My concern going in to Superman: Earth One was that Straczynski's would be the rumored "emo" Superman -- young, overemotional, and initially self-aggrandizing; a Clark Kent who would have to be convinced to use his powers for good instead of for fame. This couldn't be less true. Clark tries out for professional football, but he also applies for a job researching renewable energy, and all of it for the purpose of making money to send back the widowed Ma Kent. When she tells Clark to find his own path, he's initially reluctant; he may not want to be a superhero, but neither is he only out for himself. Straczynski's Earth One Clark Kent may be moody, sure, but he still has the heart of "our" Clark Kent.
Among one of the key changes Straczynski makes to the general Superman mythos (different from John Byrne's Man of Steel, at least) is that Clark already has his costume when he arrives in Metropolis, it's his parents who're encouraging him to be a superhero, and it's Pa Kent, now deceased, who names him Superman. In the Byrne version, Clark is driven to save lives and so subsequently needs to create the Superman identity; on Smallville, Clark's heroism is thrust on him by Jor-El, whereas the Kents have tried to hide and shield Clark's powers.
In Earth One, the Kents encourage Clark to be Superman, even as Clark is reluctant because he knows it means sacrificing a normal life. He would not be Superman at all, except that to an extent he discovers that being Superman is where he fits in, that he has more commonality with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen standing up to alien conquerors than he does with working at a research laboratory funded by corporate greed. Clark doesn't want to be alone, but he'd be deeply unsatisfied with any life of good that he can do other than the good he can do as Superman; and, as a close second, he sees that dedication to good reflected in his colleagues at the Daily Planet.
I find this cogent and convincing. I also like that Straczynski weights Clark's relationship with his father -- growing up, becoming his own man -- over Clark's relationship with Lois; Lois has nearly no role here in making Clark Superman. I found this refreshing, more like Lois and Clark on Superman: The Animated Series than anywhere else -- co-workers, they are, and not lovers. All too often in Superman origins, the eventual marriage of Lois and Clark seems inevitable, lacking the necessary drama; here, I appreciated that Straczynski seems almost to ignore the relationship entirely, all the better to start a slow build two or three volumes hence.
Rounding out the cast, Straczynski offers no Lex Luthor -- the Superman/Lex relationship having perhaps been done to death in Smallville and Geoff Johns's Superman: Secret Origin -- nor any Kryptonite, for that matter (potentially government agent Sandra Lee will take the Lex role). Straczynski's Perry White is just as very nearly identical to that of the regular comics as his Jimmy Olsen is different, distressingly so. I don't mind Jimmy as a fearless daredevil photographer, but halfway through Earth One, I near expected Jimmy to bend steel himself. It's Jimmy who inspires Clark to put on the costume, Jimmy who initially saves the new Superman from danger, Jimmy who takes super-perfect pictures of Superman that near single-handedly save the ailing Daily Planet. Perhaps as a result of Straczynski pulling Lois back a bit, Jimmy comes too far forward, ridiculously; I don't much like "our" Jimmy, either, but I didn't find this Jimmy an improvement.
Ultimately, the story of Earth One is that in the face of Clark's reluctance to be a hero, the alien Tyrell comes to Earth hunting Clark and threatening to destroy Earth to get to him; seems Tyrell's people took a contract to destroy their enemy Kryptonians, and now have to finish off the lone survivor. Tyrell's invasion takes up three-fourths of the book -- almost the only crime this Superman stops -- and unfortunately Tyrell isn't more than a one-note villain, not unlike Nero in the recent new Star Trek film.
What's interesting is Tyrell's revelation that Krypton wasn't destroyed, but rather murdered; and the mysterious foe that contracted Tyrell to destroy the planet. This is true for much of Superman: Earth One -- the plot is swift and formulaic and moves almost immediately to Superman's fight with Tyrell, but what distinguishes and redeems Earth One are Straczynski's creative updates -- that Krypton was murdered, that Pa Kent named Superman -- as well as an overall smooth writing style, believable dialogue, and some fine humor along the way as well.
I hold out hope, by the way, that the mystery master villain of Earth One turns out to be someone from "our" DC Universe. The book makes no use of and gives no nod to the phrase "Earth One" such that DC could have easily called it "Rebirth" or "Steel" or "Generations." I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we find out later that Earth One is really "Earth-1" and that Tyrell's mysterious benefactor is Brainiac perhaps, or the Cyborg-Superman (in as much, I recognize, as this would repeat the aforementioned Star Trek).
If Earth One, taking place in the span of an afternoon, doesn't have the scope of Byrne's Man of Steel, it still equates enough of a Superman television movie that I would give it to a new comics reader without hesitation; again, there is nothing insulting or poor here, and the premise is interesting enough that I'm convinced to read more. In addition to the flaws I mentioned, Superman lets Tyrell die in the end when he might have saved him, and I can't quite condone that for Superman -- but it's no different than Batman with Ra's al Ghul at the end of Batman Begins, and I recognize that's the kind of aesthetic under which Straczynski is working -- Superman by way of a new twenty-first century superhero movie.
In that vein I think Superman: Earth One succeeds -- an accessible Superman graphic novel for the less comics-centered, graphic novel-buying audience. Not too excessive an amount of Superman angst here. And no vampires.
[Contains sketchbook pages by artist Shane Davis; four page Daily Planet spread. Printed on glossy paper.]
There is lots more to discuss regarding Superman: Earth One, which we'll address on this blog over time: other reviews of the book, how the reception to Earth One will shape future volumes, Earth One as a publishing strategy, and more.