Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Pencils by Shane Davis
Inks by Sandra Hope
Colors by Barbara Ciardo
Letters by Rob Leigh
$19.99 / 136 pages / Full Color
If you've got to retell the origin of Superman, as DC is wont to do over and over again, this is probably not a bad way to do it. There are a great many good things about this original graphic novel refresh of the Man of Steel's early days. DC is experimenting with a new format, releasing the story, not in issues, not as an "elseworlds", not in continuity, but instead as a hardcover, with no continuity. This is just a story, all on its own, no strings attached. Anyone browsing the aisles can see this attractive book, pick it up and read about Superman. They put superstar writer J. Michael Straczynski in charge of the refresh, and paired him with artist Shane Davis. Again, if you were going to do this, Superman: Earth One is probably the right way to do so.
Because of that, the book is, for the most part, successful, and pretty enjoyable. The story is basically the same as it's ever been, but just a bit updated. It begins with young Clark Kent, fresh out of Smallville, arriving in Metropolis, trying, as we all do, to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Being a superhero hadn't occurred to him yet. He tries out for pro-sports, a job with a fancy science-y company, and stops by the Daily Planet. Nothing feels quite right to Clark, and he has a heart to heart with a now widowed Ma Kent. Young Kal-El fairly writhes with the sighs of the early 20's, and can't figure out what he's supposed to do or be. He's very alone, as many young people feel, and just when he's reached an emotional stalemate with himself, some aliens show up to clear things up for him. They've been looking for him, and they're prepared to destroy the planet Earth to get him. You can probably guess where it goes from there. It's well told, plotted and paced, and all very solid.
If there was ever a character better suited to Straczynski's version of melodramatic idealism, I've never heard of him. The Superman in this story is an everyman, and his inner conflicts feel like your inner conflicts, but in him is the power to do great things, as long as he just puts on the outfit and does them. The metaphor isn't so cloaked, but it's apt. Putting the choice of being Superman in the guise of a post-college job search is a good move appealing to the young adult and teenage audience comics needs to attract. As a person who's read more Superman origins than is probably healthy, though, it's just window dressing for a story that's been told to death. But I'm not the audience, and people who pick this up who've never read a comic, watched Smallville, seen any of the movies, or watched the animated series will like this particular version just fine.
Shane Davis really shines in this book. A good deal of Superman: Earth One is people standing around talking, and Clark looking kind of sullen. Davis makes it all work, and the tone Straczynski intended really shows through. When the aliens do show up, there's a shock to the system, and the art comes alive with energy and design. Oddly enough, I found the "quieter" postions of the book to be much more engaging, as Davis' "acting" ability is quite good, and it felt like some of the weakest art in the book was on the splash pages featuring a full body Superman. I can't put my finger on it, but some of those pages just felt a bit off, where the pages where portions of figures were composed in their panels as frames were very good. The only other complaint I had is that the design of the alien leader Tyrell felt quite dated. He looks a bit like O'Barr's Crow, or mid-90's X-Men villain. It just didn't seem contemporary in any way, and as such, looked a bit out of place in a book that looked completely modern otherwise. Other than those minor gripes, these pages will prove to be a major stepping stone for Shane Davis, because he did a hell of a job.
Superman: Earth One is a good book. It's not a great book, but the story is well done enough that it shouldn't matter. I read the whole thing in one shot, and it's a really good book to give a new reader who might be interested in Superman. That said, it's very traditional. There's no real new ground being broken here, which is probably intended, given the scope of the project, and their desire to use this new format to gain new readers.
Story: 3.5 / Art: 4 / Overall: 3.5
(Out of 5)
– Josh Flanagan
Josh makes an excellent point about this book's purpose and the demographics involved. We've seen a lot of Superman origins. Truth be told, I never really get tired of them because it's a perfectly distilled myth. Joseph Campbell and all that. But much as I love the gravitas and hokey nature of this character–and Geoff John's recent Superman: Secret Origin certainly revels in all that cheese–I can see how younger readers might not be so receptive to all that nostalgia. There's an inherent challenge in trying to make Superman look cool in so much that he absolutely isn't. But there's a balance to be struck in making the trappings of the character and his world a bit more modern, a bit less saturated in nods and references to previous incarnations. And I think JMS has mostly accomplished that feat, without strapping Kal-El to a gurney and draining him of every last drop of silver.
And it's not just the hoodie.
A big part of this update are those elegant pages from Shane Davis. Top notch character models (His Lois is particularly stunning). Sharp eye for architecture without feel over-wrought. Strong action poses that only rarely felt static. There's just a confidence about those lines. No rushing. No overly jarring expressions. His approach to technology, both alien and domestic, is top notch. Much as I love an atomic age robot design or a skull-shaped dreadnaught with ribbed tentacle arms, his tech is more forward thinking and cutting edge. Rather than pay homage to Max Fleischer, he's referencing the sharp edges of Neon Genesis Evangelion. The technological threat looks more sinister, more real. So I'm going to forgive the Dia de los Muertos Ziggy Stardust look of the villain himself.
And don't worry too much about the hoodie or Clark's navel-gazing attitude. He starts off red-eyed and sullen. But part of the fun is his journey from skulking to soaring. This isn't just the story of the small town boy hitching a ride to the big city and becoming Superman. This is the story of how this Clark, with his sullen temperament, becomes the Superman that we're already familiar with. It might feel heavy-handed and preachy at times, but I think JMS has a strong take on Pa Kent, who appears here in flashback. It's that talk of selflessness and duty and homespun wisdom that gives me goosebumps in these stories, however divergent the incarnation. In these kinds of reinterpretations, it's probably not the additions but what key elements the writer chooses to retain. One really nice addition (or amplification, maybe) was the characterization of Jimmy Olsen. We know that Superman inspires Jimmy. But JMS also makes sure we know that Jimmy inspires Superman. Jimmy's brave here. In one scene, maybe too brave. But I like the idea. If Superman is going to fight for humanity, be an example, he too needs role models. It's usually Pa and Ma. Here we can add Lois and Jimmy to that list. Jor-El planted the seed, Jonathan Kent nurtured it, and the actions of a young photographer out for truth served as one last catalyst towards the origin of a superhero.
I started this book with the personal caveat that it was not a Superman story. That it was something that employed the trappings of Superman, the mythos, without using that same tone or mood. That way I could try and enjoy the experience. I was wrong though. This really is a Superman story. It just takes a little while to get there. It's maybe what Smallville ought to be. It'd make a great two-part pilot to a new ongoing or even a television series. Not a movie though, because we need forward momentum on that front. We need an established Superman facing off against anyone other than Luthor. But Snyder might want to look at this book in terms of balancing reality and modernity with the unbridled hopefulness and sentiment that ought to permeate every Superman story.
Story: 4 / Art: 4.5 / Overall: 4
(Out of 5)
– Paul Montgomery
Superman: Earth One arrives in comic shops this week.