A handy chart appears at the end of this piece, comparing the four main incarnations of Superman I reference.
This doomed planet explodes, but one survivor (for now) escapes. The baby, sent to earth in a rocket, lands in Smallville, Kansas, where an older, childless couple, paragons of virtue, raise him to be... You know, this heroic guy who wears tights and has a thing for people with the initials "L.L.?" Look, stop me if you've heard this one, okay?
Superman's origins have been explored and revised many times throughout his 70+ year history. We've had Golden and Silver Age variations, numerous media adaptations, and John Byrne's 1986 series, Man of Steel. In the wake of various re-tweakings of the DC Universe, a 2009-2010 six-issue series gives us a Man of Tomorrow for the twenty-first century.
Title: Superman Secret Origin
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank, John Sibal
Secret Origin begs comparison with Byrne's 1986 series. That felt more like a single, coherent piece, and it gave us a more down-to-earth Superman. Johns gives us one that's more fun. Byrnes (and, for a time, DC Comics) used the landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths series (short version: DC wiped out their universe and years of continuity and started over) to distance themselves from many established but rather silly elements. This series recaptures the feel of Silver Age escapist flights without completely losing sight of the ground. Young Clark can e-mope a bit, in the fashion of his Smallville incarnation, but he's a hero at heart and a childhood adventure from the start. DC also restores the Legion of Super-heroes and a Superboy career (albeit one unknown to the general public).
None of this should surprise comic-book readers. In recent years, DC's universe has looked more and more like the Silver Age version, for better and for worse. They've revived numerous characters who had died and received adequate and popular replacements. The Barry Allen Silver Age version of the Flash had long been the one character (other than Batman's parents) who died and stayed dead. DC supported Flash with frankly, more interesting replacements. Nevertheless, Barry Allen returned. A similar fate befell the Hal Jordan version of the Green Lantern. Superman's adventures, meanwhile, re-introduced many of the elements that DC had excised back in the 80s.
A few years ago, DC launched "All-Star" versions of Batman and Superman, comics unfettered by continuity, which would show their flagship characters at their most "iconic." Whereas Frank Miller created in All-Star Batman a dark, satiric comic that sent fanboys to their keyboards to argue and complain, Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman gave us a philosophical yet child-friendly-- and very Silver Age-- version of the Man of Steel that became a critical and commercial success.
The latest Superman, then, borrows from all of his past incarnations but, mostly, he recalls the Silver Age.
The first few issues feel like fragments of an origin story. I know we cannot have every detail in six issues, and I know that most readers can fill in the gaps because of the character's popularity. Still, readers who aren't up on every other DC comic might reasonably wonder why childhood friend Lana Lang and super-pooch Krypto briefly appear and are not seen again. Clark Kent's teenage adventures with the Legion, meanwhile, have no apparent effect on his adult life. Clark seems genuinely, gee-whiz, overwhelmed by Metropolis when he first arrives, farm boy in the Big City. The Clark Kent persona is partially real. This makes perfect sense, until one recalls that secretive Superboy has an indeterminate number of adventures in the distant future, hanging with the Legion of Superheroes.1
The final three issues tell a more unified story than the earlier ones, as we learn about Superman's first adventures in Metropolis and see the outlines of his future relationships with the supporting cast. Johns emphasizes the relationship between Superman and Lex Luthor, and shows Superman's ascendancy as the hero people trust—a role Luthor once held in Metropolis, though for less altruistic reasons.
Recent material implied that the revised Lex Luthor would be Smallville-ized, given wealthy parents and a teenage friendship with Clark Kent. Secret Origin restores his childhood poverty, but makes him a resident of Kansas instead of Suicide Slum. He and Kent only briefly interact, and Luthor's post-Crisis role in his father's death, and the origins of his fortune, remain intact. He's both the scientific and financial genius that he's been at various times in his history. I wish we'd seen more of Lex Luthor's gradual turning to darkness, but this isn't really his story.
That other "L.L.," Lois Lane, recognizes early on that Kent is putting on an act. She does not suspect that he is Superman; rather, she thinks he's engaging in ruses useful to him as a reporter.
One cannot do much that's original with Superman and still have Superman. At best, the writer can find creative ways to integrate the elements of the mythos that DC considers in play at the moment. In their own, less literary way, Johns and Frank recall Sir Thomas Malory, who integrated years of Arthurian lore. Much of what we see seems more derivative than it needs to be, in that Johns and Frank draw heavily from well-known media models, such as Smallville and the Donner film (The adult Clark Kent clearly recalls Christopher Reeve). The second half features some developments that, while fairly original for the character, have been used many times in other comics. Superman briefly becomes a misunderstood hero, before establishing himself as the super boy scout generations have known.2
The series finds some interesting and new ways to explain aspects of the mythology. Whereas Man of Steel significantly altered Clark Kent's personality and had him change his appearance as a young adult, Secret Origin shows Clark gradually develop his mild-mannered persona. We have plausible reasons (well, for a comic about a super-powered, cornfed alien in tights) for why he starts wearing glasses at a young age, retreats from the rougher aspects of teenhood, and wears a costume years before he reveals himself to the world. All of these touches show some originality.
The final three issues feature the freshest twist: The Daily Planet, the only media outlet in Metropolis that does not kowtow to Lex Luthor, has fallen on hard times. Of course, we know that's about to change. Metropolis, too, looks much more like a contemporary urban center than we've seen before. We get a clear sense in the last issue that Superman's example will lead to it become the idealized city so often depicted in comics. These touches derive as much from the artist, of course, as they do from the writer.
Although not everyone likes the Reevesque appearance of Superman, Frank generally gets the art right: conventional comic-book images, thoughtfully crafted, recalling more than a little All-Star Superman. I especially like the scenes of Clark's childhood and youth. We're plausibly two or three decades in the past, and yet the artwork conveys the sense of some mythic America, a pastoral setting in all our twentieth century pasts, when we might dream of adventure and heroics.
Some people will roll their eyes at Johns' unabashed cornball tone, but they would be missing the point. This is Superman, for Pete's sake. His core character is unabashedly cornball. A kid could safely read this origin, and the rest of the population would recognize the character as Superman, even if they'd never picked up a comic in their life. His comments, in the final issue, that we must all use our gifts and aspire to heroism, exemplify Superman.
He's been powered back up a little too high for my tastes, and not all readers will welcome the changes. Still, this version should hold for the next decade or so, and Superman will retain his position, up in the sky of popular culture.3
Four Faces of Superman
One must not hold these categories as absolutes. The Golden Age Superman gradually became the Silver Age version. Man of Steel made a definite break with pre-Crisis continuity, but many elements gradually returned, setting the stage for the current incarnation.
||Man of Steel
| Krypton was a Buck-Rogersesque futuristic world of superhuman beings.
|| Krypton was a Buck Rogersesque futuristic world whose inhabitants develop powers only when under the influence of a yellow sun (Krypton’s is red).
|| Krypton was a technologically advanced world, but its people had grown emotionally sterile, and Jor-El looks with some envy at our planet. Kryptonians do not have powers under their own red sun.
|| Krypton contained features of all previous versions of the world, which represent the planet's diversity. Kryptonians only develop powers if they absorb "yellow sun radiation."
| The elderly Kents (initially named Eb and Mary, later John and Martha) find the baby and raise him. They tell him to hide his powers until he can use them to benefit humanity. He becomes Superman after they die. Working far away from his home town, Clark adopts a cowardly, inept personality in his civilian life. The Superman costume is made of ordinary fabric, and patterned after a circus strongman/acrobat's tights.
|| The elderly John and Martha Kent find and raise the baby. He has a very public career as Superboy (based out of Smallville), and adopts a mild-mannered but pleasant persona from an early age. Superboy often travels to the future and has adventures with the Legion of Superheroes. His costume is Kryptonian and indestructible.
|| The slightly-less-elderly Kents find and raise the baby, who is birthed from the matrix in his ship. Kent plays football and uses his power to his advantage growing up. His personality, based on the 1950s Superman tv show, suits an athletic, determined reporter. He has a brief, secret career, before becoming Superman as an adult. The costume is made of earth fabric, and has no special abilities.
|| Clark has the stereotypical life of an all-American boy, and initially plays sports. As his powers increase and he inadvertently injures his friends, he shies away from rough play and conflict. This gains him a reputation for being a coward. He has a secret, Smallville-inspired hero career, and begins wearing the invulnerable costume to protect his clothes. The public remains unaware of Superboy's existence, though he does occasionally join the Legion of Superheroes in the future, where he acts openly. Only as an adult does Superman make himself known.
| Superman can "leap an eighth of a mile… hurdle skyscrapers… raise tremendous weights… run faster than a streamline train… and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!"(Superman #1). He soon gains the power of sustained flight, and his abilities increase as the years continue.
|| Superman has godlike powers: he can move planets with his strength, fly at faster-than-light speeds, and does not need to breathe in space or underwater. He has super senses and can shoot beams of heat from his eyes.
|| Superman remains the strongest of the superheroes, but DC took down his strength several notches. He can fly, but he cannot exceed the speed of light. He requires oxygen—though he can compress quite a bit into his super-lungs.
|| This Superman comes very close to the Silver Age over-powered version, though he isn't quite so strong and invulnerable. He once again can survive in space without breathing.
| Lex Luthor is a megalomaniacal mad scientist and wannabee dictator with bright red hair. He and Superman first meet as adults. Soon after, Luthor loses his hair as a result of an artist's error.
|| Lex Luthor goes through several incarnations: mad scientist, entrepreneurial con man, and body-armor-wearing supervillain. He and Superboy share a childhood friendship, but he turns to crime early on, after an accident destroys a key experiment and causes him to lose his hair.
|| Lex Luthor, born in poverty in Metropolis's Suicide Slum, collects insurance after the suspicious death of his abusive father. He builds himself into the billionaire head of a technology-based enterprise. He targets Superman after the Man of Steel arrests him for endangering the lives of innocent people. Initially a redhead, he loses his hair to male pattern baldness.
|| Lex Luthor, born in poverty in (or near) Smallville, collects insurance after the suspicious death of his abusive father. He becomes a genius inventor, and builds a multi-billion-dollar scientific enterprise. Although he and Clark Kent have a passing acquaintance, they aren’t close friends, and Luthor leaves Smallville in adolescence. A developed conflict between the two leads to Luthor regarding Superman as his archenemy.
| Lois Lane is an edgy female reporter, a character type that had come into her own in the twenties and thirties. She loves Superman, but despises Clark Kent. Kent and Lane initially work for The Daily Star, but this soon becomes The Daily Planet.
|| Lois Lane becomes an annoying busybody and an implausible danger-magnet. She often engages in her own adventures, though she may need Superman to save her. Later, she becomes a tough, no-nonsense newswoman able to hold her own in a fight.
|| Lois, a hard-edged reporter, has a past relationship with Lex Luthor. She initially dislikes Kent because he scoops her. Years later, she learns he is Superman and they marry.
|| Pulitzer-Prize-winning Lois Lane stays with the faltering Daily Planet for reasons of principle. She finds herself attracted to Superman, but she also sees admirable qualities in Clark. They remain married in current continuity.
1. Brainiac 5 does some kind of mind-wipe thing to prevent Kent from knowing too much about the future, so his memories of these future adventures remain unclear and dreamlike. However, none of this gets explained in Secret Origin.
2.Some of the earliest 1938 adventures, in fact, show a Superman of whom the police express suspicion.
3. UPDATE: Apparently not. Less than a year after finishing the publication of these comics, DC announced they were ending all of their current comics and beginning again, September 2011, with new #1 issues and a new chronology and new origins.
UPDATE: And in 2017, they did a soft reboot (meddling with reality by Mr. Mxyzptlk and Dr. Manhatten) that put a Superman more closely in tune with this version back into canon.