Read This! With Michael Chen

HappyHolidaysarefinallyover! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the holidays. They are great for catching up with family and providing reasons for avoiding all sorts of people who are not family. They are also great if you’ve really been struggling to recall the sound of Mariah Carey’s voice or if you want to figure out how many times the powers that be can play that one Christmas song before it sounds just like that other Christmas song. You know the ones? Yeah, those!

Now, some people don’t mind the repetitive nature of hearing “Last Christmas” for an entire month wherever they go. These people could love George Michael or maybe they fill up notebooks with sad poetry or – more likely – they are just plain bonkers. Even thinking about that song again is making my heart hurt. I should probably give it to someone special. Yeah. Someone special will know how to fix it.

I type all of this not because I am some scrooge but to prove a point: even the best things on repeat get old. To be clear: “Last Christmas” is not one of these best things. It is firmly on the “worst things” list I’ve been keeping right below nuclear winter. But Superman? THE Superman? The dreamy Henry Cavill playing Superman? Now that is among the best of things. Superman is our first hero, our first superhero, the Zeus that fathered the most American of mythologies: SUPERHEROES!

While searching for “Henry Cavill” google suggests the ending “girlfriend?” Stop it, ladies. Superman’s weaknesses include kryptonite, magic and a soft spot for delusional google stalkers. Wait…one of those doesn’t sound right.

Of course, the tale of Superman/Clark Kent has been told and retold countless times. It gets old. Superman is one of the toughest characters to write for. Not just because of how long the dude has been around but because of his sheer power level. While he debuted as just a really strong guy who could jump really far (thus simulating “flight”) the radio show and early comics couldn’t resist making him more and more amazing. Adding flight, increasing his strength, making him nearly impervious to damage, etc. So how do you write a character that can do anything and has been written about longer than any other character? Well, a good start would be throw off the yolk of that history and just rewrite an origin story. This was the ambitious goal of Superman Earth One (2010) and its follow up Superman Earth One vol 2 (2012).

Before we dive in, I should preface by saying the art is not great. It does a serviceable job but Shane Davis is simply not up to the job of portraying all the levels in this book. That and his Clark and Superman don’t even look like they could be the same person in some panels. I’m serious. The facial structure, breadth across the shoulders and other small things involved in identifying a person actually change. Now artists use source material like photographs of real people to guide their depictions all the time but Davis’ work obviously looks like he relied on varying photographs and never got a good grasp of how he was drawing “his” Clark/Superman. Luckily, the art is still serviceable and you aren’t getting this bad boy for the pictures anyway!

Just lose the glasses, add the shoulders, strong jaw, barrel-chest…and remove some of those messy, dark flowing locks. It was right in front of Lois the whole time!

There are lots of reasons you should check out Superman Earth One (and the related Batman Earth One). The first is the self enclosed nature of these graphic novels. You don’t need to follow some monthly comic to get enjoyment out of this retelling. It is only sold as a standalone graphic novel. The hardcover price tag may scare some people off but the convenience of getting an entire story in one package coupled with the knowledge that it is a one-time investment makes it worth it. On top of that you get J. Michael Straczynski reinterpreting Superman. Stracynzski is as accomplished as they come having created tv cult classic Babylon 5, written the screenplay for Changeling and also writing an extended and acclaimed run on The Amazing Spider-Man for seven years. He carefully handles the updating of Clark’s story in Superman Earth One. In fact, much of this first volume deals with Clark on his way to becoming Superman. Think of it as Smallville that gets to the costume much faster and with a lot less angst.

This is a terrific story for anyone who has wondered what all the fuss over Superman was/is/will always be about. The greatest stories involving the Man of Steel are not about his battles or his villains (let’s face it, Batman has him CRUSHED in the villain department). Superman’s appeal has always been Clark Kent. There are very few Superman stories that get “the point” of the character like this one does. I don’t mean to go all Kill Bill on you but the interesting parts of the character involve the disguise of “Clark”. Straczynski (already getting old typing that name) is careful to show how the skin of “Clark” is created and the fear that comes along with shedding that skin. Some reviewers (that shall remain unnamed) noted at the time of volume 1’s release that this Superman didn’t feel very super. I’m sorry but that is ENTIRELY the point. No son of Martha and Jonathan Kent should feel super. They should feel human and humble and honest and terrified to be more than they are…until they are forced to.

Tarantino’s diatribe via Bill wants the audience to believe the frailty and weakness of “Clark” is how Superman chooses to blend in since that is how he perceives us. However, Straczynski flips this script and makes the point that Kal-El is an alien that wears both Clark and Superman as skins for different purposes. Superman only exists if and when humanity demonstrates there is something worth saving and then he only continues to exist as a symbol of how to use power responsibly – in this way, Superman saves us from the immediate crisis as well as inspiring our better natures so we can save ourselves. At the bottom of all great Superman yarns, which Straczynski captures, is the tension that Superman doesn’t have to save anyone.

This guy could say anything and it would sound important. It’s not so much his voice as it is the gun.

If you can’t tell, I loved the layers presented in this retelling. Sure we’ve heard a lot of it before but reading Superman Earth One for the first time felt like someone took my favorite familiar flavors, added a modern twist and brewed up a little number they call superbeer. Mmmmm stronger than a locomotive!

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