Superman has never been broken. Ill-used, maybe, but never broken. He's less a concept or idea than a mythological formula with easily discernable components. He's the immigrant, the messiah, the champion. He's the duality of man. He's…Superman. So why fix him? Why rework an origin that reads like legend?
Because it's what we do. Maybe not fix. Maybe not rework. But revisit with new devises. New experiences. New dreams.
Geoff Johns is both heralded and belittled as a custodian, a storyteller who tinkers with truly iconic corporate characters with such rich histories that they feel like they belong to the public domain. A fan might say he deconstructs these often convoluted characters, distills them down to their essence, lending them new vitality. A naysayer would suggest he's merely standing on the shoulders of giants, shouting, "Hey, remember this?" An archivist with a finders-keepers approach to creation. I count myself amongst that first group, maybe due to my own philosophy on creativity, that it has a lot to do with problem solving, with adaptation. Invention, after all, is an assemblage of elements on hand. This is an old story. It's so good though, so pure, that it's worth telling again. That might be frustrating for some, but I think it's as simple as that. We create myth and then we tell it again, adding and subtracting. The point is that we keep telling it. Sharing it.
With this issue, we have a finale to Geoff Johns' and Gary Frank's iteration of Superman's origin. It's a conservative retelling when compared to, say, Mark Waid and Leinil Yu's Superman: Birthright. So if your expectation was for a revolution or even evolution, this book is decidedly a failure. But that's not the only ambition a storyteller ought to have. If you look at Secret Origin instead as a reexamination of Superman and his core relationships, I think it's pretty satisfying.
What does Johns contribute to the newly redefined mythology of Superman? It may seem minor, but I think he bolstered General Lane as a much more significant opponent. He's the fire behind racial bigotry toward Superman. There's a greater cohesion as well, with rogues like Parasite and Metallo fitting directly into the larger chess match between Superman and Luthor or Superman and Lane. There have certainly been strong connections between these players before, but they feel tenuous compared to this new status quo.
Then there's Superman and Lois. Clark and Lois too. They feel right here. They feel like they're being portrayed as was always intended. We've been told that Lois is a fearless journalist before, but here I think we get to see that in action. Not in a Bond Girl way, but with a confident behavior I admire in journalist friends. It's easy to play up Lois' sarcasm and make Clark or even Superman feel like a schmuck. Johns writes a balanced Lois that we can fully imagine Superman falling for. They're in awe of each other, and that's never been more clear.
Now we come to John's approach to Superman himself. As big a character as he is, I don't think there's any one proper understanding. Like Batman, there are some core values there, but these two titans, for as iconic as they are, are actually pretty maleable. So some of this is subjective.
While I don't consider myself, by and large, a detractor of J. Michael Straczynski–I really enjoyed his approach to Thor–I think a lot of what he's doing in his ongoing Superman: Grounded story is expressed much more succinctly in a page or two (possibly within a single panel) of this book. Superman is the people's champion, and as such has great optimism for humanity, great belief in the potential of ordinary human beings. While Staczynski's Superman exhibits a level of condescension in his march across America, something of a messiah complex in his deus ex machina approach to solving Scruff McGruff level civic dilemmas, Johns' Superman is a model of humility. "I want you to stop looking for a great savior," he explains when pressed for orders by a crowd. "Lex Luthor isn't it. I'm not it." His advice to those citizens, to use their individual gifts to better the lives of others, is admittedly a little cornball, thought that's part and parcel with the red and blue. It's what Johns does next that makes the moment truly work. "That's, um, That's all I have to say," Superman says, a little uncertainly. It's the advice a messiah might give, offered in the humble voice of a boy from Smallville. It's just a glimpse of his upbringing, just a panel away from his next wholly confident move, a direct flight to confront Luthor. Johns' Superman likes to give credit where credit is due. He won me over in that Action Comics Legion of Superheroes story line when he called in the cavalry. His friends.
Your mileage may vary, but I gravitate towards this traditional take on the character. Superman…he's a hero of mine. I love the grandiosity. The sentiment. The larger than life mythology, which is as simple or complex as you want it to be. I like that he's selfless. I like that, despite everything, it makes sense that he's selfless.
This issue made me pretty happy. In its storytelling. Its depiction of action, love, and friendship. More importantly, it served as a great reminder. A reexamination of why I love this character, this genre, and this medium. Fantasy at its purest. Cornball, maybe. But that's me too.
Story 5 Art 5 Overall 5