See, I knew this’d get good as soon as Clark got to Metropolis. It’s not rocket science – the early days of Superman’s public career, along with Clark getting to know Lois Lane and the Daily Planet and the rest of it, make for one of comicdom’s classic tales. If you’ve got the textbook elements in place, they’re so fundamentally good that it’s hard to do wrong. And they’re even harder to do wrong when you’re slavishly copying them from Superman: The Movie.
Because if you thought Johns’ obsession with replicating that film began and ended with the post-Infinite Crisis redesign of Jor-El, or that it was only in the way Gary Frank draws Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder into their roles that the current Superman comics would be reminiscent of Richard Donner’s masterpiece, then think again. Pretty much the only thing missing from the scene in which Clark rescues Lois after a fall from a skyscraper (and yes, he catches a helicopter as well), for example, is the fact that Johns doesn’t use the “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” line. Note for note, though, it’s clear that of all previous versions of this tale, the movie is by far the biggest influence.
And yet… I really don’t mind that. I probably would mind if I didn’t like the film, but… it’s pretty much my favourite telling of one of my favourite stories. So to see it translated to the comic page, with a few contemporary tweaks and wider DC continuity bits and bobs brought in? I kind of like that. I kind of like it a lot. No, the problem I have with Johns doing this story now, and the way he’s done it, comes from the way in which it relates to the previous issue of this miniseries. In that it’s completely undermined by it. I already expressed my reservations when reviewing issue #2, so I don’t want to harp on about it too much, but I honestly feel that this story is hugely compromised by the reintroduction of Superboy into the mythos. Not only does it need to rely on being Superman’s first public appearance in order to have the same effect, but Johns specifically throws in a couple of moments that suggest it to be so (Clark remarking on how the costume will look, and his father talking about “letting the proverbial cat out of the bag”). But if he’d spent the previous decade flying around Smallville as Superboy… well, wouldn’t someone have noticed?
Still, if you want to pretend that #2 doesn’t exist, then this is cracking. Even when it’s nicking elements off Birthright, it gets away with it; indeed, as much as I love Birthright, this does certain moments better – the full-page splash of Clark catching Lois in the air is wonderfully iconic (although it’s also worth noting that as right as Gary Frank gets that moment, the “opening shirt in the alley to reveal the S” page is disappointingly lacking in a sense of motion and urgency). It hence comes off as a pretty solid distillation of various generations’ interpretations of the story – there are hints of Man of Steel in the mix, too, while Johns gives his own nod to present, post-marriage continuity by throwing the curve ball of Lois actually warming to Clark (as Clark, not Superman) fairly early on. I do rather wish it was being done by a writer with a bit more flair and wit than Johns – his dialogue rarely strays beyond functional, and there’s barely anything you’d call a successful joke here – but it’s hard to deny that as far as story beats go, this pretty much hits every mark. If it continues in this vein, Secret Origin might yet turn out to be the quintessential retelling we’ve been hoping for.