SUPERMAN BIRTHRIGHT TURNS 10: Exclusive Book Excerpt
Man of Steel is at least partially inspired by Mark Waid's Superman: Birthright, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. In this excerpt from a new 20,000+ word Q&A, issue-by-issue digital book guide to Birthright, Waid begins to share his feelings about Superman.
In the classic mini-series KINGDOM COME, writer Mark Waid, along with artist Alex Ross, explored the mythology of heroes by projecting the story forward in time and giving readers a sense of where DC’s line-up of superheroes in general, and Superman in particular, might be heading. A decade ago, however, Waid decided to go back to the beginning to offer up a view of the evolution of Clark Kent that took him from Kansas farm boy to world savior as Superman.
SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT, a 12-issue maxi-series that began in 2003 and is now celebrating its 10th Anniversary, was originally conceived to be as significant a reboot of the character as John Byrne’s Man of Steel relaunch in 1986 and, one could argue, the more recent "New 52," providing a template from which the various Superman titles would build from. Unfortunately, BIRTHRIGHT fell victim to bad timing as DC Comics had also decided to try and reinvigorate sales of the Superman titles by bringing in some of the medium’s other biggest hitters in terms of writers and artists. As a result, Waid’s concept went from being the progenitor of all that was to follow to a series whose place within the character’s mythos was never clearly defined. For years this was a point of frustration for the writer, though he's viewing things far more philosophically.
"My biggest point of pride with this series," says Waid, "may be its long-tail reception - that at the time it was originally serialized, it was sort of ignored and downplayed, but it's since gone through at least eight trade paperback printings and there's not a convention or signing that I attend where a dozen or more fans don't bring it up to me to autograph. Thanks to MAN OF STEEL, a lot of readers seem to be rediscovering it, or discovering it for the first time, and that makes me extraordinarily happy. At the time it was published - my dream project, after all - I joked that it was like finally being able to play Carnegie Hall but no one was in the audience. But the audience the story has built since is far more rewarding. I'm proud that my name is on a perennial."
Adding to that pride, as suggested above, is the fact that the storyline for SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT seems to have had resonance in one extremely important way: Summer 2013's MAN OF STEEL, directed by Zack Snyder from a screenplay by David S. Goyer, looks to be at least partially inspired by it.
"Honestly, all I know is what's in the trailer," Waid offers, "but the whole concept of the story being about Kal-El searching for his identity and his place in the world - 'Who am I and why am I here?' - certainly seems to be a keynote of the film, as does the whole way the U.S. military reacts to him at first. More than that, though, I grinned from ear to ear and couldn't calm down when I heard the lines about how the 'S' stands for 'hope' on Krypton, and the bit about how Clark is 'the answer to the question, "Are we along in the universe?"' - both of which are directly out of BIRTHRIGHT. Being able to write the story was an achievement and an honor, but knowing ten years on that I've been able to contribute specific, enduring elements to the Superman mythos? That's what makes ME take flight."
Throughout the summer of 2004, Waid squeezed in a number of interview sessions to discuss Superman: Birthright in minute detail – this while he was feverishly attempting to hone his relaunch of the Legion of Superheroes. What follows is the transcript of those sessions in chronological order. While certain aspects of the discussion would be clearer to someone who has read SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT, what it comes down to is two people - one a writer of fiction, the other an entertainment journalist - who share a lifelong passion for the Last Son of Krypton. All told, this no doubt serves as one of the most in depth interviews Mark Waid has ever given on the subject of Superman.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: To kick things off with a little ass kissing, I thought I’d mention that my son recently read Kingdom Come and fell in love with it. When I told him I was speaking to you about Birthright, he was incredibly excited. It’s like you were a rock star or something.
MARK WAID: That’s wonderful to hear.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Obviously you have a real passion for the character of Superman. What’s the appeal for you?
MARK WAID: My fascination with him runs back to when I was a kid. What impressed me about him as a boy was that he was unlike any other superhero out there. To me his greatest super power was that he could do anything in the world, and with that power he chose to do the right thing. That, to me, was his greatest superpower. That just made a mark on me as a kid because I had a sort of tumultuous upbringing and no real strong father figure, and so forth.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: You know that there’s a segment of the reading audience out there that will say, “Well that’s what makes Superman corny; he’s always going to do the right thing.”
MARK WAID: He’s perceived as the big square Boy Scout, and that was at least a part of the purpose of Birthright, to try and overturn that perception somewhat. When he was first created, he was a crusader for social justice. He was actually somebody who would walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Not brutal, but certainly efficient at what he did. He just became more mannered over the years and sort of sensitized. We took all of the corners off of the character, and in doing so we also sort of managed to jettison the answer to the question, why does he do this? That was the purpose of Birthright, to give him some sort of context. It should be clear in Birthright the reason he puts on the suit, and that the reason he goes out and actually uses his powers to make the world a better place is because it’s the only way he knows how to connect with humanity. That’s his connection. We all need to feel that we’re a part of something, and there’s no time that we feel more a part of something than when we’re doing what we do best and when we’re letting our light shine. The problem with keeping your light hidden under a bushel, to milk an old cliché, is that it tends to isolate you.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: So his efforts to help others is an escape from his own isolation.
MARK WAID: Absolutely. Basically he wants to be part of the race, but he’s always on the bench. That’s where he thinks fate has put him, because he has to hide all of his abilities. Being Superman is a way of getting out there and really engaging – both physically and emotionally getting his hands dirty, getting out there and interacting.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Was this a tough sell for DC or did they embrace the idea?
MARK WAID: Actually they came to me. They said, “We want you to create a story that is essentially an updating and retelling for a 21st Century audience as to the definitive origin of Superman.”
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Sort of what John Byrne had done in 1986.
MARK WAID: Yes, which was very appropriate for its time. But the idea was, just as it made whatever tweaks and adjustments it needed to make in 1986 to be more of the time, what could we do along those lines rather than continuing to be enslaved by the past? We approached every single tweak and change and update we made with an idea towards never changing it just to change it, but certainly always trying to bear in mind that this is a different audience.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: I don’t know if this is a fair question, but was Smallville an inspiration?
MARK WAID: It was in a sense. I would be foolish not to say that it didn’t hurt the project getting final approval. The show’s success is evidence that there still is a market for people who want to see young Clark Kent learning his stuff. But the only direct influence it was on me was their genius breakthrough idea of making Ma and Pa Kent not 80 years old. Of all of the innovations that that show has wrought on the Superman legend, and all of them good, that by far was the one that was the masterstroke, because it’s one of those things that you never even thought of before Smallville. We’d always think of the Kents as grandparents. The problem with the Kents as grandparents is there was never any sort of internal family friction with them, because they’re his grandparents essentially. There’s just an energy the Kents didn’t have that they now have. That was something that we absolutely took lock, stock and barrel from Smallville, and I say that with no apologies.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: What is the feeling as a writer to have played this kind of role in a project that, obviously, becomes part of the whole legend of this character?
MARK WAID: I don’t think about that kind of thing very often. First off, that just makes it a scary job. I will say that one of the best moments I ever had in my career was four or five years ago when I was in Mexico City doing a convention, and I talked to a lot of reporters that day. I thought I was dealing with a lot of fan press, but as it turned out I was dealing with a lot of mainstream press. Finally I pulled somebody aside and I said, “Not to be falsely humble here or anything, but this doesn’t make sense to me. Why is this such a big deal?” I was told by more than one guy, “You don’t understand. With Kingdom Come, you defined our definition of Superman for this country for an entire generation.” I just thought, “Man, those are the sweetest words I’ve ever heard.” Just a great, great feeling. So I don’t think about it consciously ever, because the stage fright would be too huge, but it is a good feeling. You know, the whole reason I do what I do is to be able to give back to these characters in the same sense that they gave to me as a kid. So that helps complete the circle.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: The impression I’ve gotten from Birthright is that you’re really trying to bring a social conscience to Superman.
MARK WAID: Yes, and I would love to do more of that with a second run that isn’t as Lex-centric, because that, to me, is Superman at his most powerful. I honestly think we now have an audience of kids and potential readers who – you know, it’s cool to see Superman fight Brainiac, I suppose, but it doesn’t have anything to do with their lives. Your kid may or may not have to go through a metal detector to get into school, but that time may come. That’s the world that these kids are living in now. To have a Superman who is an agent of the status quo is, I think, what has hurt him as much as anything else. Each succeeding generation is justifiably more suspicious of the status quo and more interested in shaking up the status quo and more interested in making its mark in the world by going against the grain. You and I grew up in a world where politicians could at least kind of be trusted.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Now you can’t trust any of them.
MARK WAID: Exactly. Again, your kids and his friends are justifiably a lot more skeptical about the world and they’re not wrong.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: My wife’s cousin died in the World Trade Center attacks. To deal with that with your children and say to them, “This is America. We’re the nation of freedom,” and then your cousin goes to work and never comes home again – how do you justify that in a kid’s mind?
MARK WAID: Exactly. Not to trivialize it, but then what role does heroic fiction have in a world like that? And is it as meaningful to see Superman and Toyman go nose to nose? Probably not. It is if you’re looking for pure fantasy escapism, but I think everybody wants something that at least partially resonates and is recognizable in the world that they know.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: I would have no problem with Superman going up against terrorists, even if they were well-armed terrorists in the sense of taking him into consideration. Look, those Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics of the ‘70s, as heavy-handed as they are now, they nonetheless have a power to them because they were taking those characters and plunking them down in the real world.
MARK WAID: Or at least as close as we’re going to get in a comic. That’s what Superman was to begin with. That’s what Batman was to begin with. It’s what they all were to begin with. They were all very much creatures of their time and very much social statements of the era. Look at the first dozen Superman stories – he’s going after corrupt mine owners, he’s going after wife beaters. And Batman was very much a reaction to this whole concept of urban crime, which was new in America. That’s forgotten now, but the whole concept of urban crime was fairly new. The best characters and the ones that are going to survive and the reason they’re still published but Blackhawk isn’t – to pull one out of the air – is because they were reactions to their times and those times still exist. That’s my nutshell theory.
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