I heard somewhere recently that there have been fifty-two retellings of the Man of Steel’s origins. I can’t vouch for this exact number, but I can believe it. Superman: Earth One, written by J. Michael Straczynski and penciled by Shane Davis, is the latest, and—with the possible exception of the way John Byrne tossed out Krypton’s entire mythology in favor of the sterile ice planet of the Richard Donner film—the most radical. It’s also the first offering in DC’s new “Earth One” line.
Similar to Marvel’s Ultimate Comics line, DC: Earth One is a series of original graphic novels (OGNs) that take place in stories divorced from the regular DC continuity. Their publicity material cited 2008’s Brian Azzarello hardcover reinterpretation of Batman’s arch nemesis, Joker, as an inspiration for the new line, and Joker could easily have fit into this world in style and tone.DC: Earth One is intended in part, as Joker was, as an introduction to new readers, attracted by the success of recent comic related films, looking for modern, sophisticated retellings of the classic myths. (And indeed, both Richard Donner and David Goyer supply blurbs on the back cover.) But does the world even need another origin story for the ur-superhero?
Before it was even released, Superman: Earth One drew criticism and praise alike for the “Emo-Superman” in a hoodie depicted on its cover. That seems a small thing to criticize in our post-Smallville world but it does throw down a gauntlet to the reader, insofar as it lets you know that you are in for something different.
But really, whether or not Superman: Earth One works for you or not comes down to one thing—and here I will throw up a SPOILER WARNING, though it’s not one that you can really avoid if you have read any of the reviews on this title anywhere online—and that’s that Krypton didn’t explode due to natural causes. Here in the 21st century, we know that while stars sometimes go supernova, planets don’t explode on their own, and whether we really all know that or not, J. Michael Straczynski certainly does. So he’s decided to offer us a more plausible explanation. Krypton was the fourth planet from its sun, and the world Dheron, was the fifth. And, after generations of war, the Dheronians blew up the Kryptonians.
If you can swallow this massive addition to the continuity, you’ll have no problem with the book. If you can’t, might as well stop reading here.
What this does to Superman, or rather to Clark Kent, is radically alter his motivation while adding a level of angst and conflict to his previously untarnished soul. When we meet Clark, he is a young twenty-something, fresh out of junior college, and looking to use his superior talents to make the most money he possibly can, so that he can take care of his aging and widowed mother in comfort for the rest of her life. He tries out for a football team, who are immediately willing to sign him for any price he can name, and he offers his insights to the research and development arm of a massive technology company, with similar results. All this despite the fact that Ma Kent would much rather the boy became a superhero. She has even provided him with a costume that he’d rather not wear. This Clark grew up shunned by children who sensed his otherness, but as an adult he has realized he can fit in and then some if he exploits his talents for personal gain. And he looks to be leaning this way when the Dheronians show up.
It seems someone else gave them the means to destroy Krypton on the promise that they would do so to every man, woman and child, and they’ve been tracking the trajectory of Clark’s spaceship ever since, terrorizing all the inhabited worlds between here and the late, great planet of Kal-El’s origin. They arrive just as Clark is pondering his options, begin blowing up major cities and slaughtering thousands, with a planet-wide broadcast that they will keep killing until the alien the earth is harboring reveal himself.
So Clark has no choice but to put on the suit and do the right thing. Afterwards, inspired by the bravery in the face of death of a certain reporter and a certain photographer, he takes a far less lucrative position at the Daily Planet and takes up the mantle of hero, even though it forces the Clark Kent side of his now-divided persona to adapt the mask of being less than he could be.
I’m still wrestling with how this altered origin alters the Big S’s essential nature. He’s certainly a step closer to Batman in the way that being the Man of Steel is now portrayed as a reluctantly-accepted burden to bear. In fact, the scene in which he flies home to speak to the headstone of his departed father reminded me of nothing so much as a similar scene in the animated feature, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.Both graveyard conversations share a definite “let this cup pass from me” Garden of Gethsemane feel. The scene here is perhaps the most poignant of the tale. “I choose to be happy… to have a life,” Clark says, and I can’t help but wonder if his donning the costume isn’t the wrong path when he says, “There’s still a lot I can do to help people, openly or otherwise. I can find cures…”
One of my problems with the character of Superman has always been the somewhat patronizing way in which he decides which disasters to avert, stopping the comet from taking out the planet but refusing to bring Kryptonian science to bear on the problem of aids and world hunger. Superman: Earth One tackles this head on, with Clark Kent facing and accepting what it means to be a true global hero, one who works to “create the peace” rather than “enforce it” and who accepts his position as someone who can “look at humanity from the outside.” Moreover, the narrative isn’t blind to the fact that, in defeating the aliens, Superman has only prevented a situation that he himself inadvertently caused by coming to Earth in the first place, and one nameless character, interviewed on television, even speculates that the invasion might have been staged in order that we accept him. Which is why I said earlier that Superman’s soul is stained, as this Superman begins his career with the death of thousands on his doorstep and as much suspicion greeting his arrival as praise.
Frankly, I don’t know how I feel about that. But I’ve been mulling it over and over for forty-eight hours now, whereas a great many graphic novels—and, in truth, a great many other Superman stories—can be read once and put aside. The fact that J. Michael Straczynski has taken such a familiar tale, one told so very many times over the decades, and found ways to make us reexamine it in such a radical new light, is perhaps the best testament to the graphic novel’s power. I don’t know what my final opinion of Superman: Earth One will be, but I know that I won’t be easily dismissing it anytime soon. I can safely predict that it will be factoring into my thinking on the Superman mythos from now on. On that basis, and on the aforementioned poignancy of the scenes depicting the young Clark Kent searching for his place in the world, I recommend the book.
I’d also like to say that Shane Davis’s pencils do a very nice job of grounding this story in a believable reality. The book has been criticized as being a “pitch story” for the forthcoming Christopher Nolan-produced film, but that’s no criticism in my mind. We could do a lot worse than have Hollywood adopt this as their storyboard, and I’m sure that it will at least factor as an influence on Superman’s next big screen outing. So if you wondered if we really needed yet another retelling of the Man of Tomorrow’s origin, I think it’s safe to say we needed at least this one.
Lou Anders is the editorial director of Pyr Books, in which capacity he has been nominated four times for the Hugo award and once for the World Fantasy award. He is a Chesley Award winning art director and a Philip K. Dick award nominated anthologist. He confesses to prefering Batman over the Big Blue Schoolboy and hopes you understand.