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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Superman: Birthright, the origin of the Man of Steel

Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: Leinil Francis Yu
Inker: Gerry Alanguilan
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Comicraft
Publisher: DC Comics

What's it about?
This is an origin story for Superman.  I won't say 'the' origin story, because there have been lots.  This one is particularly good and it resonates with a lot of readers.
Superman is the last son of the dying planet Krypton.  His parents, knowing that their planet was doomed, built their only son a rocket and sent him to Earth.  He was found by a kindly farming couple, the Kents.  They brought him up, adopted him as their own, and as he grew he discovered these amazing powers - heat and x-ray vision, flight, super strength, near invulnerability.  The Kents instilled in this young man, Clark, a strong moral core and he knew he had a responsibility to do good.  In time, as he thought more about where he came from, he created a brightly coloured suit, designed to make him stand out, to look open and to appear trustworthy.
Then he went out in public and achieved miraculous things.
When not in costume, he works as a journalist at the world renowned Daily Planet newspaper.  Here, he is amongst the first to hear the latest news.
He can find out where he's needed.  Also working there is Lois Lane, best journalist of her generation.  She's tenacious and courageous, an inspiration to a million women.  Clark and Lois are destined to fall in love and eventually marry, but at this moment in time the romance has barely started.

Birthright takes us through the death of Krypton, Clark's first years abroad working as a journalist, the decision to become a Superman and his first adventures, his introduction to the Daily Planet, Lex Luthor as a young lad in Smallville and Lex Luthor as an man in Metropolis, scheming and paranoid as ever.

What's good about it?
This is a beautifully told origin story that emphasises Clark's humanity.  He may be an alien but he was brought up human, with human values and with a human outlook on life.  In this version of events, he does not discover anything about where he came from, much less that Krypton is dead, until he's an adult.  It's heartbreaking when he does discover the truth.
The first issue has Clark in Africa, investigating the conflict between the Ghuri and Turaaba tribes.  Now, a white man writing about a white man in Africa, doing an expose piece on two black tribes - that could have gone really badly.  It could easily have come across as voyeuristic or condescending.  It could have been a story that exoticised the black characters.  In short, it could have been bloody awful and racist.  It's not.  The Ghuri and Turaaba tribes people become real.  The conflict is dealt with sensitively and the potential for racism is addressed.
Apologies for not using a better scan - the above is from the cover of issue 2, but try as I might I cannot find any other scans of the Ghuri or Turaaba.

Throughout the book Waid provides a subtly different interpretation of gender roles.  Superman's Mum, Lara, is reasoned and practical whilst his father, Jor-El, is emotional and scared.  His adoptive parents behave in unexpected ways too.  Pa Kent keeps his feelings bottled up whilst Ma Kent is constantly researching where Clark could have come from.  Usually, Pa is the active role model, guiding Clark and steering him into manhood.  Here, it feels like Ma is playing more of that role.  And Lois, oh Lois.  This book gets her exactly right.  We see her as fearless reporter.  We understand why she won her Pulitzer and we see exactly how and why Clark falls in love with her.  She is no sidekick, she's a great woman in her own right and she commands respect.
The book explains how Superman and Clark differ, how Clark consciously reduces himself to appear less than super to the public, so that his secret will never get out.  And yes, Lois does suspect something.
She's the only one that does and in the rules of this Universe that makes her pretty darned observant.

There is so much I can talk about here.  I love this book's interpretation of Krypton and its amazing technology and fashions.  I love the humanisation and relevance of characters that I've read about thousands of times before, and perhaps grown bored of.

Lex Luthor is frequently written as an arrogant megalomaniac.  The narrative within this book provides a backstory and a reason for why he is so distrustful and for why he thinks he's better than anyone else.  The adult Lex becomes a cruel, powerful man, with no regard for human life.  He cannot stand Superman because he cannot control him. 
Superman is truly an example of the best we can be - he's an inspiration - and it's not about his powers, it's about his character.  He seems to be innately good - even though we know a key part of the Superman mythos is about how the Kents raised him well.  It proves that you can make a home, have a home, and be accepted for who you are anywhere.  If the Christopher Reeve films ever touched you or made your heart soar, you should read this comic.  It has the same sort of feeling and sense of wonder.
What's bad about it?
There's one part where Clark questions his role as Superman, on my last read that felt a bit forced.  It has to be in there because it's part of the hero's journey but it just didn't resonate with me.

What's the art like?
Oh my gosh the art in this is so distinctive.  It's one of the rare comics where I have difficulty deciding whether the penciller, inker or colourist is more talented.  The different work blends seamlessly.
The pencil lines are crystal clear and the inker gives them just enough emphasis - it's not too heavy and not too light.  The colours are sharp and bright.  Reading this book is like looking at the fields on a bright sunny day, with perfect light.

The penciller Yu gives the characters a certain gentleness.  It could be perceived as vulnerability because the eyes sometimes come across as feminine, but really the characters end up looking honest and open.  Those that should come across that way anyway (adult Lex tends to look crafty).

All in all it's super!


More information
Price: £14.99
ISBN: 1401202527

In terms of further reading, Superman: Secret Origin is another origin story, so perhaps don't get that one just after you've read this.   It's good but pick up Birthright or Secret Origins as a starting point as they have different takes on the character and his history.

Superman for All Seasons is a great read and stands alone.  It was one of the first Superman trades I read and has a special place in my heart.
We have reviewed a lot of other Superman books, have a look through our Superman label here.
Mark Waid has written a lot of comics, including Incorruptible, Irredeemable and The Flash.  All are worth reading.