World’s Finest Origins
Welcome to the first entry in Journey into History, the blog series in which I chronicle my foray into the world of comics! If you missed the prelude post explaining the idea behind this blog series, check it out here. In this inaugural post, I will dive into the first chronological chapter of the post-Crisis DC Universe, focusing on the origin stories of Superman and Batman.
The story of the DC Universe must always begin with Superman, and so it was in my reading. I had a lot of choices for the man of steel’s post-Crisis origin, as there have been several retellings of debatable canonicity. In the end, I decided to read the one with the best word of mouth: Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright.
Superman was never one of my favourite comic book heroes, for the reasons one would expect: he’s an overpowered do-gooder with very little weaknesses and morally grey areas, and he tends to come off as somewhat aloof in many depictions. In fact, I always preferred and related to his Clark Kent persona—the shy and socially awkward goofball (remind you of anyone?)—over the distant and god-like Superman, and lamented the fact that Superman was his real self and Kent was the ‘disguise’—sort of a reverse Spider-Man. Birthright doesn’t exactly flip the tables in that regard, but it does succeed in bringing to the forefront a side of Clark that is neither the bumbling reporter nor the unrelatable superhero, a ‘real self’ that is warm and caring but also vulnerable, which ultimately makes him feel human and likable.
Another thing I liked in this story was the absence of a Marlon Brando-inspired Jor-El scene. You know the one I’m talking about: Superman finds an interactive recording of his father that explains to Clark who he is and what he must do and offers some inspirational guidance. Some version of this now-classic scene appears in almost every retelling of Superman’s origin story, down to the rebooted Man of Steel film. In Birthright, however, Superman’s journey to becoming a hero, his self-discovery, is purely his own doing, and that strengthens the character greatly in my eyes. In fact, he doesn’t see Jor-El at all in this story until the very end, which—without spoiling it too much—results in a very cathartic moment.
Finally, I really enjoyed this story’s depiction of Lex Luthor. I don’t know how far back in Superman lore the idea of Lex being in Smallville originated, but its inclusion here makes for an interesting development, and his characterization, especially as an adolescent, is a highlight. Making him around Clark’s age while maintaining his superior intellect and air of menace allows him to stand apart from the Gene Hackman/Kevin Spacey versions and closer to what I imagine Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation will feel like. His grand scheme to discredit Superman is a great overarching plot, because it reflects the very real xenophobia that still exists in today’s society, and shows that Superman wasn’t necessarily hailed as a saviour from the very start but had to work around humans’ fear and earn their trust. This is an idea that Man of Steel also tackled and was one of the more successful elements of that film.
Batman: Year One
With Superman’s origin out of the way, it’s time to move on to the comic that has been hailed by many as the very best Batman story of all time—which, when you think about it, is saying a whole lot! But having read it twice so far, there is little doubt in my mind that its status as an eternal classic is well-deserved.
One of the most noticeable things about this story is how dense it is. In a mere four issues, it tells just as much story as Superman: Birthright does in twelve, without any part of it feeling rushed or underdeveloped in the slightest. It chronicles Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham, the early days of his crusade, the reason he chose to dress up like a giant bat, and his rise from a mere vigilante to a veritable hero. It tells the story of Jim Gordon’s struggle not just within the rotten city of Gotham, but also against a corrupt police department, while also fleshing out his personal life. It even manages to squeeze in a pseudo-origin story for Catwoman, as well as a quick Harvey Dent cameo that plants the seeds for the Dent/Gordon/Batman friendship to be fleshed out in future stories. The story is told from both Gordon and Batman’s points of view, alternating between them but focusing mainly on Gordon. This grants us an intimate look at Gordon’s life and thought process while keeping Batman at something of a distance and maintaining his mystique, making Gordon feel more like the protagonist. This was a wise choice for the setting, a time when Batman was mostly just a whisper, an urban legend.
These four issues also have a great feel to them. The artwork, the bleak, washed-out colours, and the writing style evoke an atmosphere that sucks the reader right into Gotham in its darkest days, when only a distant glimmer of hope shone in the horizon. It’s clear in retrospect how much of this mood Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins film managed to capture. It’s a very grim and down-to-earth story, greatly contrasting with the Superman story I’d just read in every way: the decadent, dirty Gotham versus the shiny, futuristic Metropolis, the dark, ninja-like Batman versus the colourful, fanfare-accompanied Superman, the slimy old Falcone, straight of The Godfather, representing a dying breed of criminals, versus the young, intelligent Lex Luthor, almost a Bond villain, the first of many such Superman foes, etc. Even the climaxes couldn’t be more different, with Superman battling a city-wide alien invasion, while Batman has a very intimate, almost understated showdown with a couple of mobsters that is nevertheless far more emotionally charged. It’s almost hard to believe they exist in a shared universe, but the differences really are what make the two such a unique pair when they do cross paths.
Needless to say, Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One was a superb read. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the most influential Batman comics of all time, with its effects felt in most of the stories to follow. I almost worried that by going in chronological order I got through the best Batman story first, but I know there’s really no shortage of other incredible tales to come.