Superman Year One #1
Writer: Frank Miller
Pencils: John Romita Jr.
Inks: Danny Miki
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Letters: John Workman
Cover artists: Romita & Miki (regular)/Miller (variant)
Editor: Mark Doyle
Publisher: DC Comics/DC Black Label imprint
Price: $7.99 US
Frank Miller’s importance to comics can never be ignored or forgotten. The only influence from the 1980s that equals his is like Alan Moore’s. However, I think it’s safe to say that Miller’s work in more recent years pales in comparison with his groundbreaking efforts from three decades ago. Still, I couldn’t help but be curious about this latest project, so I decided to peruse its pages. The good news is that this is much better than Holy Terror; there’s no sign of the twisted perspectives that marred that graphic novel. To my surprise, the biggest liability of Superman Year One is that it’s just so… standard. We’ve seen material like this time and time again with retellings of Superman’s early years, and I just didn’t find anything novel in this book. Thirty years ago, this would have been heralded as a poignant interpretation of the kid who would become the Man of Steel, but so many other creators have already told stories such as this one — and they’ve done it a little better, more often than not.
Clark Kent is different from other kids. He’s always known it, and he’s carefully hidden his amazing, other-worldly abilities from everyone around him save for his parents. But people pick up on how he’s unlike others, and as a result, he ends up gravitating to other outsiders during his school years – the nerds, the freaks. They become friends for whom he’d do anything, and he finally has enough of standing by and doing nothing as bullying runs rampant through their lives.
As I made my way through the first couple of pages of this book, I was hooked by the narration. There was a poetic quality at play that clicked for me, and I was hopeful for what I’d find as I proceeded further into the story. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the narration was more problematic than poetic. Miller keeps changing from third person to first, from an omniscient voice to that of one of the players in the drama, only to shift to the voice of other characters. And there’s no cue for the different modes of narration, nothing clear to distinguish them. Those repeated by unclear changes in the narrative voice bring a meandering, scattered tone to the book, making it seem as if Miller doesn’t know where he’s headed with all of it. Furthermore, when the narration is clearly in the voice of a young Clark, Miller still injects that flowery quality to it, and the result is that it doesn’t sound like a teenage boy, doesn’t sound genuine.
That brings me to a notion I don’t often touch upon in my reviews: editing. Editors’ contributions to comics and other media is often overlooked. When it’s done well, it’s invisible. Some stronger guidance was definitely needed here, as some input – specifically on the narration – should have corrected the problem. Mind you, it’s a daunting assignment. How does one give a legend of the medium notes on what he’s done wrong? I suspect when dealing with talent with a reputation such as Miller’s (or Romita’s, for that matter), free rein is an understandable tack to take (it may even be a negotiated condition). Ultimately, that approach doesn’t serve the story or the audience well, and the same would hold true over over-interference from editorial.
Romita’s cover image for this book has been floating around since the project was first announced, and it made me leery of what to expect. The image of a gangly Superman (which never appears in this book) seemed off, his limbs out of proportion and awkward. Fortunately, those anatomical anomalies weren’t to be found in the interiors. Romita’s style is unmistakable here, but it’s also unlike previous efforts, and I have to wonder if it’s due to his collaboration with Danny Miki. Romita’s always had a looser style, but Miki brings a more finished appearance to bear here that works well for me. Unfortunately, I also found the linework to be somewhat inconsistent, with the style shifting often. Many pages reminded me of the work of Greg Capullo, for example, while at other moments, the faces of the characters put me in mind of Rob Liefeld’s style.
Alex Sinclair’s colors are sharp, especially in the opening scenes set on Krypton and through deep space. He brings a real sense of the cosmic to bear, and I appreciated the warm, comfortable tones he employs for the bulk of the book set in the American heartland. John Workman’s letters are always crisp and clean as well. I should also note that while I had many issues with the storytelling here, I have to admit that one gets great value for the cost of the book. DC offers plenty of material for the cover price.
Miller is the guy who created the “Year One” brand that’s become synonymous with origin stories in comics. The influence of Batman Year One is still felt today in comics and in other media representations of the Dark Knight. So it makes sense that Miller would return to the notion with this Superman story. One problem: this isn’t a story set in a year. This is 18 years of a boy’s life, so it makes the book’s title something of a lie.
The unfortunate part is that I’m not sure why Miller opted to spend so much time on the pre-Superman aspects of the character’s origin. He really doesn’t contribute anything new on Clark Kent’s early years here. He’s not regurgitating what other creators have done either, but everything about his take on Clark is pretty familiar. It’s pleasant, but inconsequential as well. Miller doesn’t offer much in the way of a fresh commentary on the Man of Steel here. I’m surprised there’s not a darker edge at play — not disappointed, just surprised, given Miller’s track record — and it’s good that he maintains a positive, hopeful perspective on this foundation of the super-hero genre. But the plotting and characterization just feel kind of ordinary, and ordinary isn’t what one signs on for when picking up a Frank Miller project. 5/10