07th Nov2019

‘Superman: Year One’ Graphic Novel Review (DC Black Label)

by Dean Fuller

Written by Frank Miller | Art by John Romita Jr. | Published by DC Black Label | Format: Hardcover, 168pp

supes-yr-one-cover

My first thought on hearing about this book, when published as three oversized issues, was did we really need another Superman origin/ early years book? There’s been a few down the years, and for me Mark Waid’s Birthright was pretty much the definitive take on a solid, updated origin. Still, when Frank Miller rolls up with some ideas, doors open and people listen. Miller still seems to be treated like royalty at DC, even though his more recent body of work is uneven, to put it nicely. Don’t get me wrong, Frank Miller’s runs on Daredevil, his Sin City and 300 books, and of course The Dark Knight Returns remain some of my favourite comics ever. For me though, Miller fit those times perfectly, and hasn’t really been the same since. But I digress, it’s Superman we are here to review after all.

So, Superman: Year One. Let me say first of that this is one good looking book. I’ll get to the art later, but the book design is just gorgeous. Wonderfully oversized, with gorgeous dust jacket and hardback art, beautiful design inside, and the bonus at the end of some alternate covers/ sketches. One nice looking thing. The book is divided into three chapters, which were the original three issues released, and they each follow a certain part of Clark’s early life. Parts one and three are what you would expect, focused on Smallville and Metropolis, though Part 2 may raise eyebrows, Atlantis. We’ll get to that too. At story’s beginning baby Kal-El is rocketing to Earth from Krypton, and by story’s end he is Superman, but this is always Clark’s story first and foremost.

Chapter One, ‘Smallville’, actually begins on Krypton, and has the beginning we have all seen a thousand times, with Kale-El crash landing on the Kent’s farm as a baby. Interestingly, this is about the only time Miller really uses the Kryptonian angle at all, with the story being very firmly about Clark Kent, not Kal-El. Fair enough in the early chapter, as Clark’s years growing up are very much the basis of his later values and morals, but the lack of Krypton in the later pages seems a little odd. We go over familiar territory, with Clark growing up from baby to teen on the farm, and Miller actually manages to do a really great job of conveying the sense of wonder Clark experiences as he grows and his powers develop.

When Miller sticks to the familiar territory he does a great job, but his new subplot about school bullying, and a potential sexual assault on Lana Lang, and Clark’s approach to all this just doesn’t feel right. I get that Miller is trying to make it a little edgier, a little more up to date, but it just didn’t work for me. Clark’s relationship with Lana Lang is handled beautifully, and here Miller shows that he can have a deft touch when he applies himself. ‘Smallville’ was probably my favourite chapter in the book, minor flaws though it has, because Miller just added little extra strokes to a already classic canvas. His Clark is a little more arrogant and superior than I like, but still a Clark I can recognise. Which brings us to the oddity that is Chapter Two.

‘Atlantis’ seems to exist as Chapter Two purely because Miller had two ideas in his head. One was that his three chapters would be linked by the women in Clark’s life. Smallville with Lana Lang, Metropolis with Lois Lane, and Atlantis with Lori Lemaris. Fair enough. Miller also wanted the theme of the second chapter to be Clark exploring the world around him, so as he might better know it to protect it. Also fair enough. Miller though has Clark join the United States Navy to do this, and Book Two just dissolves into a hugely meandering mess, about Clark in the Navy and Clark’s suddenly overwhelming love for Lori Lemaris, daughter of Poseidon. The plot is poor, dialogue even worse, Clark is terribly mischaracterized, and it all seems in there just to allow Miller to indulge his love of the military. It was, to be (ahem) Frank, boring. Romita Jr made it look absolutely gorgeous of course, the one saving grace, but this wasn’t Miller’s finest hour..

Luckily, Chapter Three ‘Metropolis’ gets us back on track, again because Miller pretty much just adds a few bells and whistles to the conventional story we all know. This chapter introduces all the big guns in the Superman mythology – The Daily Planet newspaper, Perry White, Lois Lane, first meetings with Batman and Wonder Woman, and the beginnings of a complicated relationship with Lex Luthor. Miller handles all this pretty well, though again, his Clark is perhaps a little too arrogant and aggressive, though that is how Miller seems to like his heroes in general. It all holds together well despite not really being as iconic or as spectacular as it wants to be, or wants us to think it is. For all that, I quite enjoyed it, and it ends with the upbeat, optimistic ‘the never ending battle begins’ it should.

I’ve focused almost solely on Frank Miller’s script and dialogue so far, for obvious reasons, and it’s a mixed bag. The overall plotting’s ok, the script ranges from good to bad, and it’s decent overall. What elevates the book beyond what it really is, is the art of John Romita Jr and Danny Miki, and the colours of Alex Sinclair. The book, visually, is at times absolutely stunning. Romita really embraces the oversized page format, and we get some breathtaking widescreen art at times. Some of the full page and double page spread art I just salivated over, it really is that good. Aside from the technical perfection on display here, Romita has a great feel for each part of the story. His Smallville feels like small town America, his Atlantis feels like a truly epic underwater city, his Metropolis is a big, vibrant city. Most importantly, though, his Clark looks and acts as we would expect, and as we want. He gives us a timeless Clark Kent, which is exactly what the book needed to soften the harder parts of his character Miller gave him. A visual treat.

Giving this a final rating was tough. I still don’t think Miller fully understands Superman as a character, and his writing here was pretty pedestrian. The broader strokes were ok, though, and Romita Jr did a fine job on the layouts and art, so on balance I settled on an overall four out of five, mainly for the wonderful art.

Although Superman has been written better, he’s rarely ever looked better.

**** 4/5

Superman: Year One is released by DC Black Label on November 12th.

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