Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: Superman: Earth One Volume Two

The Stupid Age of Superman: Heat vision incinerates hapless human victims. Note the skulls in the foreground.

A bit over a year and a half ago, I did a quick review of the first Superman: Earth One hardcover. It was bad. Really bad.

Many moons later, here I am, having read volume two by the same "creative" team of J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis. Whereas, as far as I can remember, the first volume was just really bad, book two is not only worse, but it's offensive. It's offensive to any discerning comics reader with halfway sensible taste. It's offensive to the very concept of Superman as an abstract idea. This is a Superman comic in name only. It certainly doesn't live up to anything Superman truly represents.

Let's start with the art. The art's just bad; compared to the writing and actual story, the art is the lesser of two evils. It's just your standard, somewhat innocuous homeless man's Jim Lee-style penciling with modern coloring. Things are colored a little dull and muted, except for things like explosions, heat vision, electricity, energy blasts - those just look fake and out of place, akin to flashy special effects in Hollywood blockbusters designed to "wow" the audience but are actually smokescreens to hide how mediocre the storytelling is.

But, man! Shane Davis' art has not improved at all. His work looks exactly the same as the first terrible Earth One book. Everything still looks the way they're supposed to look, but it's all so bland and uninspired, almost a little like Mark Bagley's work but with more detail, more muscles, more '90s Image-inspired "grittiness." His characters have very little, if any, sense of "acting" and their body language only meagerly conveys whatever the script calls for. Even a slightly better artist would have at least made the book worth looking at from a draftsmanship point of view. Panel to panel and page to page storytelling is indistinguishable from the vast majority of any middle of the road superhero comic you can find on the racks. It's rather disappointing to see that this art was given the original hardcover graphic novel treatment. For such a "special" comic, you'd expect a little nicer artwork. Taken as a whole, this is simply kids' stuff. Which is acceptable, I suppose, if that's what they're going for - if DC thinks this style of art can attract the Halo/Call of Duty generation, all right, fine, whatever. Good luck.

As a designer, Davis' work is still poor. Is there any good reason for Superman to have those extraneous seams stitched on his costume? Does he really need an eight pack molded right into his suit? I feel like little details like that are Davis' way of conveying how badass his version of Superman is, as though the more badass and unfriendly Superman looks, the more the audience of this book will relate with him. (Now that is a cynical thought... and an idea that simply isn't worthy of Superman, yet somehow - sadly - is probably in tune with our current culture.) About the nicest thing I can think to say of Davis' work is that at least he kept Superman's underwear on the outside of his pants. (Unlike whoever designed the New 52 Superman.)

His design for Parasite, the villain remixed for this story, is unimaginative, too. He looks like a generic purple humanoid monster with weird bulges all over his limbs who, when he finally sucks Superman's power, basically looks like a lavender Hulk (complete with torn up pants) with gross yellow spots. Sometimes, simple is more memorable, but in accentuating the supervillain's musculature and angry facial expressions, Davis makes the character appear one dimensional and run of the mill. (Of course, the writer's characterization doesn't help at all.)

It all adds up to a comic that, at its best, looks it's trying a little too hard to look flashy and exciting. At its worst, it genuinely looks utterly insipid and banal.

Now, terrible art is one thing - it could be argued that a powerful story and script can redeem bad art, or at least elevate it back to the level of passable mediocrity. Just look at Alan Moore's underrated run on Supreme (an homage to the Silver Age in general and Superman in specific), which was saddled with art by the likes of Ian Churchill and Rob Liefeld yet still reads leaps, bounds, and light years better than this turd called Superman: Earth One.

It kinda goes without saying, but JMS is no Alan Moore.

There are numerous problems with volume 2's story. The plot is basic and predictable. The supervillain, Parasite, goes on a rampage and it's up to Superman to stop him. Of course, in their first meeting, Parasite whips Superman's butt, so Superman has to regroup before he can win. Somewhere in the story, there's a subplot about Clark and his apartment neighbor Lisa Lasalle (because, you know, there aren't enough L.L.s in Superman's life) and how she keeps trying to seduce him. There's also a subplot about Clark trying to deal with how the world hates and fears him.

There are just things in here I don't think are necessary in a Superman comic, or at least don't do anything meaningful in this one. For example, during a scene when Lisa Lasalle and Clark go to the movies, she makes an allusion to giving him a handjob. I don't know if JMS thought that he was being cool or in tune with his audience, but I found this inappropriate, tasteless, and offensive. There could have many better ways to show Lisa trying to seduce Clark, or to show that she has a warped view of romantic relationships. The difference is that many of those other possibilities would have likely required a bit more subtlety, a quality that JMS does not tap into in his comics writing often enough.

In another scene, Superman intervenes in a foreign country to save some people from certain disaster. The country's military dictator confronts Superman, brazenly telling him off as you would expect. Superman actually then fantasizes about incinerating the dictator with his heat vision until the puny human is nothing but a pile of charred bones. He also fantasizes about laying waste to the dictator's military forces with extreme prejudice. (Just look at the book's cover image.) Superman doesn't really do this, of course, but he fantasizes about it and Davis draws a couple of pages showing us his fantasy in graphic detail.

Anyone who knows anything about Superman should know that this is wildly uncharacteristic of the essence of who Superman is and what he represents. It would have been fine if JMS and Davis simply showed us Superman's frustration and helplessness at the situation, but to hamfistedly force this scene upon us is simply gratuitous. I can think of two reasons for this: 1) They don't respect their readers' ability to perceive that the scenario could leave Superman, the most powerful being on the planet, powerless in the face of politics and rhetoric, or 2) JMS and Davis think that explicitly showing us Superman's revenge fantasy somehow makes him more relatable to the audience. (Because, hey, who hasn't dreamed of using heat vision to wreak havoc upon their enemies?) The first reason is insulting to the audience's intelligence and the second reason doesn't reflect well on the creators' understanding of the character.

Later, there's a scene when Superman saves Lisa from an abusive crazy ex who is about to assault her in her apartment. Using his superspeed, he grabs the guy and flies him to Alaska, or the North Pole or somewhere arctic. Superman tells the guy he'll have to hike his way back to civilization (miles and miles away) if he wants to survive, and then he flies off. Again, this cruelty is wholly unrepresentative of Superman. It's not that the guy doesn't deserve to suffer, but the problem is that Superman is unnecessarily sadistic. That's just not who Superman is.

It just makes me wonder if JMS really thinks that the reason people generally complain about how they don't like Superman is because he's a good person, too good. It's as though JMS feels that by making Superman more prone to wrathful outbursts of emotion, he's somehow more like us, more "realistic," and therefore more relatable, and therefore more people will enjoy the character. 

I get that this isn't the "real" Superman and that this is an imaginary story (aren't they all?), but even Elseworlds Superman tales have something to say about the character, even if it's in the form of something the "real" Superman would never do. The difference is, DC (and, by extension, the creators of this comic) are trying to sell us on the idea that this Superman is the embodiment of the iconic aspects of Superman. But it doesn't ring true at all.

Superman isn't cruel and he isn't petty. He's above all that. He's the ideal embodiment of the best humanity can hope to strive for. Maybe he's not the superhero Jesus, but he's got to be the superhero Moses. (Sent from Krypton on a rocketship is like Moses floating in a basket in the Nile, right?) I hate how people think you have to somehow make Superman dark or grim in order to make him relevant. Did we learn nothing from Joe Kelly's "Whatever Happened to Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" (Action Comics #775.) Superman hasn't lost touch with America. America has lost touch with him. (What's next? A comic where Superman walks across America to "find himself" again? Hmm...)

My little diatribe about the essence of Superman aside, the actual plot in Earth One volume 2 has other significant problems that are difficult to overlook.

In flashbacks, we see that the Parasite was always a sadistic individual, even as a child, and gaining his powers has only served to give him greater destructive power. It's your basic, run of the mill supervillain origin, and we also see that when he was a kid the one person he actually loved was his kid sister. Well, they're both adults now in the story and somehow, his sister sees the Parasite going on a rampage in Metropolis.

Incredibly, even though she is in another part of the country and watching the news as the Parasite ravages the city for hours, she is able to realize he's her brother, hop on a plane, land in Metropolis, and meet him in the middle of the streets of downtown Metropolis while he's still in the middle of his rampage.

The logistics of that are a real stretch.

First of all, it's a little hard to swallow that the sister could even learn the Parasite is her brother. And even if she did know, how feasible is it that she could watch him, live on the news, then hop on a plane, fly out there, and meet him while he's still on the same rampage he was on when she was watching TV in the first place? That would mean his rampage has gone on unabated for at least several hours and yet the authorities still haven't intervened to the point where they are still allowing commercial flights into what's essentially a warzone. Plus, she straight up wanders right up to him on the street while he's wrecking stuff.

It's overly convenient and cheesy.

To add to the corniness of the situation, the Parasite sees his sister, calms down a bit, and they hug because she knows he's actually a good person at heart, yadda yadda yadda. Predictably, his powers cause him to siphon her life force during their embrace, and she dies in his arms. This drives him into an even more furious rage, and that's when Superman finally is able to kick his butt. Lame.

The book ends with a scene of the government recruiting Lex Luthor (who, in this story, has a wife named Alexandra - get it? Lex Squared! I'm rolling my eyes.) in order to find ways to deal with these metahuman threats in the future. It's supposed to be a little ominous but by this point I was just happy to say I finished the book.

This comic really lit a fire under me. It set afire a blazing inferno of hate full of rage and spite so deep within my soul that no love could ever quench it. This scorching hellfire continues to consume me the more I think about this comic. Superman: Earth One volume 2 is a book whose sole purpose in the vale of tears known as human existence is to anger and offend me. The comic has absolutely no redeeming value and I would rather read a Safeway advertisement in the newspaper than this offensive drivel.

On top of all that, I borrowed my copy of the comic from the library and, because the book itself is cursed, I was late in returning it. The overdue fees are added insult to the ignominy of the experience of reading it, and just more kindling and fuel for my hatred.