Posted by Don MacPherson on November 7th, 2010
Superman: Earth One original hardcover graphic novel
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Pencils: Shane Davis
Inks: Sandra Hope
Colors: Barbara Ciardo
Letters: Rob Leigh
Cover artists: Davis & Hope
Editors: Eddie Berganza & Adam Schlagman
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $19.99 US/$23.99 CAN
I’m back from a much-needed week’s vacation, and while I was away, I brought some graphic novels to read to pass what little down time I had. Superman: Earth One was among them. Despite what anyone says about this book, J. Michael Straczynski can truthfully say that he succeeded in his effort to something new and novel with the Superman mythos. I was surprised by several of the choices he made through the graphic novel. Sometimes, they were pleasant surprises, others not so much. The best thing the writer does for Superman here is that he ditches the selfless boy scout image that’s been such an integral part of the character for decades. But transforming his alien origins into a murder-mystery plot seems like a major misstep. Furthermore, while the creators do deliver a self-contained story in this graphic novel, there are enough plot threads to make it seem as though the next episode is right around the corner, and we don’t even know for sure if there will be a followup.
Clark Kent comes to Metropolis looking for work, but he’s much more than a wide0eyed kid from the heartland looking to strike out on his own. Thanks to some special talents he’s kept secret his whole life, he knows that the world is his oyster. He can write his own ticket in any field, and now, it’s just a matter of figuring out what career will serve him the best. Clark wants to find a high-paying job that will allow him to care for his widowed mother financially. His late father had a different vision for Clark’s future and what he should do with his unique gifts, but he’s opted for a different path. He soon encounters a detour on that route in the form of an apocalyptic ultimatum from outer space.
DC clearly sees great potential in Shane Davis as a “star” super-hero artist. This is a high-profile project, and one would expect the pencilling assignment for this book would go to one of the publisher’s top artistic talents. Davis’ status as a recurring cover artist for a number of DC titles would seem to be in line with that thinking as well, but the brief bio in the back of this book spotlights the fact that he’s still pretty fresh. His biggest assignments have been a fill-in issue of Justice League of America a Final Crisis/Green Lantern one-shot and one story arc on Superman/Batman. I don’t know if he’s been proven as that marketable an asset for DC as of yet, but maybe that’s what Earth One is meant to do: market him as a key DC asset.
Davis certainly performs well here in some respects. He captures a youthful Clark Kent/Superman nicely. Physically, he’s not an imposing figure; he’s not meant to be here, so does well in that regard. He also captures the main character’s melancholy, lost mood early in the book, again reinforcing the more relatable side of this interpretation. The detail of the Metropolis skyscape is impressive as well, and I like that the Superman symbol on the title character’s costume isn’t outlined with a black hairline but rather in yellow, making it look more like fabric. On the other hand, Davis seems limited in the number of figures and faces he can draw. The structure of Clark’s, Jimmy’s, Jonathan Kent’s and even the bad guy’s faces seem interchangeable to me. The same can be said of female characters’ faces (notably Lois and Maj. Sandra Lee). Some scenes struck me as too sketchy and loose in appearance, mainly due to the fact that the pencilling and inking generally is so tight and crisp on most pages.
I’m sure many have pointed this out before, but I have to reiterate it here. I understand that the title of this graphic novel harkens back to DC’s multiverse concept of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. And I understand that DC seems to be reusing the term as a brand for a series of new, continuity-free graphic novels. But the term means nothing in the context of this story, this product or this attempt at branding. While I’m touching on the issue of marketing, I’m surprised at the direction DC chose for the design for this graphic novel. This book has to be important to the publisher, so why is the cover so bland? While the image of a young Clark Kent conveys something of the unusual take on the character, it’s barely a taste and hardly comes off as eye-catching or iconic.
The writer’s bio in the back of this book notes that he was once a newspaper journalist, so I appreciate that he approaches the profession as it’s depicted in this book from an honest and experienced place. Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable with several aspects of the craft at The Daily Planet. The pieces by Clark and Lois that serve as the closing of the book don’t strike me as good reporting. Both are first-person pieces, and while they have a place in news reporting, it’s a method that’s used sparingly, and for good reason. Lois’ contention that she should be able to inject her opinions into her news story is contrary to the basic rules of hard-news journalism, and Clark’s career-making interview with himself is a fraud, an offence to the ideals of the profession. I did like Straczynski’s take on Jimmy Olsen, though, as a daring and dedicated photographer whose accomplishments outweigh the annoyances he presents to his boss.
The alien invasion and doomsday scenario that serve as the climactic conflicts in this story just didn’t work for me. The villain comes off as terribly generic, both in concept and design. That Superman has a pet spaceship by the end of the book struck me as silly, and the notion that the U.S. government is after an extraterrestrial hiding among its citizens — as logical as it may be — is a painfully cliched plot point.
What really grabbed my attention early on in the book was the “Good Clark Hunting” riff as we watch this extraordinary young man explore the professional landscape of Metropolis. Even though nobody is aware of it, there’s nothing Clark Kent can’t do, and he’s finally reached a point in his life when he plans to put those gifts to use. While his motives aren’t selfish — he’s determined to find a career that will allow him to provide for his widowed mother — they are self-centered. He’s not worried about the world; he’s focused on his small corner of it. He’s also determined to find a small measure of happiness and fulfillment. In the past, Clark Kent has almost exclusively been portrayed as unrelentingly selfless. Selflessness is admirable, but such a perfectly ethical and wholly giving person is harder to accept than someone who makes the difficult choice to dedicate his life to helping others. Clark is tempted here to use his powers for personal gain, and that temptation is enough to set Straczynski’s take on the character apart from others. 6/10
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