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Superman: Earth One

Brian Hibbs

About 2 months ago I received an advance copy of  the SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE original Graphic Novel. This was an uncorrected proof, and was a bit rougher than other galleys I get — there’s only about a dozen pages in color, other pages were inked, but not toned, while there’s even a few pencil-only pages. I get a lot of galleys from many different publishers, but this one came under the auspices of a ComicsPRO program, and I made a fatal error of thinking of it while wearing my “Critic” hat, rather than my ‘retailer” hat (I wear far too many hats)

DC was (and, let’s underline this very strongly) justifiably upset that I screwed up my hats, and as soon as I knew of their displeasure, I pulled the review, and apologized abjectly to DC through both official and unofficial channels. I screwed up, it was entirely my singular fault, and I strongly hope that DC will not penalize ComicsPRO retailers for my error (they haven’t sent out another preview since — which may or may not mean anything… or it could also just mean I personally have been removed from DC’s advance lists, I’m really not sure)

Either way, I erred deeply by posting the review 2 months ago, and I sincerely apologize for potentially jeopardizing some of DC’s promotional plans (among other things: sometimes “big media” are only interested in reviewing projects like this if they’re given some sort of “we’re first!” privileges. I don’t believe that this changed any of those plans, but it COULD have, and it was wrong of me to post the pre-publication review)

However, the book is out now, so it’s back to being fair game…

Here’s the balance of what I originally wrote, then I’ll come back at the end to talk about the final and finished book…

***

Obviously, since I’m reviewing from a galley, it is possible (though not, in my experience, likely) that some things will change about the final version. Take this with a lump of salt (not just a grain)

Also: there will likely be spoilers here. Generally when I review things, I assume you have a copy, so it’s more of a conversation than this will be.

So, let’s start with the easiest thing: the art. I didn’t like it very much. It isn’t that Shane Davis is an incompetent artist or anything, but his style is a little too scratchy to my tastes, overly rendered, without a strong enough foundation of story-telling or page layout that I would really want in an OGN series supposedly aimed at new readers. It’s like, I don’t know, pre-X-Men Jim Lee or something — you can see he’s got enough basic chops to develop somewhere interesting, but he’s just not quite “there” yet. There’s more than a few sequences where I can only kind of tell what is supposed to be happening, which is kind of a problem, really…

I wonder about the audience/remit for this line — everything would seem to indicate the idea is to create NEW “Superman” readers, especially ones in bookstores (otherwise why even DO an OGN?), but I don’t know that I can see this particular work really hitting with someone who hasn’t read comics in a while — in is, in my opinion, both simultaneously too crowded and hectic and, well, bombastic, while it is also a bit dull in places.

Part of the problem is, I think, that it seems like it is trying to serve too many masters at once — the emotional heart of the story is really Clark Kent trying to make a decision about whether or not he wants to be a hero and protector (as his parents want), or whether he wants to follow his own desires to “fit in” (which, for some reason, mostly seems to spin around financial renumeration) and become a football player or a research scientist or anything else where he’d be able to excel with his alien powers.

However, this is really kind of a false emotional dilemma, if only because it is about SUPERMAN — we know that, by hook or crook, he’s going to put on the costume and become a hero sooner than later, not just because of the character, but because of the writer and his expressed love of the nobility of Supes.

It isn’t that you can’t do “Questioning Clark”, but you kind of have to do it much earlier in his life, otherwise you sort of undercut the drama. Superman is better than we are — he HAS to be, or he isn’t “Superman”. His lessons about strength and power and helping people and the dangers and risks it entails all need to come when he’s a kid, or, at latest, as a teenager, not until after he’s left college. While I understand that for most normal Earth-humans the timeline of questioning works fine, Clark ISN’T a normal earth-human, he’s SUPERMAN, and by the time he enters Metropolis for the first time he might not be wearing the costume, but he needs to be well set on that path. Hell, by the time I was 20 I knew just what I wanted to be and do, and I followed that path the best I could — Clark should be WAY ahead of dumb ol’ me. So the timing really really didn’t work for me.

The other “master” here is the need or desire to also have a giant-threat blockbuster summer movie-style action sequences. These are delivered adequately, but, despite a noble attempt to tie it back into Clark’s backstory, I don’t think it really works at all. I’ll probably get back to that in a bit here.

Let’s talk a minute about the OGN structure — the suggestion is often made by many that OGNs are “better” because they can let a story breath, without the need for “artificial” breaks rigidly enforced every 22 pages. I could maybe possibly accept that (especially in light of semi-arbitrary 22 pages thing), except that I think that long stories really do need “Chapters”, and the best kind of “chapter”, be it in straight-up prose, or the commercial breaks in a TV show give you that same kind of “Wait, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!?!?!?!” feeling. That’s a lot harder to sustain over 128 (or whatever) pages, and I’m not certain I can think of any comics projects that have worked that way — even well-regarded works like, say, ASTERIOS POLYP or WILSON or MAUS have “chapters” that break the pacing up and give you minutes to pause or reflect (or even just barrel ahead).

SUPERMAN EARTH ONE has some really clumsy-ass pacing, and it really doesn’t breathlessly sustain itself over its whole length. This is sort of most glaring in a fairly early scene that switches away to the Army having some fragments of Kal’s ship, and a lot of blah-blah-blah about the government trying to understand it, and where it came from, and reverse-engineer it or whatever. I can see why these scenes were included (to provide a certain amount of [fairly unnecessary, at the end of the day] exposition, and to set-up a future thread on the Government trying to track Supes and so on), but really all they do is crash the forward momentum of the book to a halt, while not adding anything all that important to the narrative… certainly nothing that pays off in this volume. It might not be so bad if the Army officer or the scientist involved were given some characterization or motivation or something, but they’re largely ciphers as presented.

(Also: you don’t create a foil in a Superman comic with an “L” last name, and not give them an “L” first name — she’s “Sandra Lee” here — but that might just be my 60s-influenced mind speaking here!)

So, yeah, I actually and truly think this would have been better if it was written in “22 page chunks” because that forces a kind of economy in plotting and information release. ONE page of “Look, the Government!” might work, but five pages of it just drags on too long, and moves the focus from where it needs to be.

(I actually think that comics, in general, would be helped immeasurably if we had a return of EIGHT PAGE stories to teach people the economy of craft, but that’s a piece for a different day)

When the “Big Bad” comes along… well, the first problem is that he looks a bit too much, facially, like Lobo. There’s also a lot of shaky motivation going on here, tying in the baddie into Krypton in what just seems a pretty flimsy way to this reader, with the INDIVIDUAL motivation of the INDIVIDUAL badguy being a particularly dopey kind of generic and simple revenge, rather than any kind of a PERSONAL motivation. this is why Lex Luthor works so well as a Superman foil — he has an identifiable motivation (jealousy) to motivates him. The Baddie in this comic could be a hired gun for as much individual passion/motivation he brings.

There’s also the slight problem of an entire alien invading armada, attacking worldwide (they show us at least 6-8 cities under attack, and giant drills that will destroy the world like Krypton), but only a single Alien has a speaking part, and once Superman punches him hard enough, the entire threat dissolves utterly. Ugh!

So, yeah, plot, structure, motivation, virtually none of it worked for me — and I walked into this really hoping to be in love with it, and all I really got was a fairly bloated and muddy story. The worst thing is that I think that this probably could be “fixed” with 2 or 3 more drafts, and some real editorial oversight, and a general tightening of character and incident.

Did I like any of it? Well, yeah, I liked almost all of the scenes set in the Daily Planet, and I especially liked “Ultimate Jimmy Olson” (though Lois was fairly dull), so there’s that — I’d like to see JMS bring this version of Jimmy into the “real” Superman title… it wouldn’t even really need to be a “retcon”.

Though, having said that about the Planet, there’s a scene where Perry White makes the point that news is meant to be facts and news, and not Editorialized (Kurt Busiek kind of did this scene better in ASTRO CITY, in that story about the Shark God and the Silver Agent), but at the end of the book they run the actual stories that the Planet runs on Superman (Clark’s “interview” with Superman that gets him the job, that one), and damn if it isn’t as editorial as-all-get-out. Damn it.

Ultimately, I think this OGN goes on too long, tries to be too many things, is is tremendously weak on characterization and motivation, except for the false emotional dilemma of  “should I sell out, or put on the costume?”, and doesn’t really add do anything to appeal to the theoretical audience that it is shooting for, and, in Savage Critic terms, that, sadly, makes it AWFUL.

Normally I’d ask “What did YOU think?” at this juncture, but you won’t be able to for like 5-6 weeks…

*****

Hi, back in the present now!

The final book is pretty handsome, actually — I like the “European” style (not dustjacketed) hardcover, and the book has good “hand” for the $20 price tag, and I like the embossing on the cover too.

The color “solves” some of the art problems (though, still not on the storytelling front, really), but it adds some new ones — flashbacks aren’t colored distinctively enough to show the time jumps, in my opinion.

There weren’t any substantial (or any? I’m not going page-by-page or anything!) changes to the text, and if anything, my opinion on the essential moral weakness of this Clark is now magnified — I don’t like this guy, I don’t like his avoidance of being Superman, and I especially found Ma & Pa’s scenes to be fairly inexplicable in making him a costume or whatever.

There’s a line at the end that I glossed over in my first read that I think encapsulates my problems with this as a Superman comic — in the (kind of) Fortress of Solitude scene Clark’s super-smart metal says to him “Your task is to survive.  To use your powers well and wisely. And to avenge the murder of your homeworld.” (emphasis mine)

Buh?

To me, at least, Superman isn’t about vengeance — not even close. In fact, Superman is about exactly the opposite. Superman is the guy who will do anything possible to avoid a fight — precisely because he knows we’re better than that, even the screwed up people. Superman is about HOPE. About making things BETTER, about showing that even the worst situation can be made better if someone reaches out a hand in help and understanding.

In the ’78 film my favorite scene might be the tiny little sequence where he stops to save a cat from a tree. Yeah, that’s maybe a little cornball, but that’s Superman. He’s more powerful than anyone, anywhere, but “power” doesn’t mean a lot if you’re not trying to help people with it.

THAT is a metaphor that we need, that we should embrace — not this whining, myopic coward who won’t step forward until the entire world is being threatened.

DC has already announced a second printing, so I guess this is having some early success in the DM at least (if you have a Baker & Taylor account go look at the velocity of backorders there; this doesn’t look so hot in the bookstore market as I’m reading the indicators), and good for them, I guess. But I really disliked this book, and I stand by my AWFUL assessment.

If I were to hand a Superman comic to a “civilian”, I’d want them to buy ALL-STAR SUPERMAN instead.

What did YOU think?

-B

53 Responses to “ Superman: Earth One ”

  1. the Eh/Okay border for me

  2. Whatever..”Earth One Superman” was VERY GOOD for my taste. I don’t like Superman that much but this was really good read..It’s such a huge hit among so many new readers…my friends who hated Superman enjoyed it. Anyway i will collect future volumes if they keep it fresh and good like the first one.

  3. […] jako dítě z planety Krypton, na Zemi se ho ujali manželé Kentovi. Brian Hibbs z blogu The Savage Critics však zpochybňuje jeho motivaci, v Earth One se totiž mstí za zničení rodné planety. Hibbs […]

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