Gonna Party Like It's Yer Birfright (Part 1): Mark Waid talks 'Superman: Birthright'

Tue, August 12th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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Because you demanded it.

"Superman: Birthright" #4
There have been very few occasions in recent comic book superhero history that one can say fans' wishes have been granted lock, stock and barrel, but with the release of "Superman: Birthright," from DC Comics in July, Superman fans have finally got what they wanted: Mark Waid writing Superman. While the acclaimed scribe has scripted the Man of Steel in "Kingdom Come" and "JLA," he's never been able to write a solo Superman comic book series. Now he's re-envisioning the Superman mythos through his own unique perspectives and spoke to CBR News in depth, the first of a multi part series of interviews with all the creators involved with "Birthright" that will unfold over CBR News this week.

"The idea is to introduce Superman to a new generation of readers, and the generation after that, and the generation after that," explains Waid of the 12-issue maxi-series. "Right now, DC doesn't have any sort of 'definitive volume' to hand to anyone who wants to know the Story of Superman--there are great bits and pieces out there, but here it is all together, with a lot of new surprises and inventions. Here's Krypton and the origin of the 'S' symbol. Here's the infant Kal-El and some of his growing up. Here's young Clark Kent's transformation from roving reporter into the greatest hero on Earth. Here's the origin of the costume and a reason FOR it that's about heritage and that defines who Superman is. And so forth. The first of twelve monthly issues shipped July 4 weekend."

For many Superman fans, their desire was to have Waid work on one of the core Superman series- "Action Comics," "Superman" or "Adventures of Superman"- and while it's an enticing proposition, the writer explains that he felt "Birthright" was just too big of an opportunity to miss. "The chance to do a 21st century updating of the origin was offered to me by then-new DC VP Dan Didio," explains Waid of how the assignment came about. "We were in agreement that while the Superman franchise was staffed by great creators doing good stories, the trend in comics over the past fifteen years or so to cater to only one audience--the audience that's been with you for fifteen years--has had its drawbacks. In the context of a novel or a movie or any other finite piece of fiction, yes, characters must grow and evolve and change. On the other hand, for characters like Superman or Batman or Spider-Man, who are allegedly 'timeless,' too much change and growth runs the risk of robbing that character of its foundations and that which has allowed it to be timeless.

"The assignment with 'Birthright' was to re-envision Superman for a contemporary young audience, to ask questions of the character and his motivations that might not have been asked nearly 20 years ago the last time he was rethought, and to hew a little more closely to the parts of the Superman mythos that everyone but the small hardcore audience is familiar with: that Kal-El was an infant when he left Krypton, that Clark is a mild-mannered reporter, that the secret of his dual identity is closely guarded from everyone, even Lois Lane, and so forth."

Waid does admit to a need to re-imagine certain elements of Superman, says the core essence of the character is eternal and explains how he perceives Superman. "He's a man who does his best every day to make the world a better place and to help those who can't help themselves. There will always be a need to be inspired by someone like that. I think his ideals and what he stands for are timeless, but he's always been 'tweaked' for a new generation. If he hadn't been, Clark would still be pounding a typewriter and standing over a teletype for the latest bulletins. "

Similarly, Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, is a rarity in the comic book world from Waid's perspective and he allows readers to truly empathize with Superman. "Originally, as defined by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and played out for nearly his first fifty years, Clark Kent was unique among super-heroes in that he was the 'mask' and Superman was the 'real' person. 'Who, disguised as Clark Kent...' That was a huge part of the genius of the character and a huge part of what contributed to his longevity. Before about 1985, no one ever whined that they 'couldn't relate to Superman.' You weren't supposed to relate to Superman. That's what Clark was for. He was our touchstone. The half of Superman which readers can actually relate to because we all (Jesus, especially comics fans) want to believe that even though we may be put upon and bullied by the world from time to time, we know what those who pick on us or look down at us don't--that if they could see behind our glasses, they'd see a Superman."

"Superman: Birthright" #3
Even if you've never read any other interview with Mark Waid, his love for Superman shines through his work, but that doesn't mean he's able to explain why writing Superman is his dream project. "I really don't know how to answer that other than to point to the work itself. I love Superman. I want to show you why. If I succeed, you'll love him, too. That's all."

That love for Superman seems to have been absent from the lives of many a comic book reader in recent years, with the Superman comics consistently selling below many other superhero and "nostalgia" comics, but "Birthright" seems to have kick-started an upward trend in Superman sales. "Once I got deeply into the story, I began to realize that part of the problem might be that, in this day and age, it seems more unrealistic than ever that someone with these powers and abilities might actually choose to go public--while wearing a big, red cape, no less," explains Waid of why Superman isn't connecting with some fans. "Until now, the answer to the question 'Why would he?' has simply been 'Because it's the right thing to do.' I wanted a much deeper answer than that, and I think we've found one--or, rather, several. The Superman identity is now more tied up in Clark's need to belong to the world rather than stand apart from it. It's tied up in his desire to explore his alien heritage, and in a need to find and fulfill his own murky destiny."

The first issue of "Birthright" showed a familiar origin story- a young alien boy from a doomed planet, rocketed to Earth- but there were differences that many long time fans noticed. It would appear that Waid is incorporating details from all the Superman origins over the years and adding his own layers, something he says is part of the project's goal. "Again, the assignment was to hew to and reinforce the elements familiar to non-hardcore 'civilians'--infant from the planet Krypton, etc," explains Waid. "But I'll tell you, the entire story--the entire story--began with an idea I've been playing with for years: the 'damned if I do, damned if I don't' turmoil that must have been going on in Jor-El's mind as he placed his only son in a spit-and-bailing-wire prototype rocket and sent him into the sky on the statistically impossible hope that Kal-El would make it safely to another world. That turmoil--and what comes of it. In other words, we may not be quite done with Krypton and Jor-El yet. Keep reading."

It's almost become fashionable to say that a writer will be going back to the Golden Age Superman's roots for inspiration and to make Superman more relevant, but with Waid, he's saying it because he means it. "Superman was created as a champion of the weak and oppressed. He was envisioned as a hands-on social activist. I think our audience today is as interested in seeing how Superman deals--or doesn't deal--with 'real world' challenges as in seeing how he beats Brainiac when next they meet. And that means there'll be some backlash in Metropolis--he's not an agent of the status quo, he's not an official deputy of the law, and he's going to have to work to earn people's trust."

As everyone knows, the other major character in the Superman mythos is the big LL- and no, that's not Lana Lang. The wife of Superman in the current comics, Lois Lane, is a divisive subject among fans, with many seeing her as a "bitch" and others seeing as "an essential part of Superman." So how does Waid plan to present the controversial Ms. Lane? "Well, you can either take the easy, stupid route and see her as a bitch and then do cartwheels to justify why Superman would like her--or you can take the other, harder route and look inside her for the character elements Superman would respond to and play those up," Waid explains. "I agree Lois hasn't come off well in the past sometimes, but I made it clear from my earliest proposals and pitches that if I achieved only one thing, it would be to make us like Lois the moment we were introduced to her. And I think we've pulled that off in issue four. I mean, she's different from Clark and Superman, that's for sure. She's bold, she's brassy, and she really has no sense of boundaries. She'll eat off your plate without asking (or noticing). She'll storm into the men's room if the line to the women's room is too long. Her dad was a general, and she doesn't completely understand that she's not one, too. One of the reasons Superman is instantly attracted to her is because she constanlty surprises him, and he's hard to surprise. Plus, the moment Clark first meets Lois, he's awed--and you'll see why in issue four."

"Superman: Birthright" #3, Pages 6 & 7
And while some critics of superhero comics might say "flight and tights" get in the way of developing good characters, the "Birthright" author said that won't be the case with Clark. "Nope. A good character is a good character."

While Superman is featured on the covers to all the "Superman: Birthright," he's yet to truly appear in an issue, and Waid says he'll hold off revealing Big Blue, "As much as possible. As shown in issue three, when Clark and Ma go about creating and constructing the 'Metropolis Clark' identity, we actually hit upon a brand-new reason why the glasses are an integral part of the 'secret identity,' and I'm very proud of it. That said, don't expect magic. There's still a bit of suspension of disbelief you have to be willing to accept if you're going to read super-hero comics. As the inaugural 'Birthright' editor Dan Raspler was fond of saying, 'If you look at the entirety of the comic book medium as an inverted pyramid, the entire thing rests on the vertex of being able to accept that a pair of glasses is an effective disguise.' You either accept that, or you go watch football and leave comics for someone else."

A lot of fans worry about continuity, specifically making sure that events in comics don't contradict past events or actions, but Waid's admission in previous interviews that one could almost see "Birthright" as an "Ultimate Superman" (a reference to Marvel Comics' line of fresh new takes on Spider-Man, The X-Men and more). "That really is up for the fans, and for DC, to decide," says Waid when asked if "Birthright" is the new official Superman origin. "I'm just going by the parameters I was given--don't worry about the past, worry about the future."

Those parameters have created an open field where Mark Waid can do most of the things he wants to with Superman and he says it's, "More than I'd expected," admits Waid, who says their were some restrictions. "This is not carte blance--I was not given editorial powers over Superman, nor did I expect them. There were some things I knew without asking that I couldn't do, like kill the Kents. There were some things I had to fight for and ended up compromising on, like how to incorporate the established 'first mission' of uncostumed Superman as he saved a 'space plane' from disaster--all of which made for a better story in the end. And there were places, particularly involving Luthor's past, where I was sure I couldn't go and didn't even ask--and then was told to forge ahead and take those ideas even further, much to my pleasant surprise. I appreciate the freedom I've been given, and I've worked hard to earn it."

After reading the first issue of "Birthright," some fans just saw it as a basic retelling of what's gone on before- but Waid says that those fans are in for a shock. "Ask me again when all twelve issues are done and published," said Waid. "Though it may not be totally obvious this early in, nothing--absolutely nothing--has been changed simply for the sake of changing it. That's hideously disrespectful to the work of those who have come before me. If anything, I've actually more than once ignored my gut instinct to change certain things. Example: I'd prefer Luthor not be a businessman, but so many people whose opinions I respect disagree with me on that, and that revamp was so universally embraced, that I'm not about to decree that I somehow know 'better.' I'll work with it and find a way to make it work for me."

The "similar" beginning was also seen as too slow paced by some fans to grab new readers, despite introspective moments, and the writer defends it as necessary to the overall story. "We had to start on Krypton for reasons that will become more apparent as our story progresses," says Waid. "Actually, I think we got to the 'new' stuff pretty quickly by leapfrogging over the 'Smallville years' altogether (at least for now). Clark learning about his powers one by one? That, we've seen before. In fact, I could be wrong, but I'd argue that the WB animated show put forth such a great take on Clark learning he can fly that no one will ever top it, so why try?"

Many origins stories, like Superman's 1986 "Man of Steel" reboot, like to cram in guest-stars, but this is one series where fans can be assured the focus will be squarely on Clark Kent. "It's purely Clark's story. Think of it this way: if this were 'Superman: The Really Long Movie' (which, structurally, is how I'm thinking of it), you wouldn't trot the Flash out in the middle of it. It's Superman's story."

It's also a story that's brought to life by artist Leinil Yu, whose work has stunned many fans and is admired greatly by Waid. "I begged for him," explains Waid of how Yu got attached to the project. "I've loved Leinil's art since I first saw it at Marvel years ago--so clean and expressive and energetic.

"Superman: Birthright" #2
"While there are many, many supertalented artists out there who could have tackled 'Birthright,' one of the things Didio and I quickly agreed on was that we needed to see a Superman we'd never seen before by someone you wouldn't expect to draw Superman. That's where Leinil fit the bill so beautifully. And his inker, Gerry Alanguilan, and our colorist, Dave McCaig, compliment his work amazingly well--they're a blessing, all three of them."

Yu hasn't had any input on scripting of the series yet, but Waid said if the penciller wants to contribute to the overall story of "Birthright," it'd be fine by him. "[Yu] hasn't asked for any, though he knows he's more than welcome to put ideas on the table. Maybe as we get into the back half--it is a collaborative medium, after all. This isn't 'my' story--it's our story."

Though only one issue of "Birthright" is available so far, there's been a lot of discussion about the issue thus far and a lot of positive feedback. The negative comments don't surprise Waid, and his reaction is summed up best when he says, "I knew there'd be some wailing about continuity. I was one of the wailers 18 years ago when Byrne did his stint, so I empathize, I really do--but mostly the reaction has been 'We can see you love Superman and we're along for the ride,' so that's great. That we sold out of a gargantuan, very risky-sized overprint on issue one so quickly was a great barometer."

Superman's appearances aren't limited to comic books- he appears as a thick, brick of a fighting machine on Cartoon Network's "Justice League" and on the WB's "Smallville." Waid, being the lover of all things Kal-El, has seen both and in the case of the latter show, has some high words of praise. " 'Smallville' in particular, is just astounding, particularly the 'mythology' episodes. Though, to my mind, anyone who'd choose Lana over Chloe is clearly under the effects of Red Kryptonite."

If you're looking for spoilers regarding the future of "Superman: Birthright," you've come to the wrong place- DC's newest Super-Scribe is keeping his mouth shut. But he's not above teasing fans with a hint of what believes to be the juiciest upcoming event. "The biggest one would either be how it is that Luthor met Clark Kent back during Clark's high school days--or why it is that Luthor claims not to remember..."

Look for Part 2 of CBR News' "Birthright Week" with inker Gerry Alanguilan's interview later this week along with more preview pages from issue #3.

 
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