Review: Superman: Year One

Writer(s): Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.

Artist(s): John Romita Jr., Frank Miller

Inks: Danny Miki

Colorist: Alex Sinclair

Letterer: John Workman

Publisher: DC Black Label Comics

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure

This three-part reimagining of the origin of the world’s greatest superhero follows the alien orphan from his brief beginnings on his doomed home planet of Krypton to the beginnings of his years as Superman, champion of truth, justice, and the American way.

The legendary writers and artists Frank Miller (Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns, 300) and John Romita Jr. (Amazing Spider-man , X-Men, Daredevil: Man Without Fear) team up to tackle this bold retelling of Superman’s origin. While sticking to the main ideas of the story – an orphan from a doomed planet is raised by a Kansas couple and becomes Earth’s greatest hero – Miller and Romita give their own spin on the details of how Superman got from A to B.

Content Guide

Violence: Being that Superman typically solves his problems by punching a villain in the face, this book features some physical violence, but very little gore. There is one scene that features a young girl being assaulted by a group of boys who threaten to rape her.

Sexual Content: Besides the aforementioned threat of rape, Superman is involved in physical romantic relationships with multiple women in this book. None of which are graphic or even highly suggestive, but do feature physical embraces and kissing.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Occasional consumption of alcohol.

Spiritual Content: As one chapter is set in rural Kansas, the local church and priest are featured in the story, with the Christian religion viewed as part of the culture. Recognizing the existence of alien worlds and the under-water lost city of Atlantis, other deities are suggested besides the Christian God. Superman, despite making some mistakes, displays an altruistic desire to do good and help others.

Language/Crude Humor: In an attempt to make this book more “adult,” more crude language is used than would typically be found in a Superman comic.

Other Negative Content: DC’s Black Label comics are geared more towards mature audiences, so the content of this story features adult themes and situations not typical for this character.

Positive Content: Superman/Clark is portrayed as a young man of integrity who respects and obeys his parents, as well as others in authority such as the U.S. military.

Review

Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. join forces to put their own spin on the origin of Earth’s greatest hero, Superman. While adhering to the basic tenets of Superman’s story – an orphan from a doomed planet is sent to Earth, raised by a Kansas couple, and becomes Earth’s greatest hero – Miller and Romita put their own spin on the Man of Steel’s beginnings. Published under DC Comics newly dubbed more “adult” label, DC Black Label, the creative team sought to create a story geared towards more mature audiences. Therefore, there is content featured in this Superman story that is not typical of the Blue Boy Scout.

The three issues contained in this volume are separated by a title based on the geographical location by which each plot is centralized. These three locations are Smallville, Atlantis, and Metropolis. Fittingly, the opening of book one features the imminent destruction of Kal-El’s (Superman’s) home planet, Krypton. The look and feel of the Kryptonian civilization is reminiscent of the reimagining of Superman’s culture of origin in the 1990’s: Futuristic with towering spires, splayed neon of advanced technology, and minimalistic, draped clothing resembling a futuristic Greek society. As explosions ransack the serene setting, baby Kal-El is placed into an escape pod in an attempt to spare him from the planet’s fate.

The first page of this book is introduced by a nameless narrator who describes each scene and Superman’s motivations in the eeriest of details. This narration is characteristically written in short, factual statements, as opposed to abstract thoughts typical of reading a character’s inner monologue. For instance, in the first panel of page one, describing the destruction of the planet Krypton, the narration reads, “The air seems to boil. Lightning flashes. Thunder roars. A planet wide storm. There is no rain. No relief. The crust roars and wrenches. Everything falls and clatters and breaks. Everything screams.” This type of narration continues throughout the book. It does not appear to be the reflective thoughts of the main character, as if Superman is retelling his own story; rather, the descriptive words of an unknown third party witness to these events.

As is traditionally expected of this story, Kal-El’s escape pod lands on Earth in a field in Kansas and is discovered by a man named Jonathan Kent who then takes the child home to his wife, Martha. As has been the trend in most recently tellings of Superman’s origin, Jonathan and Martha were not elderly when they discovered Kal-El, but rather a young couple with no children. The Kents adopt the child and named him Clark. The story continues as expected, with Clark slowly developing unexplainable abilities with which he and his adopted parents must cope.

However, the story takes a turn from the typical when Clark reaches high school. Much of the Smallville plot line surrounds Clark’s frustration with a group of bullies in his school. Clark, in Peter Parker-like fashion, is treated as an outcast and therefore befriends others who are regarded similarly. Clark’s underlying annoyance with the brow beaters is that he knows he could teach them a lesson, but he is hesitant to show his strength because of his father’s warnings. However, Clark made a choice to use his abilities when Lana Lang, Clark’s love interest, is threatened outside of her home. As the ruffians threaten to rape Lana, Clark arrives just in time to stop them. It is at this moment Clark decides he will become a defender of the weak – a hero. The most direct course, in Clark’s mind, is to join the U.S. military.

It is here that Superman: Year One makes its most unexpected turn. This reader found the idea to be fascinating and ingenious. Why wouldn’t Superman be a soldier? Think of the possibilities. Of course, one begins to think of Captain America with laser vision. Book one ends as Clark is headed to basic training, saying goodbye to his Kansas home and his first love.

Part two is titled “Atlantis,” but opens in Great Lakes, IL at the Naval Station where Clark is now a cadet in the U.S. Navy. Clark’s strength and stamina are evident to his superiors immediately. As he did while playing football at Smallville High, Clark is holding back his true potential as to not raise suspicion. One of Clark’s colonel’s, Col. Kurtzberg, suspects there is more to this Kansas boy than meets the eye. One night, while the rest of the soldiers are sleeping, Clark is awakened by the sound of women’s voices coming from out in the ocean. As he goes to investigate, Clark is met by Kurtzberg who tells Clark he is hearing Mermaids (but Clark didn’t hear that from him). This is an interesting storytelling choice. This scene confirms Kurtzberg is open to accepting possibilities beyond the norm, though he is unwilling to voice that belief among his peers. In the following weeks, Clark is lured out to the sea by the mermaids, who he learns are Atlanteans, and falls in love with the princess of Atlantis, the daughter of King Poseidon. In order to prove himself a worthy suitor, Poseidon submits Clark to a series of grueling tests, all of which Superman passes with ease. It’s at this time Clark dons his costume for the first time and the legend of Superman begins to grow. 

Back on land, the Navy cadets are recruited to run an emergency mission. A military vessel has been hijacked by pirates and Clark’s camp was the closest aid. During the mission, Clark protects his classmates from a live grenade and outs himself as something more than human. As a result, Clark Kent is honorably discharged from military service, listing the cause as insubordination. The higher-ups were concerned that, given Clark’s abilities, he would not be willing or able to follow orders. As Clark packs his bags, his classmates salute him and Col. Kurtzberg encourages Clark to use his gifts for the betterment of the world and benefit of mankind. In a way, Clark gave Kurtzberg confirmation of his belief in the paranormal. 


Chapter three opens as an intrepid reporter in a submarine dives into the ocean to investigate the growing legend of the “Superman.” Lois Lane has heard the stories of a mysterious man who comes from the sea to do wondrous feats. But as Miss Lane gets too close to discovering Atlantis, her sub is struck by Atlantean defenses. Just in the nick of time, Superman arrived to save the reporter from her watery fate. After a run-in on shore with the U.S. military, Superman realizes his legend is growing too large and too fast for him to remain in Atlantis, so he follows Lois Lane to the city of Metropolis. It is there, in the bustling city, that Superman finds he could live out his true heroic potential. From petty crimes to terrorist attacks, Superman is able to save the day daily and the people of Metropolis champion their new-found savior.

Interestingly, each chapter of this story is not only centered around a particular location, but also a particular woman. In true comic book fashion, each of Clark’s love interests’s initials are “L. L.” Lana Lang, Clark’s Smallville High sweetheart; Lori Lemaris, the daughter of Poseidon; and Lois Lane, the rising star reporter from Metropolis. 

Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. are two of the most distinct and prolific artists in the comic book business. Both artists’s styles are instantly recognizable due to their easily distinguishable characteristics: Miller’s use of hard angles and dark shading, and Romita’s similar rough edges and attention to detail. For this Superman project, Romita carried the bulk of the weight as the artist, with Miller providing the occasional cover. Romita’s art throughout the book is top notch and, in my opinion, some of his best work. Romita’s artistic approach to the Man of Steel depicts him similar to the classic Superman with an air of majesty and debonair about him. The artists decided to forego the use of the classic Superman “S” emblem, opting for a more angular design unique to Superman: Year One. The art of this book carries the excellent writing, supporting it with epic scenes and dynamic juxtaposition.

The writing in this book was ominous, but intriguing. The nameless narrator brought a mysterious element to the story that made it feel otherworldly and distinctive. Despite this book being a retelling of a prevalent story, it felt wholly unique and singular while also being grounded in a world that felt familiar and welcoming. It is apparent Miller and Romita shared the creative process of coming up with the story for Superman: Year One, but then split the responsibility of writing and art between the two of them, with Miller primarily carrying the role of writer. The writing is reminiscent of Miller’s other works, yet with an air of hopefulness and joy not typical of his style. The dialogue is entertaining and adds to the story, steering into the occasional pun, with the shining element being the narration. For example, consider this excerpt from a panel in which Superman is lifting Lois’s destroyed submarine out of the ocean: “they wait…and they watch. They watch the hero as, like Atlas, he heaves his massive back into his task…and he laughs at gravity…as he always does… he laughs at gravity…and he lifts his impossible burden up…up…and away.”

Miller and Romita’s take on Superman is full of “wow” moments that approach the character in a unique way, truly unlike any preceding Superman tale. Clark’s motivation in these books is clear-cut, simple, and altruistic. Despite its more adult leaning, Year One captures the inspiration of Superman’s heroism unlike other stories. Moreover, Superman portrays a true southern gentleman, treating his peers, elders, and superiors with the utmost respect, even in times of disagreement.

Superman, like Jesus Christ, is an example of complete power under control. Philippians 2:7 says Jesus “emptied himself” to become a man, meaning he had the power of God in the body of a man. Jesus was capable of anything and everything, but only used his power for the good of others and to make God known. Similarly, Superman chose to use his powers for good and had to learn to keep his power in check in order to use it rightly.

Positives

+Great storytelling +A new take on classic characters +Dynamic art

Negatives

-Adult themes -Threat of sexual assault -Mature language

The Bottom Line

Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. present an unusual but welcome adaptation of Superman’s origin that, although geared toward more mature readers, still presents the Man of Steel as a symbol of justice and goodwill. Fans of the franchise will enjoy this eccentric approach the Last Son of Krypton, while newcomers may discover a Superman that is their quintessential version.

 

Story/Plot 8.5

Writing 9

Art 9

8.8

Brian Dedmon

Christ-follower. Husband. Father. Minister. Theology student. Teacher. Preacher. Worship leader. Musician. Writer. Geek. Casual gamer. Junk food connoisseur.

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