4×4 Elements: Superman: Birthright

July 28th, 2010 by | Tags: , , ,

Superman: Birthright. Words by Mark Waid, pencils by Leinil Francis Yu, inks by Gerry Alanguilan, colors by Dave McCaig, and letters by Comiccraft, Superman by Siegel and Shuster.

I didn’t like Superman until I read Birthright. I’d read a few as a kid, most notably the Death and Reign, and the cartoon was okay I guess, but he never clicked. He was generic and boring. Here are four ways why Birthright convinced me otherwise.

Superman gets angry. Most popular interpretations of Superman portray him as fairly long-suffering, good-humored, and kind. He punches robots and rescues children and goes home satisfied. In Birthright, he’s a little different. He’s a little edgier and, as this scene shows, a lot angrier. This isn’t your stereotypical “This ends now!” anger. It’s something smaller and much more personal. I like this, in part because it makes Superman a little more human.

Kryptonian or not, Superman was raised as a human being by human beings. There’s no way that he grew up to be completely emotionally stable at all times. Something has to piss him off at some point. This time, it was a young girl looking down the barrel of a gun because of a man’s negligence. This kind of thing puts me in mind of Action Comics 1, where Superman throws a wife beater up against a wall and generally operates on a completely different level than he does these days.

This manages to ground Superman (“He gets angry at injustice, just like us!”) without butchering him or tearing his character to bits. He has a very reasonable reaction to something horrible happening, and he wants to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. “I want you to know how this feels, because your complete lack of empathy is what allowed it to happen.” Superman is a power fantasy, and a tremendous part of the appeal of power fantasies is that they can do things you wish you could do, but cannot.

Superman has super-empathy, feeling great respect and love for all creatures. One wrinkle Waid and Yu added to the mythology is that Superman is a vegetarian. It sounds a little goofy, and is minor in the overall scheme of things, but it makes a lot of sense. If Superman really was as kind and gracious as people say he is, that obscene level of kindness would extended to all life.

What matters here isn’t that he eats rabbit food all the time. What matters is that the idea that Superman is a vegetarian shows that Waid put a lot of thought into Superman. He went deeper than “Superman is a good guy and does good guy things.” He started with one idea, “Superman is a good guy raised by loving parents,” and extrapolated from there. Superman has a deep wellspring of love for life->Superman is an alien, and is therefore as different from humans as humans are to animals->Superman would consider all life the same->Superman wouldn’t want to kill animals for food. One thought, followed through to its logical extension.

Thought counts.

Lois Lane is annoying. This isn’t the Lois who has settled down with Superman and knocks out Pulitzer Prize-winning articles twice a week. This is the Lois that has had a few minor hits, has gained a well-regarded reputation, but hasn’t quite made her name what it would later grow to be. Except: she’s very, very good. Perry White knows it. Clark Kent has known it for years. Everyone knows it. The worst part is that she knows it.

Have you ever met a really talented person who knows that they’re talented? Lois Lane is that person. She knows she’s good, and she knows that her talent lets her get away with a whole lot of stuff. Yes, she will critique the paper to her boss in excruciating detail. Yes, she will put herself into dangerous situations just because she can. Yes, she will lie and cheat her way into a building to get a story. Yes, she will hit Lex Luthor’s doomsday machine with a lead pipe.

“If you got it, flaunt it,” said the late great Notorious B.I.G. Lois has got it. She flaunts it. And she can, because she’s got the talent to back it up.

This isn’t especially deep or profound. This is just something else that wraps up Superman’s origin in a nice, neat bow. Superman gets to talk to his parents. Originally, Superman was just an orphan. He knew where he was from, he knew his history, but he didn’t know or ever talk to his parents. He was a baby.

At the end of Birthright, a wormhole through time lets him see his parents just after they launch him into space. They’re worried about his future and caught in the despair that can only come when giving up your child. And in the end, when he finally gets a chance to speak to them, he says, “Mother… Father… I made it.”

It’s sweet and it gives a certain measure of closure to a story that you probably didn’t even realize needed it. Later stories would build upon Superman’s relationship to Krypton (“Great Rao!” for some reason took off even though dude was probably raised Methodist), but this right here is the first step, and honestly the only step I need. His parents died at peace. He started his life as Superman and soon managed to make contact with his past. It’s nice.

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19 comments to “4×4 Elements: Superman: Birthright”

  1. No, man. No. That’s not sweet: it’s flipping disgraceful.

    Speaking to his parents through a time hole? Giving them “closure” in their final moments? Get out of here. Why would anyone piss all over the drama of their final moments like that? The uncertainty? The desperation? The hope?

    This completely undercuts probably the most important part of the Superman origin story – something that’s genuinely relatable (I hate that word, sorry) – and I can’t believe they couldn’t find a less egregious way to do it, if they had to do it at all (which no, they didn’t).

    I mean, I was all ready to throw my arms up in semi-mock-horror at the lazy, mawkish shorthand that is “vegetarian = good guy” (c.f. Straczynski’s Spider-Man story where Aunt May does the same by calling Peter Parker an “occasional vegetarian”), but that is such a miscue.

    (and I can’t help but think that following this logic – “Superman is an alien, and is therefore as different from humans as humans are to animals” – would make Superman a supremacist, not a superhero.)

    Cripes. I thought having the S-shield originate on Krypton was bad enough (not Waid’s idea, originally, but hell, he’s the one who kept it in). But thanks. I hate to say these words, but you’ve saved me some money. I’ll never buy this book now, and it’s been on my To Buy list since it came out. And once again, I have to cite Tom DeHaven’s “It’s Superman” as a “humanising Superman” origin story that knocks this into a cocked hat.


  2. I mean, how could he ever mow the bloody lawn?!


  3. @Matthew Craig: How does it ruin the drama of their final moments? Their hope is still there, they still shot him off not knowing how he’d end up, etc etc. The only thing that’s different is that they die knowing that their hope was worth it in the end. What they wanted and the stress they went through didn’t change.

    The supremacist logic only tracks if he genuinely considers himself better than humans, rather than different. If he sees himself as different, but on the same spectrum, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’d place himself above humans. His superheroing is a product of his hybrid nature-human in thought and deed, alien in power.

    And plants don’t count! I’m a die-hard carnivore, honestly, I don’t think animals even “count.”

  4. “they die knowing that their hope was worth it in the end.”

    Thus stripping their final moments of any drama.

    That hanging question – will our son survive (never mind thrive)? – that is the absolute key to that scene. They die not knowing, which is…squirms with barely-contained delight…fantastic. It’s so sad! Their last thoughts are of each other, of grief for the life they’ve lost, sorrow for the son who’ll never know his mother’s touch, and anger for whatever scientific or bureaucratic mechanism is taking the rest of Krypton with them. To ameliorate that with joy, relief or pleasant surprise…it’d be like skipping from the end of EMPIRE to the Ewok Luau.

    (sort of. a little. a very little.)

    WE know that their sacrifice was worth it, and HE knows their sacrifice was worth it. But they can’t. We and they may wish otherwise, but it’s hard cheese. To show otherwise may give us a nice, warm, Disney glow in our bellies, but it’s horrible storytelling.


  5. The vegetarian thing I could go either way on*, but I gotta agree with Brothers on Superman getting to send his parents a message. It’s a little comicbook-y, sure, but it turns the “when you’re about to die, hope is a pretty great thing to have” message into the more proactive “hope is great because it gets shit DONE.” Birthright makes Superman that little bit more proactive he needs to be in order to connect with readers who don’t like Silver Age Superman.

    *I think because I just cold don’t care what people eat unless they’re serving me or going all Tony Bourdain about how fucking great it is. Though thanks to the latter I now know the former usually recommends the “Special” based on what they over-ordered & stands to go bad soon.

    (I kind of want to quibble on the semantics of the power fantasy line, but I learned my lesson last time. I’ll just say a Superman who gets angry is a Superman more people should be familiar with, because then maybe they wouldn’t write about a Superman who is Jesus.)

  6. @Steven: I’d settle for them writing Superman-as-Moses more often if we can’t entirely jettison Superman-as-Jesus.

    And I tend to agree with Immortal Technique when it comes to what you eat and why, but I liked the little attention to detail it brought to light.

  7. Well I was wondering where that filename came from.

  8. Excellent piece, Dave. Sums up a lot of what I love about this book. Kingdom Come made me realize that there was more to Superman than I gave him credit for, but Birthright was what turned me into a fan for life.

  9. I just can’t buy a guy from a small town in Kansas as a vegetarian. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of Supes upbringing. I do like angry Superman, but it’s best when he only gets mad in extreme situations. With as much power as he has Superman has to be restrained most of the time, but when he gets mad it should be an event. I loved angry Superman in Final Crisis, for example but I think it would lose its effect if he was angry too often.

  10. I swear, I have seen so much ‘sperging over one line of dialogue from this book it makes me shake my head. He implies, in that selfsame line, that being a vegetarian IS unusual in the community he comes from. Know what else is unusual? THE POWER TO FLY.

    Superman’s nearly always been shown as compassionate to animals. It’s not exactly a huge leap from that to “well, I just won’t eat any.” Especially since he doesn’t have to eat in the first place, being solar powered and all, so any animal that he eats literally died for nothing. He has to pass for human if he’s going to be Clark Kent, so if he’s got to do that then why not restrict himself to a vegetarian diet?

    Mark Waid stated in an interview that he wasn’t having Superman pass any kind of moral judgement – Waid himself isn’t a vegetarian – he just thought that it fit the character to make that choice, given what we know about his powers and his personality. I happen to agree with him 100%, stutterings of “but but but beef bourglion with ketchup!!” be damned.

  11. I love animals. I hate to see any of them hurt. I still feel it would be a MASSIVE leap to vegitarianism. I think they’ve dropped that bit though

  12. You know, I held off buying Superman: Birthright for a long time. I was a Man of Steel guy, so hearing that my favorite origin was going to be replaced made me a little apprehensive of the series. Yet when Secret Origin was announced, I felt I could finally view Birthright from an objective viewpoint. So I bought it… and I loved it. Maybe Luthor’s master scheme was a little overly elaborate, sure, but Waid’s handling of all the major characters was fantastic. Mark gave us a 21st Century Superman without abandoning any of the character’s core principles.

    And I’ve gotta disagree with Matthew Craig; I actually found myself really moved when Jor-El and Lara got Kal-El’s message. It was crushingly bittersweet, like Lois and Superman’s final scene together in All-Star Superman #12 (which I won’t describe in detail for those who haven’t read it yet). I know we often equate drama with distress, but it can also be something joyous. To me, that final scene in Birthright is one of the most dramatic moments in the series.

  13. Waid’s portrayal of Luthor in this book was so compelling too. Found myself empathising with his adolescent frustations too, which then made me worry about who I was relating to in this story.

    He came so close to figuring out Clark’s secret when he was younger…

  14. Indeed! But, like so many others, he just couldn’t bring himself to believe it. Because Luthor, in nearly all interpretations, can’t bring himself to believe that a man with that much power would want to live a normal life. We see in Birthright how Lex constantly puts himself above others, either by using his intellect to degrade his peers or his power to control them. Luthor willingly isolates himself, which is why the idea of someone choosing to treat “lesser” beings as equals is, well, alien to him.

    However, isolation often leads to loneliness… which is why Luthor was more than happy to find an intellectual equal [to an extent] in Clark Kent. It was Lex’s friendship with Clark that really made me buy the “young Luthor in Smallville” idea. Mark Waid really nailed those scenes.

  15. I don’t like the “soul vision”. Instead of the guy having character, instead of Clark Kent thinking and feeling his way through to a decision to not kill, instead of Kal-El deciding to be the change he wants to see in the world, instead of Superman having a frighteningly easy out to his problems with the many recidivist people in his world…

    Nah, fuggit. Lets give him a Pavlovian smack on the nose with a rolled up paper when he dies. It’s not enough for the product of a good upbringing to confront the realities of a world of cardboard (or women of kleenex). This smacks of a lazy writing tool to me.

    I don’t personally agree with the vegetarianism, but it’s completely uninteresting as a choice if he’s pressganged into it by his ‘super’-sympathy. We only add the positive ‘super’ addend to it out of habit for his other powers. If free of that naming convention, it just as easily takes a negative modifier, like “painful” (or to troll: “bleeding heart”).

    Finally, I’ve got no bag with the “He’s as different from humans as he is to animals” argument for Super-vegetarianism. It’s a subtle fake-out, because it implies that if he didn’t go veggie, then he might as well eat humans too. That’s spurious.

    I will admit the thought of a Kryptonian going cuccoo for ‘long pork’ is kinda hilarious for shock effect. I don’t think Waid’s own Irredeemable has dared that.. yet

  16. The “soul vision” worked for me since his vision extends to so much of the e.m. spectrum. That, in addition to his upbringing and ancestry, sounds like a good reason for him to value life so highly.

    I also liked that Waid gave a reason for Supes to fall for someone as bitchy as Lois. I always saw them as a mismatch, decades ago, but in Birthright, I saw a glimpse of what he might see in her.

    Apologies for iPad* and “handicapped” typos.

    * – and not because I want everyone to know I own one, but because it can cause some odd auto-corrections, sometimes.

  17. as a vegetarian, i appreciate that someone “gets” why superman would be one too! it’s very difficult to explain to non-vegetarians without them rolling their eyes.

    that said, i really enjoyed this book except for a few very minor things. i think, and i know the idea wasn’t waid’s originally, that tying lex luthor’s “origin” in with superman’s is very contrived and silly. and a few otherwise good scenes were marred by stereotypes and weird art choices by leinil yu (who i normally really love), e.g., the man that superman ‘scares straight’ with the gun. we know he’s despicable, we dont need hillbilly teeth and a huge confederate flag telling us so!

  18. @david brothers:

    Wait, hasn’t the entire thing been Superman-as-Moses recently? Except in the end all the Israelites end up in the Diaspora immediately.

  19. […] Superman appears as a vegetarian on the ground that he holds all life sacred. I’ve seen this praised by some, and I can certainly see the impetus for that. I disagree with this interpretation of Superman, […]