Back in May, I wrote a Superman article deliberately focused on Superman origin stories in the main continuity, as I wanted to illustrate what DC was doing wrong with the character. Now, I want to take a look at the one Superman origin of the past decade that actually got it right – J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis’ Superman: Earth One.
An original graphic novel set on an alternate Earth (the DC equivalent of Marvel’s Ultimate universe) does a lot right with the character. It doesn’t change the mythology just for the sake of change, and its deep, cinematic presentation feels appropriately epic for the subject matter. And looking at the book in greater depth illustrates just why it’s such a well-crafted Superman story.
The book opens with Clark Kent arriving in Metropolis, determined to find his way in the world. A splashpage of Metropolis nails the duality of the city – it feels like a real place, yet its golden tone gives us a sense that Clark already sees the beauty in it above all else. White doves fly around him as he stares at the skyscrapers towering before him. After moving into his apartment, night falls and we watch a hooded Clark Kent roaming the streets of the city, a lonely, invincible man with the whole world ahead of him. He bears no reservations about walking through a darkened alleyway, completely confident in the fact that nothing can hurt him. But it doesn’t mean he has any clear idea of where he’s going.
A thug approaches Clark and attempts to rob him. After warning him, Clark burns the thug’s hair off with his heat vision and speeds away. This scene has proved controversial, but it works – author JMS wants to establish this Clark Kent as a man yet to fully commit to the ideals instilled in him by his adopted parents. He’s soul-searching, unsure of whether he’ll be an optimist or a pessimist. It’s an ambiguous scene for an ambiguous character at a huge crossroad in his life, and an interesting change-up from the usual predetermined origin story, or worse, the misunderstood monster angle.
Clark passes by a bar and stares through the glass at a couple seated across from each other at a table, his own reflection covering that of the woman’s male suitor. He’s terribly, terribly alone, looking at humanity from the outside, driven by the simple desire to be among them. He certainly has no shortage of ways to do so – Clark tries his hand at football, baseball, applied R&D, the stock market, construction, and art, easily dominating every field and receiving a multitude of job offers. One evening, Clark calls Ma Kent and announces that any of them will be enough to support her. Ever the mentor, Ma says she’s fine and encourages him to do what he wants. “That you CAN do it doesn’t mean it’s right for you” she says.
Walking through the city streets again, Clark glimpses a worn out paper machine holding an issue of the Daily Planet. He heads there next, but upon entering the creaking, wheezing world of print journalism (captured perfectly by Shane Davis’ artwork), he quickly discovers that he’s out of his league. Editor Perry White schools him on basic principles like active and passive voice; Clark is too naïve to commit, too unprepared to give the job his all. Perry can also can see Clark’s secret written all over his face, telling him that he writes “like he’s holding something back.” The editor hands him an application, but with the threat of his abilities being discovered, Clark tosses it away and keeps moving.
Clark takes to the skies, accompanied by several of the white doves he glimpsed before. He remembers being a child, and listening to his parents recount how they found him. In a flashback, we see the Kents hiking through the mountains, when a spaceship whizzes by them and buries itself into the landscape beyond. They rush over and discover a baby in the wreckage. Sensing an explosion, Ma grabs the baby and a piece of the ship before darting away. Her and Pa Kent carefully make their way back to the farm as a group of helicopters begin circling the area.
Years later, young Clark is bullied at school. He’s constantly being tempted to fight back and beat the bully, to finally let loose his full potential. But he knows he can’t, and it takes a toll on him; even in the present, there’s an underlying feeling that Clark has repressed his skillset, forsaking an integral part of who he is, all just to fit in. Clark says as much when he flies back to Smallville to visit his father’s gravestone, maintaining that he made a promise to take care of Ma, get a good job, and live among humanity.
Upon returning to Metropolis, Clark finds his apartment ablaze. Someone wants him dead. He darts inside, grabs his Superman suit and the piece of the ship Ma recovered, and quickly flies out the window as the room explodes behind him (the third explosion this lone artifact from Krypton has been saved from…parallelism!). As Clark examines the artifact, the history of his home planet Krypton is zapped into his brain. Clark, now in a trance, watches the planet be destroyed by alien creatures. When he wakes up, he sees the same creatures now threatening to destroy Earth. Suddenly, he knows without a second thought what he must do.
As chaos erupts through the city, Clark catches a scientist back at the applied R&D department he’d met prior and asks him to help, but the scientist is too busy preparing his escape, contemplating how he can best profit from the situation. Clark realizes he can’t help anyone, including himself, working in applied R&D. Here, Clark is coming to terms with the reality around him; the alien invasion represents Clark’s coming to terms with his alien heritage and skillset. He knows he can’t repress it any longer; it’s caught up to him and he has to make a decision. Revealing himself is a huge sacrifice, but he knows he is the only one who can stop the aliens. He remembers the words of his father, “We all have to serve something bigger than ourselves. We don’t want to do it, we’d give anything not to HAVE to do it, but we do it anyway. We square our shoulders and we get it done.”
Clark stands atop a building holding his costume, and flashes back to another time when Ma told him Superman would have to show his true face to establish trust with the people of the world, and wear a mask the rest of the time. Being Superman is all about sacrifices, but they’re sacrifices he knows he has to make. The doves once again join Clark on the rooftop as he makes his decision. They represent the image that Clark must become – a symbol of peace in flight. Clark hears Pa Kent saying that it’s the tests, the trials we go through that make us who we are and tell us what we stand for. In a flashback paralleling the present, this, Pa says, is Clark’s day to take a stand.
In a final bit of wisdom, Clark hears Ma Kent saying, “Don’t live the rest of your life like a Porsche that never leaves the garage because somebody’s afraid to scratch it.” Clark is inspired, finally, to be all he can be, and finally let loose. He’s meant for bigger things than a desk job or baseball player, and he’s finally accepted that.
Lois and Jimmy, seen earlier at the Daily Planet, jump into action to get the story for the paper. In a stark contrast to their damsel-in-distress Silver Age status, the two are an experienced, resourceful team, always in danger’s path and fighting for the truth. In Earth One, they save Superman, and inspire him to become the Man of Steel he needed to be. It’s a refreshing update, illustrating that Superman’s allies are just as brave and important to society as he is. Their bravery spurs Clark to determine what he wants to do with his life in both his identities.
Clark suits up and dukes it out with Tyrell, leader of the alien race that destroyed Krypton, who himself turns out to be a puppet for a bigger villain that gave them the means to destroy Krypton and every last survivor. After the battle, Clark finds the selfish scientist again, who quotes him a six figure salary. Clark chides him for being so insensitive and draws his figurative line in the sand. He knows who he is, and he’s not backing down from that responsibility ever again.
But the question remains, how will he live among humanity, now that he’s been publically identified? He passes by the diner from the beginning once more, still very lonely. He knows he can’t live as a hooded recluse forever. Clark loses the hood and puts own a suit and tie, giving a naïve smile in the mirror. The new Clark Kent is born. Following that, Superman hears two scientists in the arctic bantering about how isolated and uneventful their region of study is, making it the perfect spot for Supes to chill, isolate himself from the world, and learn more about his Kryptonian heritage.
Earth One, while flawed, is the best example of a 21st Century Superman as we’ve ever had. It’s deserved success proved that Superman isn’t the dated shadow of the past some people make him out to be. No, there is indeed a ready and willing audience out there for the character, eager for a more modern interpretation that speaks to them in ways the old material can’t.
Indeed, Earth One delves into Clark Kent’s character like no other comic before it. His feelings of isolation and uncertainty bring together a classic coming-of-age story. Shane Davis’ artwork reflects a more real, yet timeless Metropolis. Superman’s costume isn’t a bright, standout blue-and-red, rather, in blends into the scenery, perhaps reflective of Clark’s desire to blend into his surroundings and live a normal life despite his powers.
Earth One isn’t drab or dark, but it does bring a level of maturity not seen in the character these days, especially when the book was preceded by the juvenile and hackneyed Secret Origin. Earth One is also inspiring, subtle, and thoughtful in its execution, and let’s be honest, that’s something regular DC continuity is in dire need of right about now.