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Grumpy Old Fan | Earth One welcomes new Superman fans

by  in Comic News Comment

Throughout the character’s history, Superman has been introduced and reintroduced to various audiences through various media. There have been Supermen on radio and film, on television and in prose, and of course in comics. The new Megamind apparently leans heavily on a Superman pastiche, and the newest “proper” Superman movie is being guided by producer Christopher Nolan.

And yet, the goal of Superman Earth One — written by J. Michael Straczynski, pencilled by Shane Davis, and inked by Sandra Hope — seems different from many of the Man of Steel’s other origins. Earth One has Krypton, the Kents, Lois, “Jim” Olsen, the Daily Planet, and of course the familiar red-and-blue costume; but it is most concerned with redefining Clark Kent and his mighty alter-ego. Aside from the “Earth One” brand itself (about which more later), there are very few Easter eggs for longtime fans. This is not a distillation of seventy-plus years’ worth of Superman stories into some platonic ideal (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Instead, it’s almost as if Straczynski and Davis are making a concerted effort to avoid such references.

Regardless, Superman Earth One (there is no colon in the title) clearly seeks to redefine and reintroduce the original superhero to a new audience. As a reintroduction, and more specifically as the first of what is presumably an ongoing series of graphic novels, it’s not a bad beginning — but it doesn’t quite feel like Superman yet.

SPOILERS FOLLOW, of course.

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Superman Earth One postulates a Clark Kent whose options are wide open: anything from star athlete to gifted scientist, with costumed hero far down the leaderboard. Still, it is not really in doubt that Clark will don the red and blue, and sure enough, a hostile extraterrestrial armada spurs Superman to action. That’s the barest outline of the plot, although Straczynski wraps a number of story elements around the villains’ arrival. First, the Kents kept a chunk of Kryptonian spacecraft from the crash site, so Clark brings it to his would-be scientist-employer, hoping that by analyzing it they can find a way to stop the armada. No dice: the scientist is more interested in finding a panic room and riding out the attack. Second, Clark learns (via microscopic vision) that the chunk-o-rocket contains a recording of Jor-El and Lara’s last moments, with a larger Kryptonian library available through the craft itself. Third, and most significantly, Clark sees fearless photographer Jim Olsen stand up to a killer robot, proclaiming that “the truth … [is] the only thing worth dying for.” Flashbacks reveal the origins of the super-suit and dual identity, and voilá! — halfway through the book, this looks like the inaugural job for “Superman.”

Actually, it takes some timely help from Lois, Jim, and Kal-El’s spacecraft to defeat Tyrell, the talky assassin with the oddly-terrestrial name. (Fun fact: I once worked with a Tyrell who pronounced his name like it rhymed with Jor-El.) After that comes the wrapping-up (meek Clark shops for suits, puts on glasses, interviews self) and the setup for future volumes (who’s behind Tyrell? Is there still more to Krypton’s destruction? What about the suspicious Major Lee?). Topping the book off is the Daily Planet’s first Superman coverage, some of Davis’ sketches, and a full-page ad for one of Straczynski’s Brave and the Bold collections.*

Anyway. At this point Superman Earth One poses two big questions: is it a worthwhile story, and is it a worthwhile Superman story? I didn’t dislike this book, but I have reservations about it on both counts.

Is it a worthwhile story? I suppose. None of the major character beats are terribly surprising, but they’re not really meant to be. Straczynski wants the reader to see that Clark actively chooses the proverbial “road less traveled,” but the plot is more of a collision-course-with-destiny thing. Since Clark can’t really avoid confronting Tyrell and his engines of destruction, the only drama may be whether he does it as Superman; and again, that’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.

That said, the big Superman/Tyrell fight comes off fairly well. Tyrell is a credible (albeit nondescript) bad guy with a Kryptonian-specific deathtrap, and Superman defeats him both with Kryptonian hardware and with good ol’ Earthling-style punching — plus the aforementioned help from Lois and Jim. Giant hovering mega-drills poised over Earth’s major cities make the stakes appropriately high, and Tyrell’s history with Krypton likewise make them personal.

Still, I can’t help thinking that this was not a particularly nuanced story, which brings me back to Clark’s central choice. The Christopher Reeve movies presented Krypton as generally cold and logical to a fault, except naturally for Jor-El and Lara. Since then many versions of the origin, including “Smallville” and scads of comics, have Clark choose the lessons of Earth over the ethics of Krypton. For example, although Marlon Brando’s Jor-El has given Krypton a kind face, the climax of the first movie finds Superman rejecting Jor-El’s edict (“it is forbidden to interfere with human history”) in favor of Jonathan Kent’s broader guidance (“you are here for a reason”). Not only is that choice more genuine (because Reeve’s Superman was more in touch with his Kryptonian side), it also forces Superman to go harder and faster than he’d ever thought possible.

That brings me to the second question:  is Superman Earth One a good Superman story? Here it’s not so clear. Although the character had become a square, paternalistic establishment figure decades before, the Reeve movies did a lot to crystallize his basic … well, goodness; not just for the general public, but for comics fans and pros alike. However, for a while now that’s apparently also made Superman boring, if not inaccessible or even inexplicable. Straczynski showing Clark trying out for a football team, or pulling a Good Will Hunting at the local laboratory, is one way to respond to those critics. Clark becomes Superman because he realizes it’s the right thing to do … and also because the plot’s basically pushed him into it. Straczynski may want the reader to realize that Clark’s commitment to “Superman” is the book’s real message, but that gets muffled in all the wrap-up and setup.

I mentioned earlier that the book contains very few Easter eggs and/or references to other Superman stories, and that includes familiar Superman villains. Using Luthor or Brainiac would certainly have made this more recognizable as a Superman story, and it might have made Clark’s choice seem more organic. However, this Superman is a stripped-down model, with only the most perfunctory supporting cast, which suggests that Straczynski wants him to not be defined (in whole or part) by one or both arch-enemies.

This Superman is also not terribly interested in Lois Lane, at least not romantically. Although Earth One establishes Lois’ rivalry with Clark and (to a lesser extent) her attraction to Superman, she and Perry exist primarily to give the Daily Planet some iconoclastic flavor. Not having Clark/Superman triangulate off of Lois and Luthor distinguishes Earth One from more conventional Superman origins, and truthfully, the story doesn’t really miss them. However, their absence and/or relative lack of participation also makes Earth One feel more like a generic superhero story.

Of course, Earth One features its own distinct departures, including the military/government subplot, Clark’s career options, and the details of Krypton’s destruction. The book’s twenty-year-old hero is probably younger even than “Smallville’s” Clark, and as drawn by Davis and Hope, he’s more Michelangelo’s David (or Alan Davis’ Superboy) than Wayne Boring’s beefsteak. That itself casts Earth One in a whole different light, because this Superman may well have to grow into his inspirational role.

And that “room to grow,” for lack of a better phrase, informs my hesitancy about Earth One. So much of the book is calculated to make Superman cool that it risks abandoning the fundamental Reeve-esque “goodness” (uncoolness?) which has come to define the character. This book has Clark wrestle with some self-centered impulses, and I imagine future installments will similarly address other apparently-incongruous elements.

My last big complaint about Superman Earth One is the title. Regular superhero-comics readers understand that “Earth One” is a brand, like “Elseworlds” before it,** but this book isn’t just for us regular readers. You could read the “One” as meaning the first book in the Superman Earth series, but you’d probably be confused later by the Batman Earth One book, and you might even wonder where JLA: Earth 2 fits in.

In any event, Superman Earth One is a handsome package. I appreciated the embossing on its squarebound cover, and Davis and Hope combine well with Barbara Ciardo’s colors.  (Other visual effects, like painted clouds and weathered newspaper boxes, especially give the Metropolis of Earth One an expansive, lived-in look.) Ms. Hope’s inks are often found over Jim Lee or Ed Benes’ pencils, so Earth One’s figures and faces occasionally have the same sort of scratchy feel. For his part, Davis does a good job balancing frequent flashbacks with action sequences, and the book moves along well. Again, his Superman is slender and callow, and sometimes looks too lost in thought, but he’s heroic when he needs to be.

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Ultimately, the success of Superman Earth One may depend on the goodwill this hypothetical new audience already has for the Man of Steel. Straczynski dedicates the book to anyone who’s felt a “thrill of excitement” upon seeing the S-symbol, because they “understand what that symbol means — that all things are possible.” On a more practical level, though, Straczynski has written this book for people who may need a little more convincing. I can see a new-to-Superman reader coming away from Superman Earth One wanting to read more, but still not quite getting why Superman has been so popular for so long. In that respect I’d say Superman Earth One is a success — just not the revelation that other Superman revamps have been.

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* [I mention the ad because JMS’ B&B may be as close to new-reader-friendly as his DC work gets (until his Superman and Wonder Woman arcs are collected, that is), but an advance look at Batman Earth One, or the next volume in the Superman series (Superman Earth One Book Two?) would have been nice.]

** [If you believe, as I do, that the Earth of “Earth One” was created from the events of the weekly Trinity series, then these stories are actually part of the larger DC Multiverse — not that they would ever cross over, that is….]