Superman Through the Ages



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Birthright #7:

"Friend or Foe?"
A Review
February 24, 2003

So, was last month's disappointing issue of Birthright merely an aberration in an otherwise inspired mini-series, or was it the first sign of a series in a creative tailspin? 

After reading Birthright #7, I'm happy to report that it is the former.  Mark Waid and the rest of the creative team staged a fantastic "return to form" by presenting a story that feels like a more natural extension to the narrative that last left off with Birthright #5, in sharp contrast to the shallow characterizations and inert thumb-twiddling of Birthright #6.

Right out of the gates, we're treated to a poignant glimpse into Clark Kent's somewhat lonely life, not to mention a snazzy simulated super-vision sequence (so that's what it looks like when you use telescopic vision).  We see a Clark Kent who could be a dazzling, charismatic figure....but deliberately chooses not to be.  Waid has returned to us a Clark Kent you can genuinely feel sorry for, whose "mild mannered" disguise feels like a genuinely self-imposed sacrifice that exacts an emotional toll.  This is a dramatic change of course from the breezy, inconsequential portrayal of Clark Kent DC has presented since the '86 Byrne reboot.  Waid and Yu portray a Clark Kent feeling genuine pain, humiliation and, perhaps, even regret over his invented persona.  Moments like these seem to not only emphasize Clark Kent's isolation from his co-workers, but also, in a much larger sense, Kal-El's isolation from Earth's collective humanity.

However, just when the narrative is in danger of dwelling too long on the "Poor Clark" angle, a spectacular "Job for Superman" adds a much-needed dose of high-octane action, conspicuously absent since the Metropolis attack back in issue #5.  The double-page spread of Superman gripping the bridge's support cables was the kind of startling "Holy #@@$%" moment that, unfortunately, are few and far between in the modern Superman mythos.  We seem to have traded "spectacle" for "introspection", creating a Superman who readily displays his emotions (usually of the weaker variety), but at the expense of the raw, mythic power that once defined the character.  To be sure, striking the proper balance between the modern demand for emotional resonance and Superman's high adventure tradition is a difficult challenge, one that Mark Waid has obviously grappled with during this mini-series with varying results.  At least with this issue, he seems to have found the correct balance.

Still, as dazzling as the bridge rescue was, the highlight of the issue was the ongoing exploration of Clark and Luthor's "untold" shared history.  I've read the hysterical claims that Lex Luthor's new Smallville connection is either a "corporate-mandate TV tie-in" or a "shameless appeal to Silver Age fans", but I frankly don't care what the ultimate motivation was for bringing Lex back into Clark's past.  Nestled between the "bookends" of both the Golden Age Luthor and the Modern-Age Luthor was the Lex Luthor I was personally most fond of.  This version of the character officially began back in Adventure Comics #271 (1960) and continued through the 60's, 70's and most of the 1980's, reaching its fullest expression in Elliot S. Maggin's Superman novels and short stories.  Detractors of this era's Superman-Lex conflict predictably highlight its earnest simplicity (Lex hating Superboy for losing his hair) campy elements ("the green and purple jumpsuit") as reasons why it deserved to be mothballed by John Byrne's inert corporate schemer.  Despite the excesses, the compounded tragedies of a destroyed friendship and Luthor's wasted potential lent a compelling personal element to the Superman-Luthor conflict that, in my opinion, far surpassed anything before or after it.  As this issue of Birthright continues to unveil more of the Superman-Luthor relationship, it appears as if Mark Waid shares that opinion.  The jury is still out on whether this "gene-splicing" of various incarnations of Luthor will ultimately pay off, but I'm happy to see the creative team taking their best shot at it.


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