November 8, 2012

Superman Earth One: Volume 2 (2012)

I applaud DC's experimentation with the Earth One range: complete reboots of their most popular characters, with adventures told in self-contained 128 page graphic novels. They're beautifully packaged, exceptionally well promoted and could potentially save the superhero comic from falling sales and rising prices. People aren't necessarily comfortable spending US$3.99 on a floppy, stapled-together comic book. They're generally a bit more comfortable spending US$19.99 on something durable that they can put on their shelf with all of their other books.

I haven't read the original Superman Earth One, which was the initial volume in this series. I did read Geoff John's Batman Earth One and liked it a lot - albeit with a few reservations. Since my local comic shop didn't have their weekly shipment in last night (damn you, Australian customs), I spontaneously decided to pick up the all-new Superman Earth One: Volume Two.

It's written by J. Michael Straczynski, which is possibly a good thing. JMS shows all the signs of being a decent comic book writer, with the one drawback of never seeming to finish a run that he starts (hello Superman, hello Wonder Woman...). At least with self-contained graphic novels you know he's finished the story before you start reading. This volume picks up with Superman as an unknown presence in Metropolis, while he tries to work out his place in the world and what boundaries he should cross in pursuit of justice.

Shane Davis provides some fairly stellar art here. Like Gary Frank over in Batman Earth One, he's got the freedom and the time to create something really special, and it gives the book enormous visual impact. Both artists have gone for semi-realistic depictions of the characters, lending the Earth One franchise a look somewhere between the usual DC Universe and a movie adaptation. It's a look I really enjoy.

The good points: through a fresh start and a more realistic take, JMS is able to tackle some of the more intriguing possibilities of Superman that the comic book generally avoids. What are the legalities of Superman crossing international borders? What right does he have to interfere with a particular country's problems? This is explored in quite a stark, murderous fashion that wouldn't fit at all with the Superman of the DCU, but does work here: this is a different Superman for a different purpose. Also well handled is the Parasite, this volume's primary villain. Davis gives the character a wonderfully creepy design, and he presents a genuine challenge to a cocky young Superman still coming to grips with his powers.

I'm less happy with the book's subplot, in which an awkward Clark Kent is pursued by an amorous red-headed neighbour, who serves him dinner while wearing lingerie and sings Rocky Horror Picture Show lyrics about being touched. She later confesses that she's also a prostitute, and Superman has to rescue her from an overly violent client - since all sex workers are apparently constant targets for violence. The entire sequence feels objectified and ugly, and brings the overall appeal of the book right down. To be honest I'm still trying to unpack it in my head. I have a lot of issues with this part of the book, and I'm still trying to decide which ones are justified and which ones are not. We also get a flashback to a "birds and the bees" conversation between Clark and Jonathan Kent, where JMS gives Kent Larry Niven's famous "man of steel, woman of kleenex" line as if it's an original idea.

Superman Earth One: Volume 2 (not exactly the most sales-friendly title ever) is an annoying combination of good and bad elements. It makes for an itchy read. I love the format, and hope we start to see some more DC heroes get the Earth One treatment (Wonder Woman?). I'd like to see some more consistent writing, however: based on two of the three books so far they're not quite there yet.

2 comments:

  1. Re: "hello superman hello wonder woman" you may not realize this but it was DC's decision to move JMS off the monthly titles to get a jump on SE1v2 when it surprisingly hit the NY TImes list. This was said publicly at the time.

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  2. Fair enough. The coverage I read at the time indicated it was his decision to quit, because he'd earn more from graphic novels.

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