SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for “Action Comics” #977, on sale now.
After the events of “Superman Reborn,” the Man of Steel is once again whole, with a unified history incorporating elements of pre-“Flashpoint” and New 52 continuities and firmly establishing that, yes, he belongs in this universe. But coming off a climactic battle with Mxyzptlk that he can barely remember beyond its vaguest outlines, Superman suspects that something in his life is in some way off.
In “Action Comics” #977 by Dan Jurgens and Ian Churchill, Kal-El pays a visit to his Fortress of Solitude, where Kryptonian memory crystals review the major events of Superman’s life — revealing to readers the new canon.
Krypton: Silver Age Plus
We know the essentials, of course: Facing the death of a planet, a father makes an impossible choice to send his son into the stars in hopes of the child’s survival. But several aspects of Krypton and the particulars of Jor-El’s fateful foresight have shifted throughout DC’s multiple continuity reshuffles. In the Silver Age, Krypton was a place of wonders, its brightly-adorned inhabitants enjoying the fruits of advanced science. After “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” the John Byrne-led reboot recast that obsession with scientific advancement into a cold culture all but devoid of human emotion.
Post-“Reborn,” Krypton more closely resembles the earlier incarnation, which was itself largely re-established in 2003’s “Superman: Birthright” by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu before the New 52 swung the pendulum back towards the Byrne version. But crowd scenes presented to Kal-El by his Fortress of Solitude’s memory crystals reveal that some Kryptonians did adopt the Byrne-style robes with crystalline headdress, and perhaps this faction also shuns emotional expression.
There has also been some back and forth through the years as to whether Kal-El was rocketed to Earth as a baby — that is, one already born — or whether his spaceship was a “gestation pod,” which allowed him to be born on Earth. There are interesting cultural implications to both, which various writers have explored according to their interests and the context in which they were working. But as in his original origin (and “Birthright”), “Action” #977 once again establishes that yes, Kal-El was born on Krypton. It is not clear from this issue whether he was created by scientifically combining his parents’ genetic material or was conceived the old fashioned way, but the portrayal of Jor-El and Lara’s relationship indicates a strong chance it was the latter.
The rest of the origin story should be pretty familiar. Jonathan and Martha Kent spot baby Kal-El’s crashed rocket while out for a drive, and “lay low” long enough to pass Clark off as their own in a secret pregnancy. (Digression: this may be the first time I’ve read Superman’s origin since becoming a parent, and as such, I now find this scheme hilarious.) Clark grows up with best friends Lana Lang and Pete Ross, with Lex Luthor once again serving as a childhood rival, as he does in most (non-Byrne-era) continuities. Clark definitely has powers by his teenage years, as Lana becomes the first person to discover his secret, but this issue does not make clear whether he possessed these abilities from infancy — given that his own son Jon did not start to manifest powers until around ten or eleven, it seems unlikely Clark was a superbaby.
Back to Metropolis
The issue’s opening scenes re-establish Clark and Lois’s status quo at the Daily Planet — everybody now knows the lovely couple are married and have a son, and Perry White is Jon’s godfather, all as if the New 52 was a bad dream. There are some interesting logistical problems, though — the Kents are still living on a farm in Hamilton County, as the pre-“Flashpoint” family were during their exile in the N52 world, but are planning to move back to Metropolis. The commute wouldn’t be bad for, say, Superman, but one can’t help but wonder why, in the new continuity, the Kents chose to move out there or how this affected their professional lives.
The Unknown Future, and Past
“Action” #977 neatly breaks off its origin tale with Superman’s arrival in Metropolis, meaning there’s still a lot we don’t know. But the issue does an extraordinary amount of work in what is, in many regards, a pretty standard telling of Superman’s origin.
DC’s Rebirth has done amazing things for the Superman line of comics — the stories are fresh, thanks to the deep exploration of the Kent family dynamic, and the mysteries and intrigue surrounding previous and alternate incarnations have provided for some incredibly engaging storytelling. And yet, for all this, there was a fundamental problem: DC had broken the concept of Superman. Because we all know who Superman is, right? Strange visitor from another planet, rocketed to Earth as a baby, raised by loving and virtuous parents who taught him to use his great powers in the service of Truth and Justice. But post-“Rebirth,” he has been a strange visitor not only from another planet, but from another universe; his counterpart native to this universe is dead, his closest confidants either don’t know who he really is, or else view him with an uneasy suspicion as he usurps the role of their fallen comrade. For longtime fans who have followed this journey, perhaps this is not a problem; but in terms of accessibility for new or returning readers, it’s a lot of obfuscation and sets up some tricky barriers for one of the most famous fictional characters in the world.
This issue fully begins the movement forward the character has needed. Readers (and future creators) now know the most important aspects of the “Reborn” Superman’s origin; that is enough. We don’t especially need to know how much of the New 52 characterizations survived, or how this affected the progress of Lois and Clark’s relationship, or when Superman first fought Lex Luthor, and so on. “Continuity,” big C, is sometimes derided as the bane of good storytelling. But there must be some grounding, some baseline personal history for these characters if we’re to understand who they are and why we should follow the stories of their lives. Now, that’s been reestablished.
Still, revising Superman’s origin so soon after “Rebirth” is certain to have a ripple effect throughout the DC Universe. It already appears that the energies unleashed when the New 52 and pre-Flashpoint Supermen re-combined have caused other characters to reset, as in Eobard Thawne’s return as Zoom over in “The Flash.”
Speaking of the Flash, once and future Scarlet Speedster Wally West has been at the center of universe-altering mysteries since his return in the “DC Universe Rebirth” one-shot — and Superman was one of the few heroes to remember Wally from his life before “Flashpoint.” If the universe is re-establishing a life history for Superman that largely tracks with his post-“Birthright,” pre-“Flashpoint” incarnation, and this is in turn leading to prior versions of other characters to re-assert their right to be, this is a pretty colossal shakeup of the post-Rebirth status quo, even before we get into the big event of who might be behind the universe-bending machinations. Perhaps our friend Wally West will see Linda Park finally remember their life together, their love, and their children?
Jurgens and Churchill do set up some new mysteries, as well. An unknown figure, resembling a red humanoid “Matrix code” screen, is aiding and assembling major villains old and new for a strike on the Metropolis Marvel. And as Kal-El reminisces uneasily in his Fortress, another figure (possibly Red Matrix again, or Mr. Oz, or Dr. Manhattan) lurks unseen, representing an unseen threat to which Mxyzptlk had only alluded.
But those are all stories for another day. For now, Superman, his family and his friends, are whole once again, and that’s more than enough for this issue.