When Superman: Year One was first announced, they were quite a few expected reactions.
“Another origin?” Understandable.
“Frank Miller on Superman? Oh boy.” I feel you.
“Superman on the Black Label?” Yeah, I get it.
Unexpectedly, while I wasn’t exactly 100% on-board from the get-go, I was still intrigued. I mean, yeah, Miller’s take on Superman in The Dark Knight Returns isn’t exactly my favorite, but hey. I was still on a high from reading The Man Without Fear for the first time, so seeing that he’d reunite with John Romita, Jr. on the miniseries? Sure, why not?
Even with optimistically tempered expectations, though, I was certainly surprised at how much I enjoyed the first issue. Besides an out of place attempted sexual assault (which still doesn’t sit right with the overall story), the writing was pretty subdued, and hit on some pretty strong aspects of Superman’s identity. I loved the scenes with Jonathan Kent in particular, as Clark was depicted as a bit of a showboat and in danger of becoming too reliant on and confident in his abilities. There stood Pa, though, cheering with a crowd of spectators at a football game only to look on in disappointment as Clark took his prowess a bit too far. Like in all good Superman stories, Clark’s adopted parents are there to keep him grounded, both literally and metaphorically.
I even liked the fact that Clark decided to join the military, which was a point of controversy upon the issue’s release. It’s a different take, to be sure, though it definitely fits with the Superman we saw in The Dark Knight Returns and its sequels (and to be honest, this book works best when read as the origin of that Superman, not the Superman from mainline continuity). A little on the nose, to be sure, but even if he’s a little more cocksure than we’re used to, what better way for a pre-Superman Clark Kent to help people than by becoming a soldier? Surely they could wring some good stories out of that.
Then the second issue rolled around, and friends, it was a drag. These issues are already pretty long, at around 60 pages apiece, and issue 2 felt like it. It was so slow and took me so long to get through that I still feel like I’m reading it, two months later. It just didn’t go anywhere, despite being all over the place. Clark discovers he isn’t fit to be a soldier, as he refuses to take lives, and then he connects with… the citizens of Atlantis? Alright…
Maybe it was just the mood I was in when I read it, but I just wasn’t feeling that second issue at all. If the first was around an 8/10, the second issue was a 5.
Now the third and final issue is here, and I can confidently say that it is… pretty okay. I didn’t love it, nor did I hate it. It’s just kind of there, I enjoyed myself, and I probably won’t ever think about it again.
That’s not to say it isn’t worth reading, especially if you’ve read the previous two chapters. As a disclaimer, I think that your enjoyment of it will largely be dependent on how much you’ve enjoyed the series so far. If you’ve loved it, you’re likely to love this issue. If you’re like me and were lukewarm toward either of the previous installments, you might enjoy it. If you haven’t been feeling this book, though, this isn’t likely to change your opinion.
Right from the get-go it has a better pace than issue two, with a pretty great extended sequence where Superman saves Lois Lane and runs afoul of a bunch of special forces types. Romita, Miki, and Sinclair in particular completely sell these scenes, and considering I’m very hot-or-cold with Romita’s style, that’s saying something. Granted, it is definitely in the Romita style, so the characters, weapons, and environments have that “Romita look” to them. There’s a great sense of energy here, though, with a bunch of closely cropped panels that keep the scene moving forward at a breakneck pace.
What I wasn’t crazy about was Clark’s internal monologue. His characterization isn’t… awful, per se, but he lacks a sense of nobility and focus. He makes comments about being above the people of Earth, but then quickly refers to himself as “just a man.” One of the most interesting aspects of Superman’s character, to me, is the fact that he doesn’t see himself as a god or above humanity, but as a simple, humble guy who just so happens to be the most powerful man on Earth. He… kind of gets to that point here, at least in some ways, but it just… kind of happens. There isn’t any real growth or introspection, nor does he have a big moment with Ma and Pa where he realizes he’ll have to make some hard choices with his gifts. It’s almost like Miller included some of these lines because they’re necessary, an inevitability of Clark’s character, rather than a logical progression of plot and character.
And honestly, that’s how a lot of this issue feels: a bunch of scenes that have to be there because they’re part of Superman’s story, not because they fit with this narrative. Clark decides to become a journalist because… he’s supposed to work at the Daily Planet. Lex Luthor is up to some shenanigans because… he’s Lex Luthor. Brainiac is introduced late in the game because… he’s Brainiac, and– if you read this as the origin of Miller’s Superman– they have to mention Kandor somehow.
That’s why Batman’s inclusion feels so jarring and weird and shoehorned in. Now, I’ve gone on record multiple times in the past saying that I could live a thousand years and if I never saw Batman and Superman fight ever again, it would still be too soon. I’ll concede, though, that conflict between the two can be interesting, if handled properly.
Which here, it is not. It isn’t even the worst Batman and Superman fight I’ve ever seen, though it may be the silliest. It’s almost unintentionally comical in how it comes across, with both of the characters acting like a couple of macho meathead jerks. Batman lets loose some hilariously out of character trash talk, and Superman effectively riffs on the idea that if he wanted to, he could end the fight in a heartbeat. It’s an oddly lifeless confrontation, and visually it’s the sloppiest work Romita’s done on the series. Superman’s shield changes size multiple times, sometimes even between successive panels, and it just feels so rote and uninspired. I don’t want to see these guys trade blows and be jerks to each other, but if I have to I at least want it to be well-crafted. When Wonder Woman appears and breaks up their spat, it’s less a feeling of “alright, now they’ll work toward forming the League!” and “thank goodness she’s there to knock some sense into these doofuses.”
It’s a shame, too, because there are some interesting ideas that lead up to their (mercifully short) confrontation. Luthor tries to manipulate Superman by twisting his words to make it sound like the Man of Steel agreed to work with him to take down vigilantes. Clark doesn’t want to do that at all, since he isn’t for sale , but Luthor isn’t exactly one to take “no” for an answer. They could have really mined some interesting stuff out of this, but like most everything else it’s just kind of glossed over.
While I don’t think that the issue is equal to the sum of its parts, there are several individual aspects that I greatly enjoyed. Again, surprisingly, most of Romita’s work here is pretty great, save for the aforementioned Batman/Superman sparring session. The best sequence in the issue– and maybe even the entire series– is a hostage situation about halfway through. The rain-soaked scene is absolutely stunning, with some of the best shots of Superman Romita has drawn, and there’s an amazing moment where Lois jumps from a helicopter to the angled side of a building, all so she can get a better shot. Far from only being a visually impressive spectacle, it has Clark acting more like Superman than he had at any point in the series, and than he would for the remainder of the story. The way he gently assures a young girl he’s saved is inspiring, even if the dialogue and narration are a bit much. It all culminates in a nicely tense meeting between Clark and Lex that’s pitch perfect for these two mortal enemies, even if it never really pays off.
The final image of the book left me conflicted as well: it was a lovely composition, I won’t lie, but it hints that there could be more to come. Frankly, I don’t think that’s necessary, because this book really didn’t do much to add to or change Superman’s origin. It tweaked some things here and there, to be sure, but it wasn’t anything that wouldn’t fit into any other origin story. Besides that, it works best when viewed through lens of The Dark Knight Returns, and I, for one, don’t really need to see any more stories about that guy.
Then again, I’ll still read them, so what do I know?
- You’ve been reading Superman: Year One.
- You want to see some of Romita’s best work in years (for the most part).
- You like a hilariously out of character Batman.
Overall: The final issue of Superman: Year One is an odd mishmash of decent ideas, never becoming greater than the sum of its parts. There are some really exciting action sequences here, featuring some absolutely gorgeous work from John Romita, Jr., Danny Miki, and Alex Sinclair. Miller’s dialogue is still too hard-boiled for his own good, and while there isn’t anything here that you could point to as “not getting the character,” some of the most important aspects of Superman’s world feel almost shoe-horned in because they’re necessary, not because it was actually being built toward. Batman is just wildly bizarre, too, almost to the point of being a parody. I still enjoyed myself, sometimes in spite of myself, so if this is your kind of Superman story then you probably will too.