Last Sons of Krypton: Waid and Yu’s Birthright

I must admit part of the delay in writing this is that I just like Birthright a whole lot. I enjoy it in a way that might short out potentially critical feelings I might have about it. Birthright is “meat and potatoes” comics, and that term is fairly loaded. When DC announced two years ago they were abandoning the DC You initiative and returning to a meat and potatoes approach, what they meant was they were ditching a lot of the diverse creators and characters they’d barely floated into the market in favor of “classic” characters and “traditional” storytelling. With the end of DC You, we lost David Walker’s Cyborg, Black Canary drawn in glorious punk style by Annie Wu, and Midnighter’s solo title by Steve Orlando. Catwoman’s girlfriend Eiko disappeared, along with any mention of Selina Kyle’s bisexuality, as did Batgirl’s roommate Alysia, one of the rare trans characters in a big two comic.

Why these two things stand diametrically opposed in contemporary superhero comics is baffling and enraging, but it does seem for mainstream comics the presence of a queer person, a person of color, or even a woman, makes a comic book “political” rather than “traditional”. Not to mention, if you want “meat and potatoes” comics, David Walker, Steve Orlando, and Gail Simone are some of the best fundamental superhero writers in the industry. Ugh, comics. Ugh.

If the hallmark of a “meat and potatoes” comic is that it feels simultaneously contemporary and “timeless” (the latter meaning “detached from contemporary political concerns”), or that they harken back to a certain aesthetics of optimism, then Waid is one of the genre’s chief purveyors, along with Geoff Johns, and Kurt Buseik, both of whom we’ll be getting to later. These are folks whose best work ends up being on superheroes, rather than folks who make their paycheck on capes but really shine when it comes to creator-owned projects. Their writing is rarely showy, their storytelling, in both the narrative and technical senses, is solid but not groundbreaking. Their work is often marked with an undying sense of optimism, and works best with “bright” characters. They fuse modern storytelling and pacing with classic takes on classic characters.

There is something intelligent to be said about this kind of traditionalism in direct relation to the Flash, I suspect. Both Waid and Johns had major runs (ha) featuring Wally West, which in each case depended on subverting the legacy of Barry Allen as a plot point. And of course, the Flash is the connection point between DC’s Golden and Silver Ages, going back to the “Flash of Two Worlds” story. Also, it ends up being Grant Morrison, rather than Waid or Johns, who commits the high sacrilege of bringing Barry back from the dead after one of comics’ longest dirt naps. Somehow these points connect into something interesting, but this is not a blog post about the Flash, except to say that I am and will forever be Team Wally West.

To define a thing by its opposite, it’s worth looking at what Waid and Johns have proven they can’t do well. Johns’ Batman is consistently flat, lacking the energy he’s brought to Green Lantern, the Flash, and Superman. There’s a darkness there Johns never manages to engage with, and his attempts to do so, by having Batman chase a child murder through the Earth One graphic novel, come off as cheap shock tactics. Which is not a thing Johns is above. We will talk severed limbs soon. His current effort to replicate the tone and technical density of Watchmen is painful because he is simply not that kind of writer. I would, however, one hundred percent read a Johns-Frank story where Superman punches Doctor Manhattan in his bright blue junk.

There are plenty of external reasons Waid’s run on X-Men didn’t pan out (coughOnslaughtcough), but the hamfisted politics of his current Champions series, however well-meant, fail because Waid’s conception of superheroics are fundamentally conservative, better suited to his palate-cleanser post-Secret Empire run on Captain America with Chris Samnee.

All of which is to say, Birthright is of a type of comic that I should feel politically wary of, and which I unabashedly love. Full disclosure, I also really enjoy a lot of Geoff Johns’ work, although the places he lacks Waid’s heart, he supplements with HUGE MICHAEL BAY BLOCKBUSTERISM and stealing ideas from Alan Moore (also severed limbs).

We should talk about what Birthright was intended to be, what it became, and what it shortly after un-became. It was intended as a non-canon origin story, that was then adopted as canon, replacing Byrne’s Man of Steel, then thrown out a year later after another DC continuity reboot. By the time the series wrapped its 12-issue run, elements from the story were popping up in the monthly Superman books, and from interviews at the time, it seems apparent Waid imagined he’d continue to be an active part of the Superman franchise going forward.

SPOILER: he wouldn’t.

Many of the changes Waid makes bring Silver Age elements, the barnacles Byrne cleared away, back into the Superman mythos. The bottle city of Kandor returns, because it is one of the best ideas in the history of superhero comics. I’m going to take this opportunity to post some images of the late Mike Kelley’s bottle cities, which are heartbreakingly beautiful.

Waid also reintroduces Superman’s eidetic memory, and a new ability to see various types of radio waves. Waid adds an ability to see “auras” around living creatures, and makes Superman a vegetarian. His vegetarianism is an ethical decision, driven by his new “soul vision”, and is one of the few changes from the Superman 2000 pitch that makes it into Birthright.

Some of the more foundational changes have to do with Lex Luthor, who is once again a childhood friend of Clark’s, and a brilliant astrobiologist, rather than a shrewd businessman who grew up in Metropolis’s Suicide Slum and occasionally sciences in a vaguely science-y manner.

At some point we’ll probably talk about Metropolis as a city, at which time we’ll have to address how fucked up it is to continue to call a neighborhood Suicide Slum. Now is not that time.

After revisiting the destruction of Krypton, Waid fleshes out Superman’s wilderness years with a story set in Some African Country. You’ll note above where I implied Waid’s politics are often well-meant but clunky? Turns out that applies to Hutu-Tutsi conflict analogues, too. Young Clark, already a journalist, bumbles his way through a complex political situation, even getting called out as a “white savior”, before failing to protect a prominent human rights activist from an assassination attempt, revealing his powers in the process.

This section does some interesting work. For one thing, it sets up Clark, and later Superman, as fallible. His mistakes often derive from his own optimism about human nature. If Batman’s the guy who sees every angle and prepares for it, Superman’s the guy who believes the best about everyone and has to scramble to compensate when someone does the unimaginably horrible.

It establishes Superman as a citizen of the world, and establishes his ethics as a product not just of an exceptionally moral Midwestern upbringing, but influenced by exposure to other cultures. Kobe Asuru, the story’s stand-in for Nelson Mandela, inspires Clark to be not just protective of humanity, but inspirational, a character trait lacking in Byrne’s version.

Most importantly for this story, Clark’s time in Africa introduces the title’s theme of birthright, and an attempt to balance his alien and human sides without rejecting either. Clark’s efforts to “find himself” as a white man in Africa are gently mocked by Abena Asuru, who urges him to embrace his “birth legacy.”

Clark returns to Smallville and crafts his Superman identity out of symbols from Krypton, most centrally, the S. It’s been asserted that the “It’s not an S. On my world it means hope” line from Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel reflected a change instituted in this book, but that’s not exactly true. Here are the panels:

Snyder makes this overly literal (“S=Hope”) where Waid intends it as more symbolic. The S, which in continuity, is sometimes the family crest of the House of El, stands in for a tradition of Kryptonian valor and honor (and hope) that will be a site of contestation between Clark and Luthor in the series’ climax.

Birthright uses the moment when Superman and Clark become two separate entities to do some solid work characterizing the family relations amongst the Kents. Martha is the avid seeker, aiding Clark in his quest to find his roots, while Clark’s decision to make his powers, in a sense, public, galvanizes feelings of failure and inadequacy in Jonathan Kent. Like most kids, Clark has never imagined his father as anything less than perfect, and so we get this scene:

Following the “invention” of Superman, we get the “invention” of Clark Kent.

Clark Kent is, by design, a kind of invisible man. Rather than the goofy galoot played by Christopher Reeve, or the Person Who Looks and Acts Exactly Like Superman Except Hey He Has Glasses of the Byrne and Mullet years, this Superman is competent at his job, but largely overlooked by his coworkers.

His initial relationship with Lois is purely professional, without the immediate introduction of attraction Byrne forces into Man of Steel. Clark is mentored by Lois when he arrives at the Planet, and nearly caught out of the gates:

In the end, Lois and Clark settle into the Tracy and Hepburn dynamic that defines “classic” Lois and Clark, as well as the less than classic Lois and Clark television series.

Waid’s Luthor is a strong re-reading, and accomplishes what Byrne fails to do, connecting Luthor and Superman thematically. In addition to their shared past in Smallville, each isolated by virtue their intelligence and curiousity, they are both set apart by their abilities. Both seek out those like them, but Superman seeks connection, while Luthor looks for a kind of vindication, confirmation of his status as set above others. This is a Luthor that can properly hate on Superman, rather than viewing him as simply a sexual rival. Waid sets up the idea that Luthor is motivated by humiliation:

But Waid drives home that Superman and Luthor share a loneliness, one that Superman manages to overcome, while Luthor does not.

Particularly powerful are the moments that each of them connects and communicates with Krypton at the moment of its destruction. Luthor, “the only sane inmate on Asylum Earth”, cries out for assistance in the form of weapons:

Superman, for whom Earth is an asylum in the other sense, reaches out in a seemingly failed attempt to reassure his parents that he is safe.

I cannot stress enough how strong this sequence is. Luthor ultimately gains nothing, while Kal-El learns his birth name.

And while Kal believes he’s failed, the book returns us to its starting moment to show us the connection made, the Els Els dying content in the knowledge their son has been saved by their efforts.

I’m not crying. You’re crying.

Birthright is definitely a product of Smallville-era Superman. The Kents are drawn to look like John Schneider and Annette O’Toole, and Lex looks more like Michael Rosenblum than the traditionally rounder comics rendering. I believe at this point in continuity, Luthor was either dead or sporting this amazing head of cloned hair:

Clarification: it wasn’t just the hair that was cloned. Luthor was rocking an entirely cloned body for much of the nineties, which was the style at the time. Also, a bit of Googling revealed that at the time of Birthright’s publication, Luthor was once again bald, because his deteriorated clone body was restored by the demon Neron, who could apparently not restore his fantastic ginger locks.

Looking the other way, the story and the Kryptonian designs are a heavy influence on Snyder’s Man of Steel, albeit with any trace of color, joy, or sweet headgear removed.

Waid vocally disapproved of the movie, which is not a huge surprise. Snyder seems to miss the heart of Waid’s story. His understanding of superheroes is half cynical take on Alan Moore and Frank Miller, half Wagnerian spectacle. And I say this as someone who sort of liked Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman. Not so much Justice League. Justice League was a mess.

I’ve left off talking about the art, because Leinil Yu is one of those artists most fans have strong opinions about already. He’s also an artist who benefits from a light touch in inking. In some of Yu’s Marvel work, faces are over-rendered, at the expense of backgrounds. Gerry Alanguilan does an admirable job reigning him in, reducing the overall number of lines on the page, especially when it comes to faces. At times, he reminds me of Eduardo Risso, which is not something I’ve picked up on in his Marvel work. Here, Yu avails himself of a wide-screen panel layout, with plenty of half and full page splashes. The last two issues are basically a long fight scene, but Yu’s pacing throughout keeps it from going into sensory overload. His angular linework gives us a chiseled Man of Steel, and the splash pages hit big. Here’s a couple.

As I mentioned earlier, Birthright was intended to be a non-canonical intro to Superman, an answer to Marvel’s successful Ultimate line. By the time it had run all twelve issues, changes to the origin were reflected in the monthly books. Interviews with Waid around this time seem to indicate he’d end up writing one of the monthlies, but the DC Universe was already heading toward another Crisis event, Geoff Johns’ Infinite Crisis. This one wasn’t at the full reboot level of Crisis on Infinite Earths, or even Zero Hour, but it allowed writers, and DC editorial, a free hand to tweak the DCU’s history. Notable for our purposes, it also killed off the Wally West iteration of the Flash, one of Waid’s first major character runs at DC, and aged up his protege, Impulse, a.k.a. Bart Allen, created by Waid. But Infinite Crisis scribe Geoff Johns had followed Waid on The Flash, and utilized Bart Allen, as Kid Flash, in his Teen Titans run, so their fates in Infinite Crisis feel like an outgrowth of what was happening with the characters at the time. Indeed, knock Infinite Crisis all you want, but the build up to it throughout the line over several years, largely shepherded by Johns and editor-in-chief Dan Didio, is some strong shared universe game.

And Waid was on the team that handled the immediate fallout, the weekly series 52, co-written by Waid, Johns, Grant Morrison, and Greg Rucka. De-powered by the events of Infinite Crisis, Superman makes a handful of appearances in the series, including an inversion of the scene where Lois throws herself out a window to score an interview with Superman, which feels like it must have been written by Waid.

But the finale to 52 was somewhat famously rewritten by editor-in-chief Dan DiDio, against the wishes of the writers. None of the four have stepped forward with their original intentions, but as published, the series effectively re-established the DC multiverse, replacing Waid’s concept of Hypertime with a finite number of Earths. 52, in point of fact. And when the Superman titles relaunched with events set one year after Infinite Crisis, written by Geoff Johns and Kurt Buseik, elements conflicted with the origin story presented in Birthright. A few months in, Buseik announced that we “no longer knew” Superman’s origin story, and a few years after that, Geoff Johns announced he’d be writing Superman: Secret Origin, a definitive and canonical retelling of Superman’s early days. Birthright was no longer the official origin story for Superman. Infinite Crisis also erased Waid’s JLA: Year One from continuity.

Canon and continuity are odd things to discuss. They tend to be very important to the people to whom they are very important. When it comes to DC Comics, practically nothing written over the last eighty years is definitively “in canon”, so maybe it didn’t sting for Waid, a total continuity wonk who dedicated much of his Legion of Superheroes run to reconciling contradictory continuity (only to have this, also, overwritten by Geoff Johns), to have his story relegated to the status of “imaginary story.” Birthright still outsells Secret Origin; in fact, the latter may be out of print?

I don’t want to oversell a narrative where Waid gets completely hosed by DC and sulks off in a rage to create Irredeemable, possibly the most drawn-out and nuanced explorations of Superman Gone Bad in existence. At the very least, Waid kept on at DC through the 52 series, and a brief return stint on The Flash, before being replaced by Tom Peyer and then Geoff Johns.

But since Birthright, Waid hasn’t returned to Superman (there are constant rumors, but there are always rumors), and his version of the Man of Steel: fallible but striving, apart from us but never above us, has been cast into DC’s ever-growing Limbo of stories that never really happened, character iterations that never really were.

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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