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Leaving Smallville Behind:
A Superman For All Of Us

Superman: Birthright #4
writer: Mark Waid
artists: Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Alanguilan

In each issue of this unexpected rewrite of Superman's history, a little facet of the mythos gets polished for a new, young audience. Occasionally, it looks like an extension of Smallville -- writer Mark Waid very carefully started this story at a time later than the television series would cover, and the art team certainly draws a Clark Kent that could be easily played by Tom Welling.

It's not an explicit continuation, and yes, there are still differences. Let's call it subtle and savvy marketing. Fans of Smallville that don't read comics could easily roll into this one. But this is also a comic book series with more real heart and affection for Superman than television might allow.

For some older readers, this series has been a bucket of cold water on the reworking by John Byrne almost twenty years ago. This is not my father's Superman. Neither is it quite mine. Without the fanfare that accompanied Byrne, Waid gets to create a Superman for a new generation, taking the best elements of the character and giving it his own spin.

With the first three issues, we've seen Clark explore his powers, occasionally reveling in them, and test the limits of his responsibilities with them. He has seen justice and righteousness, and learned where he wants to stand in relationship to them. Moreover, Waid cleverly melded the Kryptonian heritage with Earth's needs, making the role of Superman a tribute to both.

Now the young man ventures into Metropolis. Weeks before, he very publicly saved the space shuttle, a detail inserted by Byrne (changed, though understandably, to the rather lame "space plane" concept in 1986 - we all knew what it was supposed to be). Without costume, Superman made his debut, but now he has to create the identity of Clark Kent.

The poor guy must be going through some terrible identity crisis. Growing up as Clark, that "real" person has become larger-than-life. A whole new personality must fit in the shell left behind. Waid, Yu, and Alanguilan make it clear that it's an awkward transition.

When we first see Clark in the back of a taxicab, he carries books on acting. Later he wavers between his natural self and timidity, still trying to find the right note to play. Yu does a beautiful job of showing the emotional split, as Clark mentally kicks himself for overplaying his new persona.

But it's not just Clark who gets real development. In a way too rarely demonstrated before, we can see just why he fell for Lois as hard as he did. Compare to Byrne's version in the recently reprinted Man of Steel. There we have to take it for granted that they're a fated match. While Clark says he's never met anyone like her, so forceful, so vibrant, Byrne pretty much portrayed her as nothing more than tough. In fact, she was downright mean, a characterization that stuck with her for far too long.

However, in Waid's version, it's much easier to see why Superman would fall for this ordinary human. Lois is tough, but obviously with a strong sense of justice and a lot of courage. In short, she'll do the right thing even if it costs her. Now that's a mate for Superman.

Not that we've gotten that far yet.

There's still a lot to be revealed about the past, especially the Clark/Lex relationship. The one element that smacks of Smallville the strongest, Waid has managed to leave readers in the dark as to what exactly happened. But a glimpse of his childhood friend proves enough for Clark to lose his concentration in the heat of battle. Something big is on the horizon there.

The team has also done something pretty daring and possibly easy to miss with this book. Very clearly, this issue takes place in the wake of 9/11. Take that a step further. If Superman has been operating publicly for about ten years, that means that current continuity is actually happening ten years in our future. It will certainly keep things fresher for newer readers (if any come along), recognizing that Superman's past is one they themselves remember. It also gives a more comfortable distance between writing realistically and the real world.

Of course, this is the writer who gave us Hypertime, and it remains to be seen if Birthright will fit into continuity. Whether it does or not, it's a series that should satisfy old fans while bringing in new ones. Too humble a writer to shoot for the definitive Superman, Waid may have hit upon it anyway. He has stated that he wanted to use it to explain why he loves the Man of Steel; he succeeds. Read this and understand why you should love Superman, too.


Derek McCaw

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