After years of poorly planned & executed Superman stories (see this week's Action #805 for a sterling example), Birthright, in its very first issue, delivered a powerful one-two punch knockout to the creative malaise plaguing DC's Superman franchise.
Strong words, I know…but the impact I felt from this first chapter was profound and, like the aforementioned one-two punch, can be broken down into two distinct aspects.
The first aspect is how the comic book itself was crafted. Literally every aspect of this comic book was enjoyable to me, both in it's production values (a very attractive total package) and, of course, the outstanding effort by the creative team.
Mark Waid, as much as I've been busting his chops over his Fantastic Four work, has returned to the style of writing I've always associated him with: a thoughtful, well-constructed marriage of high-concept wonder and emotionally resonant character interaction.
Though he retained the general outline of the classic origin story, Waid adds a new twist by portraying Jor-El and Lara's collaborative effort to see their son to safety. As a married man, I appreciated Lara's determination to see him through doubt and despair and to help him focus on their last act as parents ("He needs our courage!"). They're truly a team here, not the rather lop-sided presentation of previous decades, where Lara either stood helplessly in the background or, in the case of the Byrne version, offered only resistance and confusion. Another innovation is the degree of uncertainty exhibited by Jor-El and Lara leading up to Kal-El's escape. They did all they could to get him to safety, but were still not quite sure it would work. This, added to the readout of the rocket's depleting power supply, powerfully communicated a renewed sense of danger and desperation to Kal-El's voyage. On a minor note, a slap on the back to Waid for incorporating the "S" shield insignia as the El family crest, an act 25 years overdue (since the crest's brilliant usage in the '78 Superman movie). As in the movie, the connection to his heritage gives the symbol a meaning it's never really had in the comics before. Bravo.
The African sequence was also a pleasant surprise. Ripped from its true context, the Birthright preview in Wizard magazine didn't impress me much, and made me wonder about where Waid would be going with all this. After reading the story and seeing how he subtly wove the themes of heritage and identity into the dialogue, my faith in Waid is restored. It's not going to be a "traveling social worker" schtick, but rather a carefully crafted "roadmap" showing when and where Clark may have reached important turning points in his journey towards becoming Superman.
Then we come to the art team. What can I say about these guys….other than I was completely floored by their work. Leinil Yu (penciler), Gerry Alanguilan (inks) and Dave McCaig (colorist) have masterfully created the most unique style in comics today. Certainly different from what some have dubbed "old school" comic book art styles, but infused with a similar sense of competence and discipline, which also dramatically differentiates it from the host of manga-tinged contortionists currently plaguing the industry (you know who I'm talking about). I can detect subtle echoes of who Yu and Alanguilan's artistic influences may be, but they've taken those influences and fashioned a bold new style that doesn't immediately remind you of any specific artist. A few highlights off the top of my head:
The second aspect of this book's impact can be felt on a more symbolic level, dealing with the mysteries of Birthright's and its impact upon the Superman character's direction, both short and long-term. We've all noted how close to the vest DC is playing their cards with Birthright by not being especially dogmatic about whether or not it's supposed to fit within current continuity (which it clearly doesn't) or whether it's an entirely new continuity, ala Marvel's "Ultimates" line. Right from the second I picked up the book, the "Ultimate" association came into play as I realized it was the exact same highly glossy cover stock used by Marvel's Ultimate books. A coincidence? Yeah…..right.
- Everything Krypton. Though we were only given a glimpse of that culture, I loved everything about the design of Kryptonian society, present and past. Echoes of Mobius, but, once again, uniquely the work of Yu and Alanguilan.
- The thrilling "toggle view" between the speeding rocketship and the speeding bullet on page 15. Absolutely brilliant, and one of most perfect transitional scenes I've ever seen. Worth the price of admission right there.
- Clark's design. Though I was initially not very happy about the look, I've grown to really appreciate it. Clark really IS in his early 20's and looks the part. He's not the rather bland 70's kid from the Jurgens era, or the massive McGuinness Michelin Man….just a good looking kid you might see anywhere.
- The page layouts were fantastic, especially the cinematic feel of the Kryptonian scenes. The sense of implied motion and impact in the African scenes were also very well done.
And what about how Waid has tweaked even the physics behind Superman's powers? He apparently gains super-strength as a young child, and not gradually over time. It's also implied that Jor-El believes Kal-El will be super-powered immediately after arriving on Earth. Think about it: Jor-El doesn't really know if there are living beings on Earth, so I would guess he's assuming Kal will wander around on his own….so for him to be confident Kal will be okay on Earth, I would think Jor-El is assuming the sun would immediately power him up and protect him from harm. Interesting.
Of course, the most profound signal that this is an entirely different animal is the welcome (yes, I said WELCOME) implied integration of aspects from the TV series Smallville into the mythos…chief (and most conspicuous) among them, the appearance of Lex Luthor as a shifty, young hotshot who (implied) spent some time in Smallville. Ma and Pa Kent are CLEARLY based upon the TV actors, not their much older counterparts from the Byrne reboot.
So….what's the deal with Birthright? Are we witnessing a soft-reboot….or something else entirely? A project announced to be within accepted continuity, yet clearly altering and even contradicting said continuity, yet not a separate "Ultimate" style series?
Anyway, I can't emphasize how much I loved this first issue. True, we've got a long way to go, and who knows where this thing's going to end up….but so far, I'm extremely impressed.