13 REASONS to Revisit SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT

Super-expert Anthony Desiato: Of all the Superman origin stories, Birthright resonates the most…

Supermaven/podcaster/filmmaker/recurring contributor Anthony Desiato is back with another thoughtful deep dive into Superman lore. This time out, it’s 13 REASONS TO REVISIT SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT — timed to a new Digging for Kryptonite episode guest-starring Mark Waid. Groovy. — Dan

By ANTHONY DESIATO

Full disclosure: When I first pitched this article to 13th Dimension editor-in-chief Dan Greenfield, I called it, “13 Reasons Birthright is the Best Superman Origin.” Knowing Dan’s affinity for John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, I figured I’d likely have to sacrifice that title — but it was a fair tradeoff for the opportunity to wax poetic about my favorite telling of Superman’s origin.

Written by Mark Waid and illustrated by Leinil Yu and the late Gerry Alanguilan, the 12-issue Birthright was published between 2003 and 2004 and hit at just the right time in my Superman fan journey.

As much as I had grown up reading the post-Crisis Superman shaped by Byrne, Man of Steel came out in 1986, a full year before I was born. I eventually read and appreciated it, but it didn’t captivate me the way it had the prior generation of fans.

Then, when Birthright landed toward the end of my high school years, its tale of a 25-year-old Clark Kent traveling the world and trying to find his place in it, resonated deeply. In the years since, I’ve examined virtually every iteration of the Superman origin story, and Birthright remains my top choice for the relatable and character-focused path it charts for Clark.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Waid about Birthright on my podcast Digging for Kryptonite. It’s the first part in a month-long exploration of Superman’s origin across time and media. My full interview with Waid is available to watch or listen to right now. In the video excerpt below, Waid discusses the fine line he had to walk between innovation and tradition while pitching DC execs Dan DiDio and Paul Levitz:

 

Here are 13 REASONS why Birthright has endured for almost 20 years:

1. WHY Superman. The series doesn’t take Clark’s decision to don a costume and become a public-facing superhero for granted. Instead, we track Clark as he struggles with the limitations of helping people in secret as he simultaneously seeks a way to honor his alien heritage. “That was everything,” Waid said about exploring why Clark becomes Superman. “What motivates him is such an important part of the book. It’s more meaningful if there’s a personal connection to it — if there’s a reason for doing what he does.”

2. A Jor-El Who Cares. In a welcome departure from the dispassionate Jor-El who shoves baby Kal-El in the rocket with nary a second thought (see the first episode of the Adventures of Superman television series for one of the coldest examples of this), Jor-El here fears for his son’s safety to the point that he almost can’t go through with the desperate gamble. “I love him too much,” he tells Lara, who — in another effective reversal — is the decisive voice of reason.

3. Art Appreciation. Yu’s pencils feel fresh yet timeless, and he depicts both poignant character moments as well as blockbuster action sequences with a sure hand. In a standout, art-driven scene that contains barely any words, a conflicted Clark — glasses in one hand and cape in the other — steels himself, makes his choice, and charges into battle. It’s absolutely soaring.

Issue #10

4. A More Modern Martha. Pa Kent is often the one who gets to impart the major life lessons while Ma sews, but here, Waid gives Martha her own part to play, scouring UFO message boards for clues about where her son comes from and participating far more actively in Clark’s transition to Superman.

5. Calling > Convenience. The idea that Clark seeks out a job as a reporter to be close to the action works in 1938, but a modern interpretation requires more, and Birthright provides it. When we first meet Clark, he’s in Africa writing a story about an activist there, showing us that journalism is something he had an interest in and aptitude for long before it was a convenient cover. In fact, it’s through his reporting that Clark engages with so much of the adopted world he will soon come to protect.

6. MILD-Mannered. Christopher Reeve’s performance in Superman: The Movie is unquestionably one for the ages, though his Clark is bumbling to the point of caricature. It’s fun for the viewer, but it hardly lends itself to the character blending in. The “Metropolis Clark” in Birthright will knock over a cup of pens when he needs to (see his interview scene with Perry), but his default is reserved. His coworkers ditch him during after-work drinks because they think he’s shy and dull — and the scene of Clark sitting alone and listening to them with his super-hearing is all the more heartbreaking for it.

7. “She’s Not Afraid.” Unlike others who had reacted in fear when Clark revealed his powers in the past, Lois is completely unfazed as Superman makes his public debut, and Clark’s joy and relief at her response are palpable, showing readers in an instant why Lois is the one.

8. Realistic Reactions. The public’s mixed reaction to Superman’s alien origin and susceptibility to Lex’s ruse (that Superman is the advance scout of an invasion force) sadly ring true to life, injecting real-world stakes and believability into the story.

9. Giant Spider. It’s become part of nerd lore at this point: Producer Jon Peters infamously insisted that Kevin Smith incorporate a giant spider into his unproduced Superman Lives screenplay. In an amusing — and, as it turns out, unscripted — reference, a giant spider appears in Birthright during the “Kryptonian invasion.” According to Waid, “That was all Leinil.”

10. Smallville Influence. Waid is quick to point out on the podcast that his reintroduction of a Smallville history between Clark and Lex is a nod to the Silver Age comics and not the television show Smallville, which was in its heyday when Birthright came out. However, he reveals that he did draw inspiration from what he calls the “greatest achievement” of the WB/CW series: recasting the Kents as young, vibrant parents with whom Clark could believably have tension rather than the elderly caretakers of stories past.

11. Clark/Lex Parallels. Despite the inspiration (see #10), this Smallville fan still greatly appreciated the comic’s doomed friendship between young Clark and Lex. Here, they are two sides of the same coin: Both feel alienated — Clark hides his physical abilities, while Lex’s intellect makes it hard for him to connect with others — and both know what it’s like to be seen with fear by those around them. The fact that these two men understand each other in a way no one else does adds a compelling layer of tragedy to their future animosity.

12. Flag of Krypton. Waid elevated the meaning of the “S” symbol — more than a family crest, it was also the flag of Krypton — though that wrinkle on the mythos didn’t fully cement. As Waid explains, “The reason I wanted it to be the flag of Krypton and not just Jor-El’s insignia is because [Kal-El] is the last son of Krypton, not just the last son of the El family.” However, DC pushed back on that notion, and Waid admits that the intent “got sort of muddied.” Still, he notes that the idea of the “S” representing hope is “the one thing that really stuck.”

13. Emotional Gut-Punch. The ending of the series gives Jor-El and Lara a precious gift: a message from Kal-El across space and time (via a wormhole created by Lex) that he made it to Earth, granting them peace in their final moments and bringing the story full circle. For this new father, it packed quite an emotional wallop.

MORE from ANTHONY DESIATO

— The TOP 13 ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN Episodes – RANKED. Click here.

— 13 REASONS to Revisit the JEPH LOEB-JOE KELLY SUPERMAN Era. Click here.

Anthony Desiato is a documentarian, podcaster, and lifelong Superman fan. He hosts the podcasts Digging for Kryptonite, My Comic Shop History, and My Comic Shop Book Club, available on most major podcast platforms and in video form on YouTube. His most recent documentary film, My Comic Shop Country, is out now on Amazon, Apple TV, and CuriosityStream. Visit Flat Squirrel Productions for more.\

Author: Dan Greenfield

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6 Comments

  1. This article moved me to tears. I’m convinced now to read the “Superman: Birthright” miniseries.

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  2. I’m not a fan of Waid’s current work, but I was astonished at how QUICKLY DC threw this one down the memory hole, filled it with cement, and landscaped over it. I’ve never understood why they commissioned him to create a 12 issue series with a “definitive” Superman origin story, tying together all the other origins, and then promptly pretend it never existed.

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  3. Even as a long time Superman fan by the time it started, I still think watching Smallville on tv at the time may have been a factor in why I was so keen to read this back then and why it’s the version of his origin story that sticks with me the most.

    They’re both as much about Clark as they are Superman.

    They both explore the why he becomes Superman and yes Ma and Pa Kent being the influences on him reminded me how his parents were a constant go to on the Lois and Clark 90s tv show.

    It shows you don’t have to keep killing Jonathan to prove something on Clark’s journey.

    Birthright for me does a wonderful job of showing Clark’s humanity and desire to do good, while also exploring his beginnings as a journalist.

    I have to say the S standing for hope kinda doesn’t sit to well with me. I thought it was a bit lame for want of a better description, long before MoS came out. Too me it was always just a bit too much on the nose in representing the idea of him as a symbol.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read Birthright but that’s my only criticism of it I can remember having. I actually like the idea it being a flag representing all of Krypton not just the house of El.

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  4. Birthright is almost a source of pain for me because it is probably my favorite Superman (print) origin. And to watch the negative reaction, the botched handling, the way it was watered down to force it to fit into mainstream continuity, really hurt. MOS fans HATED it because it undid “their” origin. As a result, I don’t think it was given the fair chance it deserved. To this day, I have a hard time reading it knowing what became of it. Superman continuity in the 2000s was a joke. It had run into problems even before BR with things like “Return to Krypton” and other attempts to retroactively change his history. To this day, DC still hasn’t gotten back to a stable continuity and one could argue BR is the reason why but there were so many ways to make it work, they just didn’t.

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  5. Revisiting Birthright is like revisiting Spider-Man:Chapter One.

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  6. Great article!!!!!

    And BIRTHRIGHT, imho, is the best origin story of all!

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