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

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EVAN: The questions that Earth One raises for me are, “How do I like my Superman? Who do I want Superman to be?” And, from the most recent example of All-Star Superman to Busiek’s Secret Identity to Cary Bates’ run in the 70s and 80s, I like Kal-El when he’s the most preternaturally well-adjusted person on the planet.

DOUGLAS: Secret Identity! That was a really good one, too.

EVAN: That doesn’t mean that he never has conflict. Of course, he does. But, he’s able to deal with what comes his way. He may need to think his way to triumph, but the whiny uncertainty that’s characterized the character of late is nowhere to be found. Crying Kal-El (just for the sake of non-dramatic tension) is really unattractive to me.

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A non-geek friend of mine forwarded me a link from all the coverage the book’s been getting, and he was outraged that DC would change the cap to a hoodie. (The piece only ran the cover as the accompanying art.) Of course, the main look of Supes isn’t ever going to be very different for very long. But the changes that JMS makes to the origin are very problematic to me. JMS clearly loves the idea of Superman as symbol, but making revenge a motivation for him narrows the breadth of the symbolism. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you: Superman helps people. It’s not “Superman helps people and seeks revenge for Krypton’s death.” I’d wager that a lot more people are familiar with altruism for its own sake, rather than the need for vengeance. Even if it’s not less common, the idea of revenge is an odd emotional element for a Superman story, and placing it in a revamped origin story feels wrong.

Same goes for the planetary grudge match. That fate–and, later, its citizens’ hubris sealed Krypton’s doom–is one of the best parts of Superman’s origin. Boiled down, it’s basically, “Random shit happens… but we can rise above.” In this re-imagining, JMS dilutes the quasi-religious simplicity of the premise, which, again, is surprising considering how much he seems to love that stuff over in Superman. Having a race of wannabe-Krypton whiners take out Superman’s home planet adds nothing to the metaphors of immigration, assimilation and parental sacrifice that make the character’s subtext so rich.

JMS aims for “modern,” but just ends up with a confused jumble. For everything that I liked–the opening pages of Clark being awesome, the ship as Fortress of Solitude, the absence of Luthor–there were five plot beats that made me frown.

DOUGLAS: You liked the absence of Luthor? Interesting. I just figured that he’s holding back Luthor for some future volume (if Earth One turns into a series, rather than a pair of one-offs).

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GRAEME: I think that JMS got some kind of flop sweat here. There’s a lot that I think works – I love his take on Jimmy Olsen, which I think is the strongest I’ve seen in years, not including Morrison’s All-Star version, and as much as Emo Superman as a concept annoys me, it works for an origin story because it gives Clark a character arc and something to grow from on his way to becoming the Superman we know and I love. But it’s overwhelmed by a lot of seemingly random elements that just doom the book in my eyes, central of which is the idea that Krypton was destroyed by someone on purpose and that Clark’s purpose is no longer just standing up for what’s right, but standing up for what’s right and also seeking revenge for the death of his people. I mean, WTF? That just isn’t Superman. Much more than “Oh, look, Clark has a hood and a different haircut,” this is the major change to the character here, and it’s not a good one. Unless this is the start of, again, a character arc where Clark realizes that he’s not interested in revenge but instead doing what’s right, I call shenanigans.

(I’m also going to call shenanigans on the plot; I know that origin stories are hard and all, but the alien invasion was very generic and half-formed, and over far too quickly to have any real weight; it felt, more than anything, like JMS wanted to have an action sequence somewhere in the book, and dropped this in as a placeholder before realizing that he couldn’t come up with anything stronger. If nothing else, the plot hammering of “This is the alien race that was responsible for the death of your race – NOT REALLY! There were BIGGER bad guys!” felt really forced and false jeopardy. Also, the lead villain looked just like 1980s-era Superman villain the Silver Banshee, which was just odd.)

(Also also: Was it just me, or did this feel more like a Superman MOVIE than a Superman comic? There were two things in particular that seemed like they’d work much better in motion than on the page – the villain’s wings forming around him, and on a larger scale, the Red Sun gravity beam. Neither of those are particularly suited to the comic medium, but would have much more impact on screen.)

As the first issue of an ongoing Ultimate Superman series, this’d be one thing. I like it well enough that I’d read the next story, if only to see whether the dangling threads go in a direction I’d be interested in, or whether any of the characters other than Clark and Jimmy develop personalities (seriously, Lois really got screwed here). But as a $20 graphic novel that may or may not have a follow-up next year, and therefore should be able to stand on its own, complete in and of itself? It feels too unfinished and unformed.

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