Superman Comic Books
"Birthright"! AKA Article 250: Let's Start Over Again...By Neal Bailey
August 3, 2004
Ah, polarized America, in every sense of the word.
See! I just said one word, and now you're either going nuts thinking, man, what a stinker, or you're thinking, wow, that's the best ret-con EVER! At least, judging from the mail I received from a lot of my reviews of the series, anyway.
I figured I'd write a little retrospective prospectus to help you all cope with the series that ended your life or brought you back from the brink, possibly with a little humor, and also, a little information, because in the coming years, if this does indeed become the solid canon, there are a lot of things to remember that are different from what we're used to, the Byrne story.
I wanted this to be an extravaganza that explained everything and set the continuity errs to right. I managed to snag Mark Waid with a quick message, asked him to answer a few questions, and he politely declined. He was a really nice man, and he made a polite point. He basically told me that he put his best effort into the work, and figured he'd let it speak for himself.
And really, I'm not down on him for that. "Birthright" as a story is just fantastic. Just let it be known I gave him the chance to monkey you fickle folk around, and he politely declined, so any inadequacies or failures of logic are based in my amateur take on his professional tales. In other words, this is my opinion, and because I don't have more information from the sources, I may have ignorance.
I guess the largest beef I get from people (despite a few snide grimaces at giant spiders and super-sewing, which are, in effect, somewhat justified) is that this story doesn't fit well into the current continuity, and if we try to make "Birthright" the beginning of all continuity, it is irreconcilable.
This is an article devoted to praising the story of "Birthright", and trying to comprehend the monumental disaster of its continuity flaws.
Truth be told? I don't blame Waid for the continuity, though he bears responsibility. I blame the people who examined the story on the editorial standpoint, allowed it to go through, and allowed it to be officially stated as canon.
I read the entire series and combed over it very closely, taking 7 pages of meticulous notes. This is the article I came up with to compliment the read.
Let's look at the story first, because it's a darn good story.
I actually pulled it apart, issue by issue, and this is what we have:
2 issues in Africa, basically introducing Clark in his youth.
1 issue in Smallville, age 25, deciding to become Superman.
2 issues in Metropolis, debuting as Superman, saving Metropolis from helicopters.
1 issue just after, introducing the adult Luthor and his beliefs.
1/2 issue a week later, showing Lex's test with Superman and Kryptonite.
1 1/2 issues in Smallville, telling the story of Clark and Lex's friendship.
4 issues with the stage set, Lex's plot in motion, and dealing with the consequences of the attack on the city.
That's actually a pretty good pace.
The story essentially traces an arc... Clark rockets to Earth, Clark figures out why he wants to be Superman in Africa, Clark returns to Smallville and makes his costume, Clark arrives in Metropolis, he debuts to success and then he's denigrated with failure. Finally, things are in place, and he has a final confrontation with Luthor.
Like my comic shop owner said, "There's your Superman movie right there."
And he's right.
There are things which are lacking. Some of the most popular criticism includes the fact that Lex was a good villain and all, but there was no real payoff fight with anyone save Van-Gar, who most readers didn't like, and the giant spider. In other words, the action was there, just not as interesting as it could have been.
There are an number of true MOMENTS. Things which are indelibly etched in your mind, much like Superman returning in "Kingdom Come". Waid has a true penchant for these moments, and when they occur, they shine. Also notable is his remarkable turn of a character. Even if you disagree with Luthor's changing, there are times of masterful characterization with every main character involved.
Most of you will remember the line, "Said the thimble to the bucket."
Lois is spot-on, as is Perry, as is Ma, as is Jimmy, especially. Probably the best Jimmy since "Superman: Metropolis", and before "Metropolis", probably the best Jimmy since the early nineties.
Some people have some beefs with Pa, but for the most part, all of the characters evoke their spirit well, and move forward, taken in the spirit of the series as a whole.
There's also the complaint that this isn't an origin story, and more of a year one story. I think that's very true. There's a one page montage of Clark's ENTIRE youth, not related to Lex, and Lana appears on one page, Pete never appears. We get one page with the montage, and two issues of Clark in Africa. That's a very valid, very sharp criticism of this series as an origin.
It's very easy to step back and say, well, that's not much good to say. But I'll point out something to you, something I've learned as a reviewer. This is the 250th piece that I've written for this site, and I've found, over time, that the more you have to say about something, the more it stank. The less you have to say, the less there is to complain, because it's easy to complain if there's something to latch on to, but it's harder to compliment. It's the nature, I guess. Point being, if you look above before you read the following, and realize I put about a page of work into the storytelling and a lot more into the continuity of the matter, it's simply because the story is rather good. I'm not questioning that. Guffaw at the sewing. Laugh at the lull in the middle with the giant spider. But put it next to Byrne, honestly, and Waid beats Byrne solid on pacing, dialogue, and even art direction, if not the art. Picture some of the moments drawn with a less dark, less brooding pen, and "Birthright" could have been more epic and memorable.
And Byrne's "Man of Steel", though many are loathe to admit it, IS dated. It's time for a re-evaluation, a nailing down of the principles by which the comic will be guided. "Birthright" tried to do that, and instead simply gave us a good story.
The continuity, however, is more than slightly flawed.
And now we examine that.
Looking at the changes that Mark Waid made, not speculating as to the why or how, we can divide them into several categories, or at least, I did.
There's the change that's made to the character, which is like the "soul" vision, if you will, and the vegetarian aspect, and then there's the change to timeframe, like cell phones and time changes and technology.
Most of the character changes are debatable, many of the timeline changes render impossible or at least hard to swallow much of the last 15-20 years of continuity.
Superman gets a new power, soul-vision. Examining it, I think it makes some sense, but I don't see the end to which it was brought in for. To make some kind of religious statement? Because affirming the existence of a soul takes Superman firmly out of the realm of the secular, a move I never tend to laud, like when Superman takes a political point. Danger lies therein, because Superman is supposed to stand for everyone. Even atheists, or other religions which do not believe in souls. Saying there is definitely a soul or aura in the DC Universe with a character who does not take certain stands, that's risky. Spectre? He's a hand of God. Making a religious determination is up his alley. But it'd be like Superman taking a political position that most people in America agree with but that some don't. It's just not really necessary. Not only that, but they don't even name the power, so what are we supposed to call it?
Now, if heat-vision relied on that kind of assumption, we might make an exception, but soul-vision? What purpose does that serve, and when will Superman ever use it, other than when he watched Kobe fade away?
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: Well, he can use the power, I guess, but he likely won't. It's also a power that may just spring up out of nowhere, or may never be used again. It seems like something they tried just because it sounded cool, like Torquasm-Vo, and will never use again. So the effect is negligible, at least so far.
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: Dialogue to the nature of how Superman feels a deep sorrow every time he hears, to the microscopic level, the death of an organism. It would paralyze me with fear to be able to hear a person stop breathing, their heart stop, to hear the neurons in the brain stop firing. That's terror right there, without the infusion of an abstract concept, the soul.
Superman's symbol, the S, is now the sigil of the House of El again instead of a creation of the Pa and son Kent team.
Why did they do this? I have no idea. It's actually one of those changes that doesn't really do anything, doesn't really hurt anything, it just adds to the confusion people trying to get into the comics have. For instance, when someone asks where the S comes from, instead of two explanations (Pre- and Post-CRISIS), now we have those two and a third, the "Birthright" origin, which may or may not be the correct one, based upon how the comics interpret it and whether Eddie and company modify or validate the "Birthright" continuity with the current continuity.
CHANGE: The S.
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: Convolutes it in explanation, virtually negligible in the story as a whole.
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: Simply keep it the way it was. Less convoluted that way. He can still identify with his birth world.
In the beginning, in the launch with Jor-El and Lara, there are a number of assertions which fly in the face of established continuity. First, that Krypton cannot communicate/find another space faring species to send first themselves and then ultimately Kal-El to. They essentially choose Earth for its chemical composition blindly and send Kal-El not knowing if there are even people on Earth, only that he will be strong (unless they discussed it beforehand, but out of sight, out of mind, as far as I'm concerned. I'm playing the average dumb reader here. Maybe I am the dumb reader.).
This eliminates a rather crucial element of Byrne's Krypton, an element that personally I found more enjoyable. Lara's reaction to the "bare-chested" folk is priceless, and it makes sense that if you're going to rocket your son off into deep space, you know where he's going. Even Smallville got that on the nose, and they LOVE to monkey with continuity.
To top that off, it's internally inconsistent with present established continuity, because there are many planets that know of and knew of Krypton before it exploded... I can't cite specific examples, but I recall many instances of Superman in space where a race who had never seen him before realized who he was and what he could do because of his Kryptonian origin, much as they know what happens to a Daxamite exposed to a yellow sun.
Point being? I don't buy that Krypton, with its advanced technology, enough to shoot a boy across a galaxy, could not communicate with other alien species. This is further refuted when Luthor, a human, though admittedly smart, can design a device that can communicate with Krypton across space and time with our relatively primitive human tech (compared to Krypton, anyway).
CHANGE: Krypton is alone in the Universe.
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: Well, now Doomsday couldn't have escaped Krypton on an errant trade ship, because Krypton now has no known neighbors to its inhabitants, thus unraveling the entire death story, "The Doomsday Wars", and "Hunter/Prey". Further extrapolating, "Our Worlds At War" would have ended differently, as would have the 175 issue where Superman confronts a Jokerized Doomsday. Heck, for that matter, without Doomsday, Coast City might still be around, Hal Jordan might still be Green Lantern (had Superman been around to stop Cyborg from setting the stage for Mongul). It goes on and on. You can extrapolate all you want.
Further, because Clark is born on Krypton and not incubated in the Birthing Matrix, there have been many speculations of the end of the Eradicator, the end of the Fortress, and on and on. Eddie dodged this one by saying they never said if there was a Birthing Matrix either way, but they should have, I assert.
Part of the reason Clark doesn't become Red Son, I assert further, is because Jor-El was paying attention and had knowledge. Though that can be argued against as subjective.
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: Errant dialogue could easily have been edited and saved everyone a lot of trouble. That's the editor's job, to watch continuity. A little research, a little more attention to detail. Keeping Luthor from communicating with Krypton...that REALLY exposed that flaw.
Or it could easily have been said that because of the Earthquakes, communications had been down for some time.
This one, above all, bugged me the most.
Clark Kent got his powers between 14-18. That's an important thing Byrne did, because a five year old, I don't care HOW good a boy he is, will knock a bully to Pluto if he can. There's no way a kid with the powers of Superman (any one, pick) would be able to keep his secret at 4, at 5, even at 10. That was why an INTEGRAL change Byrne made was the raising of the powers age.
Now, in multiple medias, errant writers are assigning him powers in the Silver Age style again, not realizing the consequences.
First off, why would Clark not become Superboy in a continuity where he had powers in his youth? There's Smallville to show you why that's a problem. He uses his powers in front of everyone, ALL THE TIME. And if he doesn't wear glasses as a kid, there's no way someone won't make the correlation.
Jumping high enough to break a ceiling's drywall at 4 (as he does in BR) is close enough to flight. Lifting a tractor as a baby (as seen in the opening montage) is enough to indicate he had significant super-strength as a baby.
These things are a big deal, because now Clark could never have been the quarterback. He could never have been the less nerdy, more successful Clark the current continuity is molded around in many ways. Now he has to be nerd Clark, or bye bye secret. Personally, I liked confident novelist Clark, myself. I can relate to him more. Though I do like the schlub Clark. I think a balance is good, but is this change necessary?
CHANGE: Earlier powers.
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: Clark is no longer the quarterback, Clark has no real reason not to have been Superboy, and Clark would have had a lot more trouble keeping his secret.
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: Simple. Remove the two offending scenes. Come up with two more panels.
Clark drinking in the first few issues.
Superman/Clark is not effected by alcohol, so this doesn't really change much, though I've hardly seen Superman drinking, and don't think it's a very wise character choice, making Clark a drinker, even as an adult. He's a role model, and a bit too square for inebriation.
Remember how awkward and odd it was in Superman 3?
CHANGE: Alcohol in reference to Superman.
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: One more step down the path to a darker, grittier Superman. Oh, boy!
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: A comment about his milk, or a polite decline on a moral basis. Insert idea here.
Lana is now a bubbling airhead cheerleader who doesn't have time for Clark.
They were good friends, three of a pair, Clark, Lana, and Pete, at least in the continuity I know (see Doomsday Wars for a good example of the interaction I mean).
Now, though I admit she could have changed in the three years after Clark's freshman year, she's a character I don't identify with, I don't like, and a character that, quite frankly, doesn't come across as a wholesome down-home girl one can identify with, but a popular ditz.
CHANGE: Lana as moron (not Smallville style, but close).
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: Why would a hot, Prima Donna popular girl feel trapped, and in fact stay, in a town like Smallville, just because Clark leaves? In fact, it seems like they would never get together in this continuity.
That could mean quite a bit, because why would this Lana want the nerd Clark described in "Birthright"?
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: Leave Lana out, or develop her into a character more, with Pete. Don't flirt with her concept as a changed character and then not evaluate it.
Clark is a vegetarian.
This is a valid move. Remove the soul-vision debate, and you've still got a man obsessed with preserving life, a man who can feel death in a way none of us can. This is a logical move, and one that should have been made.
I also wonder why he didn't go Vegan...in for a penny, in for a pound. Why not?
Now, why couldn't this have been done in a regular issue? Got me.
And it also flirts with that same alienation I mentioned earlier...how does this make meat-eaters feel? I mean, I support vegetarians, but that doesn't mean my argument doesn't stand in this instance as well. Meat eating folk might now be alienated from a secular entity, Superman.
CHANGE: Clark's now vegetarian.
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: Well, this wipes away the whole sub-plot of Beef Bourgenoininonie (I can't speak French) with Catsup, now, doesn't it? What's the secret phrase now? And for that matter, what's Clark's favorite food?
Not too big a deal, considering the logical step forward in plot.
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: It could have been left out. But personally, I think this one is okay.
They changed the publisher from Franklin Stern to some fat scumbag named Quentin Galloway.
Okay, it was a good way to bring Lois in, showing her knock down Galloway a peg. But then, look at the implications! Now we lose Franklin Stern, essentially Perry's best friend.
Importantly also, we lose a positive black character in comics in favor of a rich, butthead fat guy with a very stereotypical disposition. WAY to GO.
CHANGE: No more Franklin Stern.
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: The Franklin Stern issues go bye-bye, even though they still stand out as great stands against racial inequity, and Perry is even more alone in the world now that his wife, his son, and his adopted son seem to have disappeared from the Superman comics permanently.
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: Simply make Quentin a bully under-boss, not the publisher. It would explain why we never see him again (and likely won't) and it would also explain why he needs to be a butthead in order to be heard, because a rich news publisher like Franklin Stern would have to have learned tact, especially to run a paper like the Daily Planet.
K doesn't harm humans, now, apparently.
In old continuity, K would kill a human. Not as quickly as a Kryptonian, but assuredly, as when Luthor lost his hand, and eventually his life to Kryptonite in the early 90s.
I would say this is naive Luthor speaking, but then, if it is, then why didn't his Krypto-ray web thing, his kryptonite attack on Superman, or even the Kryptonite fueled soldiers cause any immediate radiation sickness?
CHANGE: Kryptonite is now harmless to humans.
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: No death of Luthor saga, no victory over Cyborg in the "Reign of the Supermen", or at least a different victory (Henshaw was weakened by the radiation).
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: One line about some radiation poisoning, anywhere. Maybe Luthor showing some hurt after infusion in the final battle with Superman.
The K-web Luthor uses, in and of itself, raises astonishing continuity issues. Like why he never used it again. Like why, when he had some precious kryptonite, he used it on Metallo instead of another web. Why, if it's explosive, and that explosion can kill Superman, he doesn't use it to do so at any point in the future.
CHANGE: Existence of a web that can suspend Superman's powers on a broad scale.
EFFECT ON CONTINUITY: Only scratching your head and wondering about the paradox of character.
HOW IT COULD HAVE BEEN FIXED: Just weakening Superman by arming Van-Gar with Kryptonite would have sufficed.
That's the end of the character changes. Time to address the other side:
First, Clark, at 25, gets and sends email to his mother. That sets the story firmly at post 1994, when email became popularized enough and the technology became affordable to email personally at great distance in the style and format used in this series.
That creates the first paradox. For if Clark is 25 in (at the earliest) 1994, and if current Superman is at LEAST 39, which he has to be, that makes current continuity taking place in 2008.
I base my logic on the Lex president storyline. It goes like this. Pete, Lana, and Clark are all the same age (not irrefutably, but that's the common consensus). To be the vice president, you have to be 35. Ergo, if Pete served a full term, he is now at least 39, as is Clark and Lana.
Take that another step.
Clark arrives in town, and the cabbie talks about Orange and Yellow alerts, which didn't exist until 2002. This sets Clark firmly at age 25 in 2002, at the earliest.
As does seeing camera cell phones when Clark is 25.
As does a reference to the Department of Homeland Security.
As does the look of the cell phone on the billboard before he battles the giant spider.
That means that if he is 39 now, Superman comics are now taking place (if you lowball and say that "Birthright" took place in 2002) in the year 2016.
But hey! Then they clear everything up. The Daily Planet very firmly states in a dated edition that the battle with Luthor is taking place on February 12, 2004, meaning that Superman battles the never-ending evil now in 2018.
I'll be 38 years old when I finally catch up to Mark Waid's story!
As if you're not muddled enough now, there's the final, most odd, unmistakably intentional and screwy time change.
The Luthor building.
Going back a scant 4 years (3 when these issues came out, 2 when it was written), we see that Luthor's L shaped building changed into two straight lines, a la the World Trade Center, when Brainiac reworked the city of Metropolis in Y2K, which happens, yes, on January 1, 2000.
In "Birthright", we see the second tower is still under construction, four years after the supposed Brainiac attack, but apparently ten years before it happens in continuity (because remember, Lex becomes president the same year Brainiac has his attack, which makes Superman at minimum 35 that year because of Pete's candidacy). So Y2K, apparently, now happens in 2014, and it happens after the construction of the Brainiac version of the Lexcorp Towers.
Eddie, Mark, on these matters, the ball is in your court.
I know, from hundreds, literally HUNDREDS of letters, that the fans are torn up and angry about these frustrations that "Birthright" has caused. We ask you about it in the Ask Eddie forum, you merely say, "Have a good time. Enjoy the story."
But that's kind of not the point.
As I said above, I DID enjoy the story.
Most people enjoyed The Empire Strikes Back, because it's a cool story. But if George Lucas re-wrote A New Hope tomorrow, and suddenly put the Battle of Yavin AFTER Luke finds out that Vader's his father, the fans might still enjoy the retelling, but something is ROYALLY screwed there.
So while I feel all involved in "Birthright" deserve a solid pat on the back for a story well told, I feel scathingly angry that we have been cheated of making such a great story sensical. And I am not the only one who feels this way.
I can show the letters to the editors, if they're interested. I haven't seen more than maybe five letters out of some hundreds supporting the continuity, and most reflect my general feel. GREAT story, Mark, now make it comprehensible in our framework, which, while it may be tired, still needs to be reconciled. If that means starting all issues from scratch and going from square one, I for one will encourage such a bold move. But the alternative, reconciling it with current continuity, as the above shows, is near impossible, so if we DON'T start over, or make "Birthright" some kind of dream, we have to toss this great story out the window.
I leave the next move to the creators, for the fans.