The Comic Book Club: Superman: Earth One and Beasts of Burden/Hellboy

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Graeme McMillan and Evan Narcisse discuss the Superman: Earth One graphic novel and the Beasts of Burden/Hellboy: Sacrifice one-shot.

DOUGLAS: Let’s go back to the first announcement of Superman: Earth One, a bit under a year ago. Here’s what J. Michael Straczynski said at the time: “What I’m trying to do is to dig in to the character and look at him through modern eyes. If you were to create the Superman story today, for the first time, but keep intact all that works, what would it look like?”

That’s an excellent question, because it offers a good deal of insight into how, and how badly, this book fails. The first time I read this, I thought it was awful, but couldn’t quite pinpoint what bugged me so much about it (aside from Straczynski’s everyone-sounds-the-same-but-the-villain dialogue: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write Perry White as a Mary Sue before). I chatted about it with a couple of friends who pointed out that it’s not as bad as JMS’s Superman and maybe I should give it another chance. So I reread it, and midway through, I realized what its central problem is: It’s totally superfluous.

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You want to know what about Superman, the canonical version, still works in a modern context? Everything. It works just fine. You don’t have to change the formula to make it meaningful in 2010: in fact, you have to resist messing with the formula. All you have to do is execute it well. The best Superman story from the past decade, All Star Superman, executes the formula incredibly well, but doesn’t change it an iota.

So what, then, does Earth One do to modernize the basic concept of Superman? Nothing, really. The main point of distinction is “Krypton was a hit job as part of an interplanetary war.” Why does that make it modern? It doesn’t; it just makes Jor-El’s pre-emptive sacrifice of his son, with its overtones of both Abraham/Isaac and Moses, more confusing and less dramatic.

So maybe the premise is “standalone introduction to/origin of Superman”: the sort of thing that The Man of Steel was before John Byrne’s art started looking a little retro. But that’s already been answered with Superman: Birthright and, more recently, Superman: Secret Origin. (Which would actually already be out as a hardcover if Geoff Johns and Gary Frank had hit their deadlines with the miniseries.) Both of them nicely executed projects, both significantly better written and better drawn than this one.

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This is being sold as a “point of entry for Superman” story–the sort of thing where somebody who’s potentially interested in Superman (perhaps via, as Graeme mentioned to me the other day, Smallville) can get on board and see what’s so interesting about Superman comics. Except it’s not: if somebody told me they wanted to read their first Superman comic book and wanted something that was fun and exciting and not too drenched in continuity they’d already have to know, I’d point them toward All Star or “For the Man Who Has Everything” or in a pinch Secret Origin. Not this leaden, preachy, rote, thrill-less thing.

EVAN: Let me start off by declaring I like Earth One more than JMS’ Superman run, but that’s not saying much. The hardcover doesn’t get bogged down by the continuity of inherited storylines, and the oft-begged question of “Why’s Superman being such a jerk?” doesn’t really pop here.

GRAEME: And yet, this version of Clark Kent is a massive jerk in entirely other ways. Or is that just me? Maybe JMS can’t help but make Clark a jerk.

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