Current Reviews


Superman: Earth One (a Graphic Novel Slugfest)

Posted: Wednesday, November 3, 2010
By: Thom Young

J. Michael Straczynski
Shane Davis (p), Sandra Hope (i), & Barbara Ciardo (colors)
DC Comics
Twenty years ago, a strange visitor from a parallel Krypton arrived as an infant on a parallel Earth possessing powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Now an envoy of the race that destroyed his homeworld has come looking for him . . . with his adopted planet as the battleground.

Danny Djeljosevic:
Chris Kiser:
Thom Young:

Danny Djeljosevic:

[Editor's Note: Danny Djeljosevic actually gave the book a rating of a half bullet. However, Comics Bulletin does not have a graphic for a half bullet, so the graphic for a one-bullet rating was used in its place.]

As someone who likes to learn from past mistakes, both mine and those of others, Iíve thought about what a Superman story in the year 2010 does not need. First, it does not need an in-depth retelling of Supermanís origin. Weíre all working from the same textbook (Richard Donnerís Superman film) so just point your curious readers to a video store and get on with it.

Second, and I didnít think this was even an option, Bryan Singer showed us that we donít really want a mopey Superman either--because thatís what Peter Parker is for. So DC decided to prove my point that these are the qualities we donít need by releasing Superman: Earth One--a mopey retelling of Supermanís origin.

On the bright side, much has been made for the past . . . I dunno . . . decade, I guess, about the inevitable death of monthly comic books, and it looks like DCís exploring its options by releasing Superman: Earth One almost exclusively for the kind of people who dwell in bookstores--the coffee-swilling casual readers and the kids who sit on the floor of Borders and read manga all day.

DC has created a slick, realistic reboot/alternative to the traditionally impenetrable, unappealing Superman comics--essentially, this book is Ultimate Superman, featuring Clark Kent as a paradoxically fashionable-yet-small-town boy who wanders around Metropolis in a hoodie, applies for a few jobs, and thwarts an alien invasion led by a villain more generic than the growling Romulan from the Star Trek reboot.

So who have DC Comics enlisted to pen this vaguely youth-targeted story featuring this hip, young Clark Kent? Thatís right: J. Michael Straczynski, who currently writes the impenetrable, unappealing Superman montly comic.

Straczynskiís script for Earth One is not unlike his writing for the monthly book. By which I mean that parts of it read like a shit version of something Grant Morrison already did in All-Star Superman. Iíve no idea whether the Babylon 5 creator has actually read Morrisonís character-defining work, but I canít imagine him reading that beautiful page that distills the basics of Supermanís origin into four panels and four key phrases and then thinking it would be a good idea to turn each panel into several long, talky, and generally inelegant scenes that run about four pages too many.

Morrison wrote what should have been the last word on Superman while elevating the character to new levels, and still we find ourselves wallowing in restating whatís already been said.

As for the illustrations, Shane Davis draws Superman: Earth One in a style similar to the work of Bryan Hitch, so we have wide-screen action, photo-realistic characters, and concept spaceships that wouldnít be too hard for a Hollywood special effects house to make a cinematic reality. Coupled with Barbara Ciardoís inks, the comic has an Ultimates quality--which is exactly what DC and the creators are going for--so, in that respect, itís successful.

Despite the creatorsí best efforts to avoid mimicking the Superman films, thereís something delightfully Richard Donner/Richard Lester about Clark Kent. Even though heís presented here as an outstanding athlete and intellectual genius, itís hard to read the scenes of Clarkís job search and not imagine a version of Earth One in which he might comically bumble his way into performing miracles for every field heís in rather than letting everyone know heís extremely gifted.

As it is, the conclusion of his job search makes Clark seem like a complete fucking idiot--all that athletic ability and intellect and he chooses to work at a newspaper doing a job heís not very good at? Superman truly IS a dick. This conclusion could have worked if Straczynski had painted the decision as Clark giving himself a challenge by doing the one thing that doesnít come to him naturally; instead, itís just some pap about Clark being inspired by Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane being out on the front lines reporting.

Youíll notice I havenít written much about the big villain of the piece. Thatís because he barely registers: his name is Tyrell, he looks like an androgynous mime from space, and heís come to invade Earth because he wants to kill Superman. Imagine if Ziggy Stardust was a Juggalo with wings, and oh my god I hate this comic so very much.

With its pseudo-realistic mise-en-scene and total lack of imagination, Superman: Earth One is the worst kind of comic book--the kind that reads like a glorified screenplay. While this kind of faux-Hollywood nonsense was all the rage in 2002, itís now 2010. We can do better, and Superman deserves better.

Chris Kiser:

Remember the dismal superhero filmmaking of the mid 1990s, when directors and studios could hardly wait to muck up your favorite comics properties? Unlike the reverent, fan-friendly industry of today, the Hollywood of yesteryear preferred to make random and unnecessary changes to adapted storylines rather than to get at the core of what made the source material tick.

Itís not an era that many of us look back on fondly, yet itís exactly the period to which J. Michael Straczynski returns in Superman: Earth One. Supposedly devised to retool the Superman mythos for the Twenty-First Century, this graphic novel writes a prescription for various alterations and tweaks to this beloved franchise without a discernable purpose or vision.

Thus, while the barebones tale of a boy rocketed to Earth from a doomed alien world remains intact, the heart that once beat within it in so many previous iterations is sorely missing. Time and time again, Straczynski takes a winning concept from the classic interpretation of Superman and either dilutes or replaces it with uninspiring new material.

For instance, whereas the Clark Kent of the monthly comics launched into his mission as humanityís savior with clarity and drive, the Earth One Clark finds his motives to be much more of a muddle. Raised on a steady diet of vague and unintelligible advice from his adoptive parents, this Clark emerges onto the scene as an aimless 20-year-old more interested in a comfortable life than one of sacrifice.

Straczynski sure means to show us how that insecure early adult grows into his role as hero, but that transformation ends up happening purely by circumstance. When the threat of the villain in this book arises, it is so massive that young Clark is essentially forced to become Superman--making a choice of necessity rather than one of morality. Yet, when it is all over, we are asked to believe that he has somehow fully embraced his high calling.

Forgive me if this seems like a Man of Steel whose convictions I canít wholly trust.

And speaking of that villainous threat, it, too, marks a deviation towards the lesser. Gone is the traditional enmity with Lex Luthorís human greed and vice, and in its place is a generic conquering army from the stars. This Superman hasnít come to save us from our own corruption, but rather to fend off an invading army of Klingons.

One should hardly expect Straczynski to regurgitate the same Superman story as have countless others before him, so it would be unfair to judge him solely on the basis of adherence to past formula. After all, if there is any character who could use a break from the same old origin tale, it is Big Blue.

But change for changeís sake is rarely a good idea, and Straczynskiís renovations fail to coalesce into an invigorated fresh take on the character. Even the elements left intact--such as Supermanís typically first-rate supporting cast--are left to languish as underdeveloped window dressing. Never before has the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane been so insignificant to the plot of a Superman tale.

All in all, I canít imagine the bookstore readers whom DC has surely targeted with the Earth One series being interested in reading this kind of thing, and regular comic book readers already have better Superman options. This book isnít a modern retelling of a pop-culture myth a la Marvelís Ultimate line; rather, itís a substandard story only worthy of attention because of the marketing emphasis placed upon it by the publisher.

Thom Young:

I have rarely liked a comic book written by J. Michael Straczynski--and, even on those rare occasions when I have, such as Wonder Woman #601, it usually doesnít take Straczynski long to sour me on a series (as he has now done with Wonder Woman #604). Thus, when Dannyís and Chrisís respective reviews came in for this slugfest I suspected that this book must surely be yet another work by Straczynski that I would greatly dislike; it made me almost glad that my comic book shop failed to set a copy aside for me before the store sold out of the limited number of copies they ordered.

However, when the third review for this slugfest failed to come in, I decided to quickly find a copy of the story in order to provide a third perspective. As I sat down to read the book,* I suspected that I would merely agree with Danny and Chris that the book is terrible. However, much to my surprise, I quite enjoyed this book. However, in true Straczynski fashion (as with the run on Wonder Woman I mentioned earlier), he gave me reasons to reduce my rating the more I read.

After the first third of the book, I was leaning toward a rating of five bullets. After the second third, I had reduced my score to four-and-a-half bullets. However, by the end of the book, I eventually settled on a score of four bullets. Still, that score indicates an above-average comic book that wasnít a waste of my time.

The book has its flaws--as indicated by the lowering of my score as I progressed through the pages--but itís a competently written and illustrated book that did not make me cringe in the way I have come to expect a Straczynski-scripted book to affect me.

Yes, there is some occasional sappy dialog (which is a Straczynski staple), but those lines come almost exclusively from Ma Kent, whom we should expect to be slightly sappy in the way she talks to Clark. Pa Kent comes close to sappiness, too, at times, but it is once again within character for him to do so.

One apparent error in the dialog is the use of a line from Lord Byronís Child Haroldís Pilgrammage (twice--once by Supermanís biological father, Jor-El, and once by his adopted father, Jonathan Kent), which Straczynski attributes to the Christian Bible. I am unaware of the line originally being from the Bible. I always thought it was Byronís creation:
. . . I stood
Among them, but not of them;
in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.
If Byron was alluding to a Biblical passage, I am unaware of itóand any Biblical allusions in Byronís work would have been to the King James version of the Bible--and I'm certain the line is not a word-for-word quote from the King James Bible.

Yet, as an allusion to Child Haroldís Pilgrammage, Straczynskiís story takes on added depth that I greatly appreciate.

The major drawback, though, is with the villain of the story. When I first saw this Tyrell character (which seems to be an odd name for an interstellar villain from Supermanís home solar system), I thought he was from Czarnia (the homeworld of Lobo in the mainstream DC universe). In fact, he looks so much like a Czarnian, that Iím mostly convinced he was originally supposed to be a compatriot of Lobo in this parallel universe. However, he also bears some similarity to Zauriel, the Judeo-Christian angel that Grant Morrison created during his run on JLA.

In any event, if ďTyrellĒ was originally conceived as a parallel universe version of ether Lobo or Zauriel, a decision was made late in the process** to revise him into a character from ďDheronĒ--the fifth planet in Kryptonís solar system (with Krypton being the fourth). Unfortunately, the villain is the weakest part of the story.

I would have preferred either an alternative concept of Lex Luthor or Brainiac. In fact, the Dheronian destruction of Krypton bears a lot of similarity to the ret-conned implication of Brainiac in the planetís destruction in the mainstream DC universe. Thus, Tyrell could also have been conceived as a variation on Brainiac as much as he is a variation on Lobo or Zauriel.

What ultimately (pun intended) made this graphic novel work is the lack of bad dialog and the quality of the illustrations by Shane Davis. There are times when I wish Davis had made Supermanís face more ďtraditional,Ē but the appearance isnít too far off--especially since this version of Superman is only 20 years old. Perhaps he will develop more of the traditional facial appearance as he ages.

Finally, I suspect this book (and its soon-to-be-released companion Batman: Earth One will not succeed in the way DC hopes. The non-comic-book-reading public who are supposedly the target audience for this book are likely to still know enough about Superman to understand that this Earth One version is not the ďrealĒ Superman. Additionally, they are unlikely to understand why the book is titled Earth One.

On the other hand, I grew up as a comic-book-collecting kid in the 1970s who was greatly enamored of the Earth-One/Earth-Two concept, and I donít mind DC evoking it here in this ďUltimate DC universe.Ē However, I was hoping that this parallel Superman would have the powers and peripheral situations of the Golden Age Superman that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster initially created.

I would have loved to have seen a Clark Kent who ended up working for George Taylor at the Daily Star, and who could only leap an eighth of a mile and bend steel bars in his bare hands. Yet, despite not getting the version I was hoping for, I found this book to be an enjoyable alternative version of Superman.

* In the story, Straczynski has Daily Planet editor Perry White explain to Lois Lane why he cut the third paragraph of an article she wrote for the newspaper--because she referred to herself in the article: "Write about what youíre writing about, not about you writing about what youíre writing about." That's good advice from the perspective of Old School journalism and the emphasis on objectivity; it's an editorial direction I don't often take with my own reviews and articles, as I come from more of the New Journalism approach of using literary devices and admitting that everything that reviewers and journalists write contains various degrees of subjectivity. Thus, I often insert a great deal of myself (perhaps too much at times) into the piece--as I've done above and in this footnote explaining it. :)

** The book has two editors, which probably indicates an editorial change during production. If thatís true, then it might explain why Tyrell looks like a Czarnian but is now a Dheronian.

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