A couple months ago, DC released the first in what will be a series of standalone Superman graphic novels designed for audiences that aren’t steeped in decades of DC continuity or beholden to previous reboots.
They titled this series “Superman: Earth One.” Because when you’re trying to start with a clean slate, it’s best to use a reference to the DC universe’s multiverse structure that only long-time comics fans will pick up on.
This isn’t the least of the book’s problems…but it’s up there. But before I get into the Huge Crushing Issues, I will point out the one thing I really kinda liked about it:
J. Michael Straczynski, freed up from the “standard” continuity, finally gives Krypton something to do.
A story element writers keep going back to is the idea that Superman/Kal-el/Clark Kent feels like an outsider because his birthplace doesn’t exist anymore. Nevermind the fact that he was raised as an earthling from birth, nevermind the fact that his entire moral compass is based on the upbringing of two decent parents, and nevermind the fact that he is surrounded constantly by family, friends and colleagues who support him.
That goddamn phantom planet keeps haunting him, even though it was obliterated before he could even stand up.
So, yes. Giving Krypton a purpose beyond haunting a guy who shouldn’t have any good reason to care SO MUCH about the planet is a nice change of pace.
During the climax of the story, the leader of the invading alien horde tells Superman that Krypton didn’t just explode without warning. Krypton was actually at war with a neighboring planet, until the other planet, using technology provided to them by a Mysterious Benefactor, covertly embedded bombs deep in Krypton’s core.
Later, when Superman sets up his Fortress of Solitude using the rebuilt spaceship that brought him to Earth, it provides him with a mission statement: “Your task is to survive. To use your powers well and wisely. And to avenge the murder of your homeworld.”
By making it clear that Krypton’s destruction has a direct impact on what Superman will be doing from here on out, it makes his interest in his home planet more than just pining for a home he doesn’t know anything about – it’s part of his mission. And it increases interest in the continuing narrative “Earth-One” sequels will build on.
But this is also one of the main problems: this Superman is given marching orders. Not just at the end of the book – it’s part of his entire being. His parents come up with the idea to make him a costume, so he can help others (again: their hope for him – not something he ever vocalizes an interest in within the story).
Hell, Ma and Pa have DIFFERENT, EQUALLY VALID reasons for sewing the S-shield onto the chest. Ma wants it to mean “Son,” since he’s the son of both Earth and Krypton (feel free to roll your eyes here) while Pa – who apparently has “a buddy in advertising” (feel free to roll your eyes EVEN MORE HARSHLY here) – understands the need for branding and suggests he call himself “Superman.”
Throughout most of the book, Clark makes excuses to NOT take on this whole “Superman” responsibility, chief among them being he’d rather use his gifts to find a well-paying job to support his mom and allow him to do something he’d find stimulating. (These jobs are, based on the montage, football star, baseball star, super-scientist, and…uhh, architect.)
It’s only when his apartment has been blown up that he grabs the costume. It’s only when a fleet of alien invaders threatens the entire planet that he goes on offense. And even THEN, he’s in street clothes, moving quickly to avoid detection. Only when he’s specifically called out does he decide to toss on the cape and S-shield.
This is really the story of how Clark Kent ducks his responsibilities until he has no other choice. That’s…that’s not Superman.
I’m not a Superman expert – but I’m fairly astute. And even I know, above all else, for Superman to become an icon of heroism, he has to WANT to help people. He has to accept that having these powers means he can do a lot of good and actively looks forward to doing so.
Putting on the costume for the first time has to be the joyous moment he realizes he can do it and be welcomed for doing it, while also maintaining a private life as mild-mannered Clark Kent to continue being human.
If Clark waits until disaster strikes, to be guilted into using his powers for good? That’s not Superman. That’s Spider-Man. Still a good character, mind you, but…not Superman.
So, at the heart of the book is a fundamental misunderstanding of the character. And that’s pretty hard to shake.
But hey, it’s the internet, so let’s not dwell on deep-seated problems with the story when we can pick at superficial issues, specifically, the art. Which is not bad, except it features a problem that’s crept into comics over the last decade or so and frustrates me to no end: Major Characters Drawn as Recognizable Actors.
But at least that’s the artist picking ONE ACTOR to use. Here, when Lois Lane isn’t underdrawn to be a generically attractive brunette, she looks like Jennifer Carpenter from “Dexter” (with a little extra boobage)…
The back cover proclaims this to be “A Man of Steel For a New Generation,” but by tying the characters into post-millennial feelings of early-20’s “What do I want to do?” angst and flavor-of-the-month actresses, Superman: Earth One ensures it’ll be remembered as “That 2010-era Superman retelling,” that’s promptly forgotten once the NEXT brand-new Superman Origin Tale comes out, rather than anything that really defines the character for the era.
Of course, DC has never been all that excited about defining Superman for very long – if they did, nobody would get into internet fights over whether 1986’s “Superman: The Man of Steel,” 2003’s “Superman: Birthright” or even 2010’s OTHER big story, “Superman: Secret Origin,” is the “real” origin story.
Which, of course, means it’s time for me to read all of them and report back.