Author: Mark Waid
Illustrator: Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan
Publisher: DC Comics
Format: Trade Paperback
I am a few weeks after seeing the disappointing Man of Steel movie and was looking to connect with a modern Superman that stays true to its nostalgic roots. Superman: Birthright is an origin story, that holds true to the Superman mythos that we know and love, but tells it through the eyes of modern technology.
Unlike Man of Steel, Birthright has a very short episode on the planet Krypton. Kal-El’s (Superman’s) parents are the only Kryptonians who make an appearance and they send their boy off in a prototype life pod while their planet is imminently about to explode. There is no mention of General Zod or the politics that inflict Krypton.
The story of Superman on Earth begins with Clark intervening in a political revolt in Africa. For twenty-five years he has hidden his powers, but his emotional connections with the people there drive him to take action when their lives are in danger. He has not yet created the persona of Superman — nor of “Clark Kent.” I am making an important distinction here, because Superman is who he is first, donning bright red to draw attention to his abilities. Clark Kent — with a suit jacket, glasses, and a clumsy streak — is his disguise.
In a similar fashion to the movie, Birthright tells of Clark/Superman’s upbringing in flashbacks. I found this approach a little jarring in the movie, but it works well here. The Man of Steel only makes passing suggestions of Lex Luthor (company logos, for instance), but in Birthright, Superman’s arch-nemesis plays a prominent role. Through a series of vignettes, we see a young Clark Kent trying to befriend the outcast genius in Smallville, even bringing him home for dinner. There is great level of detail devoted to understanding Lex’s psyche and how he became evil, which really enriched the story. I will be curious if the second Man of Steel movie will incorporate Lex into Clark’s childhood.
The use of technology was probably the greatest strength of the graphic novel. Lex uses drones to attack the Daily Planet, Clark communicates with his parents using the internet, and he artfully has to dodge the satellites’ field of vision whenever he flies. My only qualm was with Lex using Kryptonite to develop a telescope that could see into the past. I know it is hard to make a case about suspension of disbelief when the story is about a flying man who shoots lasers from his eyes, but I found Lex’s abilities to adapt a meteorite to such extremes was a bit convenient. He gained knowledge of Krypton’s advanced technology, but frankly, he is genius enough to develop whatever he needs on his own.
I am a novice when it comes to Superman comics, but another interesting commonality I noticed was the meaning of the letter “S.” In both Man of Steel and Birthright, it is a Kryptonian sign that means hope. Waid has a way of sharing information like this matter-of-factly, which educates the reader without being intrusive. The movie, which perhaps was written for a younger audience, lingers on this detail in such an opaque manner that it becomes distracting.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Birthright and it was a suitable story to tell through the lens of the twenty-first century. There is nothing that truly raises the bar for Superman like Grant Morrison did with All Star Superman, but it is still an entertaining read that actually develops the characters rather than focusing merely on plot points and action. For this reason alone, Birthright far exceeds Man of Steel in its storytelling.