A trendy, twentysomething Clark Kent stares out at the reader. His eyes blaze red with heat vision. He pulls open his hoodie and an untucked shirt to reveal a familiar logo with a bright red "S."
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Shane Davis with Sandra Hope and Barbara Ciardo
Why, so soon after giving us the latest canonical version of Superman's life and the definitive (for now) not-in-continuity Superman story, has DC comics decided to present yet another retelling of the Man of Steel's early days? And why is the Man of Tomorrow so mopey? Their audience seems pretty clearly fans of Smallville and the crowds of generally younger readers who enjoy graphic novels and manga, but eschew old-fashioned superheroes. Superman: Earth One may find such readers and that market but, more often than not, it misses the mark.
We begin street level, in Metropolis. Artist Shane Davis gives us no retrofuturistic, World's Fair vision; from the ground we're in any big North American city. As in the recent Superman: Secret Origin, the Daily Planet appears here as a faltering newspaper that will experience a reversal of fortune when it becomes associated with the world's new hero. In the opening chapter, however, that hero wanders the streets looking somewhere between threatening and pouty as he tries to find himself. Eventually, a world-threatening menace will make him realize he has a role to play.
If we've seen this before, Sraczynski at least gives us a fairly original reinterpretation of Superman's early days. The story even avoids all mention of Lex Luthor. Earth One attempts to explain aspects of the Superman mythos that made sense in an earlier time, and when the character merely ran faster than a speeding bullet and had more power than a locomotive. The occasionally ingenious answers represent Earth One's strengths. Jimmy Olsen becomes Superman's pal, Lois Lane, his future spouse, and the Planet, the place where he hangs out, because all demonstrate during this story how ordinary people can be heroic. They first inspire him. And, while it's not original, Kent's decision to wear no mask as Superman makes a kind of sense: it would only add to the fear people experience when they realize the degree of his power. Superman needs to be-- and appear to be-- as honest as possible. The story also flows nicely, incorporating flashbacks to earlier events in its protagonist's history.
Superman: Earth One also features many weaknesses. As Kent progresses towards mild-mannered reporter, we see him explore other options. He tries out for major league sports teams and also uses his advanced knowledge and intelligence to impress a research firm. The writer uses Kent's rejection of these paths as a way to develop and reveal character. Unfortunately, Clark Kent uses his real name, and it seems not the least bit plausible that agencies offering a man million-dollar contracts would forget him when he turns up as a reporter who resembles, uncannily, the world's new superhero.
The reasons given for the turn to heroism may give many of us pause. In changing the nature of Krypton's destruction and tying that change into Superman's decision to don the cape and tights, Straczynski gives us an original twist. He also changes the usual understanding of Superman's heroism. Not everyone needs to become a tortured vigilante. And while it's refreshing to see a Superman origin story that doesn't involve a certain egomaniacal cueball, this story's alien menace, when we finally meet it, underwhelms. The creator of Babylon Five has given us a derivative extra-terrestrial villain who wouldn't have passed on Deep Space Nine.
Other choices merely puzzle. We have a very odd scene where Perry White insists that good writers prefer the passive voice to the active. A true point: but White apparently does not know the difference between the two, judging from his inaccurate example. Straczynski doubtless knows the difference, because Kent uses the active voice in his reply. I have no idea, however, what point this exchange illustrates.
The graphic novel ends with sample stories by Clark Kent and Lois Lane. If these represent work by Earth One's top reporters, I wonder little that the Planet has fallen on hard times. They appear to have been composed for a high school newspaper.
The artists take a photorealistic approach, with some conventional comic-book distortions. Technically it is good, and develops the mood of the story effectively. It does not, however, carry the plot nearly so well, for my tastes, as the simple-seeming stylization of Superman for All Seasons or the well-wrought superhero default style of Secret Origin.
As I wrote earlier, this graphic novel strives to reach a new audience, and it may succeed. It could almost be a sequel to Smallville, if the series had not so entirely changed Clark Kent's relationships to his adult cast. Certainly, people who only know Superman from recent mass media and fans of certain other angsty franchises will find aspects of the story familiar. In the same way that the 2009 Star Trek movie turned Trek into Generic Popular Space Action Movie and drew in legions of new fans, Superman: Earth One turns the original superhero into Generic Popular Young Hero Graphic Novel. This may bring some new readers to Superman, but many will wonder if this is, in fact, the Man of Steel.