By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

Nov. 23, 2010 -- DC Comics is adding another chapter to a long tradition of re-invention that has always been entertaining, with a new graphic novel called Superman: Earth One ($19.99). Maybe because of my high expectations, I’m terribly disappointed with this book.

You see, DC has always rebooted its major characters every 20 years or so. Currently they’re doing it again, by inventing a new world – “Earth One” – inhabited by new, younger, 21st century versions of Superman, Batman, et al. This GN is the first in a series, all written by superstar writer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5).

And, IMHO, it’s an epic fail. There’s not much new about this new version of Superman, and what is new is a bunch of bad storytelling decisions.

In all honesty, I may be prejudiced in that my profession is depicted really badly:

1) I can accept, for example, that Clark Kent lies to his editor and his reading public about his secret identity. Even though that violates no less than six tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Rules of Ethics, the lie prevents a greater evil: the murder of all of Kent’s family, friends and associates.

But what I can’t accept is Kent using this façade for professional gain. My primary beef is those stories that depict Kent scooping Lois Lane with the first interview with Superman, which lands him his job at the Daily Planet. That isn’t a white lie necessary to save lives; it’s fraudulent self-promotion of the worst kind.

Thankfully, the 1986 version of Superman began to realize how unethical this was, and a 2009 miniseries retelling the Man of Steel’s early years (Superman: Secret Origin) dispensed with it altogether – Kent got his job the old-fashioned way, by coming up with a big story without using his super-powers, a story that had nothing to do with Superman. Huzzah!

However, Superman: Earth One restores this ethical breach, with Kent playing the Superman card to get a job. Gah! Once again, Kent is no better than Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair.

2) Planet Editor Perry White explains to Kent that newspapers strive for active sentence structure instead of passive sentence structure, and gives an example. That’s something a good editor does.

Except White gets it wrong. He says in order to make “last night, a dog was killed” active, it should read “a dog was killed last night.” But both those examples are passive; simply rearranging the sentence doesn’t make it active! (“Someone killed a dog last night” is the example he’s looking for.) It’s Journalism 101, folks, and Perry White gets it wrong.

3) Kent and Lane’s first stories about Superman are included in the back of the book. But they are so embarrassingly juvenile, subjective and unreadable that they wouldn’t pass as decent blog posts, much less professional news stories. Worse, Kent writes a dialogue exchange between himself and Superman – one that is not only unethical (he’s making it up!) but is so cringingly adolescent and amateurish that no newspaper on any Earth would run it.

Too arcane? Then let’s look at two changes Earth One makes to the Superman mythos I think are clumsy:

1) Teenage Clark Kent demonstrates incredible, virtually “super” abilities at professional sports, research science and other jobs before joining the Daily Planet. Oops! That kinda lets the ol’ “secret identity” out of the bag, doesn’t it?

2) We discover Krypton didn’t blow up by chance, but was deliberately destroyed by other aliens.

Bad plan. First, the arbitrary nature of Superman’s central tragedy, and how he transforms it into altruism instead of self-pity, is central to his heroism – as it is with Batman and Spider-Man (who have also suffered this sort of revisionism occasionally). Second, if aliens murdered his planet, then Superman has a moral obligation as the last Kryptonian to leave Earth and devote his life to bringing those aliens to justice. Since he won’t (or there’s no series), he looks like a coward from the get-go.

If you’re going to change Superman, says I, change him for the better – give him a 21st century makeover that makes him more relevant to a new age. Don’t tinker around the edges, “correcting” things that were done right the first time.

I seem to be alone in this opinion, as Superman: Earth One is selling like gangbusters and critics are raving. And that's great -- I really do want it to succeed.

I just wish it was better, and deserved to succeed.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 681

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on November 25, 2010 at 3:43pm
I’ve been very curious about this one. It not only sold out at my LCS on its day of release before I got there, it also sold out at my back-up shop (as well as all of its chain locations). Both my main and my back-up shops got restock first editions, but again, both sold out before I got there. You review tells me pretty much everything I need to know, though. Thanks for that. Oh, and if it’s a 21st century makeover you’re looking for, my vote is for Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman.
Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on November 25, 2010 at 11:53pm
I wasn't interested in this, anyway, and your article puts a stop to any possibility that I might buy it in the future.

One minor quibble, my Captain, and it doesn't even have to do with Superman. JMS is known for Babylon 5, with the numeric character instead of the number being spelled out. With all of the novels, articles, comics, and magazines I've read about the show, I don't think that I've ever seen it with the number written out so it is Babylon Five. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is just the opposite, with the numeric character only being used when the entire name is being shortened (DS9).
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on November 26, 2010 at 7:32pm
There's something odd about the placement of the second image, the one with Superman in costume. The end of each line is cut off and replaced with ellipsis, as if the image is overlapping the text. So I didn't get to see the full review, Cap, but I get the gist of the sentiment.

By the way, about the whole business of getting a job at a newspaper by coming up with a big scoop first -- does any place today follow that approach? That strikes me as 1930s as the notion that a young man today would even want to work for a print newspaper. Even the Ultimate Spider-Man had Peter Parker working for the Daily Bugle website rather than for the dead tree editions.

Batmatt Beyond used to say "DC spends far too much time rewriting the origin of Superman when they should focus on creating new stories." Once again, he's proven right.
Comment by Eric L. Sofer on November 29, 2010 at 7:17am
Yeah, because Superman is such a complicated and vague character... you HAVE to represent and recreate his origin every few years so that people can try to understand it.

That JMS! What a kidder! He's got this, and Superman and Wonder Woman, who he's recreating in their own books as well as this one, and - what's that? He's plotting them, but having other writers do the hard work? Hey, that's an easy way to make a living! Money for nothing and your chicks for free!

And the aliens who destroyed Krypton - was one of them Black Zero? IT'S A DISPROVED MOPEE!!!

I could not have cared less about purchasing this book. Thank you for validating my decision, Cap.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on November 29, 2010 at 7:59am
I've sometimes experienced the same effect, Clark. I use Explorer, and the solution has been to use compatability view. The button is next to the go to/refresh button. But I should note I initially didn't have compatability view on viewing this page, and didn't have a problem.
Comment by Captain Comics on November 29, 2010 at 9:31am
I didn't have room to go into it, but not only was I unhappy with the things JMS changed, I was unhappy with the things he didn't.

"Earth One" offered the opportunity to do something new and modern with Superman. The "old" one is still there for trademark and other media purposes, so there should be some freedom to really do a modern take on the Superman mythos on the new Earth. Something as new and modern as Barry Allen was to Jay Garrick, back in 1956. Something where "Earth One" is different enough from "Earth Zero" that when the inevitable cross-dimensional team-up takes place in a few years, you won't need a scorecard to tell the two Supermen apart.

For example, the first thing I thought of (as did my wife when she read the column) is to ditch the costume. Yes, it's iconic, world-famous, trademarked, blah blah. But does it really work in the 21st century, when most people have never seen a circus strongman, on which the 1938 version was based? Look, you've still got "our" Supey prancing about in tights, so the costume isn't lost. But would a teenager of today be anxious to pull it on? Would he even THINK of it? More than likely today's Superman would go the Kon-El route, with jeans and a T-shirt with the "S" shield (which I think works just fine). The hoodie on the cover was a nice touch, and one I'd probably keep as the suggestion of a cape, but not REALLY a cape -- because since when has a cape been a fashion statement after the 18th century?

Another question I'd like to explore is the secret identity. Again, in 1938, it might have made some sense and was a genre convention (from the pulps). But in today's world, with face-recognition software used in airports and by police, with more CCTV cameras than people in Great Britain (and the U.S. catching up), and Google Earth, and satellite imagery, and identity theft investigations, and all that stuff, is a secret identity even POSSIBLE in today's world? I guess if anyone could, Superman could, given his extraordinary powers, but given the difficulty, would that be what he'd choose to do? If he did, I'd think he'd have to 'fess up to Perry White, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen from the get-go -- and put as much distance between his alter ego and the newspaper as possible, so that no one would suspect that the Planet staff knew the secret ID ... or that there even WAS one. Clark could still work there -- but maybe not be so famous (maybe Sports beat?), or maybe be the custodian and just be a "source" for Lois and Jimmy. That would also have the benefit of eliminating the terrible ethical breach mentioned above.

Of course, this all raises the question my wife asked: "Who still sets out to get a job as a newspaper reporter?" Maybe that whole idea needs to be junked -- and all those characters should work in cable news, or at a website.

In other words, I'd think the concept through as if it really DID just start today, through the eyes of today's kids, instead of just tinkering with elements that were invented more than 70 years ago. Especially since the tinkering did more harm than good.

For example, JMS removed the randomness of Superman's central tragedy (the destruction of Krypton), like various writers have done with Batman, first by giving the random gunman who killed his parents a name (Joe Chill), then transforming the "random crime" into a mob hit on Thomas Wayne. Or what John Byrne did in Spider-Man: Chapter One, where Spider-Man, Chameleon, Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin and maybe some others all had their super-powers connected to the radiation experiment in Amazing Fantasy #15. Or when Marv Wolfman established that the burglar who killed Uncle Ben wasn't random, either, but was instead seeking a specific treasure associated with Ben Parker.

If you'll note, most of these revisions have been junked at the first opportunity. That's because, as I alluded to in the article, the randomness of the tragedies that struck Kal-El, Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker is a major part of their heroism. Fighting a conspiracy is virtually expected, but fighting random death? That's harder to do -- much easier to slip into apathy, bitterness and self-pity. And, as I also said, Superman NOT fighting the conspiracy that destroyed his planet is moral cowardice. Also, having everything connected and explained doesn't look much like life, which is entirely unscripted.

This is such a terrible missed opportunity that it is almost tragic. Instead of the Julius Schwartz re-invention of Golden Age heroes that exploded into a brand new "Age" in the late '50s and early '60s, we got a 2010 version of Spider-Man: Chapter One. 'Tis a pity.
Comment by Philip Portelli on November 29, 2010 at 9:53am
My first reaction was the same when I tried to watch Smallville when it debuted. It was clear that I wasn't the target audience. It made me feel like I was on the outside looking in, that I couldn't get it!

I've seen and read too many revisions to Superman's origin, backstory and history to get too worked up over this. If it's a success, great for DC and those who enjoy it. If it doesn't accomplish what it sets out to, no harm, no foul. It will be forgotten, ignored or revised. More probably some other "hot" writer will do another, "innovative" take on Superman!
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on November 29, 2010 at 10:13am
You hit on what I was getting at, Cap. The notion that a young man today would want to work at a newspaper isn't impossible -- I mean, there still are people who try, and God bless them -- but why would Clark Kent do it? In 1938, newspapering was thought of and presented in the popular culture as a glamorous occupation, something wholly contrary to the experience of today's ink-stained wretches.

And Superman supposedly wanted to work for newspapers because he wanted to help people, and a newspaper office was THE place to get the best, latest information. That assertion never made sense to me; he could just as well stay at home and listen to a Radio Shack police scanner.

So ... why does today's Clark Kent want to work for a newspaper? Because he loves to write? Because he needs friends and doesn't want to be alone all day? Because he needs a challenge -- to discipline himself by putting in the work at a nine-to-five (that's more like a nine-to-midnight) without using his powers? That's the best reason I could see. He gains the satisfaction of creating something that doesn't come easily with brute strength or X-ray vision, and that's a story vein worth tapping into.

And you hit the nail on the head about taking away the randomness of the tragedies that struck Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker; quite simply, it was a mistake to do so. In Batman's case, it's a mistake because it undermines the point that the Wayne family's wealth, status and reputation couldn't protect them. (And the point is made stronger in that the guy who did it got clean away.) In Spider-Man's case, it establishes the point that you should always do the right thing, and people may suffer if you don't (or, in other words, "with great power comes great responsibility").
Comment by Figserello on December 2, 2010 at 8:41pm
I was a bit disappointed to see the standard Superman outfit there too. The only reason a modern take would have that look is if Kal-El somehow found out that it was the standard apparel for do-gooders on Krypton before it blew up.

The Lois and Clark TV show attempted to explain it by saying with a bizarre costume like that, no-one would look at his unmasked face.

And it's not just the outfit. Only someone immersed in current superhero comics could accept those strangely laid-out abdominal muscles in that picture. They'd look weird to everyone else. Also, the current artistiic conventions of our little hobby are the only reason they would show through fabric. Just something that alienates the not-we's a little further, in a project which seems to be predicated on reaching out beyond the fanboys.

(And that costume is very reminiscent of the last Superman movie too, with the heavy cloak and low-belted jocks.)
Comment by Captain Comics on December 3, 2010 at 1:28am
I used that piece of art on purpose, Figs -- not only was it "not a new take on Superman" at all, not only was it Brandon Routh, not only was it impossible in a physical sense (the exaggerated abdominal muscles), but it was SILLY. Why on Earth would anybody dress up like that?

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