So, here we go again. Superman needs another origin re-telling – in comics alone, that’s the third in the last quarter of a century, three times as many as Batman and Spider-Man have had in the same timeframe. Anyone would think that – All Star aside – DC didn’t know quite what to do with their flagship property, wouldn’t they?
Alright, so this doesn’t feel like a wholly pointless enterprise. While 2o-odd years may not be the usual natural lifespan of a canonical origin story, it’s not unfair to state that Man of Steel was very rooted in a particular time, and has outdated elements that could do with a tweaking. Birthright, meanwhile, was thrust rather unwillingly into the role – it was originally intended, and should have remained, as an “Ultimate”-style retelling, more akin to a movie reboot. This was something it did wonderfully, but reconciling it with “proper” DC continuity was fraught with problems.
So I can see the need to do a nice, big, ground-sweeping retelling – sort out a few of the rejigged post-Infinite Crisis elements that have been hinted at, play all the classic story beats in a fresh way, and just generally re-establish the Man of Steel in people’s minds. The problem is, if you’re going to do that, you really need to bring something new to the table – and as competently put together a comic as Secret Origin is, all it’s got in its pocket are old family heirlooms.
That it should so heavily mine the past should, of course, come as no surprise when you consider that it’s a Geoff Johns book – but I would have at least expected a few more original ideas than we come across here (the only one I can really make out is the idea that Clark wears specially-madeglasses as a kid to block his initially-uncontrollable heat vision – and even then, while it may be new to the Superman mythos, it’s not exactly unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever picked up an X-Men comic). Essentially, this is a cherry-picking of assorted elements – at various times you can see ideas from Birthright, Man of Steel, Smallville, the Donner movies, and even the Silver Age in there – lobbed together to give a version of Superman’s history that, rather than being instantly iconic, is simply “the version that Geoff Johns wants”.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the decision to rejig Clark’s adolescence yet again, and revert back to the status quo of his having been Superboy before being Superman. To which my only reaction is “nnnnnNNNNGGGG”, frankly. Superboy has always been the most problematic aspect of the “classic” Superman mythos – it diminishes the power of the icon, and of the character’s development as a man, to have had him running around as a famous superhero in an identical costume throughout his teens. John Byrne did quite a few things right in 1986, but none moreso than ditching that nonsense entirely. But Johns is a fan of the classic-style Legion of Super-Heroes, and Johns wants to tell classic-style Legion stories with a Clark Kent Superboy as a member – so this is what we’re lumbered with. And it leads to the frankly baffling sight of Jonathan and Martha suddenly deciding to send their teenage son out to be a superhero, complete with costume, with barely a thought as to the reasoning behind doing so.
Furthermore, it doesn’t do a hugely convincing job of being the first issue of an origin. Simply put, opening with Clark in high school makes it feel like we’ve missed a chapter. This isn’t Spider-Man, where the discovery of the powers is the defining moment – the Krypton story should always be the opening act of any telling of this story. It’s not good enough simply to introduce Jor-El for the first time as a hologram, and tell the tragic tale of the doomed scientist as a flashback. Alright, we all know how it goes – but we know how all of this goes (does anyone seriously think Clark’s going to move to Gotham in a couple of issues’ time?), it doesn’t mean it can’t be retold in an entertaining way.
There are good points, mind (and it must be said that even the weaker aspects of the story Johns chooses to tell don’t affect the quality of the telling – this isn’t a bad comic by any objective criteria). Reasserting Lana’s role in Clark’s history post-Smallville works, and there are nice moments here and there – particularly in setting his real and adoptive parents side-by-side in quite a touching way. And of course, Gary Frank’s art is excellent (although, much as I’m looking forward to seeing him draw the adult Clark as Christopher Reeve, essentially superimposing the late actor’s features onto a teenage boy just comes out looking wrong).
But it’s slow, dwelling for too long on aspects of the character’s life that simply aren’t as interesting as everything that we know is due to come later. As such, it comes off less as a defining, page-one origin story – and more as a wistful flashback through the character’s childhood. And when you’re following in the footsteps of two truly great versions of this tale (three, if you add Donner’s movie to Byrne and Waid’s comics), that just won’t cut it. I’ll continue to give this a chance (there remains the potential for things to get much more exciting – and, crucially, iconic – when we get to Metropolis), but for something I was so excited about seeing, it’s something of a letdown.