Let me begin by stating right up front that I am not a big fan of J. Michael Straczynski. To be sure, I consider Babylon 5 to have been a brilliant television series marred in its ultimate execution only by forces beyond Straczynski's control (the uncertainty surrounding whether he would be allowed a fifth season as his story structure demanded compelling him to wrap up the major driving plot-lines at the end of the fourth season before finding out that the series would get that fifth year). And I have read other things by him that I have greatly enjoyed – the first two of three volumes of Rising Stars (the third, however, so ruining the series as a whole for me that I gave all three away), some of the issues of the six-year run of Spider-Man that he did. But far too often I've found that JMS, in my opinion, gets a little too carried away with his own importance and lapses into preachiness to the detriment of the story he's trying to tell. He also has – Spider-Man notwithstanding – a notorious tendency to leave projects unfinished for extended periods. Rising Stars was one such delayed project, and when he returned to it after several years his vision had obviously changed – such that the last volume became nothing more than a left-wing anti-George Bush diatribe, even to the extent of changing certain story elements that had been established earlier rendering the end inconsistent and basically incomprehensible. Few books have actually made me angry upon completion, but that was the case with Rising Stars volume three. I have not read his current Wonder Woman stuff; I have read his current run on Superman and found the earlier issues (which he plotted and wrote) far too self-important and yes, “preachy,” while the later issues (resulting from another of his instances of not sticking with a project, in this case necessitating a shift in writer because you can't just leave Superman with an extensive gap in publication!) in which the scripting duties were taken over by Chris Roberson (based to some unknown degree on JMS's plot) have been far superior, recapturing some of the magic of the greatest superhero of all. Basically, my practice has been that if JMS takes over a title that I read I will at least give it a chance – I don't just reject it out of hand – but conversely his name on a project is not in itself going to be a draw for me. (That's exactly why I was reading the current JMS Superman run but not Wonder Woman – I was already reading Superman but not Wonder Woman.)
Having said all of which, when Superman Earth One, an out-of-continuity “reimagining” of the Superman legend, was published with great hoopla last year, I passed on it. I figured I would get it sooner or later. I did hear all kinds of good things about it. Well, “sooner or later” is here. One of the things I like about the Science Fiction Book Club is various deals and specials that are occasionally offered, such as a couple weeks ago “Buy 2 at Regular Club Price and Get the 3rd for $1.99.” And for a lot of these kinds of items the “Book Club Editions” are indistinguishable from the Publisher's Edition. So I pre-ordered the latest Dresden Files novel, Ghost Story (to be published next – err, I guess it's later this month now – July), along with Alex Ross's Project Superpowers vol. 1 from Dynamite Comics – and Superman Earth One. I got the two graphic novels a couple days ago.
Straight up: I really liked Superman Earth One. Here we have a very realistic portrayal of a 21st-century Superman, how the self-centered youth culture of the past couple of generations conflicts with the sacrificing ethos of the Kents that so famously formed Clark Kent into a hero. It was not inevitable. This Clark is a young man unsure what to do with his life. He is somewhat emotionally scarred by his ever-present sense of being different and isolated since a very young age, now tempted to focus his powers on being happy. No, it's not the easy contrast of a diametrically opposite character from what we're used to. This Clark was raised by the Kents, after all. He is a good person. But other influences and the effects of a lifetime in hiding, of self-denial, have also gone into his formation. In the end, of course, when necessity arises in the form of an alien invasion, he does make the right choice and takes up the mantle of hero.
There are many nice touches throughout this story, showing that JMS has given a lifetime of thought to a rationale for the idea of Superman. My favorite was Clark's exchange with his mother, when she presents him with the costume she has fashioned for him from the red, blue, and yellow blankets: “Isn't it a bit too … I dunno … colorful?” he asks. - “I tried every dye I could,” she answers. “But the material from the ship doesn't change colors. In the long run, it's a good thing … People will be looking at the colors instead of your face.” - “Wouldn't it be easier if I had a mask or something?” - “Yes, it would … But you can't ever wear a mask.” - “Why not?” - “When people see what you can do, when they see how powerful you are, they're going to be terrified. A mask would only add to that. They'll need to see your face, so they can see that there's no evil in it … to see the gentleness and decency in you … and know that they have nothing to fear. The mask – the mask is what you'll have to wear the rest of the time.” There are other such gems and character pieces throughout.
I don't have any idea if such was the intent, or how much this graphic novel will influence the movie that is currently in production, but this story as presented would make a perfectly good Superman movie … in most respects. The weakest element is the villain, not so much in concept, (highlight the following to see spoiler) that his people destroyed Krypton and he is here to finish the job, but rather in design. Although Shane Davis' pencils as inked by Sandra Hope are very nice, at times beautiful, the design of “Tyrell” (not that hot a name, either) is pretty bad and would come off looking downright stupid in live action. I've seen him referred to as a combination of the DC anti-hero (actually, I'm not sure he's even that much a “hero”) Lobo with the members of the rock band Kiss. But my first thought was that it was a male version of the DC villainess Silver Banshee. Either way – FAIL. And that wasn't quite the only artistic faux pas. Sometimes certain pages were just too static, looking more like posed pin-up shots than natural snapshots of action. I'm thinking first of when we first see Superman “standing” in the sky in full costumed glory; then when he has just re-energized after being rescued from red sun radiation by Lois and Jim (not Jimmy, not in this book). Otherwise, however,“beautiful” as I described it above applies very well, not least because of the superb coloring work of Barbara Ciardo – generally muted, natural, but with a decent pop when appropriate.
Although I'm very interested to see what Grant Morrison has in mind for Action Comics #1 come September, which will apparently tell the new origin of Superman and hence the beginning of the age of super-heroes for the new post-Flashpoint “DcnU,” part of me almost wishes that this were that story. It does lay a perfectly good foundation that begs to be followed up. (It shows that a good "tweaking" of the iconic costume is possible without the somewhat radical redesign seen in the early images for September. [I'm rather conflicted about the red Speedos - they are both essential to that iconic appearance and perhaps the most ridiculed element. Personally, I would prefer they stay, for Superman alone.]) Reportedly JMS and Shane Davis are hard at work on a sequel – that was in fact the purported reason given when the writer bailed on the regular Superman title as well as Wonder Woman, to allow him to focus his energies on volume two. And there are obviously unanswered questions to be resolved – (highlight the following to see spoilers) Why did the unnamed enemy who gave the Dherons the means to destroy Krypton do so? - Why was there the condition that the Dherons should let no single Kryptonian survive, compelling Tyrell's long hunt that led him to Earth? I have a theory – the one time we see that enemy, in silhouette, although we can't see the top of his head I bet it's bald.... In any case, I'm pretty sure I'll be getting Superman Earth One, Volume Two, “sooner” rather than “later.” J. Michael Straczynski has, to a degree, redeemed himself in my eyes. There's no doubt he can be a great writer. I still have my doubts as to whether he can really stick with a regularly scheduled project to the end, and I sincerely hope he doesn't try to turn later volumes into a forum for some “message,” but for now I'm looking forward to seeing how this story will progress.