‘Superman: Earth One': Different Clothes, Same Hero [Review]
Superman: Earth One, the new graphic novel written by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn by Shane Davis, reboots the classic tale of the hero from Krypton, beginning with his arrival in Metropolis as a fashionably dressed 20-year-old and the choice he must make between living a life as a talented, ordinary man or becoming a hero. It foregoes the usual route of serialized issues to present a single one hundred and twenty-five page story in one hardcover book both personal and legendary in its scope, and while it doesn't neatly succeed in everything it attempts to accomplish, it's still a book I'm glad to have read. Spoilers follow.
Superman: Earth One is a good story, but by no means a great one. In some ways it's reminiscent of recent cinematic franchise reboots that have turned out well, like Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, presenting a younger, modernized take on a classic character, someone a little less confident of how they fit into the world, but otherwise not excessively different.
We first see Clark as he leaves Smallville for Metropolis, Superman uniform packed away in his bag. He's still never worn it, and is trying to decide if he ever wants to. After all, his superhuman talents could make him rich and famous, could allow him to literally do anything he wants to do with his life, could provide for his loved ones to live in comfort and luxury for the rest of their days. While he wants to use his powers to help others, he's afraid to step off that easier path, afraid that it would let his family down, afraid that it would leave him labeled as a freak to be hated and feared. But while Clark is trying to make up his mind, a crisis threatening the entire planet forces him to choose.
The book's greatest strength is its ability to make readers understand and appreciate the decision Clark faces, even though there's never any real doubt that he's destined to become a hero. Obviously we know it's going to happen, and Clark's parents realize it too. Clark himself knows it, deep down, but tries to find an easier way. Like the classic messianic figure of your choice, Jesus or Frodo, Clark is searching for a way to somehow not bear the burden before him, experiencing a moment of doubt before he accepts who he really is.
And it's a fitting theme to explore in a modernized adaptation of the Superman story. Today people with talent are encouraged to look out for themselves first, to go into careers where their incredible abilities benefit themselves, and to hell with the rest of the world (*cough*finance*cough*recession*cough*). One of the most powerful symbols Superman represents is the idea that people should use their abilities to help others who are less fortunate, and that inspiration towards selflessness is an important thing the character offers to readers both new and old.
Straczynski also does a good job handling the somewhat limited appearances of the rest of the cast. The flashbacks with the Kents tell the story of how Clark's origin without the need for a lengthy "here's how Clark Kent crashed, was found, and grew up" prologue. The scenes at the Daily Planet are a lot of fun, and the way Perry White shows he cares about his staff through the traditional biting insults of the newspaper editor is handled well, as is the modernized White's struggle with the demise of print media. Jim Olsen, (who does not go by Jimmy here in a decision I'm sure will have at least a dozen people swearing bloody vengeance) steals the spotlight in a few scenes with his fearlessness, inspiring Clark and making himself the most memorable character of the supporting cast.
That's a lot of praise for the book so far. Why isn't it great, then? The conflict and the villains. They show up out of nowhere, willing to wreak planet-wide havoc in order to get Clark, derailing the storyline about choosing his path in life. The fact that Clark is forced into a position where he has little choice but to become Superman diminishes the impact of him finally making the choice to suit up and save the day, since it's brought about by external forces and not internal ones. But hey, at least it's something that thankfully only takes half a graphic novel to accomplish instead of, oh, say, ten television seasons.
The villains here are not based on any pre-existing characters from the Superman mythos, and their introduction makes a fairly significant change in Superman's origin story that I'm sure will upset some purists, so there's no sense of familiarity with them the way there is with the rest of the universe. Not to mention that they would look more at home on a science fiction wargaming tabletop than a Superman comic book. What good I can say about them is that their minimal development keeps the spotlight firmly on Clark, where it should be, and that seeing him let loose as Superman and fight back for the first time is something of a rush. Shane Davis's art for the big fight scenes gives a real cinematic feel to the book, and I mean that as a compliment. The artwork almost makes you feel and hear the impact of Superman crashing through concrete and metal at immense speeds.
This picture included only to allow me to say that if there were a book called
"Superman/Batman: World's Finest Banjo Duet," I would read that book and read it hard.
Superman: Earth One is also very much a work by J. Michael Straczynski. Somebody quotes Lincoln. Somebody quotes Tolkien. Somebody asks "Who is he, and what does he want?" Somebody gives a simple piece of advice that starts "But like my dad used to say..."
There's an early scene in which Clark goes for a walk by himself late at night in a dangerous part of town. It's clearly inspired by an actual event that once happened to Straczynski as a young man, when his penchant for taking late night walks ended with him getting nearly beaten to death in an attack. It's a moment that he's talked about frequently and has turned up as an influences in his other works, including the television series Babylon 5 and the comic Midnight Nation. And seeing it here does make me wonder why a guy who once was in the wrong place at the wrong time on a dark street late at night, and came out what happened a changed and marked by it for the rest of his life, ended up a much bigger fan of Superman than of Batman.
But the point I'm getting at beyond the recurring themes of a particular writer is that Straczynski's a divisive figure among comics readers right now, and particularly in regards to Superman. He's got devoted fans who love that he can help them to connect and find meaning in the larger than life adventures of powerful heroes in a relatable, human way. And he's got detractors who find him to be overly sentimental, heavy-handed, and too willing to drastically change characters' personalities to fit the stories he wants to tell.
This isn't a book that's good enough or bad enough to change anyone's mind about Straczynski. Personally I've enjoyed a lot of his original projects in the past, but have been less impressed by his mainstream superhero books and found the current "Grounded" storyline currently going on in Superman to be a major disappointment. So if you haven't enjoyed "Grounded," don't let that push you away from giving this a try, as it features the kind of good-at-heart but uncertain of himself Superman I wish I could be reading in that book.
Ultimately my biggest gripe about Superman: Earth One has nothing whatsoever to do with the book itself, but rather how the work has been presented through articles like this one in the New York Post, this one in the Hollywood Reporter and this one on a CNN blog, where the story has become "Superman is younger and changed his clothes" or worse, "here's an angry hipster Superman in a hoodie." Which not only doesn't do the book any justice but is probably driving away people who'd be interested in reading it.
I'm sure it's nice to get mainstream attention where Clark is called brooding and sexy and compared to Robert Pattinson in Twilight, which sold enough books that Stephenie Meyer probably lives in a floating castle made of diamond encrusted gold bars. But linking it to Twilight (and hipsters) also risks of scaring off huge swaths of people who might otherwise read the book, and I'm not just including die-hard comics fans in that group.
Superman: Earth One is not actually a book about this guy:
It's about how that guy becomes this guy:
A more accurate message about the book would be: This is Superman as Spider-Man. That this is Clark Kent discovering that (everybody say it with me now) with great power comes great responsibility. And more than that, he's also faced with the reality that with great power comes great opportunity for a life of luxury and ease, and that it's turning aside from this that makes him a hero. But hey, that's harder to show on a cover.
So don't dismiss it just because he's wearing a hoodie. Because if you find yourself saying, "Superman in a hoodie? That's ridiculous and stupid!" please remember you're talking about someone whose normal costume is a skin tight bright blue body suit with a cape and red underpants on the outside. It's not what Superman looks like; it's who he is. And this book is true to that, despite the modernized decorations.
Similarly, don't ignore this book because you think it's going to be Superman brooding for over a hundred pages. He's much too busy for that. True, you don't see Clark smiling much, but that's because he's scared. Scared of how the world might judge or fear him. Scared that he's on the verge of making an important, irreversible life decision the wrong way. The first time Clark smiles is the first time he puts on the glasses that mark the divide between the persona of Superman and the persona of Clark Kent. There's a chance that this isn't a genuine smile, that Clark is forcing on top of his sulky, brooding soul to throw people off, but I'd like to believe otherwise.
When I see Clark putting on the glasses for the first time, I see his world starting to make sense. Becoming Superman frees Clark to stop feeling guilty about holding himself back, while simultaneously discovering that he can still live an ordinary life as Clark Kent. That smile is genuine, a reward for a character who's run through a wide range of emotions in the story, and it's a wonderful moment for Clark.
On a personal level, Earth One's timing is meaningful for me. Halloween's coming up this weekend, and Superman remains the first and only comic book character I ever dressed up as. I must have been two or three years old, and I only know that it happened because I've seen pictures of myself in that blue costume and red cape, standing in front of my grandparents. Thinking of that picture now, I realize that most of the other interests I had as a child, the cartoons I watched, the video games I played, the fantasy and science-fiction books I read, would've confused my grandparents to the point where they would've simply thrown up their hands, shrugged, patted me on the head and muttered something like "kids today." But they knew Superman. They would have been about as old as I am now when the character was first introduced, and seen the newspaper strips and the movie serials and the early television shows.
The character was a shared symbol who meant something to all of us and connected us across a generational divide. Superman: Earth One is another chance to bring in a new generation of readers to share in knowing what that iconic figure represents. It could have been better, but what felt like dead weight at certain points here could pay off in later books. There's the possibility that a second book in this series could be The Dark Knight to this story's Batman Begins. So while I wouldn't put this book in the same company as my favorite Superman books, such as All-Star Superman or Superman: Peace on Earth, it is a rewarding read, and as much as large portions of it are quickly forgettable there are several stand-out moments that will stay with you long after you put the book down.