Comic Picks By The Glick

Superman: Earth One (vol. 1)

November 12, 2010

In case you hadn’t already heard, this volume has been such a success that writer J. Michael Straczynski will be stepping down as scripter for “Superman” and “Wonder Woman” to focus on getting the second volume out ASAP.  For a title that was shrouded in so much secrecy and murk prior to its release, that’s quite an indication of how important it has become.  I think it’s a good thing that we’ll be getting a second volume sooner rather than later because it’s hard to tell whether or not this whole venture is worthwhile based on what we have here.

“Superman:  Earth One,” is essentially “Ultimate Superman.”  I’m sure such a description would irk the staff at DC, but the idea behind this is essentially the same as Marvel’s most successful imprint.  This is the story of young Clark Kent, last son of the planet Krypton, raised in Smallville by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who travels to Metropolis and gets a job working at the Daily Planet newspaper alongside editor Perry White, reporter Lois Lane and photographer Jimmy Olsen.  It doesn’t present a radically different origin for the Man of Steel, but Straczynski’s efforts to add a more human dimension to it wind up backfiring in ways that an experienced writer like him should’ve been able to avoid.

The earliest scenes have Clark wowing a football recruiter with his athletic skills, and a scientific think-tank with his intelligence.  There are a few more scenes to drive home the fact that he is both A) not human and B) can do anything he wants very well.  We’re meant to see him as someone who finally has the chance to show off his skills and achieve some semblance of a normal life after hiding who he is for years on the farm.

The problem with this is twofold.  First, we know that he won’t take up any of these jobs because he goes on to become Superman and work at the Daily Planet for the quick access it gives him to the immediate problems in the city.  Second, the incredible feats he pulls off in these scenes sends a message that there’s this incredible person out there capable of performing incredible feats of physical and mental acumen.  I don’t think that they’d likely forget about him that easily and would naturally beat a path to his door to recruit him for their purposes.  Maybe this will be addressed in the second volume, but these elements feel very awkward in their current place.

Straczynski does better work with updating the established cast of the “Superman” mythos, starting with his adopted parents.  The Kents come off as decent, very likable small-town folk who take this fantastic element that has entered their lives in stride.  I also like their matter-of-fact approach to their explanation of how they’re going to explain where this kid came from to the neighbors, and why there’s a big red “S” on Superman’s outfit.  Even better is the Daily Planet crew, as Perry White’s bluster and Lois Lane’s all-business demeanor come off as endearing rather than annoying.  Best of all is Jimmy Olsen whose drive to get the best picture reaches war-reporter levels of dedication.

After all of this, we’re then introduced to the antagonists of the volume:  A fleet of alien warships led by a being who calls himself Tyrell.  They’re here in pursuit of the last survivor of the planet Krypton’s destruction, and after twenty years they’ve finally tracked him to Earth.  As “Superman” villains go, they’re not too bad but they come off as more of a vehicle for Krypton, its destruction, and for Clark to finally “find his purpose.”  It also seems that there’s going to be an ongoing story here involving the beings behind the destruction of Krypton.  Unless it’s going to be wrapped up in the second volume, I like the idea of this being an overarching story throughout this series.  It also gives me hope that this will be a finite series that will allow Straczynski to tell his “Superman” story the way he wants and then exit gracefully.  Naturally paving the way for another set of creators to make “Superman:  Earth Two.”

While I’ve detailed my issues with Straczynski’s writing in the paragraphs above, I also can’t help but feel that they would’ve been mitigated if he had been paired with a more capable artist.  Shane Davis’ strengths trend more towards the kind that you’d expect a good superhero artist to have.  There’s a lot of detail to his images, he can pull off an epic scope when he needs to, and the man can capture the excitement of mass destruction and superpowered beings beating the crap out of each other.

What he can’t do consistently is give us characters with believable facial expressions or body language.  Part of me thinks that there was a lot of photo-referencing involved with this project, but if there was Davis is a lot better at adapting it to his work than someone like Greg Land.  However, there are way too many panels in this volume where characters, Clark in particular, have odd or unnatural facial expressions, or are posed in ways that don’t seem natural and disrupt the whole mood of the book as a result.

There are two moments in particular that really stood out for me.  One is on the third panel of the very first page as Clark sits in a train with dead eyes and mouth slightly open.  He looks more like a smoker of weed than a man of steel here.  The other is when he properly adopts his “Clark Kent” guise towards the end of the volume and his wide-eyed expression combined with his goofy overbite just serves to remind me how much better Frank Quitely handled the Clark/Superman visual dichotomy in “All-Star Superman.”

So is this worth your money?  It’s certainly an event right now, but this first volume really only engaged me on a critical level.  I was more involved in thinking about how Straczynski succeeded and failed to update “Superman” for the modern era, and in noting all the panels where Clark’s expressions made me go “That’s not right.”  If you’re a big fan of the character, or the creators who are involved then you probably own this already.  At this stage, everything here comes off as setup for future stories and because of that I don’t think I’ll have a good idea about whether or not this will be worthwhile until volume two comes out.  Still, I can say that I’ll be buying it to see how it goes for myself (plus -- call it a hunch I can’t explain -- but I think that Straczynski’s Lex Luthor will wind up being a very entertaining take on the character).

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