"Superman: Earth One"

Brikar

The Dude
Jan 1, 1970
3,661
3
0
Massachusetts
#1
Picked up this new graphic novel by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis.

Superman's origin is one of my favorite stories. I've read and watched numerous versions of it, and it never feels tired to me. I always enjoy seeing the tragic end of Krypton, a young boy raised well by caring parents who instill in him a great sense of morality... and the ultimate arrival of Earth's greatest hero.

This story has been redone and altered and expanded in live action, animation, novels, the broad strokes of it remaining largely the same while the details shift and change. 2010 sees this story told twice in comics - in the six-issue "Secret Origin" by Geoff Johns and in hardcover graphic novel "Earth One" by J. Michael Straczynski.

I haven't read "Secret Origin" yet (waiting for the trade) but I picked up "Earth One" today. There's a lot of hype surrounding this release. Straczynski strives to reinvent Superman in a more modern interpretation, placing Superman in a world that's basically our own. There are no other superheroes running around, no cackling, maniacal villains... just people. The problem is that "Superman: Birthright" did a much better job of creating a 'modern' Superman... and it was twice as long, to boot, giving Mark Waid a lot more room to explore his plot and characters.

Straczynski's Clark Kent is 20 years old and unsure of himself. He went to community college and is now moving to Metropolis, aimless and trying to find direction for himself. He tries out for professional sports teams, applies for jobs at high tech research firms, construction jobs, etc. Basically he walks around showing himself off a lot, but still can't find anything he really wants to do. Finally he applies for a job at the Daily Planet, a newspaper on the verge of folding. The Planet is dying at the hands of the Internet, and Perry White tells Clark there might be work for him... except that Clark writes like he's "holding something back."

Clark spends a lot of time wandering the streets in his jacket and hoodie, looking through cafe windows and seeing happy hipsters inside like some kind of pathetic, super-powered Tiny Tim.

One day, a fleet of alien ships arrives and begins to attack Earth. Clark fights off some of the aliens, who announce to the world that they've arrived looking for someone - guess who?

Straczynski's major contribution to this origin of Superman is that Krypton wasn't destroyed by a natural disaster, but by a superweapon that destabilizes the planet's core. Now the aliens responsible have found the last Kryptonian and are planning on killing him and doing the same to Earth. I'm not really sure what this accomplishes aside from helping to set up a sequel after Clark manages to defeat these aliens (the weapon was given to them by someone else who wanted Krypton and all of its people destroyed, for reasons we're not told).

The book is only about 120 pages or so, essentially the length of six comic issues. As a result, things move fast and Clark is literally the only character given any kind of exploration whatsoever. Lois and Jimmy appear and serve a purpose to the plot... but that's it. Neither of them are given much in the way of a personality, though Lois gets a nice scene arguing with Perry.

The major problem I've had with Straczynski's comics work is his dialogue; it's generally pretty awful. He has a tendency to try and make all of his characters deliver these mythic speeches. A key scene in "Earth One" involves Jimmy explaining to the villain that he doesn't run like the other human bystanders because of his dedication to the truth as a news photographer. This scene could easily have been accomplished without such heavy-handed dialogue, and it's a problem that runs through the entire story.

So the story and characters are way too slight; this thing really needed to be about twice as long as it is to really explore the ideas it presents. Straczynski also needs to work on his dialogue. He wanted to set this story in our world, and make it all "gritty" and "realistic," but none of his characters speak in a realistic manner. The fake news article interviewing Superman included at the end of the book is much more natural and easy to read than the whole rest of the story.

Shane Davis' artwork is fine. Imagine if Jim Lee didn't have as much control over his pencils, and that's pretty much what you've got. It's very detailed, but sometimes rather inconsistent and occasionally characters seem to be striking odd poses. The colors are pretty subdued - the script talks about the "bright colors" of Superman's costume, but on the page they look somewhat dull - the reds closer to maroon. The costume itself is nice, though, looking a lot like the suit in "Superman Returns," which keeps all the same basics of the costume but streamlines things.

I'm disappointed with "Superman: Earth One" - it's too short and the dialogue is generally pretty lame. If it had more breathing room and an editor willing to tell Straczynski to knock off the speechifying, it could've been really cool.
 

Brikar

The Dude
Jan 1, 1970
3,661
3
0
Massachusetts
#3
"Birthright" was a 12-issue series from 2004 by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu. In that story, Clark sets off across the world taking jobs at newspapers and wire services all over, including Africa where he does a story on a revolutionary figure fighting for his lower-class tribe's right to be represented in government - and he does so despite the constant threat of assassination from his enemies, and Clark finds his story inspiring.

Clark communicates with his mother constantly via email and IM; his mother has become something of a UFO nut, constantly searching for clues about Clark's true nature by reading about other alien encounters. Clark comes home after his journey to Africa with the idea to make a costume and a persona for himself to help people. (In JMS' story, his parents force the idea of being a costumed hero on Clark and he doesn't like it. He keeps the costume balled up in the bottom of his closet until he sees Jimmy stand up to the villain with that idiotic speech about news photographers' duty to the truth at the cost of their own lives.)

"Birthright" also spends nearly an entire issue on Clark and his parents trying to figure out ways to hide the fact that he's Superman - they focus on changing his posture, his hair, making sure he always wears baggy clothing to hide the fact that he's got a body like Mr Universe, the glasses that change the shape of his face, etc.

All the while, he has this alien tablet computer that came in the ship with him, but he has no idea how to use it or how to read the kryptonian language. But someone DOES know how to read the language: Lex Luthor. Luthor was Clark's childhood friend in this version of the story (a lot like 'Smallville') but years later he's become so miserable and hateful of his brilliant mind imprisoned by the insufficient technology of the time and the people around him that he refuses to even acknowledge that he used to know Clark. He's a vicious, ruthless businessman with a sense of superiority and entitlement. When he first encounters Superman, he demands to know where he got his 'flying technology' - so he can buy it. Superman snubs him, and that starts off the rivalry between the two.

As I said, the story is twice as long as JMS', and it takes time to explore its characters and setting a lot more. The Daily Planet in "Birthright" isn't struggling like JMS' version, but is always on the cusp of technology - scenes in the newsroom often have background conversations about people needing to upload breaking news to the web, pictures are sent instantly, etc.

"Birthright" also has a better way of connecting Superman's first appearance as Earth's hero to Krypton. "Birthright" really is a fantastic title because it explores that "S" symbol and how it means different things to different people - to the people of Earth, it's "Superman," but Clark discovers that it's a Kryptonian symbol full of history; it's like a graphic representation of his entire heritage.

JMS story is, ultimately, about a boy with super-powers who doesn't know what to do with them until the world is suddenly in danger because of him. "Birthright" is about a man who chooses to stand up and become a hero because it's the right thing to do.

Yu's artwork can be a little off-putting - His characters, particularly the women, can look pretty damn ugly at times, but there's something very energetic about. He tells the story well and does a good job capturing motion. There's a lot of great, iconic moments like Superman saving Jimmy who's fallen out of a damaged helicopter, or Superman standing in the line of fire between enemy soldiers and an innocent child... "Earth One" has none of that.

"Birthright" is just a bigger, bolder telling in every way. It feels more modern at every turn, exploring not just why Superman does what he does, but also how the people around him react to it. It has an excellent Lex Luthor (Luthor doesn't even appear in "Earth One"), Lois and Jimmy get actual character development, and the world is carefully constructed even if it is more "comic book" than the one JMS writes.