Comics Ate My Brain

August 6, 2004

Thoughts on Superman: Birthright

Filed under: superman — Tom Bondurant @ 2:48 am
It’s a funny thing, trying to reinvent a character without appearing to change anything about him. In the past 18 years, DC Comics has tried it twice with Superman – the first time, with wholesale revisions in John Byrne’s 6-part Man of Steel, and now with the just-concluded 12-part Superman: Birthright, written by Mark Waid with art by Leinil F. Yu and Gerry Alanguilan. Ironically, Man of Steel tried to do a lot in a short time (each issue came out bi-weekly, so it was over in 3 months), whereas Birthright wasn’t so ambitious (at least in that respect) and took 12 monthly issues.

The differences are ones of purpose. With Man of Steel, the changes were the point. DC wanted to “revitalize” Superman over the course of a summer so it would build momentum going into the 3 revamped monthly titles. With Birthright, the changes are more subtle – tonal and thematic. This is partly because Birthright builds on Man of Steel, and even mentions it obliquely. Birthright had a couple of other advantages — it didn’t have the pressure of Big Event Status that its predecessor did, and it was twice as long. No wonder it turned out to be a better story.

Man of Steel is still an important part of the Superman mythology. It is best thought of as a bullet-pointed outline (faster than a speeding bullet-point?), hitting highlights and giving details through heavy exposition. It makes the not unreasonable assumption that its audience knows what the “old” Superman was like and can see the contrasts. In other words, it is a quick and dirty means to an end.

However, because Man of Steel was the foundation for 18 years’ worth of weekly Superman stories, many readers focused on Birthright’s changes, rather than its narrative. The biggest changes were made to Krypton and Lex Luthor. The Krypton of MoS was a cold, sterile place which took its attitude from the planet portrayed in the first Christopher Reeve movie. Birthright’s Krypton seems more earthy (pardon the pun) – not quite the Flash-Gordon-esque, pulp-influenced wonderland of pre-1986 comics, but certainly more colorful than Man of Steel’s.

From Krypton, Birthright draws its central motif, the “S” symbol itself. This is a change which specifically contradicts the symbol’s genesis in Man of Steel. There, Clark’s adoptive parents design the icon. Here, it is a Kryptonian symbol of great, although loosely defined, importance; probably something like the Stars and Stripes. The symbol ties together Luthor’s obsession with Krypton and his plan to discredit Superman. Luthor knows from studying the planet that the “S” is Kryptonian; and thus realizes that Superman is Kryptonian. This inspires him to create the specter of a Kryptonian invasion force and frame Superman as its vanguard. Naturally, when the “invaders” appear, they display the “S” proudly. Regardless, by the end of the story, Superman has reclaimed the “S” as his own. In fact, it is a key element in Superman accepting his home planet’s destruction.

The changes to Luthor actually brought him closer to his pre-1986 character. For decades, Luthor’s origins were tied to Clark’s career as Superboy. Luthor and Superboy were contemporaries in their hometown of Smallville, and Superboy even built Luthor a fully-stocked laboratory. One night, Luthor was working late and fell asleep at the lab. When a fire started, Superboy saved Luthor, but the lab – and the life-form Luthor had created – were total losses. The fumes from the chemicals also caused all of Luthor’s hair to fall out. Distraught over the loss of his creation, Luthor blamed Superboy, and the seeds of a lifelong enmity were planted.
When Superman was restarted in 1986, writer Marv Wolfman created the new Luthor and Byrne incorporated him into Man of Steel. Luthor was reimagined as a corrupt billionaire who considered himself the most powerful man in Metropolis. Clark had no Superboy career, so the two men first encountered each other in Metropolis as adults. After seeing Superman in action, Luthor decided to co-opt him, staging a terrorist attack on his yacht to draw out the hero. Disgusted at being manipulated, Superman refused to work for Luthor. Because Luthor had put his guests in jeopardy, the mayor of Metropolis deputized Superman on the spot and ordered him to arrest Luthor. The humiliation caused Luthor to swear eternal vengeance against Superman.

Birthright changed all of that. Once again, the teenaged Luthor had a Smallville connection, but it was short-lived. Luthor, a budding astrobiologist with absolutely no social skills, managed to build a device for communicating other planets, and actually made contact with Krypton. He showed young Clark Kent the device, which was powered by Kryptonite. Thus, Clark recoiled when he saw the machine, and Luthor took that as yet another rejection. Luthor flew into a rage, a fire started, and thanks to the Kryptonite, Clark was powerless to stop it. The fire killed Luthor’s father and destroyed his hair. Luthor left Smallville, and the town erased any indication he was ever there.

When Clark got to Metropolis, Superman stopped a LexCorp-built attack helicopter run amok. Luthor tried to spin the situation to his advantage, but Superman would have none of it, and from this humiliation the latest iteration of Luthor’s hatred was born. Luthor realized Superman was an alien, perfected his transceiver, and began a campaign to paint Superman as an evil invader. In Luthor’s mind, his discovery of extraterrestrial life would have finally elevated him above the humans who always shunned him – but the E.T. he encountered turned out to be Superman, who shunned him anyway. Thus, Luthor set up an elaborate invasion hoax to convince the people of Earth that Superman was no good – and since Superman was the only perceived threat to Luthor, discrediting him would once again put Luthor on top.

The Luthor “origin” presented in Man of Steel is clearly simpler and easier to explain, and from that it draws a certain raw appeal. The Birthright revisions restore a personal connection between Clark and Luthor, and establish a new one between Luthor and Superman: Luthor tells Superman about the destruction of his homeworld, and crows that Superman will always be alone in the universe. Luthor’s frame-up also undermines Superman’s attempts to have the people of Metropolis trust him. (Not wearing a mask as part of his costume is a big part of that plan.) Still, both Man of Steel and Birthright root Luthor’s vendetta in his own ego, and contrast that against Superman’s willingness to serve. In a sense, Birthright merely trades Man of Steel’s terrorist hoax for one done on a much larger scale. At one point I was ready to compare the Luthor of Birthright to Spider-Man’s newspaper-editing nemesis Jonah Jameson, but Jameson never wanted to rule Metropolis. Birthright shows clearly that Luthor wants no one at the top of the food chain but himself. Nevertheless, a final bit of irony suggests that Luthor’s transmissions to Krypton may have inspired Superman’s father Jor-El to send his infant son to Earth.

All this and I haven’t mentioned Clark’s early adventures in Africa, the relationships with his foster parents, the evolution of his costume, or his own sense of alienation (pardon the pun) from his co-workers. The meat of Birthright is the interplay between Superman and Luthor, and the rest is almost prologue. Future comics will decide whether the themes of Birthright take hold as strongly as the changes wrought by Man of Steel, but both characters have been through a lot since these events occurred. Superman and Luthor have both “died” and been revived; Clark has married Lois; and Luthor was President of the United States. On its own terms, Birthright is a good introduction to Superman, but it would be worthwhile for future creators to build on its changes.
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