Over the past decade, many comics-reading pundits have cracked-wise about DC Comics retelling Superman’s origin story every year, like clockwork. Surprisingly, this is only a slight exaggeration and somewhat ironic given that Superman is one of the most widely recognized characters in all of fiction with an equally well known origin. What possible benefit could there be to retelling a story everyone already knows? Ah, but storytellers do like to put their own spin on things and Geoff Johns certainly does make the story of Superman his own in the ironically titled Superman: Secret Origins.
There are no sweeping changes made in this tale. There’s no revelation that the people of Krypton resembled giant glowing donuts and that a young Kal-El was surgically altered to resemble the people of Earth. Kal-El is still raised as Clark Kent in Smallville, finds his first love with a red-haired Lana Lang, grows up to become pals with Jimmy Olsen, develops a friendly rivalry with Lois Lane, and works at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. Where Johns changes things is by getting to the heart of the characters and looking at the familiar established events from a new perspective.
For instance, the analogy between Clark Kent discovering his powers and undergoing puberty has been made before (Indeed, Johns has Clark discovering his heat vision after his first kiss from Lana Lang) but this is the first Superman origin story I’m aware of which effectively conveyed the angst a teenage Clark Kent must have experienced upon discovering his alien heritage. It stands to reason that Clark Kent would feel even more awkward than the average teenager, doesn’t it? As teens, nearly all of us felt like a freaks who didn’t fit in, so imagine finding out that the way you felt was the literal truth?
Imagine finding out that you aren’t human? That you really are different than everyone else? How would you react? How could you react? Johns answers this question perfectly and gives Jonathan Kent an equally perfect response as Clark howls to the heavens that all he wants is to be plain ol’ Clark Kent.
This scene is also referred to by David S. Goyer in his introduction to this book. A frequent collaborator of Johns’ and no mean writer himself, Goyer is perhaps most famous as the writer of all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. Goyer claims he never thought it possible to tell a truly modern Superman story until he read this one, citing the aforementioned scene in specific as the “aha” moment. One wonders how the upcoming Man of Steel movie – which Goyer wrote – will compare to this graphic novel and how much direct inspiration it may have offered.
Johns’ excellent script is matched by the equally excellent artwork of another frequent collaborator – artist Gary Frank. Frank’s design of Superman borrows heavily from the appearance of Christopher Reeve, capturing not only the general look of Reeve’s face when he smiled, but also the many subtle aside expressions Reeve made when the Clark mask was dropped and Superman shined through for a second. Frank’s designs for the other characters are equally insightful, but Frank is more than just a good caricaturist. He’s also a wonderful visual storyteller with an amazing aptitude for conveying motion and action.
DC Comics rated this series T for Teens 13 and Up and I believe that rating to be a fair one. There’s no language apart from the very occasional ‘damn’ or ‘hell’ and no sexual content apart from some passionate kissing, a little innuendo, and Lois Lane pulling a pink lacy bra out of her desk – much to Clark’s embarrassment. There is a fair bit of violence and blood, particularly as Lex Luthor performs the surgery to turn soldier John Corben into a living weapon against Superman, but nothing inappropriate to a teen audience.