Superman: Earth One – In Stores Now
by Aaron Einhorn
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past week, then you probably know about the fact that Superman: Earth One hit stores yesterday. The original graphic novel is a retelling of Superman’s origin, describing how Clark Kent comes to Metropolis for the first time, written by acclaimed writer J. Michael Straczynski, and illustrated by Shane Davis.
Superman: Earth One has attracted a great deal of attention, with news stories appearing on Yahoo!, MSN, CNN, The New York Times, USA Today, and nearly every pop culture website on the internet (including US). It takes place in a fresh continuity, so it should be accessible to any fans of the Man of Steel – not just those who have followed him for years or decades. It has been compared to Smallville, and described as “an emo Superman for the Twilight crowd.”
I got my hands on a copy of the book yesterday, and thought I’d let you know how I think the book compares to the hype.
We have a fairly straight-forward origin story here. Clark Kent discovers his abilities at a young age, and following the death of his adopted father, goes to Metropolis to find his destiny. In this take on the story, Jonathan and Martha both urge Clark to use his powers for the good of mankind, and Martha makes the iconic costume out of the blankets Kal-El was sent to Earth in, elements that are fairly familiar to Superman fans.
This particular Clark Kent is a bit of a throwback to the Silver Age Superman. His powers manifest nearly the moment he arrives on Earth, and we see a hyper-intelligence applied to Clark as he goes around Metropolis job hunting. Where he is less of a throwback is his attitude. This is not a mean, selfish Clark Kent, but he is a Clark Kent who is unsure about using his powers to help people – not because he doesn’t want to help, but because he wants to keep a life for himself. Much of the book is spent navel-gazing as Clark tries to decide between career paths. Incidentally, I hated the hyper-intelligence. Giving Clark the ability to do math and science far beyond anything mankind knows is an unnecessary addition to his vast physical abilities, and makes scenes where he goes to others for help solving a problem feel very forced. (Why, for example, would Clark take something to be analyzed to a scientific firm where he had earlier shown himself to be smarter than anyone else there?)
Interestingly, the villain of the piece originates from Krypton, in that he is an enemy of Krypton, with powers similar to Clark’s own. This struck me as very odd. The villain is, largely, unmemorable (I can’t even recall his name without going back to the book), and there is little reason to use him instead of a classic villain such as either Zod or Brainiac. Also absent from the book is Superman’s arch-foe, Lex Luthor.
A final note; while I appreciated seeing how Jimmy and Lois come to Superman’s aid during the battle, having one of the major climaxes involve Clark using his birthing rocket to destroy the alien armada was weak-sauce at best. Superman destroys alien space ships by hand, not by using his own space ship.
So, while it should be obvious that I didn’t care for the story as a whole, let’s discuss the minutae of the writing. Here is where Straczynski shines. I really do feel like the plot was weak, predictable, and utilized change simply for the sake of change. But in terms of writing characters, Straczynski has never been better.
They don’t get a ton of screen time, but in a few pages, Straczynski puts his stamp on Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White in a masterful fashion. It is easy to see why these three believe in The Daily Planet, even in this internet age. Straczynski also creates yet another version of Martha Kent who is wise beyond her years, especially when she gives Clark his costume. When he asks about a mask, Martha sagely answers “when people see how powerful you are, all the things you can do, they’re going to be terrified… unless they can see your face, and see there that you mean them no harm. The mask… is that what you’re going to have to wear the rest of your life.”
If there is a weak point, it is Clark himself. Clark tends to react, rather than act, and it’s often hard to really understand his motivations. We don’t really get a peek into his head until we reach the end of the graphic novel, where Clark Kent interviews Superman for The Daily Planet. In the interview, we finally get to see more of his true personality, and it’s a nice view – just one I wish I’d seen glimpses of earlier in the book.
Shane Davis’ art isn’t for everyone. It has an odd mix of the realistic and the cartoony. But it is perfectly acceptable. I’m less thrilled with some of the design choices. Clark’s Superman costume just looks a little off – it’s the small details, like the yellow outline around the shield, and the lines of the costume, but they add up. The new villain also seems uninspired, with a facial design resembling Silver Banshee.
I don’t think that this Clark is a “pretty boy,” designed to appeal to the Twilight crowd. He’s a good looking guy, but younger than we’re used to seeing him, and not drawn as visually large and imposing as has become the recent standard.
In other words, I don’t mind the art, but I don’t see myself going out to buy prints from the book either.
This one puzzled me. Why did this book get as much hype as it did? It’s not bad – far from it. But it’s also only ok. And this is hardly the first time we’ve seen Superman’s origin retold in a not-specifically-in-continuity story. In fact, we’ve been watching one of those on TV for the past decade. J. Michael Straczynski’s name carries weight in geek circles, but he isn’t widely known. And the redesign is uninspired.
Superman: Earth One is a decent graphic novel, and makes a nice addition to the other Elseworlds-style graphic novels that can line a fan’s shelves, but it isn’t worthy of all the attention it’s been getting.
I have some fairly harsh words about Superman: Earth One, but this isn’t to say that I hated it. I simply thought it was “ok,” and definitely not worth the hype it has received. I’m glad I read it, and I may re-read it in the future, but I won’t be returning to it time and again.
The best use for Superman: Earth One would be as a jumping-on point to get new fans into reading Superman comics, but here it’s own design works against it. As an out-of-continuity OGN, it doesn’t bear a resemblance t, or have any connection to the comics hitting the stands each week. So, if someone does buy Superman: Earth One, loves it, and wants to read more, they don’t have anything else to reach for. The Clark Kent and company found in the graphic novel are not the ones they’ll find in the pages of Superman – and I think this is a real missed opportunity.
As an alternative to the comics, Superman: Earth One is ok. But there are other retellings of the story I find more compelling, including television’s Smallville.