J. Michael Straczynski's new hardcover graphic novel Superman: Earth One portrays Superman as an extraterrestrial who forces himself to masquerade as a human twentysomething. Here's our review and interview with DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio.
Note: This article contains minor spoilers.
Every time the Superman franchise jumps to a new media, we inevitably get some iteration of his origin story (i.e. baby Kryptonian crash-lands on the Kent farm, is raised to be a homespun demigod). Given that it's a modern update of the Superman story, Superman: Earth One doesn't stray wildly from this formula. When artwork of the hoodie-clad Clark Kent hit the internet, there was chatter that the picture (top) portended a gritty or emo Superman. Luckily, the Earth One Clark Kent is a good guy, and the book makes a strong case that the Kents are the reason he doesn't grow up to be like that creepy god-child from The Twilight Zone.
How does the origin story in Superman: Earth One diverge from traditional portrayals of the hero? First off, Clark's powers manifest the minute he crawls out of his escape pod. The Kents also hide Clark to protect themselves. They discover his downed spaceship while camping and hightail it once black helicopters begin investigating the vessel. This book is the diametric opposite of Straczynski's 2003 Marvel series Supreme Power, which starred an alien infant pressganged into superheroics by the US government. The Kents encourage their son to be an übermensch, but he's raised without any knowledge of Kryptonian heritage — he knows he's an alien, but being human is all he's got.
Straczynski's emphasis on Clark's alienness is the book's strongest point, and artist Shane Davis rightly gives the book a photorealistic look to drive home that this is more science fiction than superhero romp. There are no pastels, other heroes, undulating bosoms, or juiced deltoids. Clark is a lithe guy in a gray and brown world, and he only dons the S as an emergency. There's a certain amount of disbelief that must be suspended here (a.k.a. Clark's a humanoid), but this is a Superman story — he's not going to look like a space walrus or lion.
I did have some quibbles with this book. First off, we know that the Kents raised their son right, but we don't see how they taught him to be an upstanding citizen instead of, say, Earth's dictator — Jonathan and Martha do inculcate Clark with good values, but it seems too easy at times. I do hope future volumes delve into the Kents' struggles raising their son. Also, I wasn't a fan of the alien villain's design. Superman: Earth One guns for verisimilitude, but the villain's appearance seemed somewhat 1990s.
Superman: Earth One is the superhero's entrance into the book market, and it's apropos that Clark Kent's situations mirrors that of a Harry Potter or Bella. He's preternaturally special, and angry strangers wants a piece of him for unknown reasons. All in all, this is a handsome, rock-solid Superman fable that gets to the scifi pith of his legend. The book begins with the Kents giving him a future, and it closes with his Kryptonian side narrowing his destiny. Clark's doesn't fit in either world yet, but thankfully he doesn't waste time wringing his hands either.
Last week, we had the opportunity to speak with DC's co-publisher Dan DiDio, who spearheaded the Earth One initiative. Here's what DiDio told us about the book:
What was the genesis of Superman: Earth One?
One of things I wanted to create was original material that is built as books. So much that we do is in collected edition form with periodicals bound together, but there's a certain style of storytelling that allows itself in a book format, and we wanted to address it with our primary characters, starting with Superman. In this particular case, we reached out to Joe Straczynski, who's a longtime Superman fan. The twist was we wanted a Superman story as if Superman arrived today. What would his interests be? What would his sensibilities be? How would he become a hero? Once we had that discussion with Joe, he went with it, and I think he set every goal we set out for.
In this book, you have characters core to the Superman mythos — Jimmy, Lois, his parents — but you also have new villains and a shadowy big bad. Was this intentional?
We didn't want to go out and reestablish this world with all of the Superman trappings right from the start. The different villain gives Superman a different set of motivations, and it really helps set the book apart from the continuing lore of the periodicals. It's accessible, but it also offers something different for Superman fans.
What sort of release schedule are we looking at for Superman: Earth One?
We want to put out at least one of these per year. We've looked at what's going on in the bookstore market with continuing characters in fiction, and what we do best at DC is continuing characters. Every book should stand alone and have its own continuity — it's comparable to things like the James Bond books.
Batman's making his Earth One debut in 2011 — any other DC characters in the pipeline?
We want to keep the focus on Superman right now, but we do have a long-term plan for this series of books. I keep on pitching Outsiders: Earth One but they keep shooting me down! [Dan currently pens Outsiders.]
[For example,] we had incredible success with Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's Joker graphic novel. That wasn't trying to follow any sort of continuity but it really stood unto itself. That book's not connected to what Geoff Johns is doing in Batman: Earth One, though.
Should fans interpret the Earth One of the title as its literal designation within the DC multiverse?
For the casual fan it's a designator; for the hardcore fan, it's within the Multiverse.
Does the revamping of Superman in the Earth One format give us any sort of hints about the direction Zach Snyder's going in with the new film?
[Laugh] This book is an important publishing initiative for us. Again, one of the things we look at are all the forms of distribution that exist presently in comics. What we want to do is rather than keep repackaging material over and over in different distribution streams, we really want to find ways to craft new materials that really take advantage of the format. That's not just with regards to periodicals or collected editions or digital — it's with regards to all of them combined.
Superman: Earth One comes out October 27 in comic shops and book stores November 2.