Saturday, October 30, 2010

Some initial thoughts on Superman: Earth One

I just finished reading "Superman: Earth One" (okay, except the article at the end), and I figured I should get some initial impressions down before they're all gone. Spoilers ahead.

  • First, this is basically "Marvel Comics Presents Superman." It's Superman's origin by way of "Smallville" and "Spider-Man," and while that's certainly not a terrible thing, it's also the latest in a long line of fairly pessimistic, dull-toned Superman stories. And more and more, I'm tired of reading those stories.
  • That being said, this certainly isn't as bad as "Grounded," which was a pleasant surprise. I'd still rather have someone other than Straczynski writing this book. Or another book being written, honestly. "Birthright," which did is still in print, did many of the same things and had the same general tone, while also being a much better introduction to the Superman mythos than this was. Meanwhile, "Superman: Secret Origin" is due out in collected form any day now, and it tells yet another version of this story. If I were working in DC's marketing dept., I'd frankly be a little worried-slash-upset that we were diluting the market like this. Seriously, take a look at the Superman graphic novels that are both accessible and acclaimed, and you'll find that a fairly sizable portion of them ("Birthright," "For All Seasons," etc.) are about his origin story. A story that has been a basic part of the cultural background noise since the '40s. I think DC would be better off focusing on telling accessible new stories about the Man of Steel than treading the most well-worn ground in comic book history one more time.
  • In that same vein, the new villain is simultaneously a good idea--introducing new ideas, freshening up that well-worn ground--and a bad one. This is one of the problems I had with "Birthright" as well, but Superman shouldn't be the kind of person who needs to be motivated by some sense of revenge or responsibility. Despite the fact that he lost his planet, Superman doesn't need, and generally hasn't really had, a defining tragedy to spur on his superhero career like Batman or Spider-Man. His driving force is and should be that it's the right thing to do. I don't understand why that's a tough concept for people to grasp, or why writers feel like they need to gild it with sci-fi tropes like "I hate seeing people's souls disappear" or "I must avenge my homeworld, and it's my fault that these aliens attacked Earth." Other superheroes take up the tights out of responsibility and vengeance. Superman takes them up because of his strong moral upbringing.
  • Moreover, the main villain, Tyrell (wow, that's the best alien name you could come up with? I know people named Tyrell), looks a little like "what if the Crow were a Final Fantasy villain." Alternately, "what if the Silver Banshee was a dude from the future." Not the most striking design, though I like the contrast between Clark's colorful outfit and his stark black-and-white.
    The final version swaps the darker and lighter tones on top, but leaves them intact on the bottom.
  • Speaking of Clark's colorful outfit, it's gotten some minor tweaks. There's some piping on the main suit and around the S-shield, the shield on the cape is now yellow-on-red, and the boots are a different shape. Fairly minor changes, and yet it seems like they didn't quite think it through. There are scenes where we can see Superman's armpit, and yet, we can't see the seam between the two colors that should exist there. The way the piping and the two-tone colors work, there should be a place where the colors separate. This seam could be in three positions: over the arm, possibly along the deltoid, so that most of Superman's sleeves are the darker color that predominates on his sides (both of Superboy's pre-t-shirt costumes do something like this); along the armpit, so that Superman's sleeves are the lighter blue of his torso (like that Cosmic Boy costume, but with fabric instead of naked Braalian); or along the arm, so that the sleeves are also two-toned (like Spider-Man. Do I need to provide an image?). Instead, we get no seam, no indication that any part of the sleeve is a different color than the rest of the middle/upper torso, and a question as to why, if you're going to design a new costume, you wouldn't consider that kind of detail.
  • Also, the shading on the top is reversed from the shading on the legs, which is a little weird, but I can imagine ways for it to work. It's the briefs breaking things up that makes it look weird; the eye expects the piping to be continuous, so the color swap looks weird.
  • I suppose I needn't mention my feelings about the nigh-indestructible costume. The same goes for the nigh-indestructible metals--Clark's indestructibility comes from his cells' absorption of yellow sunlight. Where does it come from in acellular metal?
  • I'm also not thrilled with the way that comics keep pushing the age of Clark's onset-of-powers. Writers, please, people have been realizing (all too occasionally) since the very beginning that a baby with full-on superpowers is not a good idea. Let's stop the creeping development before it gets that far again, thanks.
  • Not only does Clark need to learn how to use proper SI units (kilograms, Clark, not grams), but his "equation" is, not surprisingly, almost total gibberish. If you carry out the equation as written, going by the order of operations, then the term "1 mol H2O2" disappears, which means it's completely unnecessary. That is, of course, assuming it's "H2O2," because it's written without subscripts (and strangely, the computers used by the researchers use the same font that Clark writes in). The "ΔH" suggests that Clark's equation is describing a change in enthalpy, the total energy of a system, and that might be useful for researchers trying to get energy out of the system. Unfortunately, the likeliest way to get energy directly out of salt water is going to be to break the atomic bonds (breaking the ionic bonds in salt is already done once it's in the water; breaking the hydrogen bonds holding the water molecules together or breaking the molecular bonds holding the hydrogen to the oxygen both require an input of energy greater than the output), and the equations for that are different.

    But it's clear from the fact that 1.00 mol H2O2 is about 34.0 g H2O2 that Clark just left out some important parentheses. Inserting them where they ought to be in this equation gives us the meaning of what Clark is actually doing: first, converting grams to moles (34.0 g/mol is the conversion factor for hydrogen peroxide) then multiplying by the enthalpy of reaction of the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide (-98.2 kJ/mol), the reaction that spontaneously occurs when hydrogen peroxide is exposed to...well, most things, really. If you've ever used peroxide for anything, you're familiar with the way it bubbles and fizzes; this is because it is unstable and decomposes into water and oxygen quite readily, releasing a small amount of heat in the process (as Clark's equation notes, about -2.89 kJ for every gram of H2O2, or about .69 Calories).

    What's not clear is why any of that is significant. The amount of energy is miniscule, the equation is pedestrian, and none of it has anything to do with salt water, which is what the researchers were supposedly working on. "Give this man a job, he just told us that hydrogen peroxide fizzes!" This is one place where the writer, artist, letterer, whoever's to blame should have gone with a less-is-more strategy. Don't show us the revolutionary equation, because then you have to come up with a revolutionary equation.
  • I'll leave aside the idea that an electron microscope can image normal atoms, that such an image would show atoms as spheres connected to each other by rods, and that you could write on electrons. It's comic book science, I know, and it'd be almost clever if it weren't so not-even-wrong.
  • Similarly, when reading Perry's speech to Lois, my first thought was "hey, Perry actually sounds like an editor here." My second thought was, "actually, he sounds like someone read about editing somewhere." Much like the science thing, what's meant to sound kind of profound and insightful is really kind of bog-standard. "Use active language" is the kind of thing that every editor already knows; it's the kind of thing that any reporter should already know. And so the speeches Perry makes in his first scene read not so much like the words of a seasoned editor, but the words of someone who's just started out editing and has learned all these things in school, and is meeting his team for the first time. These are the conversations that I had with my writers when I edited my college newspaper; these are not the kind of conversations I would expect an experienced editor to have with professional reporters. "So you don't think a reporter should give her opinion of the story she's covering?" Really, Lois? Is this your first day in the News section too?
  • The dialogue in general is kind of problematic, really. The characters all kind of sound the same, making the same kinds of quotes and references, and that's to be expected to some degree in any work by a single writer. But these are characters who all have fairly well-established voices, and I didn't really feel like we got much of that at all.
  • Moreover, and this is a problem carrying over from "Grounded," too many characters seem to exist primarily so other characters can bounce speeches off of them. In that first scene with Perry, that's the only purpose served by Lois. In the two later scenes with the scientist, he's only there so that Clark can smugly moralize at him. Too much of the story is geared toward setting up particular speeches, and that's kind of a serious problem. It shows that Straczynski wasn't following the advice he had Perry give to Lois: "You fell in love with the words and put yourself too far into the story. Write about what you're writing about, not about you writing about what you're writing about."
  • Speaking of writing advice:
    how exactly do you bury the lede in the headline? Way to fall asleep on the job, Perry. In fact, now that I'm looking at the interview, the paper looks a bit amateurish. Fix the justification, guys. There's also way, way too much of Clark in that article. It all seems a bit...self-indulgent. Superman should never seem self-indulgent.
  • I actually like the idea of Clark trying out using his powers for personal/familial gain. I would have been more happy to see some more moral development here--a note about fairness, at least with respect to football--but I think it was generally a fairly reasonable and well-played set of scenes--the terrible science aside. That being said, though it touches on the issue, it really doesn't answer the question Straczynski posed at the beginning of "Grounded"--if Superman has the power to do things like, say, tell scientists what everyone already knows about peroxide how to get energy from salt water, then why doesn't he put his powers toward ending hunger or the energy crisis or cancer or whatever? The answer here seems to be "he doesn't really want to, and his mom said that he doesn't have to," which I suspect would be small comfort for that lady in the "Grounded" prologue.
  • Jimmy Olsen was pretty awesome in this, I have to admit.
  • Um, yeah, so...Superman sure killed a lot of aliens in this.

And aside from that last point, I don't think "Earth One" is terrible. It's not the kind of Superman origin I like seeing, but I guess for anyone who's coming to the character through, say, "Smallville," it fits that tone and style fairly well. Clark even looks like Tom Welling at a lot of points, and I don't think that's an accident. There are some barely-patched-over holes (the justification for the S-shield is particularly weak) in the story, and I think I've done a pretty thorough picking of certain frustrating nits, but it's not as awful as I expected it to be based on "Grounded."

That being said, I'm glad I didn't pay $20 for it. It actually makes me want to revisit "Birthright," which boggles my mind a bit. It also makes me wish that someone, anyone, would take a page from the John Byrne book and write a Superman origin that was upbeat. I guess "Secret Origin" has a lot of smiling in it, but it's still not as brightly-colored and brightly-toned as "Man of Steel" all those years ago.


Eric TF Bat said...

I still have Man of Steel and all the Superman comics up to about 2004, by which time the writing had jumped the Kryptonian Ultra-Shark and was no longer worth collecting. I think I'll go back and reread some selected highlights thereof, because as far as I can see nobody is doing Superman comics any more. I guess the rumours of his death were only premature, not actually incorrect.

Tom Foss said...

Wow, 2004 was kind of a bad place to stop. 2003 was a rough damn year for Superman (Joe Casey, Steven T. Seagle), and 2004-2005 saw "Godfall," which was good, and Greg Rucka's excellent run. It also saw all that terrible John Byrne art over some lackluster Gail Simone storylines and the awful, awful "For Tomorrow" arc. Rucka really carried the books at the time.

I think things had a nice uptick with "Up, Up, and Away" and Busiek's run in 2006, and the Johns stuff got better in '07 with Bizarro World and Brainiac and the Legion storyline. And I really enjoyed New Krypton.

But right now, the best Superman family comics are Supergirl and Action Comics, neither of which regularly features Superman at this point. Yeah, I wouldn't blame you for going back to the back issues at the moment.

Eric TF Bat said...

I'm vague on the dates, but I think it was For Tomorrow that finally convinced me I was wasting my money and my time. That despite having every Superman comic since 1986 -- ok, except for the initial episode of the Emperor Joker story, for some reason. Comic shop fail.

Now, of course, I'd rather find someone who wants to buy the lot off me, probably for not much more than the cost of postage, just so I can know it's going to be read. It's kind of sad seeing it all in boxes and not having the time to look at them. But finding a buyer in Hobart (Tasmania, the apple-shaped island off the arse end of Australia) is rather challenging...