Frank Miller’s impact on modern graphic storytelling is immeasurable. His work on Daredevil during the early ‘80s became the blueprint for the character, one which myriad comic creators would try to recapture in subsequent stories. 1986's The Dark Knight Returns is so iconic its themes and plot elements are still being used in almost every iteration of Batman today. And while there is a thick revisionist lens cast over Miller’s work (especially his latter day output), noting shades of misogyny, cruelty and blatant jingoism, there is still something exciting about seeing his name on a comic cover. But while it's worth reading, Superman: Year One, the long-gestating retelling of titular superhero’s origin story, will tamper that excitement to some degree, even if John Romita Jr.’s name is positioned right next to Miller’s.
The first two issues of Superman: Year One are not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but they are often surprisingly boring for long stretches, which might be an even worse offense. If this was a Dark Knight Strikes Again situation at least the train wreck would be so outlandish we could watch it derail in a bemused stupor. Unlike Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, this Dark Knight Universe take on the Superman mythos doesn’t really bring a lot of interesting new ideas to the table. Sure, there are some very weird turns, especially around Clark Kent’s post-adolescence years in the second issue, but they are so out of left field, they tend to feel silly and unearned.
Regardless of its questionable takes on female characters, Batman: Year One is cohesive and fluid. It presents Bruce Wayne’s journey toward donning the cape and cowl believable. He is an empathetic character, and his drive is completely understandable. Sure he’s far from perfect, but that’s why we can connect with him in the first place, even if he is a billionaire. Superman: Year One doesn’t resonate the same way, in large part because it has the fact of Clark Kent being an alien working against it. Clark has to learn to become human before he can step into the role of superhero, which leads to a sense of detachment exacerbated by the fact that his journey isn’t consistently engaging.
That said, there is a certain poetry to the narration in Superman: Year One #1. Miller writes in a cadence that is infectious and almost biblical at times, his voice commanding a sense of importance... when it works. The second issue drops the ball to a certain degree, with narration that is equal parts tone-deaf and cringe-worthy. Strangely enough, the dialogue progression between issues is inverted, as the first issue's strong narration is paired with some pretty awful character dialogue. It seems as if Miller was trying to write timeless teenage vernacular in Superman: Year One #1 , but it just comes off as an older man clearly trying to approximate how kids speak to one another. Superman: Year One #2 actually fares better in dialogue, but suffers in its narration, which is clunky and all over the place.
John Romita Jr.’s artwork is at its most visually stunning when there are lot of heavy inks involved, thanks in large part to his skill at using negative space. When he doesn’t, his pages often look like they were ripped out of a coloring book. The panels with heavy inks also somewhat approximate the art style of Miller, which helps build cohesion between story and images. Andy Kubert’s line work in The Dark Knight III: The Master Race executed this method very well, feeling slightly less jarring when butted up against pages by Miller himself. Now, this isn’t to say Romita should ape Miller’s work, but when he adopts some of Miller’s techniques, there is a certain synergy on the page that makes Superman: Year One actually feel like a big moment in comics. The art work vacillates from awe-inspiring wonder and minimalist workmanship, and considering Romita's stature as an industry giant, it would have been great to see more of the former.
Bottom line: you should read this series. Yes, it can be boring and unnecessarily weird, but there is something infectious about the sudden tonal shifts, Romita's strokes of brilliance, and the cadence in Miller’s voice when he's firing on all cylinders. Though the first chapters are uneven, the series is shaping up to be big, bold and ridiculously weird. Perhaps these first two issues are simply the result of a pair of legendary comic vets working out the kinks. The aforementioned TDKIII: The Master Race had a pretty rough start, but things pulled together nicely in the back half of the series. Perhaps Superman: Year One will do the same.