Can J. Michael Straczynski, Shane Davis, and DC Comics reinvent Superman?
Credits & Solicit Info:
Hardcover: 136 pages
Publisher: DC Comics (October 27, 2010)
J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, joins forces with rising star artist Shan Davis (SUPERMAN/BATMAN: THE SEARCH FOR KRYPTONITE) to create this original graphic novel that gives new insight into Clark Kent's transformation into Superman and his first year as The Man of Steel. This is the first in a new wave of original DC Universe graphic novels, featuring top writers' and illustrators' unique takes on DC characters.
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How do you take a character that's over seventy-five years old, and arguably the most recognizable character in the history of pop culture, and reinvent him so that he's accessible to new readers? It sounds like an impossible task, but this is what acclaimed writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Shane Davis set out to do with Superman: Earth One, the first in a series of new original graphic novels produced by DC that aims to do for DC's iconic roster what Marvel's Ultimate Universe did for theirs in the past decade.
Despite comic book mythology experiencing an all time high in popularity in pop culture through the abundance of comic related movies and television shows, it's no secret that the core comic book publishing industry is struggling to find new readers. While there have been thousands of articles written on this subject that can explore the reasons far more deeply than this review, most can agree that part of the trouble in converting movie, cartoon, or video game fans into comic fans is the huge amount of history and continuity that is perceived as baggage attached to comic books, especially ones focusing on 75 year old characters. At the same time, the existing readership base, many of whom are lifelong readers, cling to this continuity with a passion bordering on xenophobia. This presents a daunting challenge that Straczynski and Davis must try to overcome: to find a balance that pleases the old fans while at the same time creating new fans.
In an amazing feat of artistic prowess, both writer and artist are up to the task!
First, let's examine Straczynski's take on Superman's origin. Clark Kent's life in Smallville is revealed throughout the book in flashbacks, while the main story takes place as Clark comes to Metropolis at a crossroads in life, deciding what he wants to do and who he wants to be. Here are the facts: Clark crash-landed in the country, the lone survivor of a destroyed world, and was found by Jonathan (now deceased) and Martha Kent, who decided to raise him as their own. As Clark grows into a young man, he is instilled with the good-hearted values of his parents, while at the same time manifesting amazing powers that set him apart from the rest of humanity.
This is the the core Superman concept, of course. Superman is an alien who is different from everyone he knows and will ever know on Earth, but he was raised as a human being and as an American, and those Clark Kent values are what define him. Straczynski conveys this basic concept naturally as part of the story, never ham-handedly shoving it in the reader's face, but making it absolutely clear through Clark's interactions with his parents, his search for a job, his struggle with finding himself, and his eventual choice to put the needs of humanity above his own.
What Straczynski does for Clark and his family, he also does for the supporting cast in Metropolis. The staff of the Daily Planet are all introduced here, and their archetypes are explicitly laid out and hammered into familiarity. The nobility of Perry White, the drive of Lois Lane, and the courage of a reinvigorated Jimmy Olsen are on display whenever these characters appear. Though the journalistic integrity of the Planet staff may seem quaint at times, it serves to compliment the strength of Superman's own character, and reinforces the core concept of this book.
On the artistic side, Shane Davis does a brilliant job of redesigning Superman. Most noticeably, Clark is smaller and less beefy, falling more in line with the modern concept of a heartthrob than the 75 year old original design. In drawing Clark in his civilian clothing, as well as in depicting the setting and the people around him, Davis manages to depict a modern world without resorting to trendiness, showing foresight in avoiding a look which will feel dated by the end of the decade. Clark wears a hoodie, and hoodies will always be in style. Davis is a pro for certain, and his art is flawless and beautiful, but it is greatly enhanced by the colors, which are often muted and do a wonderful job of setting the tone from scene to scene.
The weakest part of the design aspect, and the book in general, is the elephant in the room that is the Superman costume itself. The very history and iconic nature of the character make impossible to drastically alter this costume (Straczynski's own gushing over the symbol in the introduction illustrates this perfectly), but there's no way that any young man in modern times would decide to wear bright blue tights with red underwear on the outside and a giant red cape to fight crime and save the planet, that is, without being influenced by the comic book superhero itself, a paradox which we have no room to explore here. And yet, Superman must wear this to be Superman, and so the story necessarily devotes some time to trying to explain this away, with some words on the meaning of the "S" symbol, as well as the built-in excuse of the indestructible nature of the blanket material from which it was made and the need for an outfit that would not be stripped off by the wind as Superman flies around at super speed, exposing his super private parts. The team does as good a job as possible with this problem, and hopefully only the most devoted of geeks will worry about how Martha Kent was able to unravel the individual threads of the blanket to create the costume.
So we've established that Superman: Earth One successfully captures the essence of Superman, but that alone isn't enough to warrant a new line of books. The book needs to explore other themes and concepts in order to have real merit, and Straczynski does just that. One in particular is the theme of distrust of Superman by the human beings he's out to save, a concept that's more traditionally Spider-Man than Superman. The alien invasion that Superman thwarts to end this story is in fact his own responsibility, and a modern, cynical world rightfully wonders if the whole thing is a setup to earn Earth's trust for later betrayal. This theme is present both in the people on the street, shown commenting on this very thing at the end of the book, as well as in the ongoing sideplot of a government agency that has been studying the remains of the Kryptonian escape ship since it arrived on Earth, and is now tasked with studying Superman himself. In addition, the story explores the concepts of alienation and fitting in, all packed together in what is essentially a coming of age story for Clark Kent.
To say that Straczynski squeezes seventy-five years of history and characterization into one single graphic novel might be hyperbole, but it is, in essence, what he does here, and he does it in the framework of a classic story that has the potential to appeal to just about anyone. That, combined with the fact that DC is utilizing the Original Graphic Novel format to try to reach new readers through the mainstream market, instead of the uninviting niche of the comic book shop, gives me hope that DC will be leading the charge into the future of the comic book format. Pick up a copy of Superman: Earth One, if not for yourself, than for a friend or loved one who needs to be introduced to the wonderful world of comics.
Rating: BUY IT!
My rating scale:
BUY IT - You have to read this for the foreseeable future.
TRY IT - Worth at least a few issues.
WAIT FOR IT - Pick this up in trade if it lives up to its potential.
SKIP IT - Spend your money on something better
Review by: Jude Terror