Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu
To me, one of the most important elements of the Superman mythos is that Clark Kent is a journalist. It may not shock you to learn that I came to Superman through The Adventures of Lois and Clark, which focused heavily on its newsroom setting, but it’s more than just allegiance to the series that cemented my view of Big Blue. (Make all the Dean Cain jokes you want, he’s still “OH MY GOD IT’S SUPERMAN!” to me.) Rather, it’s an indicator of who Clark is at his core. Supposedly, Marvel’s heroes are the relatable ones and DC’s heroes are the aspirational ones (or used to be, before DC fell down Grimdark Canyon and came back wrong), but Clark’s interest in journalism means that, even if he didn’t have unimaginable power, he would still be out there, fighting for the greater good. Because that’s his greatest superpower: empathy for all humanity.
I have been disappointed again and again as of late when it comes to this integral part of Clark’s character for me: see Man of Steel (or It Came From Grimdark Canyon) and the new 52’s Superman/Wonder Woman (or Mortals Aren’t Good Enough). So opening up Superman: Birthright was a welcome relief, and not just because it was actually and willfully colorful.
Superman: Birthright, the 2003 miniseries that inadvertently became canon for a short period of time (comics!), introduces us to our protagonist as a reporter in West Africa, covering the conflict between the Ghuri and Turaaba tribes. He and Kobe Asuru, the Ghuri activist, become fast friends, mostly because they agree that there’s no such thing as heroes—just an obligation for everyone to do their best to better the world they live in. Being a “hero” has nothing to do with having superpowers, although they certainly help, as Clark learns when he finally has a chance to use his powers for the greater good. Asuru does not meet a pleasant end, as you might imagine, but Waid takes some (but certainly not all) of the sting out of it by having Abena, Asuru’s sister, assume his mantle and point out that Clark is dancing awfully close to playing the white savior when he starts handing out political advice.
That definition of hero crops up again and again in Birthright, especially with Lois Lane. Mark Waid’s Lois is a whirlwind, to the degree that Clark quietly mutters that he’s in love after watching her berate The Daily Planet’s publisher for abusing Jimmy Olsen. Setting aside a very tasteless joke about restraining orders (Lois apparently has one against Jimmy, but attempts to comfort him by promising to downgrade it), I’m delighted by Jimmy’s crush on and hero worship of Lois. At this moment, I cannot think of any other example in any media where a young man looks up to a woman as a role model. Obviously, this comes with the assumption that a young man idolizing a woman involves romantic attraction, but it reads as generalized and puppyish—Jimmy assumes that everybody would have a crush on Lois, because she’s just so awesome. But Lois doesn’t like to think of herself as a hero, because she’s just trying to be her best all the time. And her best is, frankly, awesome.
But Lex Luthor’s best is terrifying. Waid takes a page out of Smallville and makes Clark and Lex tenuous friends in high school. He also makes Lex an astrobiologist obsessed with finding extraterrestrial life. This makes Lex a better and more tragic foil for Clark. From a young age, Lex is doing his best, but his lack of social skills, morality, and sheer frustration at those who can’t keep up with his massive intellect repel everyone—everyone except Clark, who understands where he’s coming from, even if he can’t openly tell him. Clark’s great empathy is warped in Lex as Lex’s inability to treat people as people. His search for extraterrestrial life is a search for people smart enough for him to talk to. It’s a clever piece of character work that ends up writing the climax of the miniseries, which is a treat unto itself.
Waid’s updating of the story includes a lot of other clever, thoughtful details. For instance, Martha Kent is also a UFO enthusiast in this universe, which she got into because, you know, her son is an alien. Watching Martha and Clark plot out the development of Superman is as darling as watching Jonathan’s heart break over his son’s sudden interest in his biological parents is heartrending. And the ending, which involves warping spacetime, is the kind of thing that makes me tap my heart in public. But I was particularly affected by a certain two page spread that happens when Clark is talking to his mother about the Kryptonian history tablet left in his rocket. While he can’t translate it, he’s fascinated by the images, and he describes the Kryptonians in rapturous terms. And the Kryptonians pictured on the spread about how great they are are four women. It’s a small thing that’s never remarked upon, but it left a deep impression on me—as, of course, it did Clark.
Bottom line: Superman: Birthright remains delightfully fresh as a Superman origin story ten years after its publication. Well worth a read.
I rented this boo from the public library.