Superman: Earth One (a Graphic Novel Slugfest)

A comic review article by: Thom Young
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, I’ve thought about what a Superman story in the year 2010 does not need. Firstl, it does not need an in-depth retelling of Superman’s origin. We’re all working from the same textbook (Richard Donner’s Superman film) so just point your curious readers to a video store and get on with it.

Second, and I didn’t think this was even an option, Bryan Singer showed us that we don’t really want a mopey Superman either--because that’s what Peter Parker is for. So DC decided to prove my point that these are the qualities we don’t need by releasing Superman: Earth One--a mopey retelling of Superman’s 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 DC’s 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? That’s right: J. Michael Straczynski, who currently writes the impenetrable, unappealing Superman montly comic.

Straczynski’s 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. I’ve no idea whether the Babylon 5 creator has actually read Morrison’s character-defining work, but I can’t imagine him reading that beautiful page that distills the basics of Superman’s 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 what’s 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 wouldn’t be too hard for a Hollywood special effects house to make a cinematic reality. Coupled with Barbara Ciardo’s inks, the comic has an Ultimates quality--which is exactly what DC and the creators are going for--so, in that respect, it’s successful.

Despite the creators’ best efforts to avoid mimicking the Superman films, there’s something delightfully Richard Donner/Richard Lester about Clark Kent. Even though he’s presented here as an outstanding athlete and intellectual genius, it’s hard to read the scenes of Clark’s job search and not imagine a version of Earth One in which he might comically bumble his way into performing miracles for every field he’s in rather than letting everyone know he’s 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 he’s 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 doesn’t come to him naturally; instead, it’s just some pap about Clark being inspired by Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane being out on the front lines reporting.

You’ll notice I haven’t written much about the big villain of the piece. That’s because he barely registers: his name is Tyrell, he looks like an androgynous mime from space, and he’s 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, it’s 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.

It’s not an era that many of us look back on fondly, yet it’s 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 humanity’s 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 can’t wholly trust.

And speaking of that villainous threat, it, too, marks a deviation towards the lesser. Gone is the traditional enmity with Lex Luthor’s human greed and vice, and in its place is a generic conquering army from the stars. This Superman hasn’t 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 change’s sake is rarely a good idea, and Straczynski’s renovations fail to coalesce into an invigorated fresh take on the character. Even the elements left intact--such as Superman’s 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 can’t 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 isn’t a modern retelling of a pop-culture myth a la Marvel’s Ultimate line; rather, it’s 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 doesn’t take Straczynski long to sour me on a series (as he has now done with Wonder Woman #604). Thus, when Danny’s and Chris’s 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 read a . . . pirated version of the story* in order to provide a third perspective. 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) I started reducing my rating for the book the further I read.

After reading 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. By the end of the book I had settled on a score of four bullets. Still, that score indicates and above-average comic book that wasn’t 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 it’s 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 Byron’s Child Harold’s Pilgrammage (twice--once by Superman’s 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 Byron’s 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 it—and any Biblical allusions in Byron’s work would have been to the King James Version. Yet, as an allusion to Child Harold’s Pilgrammage, Straczynski’s 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 Superman’s 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 I’m 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 “Tyrell” 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 “Dheron”--the fifth planet in Krypton’s 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 planet’s 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 Superman’s face more “traditional,” but the appearance isn’t 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 “real” 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 don’t mind DC evoking it here in this “Ultimate DC universe.” 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.

* My store has a copy coming in for me on backorder, so I will be paying for the book as well--though it would also be nice if DC provided “review copies” of their books (or major projects, at least) in the way that most publishing companies do for media outlets.

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

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