Superman: Secret Origin #1
“Secret Origin, Book One: The Boy of Steel”
Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencils/Cover artist: Gary Frank
Inks: Jon Sibal
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Steve Wands
Editor: Matt Idelson
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US
It seems like every time I happen upon a DC Universe comic book I feel like saying something about in a review, Geoff Johns’s name is on the cover. He’s certainly had a good few months lately. His Blackest Night event has enabled DC to take on its closest competitor in a way we haven’t seen in, well, a few years really. He left the regular writing duties on Justice Society of America behind, which was a smart move, given that it’s stagnated in the past couple of years (and continues to stagnate, unfortunately). Johns’s scripts on Adventure Comics have proven to be a delightful surprise, as he embraces a much more traditional tone, a departure from the dark, “mature” tone for which he’s known. Now while I’m not interested in the current state of the various ongoing titles in DC’s Superman family, I didn’t hesitate to pick up the first issue of this limited series; with the names “Johns” and “Frank” on the cover, why would I? Unfortunately, while the writing here is competent and entertaining, Secret Origin doesn’t represent the same kind of creative success that Johns has enjoyed as of late.
Adolescence is a difficult time for us all, but believe me, you wouldn’t want to go through what Smallville teenager Clark Kent had to endure. Every time he wanted to hang out with other kids and play ball, he runs the risk of injuring someone else seriously. Every time he was around a pretty girl. He had to be wary of getting overexcited and blasting beams of heat out of his eyes! Clark feels like a freak and doesn’t know why he’s so different, so it’s not long before the time comes when his parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, decide to show him the truth about himself. Meanwhile, another Smallville teen — whose intellect isolates him from the people around him — arrogantly looks and waits for his chance to get out of the small Kansas town.
Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s run on Action Comics (notably the “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes” story arc) really set the stage for this revisitation of Superman’s origin complete with the reintegration of so many Silver Age elements, so it’s fitting that Frank was brought back as the penciller for this limited series. His realistic, incredibly detailed style is quite attractive, and I enjoyed the Jor-El and Lara designs he offers up in the hologram-recording scene. Frank manages to convey the youth of several characters quite clearly; he doesn’t render the teens as just shorter adults. The leaner, more awkward nature of adolescents comes through in his work. While I enjoyed Frank’s work overall here, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Silver Age appeal of the plotting might call for a simpler visual approach. That’s not a criticism of Frank’s efforts here (which were great), but more of a question about editorial choices.
What Johns does most effectively in this story is to portray Clark Kent as an average, relatable teenager. His desire to fit in, his feelings for Lana and the dorkiness he experiences by giving into his mother’s whims all ring true even though his powers and alien origins are firmly immersed in the fantastic. I also enjoyed how depiction of Martha Kent as a keenly observant woman who respects the importance of honoring one’s cultural origins, even if she hails from an area that may not be the most diverse corner of the world.
Ultimately, while I enjoyed Johns’s script, I walked away from the book feeling as though I’d just finished a rather ho-hum comic book. The reason was fairly apparent: Johns really brings nothing new to the Superman origin. Instead, he offers an amalgam of origin stories that have come before his. When John Byrne offered up The Man of Steel in 1986, he transformed the Superman origin in exciting and unexpected ways. His vision of a xenophobic alien society spawning an all-American icon and a symbol of an immigration success story was inventive, and his elimination of the Superboy phase of Superman’s life had a certain logic to it. Here, Johns merely cherrypicks elements from different Superman origin stories — mainly the classic Silver Age origin, along with elements from Superman the Movie and Byrne’s — and blends them together here. Mind you, he does so well, but Superman: Secret Origin lacks the freshness and originality we’ve seen in previous reinterpretations of the Superman mythos. 6/10
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