Review: Superman: Earth One Vol. 2 graphic novel (DC Comics)

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why do we need Superman: Earth One?

With Smallville having told the adventures of the nascent Superman over a period of ten years, and the DC New 52 having recently de-aged the Man of Steel to a less experienced state, why do we need one more book that examines Superman's origins?

Because writer J. Michael Straczynski tackles aspects of the young Clark Kent that no one else can.

The second volume of Superman: Earth One will undoubtedly be controversial because Straczynski addresses the sexual issues a real-life Superman would have to face, punctuated by no less than a shout-out to Larry Niven's classic essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex." But Earth One Volume 2 ultimately emerges as an examination of Clark Kent's heart, and his isolation, of which his sexuality is just one part. There are instances of too-swift characterization here in Straczynski's rush to make philosophical points about Superman, but this does not mitigate the weight of the points Straczynski makes, nor the value of this venue for Straczynski to make them.

[Review contains spoilers]

Straczynski's Earth One Clark Kent is a legitimately lonely figure. Though the Superman standards of Perry White, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen were all present in the first volume, there were no cheeseburgers with Jimmy or awkward dates with Lois; Clark doesn't much appear nor really interact with anyone. In the second volume, Straczynski world-builds, emphasizing Clark more and giving Clark an Earth One-specific supporting cast -- Clark's sentient Kryptonian ship, landlord Mr. Abraham, neighbor Eddie Monroe -- but these are characters Clark only timidly passes; his interactions are only the barest of conversations.

It's a pattern, Straczynski demonstrates, that encompasses the entirety of Clark's life: school dances where Clark hunched against the wall, touching no one; and school days where Clark made only C's, figuratively trying not to "touch" anyone or make any impressions. In part this was to protect the secret of his powers; in part this was out of fear that Clark might accidentally hurt anyone he got too close to, up to and including romantic encounters.

Because of that fear, Clark invulnerability gains extra meaning -- Clark cannot be physically hurt, or "touched," but neither will he let anyone touch him emotionally. Even further, the Earth One Superman resigns himself to fighting big, unambiguous crises -- tidal waves and alien invasions -- rather than involve himself in more "intimate" human affairs where he might make the wrong decision and cause harm.

Into this -- with the narrative subtlety of a sledgehammer -- Straczynski introduces Lisa Lasalle. Lasalle, another of Clark's neighbors, is all openness (to the point of ridiculousness), quite immediately piercing Clark's barriers and offering him that one thing he's seemed to have always lacked: a friend (and an opportunity at physical intimacy, even if Clark ultimately doesn't pursue it). Just as Clark's physical power doesn't count when he fights the Parasite here, Lasalle easily surmounts Clark's emotional walls, and this leads Clark by the end to begin to consider Superman's role in addressing the problems of individuals, not just protecting humanity as a whole. In gaining a friend, the Earth One Superman becomes more human.

But Straczynski reveals in the book's conclusion that Lasalle is in part uniquely positioned to see through Clark's emotional distance because she's a prostitute ("Sometimes, when I absolutely have to, just to make ends meet," Straczynski has Lasalle equivocate, "I hook on the side."). Straczynski does not delve this deeply, but the reader can extrapolate that Lasalle's dual sides are something like Clark's. Lasalle would seem to allow others to be intimate with her, but they're not really touching her "true self," just a facade she makes available; similarly Clark is personable and holds down a job at the Daily Planet, but doesn't have any real interactions with people, and the Earth One Superman protects the world but doesn't, at least until the end of the book, really make himself a part of it.

This is cogent and interesting, and delves into aspects of the Superman character rife for examination -- but it also means that Straczynski essentially compares being Superman to prostitution, something that will certainly be fodder for those who already have a pointed opinion of the often-polarizing writer.

In all of this, Straczynski demonstrates the utility of the Superman: Earth One series. Aspects of the DC New 52 like Catwoman and Batman's explicit sex in the Catwoman title notwithstanding, it will be a long time before Clark Kent almost-sleeps with a prostitute in the mainstream Superman titles, and equally a long time before the mainstream Superman titles depict Clark and Jonathan Kent having "the talk" (complete with Straczynski's reference to Niven's essay). The watchword of the "Earth One" books has been "standalone," not necessarily "mature," but Superman: Earth One Volume 2 is to an extent a "mature readers" book (Straczynski has one or two jokes that are downright ribald).

This is good for DC Comics overall, to have venues in which their characters can be examined and stretched in ways outside Comics Code-type parameters (an approach Wonder Woman has been due for quite a while), and it makes the question of what Straczynski will do in the third Superman: Earth One volume even more intriguing than the question of what he'd do in the second.

Unfortunately, Straczynski's use of Lasalle is, again, heavy-handed, and also somewhat thoughtless. For purposes that are entirely thematic and not at all character-based, it's not that Lasalle makes friends with Clark and then just happens to be a prostitute, but rather she throws herself full bore at Clark from the very first page, entirely beyond belief. Straczynski's characterization of Lasalle needs subtleties that artist Shane Davis can't deliver -- in Lasalle's first appearance, she muses, "My second boyfriend was a writer. Mmmm. Yeah, sexy," reclined on Clark's couch with an over-sized bosom, bare midriff, and chiseled abs, and the result is laughable rather than sexy. (Davis's Parasite, in contract, is nicely monstrous.)

As well, Straczynski teases Clark's deflowering for perhaps the first time in Superman history with someone other than Lois Lane or Lana Lang, but then backs away from it in an "easy out" by making Lasalle a prostitute. In essence, Straczynski is able to extinguish Lasalle as a romantic option for Clark in the end by making her a prostitute, and "of course" Clark Kent can't actually sleep with a prostitute. This review does not advocate the sleeping with of prostitutes, but Straczynski's last-second use of prostitution is rife with poor sexual politics -- Clark can't now be romantic with Lasalle because she is "dirty" or "impure." Combined with Straczynski's over-sexualization of Lasalle, the character becomes not much more than a sexual chess-piece bandied around the board -- useful, but also stereotypical.

It would have been braver had Straczynski taken even a more ambiguous position as in Aaron Sorkin's West Wing, where Sam Seaborn "accidentally" sleeps with a call girl before he knows about her profession, but is determined later to still see her romantically. It's almost certain that Straczynski won't still depict Lasalle turning tricks by Superman: Earth One Volume 3, but rather that she will have "turned her life around," likely with Clark's help, further underscoring the flippant way Straczynski uses prostitution in this story.

Straczynski, for his part, seems sufficiently aware of the controversy he will create, which mitigates some of this (better a creator try to be edgy and succeed than blunder onto shaky ground ignorantly). The scene in which Clark rescues Lasalle from a violent client is straight from Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1 -- Straczynski is ready with precedent, to an extent, for Clark and Lasalle's friendship. As well, in the conclusion of the scene where Lasalle reveals her "dual identity," Straczynski has Clark look straight at the reader and ask, "What are you looking at?" It's a callback to an earlier moment in the book, but it seems also a challenge, inviting reader outrage and debate over Clark's new friend.

Despite that Clark succeeds as Superman twice in more "intimate" superhero work -- rescuing Lasalle and then fomenting a foreign rebellion against a dictator -- Straczynski resolves that no matter how much any individual may try to do, there's always more to be done. Clark wins twice, but then fails, as his neighbor Eddie overdoses without Clark ever hearing Eddie's cries for help. Straczynski underlines this by introducing on the next page not one but two Lex Luthors (pacifist Lex and scheming Alexandra). Lex's introduction was an inevitable and much-anticipated event here, and in these scenes Straczynski effectively threatens the danger that "Lex2" will portend next time around.

Again, J. Michael Straczynski makes a convincing case for Superman: Earth One with this second outing, demonstrating what he can do with Earth One that the regular Superman writers can't. This is important; the first volume of Superman: Earth One was thoughtful in its own right, but the second volume is more so, and if this keeps up, volume three will be a "can't miss" book. Earth One Volume 2 does not, in many ways, present its message flawlessly (some may even say the book borders on the offensive), but it does have something interesting to say, and this is a strong argument for its publication and for Straczynski continuing to steward these books for years to come.

[Book includes brief Shane Davis sketchbook pages]

UPDATE: Subsequent to my review, J. Michael Straczynski agreed to answer some questions about Superman: Earth One Vol. 2 via email, which I will post on the site later this week. He also submitted some responses that I agreed to post:
While stating that I liked the review overall quite a lot, and thought the observations and critiques were useful, I would also like to address two things in the review that are actually rather inaccurate.

The first is that Clark doesn't have sex with her because she's a prostitute. Nothing could be farther from the truth of what's in the book. Once his powers come back -- and we see that scene, see him run from her BEFORE he knows of her part time work -- he knows he can't be with her for fear of hurting her. That's why, when he runs off, he says -- very clearly -- that the moment when his powers were gone may be the one time he will ever have had a chance for sex. So them not getting together has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with her work. If anything, Clark is relieved by her admission -- which she drives through that scene, she's the one who decides they should be friends, that's not Clark doing that -- because if she didn't, he would have to come up with some other reason why he can't have sex with her.

The other is the scene where Clark says "what are you looking at--" He's not breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader. The last word in that line is "-- Fuzzball." The moon is reflected in his glasses as he says the line, and featured in the next panel. He's talking to his cat, Fuzzball, or at least the memory of her.
I appreciate Mr. Straczynski taking the time to engage and respond, and as I said, the third volume in this series can't come soon enough.
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16 comments:

  1. Great review, as always! It definitely gives me a lot to think about, because we both responded to the same story beats, but in different ways. I thought the Lisa character was an interesting new addition to the Superman mythos, subverting the "Clark can't get girls" thing he's often had with Lois. But I was really disappointed with the cavalier way Straczynski dropped in the prostitution beat; it's a bit demeaning that *of course* the sexually active woman has to be a sex worker, and it doesn't do much in my eyes except set up the inevitable "turn your life around" beat that you rightly predict.

    I'm also of two minds on the Lex2 tease at the end. It's a neat way to play off the canon Luthor, casting Lex as disinterested, but I can't help feel that the doubling would have worked better had we not *just* seen the same thing done with Harvey Dent over in Batman: Earth One. I'm also a little leery of Alexandra because I can't help feeling like she's going to die just so Lex can become Superman's nemesis.

    But I do agree wholeheartedly that this volume makes a very powerful case for why we "need" an Earth One franchise. I found myself resisting a few moments in the book because it wasn't how "my" Superman would behave, but when I realized that the point of Earth One is that it isn't quite my Superman, I was vastly intrigued. If only the New 52 proper Superman were this interesting!

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  2. I hadn't put together the Batman: Earth One Harvey Dent duality and the Lex2 duality until now, but you're quite right -- a poor bit of coincidental timing, which'll be even more obvious when Batman Vol. 2 and Superman Vol. 3 come out.

    I did like that we have two Lexes now and that the male Lex appears to be the good guy, though I agree the path seems predictable -- Alexandra will stay evil and pull her husband along, or Alexandra will die and Lex becomes Lex, and so on. There were a bunch of seemingly obvious tropes in this book -- Parasite with a killer touch accidentally kills someone he loves; Clark loses his powers right up to but then not quite when he's about to be intimate, etc. -- and in volume three I'd like to see Straczynski really take things sideways -- Clark proses to Lasalle, Lex becomes his best friend a la All-Star Superman's Leo Quintum. Y'know, really make the next one unpredictable.

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  3. I haven't been a fan of Straczynski's style in the past, but this sounds really interesting. Might have to take a look.

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  4. Honestly, I don't like what I've heard about this book. I liked volume one despite its flaws, but this one sounds... problematic, to be as nice as possible. I'll be reading it eventually - and probably review it - and look to keep an open mind, since I ended up not agreeing with many of the others on volume one, but I have a bad feeling my reaction is going to be different from yours on this one, going by what I've heard.

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  5. I'm just waiting for the inaccurate, over-the-top "Superman has sex with a prostitute! Film at eleven!" news reports.

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  6. After all the inaccurate, over-the-top "Superman is a shiny vampire" news reports around the first Earth One book, I am *shocked* -- nay, *astounded!* -- that there is not more "Superman [almost] has sex with a prostitute" news reports. If anything I think it might be delayed because the book doesn't actually hit bookstores until next week, only comic shops this week.

    I like what Straczynski has done here but I'm kind of a sucker for when writers break taboos with these characters that no one else will touch. In truth his use of Lasalle really comes off as a one-note stereotypical "loose girl" (the problem may be in how Davis depicts the scenes -- see "Mmmm. Yeah, sexy" above) and I'm curious to see one of the blogs with a greater focus on women in comics give their thoughts on it.

    @dl316bh - When you do write your review, be sure to shoot me a link to it so I can check it out.

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  7. Great review. Out of everything in this book, I actually think I liked the "cat"-bit most. I'm a sucker for that sentimental stuff.

    Also fun to see another Superman character with the initials L.L. That couldn't have been a coincidence...

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  8. After reading it last night, your review is spot on. I like the fact the Earth One books are actually different in dealing with types of taboos that never get printed, but are only in casual conversation by the water cooler. Why read about the same things ever time? Besides, the Earth One books are set outside of DC continuity, so I think it's entirely us to the writer to writer anyway they see fit, without aggravating the fans (which in this sad world of the internet, people will still do).

    But I'm also convinced after reading vol.2 that the Earth One books deal in the more human aspects of the protagonist. Vol.1 dealt heavily on Clark Kent far more then Superman. it dealt with the idea that Clark doesn't just simply become Superman and call it a day, but actually thought about ramifications of becoming a 24/7 super-hero. I liked that. he actually thought about his actions before he did them. And because of it, a ton of people thought it was blasphemy.

    And Earth One Batman was more about Bruce Wayne then Batman, being more accident prone and angst-ridden. Far more human properties then The Dark Knight we all know, and people hated those aspects.

    Then Earth One Superman Vol.2 dealt with the idea of being different (not on the outside but inside) could effect everyone he comes in contact with. And being pushed into a corner of using these powers, yet not offsetting the worlds perspective of him. For example when Superman was simply helping other countries get out of a harms way, the General threatens him to leave by killing people who go against him. Superman has that vision of killing the general and his army to show brute force, but knows the world will decree him as some powerful murdering god. It just shows the heavy repercussions of being Superman in a more realistic world, while most stories portray the world loving Superman no matter what.

    These are the kinds of things that make JMS a great (and controversial) writer, as well as the Earth One books. Now lets hope Grant Morrison really is writing the rumored Wonder Woman: Earth One.

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  9. I am hopeful Straczynski has Superman return to that rebel country in the next volume. It is as "American as apple pie" that when Superman sees a crime being committed, he stops it, but the book reinforces the good point that it's not so simple outside Superman's adopted country's borders. I'd like to see more study of that in Earth One, myself.

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  10. I admire JMS for wanting to explore so much of Clark's isolation and humanity but it would have been braver to this fan if he had actually taken the time to develop Lois the way the character has earned.

    Creating Lisa as the sexual figure in this book felt demeaning to me.

    In the meantime, Lois had barely anything to do. Look, the bottom line is that Lois isn't just the primary love interest in the Superman mythos---she's also the only other character that has been there for 75 years and she's Clark's foil.

    To me? The braver and more interesting exploration of Clark's sexuality wouldn't be to create an over the top sexual character but to actually have the courage to get to the bare bones of the absolute OBSESSION that Superman has for Lois Lane in a modern context.

    Lois and Clark have deserved a modern update to the cat and mouse game that is always between them and the new 52 seems determined not to do it. (Something that, imo, has drastically hurt the books. If they wanted to reboot the marriage they should have really taken the time to take the triangle for 2 to a modern place and they have not done it.)

    The thing is....Clark only having sex with Lois has actually made sense for alot of reasons. He is afraid to let himself go. He has afraid to let people in. Lois is rare strong figure who when given the chance accepts him fully as an alien and a man and is open to sharing that sexual relationship with him because she truly loves him. It's actually pretty cool.

    To me, that would have been the braver route. I would rather see JMS have the courage to depict Lois Lane as a sexual being going forward as opposed to creating this other character. As it stands, it kind of felt like he was regulating the smart woman to the sidelines which felt really off.

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  11. Also, I see someone asking above if any of the female bloggers have touched on this yet. Yes, there's been alot of discussion about it and it wasn't well received. Laura Hudson, DcWoman, Comics Alliance...all expressed disgust at the marginalization of Lois in the narrative and the creation of a female character that seemed to be there just for fan service.

    I think the general consensus is that if JMS wants to tell a story about sex...he actually should have been willing to do it with Lois. The character has earned that much after all these years.

    Writers shy away from the sex between Lois and Superman so often despite the fact that the characters have been sexually involved for over 40 years.

    Their relationship is actually intensely sexual it's just that our culture has this weird thing where we always try to separate the sex from the true love. We assume that "True love" isn't always connected to the lust element.

    The thing about Lois/Superman is that if you go back and really study the source material...lust is a driving force in their relationship on top of the fact that they wind up being madly in love. Even the original Superman movie from the 70's was loaded with sexual entendre between them.

    There is an unfortunate trend to try and separate sex from smart, powerful women. It's a detriment to Lois Lane for her to be pushed aside to explore a "sexy" character as opposed to a writer recognizing that strong, powerful career women like Lois Lane might also be intensely sexual.

    Instead, what I fear we might get is being shown that Clark loves Lois...but then having her sexuality torn away from her. I'd rather see a writer have the courage to write Lois as the sexual being she is as opposed to creating a new "sluttier" female character to tantalize.

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  12. @ Anon: don't mind me asking, where's the discussion been? I haven't seen any, I'm curious what people are saying.

    Still haven't read this book, but it sounds like people think both female characters need some work. To be honest, I don't think many people write Lois as well as they could in the first place. Which raises another question I've been curious about: who does write a good Lois Lane? I can't think of anybody off the bat...

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  13. There was a huge amount of discussion taking place on Twitter last week between Laura Hudson formerly from Comics Alliance now with LA Times, Chris And David from Comics Alliance, DCWomankickingass, GeekMom and several other female bloggers with huge followings like the former When Fan Girls Attack. Everyone was disturbed by the book and the gender issues in it.

    Who writes the best Lois? Tons of people. Gail Simone. Greg Rucka. Kurt Busiek. Back in the 90's. Dan Jurgens and Louise Simonson. Mark Waid in Birthright. Joe Kelly. Right now, the best Lois is written by Bryan q. Miller in Smallville Season 11.

    Lois is a hard female to write because she isn't easily objectified. Writers can't use the crutches that reduce women to objects with her. She's the opposite of this new Lisa love Interest. She is all substance and Durante exist just for fan service.

    Lois is arguably one of the most abused female characters at DC Comics right now which makes JMS totally marginalizing her here an even larger problem.

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  14. Look, there are numerous ways JMS could have written Lois, but I find the objective in her looking into Clark's background--although a bit scary--something that lives up to her being a strong reporter. Reporters are, in ways, just like JMS has written. Some really are fixated on subjects, and when they are, they delve into it more then usual.

    The gender issue didn't even effect me because I never saw it as such. This is a story about Clark Kent's isolation, and using the 70+ year old question of sex to the forefront. But instead of using the typical sexual frustration of Lois, JMS used an new character to (I think) not ruin the integrity of Lois. This is Earth One after all. It does take place outside of continuity and I think JMS wanted to do something different in that regard.

    Lisa does have some pretty corny lines I'll admit that, and yes her extremely quick flirtation with Clark probably didn't have to be that way...but I guess for the sanctity of time, I think he just cut to the chase of the matter and made Lisa a sex-hound (again, maybe).

    Another theory could also have to do with the two themes. For Clark, it's isolation. For Superman, it's power. Superman can do just about anything at his content, but then goes against the general character who see's having guns is the power. The Parasite is a creature dependent on power and always wanting it to control others. If you think about it, Lisa represents power, but in terms of her sexuality. She's beautiful and has Clark do what she would want of him. She could also control most men with her "power". If you think about it from that idea, it makes sense in why Lois and Lisa are quite different in the metaphor for power.

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  15. UPDATE: I have conducted a short interview with J. Michael Straczynski that I will post on the site later this week. He also submitted some responses to my review that I also agreed to post; please see those above.

    @sb - I thought Jeph Loeb wrote one of the best versions of Lois in his Superman run, to add my two cents.

    I appreciate Anon's comments and thought they were very interesting, though I don't agree completely. Lois (and Jimmy and Perry) does have a smaller role in this volume, which I asked JMS about and I thought his answer was reasonable; again, that'll be on the site later this week.

    Even aside from that, "marginalize" is not necessarily the word I would use. The Daily Planet staff clearly has a smaller role in this book as Straczynski works to expand Superman's Earth One supporting cast. If Straczynski's portrayal of Lois in some way lampooned or otherwise disrespected the character, I would have raised the issue myself; rather I thought Lois here was well in line with other portrayals of the character, especially (to draw a broad parallel) the excessively platonic early Superman: The Animated Series Lois. In Earth One she is perhaps too overshadowed by Straczynski's overly-bold Jimmy (see my review of volume one), but I don't think she suffers in her own right. That a writer, especially one imagining a new take on a character in a new universe, chooses to focus on one character instead of another, doesn't mean the latter character has been "marginalized" necessarily.

    Nor do I think in the context of this book, Lisa's role could have been played by Lois instead. I found Lisa's coming on to Clark unconvincing and said so above, but certainly this needed to be the actions of a new character; to have Lois be Clark's romantic, and especially sexual, foil in Volume 2 would have been the far greater disservice to the Lois character. It's too early in the Earth One saga, and it'd be hard to convince me Lisa's approach would be Lois's approach (let alone that I wasn't convinced it would be Lisa's approach, either).

    But again I appreciate Anon's comments -- this is why I was so excited for this book to come out, because I knew there'd be so much to talk about. Keep it coming.

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  16. I always have to disagree with you when I read your reviews. This book is horrible, and Superman's relationship with Lisa Lasalle, while awful, is the least of its problems.
    You rapidly dismiss two major issues this book has:

    1) Superman leaves a pimp in jeans and a t-Shirt in the middle of the Antarctic Pole, 10 miles away from a place where someone could help him, which is, of course, a way of killing him.

    2) He arms a rebellion and disarms and army. Wakes up a dictator and sits back and watch how he gets killed. That's in vengeance for the time when that Dictator menaced him with cutting off the arms of his citizens if he kept helping them

    Yeah, that's just the kind of realism that Superman needs.

    The character is completely unlikable, his detachment destroys the personality for which he is known. And having a pseudo-relationship with his neighbor who happens to be a part-time prostitute is far away from addressing mature themes in the book. The Character was married and had sex with his wife for almost 15 years, "the talk" with Pa' Kent was ridiculous, it belongs to Mallrats or some other adolescent movie passing for adult film.

    And all that is without even starting to complain about things like the Parasite's alter ego as a very stupid analog of Dexter or some other serial killer and Lois Lane's awful characterization

    Superman Earth One Vol.2 is worse than the first volume, and probably one of the worst Superman comics of all time. As Chris Sims said, is an embarrassment for everyone involved.

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