Super-Stars (Part 1): Mark Waid's "Birthright," The Official Origin

Thu, March 11th, 2004 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Superman: Birthright" #10
To celebrate the "reload" of DC Comics' Superman franchise, CBR News will be running interviews with numerous Superman creators through March, from writer Jeph Loeb to Editor Eddie Berganza, in preparation for April's exciting Superman events. That isn't to say the current happenings in the Super-books haven't been interesting and CBR thought it would be appropriate to start from the beginning, after a fashion and under the name of "Superman: Birthright."

"Imagine Superman comics were beginning today and you could get in from the very beginning, reading the first adventures of a Man of Steel reinvented from top to bottom to reflect today's world and today's sensibilities," says Waid of the basics of the high-profile "Superman: Birthright" maxi series. "To be relevant to your experience and your life. To really face up to and address the questions of how hard it is to be a 'hero' in the 21st century--and why anyone would make the sacrifices it entails. That's ''Birthright''. It's a twelve-issue series from DC Comics by myself, artists Leinil Yu and Gerry Alanguilan and colorist Dave McCaig, and it's The Story of Superman--from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis and beyond."

As long as you know the basics of Superman- last son of Krypton, raised by small town Kansas farmers- Waid says you'll have no problem keeping up with the characters. "All the familiar players are here, albeit filtered through a modern lens--the Kents, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and, of course, Lex Luthor--the character who's probably the most radically updated to reflect his boyhood ties to young Clark Kent."

The one thing that hasn't been clear to fans, new and old, is the place of "Birthright" in the Superman mythos. DC has never commented publicly on whether or not this 12-issue series is the new Superman origin or just a new take to see if readers enjoy it. Ponder this no longer, as Waid himself admits that "Superman: Birthright" is the new official origin of Superman and a "calculated" reboot. "If by 'calculated' we mean 'thought out in great detail to the Nth degree by creators who love the character,' then yes. Accept no substitutes-'Birthright' is officially the DC Comics Origin of Superman. I wish we could have simply said that up front nine months ago when the series began, but overall plans for Superman in 2003 were still somewhat in flux, so DC decided to be a little more circumspect about it and instead surprise fans with the building falllout to 'Birthright' as it pops up in the regular ongoing Superman monthlies. Readers seem very surprised, in a very good way. 'Birthright' is very much the foundation of everything DC's planning for Superman in the future. It was our job to pave the way, it is essential Superman reading, and it's an honor to present it."

Despite the claims of some less tolerant readers, this series isn't an attempt by Mark Waid to impose his views on the Superman mythos or "fix" anything- Waid loves Superman and everything he represents, but couldn't back down from an opportunity to have a hand in history. "As to why 'I' felt a reboot was needed, what 'I' felt wasn't important as what Dan Didio at DC felt--because he came to me, rather than vice-versa. His challenge to us was to completely re-imagine Superman for the 21st century--something that we all feel will benefit fans and readers now and tomorrow."

"Superman: Birthright" #11
You'll hear Waid talk about gleefully being "on the other side of 'Superman #200'", the anniversary issue that saw the Man of Steel thrown through time, and true to character, the "Fantastic Four" writer isn't going to reveal too much of what the future holds. "Ha! Well, for one thing, we can stop hiding our light under a bushel. We can now proudly announce that 'Birthright' is and was always intended to be a momentous 'Man Of Steel' reboot for the new millennium. And as for what's spilling out of it in the modern-day books, particularly in light of Lex Luthor--all I can say is, 'you'll see.'"

All of this brings up an interesting question, namely Waid's preference towards rebooting Superman and if he'd have like to do an "Ultimate" series, which would entail creating a new universe for his new Superman, as Marvel Comics have done with their popular characters. "I prefer a compromise," says Waid. "I prefer to sit down with DC editorial and with the 'Birthright' crew, talk over our mutual plans at great length, take and distill the primal elements that make Superman who he is, and concentrate on presenting those with fresh energy. We actually have made reaches to nod to previous continuity when possible, but we're not being bound by it. We're looking forward, not back."

Part of looking forward entails adapting aspects of characters to modern times and one of these added nuances that seem to upset some vocal fans was the decision to show Clark Kent as a vegetarian. "I was pretty shocked, as well, to be honest, but I think the reason some fans seemed 'offended' by it was because one or two vocal Internet 'fans' with axes to grind tried to paint this as some sort of preachy moral issue, which it simply isn't," says Waid in response to the rude comments put forth regarding the creator's intentions. "There was also some confusion between 'vegetarianism' and 'veganism' stirred up--and I never said Superman was a vegan. Hell, I'm not a vegetarian myself--the irony to me in being accused of being 'preachy' is that I eat so much McDonalds that the tombstone over my artery-clogged corpse should be a golden arch. It's simply my interpretation of the character of Superman.

"The notion began for me when I was a kid, when I read Elliot Maggin's amazing 'Superman' novels ('Last Son of Krypton' and 'Miracle Monday'), the latter of which makes a point of how Superman's alien eyes, which can see microwaves and UV radiation, perceive an unearthly, indescribable color around all living things--a halo of sorts. Elliot used that idea to great effect in 'Miracle Monday' to help explain Superman's utter reverence for life, and with Elliot's permission and encouragement, I brought it into play in 'Birthright.' To Superman, there is nothing more beautiful than the glow around living creatures--and nothing more awful and repellent than the wilted, black absence of that glow around creatures that once were vibrant. That said--well, it makes sense to me that Superman wouldn't deliberately kill animals to eat them. He'd certainly never impose that belief on others--it's his choice, it's one made from a very unique circumstance, and no one understands the virtue of tolerance more than an extraterrestrial living as one of us--but it speaks to how he and he alone sees the world."

Maybe you can blame the talented Michael Rosenbaum, who portrays a young Lex Luthor in television's "Smallville," but Waid was ready for some harsh criticism when he made one specific change to the current Superman history. "I was prepared for a complete hailstorm of hate over the reinterpretation of Lex Luthor's boyhood and his early years, and I'm pleasantly surprised to report that reaction has been overwhelmingly positive."

"Superman: Birthright" #9, Page 3
Any change, whether well received or not, does bring into question of if a creator knows if they're making changes for the sake of seeming "fresh" or if the changes are truly ones in which the creator believes- though there's no strict set of rules as how to do so. "That's a good question," answers the acclaimed scribe. "It's very difficult, and the best answer I can give is that I use others as a sounding board--not just DC staffers but friends and fellow writers, some of whom are intimately familiar with the Superman legend and some who don't know it much at all. And as I describe to them things I'm thinking about, I look for and take note of the moments when their eyes widen and sparkle with anticipation.

"The fundamentals of Superman don't need changing. If anything, I think some readers are disappointed there's not more change, but it's not like I have any interest in claiming that Superman's not from Krypton. That he wasn't raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, that he's not disguised as a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet. Those pieces just need re-establishing. Yes, there are certain scenes, albeit re-envisioned, in 'Birthright' that we've seen before--Krypton, the launch of the rocket, etc.--but remember, the goal is to be able to put this series in the hands of any reader on Earth and say, 'Here is the Story of Superman.' That's why we're not taking anything for granted. Y'know, not everyone--for example--knows that x-ray vision can't see through lead or that lead blocks kryptonite or exactly what super-powers Superman has. That's the kind of information that die-hards like myself can reel off, but they had to learn it somewhere, too. 'Birthright's' a 'Superman primer' in that sense--but it's far more than that.

"As far as the thought process behind a 'change' goes, let's take a specific one and walk through it: Superman's first appearance. There have been many, many interpretations of that moment over Superman's 65+ years, and the most recent applicable one was in John Byrne's 'Man of Steel' in 1986. There, it was established that Superman's first public display of super-powers, his reveal to the world, came in saving a space-shuttle (out of costume, as it happened). It was a good moment. It was a good idea. But, and the DC editors backed me up on this, it's an idea very much a product of its time (as it should have been). Space-shuttles were very much (and, speaking as an advocate of the space program, very sadly) a slice of American culture that had a far greater impact, significance and relevance twenty years ago. Moreover, because 'Birthright' establishes that the Superman costume itself has cultural weight to Clark, that it's an essential part of the whole Superman identity, it was decided that while we could drop in a passing reference allowing for the space-shuttle incident to have happened off-camera, Superman's debut ought to be in costume. And, as in the movies and even in 'Man Of Steel,' Superman's debut had, had, had to showcase his power of flight. That's his most awesome ability, the one most likely to take bystanders' breaths away, and so I set myself to the challenge of coming up with a new debut moment that didn't duplicate previous ones but could certainly resonate. What we ended up with--Superman saving Jimmy and Lois as they fall to their deaths amidst a terrorist 'copter attack over Metropolis--certainly nods to the Christopher Reeve screen debut but is its own piece of the new mythology.

"I'm sorry, what was the question again? [laughter]"

Another specific example of Waid's contribution to the new Superman timeline is the reinterpretation of Lex Luthor and while there may be elements that seem new, Waid is happy to give credit where credit is due. "My take on Lex is pretty much Elliot Maggin's take--thanks again, Elliot! [laughter]. That he's the most brilliant man on Earth, possessing the kind of mind that comes along maybe once a century; that as a boy, his genius came coupled with an equal amount of irrational, disturbed emotional behavior, as it sadly tends to; that it was this genius that made young Lex an outsider, but it was also the part that fellow outsider Clark could relate to--that both of them saw the world differently than anyone else in Smallville and they gave each other someone to talk to; and that, ultimately, Luthor's disturbed psyche claimed him and drove him heartbreakingly into psychopathy. Superman will battle the adult Luthor and do whatever he has to in order to stand in Luthor's way--but there'll always be a part of Superman who looks at Luthor, misses the friend Luthor once was, and feels that much more alone in the world.

"In 'Birthright,' Luthor's still a billionaire magnate--but Lexcorp is founded upon Luthor's intense study of astrobiology. All his life, Luthor's longed to find life on other worlds, and he spends his days gathering data, interpolating what those worlds would be like based on what we know, and engineering profitable inventions from his findings. Unfortunately for Superman, one of those worlds, glimpsed through a wormhole in time and space, is Krypton...."

"Superman: Birthright" #9, Page 4
Many fans have wondered what Superman's fighting skills are, usually in the middle of those discussions that scare the general public but entertain the die hard fans, and Waid says you'll see Superman's fists of fury soon enough. "Why [hasn't it been shown]? Because I only have twelve issues and I haven't room to show it! Attention, interview readers--this was something Arune asked a year ago, and it's a great idea. And I will do more with it. Traveling the world as a teenager, of course Superman would have learned a variety of martial arts!"

The buzz surrounding "Birthright" has been sustained by the fact that in each issue, Waid presents readers with a multitude of events and bucks the current decompressed (read: drawn out) trend of writing. "God, yes, particularly with the early issues (In fact, what became issues one and two was originally a double-sized issue one.)," says Waid of consciously filling each comic with story. "I hardly limit this to 'Birthright'--I don't always succeed, but I like to at least try to have each issue of any series be able to stand alone as well as be part of a greater picture. I don't think the 'Birthright' issues are unusually 'dense,' and some action-oriented ones read faster than others--but thanks for noticing. We try."

Not one to take all the credit, Waid is insistent that the art team on "Birthright" is a major part of the series' success and he plans to work with them again. "I'd better. I can't afford to lose these guys! Leinil's just so imaginative and fresh and dynamic that it's a joy to see his pages. His friend and inker Gerry Alanguilan is a terrific embellisher and really gives Leinil's work dimension, and colorist Dave McCaig is easily, easily, easily as good as any colorist I've ever worked with in comics, and I've already made him swear that whatever his next project is, it'll be with me. And I'll hold him to it. Also, hats off to our letterer for suffering endless amounts of Kryptonese balloons and to editors Eddie Berganza and Tom Palmer, Jr., who endure all my last-minute changes and tweaks and see them through."

Despite the love for Waid's Superman project, it does seem that it falls in between all the announcements of Jim Lee on "Superman" or the new Supergirl in "Superman/Batman" and Waid thinks he understands the reasons. "Part of it is that we had to be a little circumspect about what we were when we launched. 'Superman #200' was still around the corner, so we couldn't trumpet to the skies, 'THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE NEW BEGINNING! LOOK! OVER HERE!' Some of it is also because, c'mon, I don't know if you've heard, but this kid named Jim Lee is doing 'Superman' next month, and that's where a lot of the excitement is. Hell, that's where a lot of my excitement is. But it's all good-'Birthright's' designed to have a long, long life and be the common reference point for all the exciting Superman launches in 2004. If you're just now getting into Superman because of Jim Lee or Greg Rucka or anyone else, come join in on 'Birthright'. See what it all springs from."

There've been comments that the television series "Smallville" has been influencing Waid's take on The Man Of Steel and while he admits to being a fan, he says it isn't dictating the events of "Birthright." "I love 'Smallville' and won't miss an episode, and it's every bit as influential as the rest of Superman's grand history--but no more so or no less so. For instance, I would have wanted to put young Luthor back in Smallville regardless of the TV series. I will, however, cop to the fact that it was 'Smallville' that showed me with stunning clarity how cool it would be to have Ma and Pa Kent actually be parents, not kindly, white-haired grandparent-types. [laughter]"

"Superman: Birthright" #9, Page 14
He's quite possibly the biggest Superman fan on the planet and considering DC Comics has dubbed 2004 "The Year Of Superman," Mark Waid is excited about a lot, especially completing his vision of Superman. "About 'Birthright?' That's easy. It's being able to channel my love into the project and show you why every thread in the tapestry of Superman works when you just approach it with thought and feeling. Why it makes sense that he wears a bright costume. Why it makes sense that he disguises himself as a man in glasses. Why the glasses work. Writing all that and more is what makes it thrilling to me."

That all said, sometimes fans can cross the line by becoming "too much" of a fan, Waid admits. "Heh. Yeah, I have my share of cyberstalkers who think I'm Satan, but hey, who needs unconditional love, anyway?"

Performing a Krypton never pinch on Waid, CBR News was able to learn if Waid will be doing more Superman work and the answer is, "Absolutely yes--DC just confirmed that last week for me. No word yet--but in the meantime, let's concentrate on 'Birthright'. When Luthor announced to the world that a Kryptonian army was about to invade Earth, we know he was lying--and Superman knows he's lying--but no one else does. Not after Kryptonian spacecraft start landing in Metropolis and turn the city into a war zone. If you've been enjoying the character arcs of 'Birthright' but have been patiently waiting for the all-out, over-the-top Super-action to really cut loose, wait no longer. Superman vs. an army of soldiers armed with Phantom Zone bazookas--that, my friend, is entertainment. That's Superman at his most amazing."

Of course the most important question is simple: in a fight, who wins: Batman or Superman?

"Have we met?" laughs Waid.

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