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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Superman: Birthright and Superman for All Seasons: A Tale of Two Takes on an Icon

Author's Note: I am holding off on my long-promised post on the Air Nomads and Religious Vegetarianism, for the sake of obtaining more in-depth information about the subject. Until then, please enjoy this post about Superman.

I've written about Superman movies before, but I've never really written about Superman himself, let alone Superman comics. But over the last week or so, I've finally gotten around to reading Superman: Birthright and Superman for All Seasons, a pair of pretty notable Superman stories. The former was written by the esteemed Mark Waid, while the latter was written and illustrated by the equally esteemed team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, respectively. This latter pair was also behind Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory, the former being one of my favorite Batman stories. Meanwhile, Waid has written or co-written such great stories as Kingdom Come and 52, as well as acclaimed runs on The Flash, JLA, and also Daredevil over at Marvel.

Getting back to Superman, these two stories both helped to define Superman in comics in ways that were both hugely significant and hugely differing. Today, we will examine the differences between Birthright and Seasons as stories, as well as their respective takes on the world's most iconic superhero.

Right off the bat, Superman: Birthright is very different from Superman for all Seasons. Birthright was spawned in the early 2000's and ran for 12 issues. It was, at the time, meant to be the definitive superhero origin story for Superman, a concept which even then had been done literally dozens of time. Comics scholar Chris Sims notes that even before Birthright, Superman: Secret Origin, and Superman: Earth One all came about, both he and a friend agreed that the last thing they wanted to see in comics was yet another Superman origin story. Exactly why he believes this is beyond the scope of this post, but you can read all about it here. (A word of warning: I'll be citing Mr. Sims a lot in this article.)

Birthright's take on Superman's origin story seeks to capture the feel of Superman is a more "toned-down" and "realistic" way, which is generally code for our hero constantly expressing angst at his predicament. The edition I read stated that Birthright was specifically designed to mirror the approach that the odious Smallville was taking, which is never a good sign. Even the art has that weird, edgy, penciled look that was common in its day, leftover from the exaggeratedly grim and gritty feel that nearly all 90s comics had.

In the hands of a lesser talent, this might lead to what happened with Man of Steel. Not Mark Waid though, oh no. He manages to successfully present a version of Superman that is largely true to the character, yet at the same time mess it up just enough to make is significantly imperfect. Birthright's main problem in this regard is that it keeps looking for explanations and justifications for details that don't or shouldn't need to be explained or justified. The classic example, as indicated by Sims, is the rationale behind putting a giant red "S" on Superman's costume. There's a lot of ballyhoo about it being some kind of Kryptonian crest or a symbol of hope or whatever stupid crud they routinely pull out of their butts at the DC editorial offices, but Sims has a simpler explanation: He wears an "S" on his chest because "S" stands for Superman. There. Done. Mystery solved.

One thing that I actually did like that Waid elaborated on more fully was his explanation of how Superman's Clark Kent disguise manages to fool his coworkers, who are all reporters. It's brilliantly done, with Clark putting a lot of effort into it and nearly blowing it more than once. However, it leads to the one thing which I really don't like about Birthright, and it's not even in the story itself, but in the afterword: Waid goes out and states flatly that Clark Kent is the "mask" and Superman is the real man.

Bullcrap.

Aside from the obvious play for the appeal of Batman, a strategy makes minimal sense for reasons that we won't go into right now, the idea of Clark Kent being the "mask" and Superman being the "real man" is plainly flawed. It all boils down to Superman and Clark Kent being two sides of the same person who acts differently around different people, ditto for Batman and everyone else. The fact that Mark Waid of all people bought into it is beyond me.

Birthright itself is workable, enjoyable even, but still flawed. It focuses on how Superman would supposedly be found scary by the denizens of our oh-so-scared-and-paranoid post-9/11 world, and ever so trusting of a bald, corporate elitist like Luthor. I quickly debunked this idea when I asked my mom, no comic book aficionado, if she would be freaked out if Superman touched down in our backyard. The answer: Not if he looked like the Christopher Reeve version. Bingo! Guess what Birthright's Superman looks like? Sure, the folks in the military might be a bit spooked, but who's going to be scared by a guy with no mask flying around wearing a big red cape helping people?

Which brings us to Superman for All Seasons.

Seasons isn't so much an origin story as it is a summation of who Superman is and how he came to be. Everything from the narrative structure to the art is focused on producing a story which does this. The logical result of this methodology is that Seasons is nothing at all like Waid's pseudo-dour Birthright. We see Superman through the eyes of his family, friends, and that one bald guy who's his biggest enemy. Loeb and Sale specifically note that they wanted the art to be reminiscent of Norman Rockwell paintings, which gives us an incredible effect. It's homely, warm, inviting, emotional, and poignant. Heck, it's even fun!

One thing that makes Seasons such a classic is that it doesn't fall prey to the trap of obsessing over details which ultimately have little relevance to the story. Instead, its story and visuals primarily focus on developing the characters, creating memorable scenes, and communicating a rich narrative. As a result, the small details that fill up the background in these 4 issues give it a richness that Birthright could barely accomplish in 12. Every character from the Man of Steel himself to Smallville's local minister all stick in your mind and are beautifully rendered. Every panel gives us something visually worthwhile to look at. The stories this four-issue series tells us are breathtakingly engaging and a pleasure to read. There's no fretting about how Clark got his journalism degree or why he decided to be a superhero. Why he did it is decided in 2 pages -heck, I doubt it was that many- more effectively than Birthright's 2 or 3 issues devoted to the subject.

Most of all, there's a sharp contrast given between Superman and Lex Luthor. We're not given a totally solid explanation about why Superman and Luthor are at odds (we rarely are), but it's made clear that Luthor's an evil bad guy who firmly believes himself to be the good guy, and there's no tragic backstory given to justify what a jerkhole he is. He's just like that, and because of him, Metropolis is initially a fairly disagreeable place to live. That is, until Superman shows up.

To be fair to Birthright, elements of that story sort of leak into Geoff Johns' Superman: Secret Origin, which I believe is the best Superman origin story which I have yet read, though there are many out there. In truth, Secret Origin combines a lot of aspects from both Birthright and Seasons, such as Clark and Luthor knowing each other as children, or Superman's behavior as Clark Kent being at least partly natural and genuine, respectively. This results is a story which is decidedly above par, but not quite on the level of a classic like Seasons.

In the end, while Birthright does have some things going for it, I'll definitely choose Seasons any day of the week as my choice interpretation of Superman. It just has so much more life and energy that Birthright only dreams of having. They're both good, but only Superman for all Seasons is a truly great interpretation of an American icon. I'm just glad that I finally read it.

Image 1 courtesy amazon.com. Image 2 courtesy samquixote.blogspot.com