GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Superman - page 1

"Rocketed as a baby from the exploding planet Krypton, Kal-El grew to manhood on earth -- whose yellow sun and lighter gravity gave him fantastic super-powers..."

Superman published by DC Comics
 

Adventures of Superman: José Luis García-López 2013 (HC) 360 pages

Written by Gerry Conway, with Len Wein, Martin Pasko, David Michelinie, Elliot S! Maggin, Denny O'Neil. Pencils by José Luis García-López. Inks by Dan Adkins, José Luis García-López, Frank Springer, Bob Oksner, others.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Julius Schwartz. Reprinting: Superman #294 (back up tale), Superman #301, 302, 307-309, 347, DC Comics Presents #1-4, 17, 20, 24, 31, All-New Collector's Edition C-54 (Superman vs. Wonder Woman) 1975-1981 - with covers (when drawn by García-López)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: March, 2014

Because comics are a very visual medium, artists often get more attention than writers (though it's a credit to the medium -- and its fans -- that popular writers still remain "stars" in their own right).

Adventures of Superman: José Luis García-López is a hardcover collection of random Superman stories where the common factor is an artist -- García-López. There's also a Gil Kane volume. And some Batman collections (under the title Legends of the Dark Knight) focusing on artists Jim Aparo, Alan Davis and others. For older fans, such tributes are a bit heartening, as these are artists with a kind of older sensibility to their style.

José Luis García-López is not by any stretch a "splashy" artist. He has a clear, realist style, of well posed figures and clean lines. And, I'll confess, I have picked up the occasional comic largely because he was the artist. Part of his appeal is, perhaps, his rarity -- often more a "guest artist" or pinch hitter. I think I read that he's actually a key figure in DC Comics' design department (his covers were certainly ubiquitous) so that his lack of actual story art was less because editors didn't respect his art, and more because he was busy elsewhere.

Anyway, because of that lack of long runs, it means DC can throw together a collection like this (presumably we'll never see an Adventures of Superman: Curt Swan collection -- because it would run a few thousand pages!) Though even then, they seem to have excluded any of the Superman/Batman team ups he drew for World's Finest Comics -- maybe another collection is in the wings (his pairing with inker Murphy Anderson on World's Finest #244 has always struck me as beautiful).

Different writers are on display (though Gerry Conway, a frequent José Luis García-López collaborator, scripts more than half) and stories range from a five page "Private Life of Clark Kent" tale (a series focusing on Clark -- though usually still employing super powers) to a 72 page epic. As well, this collection could just as easily have been renamed "Superman Team-Ups" -- not only are a number of the stories from DC Comics Presents, which featured Superman and various co-stars, but even in the other tales we have a teaming with Wonder Woman, as well as appearances by Supergirl and the Atom. Of course the years spanned are only 1975-1981, so there is not a huge evolution in style or sensibility.

Though recurring themes arguably reflect their era, including environmental concerns and recurring nuclear disasters -- including a saga where Superman takes it upon himself to be a kind of eco-warrior!

Some of the team ups involve key characters (Flash, Wonder Woman) while others are decidedly secondary heroes -- but that's the fun, getting less obvious pairings, including with the likes of The Metal Men and Adam Strange. Often by scribes with a pre-association with the characters: so Len Wein writes a Deadman team up (Wein, at the time, writing a Deadman series in Adventure Comics) and Gerry Conway resurrects his creation Firestorm in possibly the character's first appearance since his initial series had been cancelled in the great DC "implosion" when a financial crunch in the late 1970s led to many titles being axed (after this Conway added him to the roster of the Justice League, won him a back-up series in The Flash and eventually returned him to his own self-titled comic).

The down side is often Superman can seem a secondary character -- but given the size of this volume, there are enough tales where he takes centre stage, too.

Since the art is the point of this collection -- some of the inking can be unfortunate. The story opens with 5 page story inked by Vince Colletta -- an inker with his share of critics (Colletta was popular with editors necause he was fast -- he was fast because he didn't fuss over details). Likewise, a three parter is inked by Frank Springer, who has a rough, coarse style that makes García-López's art look sloppy. A pairing with Joe Giella also isn't the best for the artist.

Fortunately, most of the stories are better served, either by inker Dan Adkins, or by García-López inking himself. (Just as an aside, in a couple of issues inked by Bob Oksner you might detect some familiar inking in the backgrounds -- Oksner receiving uncredited assists from the likes of Terry Austin and Bob Wiacek).

García-López himself grows and develops as an artist over these pages, both in basic drawing, but also in storytelling and composition, the telling of the stories better as the issues progress. In the early issues he was clearly following a house style, emulating signature Superman artist Curt Swan with a barrel-chested Superman (a style Swan himself had modified from his own early issues emulating 1950s Superman artist, Wayne Boring). Later in this collection, a leaner Superman, more obviously García-López's version, emerges.

Which then brings us to the stories themselves. I read a couple of reviews of this collection which admired the art -- but dismissed the stories and, in a sense, the whole era. And the truth is, there aren't really any "great" stories here -- and I say this as a guy who has a huge collection of Superman stories from the period, and find most of them surprisingly engaging.

But on the other hand -- there is a breezy readability to them. Honestly, I'm hard pressed to point to many modern-era Superman comics (with notable exceptions) that are really any smarter, or better plotted. And the appeal of these old stories, in contrast to many modern ones, is the sheer sense of imagination at work, involving burrowing through the earth, time travel and galaxy hopping. It's problem solving and dilemmas and not just resorting to ten page fight scenes. So in one tale the crux of the drama is that Superman finds himself growing!

Of course, because of that, it is partly just about going along for the ride. The Superman/Flash team up from DC Comics Presents #1-2 is a deliriously wild ride, going from one end of time to the other -- literally! Kicking off a new comic they presumably wanted to start with a whiz-dozer of extravagance -- but I'm not sure it really makes any sense, and it doesn't invite even cursory ethical scrutiny. Likewise, the Deadman story -- involving a heart pacemaker connected to the centre of the earth -- can just make you go: "um...say what now?" (though it was previously reprinted in a Year's Best Digest!)

But still, you can enjoy the wild imaginings, even if there is a certain Alice in Wonderland logic at times.

In that sense, Denny O'Neil's Superman/Green Arrow teaming is among the weakest stories here. Although O'Neil had written successfully for Superman before, he has gone on record suggesting he wasn't really into "super" characters, feeling they were too powerful. But my argument is the writer should respond by coming up with wilder stories to challenge them. Instead O'Neil offers up a rather mundane tale of one dimensional thugs, fights in lieu of plot, and a villain whose actions don't make much sense -- and basically spends much of the story just coming up with reasons why Superman is elsewhere and GA on his own, because there's so little to the conflict.

It's ironic that the more ambitious the stories -- the more problematic they can get. The earlier referenced trilogy from 307-309 (aside from suffering from poor inking) is an ambitious tale, with Superman finding his very identity being challenged when Supergirl tells him his alien origins are just a delusion, with Superman going all eco-militant and coming to blows with a couple of pro-pollution super-villains (not exactly subtle) and then climaxing in an unrelated outer space conflict. It's a lot to cover in 50 pages -- and doesn't really pull it off. There is an appeal to the days when even an "epic" like that began and ended in a finite number of pages, but it really needed more development to be convincing.

All of which brings us to the collection's centre piece: the Superman vs. Wonder Woman story -- a 72 page epic first presented in over-sized, tabloid dimensions (and, by necessity, reduced to comic book dimensions for inclusion here).

I say centre piece because, at 72 pages, it's the longest tale here. It's featured on the collection's cover. And I'm pretty sure it hasn't been reprinted since 1978! Although treasury editions were popular in the 1970s, the number of original material stories was rare -- and only recently have been represented. Some early Marvel/DC crossovers were collected in a volume. Captain America's Bi-Centennial epic was featured in a TPB. The Superman vs. Shazam story made it into the Superman vs. Shazam! collection, and the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali story actually got its own volume.And now Superman vs. Wonder Woman (leaving only a Legion of Super-Heroes story unreprinted at this point, I believe -- I'm not sure there are many others, at least super hero oriented).

And, to be honest, I'd wanted this for years -- ever since I saw ads for it when it first came out. One reason was because of José Luis García-López -- Wonder Woman didn't always get the most dynamic artists in those days, so the idea of García-López drawing a 72 page epic featuring her sounded like a treat (he often drew her covers, but not interiors). As well, the story was set during WW II -- and I had a fondness for Wonder Woman in that time period (as many of her stories were back in the mid-1970s, as was the first season of her then airing TV series). It's supposed to be set on Earth 2 (an alternate earth where DC's 1940s heroes existed) so the Superman here is not actually the same Superman as in the rest of this collection. But other than a passing reference to the Justice Society (as opposed to the Justice League) it's never explained why Superman and Wonder Woman exist in the 1940s -- but the modern reader can simply regard it as an "Elseworlds" tale (which might make it more suspenseful anyway).

Written by Gerry Conway, and with García-López demonstrating a surer eye for composition (and indulging in big, less cluttered, panels) and benefitting from the sympathetic inking of Dan Adkins, it's actually pretty good.

Now to be up front, I have a childish affection for "big" stories -- single issue stories that weren't intended to be serialized or requiring periodic recaps of what went before. An epic told in one flow between a single cover. Annuals, anniversary specials, 64 pagers and, above all, these rare mammoth stories of 72 or more pages. There was just something aesthetically neat about them. But they didn't always live up to that promised "specialness." And don't misunderstand: I'm not saying Superman vs. Wonder Woman will be a jewel in any collection.

But it comfortably fills out its page count with scenes and story twists, including utilizing recurring Wondy baddy, Baron Blitzkrieg. And there's an opportunity for both heroes to get their scenes (Conway having written their solo comics). The "vs" theme was a staple of these stories, but here it's actually justified, not based on a contrived misunderstanding. The story even tries for a bit of a political and philosophical edge, tackling the dilemma of nuclear weapons.

Sure, there're no subplots, or much use of the supporting characters. A sequence where Wondy and Supes discover alien ruins on the moon could have warranted a whole storyline -- but is basically just there for thematic significance. And by having Wondy investigate cryptic references to a mysterious "Manhattan Project" it kind of robs the story of some mystery (though I suppose part of the point of a period story is to reference real history).

But it's a fun indulgence and will probably be the sort of thing I'll most likely re-read on some quiet, wintery night when I'm feeling nostalgic.

Ultimately, as a collection unified by its artist, you can't necessarily expect this to be a collection of "classic" stories. But there's a general level of fun readability to the tales, and with little overt continuity to worry about, the stories are easy to follow even all these years later. (There is a Superman story where he remarks Lois is acting odd -- but we never learn what that's about; although in a pure coincidence, one early story has a minor scene involving a mobster and then, a few issues later, in an unrelated story Supes finally apprehends that mobster -- so there is some continuity follow through).

Cover price: $47.99 CDN./$39.99 USA.


All-Star Superman, vol. 1 2007 (SC & HC) 132 pages

Written by Grant Morrison. Illustrated by Frank Quitely. Inks/colours by Jamie Grant.
Letters: Phil Balsman. Editor: Bob Schreck.

Reprinting: All-Star Superman #1-6 (2006-2007)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

It's funny how mainstream comics seem to have forked off into two diametrically opposed directions. On one hand, they've become obsessed with continuity. Sure, there was always the idea of the common reality -- the "DC Universe", the "Marvel Universe". But it just seems to have got more and more obsessive -- DC supposedly claimed that the intent behind its Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series was largely to streamline its various series into one indisputable reality. The result is that a lot of modern comics can be hard to follow, because even if you read every issue of, say, Green Lantern, or Spider-Man, events in other comics will still have an impact on the story. And of course, there's the continual barrage of crossover sagas -- Infinite Crisis, Civil War, etc.

On the flip side, Marvel and DC both have begun series featuring their main heroes unconnected to regular continuity, often because temporarily "hot" creators demand creative "freedom". Which just confuses continuity more! Case in point is DC's various "All-Star" series. (Man, bet you thought I'd never start this review, eh?)

All-Star Superman reunites the popular team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely to present their take on Superman -- it's a series that borrows ideas from both pre-Crisis and post-Crisis continuity, plus with a few new twists of its own. And part of the point seems clearly to evoke an older, Silver Age sense of wonder, peopling the issues with bizarre, outlandish ideas and a dose of whimsy that was bled out of a lot of the regular Superman stories over the last couple of decades. It might seem like a strange project for Morrison and Quitely, often more associated with edgy, gritty comics. But clearly Morrison is feeling nostalgic for the kind of comics he, himself, once rebelled against.

And for older fans, the series has been getting a lot of praise, people seeing it as a welcome breath of fresh air. It's even won some awards.

I wish I could share the enthusiasm Not that I dislike All-Star Superman, not at all. And I'm precisely the sort of person who should be most excited by it, having developed a heartfelt appreciation for the Superman of yesteryear, for Curt Swan's art, and the clever, quirky plotting of Bates and Maggin, Conway and Pasko, where plot and problem solving took precedence over ten page fight scenes.

And maybe that's the problem. Like a lot of modern comics writers, in trying to emulate the comics of yesterday...Morrison is actually coming up short in comparison.

There's a sort of story arc introduced in the first issue, in which Superman seems to be infected wiuth a deadly disease -- I say, sort of, because it's only occasionally even alluded to in later issues. Perhaps it's meant to give us a Superman who's putting his house in order before the end (such as revealing his identity to Lois Lane in issue #2) but often he's not even doing that. One wonders if Morrison just wanted to write a series of episodic stories, but thought that in this day and age, he needed some sort of sub-plot to pretend it's an epic saga, so he tossed in the disease idea without really having any interest in it. And dpoing a bunch of self-contained stories would e fine, except they kind of beg a greatyer sense of continuity threads. As mentioned, this borrows from previous Superman mythos, while not adhering to them. As such, characters like Lois and Jimmy will crop, then vanish just as readily. Issue #4's "Superman-Olsen War" is entertaining, playing up on the "Jimmy, Superman's Pal" idea...but in the context of All-Star Superman, Jimmy barely appears in any other issue in this collection!

Overall, the plots are kind of...thin, even vapid. Some issues you'd guess Morrison plotted and wrote them over a single cup of coffee they seem so thin. Yes there is whimsy and imagination, but too often it's not really tethered to a compelling plot. And characterization is actually even less developed, of Supes and his supporting cast. If Morrison is using as his inspiration comics written in the 1950s -- those stories were often only 10 or 12 pages long, not 22!

There's also the added problem that in trying to write stories that maybe are intended as homage to an older type of comic -- well, Morrison can't quite shake his punk sensibilities. There remains a lingering...ugliness to some of the scenes. Gags that are black humoured, violence that seems over-the-top. In one issue, Clark Kent is visiting Lex Luthor in prison when the Parasite breaks loose -- the Parasite looking particularly inhuman and freakish (remember, this isn't meant to adhere strictly to any previous Superman mythos). And Luthor starts stomping a swollen Parasite, bursting him, and purple goo spurts over the walls. And I think it's meant to be kind of goofy fun! Not exactly a kinder gentler Superman tale, is it?

Granted such lapses are not common, but help to undermine what, I think, was Morrison's intent with the comic -- to refute the "dark n' gritty" movement that he helped instigate years ago. In fact, a recurring idea in the series is P.R.O.J.E.C.T. -- a hyper advanced moon base that is engaged in all sorts of scientific endeavors. Clearly P.R.O.J.E.C.T. is meant to eptiomize Morrison's whimsical imagination (to the point where one almost wonders if Morrison would rather be writing about it and its eccentric director, rather than Superman) -- but it's actually a kind of coldly creepy place, peopled by genetically programmed people and the like.

Still, it's hard to assess the series, because I do like aspects. Not the least of which is Quitely's beautiful, open art work, which carefully walks the line between gradiose iconism and togue-in-cheek whimsy. The colours too are bold and striking. And the stories are sort of fun, the whimsy and imagination something to applaude. And there is something alluring about the project. I had read the first three issues, and decided I'd probably give the rest a pass. I didn't hate it, but didn't find it compelling enough. But after a few months, I found myself seeing the next few issues and picked them up. But too often I find myself finishing an issue and going..."uh, that's it?" Maybe it's because, in a way, Morrison seems to be doing the same thing fellow "edgy" writer Alan Moore seems to do -- that in trying to recapture the whimsy and imagination of the comics of yesteryear, he forgets that, first and foremost, there still has to be a human factor, characters we still want to believe in and care about. But too often, Superman, Jimmy, Lois, etc. fail to make that leap.

Head and shoulders the best of the first six issues is the sixth -- "Funeral in Smallville" -- in which we are treated to a flashback to a college age Superman, back in Smallville, and encountering some mysterious hired farm hands. It has a better developed plot, questions that intrigue you to find out the solution, and a true emotional element at its heart. It also has a clever variation on an old Superman staple involving those mysterious hired hands. If every issue was like it, I'd probably have fewer reservations about the series. Although, even then, there's a certain aloofness to the story, perhaps a result of Morrison's lack of thought balloons, and Quitely's tendency to draw kind of impassive faces.

Ultimately, it's not that I dislike All-Star Superman, but it's so far not entirely exciting me. And I find that if I'm feeling nostalgic for Old School Superman, I can get an equal -- or better -- bang for my buck just by raiding the back issues bins!

This is a review of the stories as they were serialized in the comics.

Cover price: ___


All-Star Superman, vol. 2 2007 (SC & HC) 132 pages

Written by Grant Morrison. Illustrated by Frank Quitely. Inks/colours by Jamie Grant.
Letters: Phil Balsman. Editor: Bob Schreck.

Reprinting: All-Star Superman #7-12 (2007)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

All-Star Superman was the 12 issue maxi-series where creators Morrison and Quitely were unleashed upon the Superman mythos and given an opportunity to tell their vision of Superman, not adhering strictly to canon, but borrowing liberally from other eras to form an apocryphal, "alternate" universe. DC also gave us an All-Star Batman (by Miller and Lee) and there were rumours of an All-Star Wonder Woman...but they've yet to materialize!

Anyway, Morrison set out to tell a series of stand alone stories, even as the whole series formed an arc as a kind of "last" Superman saga (even though this is an apocryphal story, it's assuming a well established mythology that we are dropped into, as opposed to retelling the legend from the beginning). In the first issue, Superman had been dealt a lethal dose of solar radiation that, though temporarily increasing his abilities, will also kill him, so the saga is partly connected by the theme of Superman, in essence, putting his house in order.

I didn't dislike the first six All-Star Superman issues...yet nether did I like them as much as some fans and critics did. The very fact that it's taken me this long to get around to reading and reviewing the final six issues (six years after the TPB was released!) gives you some idea of my ambivalence.

The thing is, I like what Morrison is going for -- a deliberate homage to the days when Superman comics were wild and whimsical and anything went, when his fortress of solitude contained an exotic menagerie of alien creatures, and he could travel to other worlds and dimensions as casually as crossing a street. And he deliberately seems to want to remind us of Superman as the old fashioned boy scout who will fight when fighting is needed...but is happy to talk if talking will do the trick.

Yet homage is, I think, part of the problem. Like a lot of similar projects over the years, including ones by Alan Moore, and Mark Waid (who writes the glowing introduction for this volume), and others...it can feel a bit hollow and artificial. Like a carbon copy of the original, missing the heart and soul that made it work the first time. Partly because Morrison is counting on our familiarity with these iconic characters (Supes, Jimmy, Lois) he doesn't necessarily feel as though he has to put much effort into developing or establishing them himself. So even though this is an apocryphal, alternate take on the Superman mythos...it's predicated on us being entirely familiar with the mythos. Morrison even tosses in Steve Lombard (a character I'm not sure seen much since the 1970s and 1980s) though here given a visual redesign with '70s style swingers mustache!

I'd argue the creative challenge is not in coming up with wild ideas involving sun-eaters and gravity guns...it's in the mundane stuff involving character interaction and, yes, plotting! The stuff that the wild ideas need to be built around. Indeed, a lot of the issues here are really quite minor in terms of plot development and story twists. Last time I mentioned I could believe Morrison was plotting some issues in less time than it took for his coffee to cool. (And though maybe it's just me being dense...but there were even bits, and action scenes, where I wasn't really sure what was going on or how it held together).

In one story (the 2nd of a two-parter) Superman finds himself on the backward Bizarro world and he encounters an aberrant Bizarro...a lone guy with intelligence and emotion trapped on his mad world. It's a pathos-tinged idea...but the plot itself is pretty thin.

It isn't that Morrison can't step up his game. The 6th issue in the series (collected in the first TPB) stands out as a really good issue -- the best of the lot -- and it deftly mixes the weirdness, and the homage...with character drama and nice little human moments.

Of course, for that matter...by nature of "homage", a lot of the wild ideas aren't even original to Morrison but were created by earlier writers. So in these issues we have Bizarros, and sun-eaters, and Superman faces a challenge by the arrival of a couple of other superpowered Kyrptonians...all of which has been done before.

Waid, in his introduction, makes a special point of the (to him) gob-smacking power of a scene where Superman tells a character that she's "stronger than she thinks"...in a scene where he talks a suicide off a ledge. But, again, and not wanting to be insensitive...there are lots of comics where super heroes talk suicides off ledges.

Although maybe that illustrates where I separate from Waid (and Morrison, Moore and others). That whole iconism thing -- Waid revelling in the meaning, the symbolism, the two-by-four subtle profundity and, frankly, an almost religious idolatry toward these fictional super beings. Whereas I like a story where I believe in Superman, Lois, Jimmy, etc. as real people with real emotions and real relationships. (And, yes, I realize everyone will have their own definition of "real" when talking about fantasy stories and super heroes).

Even the aspects of story "arc" can feel a bit haphazard. Superman has been told he will complete twelve impossible feats before he dies (deliberately resonating with mythology) yet what they actually are can seem a bit vague (after all, almost anything Superman does can be construed as impossible) as though Morrison liked the idea of this as a recurring thread...but didn't really want to work on it much, only identifying a few as we go.

I'd also make the point that, for a series that at times wants to be an homange to a more innocent Superman...other times it can seem kind of violent and gleefully black humoured.

Ultimately, for all the modern "sophistication", the elaborate art by Quitely, the rich, multi-hued colours and expensive paper, for all the acclaim and praising intros by industry giants like Mark Waid...you can probably randomly scoop up a half-dozen issues from pre-Crisis Bonze Age (1970s - mid-1980s) from back issue bins and get just as many wild and wonderful concepts...only grafted on to better, more developed plots, and with more nuanced, affecting characterization.

This is a review of the stories as they were serialized in the comics.

Cover price: ___


Superman: Birthright 2009 (HC TPB) 128 pages

Written by Mark Waid. Pencils by Leinil Francis Yu. Inks by Gerry Alanguilan.
Colours: Dave McCraig. Letters: Comicraft. Editor: Eddie Berganza.

Reprinting: the twelve issue maxi-series (2003-2004)

Additional notes: intro by Smallville creators Alfred Gough & Miles Millar; afterward by Mark Waid; character & design sketches; cover thumbnail gallery

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: May 2012

And just as a post-script at the end of this review, I added a couple of comments about things that might make interesting spins on the Superman legend.

It's Tuesday...so it must be time for another DC Comics re-boot. Okay, I'm just being silly. But Superman: Birthright is an audacious attempt to re-tell the origin of Superman as an epic saga -- not-quite two decades after John Byrne's Man of Steel (prior to that, the longest telling of Supes' origin was in 1979's 64 page Action Comics #500) and a little over a decade after Jeph Loeb's Superman for All Seasons (which wasn't quite a "new" origin, but had aspects of such a saga). And it would only be less than a decade after this before yet another re-imagining: Geoff Johns' Superman: Secret Origin

We begin with the iconic moments of baby Kal-El rocketing away from the doomed planet Krypton but then initially skip over his formative years, and we catch up with Clark as a freelance reporter in a civil war torn African nation. Eventually he gets back to America, adopts his Superman costume, joins the Daily Planet newspaper, and encounters evil businessman Lex Luthor. And Waid does structure it as a more-or-less single story, as opposed to Byrne's The Man of Steel where each chapter told a separate story to fill in the mythos.

First: a kind of shortened review, for those who don't care about any heavy analysis.

It starts out a bit slow as it is basically just covering all the usual bases. Waid stretching out scenes, without always telling any more complex a plot. Still, it picks up and overall, is a decent enough re-telling of the saga. Particularly in the second half, involving Lex Luthor trying to turn people against Superman by creating the illusion he's the vanguard of an alien invasion. Though even then, one can feel like we've seen some of these scenes before. And, again, for all that it's such a lengthy saga, the plot isn't exactly an epic of twists and turns and Byzantine sub-plots -- this ain't The Watchmen, or Squadron Supreme . Waid keeps the focus on the familiar Superman cast...and even then, doesn't really make them anymore real or complex than usual (unlike how, say, Batman: Year One kind of re-defined James Gordon). The art by Leinil Francis Yu is pretty good -- mixing aspects of realism with sketchy caricature (particularly as it goes), reminding me in some ways of someone like Walt Simonson. But it's robust and dramatic enough -- although some of the action scenes aren't as clearly staged as they could be. I certainly liked the art, and would be happy to come upon his work again, but for what was maybe intend as the signature, seminal Superman saga for its era, it maybe doesn't succeed as being quite as dynamic, as robust, as atmospheric as I might have preferred -- though perhaps equally blame the colours which are a bit washed out as opposed to bright and warm.

Still, Superman: Birthright is a perfectly good "origin" of Superman saga. And it feels like it's intended as a story for itself -- like a graphic novel, or a motion picture. The story builds to a suitable climax, resolving both the physical threat, as well as providing some thematic denouements.

But given the Superman saga has been around for more than half-a-Century...it still fails to be the definitive masterpiece the character deserves.

That's the short review:

Now my in-depth review:

Going in, I wasn't sure if Waid's goal/assignment was to re-conceive the legend...or simply re-tell it. By this point the Superman comics had long since veered away from Byrne's re-boot, so Waid isn't telling a story that is meant to line up with Byrne's (or other subsequent "early years" sagas such as Superman for All Seasons, or Daryn Cooke's Kryptonite!)...yet neither does he radically diverge from them. I wasn't sure if this was meant to be the new "official" origin...or to be viewed as almost apocryphal. Certainly there's no attempt to bring the wider DCU into the story, no references to other super heroes (past or present). Though there are some things left hinted at (Lana Lang is barely seen, but there is a cryptic reference to her having gone missing...which was a plot thread introduced in The Man of Steel).

Still, Waid isn't setting out to radically reshape the legend. So while Byrne had the idea that Supes didn't even realize he was an alien for many years...Waid's version does, but only just (one of the best scenes in Birthright is when Lex Luthor realizes he knows more about Superman's origin than Superman does!). In both stories Clark Kent first adopts a Superman guise in adulthood, in both he goes to Metropolis and encounters Lex Luthor as a respected businessman. Waid also freely borrows from other versions -- such as the TV series "Smallville" and the Christopher Reeve motion pictures.

It's more in nuances he is changing things -- the "S" is a Kryptonian symbol, not specific to the El family. And Waid makes a point in his afterward that Clark Kent is a disguise for Superman when Byrne made it clear that, to him, Superman was a disguise for Clark.

Waid actually devotes a rather lengthy essay here to detailing the ideas that were driving his take on the legend. Unfortunately, he maybe spent too much time thinking about it...and not enough time working it into the story. At one point Waid suggests Clark's meekness makes him a default confidante for others to pour their hearts out to -- which could've been a cute idea, allowing for comic scenes of a chagrinned Clark being regarded as "one of the girls" by the female staffers. Except...that's nowhere in evident in the story itself! Waid suggests he wants to make Superman relevant to a modern, jaded audience...yet other than an early sequence set in Africa, the Metropolis scenes aren't really about the realities of modern urban life (or where we see that Clark, the reporter, is every bit the force for good as Superman, the super hero).

It comes in at close to 300 pages but one suspects Waid could have typed up the synopsis on a single sheet of paper! It's not exactly an epic full of sub-plots that twist about each other. We get some 12 pages at the beginning recreating the last moments of Krypton as Jor-El and Lara put their baby in a rocket...without it being more than 12 pages of Jor-El and Lara putting their baby in a rocket.

The story isn't boring. It's easy enough to breeze through. I'm just saying for the sheer size of the thing...it doesn't necessarily feel as though the actual content has expanded to fill the pages. And there isn't a lot of humour -- which is funny, because sometimes my criticism of modern comics writers (Waid included) is they have a case of the cutes. But humour can act as a nice counter point to the drama -- old Superman comics often threw in humour with the mild mannered Clark, while TV's "Lois & Clark" and even the Chistopher Reeve movies had plenty of comedy.

It starts out a bit slow -- there's some action, but we know the saga won't really kick in until he arrives in Metropolis. But it gets better as it goes, and Waid introduces the idea borrowed from other super hero series about prejudice against the outsider, as Superman is initially regarded with a mix of idolatry...and suspicion (though I'm not sure we get a realistic depiction of how people would react to a flying super man). Where the plot establishes itself as different from other Superman origins is that it becomes a story about Lex Luthor fabricating the idea that Supes is the vanguard of an alien invasion. It makes for a dramatic premise, and leads to big battles in the city as Superman tries to defend the city from seeming invaders the people assume he's in league with. But it's still more a thumb nail sketch of a provocative story than the fully detailed version of one, driven by the themes more than characters, and the city wide battles are just, well, city wide battles -- protracted action scenes that consume chunks of pages.

The first couple of issues have Clark in Africa, covering civil unrest -- clearly part of Waid's attempt to make the story seem relevant and provocative (J. Michael Straczynski also likes to use Africa when trying to make his comics seem important). Yet it still feels a bit like a real world conflict...reduced to a comic book reality. And without much embellishment on the characters. Clark encounters a leader who is trying to bring justice to his people -- but the guy never really becomes more than a symbol to present an idea. And other characters are inconsistent: the leader's sister snarkily dismisses Clark in one scene...then runs to him for help in another.

The central characters overall are the usual central characters. At one point Waid introduces a character that I, at least, had never seen before -- the obnoxious publisher of the Daily Planet. But aside from being a one-note characterization...he only appears in about two scenes. Waid suggests in his afterward that he hoped to give a "few new dimensions" to the characters...but doesn't. It's amazing how little he utilizes familiar characters like Jimmy Olsen or Perry White.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes from modern Superman stories -- though Waid's just harkening back to an earlier version of the legend, married with TV's Smallville -- is by having it be that Clark knew Lex Luthor when they were teenagers. But even it feels a bit like Waid's just going through the motions. He attempts to give a poignant youth to Lex, without really succeeding in making us believe in a true friendship between him and Clark (as they did in Smallville) and the adult Luthor is just a one note villain. What's the point of trying to humanize his origins...if it's not to humanize the character himself?

Waid marries the Byrne idea of Lex as a big businessman with the older version of Lex as super genius, and that latter aspect is supposed to add to a sense of symmetry between him and Superman -- both are, in a sense, outside normal humanity.

Lois Lane has always been a problematic character -- trying to walk the line between lovably abrasive...and just obnoxious. Maybe on screen, with a beautiful actress (like, say, Teri Hatcher) it's easier to pull off. As it is, I find that Lois herself can fail to quite be endearing...and maybe it's because modern writers tend to downplay any frailties, or comedic possibilities in her character. At one point, an incensed Lois calls Clark a "snivelling worm"...I'm sorry, but whatever the provocation, if someone called me a snivelling worm, I don't think I'd ever regard that person as someone I would call friend. The funny thing is, the very aggressive, abrasiveness that is supposed to make Lois a "great" reporter I suspect, in real life, would make her a bad reporter...as a reporter has to be able to put aside their feelings, and let the story tell itself.

While Clark/Superman...I dunno. On one hand, Waid clearly wants the saga to be an exploration of Supes and his motivation in being a hero -- which is good. But for some reason reading comics in the 1970s/1980s, I had a feel for the character (and the dichotomy of his dual personas). Maybe it was just that, as a kid, you accept things more easily. But I often find reading modern takes on the character, that he can come across a bit as though the writers are fashioning an archetype more than realizing a fleshed out personality. Though I did thnk it was interesting that Waid made Superman a vegetarian...since that almost seems to be a taboo (given how many people are vegetarians in real life, it's suspicious how few heroes in fiction are vegetarians).

In the end, Birthright suffers from a problem I find with a lot of modern comics -- a feeling that it thinks it's smarter, more incisive, than it is. It loses some of the gee whiz fun of just being a four colour adventure (though there is still plenty of that) without really stepping up its game to make the characters believable, complex, multi-faceted people. Focus is given to defining the characters and their motivations (Lex is driven by his sense of alienation from normal people, Jonathan Kent frets that Clark's interest in his Kryptonian heritage is a rejection of him) -- which is good...but it can feel a bit as though that comes to define the characters, as opposed to being one part of them. And the plot itself, as I say, hardly seems to warrant such an epic, 12 issue telling.

With that said -- Birthright is still a perfectly good Superman story, a decent page turner. But it can feel as though if you've seen other versions of the story (in comics, movies, or TV) a lot will seem naggingly familiar without managing to supersede them, to establish these versions of the scenes and characters as the new benchmark by which they must be measured.

The "If I Were Writing Superman Department"...

Reading this, some ideas that occurred to me that might be interesting to add to the legend (hey, DC...call me some time!): Although both this and the pre-Crisis/pre-Byrne version of the saga had Lex know Clark as teens...it's always largely ignored in the modern-day scenes. But maybe it would be a interesting if it wasn't. Manifesting as a certain civility on Lex's part...or even that Lex does still regard Clark as a friend. That could create an interesting moral dilemma for Superman...that Lex regards Clark as a sort of friend even as, as Superman, he is exploiting that friendship for the greater good. As well, thinking about Waid using the African sequence, and the African leader...maybe it would've been interesting to have it be the leader was corrupt. That it was from disillusionment that Clark settled on the need for a "Superman" identity, that he realized anyone can become corrupted (even himself) so by creating an alter ego, he creates an ideal even he, Clark, has to live up to. (I remember reading an interview with actor/singer Ted Neeley -- well known for his portrayal of Jesus in "Jesus Christ Superstar" -- who commented that being identified with such a role kind of means you have to live up to it, even in your personal life...that it would set a bad example if "Jesus" got into bar fights or what have you. In other words, the role kind of becomes the player). Just some thoughts.

Cover price: $19.99 USA

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