"Earth" tones

DC’s upcoming series of “Earth One” original graphic novels has garnered a good bit of commentary, much of it tepid to negative.

Brian Hibbs says it doesn’t make the best economic sense.  Chris Butcher explains the various hurdles to successfully cracking the bookstore market.  Living Between Wednesdays notes that the current Superman: Secret Origin miniseries hasn’t even finished.

Because DC is prone to revamps and relaunches, “Earth One’s” format is the story (see also Wednesday Comics). Not only does “Earth One” present A-list characters in something other than 22- page installments, it seems geared more directly towards bookstores than towards the Direct Market. I dinged DC for not distributing WC more widely, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

However, to repeat the blindingly obvious, DC must try to find exactly the right format, and therefore the right price point, to capture these hypothetical bookstore browsers. Will they be more inclined to pick up a $25.00 hardcover or a $9.95 digest? While the latter would surprise both me and Mike Sterling, I’d rather see DC aim a little lower. After all, the first few Harry Potter books were pretty thin.

As for the content ... well, DC has such a strange relationship with its prospective readers. Any time it tries to cross into a new market, it does so with the millstone of an existing fanbase around its neck. This is the constant lament of the superhero-comics adapter: how to satisfy the people who know the details while omitting as many unnecessary details as possible. At best you end up with the graceful respect of the “Justice League” cartoon or the distilled power of The Dark Knight; at worst you get a muddled mess like the “Birds Of Prey” TV series.

Unfortunately, the “Earth One” label is one of those details. Obviously, to someone who knows nothing of DC history, the term carries no Silver Age associations. Maybe to those uninitiated it even sounds like shorthand for “new.” In fact, if what I suspect (and what I’ve been told) turns out to be true, then this new setting is the same Earth One which came out of the end of Trinity -- but this too is a distinction which makes no difference. While it would let these OGNs cross over with the rest of the Multiverse at some point, there’s absolutely no reason for them to do so, because such a crossover would probably be fatal to “Earth One’s” mission.

Still -- and skip to the next paragraph if you're not sentimental about DC -- it could be kind of sweetly poetic, since Trinity showed the “deified” Trinitarians jump-starting Earth One’s proper history with the last of their godly powers.  Earth One is what it is because of the regular Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. If these OGNs become so popular that they eventually lead to the monthly books being retired, making that connection would be a nice part of the sendoff. Clearly, though, as long as DC is celebrating monthly-comics milestones, the periodicals aren’t going anywhere.

Anyway. Right now I am inclined to like this idea, and not just because its lack of specifics lets me idealize it. At this point “Earth One” combines four factors: a new potential audience, (relatively) high-profile creative teams, DC’s most familiar characters, and no restrictions from existing continuity. To be sure, “Earth One” shares these factors with quite a few esoteric DC projects, from Wednesday Comics and Solo to the All-Star books and The New Frontier. (Most of those projects also used unusual formats.) Unlike those books -- and with all due respect to the creative teams -- “Earth One” doesn’t seem so concerned with artistic merit. Instead, it apparently aims to tell stories which will attract a non-comics-reading audience. While these hypothetical folks may like Superman and Batman, they know only the basics and don’t especially care about the nuances. In that respect I’m not at all surprised that DC turned to two writers who’ve also worked in film and television, because that’s the kind of crossover appeal it wants. If Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s Batman makes readers think of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, or if J. Michael Straczynski’s and Shane Davis’ Superman reminds them of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, that’s perfect.

Accordingly, where we lifers groan at yet another alternate universe (so soon after the pulp-influenced “First Wave,” too), the new folks don’t necessarily know the difference ... and again, if they do, they may not care as much. Besides, these changes seem more fundamental than cosmetic, on the order of the 1986-87 Superman and Wonder Woman relaunches. Indeed, recently DC has been restoring a good bit of those characters’ Silver Age/Earth-1 elements, like the Superboy career and Wonder Woman’s history with the Justice League. (At times I wonder whether this is motivated more by nostalgia or by an attempt to sync up with its more voluminous Silver Age library.) It’s no stretch to say that mainline DC is trying to “modernize its past” so as to satisfy both new and old readers. Ironically -- and I know this is the start of a familiar rant -- DC’s renovation efforts have given the line the reputation of a continuity-heavy quagmire from which no coherent story can emerge.

Thus, “Earth One” apparently chucks all of that, but not just to be different. Both Straczynski and Johns told AICN about the creative freedom that the new Earth gives them. Johns mentioned “unlimited creative freedom” right away, and Straczynski went into more detail about his take on the Man of Steel:

If [Clark] keeps his background secret, as he's done for the preceding 21 years, he can be the best athlete the world has ever known, he could be the next Stephen Hawking, could take away the golf crown from Tiger Woods, create patents that could earn billions. He can finally step out of the shadows and into the light.

By contrast, if he chooses to become Superman, then Clark must live forever in the shadows, dedicated to a life of service and self-sacrifice that could eventually get him killed. That's a hard choice for anybody to make, let alone a 21 year old kid who wants to look after his mom and is lured by the idea of money and success and fame.

Clearly that view of Clark/Superman differs immediately from other interpretations. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originally presented their creation as a socially-conscious crusader. The Silver Age saw “Clark” become even more of an act, an idea ratified and expanded by 1970s writers like Elliott S! Maggin. Their Superman knew he was set apart from humanity and used “Clark” to connect. In 1986, John Byrne and company turned this on its head, grounding Clark firmly in his human upbringing and making “Superman” the public performance. Now Straczynski (whose ideas sound like good fits with Johns’ Superman: Secret Origin) appears to be finding a middle ground between those two approaches: an outsider well aware of his abilities who (obviously) chooses a higher calling over worldly success. That’s a reasonable starting point for a Superman story, and it’s something which Straczynski can develop on his own terms.

Indeed, another big advantage for the Earth One setting is the notion that its creative teams won’t see their work “diluted” (for lack of a better term) when their characters show up in someone else’s title. This can work acceptably well in the monthly setting; but not where one wants to tie particular creative teams to particular character interpretations. DC can’t really say that Batman “belongs” to Grant Morrison when he also appears (or will also appear) regularly in books written by Judd Winick, Paul Dini, and James Robinson. However, Straczynski and Shane Davis can keep Superman fairly exclusive to their OGNs, at least until the inevitable Earth One versions of World’s Finest or Justice League.  (And yes, Wonder Woman should be the third series of Earth One OGNs, ahead of The Flash or Green Lantern.)

Furthermore, unlike Marvel’s Ultimate line, no monthly schedule to satisfy means no pressure to keep the OGN series going in perpetuity. Freedom from the monthly schedule also means more freedom to deal with the passage of time, so these OGNs could well progress in real time and even bring their characters’ stories to definite ends.

Hmm ... not much more to say now; not until more details emerge. I realize too that I haven’t said much about the Johns/Frank Batman, and I think that’s because we know so little about it. Johns seems to think that seeing Batman’s pupils is a major change, and he’s right about how that can be used; but particularly in the 1970s Neal Adams and other Bat-artists did the same thing. I get the impression that Johns wants to bring all the familiar Bat-elements into some grand unified theory, where the “twisted origin behind Gotham City” probably ties into the design of the Batmobile. Again, it’s hard to gauge whether the average bookstore browser will appreciate that kind of thing, despite it being something of a theme in Batman Begins. It probably works better for Batman than for Superman, since Batman plays off his setting and Superman plays off his supporting cast.

As it happens, perhaps a quote from today’s DC news offers a telling bit of commentary on “Earth One’s” opportunity. “I’m hoping,” says new Action writer Marc Guggenheim, “that by the end of the ‘War of Supermen’ event I’ll be able to tell some true and classic Superman stories.” The emphasis is mine, because DC keeps teasing a simpler, lower-key style, but never seems to break the event cycle.

Thus, despite their differences with the main DC line, the “Earth One” books look like the publisher’s best chance simply to tell such “true and classic” stories to the general public. I think that’s any fan’s ultimate bottom line: just tell me a Superman story, and make it a good one.

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