Wednesday, November 3, 2010

SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE...a disappointing almost-classic


Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artists: Shane Davis (pencils) & Sandra Hope (inks)
Publisher: DC Comics

"So what do you think about this super-guy?"
-- unnamed Arctic researcher

This is going to be a long review, so I apologize up front for that. But I think the degree of press attention for the first in DC's new line of EARTH ONE books justifies a lengthy examination.

I appreciate what DC is attempting here, but I wound up ultimately feeling dissatisfied by the end. The mythically iconic nature of Superman's origin story is such that I never tire of reading different versions of it. I do tire of retellings of Batman's origin, Spidey's origin, etc. As a general rule, just note the origin and get on with a more interesting story. The INCREDIBLE HULK movie did the origin perfectly... quick flashes of images that give the viewer all he needs to be up to speed and then jump into the story. Superman, however, touches that messianic aspect within that makes it eternally ripe for reinterpretation. So with hesitancy, but also anticipation, I dove into SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE and there are parts I liked a lot but rather than build enthusiasm as I read it, I eventually reached a point where I felt I was simply plodding through to a thunderous clunk at the end.

Don't get me wrong. It's a beautifully produced book. I love the printed hardback cover (rather than a slipcover). It looks and feels substantial in your hands. For $20, you want to at least feel like you're getting your money's worth.

And like I said, I appreciate the attempt here to reinterpret the Superman concept for the modern, and presumably, more current youthful market. The news coverage of the event has been stupidly fixating on the "hoodie" that the brooding 20 year-old Clark Kent wears on the cover, much like the news media missing the point of the WONDER WOMAN reboot by hyper-fixating on her costume change. As such, the media misses the bigger picture. First though, let me first lay out those elements that did work for me.

The degree of thought that went into this work is impressive. Straczynski removed nearly every shackle of DC continuity from Superman and approached much like a new concept within the "real", or rather a more "realistic," world. This is not the "Earth Prime" of DC continuity. The concept of "Earth Prime" was that it was "our" world...that is...a world without "Metropolis", "Gotham City", "Star City", etc. "Earth Prime" was our world in that the DC characters existed there, but in comics only. This new line of EARTH ONE comics is not the same concept. This is "our" world only in the sense that it is mundane and recognizable. On "Earth One," the fictional cities of DC exist and the characters do not already preexist in the comic books of that world. So, it's not "our" world. In "our" world, people would have instantly recognized Clark as a "super-hero." But in the EARTH ONE series, not only is he the last son of this point...he is the only one of his kind. He is something truly new.

I liked Straczynski's characterization of Clark throughout the entire book. He's a young man striving to determine his purpose in life. I liked how Straczynski extrapolated the impact of these types of powers upon a young man of good character in this modern day. In a sense, the first part of the book plays out a lot of details quite similar to the classic novel GLADIATOR, by Philip Wylie, which was an inspiration for the Superman character originally. Clark, in this well-thought out concept, basically has his pick of anything he wants to do. He can sign with any major sports organization because of his physical abilities or he can write his own ticket in the science field because of his heightened mind and information processing. So, why does he choose a daily newspaper in 2010 when the newspaper industry is struggling for relevancy in the digital age? And why does a major metropolitan newspaper decide to hire a 20 year-old with barely a 2-year degree from community college? Straczynski sets it up fairly well. Not totally believable, but it kinda works for the apparent necessity of inserting the iconic elements into Superman's origin.

I appreciated the utter absence of any sense of a Lex Luthor or a Brainiac or a Zod. My geek side may love these characters, and truthfully, Lex Luthor particularly is one of the great villains of literature...who has rarely had a great story utilizing him. But for this EARTH ONE type of project to work, it has to establish Superman in this "realistic" world first...and there's no need to tie his feet to the continuity cement blocks before he's even gotten out of the gate.

I appreciated Straczynski's decision to focus on the conflict that gives rise to Earth's first super-powered champion and to make the outside conflict an extra-terrestrial assault. One thing Straczynski does well is set-up under layers of conflict that give a sense of a larger story at work. In this case, the main focus is clearly on the inner workings of a young man struggling to embrace his destiny against the temptation to just make a lot of money and make sure his widowed mother never has to worry about anything. At the same time, the larger conflict brewing out there is that Clark is also the target of an intergalactic hunt to track down and destroy the last Kryptonian by Krypton's bitter enemies.

The details of these conflicts were all very fascinating and well-thought out...but the end I felt dissatisfied. It was actually around the point where Clark finally put on the suit and took on the alien assault that the book started to lose steam. At the point where it should be at its most exciting, I was losing interest. I couldn't tell whether it was the pacing, the dialogue, the art, or what...but I went from thinking this was surprisingly good to the point where I cringed almost when Clark put on his sloppy, low-waisted pants, suit with a tie and popped on the glasses.

I realized, ultimately, that it was the forced introduction of the familiar that intruded upon my enjoyment. So much of the first half of the book felt new and "real" that as each of the more familiar aspects of the concept appeared, the flow was interrupted with the recognition of what was happening. What I realized was that, like the frustration of reading a book that violates its own internal logic with a deus ex machina resolution, this story worked within its own logic up until it started adding back in those elements outside its own "realistic" logic. Would that Straczynski had been afforded an opportunity to fully extrapolate the basic Superman/Clark Kent dynamic into something completely new, I think this would be more substantial than just a best-selling piece of eye candy.

Which brings me to the art. How do I put this? Buried somewhere beneath the stiff bodies, stone faces, gnarled hands, and light-boxed Google photos of "Debra Morgan" from DEXTER is a good artist trying to pull himself up and out like a zombie clawing itself out of the grave. The tracing and swiping is hamstringing Davis's ability to tell this story in a truly effective way. Compare his lack of drama (because his panel compositions are limited to fit the photos he Googled) to John Bolton's uses of photo referencing in THE GREEN WOMAN (which I reviewed last week). It's an astounding gap between the two and it's more than just years of experience.

All artists, myself included, are guilty of some degree of tracing and swiping. In fact, the first "cartooning" I did back in elementary school was using carbon paper to trace RICHIE RICH and SPIDER-MAN covers. And a lot of what I produced in my teen years was built from tracing or copying my favorite artists, which actually taught me quite a bit about basic drawing techniques. Hell, as a 17 year-old, I all but redrew a bunch of Bernie Wrightson panels for a school project. I'm not proud of it, but that's the idiocy of youth there. Transitioning into a commercial illustrator, however, a person has to move beyond that and into your own. In a professional job like this one, Davis is flat-out guilty of artistic plagiarism, at least in his use of the "Debra Morgan" photos, but I suspect now throughout the book. Immediately noticing the tracing made me start fixating on every other character in the book and wondering about the photo references. As a result, I started seeing faces that might be Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., and maybe even Christian Bale as Clark? I'm not sure. But the Lois reference isn't even disputable because it's an outright trace much of the time. In contrast, Gary Frank's version of Superman is a fine example of how to take a real person and use them as the basis for your character without tracing photos of that person.

I've noticed a tendency in younger artists in the Google age to rely on tracing rather than develop their own style. And in an artist like Davis, this does a disservice not only to the project but also to his own development as an artist. He obviously has raw talent because the details that he adds and his landscapes, alien designs, and his ability to copy as well as he does all demonstrate that he has the skill if he stops leaning on the photo crutch. He is clearly weak when handling the human form, the human hand, or how the body moves in any real sense and this creates that stiffness throughout the book. Working slavishly off of posed photographs will diminish any sense of movement that an artist is trying to evoke. It's the difference between photo as reference and photo as crutch. The experienced artist takes the photo and uses it to give himself an "action" line for his character, then he builds up from the action line with the basic skeletal framework for the form. Then he draws his character from his own action line and framework...NOT FROM THE PHOTOGRAPH. It's the same type of thing I deal with when I am teaching basic research and writing. To avoid a charge of plagiarism, when researching facts, take bullet point notes (not complete sentences) on a separate sheet of paper and then write your paragraph or paper from your notes and not from the original source. This way you are creating your own work and not stealing someone else's work.

Davis's blatant tracing here is akin to a writing student I once had, one of only two I've ever had to fail. She was actually one of the strongest natural writers I've taught, but the final research project counted for 50% of her grade and I never allow make-ups for the Finals. She had 3 solid weeks to work on it. When I sat down to grade it, I noted that the project was formatted beautifully, structured correctly, and was reading quite well...and then I caught a glitch. In the middle of a well-written paragraph there was a "page number"...the type of "page number" that Westlaw inserts in their digitized Case law so that a researcher can properly cite the page number for the physically printed version of the case. She had missed it or forgotten to delete it before she turned it in. So, I pulled up the case on Westlaw and found the page number and yes, she literally cut-and-pasted paragraph after paragraph. Without spending the rest of my night trying to distinguish between which parts of the project she wrote on her own and which parts were plagiarized, I had to give a zero on content.

Unfortunately, turning a critical eye towards this project, Davis's artwork in SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE winds up getting a zero from me as well because I honestly can't tell what all he traced and what all is his own work. Had he sketched from the photos first and then worked from the sketches, there would be similarities to the photos but they would not be blatant tracing.

Sandra Hope, on the other hand, lays down gorgeous inks and texturing to Davis's art. For my money, the gorgeous look of the art overall is grounded more in Hope's inks and Barbara Ciardo's beautifully rich but slightly desaturated colors. Hope particularly brings confidence to the line-work and demonstrates once again why she is one of the finest of the current crop of inkers. Digital rendering is leading to a reduction of opportunities for professional inkers, but I am very happy that DC chose to bring her in on this book rather than work directly from Davis's pencils.

I really admire what was attempted here. And it is not a failure. In fact, I suspect most people will enjoy it and never dig any deeper critically...and that's fine. We all approach our art and literature with differing needs and expectations. I, however, found SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE at times excellent, at others stilted and dull, and overall a disappointing almost classic.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate you bringing Sandra Hope to my attention. I've had very few new comics of late but I anticipate following up on her work (as well as revisiting the gadgets for making one rocking blog!)


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