I’d like to apologize for the tardiness of this review. I’ve sat on this comic for a few days now, just thinking about the book and it’s implications… but even as I sit here typing the review up, I’m unsure of how I’m going to feel by the end. As a result, this may not be a typical review – but then again, this isn’t a typical comic. The Secret Origin is a lot of things, but uninteresting is not one of them. Full spoilers to follow.
Written by Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns and illustrated by… well, a lot of contributors… this comic book manages to pull off the herculean task of being the most metatextual issue of Death Metal so far, and I have literally no idea if that’s a good thing or not. In part, it feels like an acknowledgment of readers like me: readers who feel disillusioned with superhero comics as a whole, and are questioning their enthusiasm about the medium. This book has a response to that, but it’s one I’m not sure I find flattering or insulting. With this in mind, I’ll be going on a journey as I write this review; I’d like you to take it with me, and try your best to stick with my train of thought.
First of all, I’d like to get my commentary on the art out of the way. This is not intended to be disrespectful – actually, I find the artwork on this issue to be quite good – but the slew of artists working on this singular story make it difficult to comprehensively cover it all in a short review. We have six illustrators working on this issue (and four colorists to boot!), and the changeovers become more and more difficult to swallow each time. We see the book swap between artists five times, and while Jerry Ordway’s artwork makes sense as bookends for the comic, Francis Manapul covering pages 8-13 and 32-34 works a whole lot less effectively, barely giving his work time to shine before switching to another illustrator. Again, I like all of the work here quite a lot, but a big part of the artwork’s importance in a comic is to immerse a reader in the story… and the rotating artists take me out of it more than anything else.
That said, each illustrator does a wonderful job with their pages! Benjamin and Friend’s pages remind me of Jim Lee’s work, while Pelletier and Rapmund’s art feels reminiscent of Ivan Reis, but both add an appropriate level of drama and gravitas to the action scenes – The Darkest Knight looking particularly impressive in these pages. Manapul, meanwhile, delivers incredibly solid work (who’s really shocked at that, though?), with particular props going to the emotional depth he allowed for Superboy Prime to portray in his interactions with Krypto the Super Dog. The standout of the issue, though, is Jerry Ordway: while certainly reminding me heavily of Gary Frank’s work on Superman: Secret Origin, Ordway’s illustrations elevate the book from being a somewhat by-the-numbers action sequence into an emotive, personal story about the boy that Superboy Prime would become – with a great many cues taken from his original appearance in DC Comics Presents #87. There’s a lot to like here from an artistic standpoint, if you’re able to get over the jarring transitions between creators.
As for the plot of the issue, I wasn’t particularly impressed. I’m very, very sick of The Darkest Knight/The Batman Who Laughs, and this issue was never going to sway me in that regard. The fight scene between them was somewhat odd, seeing Superboy Prime beating the living hell out of the demon – who, up until this point, has been perceived as nearly all-powerful. The fights with the Dark Multiverse Supermen weren’t all that fun to watch either – there was a lot of by-the-numbers content in this issue, stuff that felt like it had to be included for the sake of necessity. That said, there were points in this book where I did enjoy myself: Superboy and Krypto sharing scenes together gave me an emotional connection to the former villain that grounded me in the book, and meant I cared a little more when he went at odds with characters like Connor Kent.
None of this is why I’m conflicted about this comic, however. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the nature of Superboy Prime, his appearances since his reintroduction in the pages of Infinite Crisis have struck a very particular chord with fans – a chord that’s not supposed to resonate in all of the best ways. Superboy Prime originated from the world “Earth Prime”: an approximation of the real world, where you can read each and every issue of DC’s publications as the story develops a few universes over. Superboy is the only hero in this world: discovering his powers shortly before helping Superman in Crisis on Infinite Earths, which is the impetus for essentially every single DC event from that point onward. Every Crisis – even this “anti-crisis” that Death Metal touts as being completely different – originates from the concept of this very first event, and it’s difficult to break from the derivative nature of the “superhero crossover” format. I mention this all because Superboy Prime’s true character was created from these events: when Geoff Johns took his “happy ending” away from him in Infinite Crisis, he recontextualized the character into something else entirely. So, I’d like to talk about that for a minute.
Retcons and reinterpretations are nothing new in the world of comics – some would argue that it’s a cornerstone of how creatives work within the world of DC. Prime is yet another symptom of this larger effect, but what makes him unique is his self-awareness of the fact. Because Prime is from a universe where everything is from a comic, he bears the same perspective as someone who might read said comics: someone whose opinion may change with the cultural zeitgeist at the time. When Johns revamped the character in Infinite Crisis, he was a character obsessed with returning to the “good old days” of comics, when gratuitous darkness and violence wasn’t the norm. In equal measure, his attempts to remake the world in his image of idealism propelled him, and those around him, deeper into violence – until he became the very thing he touted as being steadfastly against. Conceptually, it makes a lot of sense: following that logic, Superboy is an analogy for the mentality of the toxic comic book fan. Further stories support this too, doubling down on recreating Superboy as a monster, rather than the lighthearted adolescent he began his journey as. No longer was he a fan stepping into the world he grew up with, but a twisted reflection of grittiness, edginess and entitlement; the kind of person you don’t want to hold a conversation with in a comic book store.
This is all well and good, if you’re a fan of such a thorough reworking of a character. But the further you go down this path, the more difficult it becomes to turn the character back around. Mere months after Johns previously wrote Superboy Prime again in the pages of Shazam – more childish and arrogant than ever, mind you – Prime returns in the pages of this comic, genuinely considering the prospect of doing good once again. His character is written well enough, to be fair: the dialogue lands and his motivation is more than solid, so there’s an element of believability to the comic. But having your cake and eating it too isn’t a good strategy. Spending a decade establishing Prime as a deplorable cretin, only to make a sudden heel turn in what’s written to be a conclusive story for him, feels especially jarring and unearned.
This is why I mention recontextualization, too. In this story, Superboy is not representing the toxic, aggressive fan, so much as he represents a fan who is tired of the goings-on around him. Yes, he is still a vessel for audience opinion, but one of this book’s writers has spent so long intertwining him with toxicity before this point. Is he now implying that frustration with DC Comics is akin to that toxicity, or has he recontextualized Superboy Prime once again? I’m inclined to believe the latter – but this is the danger of meta commentary, especially when you’re dealing with a character with established history. This would be a whole lot easier to swallow if it was solely written by Snyder, because then I could chalk it off as a new interpretation from a different author. But Johns co-wrote this issue! This is the writer responsible for making Superboy Prime the way he is today! While I concede the premise of the story works better when viewed as a self-contained bubble, The Secret Origin is being written with a message to long-term fans in mind. The story – and the message – is built on shaky foundations, and I don’t think it takes much scrutiny to make them collapse.
This carries over to the ending, too. After his fight with the Darkest Knight, Prime finds himself sent back to his original world, his old home and his old girlfriend, almost as if he’d never left in the first place. After everything he’s done, the personification of the toxic fan is given an “out” – the ability to put down the comic book and go outside, knowing every issue will always end on a “to be continued”. Yet when he steps out that door and rushes to save a child from traffic, he manages to lift the vehicle in a direct homage to the cover of Action Comics #1. Here, we see this character actively refusing to engage in the narrative of DC, yet still finding themselves trapped in the repetitive cycle of the same story, emulated in a new environment. How is this a good thing? How does this provide any satisfaction to your readers, besides celebrating your comic’s own derivative nature? Instead of suggesting there could be ways to truly change the recursive nature of comics, the creators end the issue by accepting it instead. But hey, if you don’t like it, you can always put the book down and go outside for a walk. Aren’t you guys in a pandemic right now?
The more I talk about it, the more I take issue with it. Comics are a wonderful, beautiful medium. They are capable of eliciting powerful emotions from the reader, with visuals beyond what you can find in a movie, dialogue that’s impossible to format in a book… and when it’s done right, comics can reach out through the pages themselves, touching your very heart in ways you can’t even imagine. I have a lot of love for comics, and while I can be critical, I don’t think it comes from a place of toxicity. But my feelings on DC right now have been attributed to a character one of the two authors has consistently written as toxic – and the ending suggests the solution to the problem is to put the books down instead. Given the state of the world right now, I don’t particularly want to put my comics away; and I don’t think my criticisms and exhaustion with this brand should stop me from asking for the quality of content I know DC can achieve. While Superboy rejects the ending to this comic, I reject the findings and conclusions the comic makes along the way.
…Unless the moral of the story is just to go for a walk. Stay healthy, people.
- You’re a fan of Superboy Prime – no, not that version of Superboy Prime, that version of Superboy Prime – okay maybe some of the other Superboy Prime—
- You enjoy some very good art, even if you do have to jump between illustrators more times than you should.
- You appreciate the genuine attempt for the creators to empathise with their readers and their fatigue… even if the execution leaves something to be desired.
I can’t be mad at Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns for this book. What they’re trying to say here, all of my issues aside, has legitimate value. If you’re tired of these comics, like I and several of my coworkers are, there’s no shame in taking a break: putting down the comics and stepping aside for a while. Honestly, it’s something I might have to do for myself next year anyway. But I think it’s important to evaluate how that message is delivered, and what it means in a larger context: and when viewed through that lens, I believe this story rings unfortunately hollow. The fight against stagnation and repetition in comics loses at the end of The Secret Origin – time, like the world of DC Comics itself, is presented as nothing more than a flat circle.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch