The King James Bible is a fairly impressive piece of literature. If one is stuck in a motel room, one could do a lot worse for reading material. But Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ has become an extremely important, if terribly controversial, addition to the story and character of Jesus of Nazareth. What has rendered the book both essential and highly disputed is its attempt to humanize the hero and therefore make him more relatable and relevant to this much later era of human history.
If Jesus’s adventures had originally been published by DC Comics, outrage at this notion may have been kept to a minimum. Indeed, the practice of ‘ret-con’, or altering retroactively the continuity of one or more characters, is quite a familiar one in superhero comics. Not to say that this practice does not stir the ire of some of the more devout, but generally speaking, these attempts at updating the back-story of certain key characters are well met within the comics community.
Not to disparage the efforts of such Golden Age era (read: the 1930s and ‘40s) writers as Jerry Siegel and Bob Kane, but these creators were writing to an audience hungry for action and thrills. Thus, deeper insights into character and motivation were left by the wayside in favor of more adventurous plots, that is until the tastes of mass comics audiences shifted noticeably as time marched on. For example, although the Joker became Batman’s main archnemesis almost immediately upon his first appearance in 1940, it was nearly another forty years before Alan Moore and Brain Bolland truly filled in his homicidal motivations in Batman: The Killing Joke.
Well within this tradition is former Action Comics creative team Geoff Johns and Gray Frank with their mini-series Superman: Secret Origin. Both writer and artist, having collaborated on a fan-favorite Superman story-arc, obviously have a great respect for the character and are likely trusted by publisher and audience alike to treat the character thusly. But both being competent creative minds in their own right also highly respect the comics medium and seek above all to do it justice.
This issue concerns Clark Kent’s arrival in Metropolis and his initial meetings with the familiar cast of supporting characters therein. Right away, the reader is struck by how similar Frank renders Kent to how he is portrayed by Christopher Reeve in the popular films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. This may cause a grumble or three among more die-hard comics fans: attempting to broaden the character’s appeal to a larger audience and thereby forsaking a more traditional look for him. However, when one steps back to consider the massive pop tableau in which the artist is working, one can see a much less cynical viewpoint.
Johns and Frank are only continuing to associate what is most likely the supremely iconic representation of this character. Reeve was neither the first nor the last actor to portray Superman, yet he has become for many people the representative signifier of that character. Popular culture is very often relegated to the ghetto of ‘low art’, but as such, these sorts of carefully orchestrated movements are possible, and an artist can indeed take advantage of the sort of ‘revolving door’ nature of so-called ‘mass culture’. To reinforce the iconography of one of the world’s already most recognizable superheroes seems so simple when viewed in this context, it is a true wonder that no one has done it before.
The story itself also allows for that freedom of the ‘low-brow’. As hinted at above, the stark storytelling style of the Golden Age allowed for no greater character motivation than ‘truth, justice, and the American way’. Even if this is not downright jingoistic, it remains a childishly simple reason for why Superman would behave as he does, given the vast amounts of power at his disposal. Johns, however, does not swerve too far from this: allowing that since Kent was brought up in the American heartland by good, solid, salt-of-the-earth folk, it makes sense within the story that Kent would be a good person, despite how much power may corrupt most people. But what one did not see too much of before, the main thing that Kazantzakis brought to his interpretation of Christ, is doubt.
Yes, doubt, that indispensable Cartesian tool is wielded rarely within the superheroic world of black hats against white hats. But here Johns uses it expertly. Towards the end of this issue, Kent reveals his true identity of an alien being with various super-human powers and almost immediately regrets it. Swarms of stunned on-lookers crowd around him like he is a rat in a cage. His super-hearing allows him, or rather, forces him to hear the fearful questions his newly-minted flock have about this, their new savior. And as the issue ends, Kent says aloud, “I think I’ve made a mistake.”
The traditionalist comic writer, the writer working in the days of the 10-cent cover price, may have felt that for a character to be heroic, he had to be completely sure of himself, for if a man of such great power doubted himself, then what chance did the lowly, non-powered comic book reader have? But Johns is continuing the new tradition, the one that shows us that even the greatest of men can have their moments of uncertainty, of panic. But if they can overcome such obstacles and carry on with their actions, than why should anyone less-powered do any different?
Is Superman: Secret Origin fun? Sure: a new, exciting look at an origin story that nearly anyone born after 1950 knows by heart, how could that not be at least interesting? But as is so often the case in the best comics, there is an underlying tapestry of motivations, drives, and basic character tenets that so often go ignored. To tamper with the canon may seem foolish to some, but without such risks, we all would just have to read the same comics over and again.
And that does not sound so super an idea.