Apr 9, 2012

Top 10 Superman Origins

Hello, Comics Cubers! Some of you may remember the last blog crossover I did with Paul Cornish of Last of the Famous International Fanboys, in which I spoke about why I couldn't stand John Byrne's MAN OF STEEL and he talked about why he loved it.

Well, we had a lot of fun doing that, and we decided to do another! We all know Superman's basic origin: his home planet Krypton explodes, and to save his son, the scientist Jor-El puts baby Kal-El in a rocket and shoots him off, until Kal-El lands on Earth. From there, he's adopted by the perfectly decent Midwestern couple of Jonathan (sometimes John) and Martha Kent, who teach him to use the powers he gains from Earth's yellow sun for truth, justice, and the American way! Disguised as reporter Clark Kent in his civilian life, Superman fights the never-ending battle.

That's the basic origin, and then each take has different trappings. We all know that there have been multiple versions of Superman, and while they all contain the essentials of the Man of Tomorrow, they're all different in several way, and each one has its merits. We've boiled this list down to the most historically essential 10 Superman origins from all media, and here are my rankings!

Before I start, I want to say that this ranking is, obviously, purely subjective. Paul and I didn't set any particular criteria on which to grade these, and a lot of it was tricky. Do we rank the shorter, to-the-point ones higher due to their simplicity and their ability to get the essence of the origin? Or do we rank the ones that actually tell a story a bit higher? Ultimately for me, it came down to four things: how iconic it is, how influential it's been, how well we remember it, and how ambitious it got. And in case of instances in which I couldn't decide, that's just where personal preference kicked in.

(No clue how Paul did it. Go read his article. But after mine. I'll have a link at the end, promise.)

Honorable Mention: DCnU

 I haven't been reading this one (here's why), but Paul and I agree that this one's a little too early to tell where this is going to fall since it hasn't even had any semblance of standing the test of time. Grant Morrison's new origin seems heavily influenced by pre-Crisis mythos, with a mix of Golden Age and Silver Age mixed in. It should be interesting to see where it goes.

Honorable Mention: Earth One

I haven't read this one either (here's why), but Paul (who liked it) assures me that it's not going to dislodge anything from the top 10 any time soon. If you disagree, feel free to comment below. I just know that it's hard to put something where Clark Kent wears a hoodie in the top 10 list. (Also, just not a fan of that creative team.)


Yes, I know Lana's more "important" to the series. I'm picking
this picture anyway, because I liked Lois better. She was funnier,
and had more personality.

What's the deal? For ten years, the most prominent version of Superman was played by Tom Welling. Smallville was the journey of a high school Clark Kent still learning to use his powers, until the final moments of the show, when he finally dons the Superman suit and accepts his destiny as mankind's greatest protector.

Why's it number 10? For all its flaws — and there were many flaws — Smallville makes this list just because it was so prominent to an entire generation (indeed, perhaps more than a couple of generations). I used to watch it in college with some friends, and it went pretty gradually from "Man, this show is cool!" to "Man, this show is funny!" to "Dudes, I think I'd rather go out and have a life; this show's not worth it anymore."

But it went on for at least six years after we stopped watching it, so there was definitely an audience. Sure, it had a pretty whiny Clark Kent and it took ten years before he became Superman (going by the oh-so-very-cool nickname of "The Blur" for a few seasons), and sure, apparently it was just because Welling didn't want to wear the suit, but some parts of it stuck. Lex Luthor was friends with Clark Kent here before they became enemies — something that hadn't been done in the comics for nearly 20 years at that point. Smallville brought that back, and it added a pathos to Luthor that had rarely, if ever, been seen in the comics before. Sure, they ran with that kind of thing too long to the point where I wanted to tell Lex to get over it already, but that's the nature of a long-running TV show. And to this day, fans still want DC to put Chloe Sullivan into the comics. (I wonder how they felt when they introduced her, used her for a few issues, and then announced the DCnU reboot.)

But make no mistake about it; if I were ranking these origins based on the length of time it took for them to tell the story of Clark Kent becoming Superman, Smallville would win by an eighth of a mile.


Admittedly, it's a very touching scene.

What's the deal? SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Leinil Yu and Gerry Alanguilan,  was a twelve-issue maxiseries (no one uses that term anymore, so I'm bringing it back) that ran from 2003 to 2004. Waid's directive was to come up with a new origin for Superman that would make it similar to both the movies and to Smallville, and I remember at the time that this was being treated as an "Ultimate" type of origin — that is, it wasn't meant to be canon. Around midway through the series, it was then decreed that it was.

Why's it number 9? Of the comics on this list, this is the most fully formed story. The others feel more like highlights, which involve jumping around Clark's life, explaining where everything came from, while this one feels almost like what a new movie would be like. Unfortunately, that's what ends up working against it; by actually being more of a full story than the others, it sacrifices a timeless quality that would have moved it further up the list.

With elements like making Jonathan and Martha Kent younger and having Lex and Clark be friends from their younger days, BIRTHRIGHT certainly tried to incorporate elements of Smallville. But Waid also tried adding other things, the most notable of which is "soul vision," a new power that Superman can use to see the "life aura" of any living being, meaning he can see the exact moment someone or something dies. (This leads to him being a vegetarian.) Jonathan and Martha Kent are also given deeper personalities, with Martha being interested in paranormal activities. Again, it's a neat addition for this one story, but against the backdrop of the larger Superman mythology, it pretty much dates itself immediately.

There's also the problem with the art. Leinil Yu (especially when inked by Gerry Alanguilan) is a great artist on the correct project, but BIRTHRIGHT was not one of those projects. Leinil's art is very stylized and edgy, and perfect for characters such as Wolverine and the X-Men, but a character like Superman just screams for a cleaner and more classicist tone. Much like the writing itself, the art may have been perfect for the time period, but against the larger backdrop of Superman's entire history, it dates itself immediately.

The thing is, I'd bet that Waid would have written a much different story if the directives had been different and if he'd known it was going to be counted as canon. Still, points to BIRTHRIGHT for ambition.


What's the deal? Talk about prominent; it hardly got more prominent to younger audiences than the DC Animated Universe (until Cartoon Network decided to start airing their shows at inconvenient times, anyway). This Superman origin achieves a nice balance between the pre-Crisis origins, in which Krypton is a fantastical, wonderful place, and the post-Crisis origin, in which Krypton is a drab place full of stuffy scientists. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's version is neither; Krypton seems almost too much like Earth in the sense that it's neither a dystopic nor a utopic view of our world. Brainiac is also changed to be a piece of Kryptonian technology, and Luthor is a businessman whose company, Lexcorp, specializes in advanced technology.

Why's it number 8? Of everything on this list, I would say that in terms of telling the origin, this is the best story. And much like BIRTHRIGHT, perhaps that's what works against it. It's so fully formed as a story that it ends up standing out on its own, in service only to the animated series that it precedes. It stands the test of time as a story, but it's an origin that doesn't really work elsewhere, since it so definitively sets a specific tone for the rest of the series. Still, it's the best story on this list, and it's the origin that a whole generation of fans bought into, at least until those guys grew up and started watching Smallville. The interplay between Clark and Lana was great, and the idea of Brainiac being Kryptonian technology has been used on and off in the comics since. (It's being used by Morrison right now.)


What's the deal? Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's ALL-STAR SUPERMAN starts off with a one-page, four-panel, eight-word summary of Superman's origin: "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." It's a favorite among the comics blogosphere because it summarizes the entire origin in a minimalist fashion, and is frequently ranked highly on these lists —

Why's it number 7?  — except the comics blogosphere often overlooks new readers, or people who are just new to Superman.* This origin assumes that you already know the basics of the Superman story, and that's not true of everyone, especially not to kids.

Don't get me wrong; it's the perfect origin sequence for ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. But much like ALL-STAR SUPERMAN itself, it's only perfect for the initiated Superman fan.**

*You watch. Paul's gonna make this number 1 and have a much better argument for it than I do, and I'm gonna look like a monkey. Just watch.

**If I had to pick the top 5 best Superman stories ever, ALL-STAR SUPERMAN would top it, easily, and it's not even close. The challenge would be to put numbers 2 to 5 in order. But as much as I love it, as much as I believe it to be the perfect Superman story, it has never worked when I've given it to a non-Superman fan. You know what works? Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's SUPERMAN AND THE LEGION OF SUPERHEROES. That works. I'm sure that says something about how hardcore fans and new fans look for different things (though I love LEGION myself), but that's a different article altogether.


What's the deal? By agreement, Paul and I have decided to treat the Golden Age comics origins of Superman before the introduction of Superboy (meaning the two-pager that you've probably already seen as well as the newspaper strip) as one origin, especially since the latter actually ends up recycling panels from the former. This Superman comes from a Krypton in which everyone is a superbeing (the "yellow sun" explanation doesn't show up for a few years), and his parents are Jor-L and Lora instead of Jor-El and Lara. There's not much known about the Kents other than they were good people, and of course, it's written in that "one thing after another" pacing that was prevalent in the Golden Age.

Why's it number 6? It was the first, so of course it's influential enough to gets points to surpass the ones already mentioned, but considering that a good portion of it was jettisoned, such as all of Krypton being superpowered (or heck, even the names of the characters), just a few years later, I can't rank it above the ones to follow. Compared to the origins that immediately followed this, it almost feels like a draft.

Interestingly, I think this is one of those things that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did independently that DC later bought, meaning the rights should revert back to them in a year or two. So if they were to launch their own version of Superman, this would have to be the origin they use.


What's the deal? You knew this one was showing up eventually. The Superman movie, starring Christopher Reeve as Big Blue and Marlon Brando as Jor-El, is probably the one version of Superman that has had the farthest reach. It still sells well on DVD to this day, after all. Here we have a Krypton that's very cold and orderly, and where everyone's pretty snooty. It's notable for introducing the Phantom Zone criminals (most notably Terrence Stamp's General Zod), for introducing the version of the Fortress of Solitude with all the crystals, and for Jor-El's speech to Kal-El during the rocket's flight that emphasized the words "my only son," kicking off almost four decades of comparisons between Superman and Jesus Christ. (Not that it wasn't already there, but this certainly brought it to the forefront.)

Why's it number 5? In terms of influence, impact, and icon status, this one is so far ahead of the previous ones that it easily slots into the top 5. And it could easily be argued that just because of its wide reach, it should be much higher. But I can't absolutely say that it added anything so essential to the Superman mythos (though I wish they would make Zod essential) or achieve or even attempt to achieve the same level of icon status so as to dislodge the next four. Perhaps the most concrete addition it's given has been the crystal Fortress, which took over 25 years to finally be introduced in the comics (and, it could be argued, the comics only did it because of Smallville) by Geoff Johns, who used to be Richard Donner's assistant. (For those not in the know, Donner was the director of the first 1.75 Superman films.)

Plus I'm docking points off of it for the crystal Fortress. Seriously, the big giant key is so much cooler. If the love letter to all thing Superman, also known as ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, somewhat agrees with me, you know I'm telling the truth. And in all this


What's the deal? John Byrne's reboot of Superman right after CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS intended to streamline the Man of Steel for a new generation and in the process jettisonned many elements of the Superman mythos. Gone was Superman's past as Superboy, and therefore his involvement in the Legion of Super-Heroes (which screwed up the Legion to this day). Gone was the utopic Krypton that dominated the Silver Age. Gone were the other Kryptonians, such as Supergirl, Krypto, and the Phantom Zone criminals, truly making Superman the Last Son of Krypton. The Kents were spared from dying before Clark became Superman, thereby adding a new dynamic to Superman that was only there before during his adventures as Superboy. Clark Kent was a jock in high school and no pushover afterwards. Lex Luthor was revamped from a mad scientist to a corrupt businessman. Lois Lane was given a much more dominant personality than before (while Lana Lang was taken in the opposite direction), and Superman's powers were taken down a huge notch. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

Why's it number 4? I know; I'm surprised I ranked it this highly too. For one thing, it gets huge points for ambition. It takes a lot of guts to pretty much overhaul just about everything and turn it inside out and upside down. Depowering Superman and making him more human was exactly what was needed back in 1986, and with Clark being a hard-boiled reporter, it was probably the closest Superman had been to the original Siegel/Shuster version until Morrison took over last year.

While I would argue that Lois Lane's personality change was a result directly of the reboot (I think she was on her way to being that kind of character before Byrne took over), there was no way that the changes done to the Luthors and the Kents could have been done so seamlessly without a total revamp. And as much as I don't like MAN OF STEEL, I have to admit that these changes were ones I enjoyed. The Kents and businessman Luthor, I felt, just added a new dimension to Superman.

And remember what I said earlier about a Superman origin screaming for traditional, classicist art? Byrne gets it. Of every artist on this list, he was the second best for Superman. The best one is our next guy. (And somewhere in the corner, I'm crying because Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez never did it.)


What's the deal? SUPERMAN: SECRET ORIGIN, by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, just out a couple of years ago, is probably the most ambitious origin attempted yet, in that it tried its damnedest to incorporate elements of just about every single origin ever done and still give it a contemporary take. From the Superman-saves-Lois scene from Superman the Movie to the Parasite's powers being tied into his personality, a Smallville trademark, to his helping to inspire the Legion of Super-Heroes to trying to incorporate every single version of Krypton into one consolidated version, SECRET ORIGIN certainly tried to be the definitive origin, more than any other origin on this list.

Why's it number 3? I'm going to get the easy part out of the way first — Gary Frank draws one of the three best Supermen I've ever seen. His Superman has an iconic and majestic aura about him that harkens to Christopher Reeve, and then builds on that, because this is a comic book, damn it, and in comics you can do more than live action will let you. It fails on some levels — the Lex/Clark dynamic is incredibly forced, as it makes it so that they've known each other since they were kids but were not friends — but if I were to rank these based on ambition alone, SECRET ORIGIN would have easily been number 1.

But here's where the ranking gets tricky. Do you rank the ones that attempted to add more to Superman's mythology and ultimately fell short or was done away with (the soul vision in BIRTHRIGHT, Brainiac being Kryptonian in the animated universe, the Fortress being made out of crystals) higher than one that tried to consolidate all the versions? Do you rank a more full story higher than one like SECRET ORIGIN or MAN OF STEEL, which is structured in such a way that takes highlights instead of tells a full narrative with no holes? I'd rather have the latter. It's a purely subjective decision to make, but at the end of the day, if I had to give a new reader Superman's origin and say "Here, this is Superman," I'd pick SECRET ORIGIN over the previous seven versions. And I'd probably end up picking it over these next ones too, but that's because new readers tend to be unable to take old stuff in context.


Compare and contrast these two versions of the same scene,
done 12 years apart.

What's the deal? Here's a little time capsule for you guys. There two stories, set 12 years apart, are pretty much exactly the same. The 1973 version by E. Nelson Bridwell, Carmine Infantino, and Curt Swan (seen here) is an updated version of the 1961 version by Otto Binder and Al Plastino (seen here) with the changes coming in more focus on the emotional moments and therefore less compression (and more excising of what may be called extraneous elements) — says something about the fan base even then growing older and more sophisticated (the second one also gets rid of Krypto). (Also, I think it's funny how the same story pretty much got recycled. Maybe this was common practice in the day and age before reprints were so ubiquitous.) Anyway, this version pretty much does exactly what SECRET ORIGIN does, except it's done decades prior so it's not so much a consolidation of various elements as a highlight reel of Kal-El's life prior to moving to Metropolis.

Why's it number 2? "The Complete Life Story of Superman" gets everything you need to know about Superman in 13 pages — what Krypton is like, how the Kents raised Clark, the arrival of Krypto, Clark's career as Superboy, how his powers work, Lana Lang — and still manages to insert great character moments in there, like when Superboy baked the entire town of Smallville a gigantic cake before he left for Metropolis, from which the citizens kept the slices as souvenirs.

On a totally personal level, this is the first Superman story I read from a black and white reprint digest, and reading it now, it still feels magical and has lost none of its charm. Binder was the best writer of his time who wasn't also an artist, and this was one of the many stories he did that just proves that to me.

At the time, it was everything you needed to know about Superman. And although it reads dated now, as far as the comics are concerned, it's still the best.

Oh dear, did I just give number 1 away?


What's the deal?  Say it with me, guys. "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman! "Yes, it's Superman—strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, race a speeding bullet to its target, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice." It's slightly different for these three versions, but it's all right there, in each introduction, really. That's Superman pared down to the essentials. It applies to every single iteration.

Why's it number 1? In terms of being iconic, this takes the cake. It ran through three different media in the time period in which Superman was most relevant and most effective, and the first half of that entire blurb is still etched in collective consciousness.

In the George Reeves version from the 1950s, Clark's adoptive parents are named Eben and Sarah, based on the novelization of the radio show. (The novel is the first time his parents were ever named.) Despite that one aspect that would be changed later, everything else still remains intact: Jor-El would warn his peers of Krypton exploding, they wouldn't believe him, and he and Lara end up rocketing Kal-El to Earth, where he's raised by a kindly couple.

Points to this version because Superman's dad
presents Krypton's destruction to his race of scientifically advanced being
with a flip chart.

Additionally, the radio version was what introduced things like Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and kryptonite, and it dealt a powerful blow against the Ku Klux Klan. The cartoon was one of the pioneers of rotoscoping, and is still one of the best-animated cartoons to this day.

But I digress — the point is that this introduction to Superman, this summary of his origin, is timeless. It works for every single iteration of Superman, and unlike ALL-STAR, it gives you enough narration to be friendly to a new audience and to the initiated Superman fan alike. It's a version of his origin that is prevalent to this day. And that's why it's number 1.

Well, now that you've seen my rankings, head on over to Last of the Famous International Fanboys for Paul's!

You can read pretty much every origin here at Superman Through the Ages (one of my favorite sites since I discovered the Internet)!

Did your favorite origin not make the list? Is it too low? Let me know by leaving a comment!


Madeley said...

BIRTHRIGHT: "Of the comics on this list, this is the most fully formed story."

YES. You are absolutely right. I've always had a soft spot for Birthright and I've never really put my finger on why, but I think this may be why.

Regarding the All-Star origin, to be honest I think Superman is so deeply rooted in pop culture, that almost everyone would get the gist of what those four panels are about.

Paul C said...

We've got the same number one!!!! For pretty much the same reason!!!!

Great minds, and all that!

Duy Tano said...

Madeley: I would have agreed about All-Star a few years ago, until I realized my then-six-year-old niece really had no idea. Superman is ubiquitous, but his origin is less so than we might think, is the thing.

Paul: Not only did we pick the same number 1, we also picked the same number 10! It's everything else where we differed.

PIG said...

Great list, bro. The Adventures of Superman for radio and tv is so iconic.

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