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.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.
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.