The telling of the Superman origin is anything but fresh. Throughout the years, we’ve seen it done over and over again, and as recently as Geoff Johns’ Superman: Secret Origin, which only wrapped up a few months ago. In fact, if you pick a person at random on the street and ask them to dictate the origins of Superman, chances are they’ll get it right for the most part, regardless of their comic book fandom. So how do you keep something so directly in the public consciousness feeling like new?
You get J. Michael Straczynski to write Superman: Earth One, the first in a line of graphic novels that will explore a slight different DCU, updating the characters and placing them in the modern world. The Metropolis that JMS gives us is very much the 21st century; newspapers are fledgling establishments, instant gratification is the norm, and big business is top dog. What JMS does with Earth One is akin to Smallville in principle, except without the drawn out build up and teen angst dramatics.
Unfortunately, Superman: Earth One is much more successful in utilizing the world around Clark Kent to make the book feel fresh and engaging. The handling of Superman himself is, quite honestly, bland and even silly at times. The story picks up as Clark is moving to Metropolis for the first time, still trying to decide what he wants to do with his life. He goes down every road: impressing a science lab by solving a problem they’ve been stuck on for years, getting a football contract, and of course, applying to the Daily Planet. JMS gives us a Clark that wants to help people, but not as Superman. He wants to help humanity through other roles; using his abilities but not being public.
That’s all well and good. The problem comes once Superman actually becomes involved. What could have been an interesting, if still wholly unnecessary, look at an updated version of the Superman origin becomes a cheap, run-of-the-mill sci-fi story. JMS alters the origin a bit to make Krypton’s destruction the doing of a neighboring planet, and the villain of Earth One is a cliche alien psychopath set to finish the job of making the Kryptonians extinct. Thus, these aliens plan an invasion of Earth in search of Kal-El, and Clark is forced to finally don the costume his mother made him (literally) and expose himself to the world in order to save it. When you boil it down to basics, it’s a typical Superman story that we’ve seen dozens of times before. A stagnant villain, an epic battle, rinse, repeat.
However, JMS does inject some of his patented objective views of humanity through the story he’s telling, and mostly through every character except for Superman. In the foreword to the book, JMS states how grateful he is to be writing a character that means so much to him, but in both Earth One and his regular run on Superman, it feels like he’s almost struggling to find why he loves Superman so much not as a symbol, but as a flesh and bone character. Thankfully, Earth One’s characterization is saved by Superman’s supporting cast of Martha Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White.
The Daily Planet crew is so remarkably likable and suitably iconic that I wish this entire book was solely about then. Even Clark, who is lackluster the rest of the time, is a great fit within the dichotomy of the Planet newsroom. Lois is less spunky but as forceful and daring as always, saying what’s on her mind and tackling the stories she wants. Jimmy, bow tie-less, is the consummate professional and always gets his shot, no matter what he’s risking. And for the first time in a long while, Perry White feels like he’s the leader of the newsroom, rather than the cranky old man that gets walked all over by his underlings. He’s of the old school and loves his work, revelling in the fact that with a single picture of Superman, the Planet holds more power than all of the cable news programs in the US. These relationships and their interactions with Clark and Superman are what kept this book interesting. How Clark winds up choosing a life as a reporter when so many other opportunities are open to him is what’s engaging. JMS could have left the entire subplot of alien invasion to the side and wound up with a much better read.
Another bright spot of the book is the art of Shane Davis, who delivers visuals of a blockbuster scale. His characters are iconic, and he’s got a sense of emotion that is often lacking from the artists that focus more on “epicness” or cinematics than anything else. As for his semi-redesign of Superman, Davis hits a perfect balance between a refresher for the character and staying true to the classic look. The costume remains as you remember it, but it looks significantly less alien with an appearance of more functionality, and it works incredibly well on the page. The one problem I had with the art is the coloring of Barbara Ciardo; the color palette, particularly in Metropolis, is actually kind of eerie. Ciardo gives the art a sort of twilight hue, which gives the book a surreal sensibility about it that works at some points but not at others.
Overall, Earth One is a concept that’s a hard sell to comic book fans that already drop a lot of money every week to buy monthly books, and there’s not a whole lot here to convince on-the-fence readers of the $20 purchase. Ultimately, the book is more successful in exploring the Superman universe as a whole than it is defining the Man of Steel himself.