reinterpreting the Man of Steel for a new generation – particularly Smallville tv show aficionados.
I don’t say this disparagingly.
However, I do have a few things to share with you about….
…John Byrne’s Superman
I freely admit that I enjoyed John Byrne’s 1986 reboot of the Superman franchise, and still look back upon it with much fondness. I also remain a huge fan of legendary penciller Curt Swan’s contribution and Julius Shwartz’s editorial stewardship of the Superman franchise pre-MOS. I am a product of the Bronze Age of comics, but appreciate Modern Age comics sensibilities – with the exception of much of the inferior comic books that the early and mid 1990s produced. (For you “hawkeyes” out there, while I realize that Swan and Shwartz have been around comics well before the the Bronze Age of the medium, I was born in the 1970s, hence a “product” of that time. Anyhow…)
I know what MOS was and why it was made.
As I said in our Within the pages of the infamous 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series, DC’s pre-existing multiple universes were destroyed by the Anti-Monitor leaving one amalgamated universe with one Earth with more super-heroes under one single sun than ever before…
However, it was clear that this new cornucopia of super-heroes on one Earth posed some problems for DC…
While a Golden Age Flash and a Silver Age Flash were two different characters, and posed no significant continuity problems, the Golden Age Batman and Silver Age Batman were essentially the same character – as was the case for two Supermen and two Wonder Women
So, after the Crisis, the (Golden Age)…. never included a Superman, a Batman, or a Wonder Woman. They were written out of history, only to exist in DC’s “Modern Age”…..
John Byrne’s MOS was the retelling of the Superman mythology within DC’s single new post-Crisis universe. In this new age, Kal-el of Krypton was the sole survivor of this doomed planet. He never became Superboy in his youth, nor was he as powerful as the character had been pre-Crisis.
This retooling of the franchise not only spiked fan interest – and clearly dissillusioned some – it also actually made the cover of Time Magazine, which also featured a story on the character’s rebirth and coincidental celebration of his 50th birthday.
No Nappy Medium?
Will be Birthright be the MOS for a new generation?
Some will recoil when they see this comparison, but others will see it as a compliment.
In that observation lies the rub – no matter what DC does with a “name franchise” some fans who collect the current books or used to collect them will take issue to any revamp of the character. MOS exists they’ll say, so why go back to the well or if you do, explain your revamp within the context of existing continuity.
Others, who don’t collect the book now or are generally new to comics – whether coming to the comic shoppe because they’re a fan of the Smallville tv show or liked the Hulk movie or whatever – will tout Birthright as a great jumping on point for new readers. Too much history, they’ll say. Sixty-five years of back story is too much to contend with, they may utter – when in actuality, while Superman was created in 1938, the current continuity stems from Byrne’s post-Crisis 1986 MOS mini-series, but eighteen years is still a lot.
There are others who just like a good story, continuity be damned.
Waid vs. Byrne
As part of Birthright, its revealed that Kal-el was actually born on Krypton and sent by rocket to Earth. While this is similar to the character’s Golden Age roots, MOS had Clark Kent born on Earth in Kryptonian gesitation chamber that was sent to Earth. In addition, the world of Krypton in Birthright is edgy, emotional… human. This unlike MOS’ cold, clinical, stoic Krypton. In Birthright, Superman’s “S” symbol is a sign of hope and derived from Krypton. MOS’ Jonathan and Clark Kent came up with the “S” emblem – the name “Superman” was hoisted on Clark after he saved the U.S. President and Air Force One in civvies, anonymously – to coincide with the nom de guerre that the media had dubbed him.
I am of two minds regarding Birthright. I acknowledge that something had to change and it had to change now. DC was almost forced kicking and screaming to produce a comic book version of AOL Time Warner’s (AOL) successful Smallville tv show – AOL is DC’s parent company. In addition, the regular monthly Superman offerings hadn’t really ignited fan interest – let alone real monetary support by fans – translation: the books should be selling better, particularly in light of any extremely popular tv show.
While its still too early in the BR’s run to really understand whether or how this will be established as retroactive continuity (or “retcon”) in the form of a “dream”, within continuity (meaning the post-Crisis world established on the foundations of John Byrne’s MOS), a new take, or not at all. Although, Superman #200 (volume two) gives us some clues, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Some characters are retooled, recycled, retread, rebooted, reimagined, and reinterpreted in a cyclical manner.
Even an icon like Superman is one of those characters.
This is not the first time the Superman mythology has changed.
We’ve had some changes / tweaks to the post-Crisis continuity since Byrne’s run – 1998’s Superman for all Seasons, as an example. In addition Krypton was also reimagined within continuity through 2001’s Superman #166 & the “Return to Krypton” arc within the Super-books, and the 2002 follow-up “Return to Krypton II” .
Despite glimpses in Superman #200, the Birthright reboot is still seemingly outside of continuity (for now), but is actually rewriting it too – although I acknowledge that its to too early to tell, the Editors and Waid may still have a plan that will A) respect some existing fans’ continuity explanation desires (those folks that have collected the books for years and supported DC), and B) entertain new fans of the book (presumeably the Smallville tv crowd – although unless DC will promote BR in commercials during the tv show, I’m not sure how a mass influx of Smallville fans is supposed to materialize in comic book shoppes).
Making Birthright the New Origin… sorta
As I said in recent review of the mess that was Superman #200:
“The Last Superman Story of Superman #200 opens with our Man of Steel traveling through the ether of his various divergent origins, guided by the Ghost of Christmas-Future…a.k.a. a nano-organic literal Man-of-Steel from the future. This is what the future holds for Superman…he becomes more machine than man.
However, as his mechanized future self reveals, in their travels through the time stream â€” passing Superman’s GA origin, his MOS origin, and his Birthright beginnings â€” “… in my future an agent of evil has cast time into flux, leaving it malleable — causing these variants of the past…”
So there you have it, my friends. The Futuresmith menace, and their soon-to-be-revealed benefactor, have left time / continuity open to change. This is the toehold DC has made to, perhaps, make long-time Superman fans accept a potential in-continuity explanation for making Superman’s BR origin the definitive origin for the Man of Tomorrow.
So, is Superman #200 the conduit through which DC asserts the preeminence of BR?
Yes and No.
We’ll have to tune into the Superman books in 2004 to look for a definative answer.
A History of Change
If there is one hallmark to the legend of Superman it is this: the character has changed over time. I plan to explore this in a future NMM column, but I can tell you that there have been many different and similar Supermen over the years. Some were slightly tweaked or fleshed out versions of a previous incarnation, some were just plain new. Here’s the list and associated “milestone” comic book:
1) The Golden Age (GA) version – Action Comics #1 (1938)
2) Another GA version (sorta) – Superman #53 (1948)
3) The Silver Age version – Action Comics #158 (1951)
4) The Bronze Age version – Superman #233 (1971)
5) The Modern Age version – Man of Steel #1 (1986)
6) Another version – Superman #166 (2001)
7) Yet another version – Superman: Birthright #1 (2003)
8) A clear “modern” version? – Superman #200 (2003)?
Honourable mention: technically speaking, the very first “Superman” debuted in story called “The Reign of the Superman” in a comic fanzine called “Science Fiction” by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (1933).
Ultimately, as a fan of the many Supermen of the Ages, and someone who appreciates and understands the importance of continuity, where do I finally reside on my opinion of Birthright?
While I think long diatribes on continuity destruction are a bit premature – Birthright is a maxi-series after all and we still don’t know what will happen in the final issues – the issues I’ve read to date demonstrate to me that Mark Waid knows Superman. He understand the essence of the character.
Birthright is a classic retelling of the Superman mythology and, I imagine, will be surrounded with much of the criticism and accolades that Byrne’s 1986 revamp garnered. While DC will never be able please everyone, I am gratified that they are making an effort to kick start a franchise that should be consistently one of the top ten selling books in the industry today.
I’ll leave you with the following thoughts on what ails the Superman franchise today and whether BR is the cure. I shared these thoughts initially with our fellow fans on the DC Message Boards:
When stories became about [shoe]-horning stories into tpbs OR catering to an “event” OR too plot-driven with little emphasis on the man in Superman, readership fell as readers stopped caring…..
Its for this reason that I disagree for the need to reboot / revamp / refurbish / whatever Superman’s past. This will not get reader’s to care more about the man with the cape. The fundamentals of Supes’ origins most people know:
– doomed planet
– rocket ship to Earth
– raised by humans in middle America
– develops his powers
– becomes the greatest hero ever
Tinkering with the origin, while BR is an interesting read, does not solve the problems with the Superman franchise – it doesn’t make readers “care” about Supes. This new origin feels more “event” oriented than character-oriented – although it has some interesting character moments.
The new creative teams coming aboard the Superman titles in 2004 may a go a long way to revitalizing the franchise in ways that any revamping of the origin could not. Only time will tell, but that Jim Lee pencilled Superman does like nice.
The Reading Rack
There are multiple Superman stories that have been bound in hard cover or trade paperback form, including John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series.
The Birthright maxi-series is not yet completed, but the first five (of twelve) issues should be available at your local comic book peddler.
Go to your nearest comic book shoppe and reacquaint yourself with The Man of Steel. If you do not know where your nearest comic book store is, click here for help.