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
‘Rama Rating: 3 out of 10
Superman. Miller. Romita, Jr. Year One. Thirty years ago, this sounds like an absolute home run for DC. The mark that both creators have left on the industry is indelible, but both stars have dimmed in light of mixed reviews for their most recent work. The case could be made that despite their combined starpower, these creators coupled with one of the world’s oldest superhero isn’t quite the draw that it might have been when both were at the height of their powers. And unfortunately, based on the choices made in this issue, it’s clear that there isn’t much left in the tank for Miller, even if Romita tries his damnedest to prop him up. The result is a variation on a common theme and a mode of storytelling that sees the two creators getting in each other’s way more than telling a compelling story.
“Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple. Superman.” I think at this point we all know Superman’s origins. And I think that’s what immediately makes a 'Year One' story such a hard sell. We’ve gotten other “definitive” Superman origin stories from other creators. Is there anything else to say on the subject? Miller seems to think so, and he stretches out the earliest moments of the story we know, relying on Romita to deliver the emotionality required to make the narration convincing. Thankfully, Romita doesn’t have too much trouble with the baby version of Clark, and coupled with Alex Sinclair’s interesting color work, we get a few really interesting looking panels that juxtapose Clark’s face with space and the planet that is soon to be his new home. The early goings of this book are overly wordy and visually busy but for a little while, it all clicks. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long.
Miller just has very little feel for what Clark’s life as a child would actually be like. He leans in on Romita being able to deliver on the five-plus-panel pages that he tasked Mazzucchelli with in Batman: Year One, but neither the writer nor the artist are up to the task. Romita doesn’t vary his shots enough, repeatedly pounding the reader with close-ups and mid-shots that give little sense of setting or flow. Danny Miki’s fragile inks don’t enhance Romita’s linework at all — in fact, Miki hangs back so much that it almost seems like lines are missing, as in a panel here Clark and his friend fist bump each other but it looks like their hands are melting into each other. Miller can’t help himself either, making sure there’s dialogue or narration in just about every panel to the point where it’s completely crowding out the art. Letterer John Workman really earned his paycheck on this one, but his work here is sometimes baffling. Sound effects are out of place and his mixed caps lettering doesn’t really seem to have much reason behind it.
Romita makes things worse by failing to keep his characters consistent across the book, and Miller’s youth-centric script really exposing that for as great as he is, John Romita Jr. draws children and teens like he’s maybe never seen one. Miki’s inks don’t help matters, failing to define character’s faces and only adding heavier shadows when seemingly directly instructed to by the script. It’s not a good look for the art team as a whole and while Alex Sinclair turns in a good effort, without proper contrast, his coloring lacks any sort of impact.
You’ll notice I haven’t talked about the plot much, and that’s because for the most part this is a pretty stock Superman origin story. Clark is a young kid and then teenager struggling with his developing powers and wanting to use them for good. We’ve heard this one before. But Miller needs to throw a couple of curveballs in and we get that from two very specific choices that the writer makes. First, Clark saves Lana Lang from what’s framed in the art as an attempted gang rape/assault. It’s this sexist, misogynistic bent in Miller’s writing that seemingly won’t go away. Ma Kent is the character discouraging Clark from using his powers and Lana Lang is the damsel in distress. No other women get significant page time or characterization, and it’s hard not to feel like Miller is operating in some seriously retrograde territory with his takes on the most important women in this story.
Secondly, Clark is going to join up with the United States Navy. It’s a move that’s baffling, as it runs so counter to this kid who doesn’t want to be told what to do (at least as evidenced from this book). But it’s an idea that runs counter to who Superman is. While he isn’t the Man of Steel quite yet, Clark generally has a pretty strong moral compass, and would seem to be smart enough to understand the war crimes committed in the name of democracy by the government of the country he lives in. Unless being in the Navy is going to directly illustrate that to him, this seems at best like a plot point that neither Miller or editorial thought out, and at worst as nationalistic pandering that seeks to remove the idea that Superman is a hero for people of all races, creeds and countries.
This might read better once the entire story has been released, but this first chapter leaves a lot to be desired. It’s admittedly a tall order to try and give the very first superhero a brand-new definitive origin. But Miller is really grasping at straws trying to find something to say. He fills the pages with narration the same way you might start the first draft of an essay in hopes that something comes to you.It’s frivolous. And if Romita is supposed to be a draw to the book, his work is blocked out - an awkward fit for what Miller is attempting to do. Altogether the whole affair just feels off, like it’s a song we’ve heard before played by a band we know, just incredibly out of tune.