DARK NIGHTS: DEATH METAL: THE SECRET ORIGIN #1/ Story by SCOTT SNYDER & GEOFF JOHNS/ Pencils by JERRY ORDWAY, FRANCIS MANAPUL, RYAN BENJAMIN & PAUL PELLETIER/ Inks by JERRY ORDWAY, FRANCIS MANAPUL, RICHARD FRIEND & NORM RAPMUND/ Colors by HI-FI, IAN HERRING, RAIN BEREDO & ADRIANO LUCAS/ Letters by ROB LEIGH/ Published by DC COMICS
“Worlds will live. Worlds will die. And the universe will never be the same. “
Those words were used to sum up Crisis on Infinite Earths, where DC Comics celebrated its 50th anniversary with an epic storyline that attempted to build a new universe free of an increasingly cumbersome continuity that was proving a detriment to attracting new readers. 35 years have passed since then and surprisingly little has changed. Or rather, things have changed, only to change back, again and again.
The Post-Crisis universe quickly became as complicated as the old. New readers came, but often because of stories set outside the main continuity or short-term gimmick storylines like The Death of Superman. More crossovers tried to tidy up the new universe and make it more like the popular stories, only to wind up making things even more complicated. We saw it happen with The Kingdom and every story that tried to make Kingdom Come the official future of the modern DC Universe. We’ve seen it more recently with the New 52 and Rebirth. And we seem poised to see it yet again in 2021 with Infinite Frontier, after Future State.
It’s no surprise that many DC Comics fans feel burned out on crossovers. Between Dark Nights: Death Metal, Doomsday Clock, Three Jokers, Year of the Villain, Joker War and Event Leviathan, it seemed like the DC Universe was coming to an end in three different ways simultaneously for most of 2019 and 2020. Throw in the stories in the monthly comics and its no wonder many fans despaired of figuring out which stories counted much less which ones were worth reading even before Infinite Frontier was announced. Many asked why they should bother reading any of this end-of-the-world nonsense if all the characters would be fine in three months? It’s a fair question and one that is asked by Superboy Prime, as he is brought into the battle against the Batman Who Laughs, in The Secret Origin.
The Secret Origin is an answer to that question on a metatextual level. It is also, on a textual level, about the redemption of Superboy Prime; a character born of the first Crisis who was brought back for Infinite Crisis and developed into a symbolic proxy for entitled fandom and toxic nostalgia. The text, however, is largely a distraction. The real story is in what Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns do behind the story. And how fitting it is that they should tell this story about stories and the damage that endless crossovers do to a fictional universe when they are responsible for defining so much of the DC Multiverse over the past 15 years with their crossover events.
Are they poking fun at themselves and their own nostalgia-fueled storylines with Superboy Prime’s complaints about having seen all this before and being tired of it? Or are they biting the hand that feeds them and mocking the fans who have complained about how completely inconsequential Three Jokers and Dark Nights: Death Metal have seemed? I think it’s the former, given both writers’ self-effacing commentary elsewhere, but I could be wrong. All I know is that I agree with Superboy Prime and could do with more stories about young love and decent people doing what is right because it is right.
Four teams provided the artwork for this issue, but the pages they work on are carefully chosen and shift along with the environment of the story. Jerry Ordway draws the opening scenes depicting Superboy Prime’s early Pre-Crisis life, with colors by Hi-Fi. Francis Manapul handles the modern-day interactions between Superboy Prime and the various other members of the Superman Family present for the battle, with colors by Ian Herring. This leaves Ryan Benjamin, Paul Pelletier, Richard Friend and Norm Rapmund illustrating the reality-shattering fight between Superboy Prime and the Batman Who Laughs, with the battle split evenly between them and the style changing after one reality-shattering punch. The color art for these pages is provided by Rain Beredo and Adriano Lucas. All of it looks fantastic and this issue is a great example of how multiple art teams can be used to subtly influence the pacing of a story.
While it may not be a home run as part of the Dark Nights Death Metal event, The Secret Origin is a brilliant commentary on the state of DC Comics and an exploration of why we read superhero comics. That message, delivered alongside some amazing artwork, is ample reason to pick this one up, even if you haven’t been reading the miniseries so far.