J. Michael Straczynski has been a popular writer for many years. His most notable is arguably Babylon 5, a show that redefined what science fiction on TV could be and ultimately crafted what was essentially a five-year novel for television. With the completion of his sci-fi epic in 1999, I often wondered where he would go next; eventually, his career path would lead him to comic books and a six-year run on The Amazing Spider-Man, culminating in the controversial “One More Day.” After this run was complete, Straczynski moved on to feature films such as Clint Eastwood’s Changeling starring Angelina Jolei, and the Wachowskis’ Ninja Assassin (a script which he allegedly wrote in three days). While I was happy to see Straczynski writing for the screen again, little did I realize he had another aspiration: to write a Superman story, a goal he achieved with the bold “Grounded.” As it turned out, Straczynski was preparing to rebuild the Man of Steel from the ground up in the first volume of the Earth One graphic novel series. I remember when this series was first announced in the waning days of 2009, with many saying it was DC’s answer to Marvel’s acclaimed Ultimate line, something that many perceived was already in progress thanks to DC’s All Stars. Unfortunately, that line only had three titles to its name, the most anticipated of which was All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, which didn’t have a regular schedule and was ultimately never finished. With the All Stars label effectively kaput, DC turned their attentions to Earth One, and what I had hoped would be a brand new Superman epic would begin.
On the surface, Straczynski and artist Shane Davis’s first volume of Superman: Earth One plays a lot like many of the other Superman origin stories fans have read and, in particular, seen before. It should be no surprise that David Goyer gave a cover quote for the book, as much of the beginning plays like Man of Steel. But when the story differs is where Straczynski excels, really getting into the minutiae and providing a new take on the premise of the classic Superman story “For the Man Who Has Everything.” In the process, Straczynski paints a portrait of a hero with whom the reader can relate, something that had become increasingly difficult over the years, with many people believing Superman is too overpowered to be relatable. By bringing Superman down to earth and making him act, well, human, he reinvigorates the character and allows people to see their own flaws in him, most notably in how humans can often keep things hidden. This is something shows like Smallville pulled off with aplomb, with Lana often saying how much lighter Clark was whenever he didn’t have to worry about revealing his secrets. Superman: Earth One also plays with this idea, but in a far more profound way that transcends anything that was done on Smallville. Secrets bring with them a weight, if a weight that’s only on the fringes of the mind. We try to push through, yet whenever we attempt to hold something back, the truth always comes out (heck, just ask any parent and they’ll probably tell you the same thing). Yet for Straczynski, it is perhaps the search for the truth that is most important, something we see in the forms of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, especially the latter. Typically, Jimmy is portrayed as someone who’s a little bit buttoned-up. Here, Jimmy is someone who will do anything to get a photograph, much to Perry White’s chagrin. For once, the reader can’t help but admire Jimmy and his convictions, something on which Straczynski doubles down, as he wanted to portray photographers as he had known them: people who risked their lives for the shot, for the truth.
In tandem with this need for the truth – a concept that, in another writer’s hands, perhaps would not have been given the range and familiarity it is here – is the need to find one’s identity. Through this, Superman: Earth One maintains the relatability of the character, this time through the eyes of twenty-year-old Clark, thereby keeping him, if you’ll pardon the pun, grounded. Yes, this is an idea I keep coming back to, but ultimately, it’s something with which people from all walks of life can identify. Sure, nobody has superpowers, but young adults are always searching for meaning and purpose, engulfed in a blind ambition that is only given clarity when they figure out what they want or need. For Clark, that only becomes clear during an all-too-familiar alien invasion. However, because the reader is so invested in the character of Clark Kent, the alien invasion – while a fun set piece – becomes merely a conduit for Clark to embrace his destiny, a moment that, when I first read the book years ago, has all the impact of a movie climax, and more. While Straczynski deserves a lot of credit for this, it’s Shane Davis’s art that gives the story an added push in all the right moments, imbuing the characters with what I still feel are some of most expressive portraits in the game. Each panel is packed with emotion and tells its own story, something that I feel is often missing from modern day comics. I’ll confess I hadn’t heard of Davis when I first read the book, but I’ve kept an eye out for his work ever since and was relieved when I heard he would once again be working with Straczynski on the next chapter of this Superman saga, and I couldn’t wait to see what they would come up with next.
The first volume of Superman: Earth One is a fantastic start not only to a new Superman story but a great line from DC that I still wish had more attention, hence this review series. With a character-based story from a multimedia icon like J. Michael Straczynski and wonderful expressive art by Shane Davis, this book set the tone for what DC’s Earth One was all about: new visions of iconic characters by not just all-stars but icons of the genre.