Superman: Earth One
by J. Michael Straczynski, Shane Davis (DC Comics, 2010)

Is there really a need for yet another retelling of Superman's origins?

Since his first appearance in 1938, Superman's humble begins have been revisited, revised and revamped on numerous occasions. Some alterations to his personal history were subtle, while others -- perhaps most notably John Byrne's version of the hero in 1986 -- made significant changes.

Superman: Earth One is the most recent reboot, written by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrated by Shane Davis. Here, Superman -- and his alter-ego, Clark Kent -- get an entirely new, if somewhat familiar, polish.

Clark is 20 years old and newly moved to Metropolis, leaving behind his recently widowed mother and with no ambition greater than to get a high-paying job so he can support her. He has no aspirations to be a hero here (despite his parents' obvious encouragement in a series of flashbacks), and so he spends several pages trying out possible careers, from football pro to physicist. He of course excels at everything he tries, but he drifts aimlessly between interviews ... until he gets to the Daily Planet and is told he's not very good as a writer and, besides, there aren't any openings. Of course, that's the job Clark wants.

And then the aliens invade.

The biggest goof of the book is Superman's first adventure, the event that spurs him to don the garish outfit his mother lovingly made him and thrust himself into the public eye. In previous definitive versions of the tale, it's a falling aircraft that draws Superman into the spotlight; Straczynski apparently felt that was too mundane, so he instead conjures an alien invasion on the scale of the film Independence Day, with countless spaceships beating the world into submission in a 20-year-old quest to find and kill the last surviving Kryptonian.

Frankly, it's all a bit overblown. It's so large, it precludes much that might top it in the future. I mean, what's your encore if you saved the entire planet in the very first scene?

I guess Straczynski wanted to instill in Superman a sense, not only of duty, but of guilt. A lot of folks died in an attack meant for him, after all, so now he's got that burden to carry. (One might expect such an experience to make him all broody and dark, but no, he's pretty cheerful by the next scene.) Oh, and the sentient supership that carried young Superman to Earth and has, since crashing into a Kansas mountainside (Uh, what? Kansas is pretty flat, guys.) been resting in a government research lab is a really stupid idea, especially when it suddenly heals itself, busts out of lockup and saves the day.

Oh, and the main villain here is really stupid-looking.

Besides Clark, we get to meet a few members of the usual Superman cast: Jonathan and Martha Kent, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. For the most part, they're Jonathan, Martha, Lois, Jimmy and Perry. No big surprises there. Clark himself is the only real divergence from the norm; he no longer has the innate drive to help people that has always defined him. He also has fewer qualms about killing, it seems, since there's not an alien left alive by the end of the book.

Straczynski's writing is strong and, if read in a vacuum, would rank as a highly successful book ... but it's not really Superman. This new take on the character (some have likened it to DC's version of Marvel's successful "Ultimate" reboot of Spider-Man) might impress young readers who aren't already steeped in Superman lore -- who are, apparently, the target audience anyway -- but to us old-timers, aspects of this tale ring false. On the other hand, Davis's art is pretty darn good, and reading the book is a pleasant visual experience.

To answer my own question at the top, yes, I suppose there is room in the world for new versions of the Superman tale. But, for all the positive things one could say about this story, I'm not sure Earth One is quite up to snuff.

review by
Tom Knapp

19 March 2011

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