Monday, November 1, 2010

Signal Watch Reads "Superman: Earth One"

DC recently released "Superman: Earth One".  The book is a hard re-boot of Superman aimed at all-ages and intended for the book store market.  The title itself holds clues as to this story's place in the DC Universe*, and as a sign to its own readership that this book indicates a major effort in how DC Comics hopes to reach the public going forward.

I recommend visiting Comics Alliance for a preview.

Why this book exists

Basically, Superman: Earth One exists as a "my very first Superman book" for today's audience.  This strategy seems to have angered/ confused virtually every comic reader with an internet connection, who have pointed out (correctly) that DC literally just finished running a series called Superman: Secret Origin that also tells the story of the early years of Superman.  However, they missed the part where the series was only available in comic shops and intensely tied to monthly Superman comics, which meant you kind of needed to be familiar with stuff that ran 15-40 years before I was born.  That doesn't mean Superman: Secret Origin wasn't doing its job (it did just fine), but its a comic for longtime Superman readers.

I applaud DC's decision to put together a Superman comic I would feel I could hand to pretty much anyone interested in the character, especially folks only familiar with Superman from bumper stickers and t-shirt emblems. 

Most importantly, DC wrote this comic as a graphic novel.  The 120 page book is not a reprint of a multi-issue series, but one, continuous novel.  There are a lot of reasons for moving to the 120 page format.  The current crop of younger readers have come up on comics in the manga format, which arrives in book-sized volumes, with some series running dozens of volumes.  Its far more book-store friendly and book reviewer friendly. 

I don't think DC's decision to make their first release arrive in a hard cover with a $20 cover price was a great call.  A $13 soft cover was probably more in line with what people might like, and I'll get to my issues with the page count as we progress.

The Creative Team

I've been a fan of artist Shane Davis since reading his run on Mystery in Space with Jim Starlin, and figured at the time I read that series that DC would eventually move him to Superman (if you'd seen his version of Captain Comet, you'd know why).  While DC doesn't really have a "house style", they do tilt toward a more illustrative approach when it comes to The Man of Steel.  Davis' characters are pretty great, but he also handles the details of the background with such detail its a bit mindboggling. His page layout is fairly strong if a bit unspectacular, but maybe they don't need "experimental" when it comes to introducing DC Comics to a new readership.

Writer J. Michael Straczynski is best known for either his TV series Babylon 5 or for the script for the recent Clint Eastwood movie Changeling.  He's written original comics series such as Rising Stars, and I was a fan of his work on The Amazing Spider-Man.  He's responsible for the much-debated "Grounded" storyline in the regular Superman comics and the alternate history Wonder Woman that led to Wonder Woman's recent adoption of pants and a jacket as part of her costume.

Clark's Much-discussed Look

Had the non-comics press not had such a bizarre reaction to seeing a 20 or 21-year old Superman in casual-wear, it never would have occurred to me to spend much time discussing "the look" of Clark Kent when he arrives in Metropolis.  Yes, he's wearing a jacket.  Its not even, technically, a "hoodie" (which I think is a fleece sort of thing, right?).  It actually looks like a standard-issue motorcycle jacket that has a hood.  As per the "hipster" look?  He doesn't wear ironic facial hair, nor is his hair particularly either elaborate or Bieber-ish, but it is age appropriate for guys that age from what I see on campus these days (but makes me wonder about the shelf-life of this book).  And he wears jeans, which are also drawn in the current style, but not "skinny jeans".  If anything, and I think this is what non-comics press is feeling but doesn't quite know it, is that this is not the same Clark Kent-in-a-suit Superman we've seen since Action Comics #1, striding into the offices of a crusading Major Metropolitan Newspaper and confidently claiming a job.  This is a 20-year-old Kent coming to the big city to figure out what he's going to do with the rest of his life.  For that, jeans, an oxford shirt and a jacket is exactly appropriate.

Curiously, this Superman is intentionally portrayed of average height and lean build.  Likely all the better to hide an identity with, but I think that will cause some confusion amongst folks whose vision of Superman is 6'4" and 230 lbs.

And lest there be any confusion, as I discussed in a post dated October 26th, when it comes time for action, Clark puts on "the suit".  While I've seen preview images for months and knew that Davis had not made any significant changes (really, only stylistic stuff that a Superman fan would take note of), its interesting to see that DC has decided that supporting the franchise does mean a constant look and feel to their staple characters.

The Story

Straczynski sets up our Superman in a way that will pre-empt the sorts of questions that you'd guess Clark Kent would ponder before putting on the cape, and that's the goal of the story's narrative, really.  The passing of his adoptive father has led to him leaving Smallville and arriving in Metropolis to figure out what he's going to do with the rest of his life.  Its clear Clark felt both life and opportunity were passing him, and his arrival in Metropolis is as a grieving, lost young man rather than as a jaunty, snappily dressed reporter. 

Its clear from a very early age that Clark is unique, and despite the best efforts of his parents, he's had to live on the edge of his peers so as not to reveal his true abilities his entire existence.  In this story, there is no Superboy, but its also not the slow appearance of powers.  This child is capable of extraordinary things from his earliest days.  He knows he is likely from space, but knows nothing of the familiar Kryptonian origin.

What he will do with his innate ability in a world that has never known superheroes isn't any more obvious to Clark, just as finding oneself with powers in today's world would be almost a non-starter.  The comic follows Clark as he explores professions that match his abilities from pro-athlete to scientist, seeking to provide a comfortable life for the widowed Martha Kent.  Clark's interest in The Daily Planet is an interesting character reveal as reporting is a genuine challenge for his abilities.  Curiously, in this version, it seems to have been the vision of Martha and Jonathan Kent to see their son use his abilities to become something the world has never before seen.  

The threat that hurdles Clark into action is not the downed plane that's been a staple of the story since Byrne and Wolfman's 1980's relaunch.  Instead, its the arrival of an interplanetary threat.

JMS's Daily Planet seems a bit like a ghost ship, a newspaper trying to exist in 2010, rather than the multi-media news outlet that's been envisioned of late in Earth-0.   While Lois and Jim Olsen are killing themselves trying to live out a noble vision of themselves as legitimate journalists, the paper struggles to survive.

I quite like this Perry, Lois and Jim, even if I can't quite sort out why Jim needs to be age-equivalent or older than Clark in this version.  Lois is what she should be:  bull-headed, confident to the point of recklessness and seemingly a good few years older than Clark (I've always thought Lois needed more general life experience than Clark for her to feel genuine amazement at seeing Superman), but we only see the first seeds of that relationship in this book. 

If I have a story related gripe its that the book could have expanded out another 100 pages.  I know that's a lot to ask for, but in an era of decompression (which this comic gladly indulges in), it seems that choosing a page count driven by publishing needs over the needs of the story has meant that we don't get as much development of characters other than Clark as would have befitted a true "novel", and that's a lot of potential for a satisfactory story lost.  Hoping a Volume 2 is enabled by sales and that's where we'll expand upon the premise isn't a great sell.

So how does it work?

Straczynski manages to achieve the goal of starting Superman from square one, an effort that hasn't really been achieved in the comics since 1938.  There are no echoes or winking nods to prior incarnations, no guest appearances by other DC properties, and the story is lean and clean in its presentation.  Perhaps its because Straczynski is a Superman fan, he's heard the questions that pop up around the concept of a Superman (that aren't new to Superman, I might mention, and were part of the criticism of comics in general during the Senate hearings of 50-odd years ago).  In many ways, answering those questions is the secondary part of the narrative, and as a fan, I can appreciate that JMS decided to take that head on, right out of the gate.**  He doesn't provide easy answers, and I suspect that additional volumes of Superman: Earth One will continue to deal with these questions.

I have some reservations about Superman revealing himself as a planetary protector rather than as how Kal-El appeared as a populist protector in 1938 or a surprising guardian angel with the rescue of a space plane in Byrne's Man of Steel.  Or...  even as Lois Lane's rescuer in Superman: The Movie.   There's something oddly circular about JMS's plotline (which is exactly the kind of self-contained stuff Hollywood loves, btw), and its something JMS addresses in the final pages of the book, which actually gives me hope for his plans for future installments, but...  I've always found it important to the character that Superman's first appearance was something very earth-bound and tied to things that the reader could immediately understand as a threat.  If Superman appears mid-alien invasion...  it somehow dilutes the wonder of the character and what it means for the world.

I'm just not sure that JMS and Davis ever really sell that "gee whiz" moment you need for the debut of Superman, and if that doesn't happen in this volume, the moment is passed.   Frankly, it's hard to top what Waid and Yu did in Birthright, which I still remember putting a genuine smile across my face (plus, you could totally see what a Superman would see in Waid's Lois).  

I'm not sure its quite fair that news outlets couldn't allow this first volume to feature a broody, moody Clark Kent.  This isn't a mopey vampire Clark Kent, this is a kid with serious issues on his mind.  One of the stock criticisms of Superman is that pop-culture bloggers, et al assume that Superman never went through any decision making process, that he just knew he was a good guy and what he should do, and that makes the character unbelievable.  Of course we know he's going to put on the cape (this is Superman), but the how's and why's are important, but there's no feeling of pre-destination, no Jor-EL floating head to insist on the super-lifestyle, only the haunting notion that Jonathan Kent wanted his adopted son to be all he could, and that's got some narrative weight.

So is it going to take the world by storm?

At the end of the day, its far more apparent to a comics and Superman enthusiast what DC is trying to do with Superman than it is to the people DC has tried to enlist to help promote the Earth One book publishing effort.  I am uncertain if a single non-comics reader will be interested in picking up the book, and I strongly suspect a lot of any success will depend on word of mouth among the teenage demographic.  Another Superman book tucked in amongst the dozen others on the shelf at Barnes & Noble isn't going to be a particular stand-out, so something else will have to give.

DC has played it very close to the vest regarding how often these books will hit the rack, and, frankly, I think anything less than every 4-5 months is going to be ruled a mistake.  For a kid, a year is a very long time between volumes.  Frankly, I would have really liked this book at age 13 (and I like it very well at age 35).  But I cannot imagine having to wait an entire year for another installment.  Not when you can walk into Borders and see 30-odd volumes of Naruto or Ranma 1/2 sitting in the shelf. 

Content-wise, there is plenty to like, especially if you aren't coming to the books with preconceived notions.  I do think DC has a very interesting book on their hands, and who knows what the kids will find interesting?  Certainly the "conflicted" Clark Kent is more in line with the sorts of characters kids get starting in their cartoons these days, and that should definitely play better than the he-man, awesome-at-everything Superman in street and super clothes that Byrne and Wolfman launched in the 1980's.***

I sincerely hope this works out and DC can continue with this line.  Its an intriguing publishing strategy, and its great to see DC taking steps to meet the marketplace where it lives.  Moreover, I genuinely did enjoy the comic, faults and all.  Its got some issues, but many are just things I see as a longtime Superman nut.  When this thing comes to paperback, I hope you get a chance to check it out.

*DC has used the concept of parallel dimensions (ie:  numbered Earths) since the late 50's.  "Earth One" indicates that this book takes place on a different "Earth" than the one seen in the monthly floppy comics, which is currently designated "Earth Zero".

**similarly, I think JMS's "Grounded" storyline is well intentioned in addressing questions around Superman in standard-issue Superman comics.

***I prefer a sort of wacky take on Clark Kent, myself, especially the "me?  Superman?" take of George Reeves.


Anonymous said...

$20 is too much if DC wants to expand the readership.


The League said...

I've said this since the project was announced a year ago. The math is not hard. Go to Amazon and see what they're charging for a volume of Naruto. About $10 for a softcover.

Interestingly Amazon was selling the hardcover of "S: E1" for $11 before it ran out of copies...

Kids do not care about owning a hardcover copy. That's for bibliophiles and collectors.

Man, they have a hard time shaking off old habits.