Shadowhawk reviews J. Michael Straczynski’s latest installment of his excellent Superman: Earth One graphic novel series.
“Amazing, simply amazing. A real vision, a real depth, and a real hero with real conflicts.” ~Shadowhawk
I’m a huge Superman fan. Movies or comics or television, I grew up with Superman featuring prominently in my childhood, right alongside Batman. The old Warner Bros animated series, where he was voiced by Tim Daly, was simply amazing in its presentation of the entire Superman mythology and setting. The Justice League series cemented my love for the character even further. And of course, I’ve seen the Christopher Reeve films several times and am a big fan of Smallville, even though the later seasons didn’t really grab me all that much. Comics played a smaller role for me, but getting back into the swing of things recently on that front, I was really excited to dig into this old-but-gold character. Only thing was that George Perez and Dan Jurgens absolutely failed to live up to my expectations. The 12 issues these guys wrote (six each) were just plain terrible, with big changes to the character, and the complete downplay of Lois Lane in Clarke’s life. I was so put off by all this that I’ve dropped the series off my monthly pull-lists, since I’ve lost faith in DC’s ongoing vision of Superman. Plus, when a title changes creative teams THREE times within 12 months, something is clearly wrong at the high level.
But along came J. Michael Straczynski, and my faith has been restored. Not much, mind you, but a little. I’ve enjoyed JMS’ Before Watchmen run with Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl so far, and his name, plus the fact that he was writing Superman, my childhood hero, made me pick up this title. I had high expectations of the title, since Superman: Earth One Volume 1 is practically universally raved about in the blogger circles I follow. This is highly presumptuous of me to say this, but I feel compelled to say that JMS proved worthy of my expectations. He gave me an experience that is right about on par with my previous superb experiences with the character.
At the meta level, the story is pretty simple: Clark became the next big thing with his article on Superman but Perry warns him not to rest on his laurels and deliver another piece that can show that Clark Kent is not a one-trick pony, essentially. Lois, understandably miffed that a new guy like Clarke got such a big story, has suspicions about him and begins to probe into his background in Smallville. Meanwhile, a shifty guy named Raymond blows up another guy who betrayed him and sets to cleaning up after him, accidentally turning into the super-villain Parasite, who feeds off on all kinds of energy. Superman, having barely taken big steps into the superhero deal, now faces an important task ahead of him, because Parasite can just about kill him, if he isn’t careful. The story is not that different from most such Superman stories. Where JMS shines however, is in the details, and how he structures the script to show Superman wins the day, not just by brawn, but with brains, and makes him go through a collective experience that ends up changing him for the better.
Clark Kent/Superman’s characterisation in this book is just amazing. The mild-mannered reporter is still getting his feet wet. He is on the lookobut for his next byline, and is moving into Metropolis for good. He is still enjoying the beginnings of his new life. And he’s being global in his identity as Superman. He doesn’t limit himself to American problems, and he truly is interested in saving people everywhere. This of course brings him in contention with various governments since they all see him as American. When Clark goes to help the survivors of a flood in a small Asian country, he is forced off by threat of civilians being murdered in retaliation since the authorities don’t want his help. This raises more uncertainty in Clark about where his priorities actually are and where they should be. JMS excels in providing the hero with so many challenges, big and small, to contend with. Yes, he succeeds in thes e tasks, but the road to that success is incredibly rocky and dangerous.
I loved all the little touches in the story. Lois calls up one of Clark’s school teachers to get the rundown on him. The teacher tells her how Clark was once a bright, promising student with top grades, and then how he began to get worse, just so people would stop noticing him, and pick on him as a kid. That whole exchange is really heart-warming, and it makes the story just that tiny bit more one of human interest, as that would apply to Clark. A penniless bum who lives on the street right outside Clark’s building ends up having much more of an effect on him than is readily apparent. The mortality of life, that’s the theme there, and JMS makes Clark confront that theme at a very emotional level. When Clark turns in a story to Perry, the editor gives him a straight honest talk on how the piece is good material for the newspaper to publish, but is not front-page stuff, which is what Perry wants out of him. Its not just Clark pushing himself to be better, but Perry too wants him to do much more than Clark thinks he can. It was a very different side of Perry White than the usual, sort of like a J. Jonah Jameson, except with less bile and less need to have a tantrum at everything. Another would be when Clark talks about his pet cat he had as a kid. A very touching snippet of his life, that one. JMS keeps hitting these small beats in the script really well.
The highlight of these little touches is Clark finding a girlfriend. No, its not Lois, since in that department they are both strangers to each other, and at the moment, rivals. JMS doesn’t look to be in a rush to get their romance angle going, and I’m fine with that. I’m content with the fact that he made Lois out to be a really good character, rather than the awful job that has been done of her character in the Perez/Jurgens comics, which are now being written by Scott Lobdell. Lisa Lasalle, Clark’s neighbour, is an incredibly fun character. I expected her to be the stereotypical next-door sweetheart, but she is more than that. She stands well on her own merits as a character since she is carefree about life and lives in the moment without complications. Plus the fact that she really teases out the more fun side of Clark and shows him how to be and have fun. Not to mention that Clark is forced to recall a controversial conversation with his father which went to the tune of: “… Man of Steel… Woman of Tissue Paper.” and “Do you have any idea of how many years of therapy it’s going to take for me to get over this conversation?”. See what I mean?
The dialogue is just fantastic. The little touches, that’s what it’s all about!
Raymond aka Parasite, as a visual experience, was simply amazing. Shane Davis’ pencils and Sandra Hope’s inks and Barbara Ciardo’s colours convey the look of a supervillain who is downright dangerous and incredibly freaky to look at it. The Parasite from the animated series was a boring character, in terms of his visual design, but these three present him in a much more compelling light. And JMS makes him out to be a true threat to Superman, rather than someone who the hero can dust off in a few minutes and put in Belle Reuve or whatever. I loved this Parasite, and I definitely want to see more him in future volumes.
As a full book, the art team has done a great job. Davis’ pencils are definitely a work of art, no denying it. His style is incredibly detailed, with characters that are super expressive through their body language and their facial expressions. Each character has a distinctive look. Each panel is packed with detail. Hope and Ciardo’s inks and colours make all those panels stand out. The art just leaps out at you in all its vibrant glory. The artwork as a whole isn’t particularly sharp, but it totally draws you in. The panels with Clark fighting against Parasite, or facing down mobs of soldiers (with his eyes all shiny with heat vision), or spending some intimate scenes with Lisa, or Lois doing her thing to prove that Clark has a secret to hide, and so on, these are scenes that pull you in. I only have a digital copy of the book (off NetGalley), and I’m thinking of getting the print, just because the art is so damn good.
All of it just makes me wonder why this whole creative team, JMS and the artists, aren’t doing the main title series. Their script and art vision for the character and his mythos is so much more compelling than what I’ve seen so far. A friend explained to me that JMS wanted to concentrate on graphic novels and limited series comics, rather than monthlies, and that it will be quite a while before he even returns to that process. It made me a little disheartened, but I was cheered up by the fact that there is a third volume in the works. That, I will most definitely get. In the meantime, for all you Superman fans out there, this book is what you need to read. Forget the monthly series. This book is where all the true fun of Superman is.