Comic-book writer Mark Waid is a lifelong Superman fan. And, like me, he isn’t happy with Superman deliberately killing Zod in the MAN of STEEL film. You can (& should) read his review here: Man of Steel, since you asked.
In 2003, Waid got his chance to rewrite Superman’s origin, in this 12-issue miniseries called Birthright, with Leinil Yu. I remember when this series first came out, the reaction was a bit confusing. Since there wasn’t any kind of continuity-rewriting “Crisis”, like what happened preceding John Byrne’s Man of Steel, readers weren’t sure how this series fit in. Early word was that this was supposed to be a separate parallel continuity, like Marvel’s Ultimate Comics line. But then a few months later that notion was scrapped and it was just said that this is the new official origin of Superman, and then they went through some shenanigans in the main Superman titles to tie it together.
Anyway, over the course of the 12 issue series we get Waid’s take on Superman’s origin. Waid brought back some of the original “Buck Rogers” version of Krypton, as we see Jor-El and Lara sending young baby Kal out into space to survive Krypton’s destruction. The “S” shield is, once again, a Kryptonian symbol, that just so happens to look like the English letter “S”. The rocket and baby are found by the Kents, who raise him as their own. The only surviving artifact from the ship is this device, which is basically like an iPad, which shows a bunch of images and messages about the planet Krypton, which The Kents and Clark study as he grows up, but since they can’t read the language they don’t know what any of the message mean. But it begins a lifelong fascination with alien life in Martha Kent. She’s constantly online, looking up reports about UFO’s on the internet.
Clearly taking some cues from the TV show Smallville, which was a hit at the time, he brought back the idea that Lex Luthor also grew up in Smallville and was a childhood friend of Clark’s. He was a few years older, but had been held back in school, because he was often too smart for his own good, getting bored with his schoolwork and not doing it. He was a loner, with Clark his only friend, and they had a shared interest in astronomy. Lex is also very interested in alien life, but it’s more because he feels like he’s so much smarter and better than everyone else on Earth, he thinks that if he can find more advanced life elsewhere he’ll have someone on his mental level. He’s a messed up, but brilliant kid. One of his experiments (involving Kryptonite, which affects Clark, stopping him from being able to help Lex) goes wrong, resulting in a devastating fire at his house, killing his parents, and causing his hair to fall out. He leaves town and destroys all evidence that he was even in Smallville. When we meet him later as an adult, he’s now a world famous billionaire, and pretends that he never met Clark before.
I’ll stop right there and say that my favorite aspect of this series is the portrayal of Lex Luthor. Waid managed to combine the Byrne/Wolfman Billionaire businessman Lex with the original Silver Age Mad Scientist Lex. This Lex is clearly a genius, who occasionally will trade in his business suit for a lab coat and get his hands dirty working on his own scientific experiments. He runs LexCorp, which we learn was based on Lex’s obsession with space and astrobiology. Through the study of other planets and the possibilities of life out there, he devises inventions to explore it, which also have practical applications on Earth, which he exploits and makes money off of. This is a perfect combination of the different versions of Lex. And we understand why he hates Superman, when Superman shows up in Metropolis. But I’ll get to that later.
This Clark also does not adopt the Superboy persona as a child, just occasionally uses his powers to help people in secret. After he graduates college he travels the world as a freelance journalist. And the first two issuse show him in a poor West African nation, living with some activists who are fighting against their oppressive government, and Clark has to use his powers to protect their leader. This convinces him that he can’t hide forever, and must find a way to use his powers in the open for the good of the planet. With the help of his parents, they create the Superman costume, and help create his new “Clark Kent” secret identity. This is one aspect that I also think is handled better than in Byrne’s Man of Steel. Byrne just had like one page where Clark slicks his hair back and puts on a pair of glasses and they go “See? Now no one will recognize him!” But here we see Clark studying various acting books, and they discuss how he’ll need to dress (Baggy clothes, loose shirts, so no one will see how muscular he is), stand and walk (slump your shoulders to look a little shorter) different, and change his voice. It acknowledges that the classic disguise is a bit flimsy, and therefor he needs to be extremely careful in order to make it work. Especially because, as he points out, he’ll be working everyday with professional journalists, people whose jobs depend on them being investigative and paying attention to details.
I also love this presentation of Clark Kent. Since John Byrne stressed that Clark was the “real” person, and Superman was the “disguise,” his Clark was practically a super man, too. He was handsome and successful, women (like Cat Grant) would flirt with him, the only reason Lois rejected him was because he got the first exclusive interview with Superman before she did, but even then she’d occasionally make complimentary remarks about his muscles. I don’t think Clark needed to be wimpy coward he was in many Silver Age stories, but he shouldn’t perfect, either. That just messed up the essential Clark/Lois/Superman triangle, IMO. But Waid found a decent compromise here, I think. As Clark Kent he strives to stay in the background, and not draw attention to himself. So we see him as they guy that people just forget about it. When everyone in the office meets in the local bar for a drink after work, someone asks where’s Clark, and everyone shrugs and says “I thought you told him?,” “No, I thought YOU told him?” When someone has a birthday in the office, everyone signs a card except Clark, because no one gave it to him to sign. When Clark is in the office working late, the janitor’s turn off the lights because they don’t notice that he’s still there. That sort of thing. That makes sense. If he’s a big handsome guy, or a big clumsy oaf, he’ll stand out in a crowd, and if he stands out too much, then people will notice him, and the more they notice him, the bigger chance someone might recognize that he just so happens to look a lot like Superman. So he just sulks in the background.
The Daily Planet is present as a much more high tech news organization, primarily reporting through the internet and TV, as opposed to a print newspaper. Lois, Perry, and Jimmy are all there, pretty much portrayed as their classic versions. Then the main story of this series is that when Superman debuts publicly, helping stop some rogue flying machines that LexCorp was testing, he becomes a public hero. But he rejects Lex Luthor’s offer of friendship, and Lex becomes determined to destroy him. Lex has managed to figure out that Superman is an alien, and what kind of planet he must have come from, he also still has his Kryptonite. He manages to stage an accident that makes it look like Superman destroyed a bridge on purpose, and so public opinion turns against him. Then he creates a false “Kryptonian Invasion”, with an army of men (who are really Lex’ private soldiers) attacking Metropolis. The goal being that after enough destruction, Lex will step in an “save” everyone, becoming the world’s new hero himself, and ruining Superman for good. With help from Lois and Jimmy, Superman exposes Lex’s plan, and has him arrested. THE END.
Overall, I like it. It’s not perfect, and though I liked some of the things Waid did here better than Byrne’s version of Superman’s origin, it’s still not as tightly focused as Byrne’s is. “Decompression” had become the norm in comics by this time, so it feels like Birthright is unnecessarily stretched out in some parts, like the first two issues that took place in Africa, could have probably been cut to just one issue. It’s also hurt by the fact that, unlike when Byrne told his story, the whole Superman line wasn’t being rebooted from the start. Byrne could begin subplots in Man of Steel that he knew he could and did follow up on when he started the regular series, but Waid just had this one miniseries, which was set in the “past” of the regular ongoing Superman series at the time, none of which Waid was even writing. So it was up to other writers to figure out how to fit in Waid’s story as background for their current stories, and that appeared to mostly just ignore it. So it had less of an impact.
The biggest drawback for me though is the artwork. As I said in my reviews of Mark Millar’s SUPERIOR, I am just not a fan of Leinil Yu’s art, and that holds this series back for me. That’s why I can only give this series a grade of:
The 12 issues are available digitally via Comixology