Review: Superman: Earth One Vol. 3 graphic novel (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Superman: Earth One Vol. 3 is writer J. Michael Straczynski's Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi all in one, the third volume of the series where the stakes get higher, the bad guys get badder, and threads from the previous two volumes are all wrapped up. Straczynski's villain combination here is eminently familiar, but Straczynski takes it in an unexpected direction that I rather liked. In all it's an enjoyable read, as good as the ones that came before, and a worthy ending to the opening "trilogy."

Some of what was off-color in the last book (where "off-color" isn't an inherently bad thing, but "off-color" and "Superman" are sometimes a funny combination) has been toned down here, though Straczynski's story still transgresses, to an extent, beyond what I think most would be comfortable with in a Superman story. I don't mind this edginess -- it's one of the unexpected delights of Straczynski's Superman: Earth One -- though at times I think the book treats such topics as prostitution with an airiness that's probably not appropriate.

[Review contains spoilers]

Another way to characterize Superman: Earth One Vol. 3 is as J. Michael Straczynski's Superman II. We have in this book Straczynski's spin on both Zod and Lex Luthor, and perhaps what distinguishes this volume the most is that after the first volume with a new enemy and the second volume with the lesser-known Parasite, this third volume approaches Superman "classic," up to and including a more familiar Superman/Lois Lane relationship.

The twist is that while Straczynski's Zod is largely patterned on his predecessors -- including his incessant obsession with people kneeling before him -- his Lex Luthor is wholly different, a kindly scientist who builds weapons only reluctantly. The give and take between old and new, expected and unexpected, drives the story and offers the root of most of its suspense -- will Lex be turned evil, can Superman defeat Zod without resorting to Man of Steel-esque tactics, might any of Superman's supporting cast not survive the story, and so on.

For the most part Superman has not interacted with his traditional supporting cast in Earth One so far; he's not Jimmy Olsen's pal or such. It was therefore heartening to see Superman and Lois Lane converse more this time, and for Lois to become a sort of conscience for Superman; not a romantic partner (yet), as in many iterations, but more of a trusted adviser, which gives their relationship a new freshness.

Much of Lois's advice, and indeed much of the conflict in the book, has to do with Superman's ill-conceived fomenting of a revolution in the third-world country of Borada. If Superman: Earth One Vol. 2 was about Superman learning to use his powers and exercise his strength, the third volume is about Superman tempering those impulses, and learning when to interfere in others' conflicts and when not to (there is a perhaps wise but not well-followed foreign policy doctrine underlying this story).

In the end, Straczynski's Superman learns his lesson, but Straczynski also takes a moment to put to bed the occasional chestnut where the world's governments don't trust Superman (most recently in the New 52, among other places). Sensibly, Superman argues that -- setting aside the incident in Borada -- he's done nothing but good for the world and stated his intention to do nothing but good, so why should he be met with so much mistrust? It's a logical argument that one might think the United Nations could come up with themselves, and Straczynski does well in having Superman enunciate it himself, possibly for good (or at least for the time being).

There's an interesting comparison to be made between Straczynski's Earth One and Scott Snyder's recent Superman Unchained. Straczynski's sees a Superman who interferes in world affairs, gets in trouble for it, and has to pull back; Snyder's sees a Superman who tends not to interfere and who's made to feel he's not really "living" by remaining in limbo between his various identities. Both are good and faithful Superman stories, but treat some of the same issues within the Superman character in opposite ways.

New series artist Ardian Syaf does well in following Shane Davis, often giving Superman the youthful look that the book requires, and also with fewer distracting likenesses to real people. Only in some of the fight scenes did I think Syaf's Superman began to look distorted, with sometimes a too-thin or oddly-shaped head. I couldn't get behind Zod's outfit, either, which looked too much like a Golden Age supervillan costume, even despite being in opposition to Superman's undies-on-the-outside getup. Also that Zod's costume is dark, gray, has a hood that covers his face, and basically screams "supervillain," and Superman's costume is bright and blue, and yet the United Nations still takes one look at Zod and thinks, "This is definitely the good guy," seemed a bit far-fetched to me.

The big headline for Superman: Earth One Vol. 2 was Clark Kent's almost-romance with neighbor Lisa Lasalle, aspiring model/actress and sometime-prostitute. In volume two, perhaps in answer to the book's themes of intimacy, Straczynski over-sold Lisa's sexuality, having her drape herself all over everything and speak constantly in double (if not single) entendres. In volume three, Lisa is considerably more palatable than before, acting more like a normal (if slightly overenthusiastic) person, and the reader can better root for she and Clark's burgeoning relationship. I admit I thought Lisa was a goner there toward the end, and I was glad it turned out she was not.

I do respect that Straczynski doubles-down, rather than backs away, from Clark and Lisa's relationship in the third volume, pretty well suggesting that should we have a Superman: Earth One Vol. 4, they'll be an item (with Lisa knowing Clark's identity, making her arguably even a kind of alternate Lana Lang). That someone at DC is willing to risk "Superman dates a prostitute" headlines (as somewhat inaccurate as that may be) in favor of letting Straczynski tell the story he wants to tell seems like admirable bravery to me. I will take Straczynski to task for the same momentarily, but I maintain Straczynski's telling a story here that no other Superman writer has told before, and that carries a lot of weight for me and keeps me reading Superman: Earth One.

That Lisa works as a prostitute is presented as her "other life" (always off-camera), and an implied metaphor for Clark Kent's "other life," not so much "being Superman" but having these extraordinary powers and having to work at not being found out or accidentally hurting people. As an in-character reason for why Lisa "gets" Clark, I accept it, but the metaphor is clearly shaky. Leaving aside the unintended "being Superman is akin to prostitution" implications, that Clark has an inborn aspect of his heritage that he can't control and has to keep hidden is light-years away from Lisa making the choice to work in a profession generally considered dangerous and unseemly.

And indeed, Superman: Earth One gives us no indication that Lisa isn't making the choice to work as a prostitute instead of another job (she is not, as unfortunately people are, unwillingly pressed into a life of prostitution). Straczynski seems to want all of the good here and none of the bad; the word "prostitute" never appears in the book, but rather instead the tidier word "escort." Without shaming anyone's personal sexual choices, one has to believe that violence, drug use, and disease more often go along with sex work than it being a mildly inconvenient and embarrassing side job, as Straczynski portrays it here, and that seems markedly one-sided.

Neither are we actually shown any of Lisa's activities in the book, and even as she says that Clark is "the only person I can talk to about that part of my life," they never speak about it before the reader. Does Lisa really tell Clark about this or that abuse or degradement, and Clark nods sagely and acts supportive? In the space between Vols. 2 and 3, when Clark is still in his interference-prone mode, are we to believe he's never followed Lisa on a "date" (another sterilized word) to make sure she's OK? Would Clark really be OK with his steady girlfriend going out at night on dangerous liaisons, super-hearing picking up the whole thing?

I'm not saying that Straczynski's conception of Lisa's life and of Lisa and Clark's relationship is inconceivable, just that it's really, really unlikely. If Straczynski truly wants to explore a life like Lisa's and what it would mean to have Superman Clark Kent in the picture, that's fine, and I think it would make fascinating reading -- again, one of the joys of Straczynski's Superman: Earth One has become seeing how he handles this very thing. But next time around, if Straczynski's going to go for it, then he needs to go for it, in a realistic and multi-faceted manner. As it is here, we have tough choices presented blithely and antiseptically, and I don't think that does the topic justice.

As Superman stories go, Superman: Earth One Vol. 3 is a good one, and especially as an alternate-universe Superman story, it does especially well in showing new aspects of these classic characters. The book's sexual politics continue to be problematic, but I maintain I'd rather read a book that's taking risks than one that is not. Between Jeff Lemire's Teen Titans: Earth One and Superman: Earth One Vol. 3, DC is having a good couple months in Earth One books, and I imagine Batman: Earth One Vol. 2 is going to make it a hat trick. I fear DC diluting the brand by introducing too many more Earth One series too quickly, but this experiment in publishing doesn't seem to have served them wrong yet.

[Includes Ardian Syaf sketchbook section]

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  1. I just finished reading this a couple of days ago, and I agree with pretty much everything you said. I liked how it tied in to some events from the last volume (Borada) and how Zod tied it into the first volume. I think my favourite part was when he addressed the UN. I loved that splash page where he yells at them. They totally deserved it.

  2. I reread the first two volumes last night and was struck by how much "Man of Steel" seems to have borrowed from Vol. 1 (inverting, though, Jonathan Kent's attitude toward Clark's powers). Now it's almost like Straczynski is writing BACK to MoS, with a Superman very concerned about collateral damage; if Snyder's Superman is a god among mortals, Earth One has a Superman who is actively aspiring toward being human, with humans reciprocating the gesture by wondering about the place of such a creature in their midst.

    Zoe being the wrap-up to the "Who killed Krypton?" mystery is, unfortunately, a bit too obvious for my liking, and I might have liked to see a bit more metaphorical weight than Clark's "One man standing up" monologue to Lois at the end. Not sure who I would have preferred, but I would have liked more of a surprise (Brainiac, maybe?). Or perhaps I'm just on Zod overdose at the moment.

    Finally, a bit of collection note - anyone else find it uproariously funny that Straczynski's bio still has him listed as the current SUPERMAN and WONDER WOMAN writer?

    1. Straczynski had an interesting conversation with IGN about the back and forth between Earth One and Man of Steel; seems Man of Steel was influenced by the early Earth One volumes to start, and now Earth One Vol. 3 was a reaction to Man of Steel after the fact.

      Agreed Zod was an obvious choice for the hidden bad guy (or Brainiac, but I think he's elsewhere in our midsts), though I did like how Vol. 3 seemed to riff on Superman II with Zod and Luthor(s). If Luthor hadn't also been involved, I might not be so OK with Zod's inclusion.