Reviewed by Kes Seymour
Superman is an ideal. Superman is perfect – there’s nothing that he can’t do; he will always overcome any challenge (he even managed to come back from the dead in the 1990s) and this is why people love him. But it’s also why writers have struggled to create new ‘interesting’ stories about the character over the years; how do you write an engaging story about a character that can literally achieve anything? This is the difficulty that faces J Michael Straczynski in trying to present a different take on a Superman story for a new generation of readers.
In his introduction to Superman: Earth One, JMS shares his feelings on what the Superman symbol has come to represent. For him, the iconic ‘S’ means that all things are possible, and he is right – the Superman symbol stands for inspiration. Superman should motivate, be an ideal to which we should all aim towards and create a sense of hope and wonder. And not just because he is faster than a speeding bullet or able to leap a building in a single bound, but because he knows what the right thing is to do and always overcomes. People should like Superman, because there simply shouldn’t be anything unlikeable about him. Superman isn’t like the rest of us – the clue is in the name – he is a Super Man.
And yet, despite all the incredible things Superman can do that we can’t, he doesn’t remain distant or unknowable, but remains a character we warm to. This alien visitor from Krypton is arguably the most human super-hero there is. He is not fighting the good fight because his parents were gunned down in front of him when he was a child, or is on a single-minded mission of justice; he is being a hero because he can and because of the caring, loving virtues installed in him by his adoptive parents. Superman has never been ‘alone’ à la Bruce Wayne; he had an ideal family environment surrounded by friends and family; a perfectly ‘normal’ upbringing that most readers can relate to. We all want to be Superman’s ‘pal’.
Unfortunately, in trying to find a new modern take on the Superman mythos, JMS has removed all that makes Superman so unique in the first place. This young Superman is full of doubt and insecurities, and comes across as not a little selfish and petty, just like us mere mortals. There he is, on the cover of the graphic novel, looking all mean and moody, eyes glowing an angry red beneath his hoodie (his hoodie for god’s sake…) not reassuring us, but carrying on like a sulky Kevin the Teenager type who just happens to have the ability to fly and the power to level mountains – could there be anything more terrifying??
In his effort to make this current day Superman relevant, JMS has forgotten what makes Superman super in the first place and decided instead to make him grim and gritty. If I want this then I’ll read a Batman comic. We even have Clark Kent brooding over his father’s grave at one point and are later told that Clark’s mission on Earth is to “avenge the murder of his homeworld”. Seriously? Superman’s task is to avenge the destruction of Krypton? So he isn’t being Superman because he knows this is the right thing to do, he’s only being Superman out of vengeance? This alone was enough to make me want to put this book down and never look at it again.
I essentially spent the whole time reading this graphic novel simply waiting for Superman to behave like Superman and not like a tortured emo brat who sees his powers as a curse. This is not the reason why this character has been so enduring for almost 80 years!
I understand the need to make a character with a long, convoluted history accessible to new readers and to have a stand-alone story that anyone can read, but not at the expense of what made the character so popular in the first place.
Marvel Comics successfully modernised a lot of their heroes ten years ago, with their Ultimate line, starting with Spider-Man. Yes, a lot of the Spider-Man story was brought up to date, but the basic building blocks of the character were kept in place. They didn’t need to change what made this character already great, they just needed to start again without the clutter of a convoluted history that would put off the casual reader.
And this is what makes Superman: Earth One feels like such a missed opportunity; to show new readers what made Superman so awe-inspiring in the first place, to give new readers that sense of excitement that JMS talks about when see the Superman symbol. After reading this graphic novel I just can’t imagine any kid being inspired to throw a bed sheet around his shoulders and leap about pretending to be Superman which is a real shame.
A final word about the art – this is a graphic novel after all. Shane Davis’s pencil work is serviceable, if not a little dull. Metropolis itself looks quite striking, although there are times at night it resembles more of a dangerous Gotham (“it gets kinda dicey around here some nights”… sigh…), and I wish we got to see more of Davis’s take on Krypton which looked suitably impressive. The real problem lies with the lack of energy and motion in the action scenes – everything looks too static and pedestrian. When I had finished reading this I couldn’t remember a single stand-out splash-page, or an iconic Superman image. And is too much to ask to see Superman smile, just the once?
With monthly comic sales in decline I sincerely welcome any attempt to draw new readers towards the medium. The fact that this graphic novel has been a best-seller will hopefully mean that more people will go into comic shops. But for accessible, told-in-one stories then please consider Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns or the astonishing All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, both of which retain the joy and wonder of Superman without resorting to angst-ridden clichés and an uninspiring, un-super Superman.