From the hue and cry that went up on the internet against the first issue of Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.’s Superman Year One, you’d think that it was an Image release from 1995. I was disappointed with Miller’s writing and storytelling efforts during the recent Xerxes mini-series. There, he had a really difficult time sustaining a plot and realized characters – it read more like an unintended fugue, a gesture towards historical polemics without tight definition or development. By that marker, the first issue of Superman Year One is definitely an improvement in that Miller has developed consistent characters in the young Clark Kent, his parents Jonathan and Martha, and budding love interest Lana Lang. He also seems to have remembered principles that derive from Aristotle’s Poetics that recommend a striving towards a unity of time, place, and action.
For all those people who claim that Miller is deviating from the true nature of Superman, I’d say that the basics are there – the issue begins with the destruction of Krypton (not particularly developed but different enough both from the DC movies and the DC comics that have come before it) to Kal El’s arrival on Earth and his adoption by the Kents, a lengthy progression of moments that ironically deal with Kal El’s growing powers as he navigates childhood to the swath of story proper: Clark’s integration into Smallville High where he tries to keep his powers hidden (at the behest of his parents) while bristling to do something to assert his capabilities and punish the stock bullies that run rampant in his school.
In other words, it’s a very similar formula to Miller’s approach to the Daredevil: Man Without Fear origin story he worked on with Romita Jr. twenty-five years ago. Much like then, we get the nascent hero as someone who asserts his powers and capability to effectively punish and push back against bullies. If you look at the second half of Miller’s career, it’s a signature Miller move: the hero moves away from the likable conflicted underdog to an independent avatar of masculine competency – it’s an ideal that is often less effective (think of the protagonists of Sin City or King Leonidas or Batman after The Dark Knight Returns) in terms of reader connection than if the hero had some legitimate doubts and human flaws. All you have to do is think about his vision of Batman in Batman: Year One whose interior monologue reprimanded himself for being a ‘lucky amateur’ even while enacting impossible feats, or that vision of Batman who sags tiredly in the saddle (the reality behind the myth) in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
Despite the similarity in title, Superman Year One is not really like Batman Year One. Batman Year One literally comprised the first year that Bruce Wayne attempted to be Batman (with appropriate dates marking the vignette like postmodern progression) and it shone due to a very tightly plotted structure and story, while at the same time being loose enough to accommodate David Mazzucchelli’s magnificent sensibility and artwork. No, Superman Year One is more like Daredevil Man Without Fear, where the characters are more archetypes than the very human, gritty, naturalistic portrayals they received during Miller’s first run on the Daredevil series. But then again, Daredevil Man Without Fear was not conceived as a comic – it came out of an unproduced movie treatment written by Miller and despite the strong Romita Jr./Williamson art, it never really shed the feel of that treatment sensibility.
If I have one main complaint about Superman Year One, it’s that Miller doesn’t take the time to really flesh out his characters – they’re just types painted in very broad brush strokes. The bullies are the worst rural bullies you can imagine – their leader goes by the name Billy Bob Markham. Lana is both pretty and plucky. Clark hangs around with misfits and geeks and social outcasts. There’s a disturbed teen among this group called Jeremy who dresses like a goth and you just know he’s going to become a villain, perhaps Lex Luthor himself. As such, it’s hard to say that the characters escape two dimensionality and though Miller has some nice broad poetic lines in terms of narration, we feel like we’ve heard them a hundred times before and he’s sort of just walking through the paces. Still, that’s an improvement and personally, I’m just glad he’s working. There has been more than one report in recent years attesting to Miller’s drug use and the kinds of lows his life went through. I think it’s good he’s making an effort to rise up from that. Of course, DC might be using Miller in this period and some of the decisions regarding what he produces and what he attaches his name to – that’s always been a possibility – and that in itself is quite tragic when you compare that to how independent minded and visionary Miller was in the eighties.
The question of this more gung-ho Superman not being true to the original character? Well, those who read the original Siegel and Shuster comics know that Superman was originally a more willful and Nietzschean character than his later incarnations. In the same way that Miller took Batman back to his dark avenger roots, Miller is making a nod towards the original, stronger m.o. Superman exhibited. However, Miller’s definitely borrowing from different time periods. His focusing on Clark straining against his parent’s injunctions to hide his power bears more than a slight resemblance to the first part of the Superman movie directed by Richard Donner. However, whereas the Donner movie contains a palpable grace and charm and genuinely explores Superman maturing into himself, Miller’s portrayals are too broad and operatic for the reader to really be able to relate to. The best superhero comics are the ones where both the human and superhero sides are given equal mileage. Besides, isn’t the notion of a superhero having a consistent sensibility a false and foolish one? Superheroes are marketable properties, as malleable and movable as the market demands. They’re general vessels that different creators have poured their sensibilities and energies into. If you read some of the Silver Age Superman stories where Superman and Lois continually out-quirk each other, it’s downright wacky.
A lot of the push back against this comic seems to come out of a general disdain for Miller. It seems like people were just waiting to confirm that Superman Year One wouldn’t live up to Ronin or The Dark Knight Returns and that gave them license to pour on the schadenfreude. Whereas it certainly does not live up to these books, I don’t think it’s the worst thing that Miller’s ever done, not by a far shot. At this point, if I’m buying a Miller comic, I know what I’m going to get. So does everybody else. Expecting him to write like he did thirty years ago is unfair. I don’t think he’s going to reach the complexity and paradigm shifting innovation he achieved thirty years ago but if he continues working and trying to improve, that’s not a bad thing. Besides, compared to the state of superhero innovation and craft these days, I don’t know that Miller’s efforts come off that poorly.
The other thing that people have complained about is the format and price. $7.99 is maybe double the cost of a regular comic but it’s not that much more expensive. It’s not unlike the prestige format comic books that came out during the nineties – they had nicer paper and square bound printing and no ads but after a while, we realized that paying a few dollars more just meant better production value, not superior artistic craft. You didn’t mind then too much, you just accepted it and continued to either buy them or not. Personally, I like this new format – it’s magazine size, has quality paper and covers, contains more pages than a regular comic book, and is bereft of ads. All in all, I didn’t regret purchasing the issue nor do I feel compelled to demand something more from it than what it purports to be. Kind of like the predictable high school social structure the comic portrays, it sits somewhere in the middle of that hierarchy – neither loud enough to be a jock nor exotic enough to be a freak.