Warning: Spoilers below!
Year One is a title that carries weight. It comes with a level of prestige. Granted, not all books bearing the title are well-remembered or iconic, but the name, when heard, still rings with a certain level of power. It means something. As the latest in the line of books bearing that title, John Romita Jr. and Frank Miller’s Superman: Year One has a lot to prove. It arrives in a time where we’ve explored The Big Blue’s roots in a number of ways, from Loeb and Sale’s For All Seasons, Byrne’s Man Of Steel, Johns and Frank’s Secret Origin, Landis’ American Alien, JMS and Davis’ Earth One, Waid and Yu’s Birthright and Morrison’s Action Comics. Of them all, the latter two stand tall amongst all of his origins, with Waid and Morrison, alongside Busiek, being the character’s greatest scribes of the modern era. So considering the context, clearly, this book needs to find a niche for itself, something that justifies it, in order to stand out from the crowd and be different. And that’s the challenge.
Joining JRJR and Miller are inker Danny Miki and colorist Alex Sinclair, filling out the art team. While there are no credits listed, the lettering feels evocative of John Workman’s style and if one were to guess, Workman is probably the letterer, but again, it’s hard to be sure. Nevertheless, there’s some very good inks, colors and lettering done on the title. This is definitely some of JRJR’s best work in ages. The artist, trained at old school Marvel, operates by the motto of “get it done and be on time,” so he doesn’t always have the time to polish up his work to the level he might like to. But put on a Black Label title like this, with an oversized format, a limited run and a free schedule where he gets to spend months and months on the project, he excels. Miki’s smooth inks and Sinclair’s vibrant colors make for a great mix here, giving his art a different look than usual.
The book opens with the destruction of krypton, with Miller’s trademark caption style establishing itself. From there we get to baby Kal, Clark Kent-to-be and the book does something rather interesting and new. We get a first person perspective of baby Superman, as he’s looking at his parents, Krypton and even its destruction. JRJR and Miller immediately put the reader in Clark’s headspace, quite literally. It’s a fun touch and one that is definitely different from anything else one might find in a Superman comic. From there on we see the usual beats — his arrival, adoption and time in Smallville, all with a little bit of a twist.
There’s a strange blend of the alien and human in that really sticks out, where in Clark is very much an alien and is keenly aware and tied to those roots, having memories, his father’s very voice whispering to him as a child and perhaps even some telepathic ability, which most might not expect. But he also fits into things and is human in ways that feel opposing to that presentation. That being said, the exploration of this alien life, wherein he cannot sleep due to his ability to hear, wherein he must be ever careful, ever vigilant and in control, never losing his temper, lest he seriously harm his fellow peers, is interesting. The Justice League quote of “I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die.” really comes to mind here and this iteration of Clark definitely has these thoughts on his mind a great deal. The approach Miller brought to Bruce Wayne in terms of the absolute precision he had comes through here, as does the fragments in first person captions, which Miller loves to do.
This first installment really settles into the Smallville era of Clark’s life, as we get to see him grow up. 64 pages is a long time to spend in that setting and that definitely helps give the book its niche, as no other origin spends that long there. The primary focus is Clark’s high school life — Clark making friends, finding love with Lana Lang and figuring out who we wants to be, all beats we’ve known. But its deviation is primarily in its focus on bullying and how Clark attempts to help the victims of it, while racking his brain on how to end it. Clark is part of “The Weirdos,” the outcasts, the ones that don’t really fit the norm and he witnesses them suffer.
His first solution is violence, but it only breeds more violence in response. The cycle continues, until he understands that violence doesn’t scare off or stop bullies. Lana introduces him to a different concept, the idea that truth can and does. However, the book never truly delves into that or shows that truth doing anything, merely mentioning it and skipping over it afterwards. The problem’s final appearance is a sequence of violence. While the book’s trying to make a clear point, it never really does by ignoring and skipping over the segment it should focus on, showcasing only the violence. To top that off, said final sequence arrives after a totally out of place and utterly uncomfortable sequence featuring Lana and the bullies. It’s a scene that betrays the very optimism the book largely aims for and just does not belong in the slightest.
The scene reads especially poorly given that the women in the book don’t get much to do, with a strong male focus being placed. It’s very much a choice that does give away the fact that the book was written by a man over 60. In a sense, it’s kind of counter to Birthright, where Martha, Lois and Lara, in all their brief bits, get strong showings. Apart from that, the other issue is the one bit that’s been talked about a great deal in the press: Clark becoming a SEAL. Considering it is Miller, there are some concerns to be had and while the book does try its best to rationalize it, it still feels…off. Clark, in the book, is detached by being two things: The cocky showoff and the anti-bully figure who’s relatively more thoughtful, but they never quit blend together in a way that leads to the Clark at the end, where one can clearly see the choice he’s making to join up, where it feels like there has been a genuine arc for the character.
Superman: Year One #1 is a decent enough start for the three-part series centered on the three “romances” of Clark’s life: Lana, Lori and Lois. With JRJR’s swaggering Clark Kent, Sinclair’s lush oranges and solid lettering, it feels like a book trying to be classical, timeless and mythic, casting Clark’s journey in the way Miller envisions it. This is his take on that Golden Age bully-busting, “be good or else!” hero (in a radically different way than Morrison’s Action Comics) and it’s definitely an acquired taste. It may not be your Superman or mine, but it is an interpretation of a Superman. What’s evident, throughout, for all its flaws, is that Miller, contrary to popular belief, is a fan of Superman. There’s even a fun Doc Savage nod thrown in, to allude to Clark’s pulp predecessor. All in all, it isn’t what diehard fans are hoping for — it’s no Batman: Year One or Man Without Fear, but neither is it The Dark Knight Strikes Again or Holy Terror, as some might be expecting. If you’re interested, it’s worth picking up just to see how two icons of the form envision the classic hero.
SUPERMAN: YEAR ONE will release in large-format periodicals beginning June 19, 2019 (followed by issues #2 and #3 in August and October, respectively)!