Review: Superman Earth One (Graphic Novel)

Joshua Unruh is a writer with the Consortium. He’s also a fan of comics, graphic novels, and tabletop games, and he’s offered to share that experience with our readers in a regular column.

You can read more of Joshua’s work at his site, JoshuaUnruh.com.


It turns out I chose a topical, appropriate, and difficult review for my first one here at the Consortium.

  • Topical because the book in question received national coverage with several news outlets (as you can see here and here).
  • Appropriate because I’ll mainly be reviewing comic books and, even if you don’t prefer superhero stories, the only reason we’re still talking about them as a medium is arguably due to this book’s main character.
  • Difficult because this book deserves a fair shake on its own merits yet it involves the single most recognizable character in pop culture, eclipsing even Mickey Mouse.

This inevitably brings baggage along into the book’s reading. I’m going to attempt to do both sides justice, though, talking first about the book itself and then addressing it in terms of the larger world.

Superman Earth One is written by J. Michael Straczynski (JMS from here on out to spare my sanity) and drawn by Shane Davis (inks by Sandra Hope, colors by Barbara Ciardo). Firstly, the book is beautiful. It’s a hardcover with 136 pages of full color art and the art is wonderful. Davis makes this book breathe, blink, and bleed. You could read many scenes entirely without dialogue and know exactly what every character is feeling.

The action scenes are a bit stiff due to the photorealistic style, but this is a minimal concern in a gorgeously drawn book. The inker and colorist compliment Davis’s style and really bring out the strong pencil work (for non-comic readers, inkers, colorists, and pencilers with complementary styles are not guaranteed). Davis took JMS’s dialogue- and emotion-fueled script and put it on the page powerfully.

As for the writing, JMS is a veteran of television and comics and, as such, knows how to structure a story and create compelling characters. Clark Kent’s adoptive parents have high hopes for him and his abilities, yet they understand that he’s got to be his own man and, deep down, want their son to be happy more than anything. They nudge him nearly constantly towards a life of service, but always stop just short of pushing Clark over the edge.

Clark feels torn between this very public life of being a hero and the private concerns of taking care of an aging mother and being normal, of wanting to fade into the background of humanity even though he isn’t human. JMS goes to great lengths to show the struggle between who Clark is, who he wants to be, what he can do, and what he ought to do and succeeds in painting a picture where there are no easy answers.

JMS also takes a page from the Smallville plan and decides that if Superman is going to be the only costumed hero in the world, then everything weird, strange, or alien on that world has to tie into him. This is a very good move outside of a shared universe and is one of the few things Smallville does right (but that’s a whole other review).

So, if you’ve never read a Superman book before, or thought that the Superman Returns film provided an excellent picture of a conflicted hero, or have enjoyed  some of the nearly ten seasons of Smallville that have aired on television, then this book is decidedly for you. It is a Superman origin story created for a Twilight audience with a brooding and conflicted protagonist in his early 20s filled with alienation and indecision. Detached from the Superman mythos, this is a very readable and visually attractive Superman origin.

Sadly, for those of us who know the Superman mythos, this book can’t be taken on its own. As a reimagining of Superman that seeks to keep what is core while updating details for the modern audience, it fails miserably as this is not only a Superman I don’t recognize but also find myself not wanting to read about. This origin is the latest in a long parade of Superman origin stories and, for those of us steeped in Superman lore, it feels like a creature stitched together from lesser parts of what came before and then slathered on the skeleton of a character that bears no resemblance to the one we love.

If myths are the stories that a culture tells about itself, and if Superman is one of our oldest and most recognizable myths, then this is not the story I want to be told about my culture (although it is possibly the one our culture deserves). A deeply and profoundly privileged young man with gifts and opportunities the less advantaged would do anything to have (sound like anybody you know?) whines about his indecision on the future and laments his lack of normalcy.

This is not Superman. Superman is the eternal optimist who celebrates his differentness by saving us from ourselves and showing with his own actions and attitude that there is a better way. Superman inspires this in others simply by being who he is, whether he’s stopping an earthquake, a mugging, or just talking to his pal, Jimmy. In this story, Clark Kent is inspired by the heroism of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen to finally get into the fight and save lives. I have no problems with Lois and Jimmy being important and heroic characters, but having their willingness to sacrifice become the shame that spurs Superman into FINALLY acting to save lives gets the whole thing backwards.

I could go on with examples of how this story mismanages Superman:

  • Pa Kent creates the famous S-shield as a calculated marketing maneuver
  • Despite both his birth and adoptive parents’ examples of self sacrifice, Clark still has to be guilted into using his powers for the greater good
  • The books fails to update the most glaringly outdated concept in Superman’s story: his employment with a “major metropolitan newspaper.”

I’m afraid I’m simply spraying bile over a book that isn’t as good as work that came before it, and that’s not fair. It isn’t the worst Superman story in that it’s unreadable, but it isn’t Superman — not really — and therefore it misses the theoretical mission statement.

A special thanks to New World Comics, (405) 721-7634 – 6219 N Meridian Ave, Oklahoma City, OK, for the promotional copy of Superman Earth One used for this review.