Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Superman: Earth One vol. 2 (comic)

Writer: J Michael Straczynski
Artist: Shane Davis
Original Graphic Novel

Well, I guess volume one was a fluke, because they already blew it with the second.

To back up for a moment, I thought the first volume of Superman: Earth One was a pretty decent effort. I enjoyed its portrayal of Clark Kent as a confused young man trying to find a place he could feel comfortable while doing the most good. So, a typical young adult. A fair bit of the Comics Internet hated it, but I noticed at the time that most of loudest detractors were often the ones who had strict, rigid ideas about who Superman is and who he should be. Flawed as it was - Tyrell is such a forgettable villain that, two years later, I can't even remember what his deal was - it had merit.

Volume Two doesn't.

Not everything about it is bad. At least this time they go with a recognizable villain in Parasite. The artwork of Shane Davis is still good. But there are some wrongheaded notions at the core of this book and they're serious enough to sink it.

One of which is its odd portrayal of women. Lois Lane has a small role in this book and every page of it concerns a downright unhealthy obsession with finding out whatever it is she thinks Clark Kent is hiding. This is not necessarily news for the franchise, but it hits an uncomfortable note fairly quick. It comes off as obsessive and occasionally downright stalkerish with little justified reason for her skepticism. It reaches a point where she basically kicks her boyfriend out so she can illegally access his information. It's clearly intentional, as Jimmy Olsen comments on it in the four or five panels he's in and all but makes dismissive wanking motions about it.

If it were the only thing going on in here, you could possibly excuse it as taking Ms. Lanes usual behavior in pre-marriage stories a bit too far. I mean, she's done worse, right? Silver Age Lois Lane took obsession to crazed heights. Actually, everyone in that era was kind of a dick, save maybe Olsen. But it's not an isolated incident.

No, new love interest Lisa Lassalle is the one that kind of solidifies it. She's likable enough, but falls into a lot of the same traps you see with most female characters. A fair bit of her behavior is overly flirtatious, which - while sadly stereotypical in most fiction - isn't in itself a bad thing, but late in the book we find out she's also a prostitute, or at least when she needs cash to pay the bills.

Look, I'm usually pretty forgiving - I get in disagreements with a friend of mine semi-regularly because I find at least some merit in things he doesn't - but when that revelation came about, I shook my head. Of course she hooks. No sexually active woman could possibly be anything else, except maybe a slut, right? It feeds right into the sort of double standards we as a society have struggled with over the past few decades. On it's own it might not seem as jarring - especially if it had a few other female characters of different mindsets - but in a book where the only other female character of note feels obsessive to the point of stalkerish, it raises a few alarms.

But this is nothing new, I can hear some say. It's hardly the first comic to have questionable portrayals of women. Nor will it be the last. What matters is whether the rest of the book holds up. How does Superman himself come off?

Well, I'm sad to say that this time I have to side with the detractors. JMS definitely screwed him up. Spoiler warning for the next paragraph.

The point volume two completely lost me came late in the book, but had its roots in an early scene. At the start of the book, we see Superman in action, doing typical Superman things, such as saving people in a foreign country from a natural disaster. His rescue mission ends prematurely when the countries leader - clearly taking cues from real life dictators like Saddam Hussein - basically tells Superman to get out of his country before he starts killing people. Superman has to make a hard choice; clearly, he could stop this mans army from killing everyone, but he can't be in two places at once. Eventually he would have to leave to help someone else.

This is fine. It's a little too close to the real world for my taste - using realistic dictators in a superhero story makes for an uncomfortable time, which is why you tend to have things like Black Adam ruling a country - but on the surface it plays into the themes of the Earth One Superman series thus far. As mentioned at the start of the review, most of the point of the last volume was seeing Clark go through different avenues to do the most good before inevitably donning the red and the blue. Now that he's hip deep in the superhero trade, it makes sense for this Superman to come face to face with his limitations; he can't punch every problem, as some are systemic and may have been easier to solve had he been in a different profession.

No, the problem is the bookend. Near the end, after the threat has been dispatched - I know, spoilers, but come on, of course he figures out a way to beat Parasite - Superman returns to that country and incites a revolution. He waltzes in, takes guns from the dictators men, gives them to the revolutionaries and allows them to violently overthrow this regime. There is no mistaking it. There is gunfire going off. Then he goes to the dictators house, tells the man what he's done and then, hearing revolutionaries coming to kill the dictator, leaves him to die. Even if the revolution is over in an hour with minimal bloodshed, people have died and Superman is directly responsible.

Look, we all have different ideas about how change should come about in the world. I'd prefer most conflicts to be solved without violence, but I can't deny that at times I think some people need to be punched in the face, at the least. That, however, is reality. This is fiction.

We're talking about Superman. Having him do things like this shows a complete lack of understanding of the character. But even if we set that aside, even if you buy that Superman could kill or leave someone to die, we're not talking about another Kryptonian with the same power set and potential for danger here. The last scene of the book shows people in the US government trying to figure out a way to kill Superman. We're supposed to feel it's paranoia, because he has supposedly been benign. We're supposed to think they're out of line. But Superman just walked into a middle eastern country and turned it into a war zone. Isn't that absolutely terrifying?

If you were a citizen in that universe and someone with the powers of a god - who is supposedly altruistic, but hasn't been around all that long - went ahead and did that, wouldn't you want some kind of assurance he could be stopped?

That I'm even asking that question brands volume two of Earth One a failure, because it couldn't misunderstand the character more. That's a damn shame. Don't even bother with this one.

My Opinion: Skip It

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