Superman: Earth One – Olsen Is Superman’s Bromantic SuperFriend And Lois Wanks From The Sideline
Not to front-load this review, but I’d like to start with the moral of the story: Clark Kent is Superman because it’s the right thing to do. He helps people because he likes doing it. That is all you need to know about Clark Kent, Kal-El, Superman, and why he is the way he is. This is why Superman is the leader of all the superheroes–why everyone looks up to him. It’s not because he’s the most powerful—there are other superheroes as strong as him, and why would a bunch of rational adults follow a man just because he’s the toughest? It’s because he does the right thing for the right reasons. A lot of heroes were forced into their roles—they do what they do because they lost someone, they’re trying to redeem themselves, whatever. Superman chose to be Superman. He’s the moral authority of the DC universe, the same way Captain America is in the Marvel universe (and it says something about the respective companies that in the DC universe, the moral authority is the most powerful man in the universe, while in the Marvel universe, it’s the equivalent of an average joe).
Superman does the right thing because Jonathan and Martha Kent did a spectacular job of raising him—they’re the important factor in his origin, not Krypton. That’s why you can play around with what exactly Krypton was like, which you can’t do with the Amazons of Wonder Woman or the parents of Bruce Wayne.
Maybe this is a bit too simple. Maybe a lot of writers prefer the melodrama that being evil feels good, and doing good feels awful, and so doing good is all about resisting temptation and being miserable and having angst.
That’s fine. But those writers shouldn’t write Superman. Because they’ll try to make him interesting, not realizing that Superman already is interesting. The question “how did Superman develop the wisdom and morality to be Superman?” was good enough to get ten years of Smallville, even if the show itself didn’t rise to the occasion. If you can’t think of interesting stories to tell with a man who has near-limitless powers but an unbendable moral code (the man never lies), well, that’s your problem. Not Superman’s.
Unfortunately, in recent years, this has been forgotten. Even as people complain that Wonder Woman’s origin is too complex, they’ve decided Superman’s is too simple. And they try to turn Superman into Hamlet, drowning him in angst, indecision, and darkness. (Tellingly, most of these stories never get past Clark Kent becoming Superman. That’s how limited their vision is.) Superman Returns, Smallville, Superman: Earth One… these are a few of the stories that try and fail to redefine Superman for people who don’t like Superman (by people who don’t like Superman).
I’m not against the idea of another Superman origin comic so soon after Birthright, a comic by Mark Waid that did a good job of introducing Superman to contemporary audiences with some fun and warmth. I do find it odd that, just as Superman is getting rebooted in mainstream continuity, he’s also getting an unrelated reboot. Oh, and another comic coming out is called Earth Two, but it has nothing to do with Superman: Earth One. Although you’d think joe schmo would take the two as installments in one story.
Now, you could put out a new origin comic every few years, and so long as it had a new vision of the basic origin tropes—the start of the Superman/Luthor feud, the beginning of the Clark/Lois/Superman triangle, Superman’s first appearance, and so on—it could work. The question is, given incredible amounts of creative freedom that JMS had in this book, with it getting a ‘straight-to-TPB’ release and free reign to be non-canon, how did it do with the tropes we’ve come to know and love?
Let’s start with Lois. Lois is actually the most important part of the Superman canon. Like the straight man in a comedy duo, she’s what makes the routine work. Think about it. We all know Superman’s pathos is that he wishes for a normal life. He’s a god who wants to be a man. What would he do if he were normal? He’d spend time with Lois Lane, right? He’d quit the mild-mannered act necessitated by his secret identity and win her over.
For that to work, Lois has to be the most eligible bachelorette. She has to be the woman Superman has a crush on. And this is Superman we’re talking about. He can have any woman he wants. So how great is it that he doesn’t go for the prettiest or the most elegant or the ‘purest,’ but the woman who’s the smartest and toughest and awesomest? He’s the wisest man in the DCU, of course he’d want a partner like Lois. It’s a pairing that elevates both their characters. So Lois has got to be portrayed as the smartest and the toughest and the awesomest.
In Man of Steel, we see that she’s desired by Lex Luthor, but is so wise to his act that she shoots him down and throws the dress he gave her in his face (while wearing it). Clark is there, he can’t believe it, he’s trying to cover her up even as she makes a badass exit. In Birthright, she’s introduced standing up to her own employer as he verbally abuses Jimmy Olsen, then flying a helicopter to get a scoop during a terrorist attack. Jimmy’s with her; by contrast, we see him going “This is insane, this is crazy!” We also find out that of all the reporters, of all the human beings on the planet, Lois is the only one who’s clued in on Superman’s existence and is courting the derision of her colleagues to get the story.
The message is clear: Lois is amazing. In a traditionally male line of work, the men can barely keep up with her. So, how are we introduced to Lois Lane, lynchpin of the Superman franchise, in Earth One?
She’s complaining about getting edited. Look at this scene; it’s about how awesome Perry White is as editor. Gone is the relationship from Birthright, where Lois is this House-style reporter who drives Perry nuts but is so goddamned good he has to put up with her. He shuts her down. “Excuse me, but I don’t think we’re finished—” He doesn’t care. Him, and the scene, are now focused on Jimmy, who gets several panels establishing him as a don’t-give-a-fuck amazing photographer.
This is bass-ackwards. I don’t like to complain about “new takes” on characters, but Jimmy has a place in the mythos. It’s as comic relief; the guy who’s constantly in danger and needing to be rescued. It sounds embarrassing, but it’s an important job. By his example, we see how badass Lois is. The story needs Lois to be badass. Jimmy, not so much. This scene should be Perry complaining that Lois is driving his insurance rates through the roof by going undercover in a mob hide-out, Jimmy whining about how he nearly got shot, and Lois not giving a fuck, because she got the scoop.
But for some reason, the attention of this scene is on wannabe J. Jonah Jameson, and Jimmy Olsen, not the wrongheaded and ignored Lois Lane. Why is the sympathy here with the exacting old editor and not the young reporting firebrand? Maybe it’s that the writer is 58 years old—the perfect person to make Superman relevant again to all the kids in the audience.
Now this intro, Clark Kent going to the Daily Planet, comes on page twenty-five. Prior to that, JMS uses the TPB format to spend seventeen pages on Clark Kent thinking about being a football star or a scientist. Yeah, I call bullshit on the sports thing. Even if Clark weren’t Superman, you’re telling me he would use his powers to cheat at sports (that’s what it is, unless a lot of other pros are from Krypton) to get rich and famous? Unless he was going to donate all the money to charity, no. Remember: Superman helps people. It’s what he likes doing. Maybe he might become a scientist and use his super-intellect to make life-saving inventions, but how would being good at football help humanity? It’s out-of-character for that to even be an option.
To sum up, originally, Superman was a guy who saw that there was a lot wrong with the world, had superpowers, and decided he would use those powers to make the world better. DC decided to make him more sympathetic and relatable to today’s youth. So, they released a book in which Clark Kent doesn’t know whether he wants to be a highly paid professional athlete or a brilliant scientist (who is also highly paid), before finally choosing to make the ultimate sacrifice–becoming a universally beloved superhero.
Next on the agenda—discovering the powers. Some origin stories, in the interest of time, skip over this. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to get that Smallville funk on them. But they will show Clark’s powers to the reader for the first time, making a first impression. In Birthright, we get Clark stopping an assassination attempt, then later flying around with a broad smile on his face and wrestling with a lion. This is a man who enjoys using his powers, he’s just confused as to how best to use them to help people.
Then in Earth One, we have Clark walking around at night in a hoodie, sad because he’s not nooooooooorrrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmmmaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllll. Although at this point in the story, he hasn’t sacrificed his normalcy to be Superman, so I guess his character arc is going from miserable to even more miserable. Then a mugger threatens him. Remember that moment in the Superman movie where a mugger robbed Clark and Lois? Clark pretended to faint to cover up catching the bullet and Lois kicked the mugger in the face. What a perfect distillation of the two characters. You can see their whole dynamic right there. Lois is awesome. She wants someone equally awesome. Clark is equally awesome, but he has to pretend not to be. They even had Clark try to talk the mugger into giving up a life of crime, a great character detail.
So, how does this scene go in a comic aimed at people who’ve never read a Superman book before?
Remember above when I said there’s always room for a new take on the Superman tropes? Well, could you imagine a more generic incident than someone being threatened by a mugger and using strange powers to take them out? I think that’s happened in every sci-fi story ever. This tells us nothing about the character. It could happen to anyone. Oh, I’m sorry. It tells us he’s a ‘badass.’
I thought the neat thing about Superman was that he wasn’t a badass. He was a nice guy.
Talking to his dad’s tombstone!
Now, there’s some pathos in that, Clark giving up his shot at a normal life to help people—although at this point in the story, he barely knows Lois, so the motivation for this desire is sorta vague and petty. Why would Superman want to get along with the people who bully him, which is all this amounts to? (And obviously, it must be hard for a good-looking straight white man. I’m sure everyone’s hearts are bleeding.) The thing is, Clark doesn’t choose anything.
Aliens show up, threaten to blow up the Earth unless the last Kryptonian shows up. He has no choice but to fight them. To pave over this absurd lapse in basic rules of drama, he spends several pages wangsting about how he wants to stop the genocidal maniacs from killing millions, but he also wants a normal life. While people are dying for every second he waits. He literally goes to a scientist and wants to get a piece of alien metal analyzed, since that’s more efficient than punching the crazed butchers with superstrength.
This is where you can really see the comic’s rumored origins as a movie pitch in comic form. Didn’t like Superman Returns, fanboys? Too much Luthor? There’s no Luthor in this. Not enough punching? Fifty pages in, evil aliens show up and the rest of the book is one giant action sequence. Reducing Superman to “guy who punches bad aliens and has angst” seems like a poor way to net him a movie. Fuck, Iron Man does that, at least he’s clever about it.
Needless to say, over seventy pages of punching is hard to critique, so allow me to skip through a sample representation of this book until we get to the next plot point.
By the way, there’s this weird JMS-y condescension to people who… don’t want to die for a newspaper. You’d think part of the point of Jimmy’s characterization here is how stupid he’s being in almost getting himself killed (if it weren’t for Superman, he’d be dead meat on the next page) for photographs. But no, the story totally supports his decision and finds it admirable. Keep in mind, Jimmy isn’t pulling people out of burning buildings. He’s taking pictures to sell for money. At the end of the day, his pictures result in the Daily Planet selling out (thus making Clark Kent working for dead tree media TOTALLY RELEVANT TO THE KIDS). Because the only way people can look at Superman is to buy a copy of the Daily Planet. Now, I seem to recall that when, say, Kate Upton takes her clothes off in Swimsuit Illustrated, people scan those pictures onto something called a computer and share it with other people on something called the internet. It seems to me like this technology could be adapted to share proof of alien life putting on a red cape and punching robots. Instead of people fighting in the streets to buy a Daily Planet. But hey, what do I know, I’m not 58 years old, so I’m probably not in touch with the kids.
Anyway, Jimmy’s pictures that he nearly got killed over end up getting the praise of Superman, moral authority of the DC universe. Because they saved lives. You know, the pictures.
Here’s a keynote moment—Clark getting told that he’ll have to hide his identity all the time. And being miserable about it.
In Birthright, this was his idea. Here, I can’t help but think Superman is going to be kicking himself once other superheroes start showing up.
Superman: Ye, I have given up all hope of a normal life, but it was worth it, because people would never trust a superhero who wears a mask.
Flash: Sup guys.
People: We love you Flash!
Green Lantern: What’s up?
People: You’re the greatest, GL!
Blue Beetle: Holla!
People: Fuck yeah!
Superman: …why did I take the advice of a middle-aged woman on superheroes?
Speaking of costumes, I never get why in these origins, which are meant as gateway drugs to more comics, Superman isn’t drawn like Superman. On Birthright, Leinil Yu’s art could be weirdly scratchy, but at least he got the basics of Superman right—big guy, broad shoulders, square chin. If he’s the most powerful man in the universe, he should look it, the same way Big Barda and Power Girl are drawn with large frames and hulking muscles.
Look at this guy. He looks more like an angry swimsuit model.
Alright, onto the villains. I’ll admit, Birthright had kinda some weak antagonists. Lex Luthor faked an attack by Kryptonians in an attempt to discredit Superman and it was post-9/11, so, you know, fear-mongering. And if Superman hadn’t stopped him, he would’ve–become even more rich and powerful than he already was. But since Superman did stop him, he became slightly less rich and powerful. Oh, and Superman survived and cleared his name, but I don’t think “not dying” should count as an accomplishment in an adventure story. I mean, that’s kinda the bare minimum.
So, how does Earth One top a bunch of space cosplayers?
Maybe you’re wondering—what is with the space Juggalo there? Does he have a tail? Holy shit, he does! Is that supposed to be intimidating?
Now you see the incredible, controversial changes JMS used his creative freedom to make. Krypton’s destruction is no longer a natural disaster, but an assassination.
Like in the cartoon, where Brainiac destroyed it.
Or in Smallville, where General Zod destroyed it.
Only in those cases, the bad guys were actually responsible for it. Why should we care about these Evil!Kryptonians? They were just following orders. The real bad guy (it’s Mr. Morden!) is waiting in the wings. This is like a Star Wars movie where Leia wants revenge for Alderaan, so she goes after the guy who actually pulled the physical lever.
As you can see, the Evil!Kryptonians (c’mon, they are) are ancestral enemies of the Kryptonians. Like the pathos bit, there’s a germ of a good idea here. It just seems impersonal. They hate Kal-El’s entire race? But… they’re not really racist, since they’re the ones who seem oppressed. And it seems a little impersonal—unlike Birthright, Clark doesn’t seem to know or care much about the Kryptonian race.
Hmmm… what if the villains just hated the House of El? A family feud sort of thing. Or, better yet, what if the Big Bad just had it in for Jor-El? If nothing else, Clark has to care about his dad, the guy saved his life, so someone coming at him that way would be really personal and intense…
So, getting away from the “it’s personal!” motivation which is already clichéd and limiting in superhero movies, let alone superhero comics (why does every origin story need a villain who’s just a mean version of the hero?), why not explore this backstory a little deeper? It’s an interesting idea to give Krypton an IRA/Britain, Israel/Palestine counterpart, and having them angry at literally The Last Son of Krypton takes that concept of blood hatred to the logical extreme—handy for drama, that.
The problem is, those three pages are all we know about the Evil!Kryptonians. The only work JMS does in fleshing them out is… not calling them Evil!Kryptonians. Were they justified in hating Krypton? Were they an oppressed minority or unjustified invaders? Was Krypton a peaceful utopia, a sterile hell, a conquering empire? All those are valid interpretations, and would color Kal-El’s interactions with them.
But in context, we have the Evil!Kryptonians bragging about having destroyed several planets, just because they thought Superman might be on them, and threaten to destroy Earth because Superman was holed up there. Aside from Tyrell calling himself the good guy, they’re laughably Chaotic Evil. This isn’t an intriguing addition to Superman’s rogue’s gallery—they’re henchmen with delusions of grandeur.
Hey, when Superman’s in trouble, guess who springs into action to save him? You got it—not Lois Lane!
She is the one who comes up with driving a vehicle to save him, so a hundred pages into a hundred and twenty page book, the female lead finally does something besides whine about edits. (And Lois saving Superman is its own cliché these days, so I refuse JMS any credit for this.) This is what tipped me over from dissatisfaction at the read to active hatred. JMS is entirely devoted to glorifying “Jim Olsen” as a character. He doesn’t even mention Lois Lane or his take on her in interviews (because he doesn’t have one). The question I must ask is this; why is so much effort being put into getting readers to like yet another straight white guy from the Silver Age? This isn’t a general criticism, like I’d direct at Hal Jordan or Barry Allen; Lois Lane is right there, in the DNA of Superman. You have to make an effort to downplay her importance.
Maybe you’d say that Lois doesn’t need to be glorified. Everyone knows she’s awesome. To that I’d reply, 1. this book is aimed at general audiences, who perhaps don’t know Lois apart from “that idiot who can’t tell Clark Kent is Superman wearing glasses.” 2. Even in comic book fandom, Lois Lane is denigrated. The man writing her called her a trophy wife, for God’s sake. This was a chance for JMS to use the extraordinary freedom given him to promote diversity and feminism, and he turned around and sunk it into giving Jimmy Olsen a blowjob.
Oh, but don’t worry, Lois does get to marvel at Superman’s abs, so I guess the “romance” is still intact. That’s what female characters are there for, right? For the male writer to let the male reader know how fuckable the male hero is, without being all homo about it?
They don’t even let Lois name Superman.
Maybe that’s appropriate. Clark never chooses to be Superman. Superman chooses to be Clark Kent, really. The rest is a man being forced into action. His heroism isn’t dictated by morals, but by destiny.
Lex Luthor isn’t in this story. Lois Lane is barely in it. And Superman is completely wrong. Without them—and with “Jim Olsen”—can we really even call this a Superman story?
Wow, this article got long. Is there anything I missed?
Wait, why does Superman attack someone and deliberately crash him into a packed subway car? I just don’t think many subways are designed to withstand being smashed into by battling superhumans. Might be a little unsafe for the passengers there, Man of Tomorrow.