May 19, 2015

Superman Earth One: Volume 3 (2015)

DC Comics publishes a range of graphic novels under the "Earth One" banner. They basically tell all-new versions of their most popular superheroes, from the beginning, unsaddled by several years of continuity, and published in broadly self-contained 128 page increments. I loved the idea, but the production pace has left a little to be desired. Since the launch of Superman Earth One in 2010 they have published just six volumes: two starring Batman, one starring the Teen Titans, and three starring Superman.

Superman Earth One: Volume 3 was published in February 2015, and sees writer J. Michael Straczynski teamed up with a new artist: Ardian Syaf, replacing earlier artist Shane Davis. It picks up pretty much where Volume 2 left off: Superman has revealed himself to the world, but his impromptu actions - including violently unseating a North African dictator - have made him a potential enemy to the Earth's governments. At the same time, an alien pod crash-lands on the Earth, containing an unexpected passenger: Zod-El, Superman's uncle and the only other survivor of the planet Krypton's destruction.

A while back I reviewed Volume 2, and to be honest much of what I had to say back then continues to apply here. There's a lot of good in this graphic novel, and many entertaining aspects. At the same time there's a lot of really annoying characterisation and dialogue. This pretty much seems par for the course  between me and Straczynski's writing. When he's given the space to write a solid monologue he can be wonderful. Given ordinary dialogue between two characters and he immediately descends into a mess of artifice and clever word play - except it's not clever. Clever dialogue would be if I didn't recognise his technique so easily. No one here talks like people - they all talk like characters, or more accurately like Straczynski peeking out at the reader from behind his characters.

There's some intriguing changes to the regular Superman continuity, which keeps the readers on their toes. Superman and Zod are now related to one another, for example. Lex Luthor is completely re-imagined, not once but twice, in a fashion that I can't explain without spoiling the story. In terms of plotting and character the book certainly feels like a step up in quality from the last volume, but at the same time I can't help but feel there was probably a better story to be told with this kind of format.

Ardian Syaf is a fabulous artist, and he replaces Shane Davis so smoothly that you might not even notice the artist had changed if you're not an active reader of either man's work. There's some great character work in the art, particularly in conversation between Clark Kent and Lois Lane - not lovers in this version, and more like wary competitors and grudging allies - both in his Kent and Superman personae.

This is probably the best of the Superman Earth One books, but it still feels fairly sub-par for the opportunity Straczynski has been given. The bits that work do so because they're tried and tested elements of superhero stories The bits that don't work are usually poor because they're weakly expressed, or saddled with clunky dialogue. Certainly the book's coda, in which Superman speaks at the United Nations, is not a tenth as effective as it needs to be, and feels awfully trite.

I love the concept of the Earth One range, but it needs to be developed with a lot more imagination if it's going to succeed at both a commercial and critical level. It also needs a much, much stronger title. Superman Earth One: Volume 3 doesn't just sound confusing, it sounds a bit dull.

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