(w) Frank Miller (a) John Romita Jr. (i) Danny Miki (c) Alex Sinclair
Since its initial announcement, readers have braced themselves for the release of Superman: Year One. Many expected a complete train wreck, while others were optimistic that it would see a return to glory for writer Frank Miller. Joined by now-polarizing artist and collaborator on the lauded Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, John Romita Jr, Miller’s approach to Superman gives him yet another updated origin in an effort to better fit the reality of today. To that end, Miller and Romita are successful. But Superman: Year One also defies expectations in that is neither great, nor terrible. Instead, is arguably worse by being completely and utterly forgettable.
The origin of Superman has been told many times. It has been told with remarkable brevity, such as in 1938’s Action Comics #1 or 2004’s All Star Superman #1. It has been told over the course of several issues, such as in 1986’s Man of Steel, 2003’s Superman: Birthright, and 2009’s Superman: Secret Origin. Each was designed to be the definitive origin for the character, the exception being All Star Superman, which ironically is considered by many to be the definitive Superman tale. Also, don’t forget the Earth One line of books, movies, and television shows featuring his origin story. With each new telling of Superman’s beginnings, it renders the previous ones non-canonical. So it begs the question why do readers need another non-canonical origin story? The answer is they don’t.
The “Year One” branding holds a special place in the DC lexicon, alongside “Rebirth,” “Crisis,” and “Secret Origin.” Notable stories with that moniker include Batman: Year One (by Miller), JLA: Year One, and most recently Wonder Woman: Year One. These stories have two major things in common. First, they’re all great. Secondly, they take “year one” seriously and take place over the course of a single year. Superman: Year One fails at meeting either one of those, mostly because Superman’s origin story does not take place over the course of a year, but several years. It’s a story that would be better served under the “Secret Origin” moniker, like Geoff Johns did with Green Lantern and… Superman.
The series’ first issue starts off predictably with the destruction of Krypton. Miller and Romita do change things up slightly, presenting the moments leading up to the planet’s destruction through the eyes of the infant Kal-El. There are explosions and chaos as his parents rush him into the rocket that will bring the child to Earth. Throughout this sequence, narration boxes needlessly describe Romita’s art, which on its own is sufficient. It is done seemingly to convince readers that Miller’s writing will not be full of the bitterness seen in his later Dark Knight books or Holy Terror. However, its very nature begs the question who is narrating? It is clearly written in first person, so is it baby Kal-El? He’s an infant and can barely do anything beyond shit in his diaper, let alone form complete thoughts. Maybe it is him, recounting these memories? But if this is the case, there is nothing to indicate that is so. It is lazy, and that’s how most of Superman: Year One reads.
The narration is arguably the biggest detriment to the story, jumping all over the place and constantly bringing the reader out of the narrative. But aside from that, the story is… fine? There are a couple tweaks to the classic origin, with Jonathan Kent finding the rocket on his own and bringing baby Kal-El/Clark home to Martha. But aside from that, the story is familiar. Clark goes to school and is picked on by bullies, only now he has friends – other social outcasts – which he feels a duty to protect. He is conflicted, and frequently seeks guidance from his adoptive father. This version of Jonathan Kent is not the disgrace seen in the movie Man of Steel, but he still falls short of the standard set by more beloved versions. He’s a bit rough around the edges and protective. However, he at his heart has a kind soul and comes across as man trying to instill in Clark the values that would shape Superman iconography. Miller at least attempts to do something with him, unlike Martha Kent, who may as well not exist. Her virtual absence from the story is noticeable, but given Miller’s propensity for objectifying women, this is probably for the best.
Clark’s supporting cast is comprised of his aforementioned friends, a group of bullies, and his high-school sweetheart Lana Lang. The dialogue is what one would expect from an out-of-touch man in his 60s trying to emulate teenagers. The bullies feel ripped from a classic high school movie, with just a touch of Rob Zombie trashiness for good measure. In one particular scene, Miller almost crosses a certain line which readers expected in some form. Yet, he shows remarkable restraint and instead turns it into a heroic moment for Clark. Still, it does reduce Lana into a helpless object used to drive the Clark’s narrative forward. But beyond this, there are a few genuine bright spots, particularly the relationship between Clark and Lana. Their interactions have an emotional authenticity that frankly has been missing from Miller’s work for a couple of decades. It’s a shame that the story has to move forward to the controversial Navy SEAL phase of Clark’s journey, as his relationship with Lana is worthy of its own story.
Smallville itself is a romanticized version of smalltown America. It appears innocent, and even charmingly unaware – if that is such a thing – of bigger issues. However, the town’s structural problems with injustice are evident as assumed authority figures turn a blind eye to violence perpetuated by local bullies. Their attacks on Clark’s classmates escalate with zero accountability, emboldened in those in power turning a blind eye. Where Miller’s politics lay today is anyone’s guess, but a case could be made for Miller to be commenting on how hate and intolerance are without checks in today’s society.
The artwork from John Romita Jr. is serviceable. It could be better, but it is far from the worst thing he’s produced. His style is best suited for street-level, urban crime stories and that just isn’t what this is. But overall, the compositions are well put together (aside from Clark’s bobblehead), and Danny Miki’s inks try their best to keep the lines clean and the panels detailed. Artistically, the book is carried by Alex Sinclair colors. His use of warm earth tones gives Smallville the classic small town, American midwestern aesthetic that it deserves.
Superman: Year One has its fill of head scratching- moments and genuinely good ones. But in the end, it’s a forgettable retread of a well-known origin story. The best thing that can be said is that it isn’t terrible. That doesn’t inspire hope for the remaining issues. For the same amount as this issue, readers can pick up a secondhand copy of Birthright or Secret Origin. Unlike Year One, those stories are at least memorable.