When John Byrne rebooted Superman’s origin story and in the process redefined the Man of Steel for a new generation in 1986’s The Man of Steel miniseries, Superman became a more realistic, human, and believable character. Gone was the Silver Age Superman who could blow out stars with a single breath. Here was a Superman who could get bruised and bloody on occasion and faced real world (and then highly relevant to American society as a whole) villains and obstacles. Lex Luthor went from being a mad scientist to an amoral and corrupt business man who put Wall Street’s(1987) Gordon Gekko to shame. The rapidly maturing Generation X crowd who thrived on and demanded authenticity from their real life heroes and villains demanded authenticity from their Superman as well, and they got it. Times changed though. As the Cold War ended and the business world boomed in the 1990s, Superman as a character began to meander. The horrifying attacks of 9/11 grounded our nation in a unifying patriotic return to basics and gave iconic American characters such as Superman and Captain America new outlooks and battles to fight in a war that appeared to be solely about the survival of the America spirit. It seemed there were new enemies and a new direction to be taken. It also seemed to be a direction that would guide the characters for decades.
As the 2000s wore on though, America as a nation became bogged down in two wars of which the justification of the second became highly suspect, to say the very least, and an ugly new fear of The Other amongst us slowly tightened its grip on the country (leading up to an alarming cry to restrict freedom of religion in certain cases even). Superman and Captain America (the comic book world's other American icon) themselves became others and outsiders in their own comic books that suffered from the fear and xenophobia gripping the real America. Captain America became the fighting spirit of rational and liberal American freedom locked outside the very system he/it helped to create by the military industrial complex itself, represented by Iron Man, which high jacked Captain America’s (and our own) America during Marvel Comics’ classic Civil War. Superman’s plight became even more frightening as he came to be recast as an outsider and potentially threatening alien force by the likes of the newly redefined xenophobic General Sam Lane and Lex Luthor (who’s become a combination of fascist like businessman and mad scientist), even though Clark Kent was raised an American and is emblematic of the ultimate goal of the American immigrant. A goal that, when simply stated, is to become American and share in the opportunity that is the American Dream.
This redefining and contemporarily reflective representation of Superman as the potentially dangerous alien reached ultimate fruition in the also classic New Krypton saga which forever recast General Lane and Luthor as the ultimate evil villains of the 21st Century. They became xenophobic and fascist corruptions of the military industrial complex and American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Superman Secret Origin solidified Superman and his two main nemeses as such in similarly classic fashion.
The most important theme that drives Superman Secret Origin is the theme of the role of the outsider in society. Clark Kent, his alter ego Superman, and even Lex Luthor himself are all outsiders to an extent. Clark purposefully bumbles his way around in order to hide his powers. As Superman, Clark is tentatively embraced while at the same time feared and made the focus of Lane and Luthor’s xenophobia. Luthor himself is an outsider. He is a supremely intelligent being who is intellectually leaps and bounds beyond all those around him. He knows it though, and desires to be worshipped for it while condemning the god-like Superman by displacing his own fears of being an other onto Superman. He also projects his own god complex on Superman.
How these two characters deal with their otherness is the second most important driving theme of Superman Secret Origin. Superman, in the concluding issue, publically renounces any claim to the savior role that Luthor relishes in by framing his otherness as a “gift.” Superman states: “I want you to stop looking for a great savior. Lex Luthor isn’t it. I’m not it. You are. I do what I do because I was given a gift, but all of you were given gifts too. Use them to make each other’s lives better. Show the world that Metropolis has a heart.” Superman is different from those around him only in the sense that he has different gifts. Luthor handles his otherness quite differently. In response to Superman’s declaration that Luthor’s control over Metropolis “has slipped from his hand” and back into the hands of its people, Luthor declares, “This is my city! My people! None of it belongs to you!” Luthor doesn’t even realize that Superman makes no claim on Metropolis. Superman declares himself as one of the people, not an other by stating: “You don’t own us.” Luthor continues to declare himself the other while violently accusing Superman of claiming the ultimate other role, that of a deity. For all his intellect, Luthor can’t see his own faults. It’s a sin that traces its origins all the way back to the first being in a story to declare himself above the community of equals: Satan.
For all his declarations to the contrary though, Superman does perform the role of a savior. He saves Metropolis from Luthor’s clutches by saving Metropolis’ people from their own shortsighted ways. He causes them to realize that the power to affect positive change and hold the evil aspects of the American entrepreneurship system and military industrial complex at bay is to look to themselves and each other collectively to better their lives, rather than searching for a messiah. He uses his miraculous powers to get the attention of the people, and then he shows them the way to salvation from the likes of Luthor and Lane. Much like another being who is the polar opposite of Satan: Christ.
Superman and Luthor aren’t meant to be literal Christ and Satan figures by writer Geoff Johns, but the comparison is rather obvious and striking. This isn’t shocking coming from a writer of the caliber that Johns is. The greatest writers figure a way to retell the old stories in new and refreshing ways while keeping all of the importance and intelligence of the original. This is what Johns has done with Superman’s origin story. It’s the mark of a masterful, thoughtful, and insightful storyteller, and Johns couldn’t have picked a better character to retell a savior story with. After all, Superman was the first, and still is the best, superhero.
Superman is a fascinating and dynamic character. In Johns’ hands he’s proven to be, once again, the perfect vehicle for telling some profoundly important stories. Thanks Mr. Johns (and artist Mr. Frank who I’ve unjustly overlooked in my closing remarks on Superman Secret Origin) for reminding us of the super heroic powers of compassion and goodness we all possess through the scripted and drawn exploits of the most compassionate and good superhero of them all.