J. Michael Straczynski attempts to create a more grounded Superman in the debut of DC Comics' "Earth One" series, achieving only mild success by offering a unique character study of America's most enduring icon. The "Earth One" brand is essentially DC's answer to Marvel's "Ultimate" line of books, which offers modern readers an updated take on their most popular characters. Shed of decades of history and convoluted back-story, these well-known heroes are updated with new, yet similar, origin stories, set in the present day, and affording the creators of these works to start fresh and strike off in bold new directions. Brian Michael Bendis seized the opportunity at Marvel, creating a wonderfully enjoyable Spider-Man that was both familiar and new, and compulsively readable. Straczynski starts off with less of a sure foot as he tries to dust off the old Superman mythos for a new audience with this graphic novel original.
He creates a unique Clark Kent, a 20-something college graduate who is aimless and unsure of himself. He is the last surviving son of Krypton, an alien planet that was destroyed when he was an infant. Knowing his home world was doomed, his parents sent him off in a spacecraft, which crashed on Earth. Discovered by the Kent's and raised as their own, he is gifted with supernatural abilities--he can run faster than anyone on Earth, fly at will, fire super-hot rays from his eyes. His intelligence and athleticism are profoundly greater than any others, allowing him to potentially pursue careers in football or scientific research. Despite all of these amazing abilities, he lacks confidence and purpose. He wanders from one job opportunity to the next, knowing any one of them could make him rich, yet he is left unsatisfied and empty.
This is a more brooding, introspective view of Kent than many Superman fans are likely familiar with. On the cusp of adulthood, he has kept his abilities secret, allowed himself to be bullied and beaten down by school rivals. He hopes only to keep his anonymity, refusing to take those first steps toward heroism, towards becoming Superman. He desires to do public good, but has little ambition in following through.
It's an interesting direction to view the Man of Steel from, but, of course, Clark Kent ultimately has to decide to become Superman. After a fleet of alien ships descend upon Earth, raising havoc and threatening to kill millions unless the last son of Krypton reveals himself, he finally takes those first steps towards destiny. They are hesitant steps, at best. After witnessing the courage of two Daily Planet reporters, Lois Lane and Jim Olsen, each nearly dying in the chaos of a Metropolis under siege by alien attackers, Kent realizes he can longer agonize over what he must do. Donning the familiar red-and-blue tights, he finally goes to work, giving Earth its Superman.
The presentation of this book is perhaps its strongest feature. Shane Davis's Superman is printed directly upon the hardcover with the well-known S-logo smoothly raised. It's a sleek, beautiful opener. The interior art is penciled serviceably well, and after looking at the cover you get a clear idea of Davis's style straight off the bat. His Clark Kent/Superman is youthful, but familiar and well-crafted. He makes some subtle alterations to the red-and-blue suit, while retaining the traditional, iconic appearance of Superman. His action sequences are clean and detailed, with an aerial dogfight between the US Air Force and the alien aircraft being conducted upside down against a titled, vertigo-inducing Metropolis being a particular favorite. He pays plenty of attention to detail, making sure the cast of characters are distinguished enough that there is never any confusion over who's who, while Barbara Ciardo provides some terrific coloring to bring it all to life. There are even a few great nods towards historical images of Superman, including a neatly done homage to the character's first appearance on the cover of issue one of Action Comics.
Straczynski crafts an interesting story, but its biggest flaw as an origin is that it's too familiar to what has come before. He plays it far too safe, sticking to too many of the same beats as past writers--a doomed Krypton (although the 'why' behind Krypton's demise is a welcome departure that opens the door for future inspection), crashing in Smallville and being raised on a farm, going to work for the Daily Planet. It's all been done before (and in several Elseworld stories, told far more interestingly) and feels like a by-the-numbers retelling, a poor cover version of a once-popular song. There's not enough new substance to separate this origin from any other, which seems to invalidate the entire purpose of the "Earth One" mission. While his Clark Kent is nicely nuanced and uncertain, a welcome change of pace from the typically stoic, always a do-gooder Superman of modern continuity, the background informing him is not as original or compelling as it should be. We never get a sense for how the Kent's were able to raise this super-powered youth, or what prevents from him exerting full control over the human race.
It's not all bad though. The arrival of the aliens, a species honor-bound to destroy the Kryptonian race, sets the stage for Superman's arrival nicely, and is an entertaining Independence Day-fueled romp. Their arrival even poses a few unique questions, casting a dark light upon Krypton and Superman's ultimate destiny. These hints that perhaps Krypton, and Superman himself, are not the idealized figures of the traditional mythology are the biggest alteration and pose the most welcome change between "Earth One" and DC's original, but are not as fully expanded upon as they should be. Straczynski recently announced that he has begun work on the sequel, so there is certainly hope that he can expand and improve upon the mythos he lays the groundwork for here. While the story itself is largely fun and serves as a nice introduction for the "Earth One" lineup, it leaves too many gaps for the clearly intended sequel.
Ultimately, Superman: Earth One is a frustrating experience. While Straczynski offers up an original take on Clark Kent, he fails to fully deliver on the fresh ideas he has for this new mythology, opting instead to tease readers with nothing more than a passing nod. He offers a brief line here and there that promises something new, but instead he chooses to save all his ammunition for future follow-ups. What we're left with is a book that stubbornly refuses to go the extra mile in distinguishing itself as a new, bold take and feels hollow as a standalone. Readers will likely be left asking themselves, whatever happened to the man of tomorrow?