REVIEW: Superman: Earth One

Superman: Earth One

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
DC Comics

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

 

Tag.

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. 

Comments

  1. Roly Roly says:

    Ugh! Still can’t decide. The "Hip, moody, sexy" Didio quote from the New York Post article makes me leery. Love that DC is launching Earth One, though.

    If I don’t grab this, it looks like I’ll be waiting for a Johnsian take on Bats. 

  2. WeaklyRoll WeaklyRoll says:

    Picking this up, interested to see this modern take really to see if it’s even possible to do so. can superman ever be modern?

  3. thompsonlive thompsonlive says:

    I will be picking this up for sure. It looks pretty cool but regardless I want to support the idea of a continuity free DC line. I really like most of the characters in DC (from my youth mainly) I just cant get into any of the DC comics because of the cobweb mess of continuity that I dont care about.

  4. fnord fnord says:

    Emo Superman, no thanks.

  5. I’m going to give it a go but I’m not expecting much.

  6. Neb Neb says:

    I wasn’t too interested in the book, but hearing that this is a relateable Superman in his wandering twenties peeks my interest.  We very rarely see that side of  this hero.  This sounds cool.  I’ll probably try to find it at the library or on the cheap.  I love me some Shane Davis.

  7. SirCox SirCox says:

    I might pick this up. I don’t really like JMS or Superman for that matter but I am digging the art style.

     

    The only Superman story from the last ten years I’ve enjoyed is All Star Superman and that Joe Kelly story. I think Superman works best when you play up the fact that he’s this classic character. You can’t really make him Peter Parker no matter how hard you try. Still, I’m interested in this.

  8. DyslexicDan DyslexicDan says:

    When I first started to read Josh’s take on the book I didn’t see who wrote it. So when he said “not in continuity, but instead as a hardcover, with no continuity” I was put off by thinking I was reading a review by someone who didn’t do their homework before making claims. When I finally saw it was written by Josh I remembered that he is a smart fellow who would know that this would be in continuity as its part of the bigger DC multiverse. Then I remembered this is Josh. He probably doesn’t know and won’t care once some one points it out.

     

    So that’s a long way of saying its funny how forgiving you can be of a writer when you think you’re familiar with their personality and tastes and how heartless and unforgiving you can be to Ron… Uh, I mean other writers.

  9. stuclach stuclach says:

    I may try to convince my library to pick this one up for me.

  10. Paul Montgomery PaulMontgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Dan – Easy now. You’re REALLY splitting hairs on this one. Even if you want to call this in-continuity as part of the larger multiverse, it’s completely reasonable and USEFUL to say it’s out of continuity. Because it doesn’t take place in the mainstream DCU as most people know it. 

  11. Jeff Reid JeffR (@JeffRReid) says:

    @stuclach – That shouldn’t be a hard sell. It’s out-of-continuity so no other books are required to enjoy this one. Even libraries with tight budgets should still be okay in picking it up.

  12. Sounds exactly like I was hoping for. Excellent reviews!

  13. CaseyJustice CaseyJustice says:

    I very much want to want this, but I don’t think that it’s going to happen. I’ve just read a fine retelling of the origin, and a not-so-fine Superman by JMS, and that doesn’t seem like a combo I can get behind. I’ll be holding out for Bats.

  14. stuclach stuclach says:

    @JeffR – I hope you’re right.

  15. Paul Montgomery PaulMontgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @stuclach – Your library gives ya any lip, you have em call me. I’ll straighten things out. Right? Alright. 

  16. i’ve been interested in this for a while. Def worth getting at Amazon…maybe not at full LCS price. 

  17. RoiVampire RoiVampire says:

    Hey if you get it from amazon you help out ifanboy as well

     

  18. Josh Flanagan josh (@jaflanagan) says:

    @Dan – I wasn’t aware that this was supposed to be the new canon. But either way, it’s not in continuity as far as anyone can read it with no prior knowledge.  It’s not part of an ongoing serial.

  19. @roi–at least somebody is getting helped out! ha. 

  20. RoiVampire RoiVampire says:

    @josh  I think you’re right in the review, this isn’t the new canon, Johns Secret Origin is, I think he’s the one who is misinformed

  21. Conor Kilpatrick conor (@cskilpatrick) says:

    @Josh: It’s not. It’s on its own and not tied to DCU continuity. That’s the point of EARTH ONE.

  22. TheGoose says:

    I’m a Superman fan so of course I’m going to read this.

    Interesting review from the both of you. Two other reviews were split down the middle (one good, the other bad). Looking at your reviews makes me think that this book hasn’t been written by Satan himself. Plus, hearing a good review from Josh on a JSM book makes me want to read the book more.

  23. rjspring rjspring says:

    Thanks for the reviews guys, I think I’ll pass for now unless I find it on sale…

  24. IroncladMerc says:

    The art looks good, but it’s too expensive for an out of continuity title. I’ll wait until it hits the discount bins at the conventions (and it will). 

  25. edward says:

    A couple of things occur to me about this new format.

    i don’t think a hardcover is the best step. If you want a lot of new people to pick this up, make a paperback, make it as cheap as possible. 

    I also get the feeling that for the non-comic fan reader, the trade off between money spent and entertainment time may not be appealing. I sometimes feel a little cheat after picking a trade up and quickly finishing. I think each one of these Earth One books need to be absolutely pack with content. 

  26. RoiVampire RoiVampire says:

    Man, 136 pages of comics for $11 on amazon is too much? That’s cheaper than most trades out there and it’s a hardcover to boot

  27. Paul Montgomery PaulMontgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I can’t even begin to understand, "too expensive for an out of continuity title." 

  28. edward says:

    is the casual consumer really going to Amazon to get this or are they going to Boarder? 

  29. thompsonlive thompsonlive says:

    Yeah I completely agree $11 for a hardcover is dirt cheap, plus for a guy like me that could care less about the endless web of DCU continuity i’m really excited for the Earth One line. Should be awesome.

  30. Paul Montgomery PaulMontgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @edward – They’re going to both. More and more to Amazon though. Borders is actually circling the drain. I bought a magazine the other day and they offered me an espresso machine and a leather armchair. 

  31. Chris Rohling Anson17 says:

    … It will always make me confused when I see people think a book is somehow less than another one because it isn’t in some ramshackle 70 year long continuity. In my experience the non-continuity stories tend to be better. Ex: All-Star Superman

    But I guess all those other Superman books are better because they actually happened.

  32. edward says:

    @ Paul: Everything i go into the borders here it’s packed full of people buying Travel and/or cook books. We did only get a borders about 18 months ago though 

  33. RoiVampire RoiVampire says:

    @Edward I know the only Borders near me is in Houston in the Galleria Mall which is freaking huge. They’re cutting back a lot and you can tell, whenever i go in there there’s about 5 people in the magazines and maybe 1 or 2 teens in the records and then a few people scattered in the fiction and graphic novels. all the cashiers look bored out of their minds

     i ordered this on amazon a few hours ago, can’t wait

  34. Chris Rohling Anson17 says:

    @P Money – You should’ve taken them up on it and started the FuzzyTypewriter bookstore. Woulda been all over that. (I picture you in your Kinsey costume from last year’s halloween, recommending books while sitting next to an open fire surrounded by your dogs.)

  35. NawidA NawidA says:

    Heck, $20 plus tax on a hardcover 128 page OGN is still rather cheap compared to issue prices.

  36. edward says:

    Oh, don’t get me.  i’m not saying borders isn’t a weird uncomfortable place 

  37. reg5000 reg5000 says:

    Based on these reviews I think I’m gonna add this to my Xmas list, which is getting pretty long thanks to you guys.

  38. Jesse1125 Jesse1125 says:

    @edward… Borders is allright, it pays to be a member (free) they periodically send you coupons by email. here’s a link for 33% of anything (in store only). Get Superman Earth One for $13.39+tax

     http://www.bordersmedia.com/coup/33sa20101026.html?cmpid=SA_20101026

     

  39. Borders often sends out 40% off coupons. I used them a lot to buy hardcovers instore. Almost the same price as Amazon and you get your in store browsing satisfaction. 

  40. Jack239 Jack239 says:

    Barnes and Noble has Superman earth one for 10.79 plus tax

    they have a free trial on membership so you can get shipping for free.

  41. DyslexicDan DyslexicDan says:

    @Conor I’m fairly sure that this is the Earth One of the 52 and “New Earth” or Earth-0 is the DCU proper.

     

    @Josh, I agree with you and Paul that it is an unimportant detail if it is true and would probably over complicate things for new readers but it is one of those small details that brings veteran readers, like my self, back to read a slightly different takes of the same story again and again.

  42. Conor Kilpatrick conor (@cskilpatrick) says:

    @DyslexicDan: It doesn’t matter what Earth it is. These are stories specifically designed to be free of DCU continuity so as to be attractive to casual readers. If you need to assign it a number so that it becomes okay for you to read the book then do what you must. But it’s so not important where it lines up with other DC books and it’s sort of entirely the point of the line that it doesn’t matter at all.

  43. Superyan Superyan says:

    Looking forward to reading this!  Amazon should be shipping it any day now…

  44. A positive review on something JMS related!? I knew Josh had it in him! :)

    No seriously, fantastic reviews by both Josh and Paul. This is probably gonna sound like sucking up, but these are probably the most balanced (or fair) reviews I’ve seen of this book. Seriously, either it is considered horrible for some critics while it is praised like ‘God’ did it or something.

    I’m sure this is gonna be a fun, if not just an average re-tread of Superman’s origins. Doesn’t help that Geoff Johns just finished his origin story…..but hey if this is geared more towards new readers then it shouldn’t be a problem. 

  45. No fair! You guys get to use half points! :(

  46. stuclach stuclach says:

    @Paul – You should be receiving a call from a disgruntled Library administrator sometime in the next few days.  He really, really dislikes JMS.

    (Not really.) 

  47. DyslexicDan DyslexicDan says:

    @Conor, fair enough but the emphasis DC is placing on which earth it is shouldn’t be over looked. To a new reader “earth one” in the title isn’t going to mean anything but to the DC die hards (DC Zombies?) it could me a lot. There is a point to it or why else brand an entirely new line of books with it? Its one of those nifty little details that really only comics, with their decades long narratives, have been able to do and frankly it’s the kind of thing that when discovered by a die hard fan makes being one worth all the trouble. And how DC did this is quite elegant. Here is a completely accessible book for new readers, and I agree that is the point of it, but right there in the title is an Easter egg just for the fans in the know. How is that not cool in the nerdiest way possible?