Superman: Year One #1
Written by Frank Miller
Art by John Romita, Jr., Danny Miki and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by John Workman
Published by DC Comics
Review by David Pepose
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Release Date: June 9, 2019
There are few creative teams in comics that bring me back to my childhood more than Frank Miller and John Romita, Jr., whose work on Daredevil: The Man Without Fear blew my mind with its gritty reimagining of Matt Murdock’s life story. And more than twenty-five years later, I couldn’t help but feel both excitement and trepidation with the announcement of Superman: Year One — while these two creators are skilled craftsmen with lengthy and legendary resumes, would Miller’s controversial style work on DC’s most optimistic characters?
To be honest, I wish I had a more concrete answer — because having read the first issue of this Black Label series, while this debut certainly has more hope than one might expect out of the writer of Sin City, Superman: Year One will also feel like a very different character than the Man of Steel you might remember. Miller and Romita’s work brings plenty of charm, but that’s not to say there isn’t also some shakiness from this usually rock-solid team, with some of Miller’s less savory signature tics seeping into an otherwise promising alternate history.
Although to be fair, some of that might be the point. Part of the draw of Frank Miller writing Superman is, well, seeing how Frank Miller’s voice works in counterpoint to the traditional Man of Steel mythos. At times, it’s a jarring contrast — Miller’s almost conversational style feels like an odd fit for the pure iconic horror of Krypton’s destruction, with the perspective jumping from baby Clark’s perspective to third-person narrator and back to Clark again. But at other times, Miller is able to dance between Superman’s innate optimism with the more sinister undertones of an invincible demigod with more powers than you might know. (Without spoiling too much, it certainly casts Clark’s adoption by the Kents in a very different light.) Additionally, Miller’s homespun dialogue will certainly be hit-or-miss with readers, with some seeing it as a way to channel Midwestern sensibilities, while others might read it as borderline caricature.
Where Miller is at his best in Superman: Year One is when he takes a page from Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man, where he’s able to look at Clark Kent’s youth, but recontextualizes it knowing what would and wouldn’t fly in the 21st century. Some of Clark’s classmates, for example, know something’s up with their unstabbable peer, while Jon and Martha Kent’s trials and tribulations of raising a super-powered (and hyperactive) toddler will likely leave you smiling. And in true Miller fashion, there’s a reminder of the darkness beneath the surface that I do believe fits Superman as a character: this is a world where everything comes easy to him, but he can never forget just how easily the people around him can break.
For Romita, however, this feels like a very different ballgame, and to be honest, his generosity as a collaborator shouldn’t go unremarked here. There’s only three pages in this 64-page first issue that really give Romita a chance to breathe — for the most part, Miller is packing his pages with five- and six-panel grids, and it’s a testament to Romita’s chops as a draftsman that he’s largely able to keep this book from feeling cramped in any way. Instead, it feels densely packed, as if Miller and Romita are determined to make sure every reader gets their dollars’ worth out of this series. It’s an admirable goal to be sure. And even if Romita isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel in terms of how he portrays characters acting, Romita at his baseline is still more expressive than two-thirds of the artists on the stands, and colorist Brad Anderson does a solid job at giving this linework energy and depth while keeping it in a standard superhero color palette. That said — and this isn’t Romita’s fault, but Miller’s — I wish there were opportunities for Romita to get more room to maneuver, because a three-panel page of Clark thinking to himself on a grain silo roof feels instantly iconic.
That all said, this is not a perfect story by any means — and to be honest, a lot of Superman purists may likely feel that Miller’s style is too much of a departure for them to truly enjoy, especially the last twist towards the end of the issue. For my money, Miller’s biggest struggles are when he writes Lana Lang — in particular, a sequence using the threat of sexual assault feels instantly dated and hackneyed in this day and age, and it’s a tough sequence to justify especially this early in the gate. (I’ll be honest, a lot of Miller’s metaphors about love and women in this issue feel like the most discordant notes in an otherwise solid symphony.) Additionally, it almost feels like there’s two Clark Kents in this debut issue — one an impishly impulsive little boy who revels at this newfound world and what he can do in it, and another a more introspective seeker of justice, but it feels like we’re missing a key moment to bridge the two eras.
As a fan of Miller’s classic work, I’ve had to temper my expectations in the wake of more recent series like DKIII: The Master Race, All-Star Batman and Robin and Holy Terror — so it might sound like I’m damning Miller with faint praise when I say that Superman: Year One is definitely a better read than these. (To be fair, when you’ve got John Romita, Jr. operating at his usual high level, it’s hard not to find something to enjoy.) But at the same time, this book is almost assuredly the definition of an acquired taste — if you enjoy reimaginings of Superman’s origin in the well-tapped vein of Superman: Earth One, Secret Identity, Superman: Birthright or Superman: Secret Origin, you may enjoy Miller’s divergent take on a longtime icon, even if this isn’t any Man of Steel you’ve ever seen before.