A thread on the DC Comics Superman Message Boards has asked for our own versions of the Superman origin story, which is a pretty cool idea. I wrote my version a while back, and it’s too long to put on the boards, but I figured I’d put it on here. Hey, my blog, my babbling!
“They don’t tell the story much anymore. They figure its ancient history, even though we’ve really only just found out most of the details. They figure it’s out of date, pointless. Fine. Let ’em think what they want. We know the truth. We all know the big stories about the man from Metropolis; the alien consciousness possessing the Internet, the alliance between the heroes of Metropolis and Gotham, the consuming hatred that would ultimately lead to the downfall of his greatest enemy… But you want to hear the story of how it all began. Not a problem.
There was once a planet called Krypton. Real Buck Rogers stuff. Trees singing, golden mountains brushing the horizon silhouetted against a purple sky. Androids that could pass for people, nanotechnology that could fix almost anything, sculptures that changed colour and shape and became more beautiful with every transition. Heck, they even had flying cars. Utopia on a Spielberg budget.
Of course, there’s a price to pay for Utopia. That nanotech I mentioned? Someone figured it would be a good way to create a new power source. I don’t know the details, but needless to say it went wrong. Only one scientist, a young firebrand called Jor-El figured out what was going on, but by then it was too late to reverse. As the golden mountains shattered and the singing trees died, Jor-El constructed a spacecraft designed to save his race. Implanting genetic material from himself and his wife Lara into the craft’s birthing matrix, he launched it into space as the final cataclysm claimed his world. The glories of Krypton were gone forever, save one small ship rocketing towards the nearest suitable planet.
Guess which planet that was?
The craft reached earth and crashed amid a meteor shower in Kansas. A town called Smallville to be precise. The place got pretty smashed up, but the craft survived, crashing into a barn on the Kent farm. Jonathan Kent ran out to find out what the heck was happening, even though Martha was screaming at him to get under cover. He couldn’t; he’d caught a glimpse of the craft falling, and he knew it wasn’t any meteor…
This part of the story is pretty famous and straightforward. Jonathan and Martha find a baby in the spacecraft, figure he was put up there by some government or cult until realising that the craft was extraterrestrial in origin, say he was found in the aftermath of the meteor shower and adopt him as their own. They call him Clark, and try to forget he’s not human until they discover that he’s pretty much impervious to anything. As he gets older, he develops other powers; he could outrun the trains that used to run alongside Bill Norman’s fields, see through walls, and one day he single-handedly pulled a tractor off of an unconscious Dan Kirby. Around that time Martha made sure Clark read lots of stuff on ethics and human rights; she’d been a bit of an activist growing up, and often told the story of how she’d been witness to Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
The one day that would remain in the minds of Jonathan and Martha forever was the day on which Clark revealed his final power. The two of them were sitting in the farmhouse, going through the everyday hassles of bills and ironing when they heard Clark calling them outside. Annoyed that this would be some flight of fancy, they went outside, ready to ground him for a month. That total went up to six months when they saw him standing on top of the barn. Standing up there, with the sun behind him and a giddy grin on his face, Clark looked like an angel in a Rockwell painting, but Jonathan wasn’t in the mood for metaphors. He yelled at his son to get down from there, and Clark did. To be precise, he jumped.
Well, if you’re a parent watching that, a nanosecond will last forever, even when you know that your kid’s indestructible. Clark fell towards the ground, and…
And he flew. He soared over his parents and over the fields. He buzzed the cows and he circled the weathervane. He did loops and twists and turns and flips, nosedives and take-offs and treating the sky as if it was the land he’d been born to. Jonathan and Martha got caught up the moment, running around after him, Jonathan waving his cap and cheering his son on. Clark swooped over them, laughing and cheering and crying and feeling that, even if the rest of his life and his powers were a mystery, the ability to fly was so natural and beautiful and glorious that he never wanted to come down from the clouds and wonder about who he was again.
Wondering was something Clark did a lot of. He was a bit of a oddball growing up. Didn’t have too many friends; Lana Lang, Pete Ross, that chick who ran the school newspaper…I think its because he never quite felt like he fit in. There were still too many questions about where he came from and where he was going. He started wearing glasses as a fashion statement after he saw a couple of kids getting picked on because of their spectacles and he figured he’d show a bit of solidarity (besides, he was a big guy and often got the ‘dumb jock’ comments thrown his way. I think the glasses might also have been part of an image change or something.) He read a lot of sci-fi stuff, as if he thought he might find the answers there. Turns out he wasn’t too far from the truth. It was also around this time he developed a love of Americana, getting Martha and Jonathan to drive him around all those weird roadside attractions, like the Dalton Defenders Museum over in Coffeyville or that Darn Big Rabbit in Baxter Springs. All of this eventually paid off, albeit closer to home.
On the outskirts of Smallville (if a place like Smallville can have outskirts) there was a roadside museum, Old Man Shuster’s Chamber Of The Bizarre. Everyone told kids to stay away from there, because Shuster was full of bourbon and wild ideas, which of course meant that every kid in Smallville visited the place as often as possible. Lana and Clark went there one Saturday afternoon, and in amongst the ‘shrunken pygmy heads’ and the Dream Catcher that apparently belonged to Sitting Bull, Clark came across what can only be described as a gizmo. A gizmo covered in strange hieroglyphs. A gizmo covered in strange hieroglyphs that Clark could read. Turns out Jor-El had found a way to download Krypton’s language into Clark’s mind.
Lana, being far more forthright and sneaky than Clark, made up some story for Shuster, something about wanting to use the gizmo in a class presentation. Shuster, wanting to help spread the wonders of the universe to another generation, let them take it (but, of course, insisted on a receipt) Taking it back to the Kent farm and getting Ma and Pa in on the act, Clark decided to try out the gizmo in conjunction with the spacecraft in the cellar. He and Pa dragged it into the barn, and the fun began.
Following the instructions on the gizmo, Clark activated the craft. Suddenly the barn was turned into a holographic representation of Krypton. Clark, Lana, Martha and Jonathan walked awestruck through gleaming spires and strange alien plants and creatures. Waterfalls fell from the walls of the barn, structures carved from crystal grew from the straw covered floor, birds of every colour flew around the rafters. After a few moments of this, the figure of a man and woman walked out of the representation and greeted Clark. They were, of course, Jor-El and Lara, and they spent the next two days explaining to him where he came from, his family history, the story of Krypton, and the ramifications of a Kryptonian being raised on earth. Suddenly his powers made sense, suddenly he realised what he was here to do.
Martha realised that day that Clark would never follow in his father’s footsteps and run the farm. While his heart may forever be Smallville, he belonged to the whole world. Clark began to read and study other lands, other cultures more than ever before. He also developed an interest in social concerns and journalism, getting involved in the Torch. He discovered protest songs – Guthrie, Dylan, Strange Fruit – and the power of writing to change the world. He became a writer from that day on, turning what had been an idle hobby into something of an obsession. When finally he left High School, he’d been accepted on journalism courses at four major universities, but he decided to go to Kansas U; nearer home and cheaper. Hey, the farm was in his blood, and he wanted to stay close enough to his folks to help out.
He took Lana to the senior prom, more as an attempt to say goodbye properly than anything else. She’d long realised that they weren’t destined to end up together, but she didn’t want to lose her best friend. Walking home afterwards she wanted to ask him to stay; instead she asked him to take her flying. They soared over the fields of Kansas, all the way to Topeka and back again. Then they came back down to earth outside the Lang place, and they kissed each other good night and goodbye.
No-one’s entirely sure what happened next; he went to University, sure, but he also spent time travelling the world; most of the ‘mysterious rescues’ reported in the press around this time can be put down to Clark trying to use his powers for the best. For a couple of years after graduation he travelled, getting some life experience, working his way around the world and filing freelance articles for newspapers all over the planet. Because of this, when the Daily Planet in Metropolis put out the call for a new reporter, Clark got the job.
The editor of the Planet was Perry White, an old school, ‘publish and be damned’ type who would have broke Watergate if his editor at the time hadn’t gotten cold feet and let them get scooped by Woodward and Bernstein. Upon taking over the Daily Planet, he turned it into the best independent newspaper in the country, fighting battles for the truth against the money men and outside interference from snakes like Luthor, a man who Perry suspected was guilty of something but who constantly escaped the noose.
Showing Clark around on his first day was a young photographer called Jimmy Olsen. A born photographer, he saw the world in terms of pictures and became determined to make his career after doing a school report on the picture of young Kim Phuc running from her village in Vietnam burned by napalm. Young Olsen then realised that a picture could change the world, and one or two of his pictures would go on to do just that…He would also remember that Nick Ut who took that picture also rushed Kim to hospital. You can’t just be a passive observer, you know.
And then there was Lois. Feisty, sexy, smart and tough, 5’7” of hard nosed journalistic integrity. An army brat by upbringing, Perry had spotted her potential while she was working as an intern at the Planet. I say she was an intern; in fact she showed up one day and told everyone she was an intern, when technically she should have been working shifts at the local Starbucks. Perry became a second father to her (or rather, her father full stop; Sam Lane had always been a distance, uninvolved presence, which perhaps explains her independence…), and she soon became one of the best journalists in the country, not least because she could take down mob henchmen in a fight, drink anyone under the table, and follow the truth until she was able to drag it kicking and screaming out into the light. And her sarcastic streak meant that few people messed with either her or her friends. Her ferocious loyalty meant that, once Clark had proved himself to be worthy of her trust and friendship, she became a bit protective of the big guy (ironically enough, considering Clark’s secret.) She, Clark and Jimmy soon formed a bond that would last through all the tough times that came, and when she finally realised that Clark was more than just her best friend, well…No-one was altogether surprised. They just wondered what took them so long.
But that’s a story for another time. What matters now is how she and Clark first met, and that was at a press conference; Clark was just meant to stand there and observe while the Metropolis press corps regulars asked Lex Luthor uninsightful and intimidated questions about his space plane project. Only one reported seemed to be addressing the real issues and that was Lois. No-one else would have got away with it; heck, the big bald guy even seemed to enjoy the sparring.
It was when Lex batted away one of Lois’s questions with a stream of technobabble that Clark decided to step in. He read A Brief History Of Time in one evening, so he knew what he was talking about. Lex looked annoyed at the interruption, but handled it with consumate professionalism.
And the next question. And the next. By the end of the press conference, Lex knew there was a new player in town.
Lex Luthor was the heart and soul of Metropolis at the time. He was a man with a mind like a computer programmed by Machiavelli, and had a ruthless streak that even his fellow corporate raiders found disconcerting. He always looked at you as if he was a benevolent dictator, a dictator always twelve steps ahead of anyone else, and if you stepped out of line…Well, finding your company suddenly bankrupt would be the least of your problems. Even more shadowy things were rumoured, but rarely voiced publicly; the truth about Luthor would only come out much, much later…But that’s a story for another time. All you need to know at the moment is that he was right at home in Metropolis, the city of tomorrow that was somehow still stuck in the eighties, a place where greed was still good, where corporate insanity was rife, and where those who were down on their luck got stuck in the ghetto of Suicide Slum, where they could fight and die and drink away their lives out of sight of the rich folks uptown. Yeah, for all its reputation as a sparkly city of progression and hope, underneath it all Metropolis had all the soul of a Faustian Starbucks. It was through this city that Clark walked on his first night, trying to find the libraries, the museums, the second hand bookstores, the small local music venues and the best place to buy donuts, the isolated pockets of resistance against cultural homogeneity. He was wondering how a bad place like Gotham could actually have a responsible and empowering corporate background in WayneTech, while a city with half Gotham’s problems could comprehensibly sell out when he heard a girl shouting “Fire!”
There wasn’t a fire, of course, that’s just something they tell women to shout because there’s more chance of getting a response than shouting “rape.” Clark, being Clark, knew this but had yet to convince himself that it was actually true in practice. He ran into the alley expecting a fire, but came across three guys holding down a woman. They had knives and an attitude, so when Clark told them to stop, they didn’t take kindly to him.
Well, you can imagine how many seconds that particular fight lasted, but as the second knife shattered against his chest, Clark realised that explaining how he constantly avoided certain death would be tricky, especially as he could no longer play the ‘heroic stranger’ role he’d assumed on his world travels. After escorting the girl to the nearest police station, he flew back to the quiet of Smallville, a place where he could think, where he didn’t have to pretend about who he was.
It was Jonathan who hit on the idea, inspired by stories of WW2’s ‘mystery men’, a group of costumed heroes who may have been a real covert team but who were just as likely to have been some cartoonist’s idea of propaganda. No-one had heard much about them since the 50s, so appropriating their gimmick seemed fair enough under the circumstances. Between them they came up with the costume, with Jonathan and Clark on inspiration and Martha on the sewing machine. Lana, being the artist of the group, made the most important contribution; taking a Kryptonian symbol that was all over Clark’s spacecraft, putting it in a shield, and painting it red and gold, she came up with the symbol we all know and love. With the costume, and without glasses, a stoop and his Kansas accent, Clark could just about pass for someone else, as long as it wasn’t for long and if no-one asked any awkward questions. That was okay; it wasn’t like he intended to stick around after using his powers, the last thing he wanted was to become a celebrity.
That, of course, wasn’t an option. Luthor’s space plane launch was scheduled for the next day; a demonstration of affordable and safe ‘space tourism’. A bunch of journalists (including Lois and Jimmy but unsurprisingly not Clark), civic dignitaries and mega-rich dudes were wined and dined then taken on board the Prometheus for a quick trip to the moon. On paper it was the trip of a lifetime, and with Lex’s scientific know-how they’d be back by the next morning. That was the plan, at least.
There are lots of theories as to what went wrong; technical fault, technology rushed into service without being tested, blind fate…Even a theory that Lex had got the tech to build the Prometheus from an alien intelligence he’d double crossed, and this was revenge for that. Whatever the reason, as the Prometheus entered lunar orbit, all hell broke loose. The orbit began to deteriorate, the passengers were thrown around the cabin, and as the pilot blurted out an almost incoherent distress call, the Prometheus began its descent into a dusty grave…Or so it seemed. Let’s put it this way, Lois Lane would be eternally grateful that she had a window seat.
Staring out of that window, she couldn’t help but notice, with the journalistic centre of her mind that recorded everything, no matter what the circumstances, how beautiful the Earth looked from space…And as she was thinking that, she saw something. At first she thought it was space debris, but no, it was flying in a straight line away from the planet, and…and..and it looked human…It was human. But it was…
In the time it took her to process this, her view went from being a serene blue and green world hanging in space to a blue and red clad man holding on to the side of the Prometheus. A man who could fly and resist the vacuum of space and who was moving the ship away from the moon and back towards Earth! Who was looking through the porthole and smiling at her! It was impossible! And yet, somehow, not only was the impossible happening, but the man in the cape and the red and gold shield was making her believe that the impossible was now a term in need of redefinition. That the world had changed, that she could believe the Prometheus could be rescued, not by LexCorp or NASA, but by a man blessed with great powers and the desire to help others. That she could believe a man could fly. And, although Lois was lying across her seat with minor cuts and bruises and Jimmy leaning over her talking countless pictures of their rescuer, with the moon receding back into space as the Prometheus re-entered the atmosphere, she felt safe.
Lex, however, felt differently. When disaster struck, he had headed straight to the engineering area to try and fix the problems and save himself (and his guests, of course). He had almost succeeded too, when that…that…alien (for what else could the man be?) interfered and returned him to Earth. Lex was not a man who liked his life being in the hands of another. Nor was he a man who appreciated any last minute heroic gestures being performed by anyone other than himself. He would have saved the Prometheus. He needed no help. He didn’t like being made to feel like a second string also ran on his day. He didn’t like being made to feel vulnerable.
The frenzied reaction of the Metropolis masses as the unknown hero carried – yes, carried – the Prometheus over the skyscrapers and spires of the city and towards the landing area on the outskirts of town was amazing. Setting the space place down as gently as possible, Clark tried to make a quick getaway. No such luck. He was immediately pursued by the press, grateful would-be astronauts, and spectators, led by Lois (who was dragging Jimmy behind her, and who tripped up a reporter from the Globe who seemed to be getting a lead on her…) She hit her new found hero with every question she could think of, but the one that stuck was the easy one: “Who are you? Why are you here?”
“I’m here to help,” said Clark, who politely but firmly turned away from the press and lifted off the ground into the air. For a good two minutes, everyone stared up with their mouths wide open, even after he disappeared from eyeshot. Then the mad scramble began, Lois once again pulling Jimmy around, this time towards a taxi. About halfway through the journey back to the Planet, she figured the cabbie wasn’t driving fast enough, so she took over; this was probably illegal (especially as she was also dictating over her cellphone at the time), but it made more sense for the cabbie not to argue. Truth be told, it probably didn’t take her much longer than Clark to get back to the offices.
The newsroom was in uproar, as you’d expect, and Perry was yelling at everyone while also looking about thirty years younger (now THIS was a story!). Clark had managed to sneak back in (it wasn’t like anyone was paying him any attention…) as Perry was making sure everyone understood that this would be a Planet story, that it wouldn’t be messed around by Lex’s spindoctors, and why was everyone standing around staring at him anyway?! Lois and Jimmy made his day by walking into the newsroom and shouting that not only had she been able to talk to him, but yes, Jimmy had got photos.
“So who is he?! What’s his name?!” came Perry’s response. The room fell silent. Everyone look understandably curious about what Lois’s answer would be, especially Clark. Thinking on her feet and with an eye to a headline, she said “His name…His name is Superman!” The name was whispered throughout the crowd, Perry started figuring out how to get it on the front page, and in a quiet corner Clark was repeating the name to himself. Sure, it was a bit immodest, and it had the whole Nietzsche connection, but yeah…Superman. He could live with that.
And as the Planet staff ran around publishing the story of the century, a little girl in the suburbs was crying for someone to get her cat out of a tree. Hearing her, Clark ran to a store cupboard, changed into the blue and red and gold and flew across town to help.
And that, my friend, is how it all began.”