Superman: Year One #2
Written by Frank Miller
Art by John Romita, Jr., Danny Miki and Alex Sinclair
Lettering by John Workman
Published by DC/Black Label
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a… Navy SEAL?
You’d be forgiven for scratching your head a bit at Superman: Year One #2, in part because while it features a young Man of Steel, this narrative feels like a story that’s Superman in name only. That’s not to say that this is a bad story, however — while writer Frank Miller and artist John Romita, Jr. might have a little bit of a weird balance between Clark Kent’s training in the military (not to mention an epic showdown in the kingdom of Atlantis), this is a solid if over-the-top adventure story in execution. As a standalone story apart from any other IP, this would probably be a solid narrative — but unlike the definitive Batman and Daredevil stories these master creators have established previously, this definitely feels like an odd fit for Superman himself.
Like many of DC’s other Black Label titles, Superman: Year One #2 comes at an extended page count, which works wonders for this creative team’s style. Romita takes as many pages as he needs to illustrate how Clark moves up the ranks in the military, or the way that he shrugs off increasingly elaborate punishment from Poseidon himself. Miller, meanwhile, is able to have fun with his distinctive narrative voice, oftentimes switching from third-person omniscient narrator to getting inside Clark’s head, often without letterer John Workman even changing fonts. Miller and Romita are known for their unique signature styles, and while they deliver on what readers might be expecting, the overall finished product feels a little like a peanut butter and pickle sandwich — two very different tastes that really don’t go well together whatsoever.
The opening story, about Clark Kent becoming a Navy SEAL, connects with some of the themes that Miller had presented in the previous issue — in a world where mortal men are all-too-flimsy, this Superman-in-the-making finds it incredibly easy to be the ultimate soldier, only halting when it comes time to take a human life. This is where the suspension of disbelief is stretched perhaps beyond the breaking point — it’s hard to imagine Clark being so superior in all ways, but somehow failing to grasp the essential point of the military before enlisting. While it’s easy to feel invested in Clark’s success, the military action also feels very far removed from what we’re used to seeing in superhero comics — especially since Romita’s artwork feels surprisingly sedate, with stealth kills overshadowing any over-the-top firefights.
And while many readers will likely be thankful that Clark’s military stint doesn’t work out, the choice to shift the narrative abruptly to the young Superman enduring an Atlantean gauntlet for the hand of Lori Lemaris is… well, it’s certainly a swerve. That said, I’d argue that with one exception — Miller’s continued nod to sexual violence being an unsavory tic from an otherwise potent writer — the Atlantis sequence is far and away more effective than Clark’s Navy SEAL adventures, even if this sequence adheres much more to the standard meat-and-potatoes superhero action. Romita makes these pages crackle, as Clark gets blasted, crushed, swallowed alive, and still refuses to so much as take a knee to Poseidon, the power-mad king of Atlantis. The problem is, this sequence can’t help but feel unearned given the storyline before it — it’s the sort of tonal mishmash that makes the story as a whole feel indeliberate, instead shifting from genre to genre just based on authorial whim.
And ultimately, at the end of the day, I’m not sure there’s much about Superman: Year One that feels intrinsic to the Man of Steel as a character. On the one hand, I can applaud Miller and Romita for not tapping the old well of Kryptonian conspiracies, but whereas The Dark Knight Returns felt like a comprehensive look back at Batman’s greatest hits, this feels like tabula rasa here — unlike the original Year One, this doesn’t feel like a way to establish an iconic Superman in his native world. To be honest, none of these character traits seem to have much in common with either a mild-mannered reporter or the savior of Metropolis. This could have been a creator-owned book and, with only a little bit more connective tissue, might have soared even more than giving this book the legendary S-shield.
It might sound like I’m damning Superman: Year One with faint praise, and that’s hardly the intent. For those who are just fans of Miller and Romita, there’s plenty of platform to see these two longtime creators strut their stuff. (And on DC’s end, they’re going to get sales by having these two creators’ names on the cover — is there any reason to try to wrangle these two bestselling cats if they’re going to make bank regardless of content?) But delivering a platform for Romita’s bombastic art and Miller’s signature dialogue can’t help but feel a little disappointing, especially to readers like myself who were raised on Miller’s meticulous plotting and story structure work. One can’t help but have expectations, not just for a new Superman origin, not just for a new Year One book, but for two creators who have more than proven themselves with their track records. This book feels more like a jam band session, and for some readers, that will be enough — but if you’re looking for a new classic in the making, Superman: Year One doesn’t quite soar the way one might hope.