When it comes to predicting the future of the publishing industry, there are two types of people—those who have no idea what is going to happen and those who pretend like they do. Given the number of changes taking place, the only thing you can be sure of is that the second type is always wrong.
That same sense of uncertainty is also true with the comics industry. Will digitization kill print comics? Will trade paperbacks kill monthlies? Are Web-comics the future? Are the big publishers on the way out? Are comics shops becoming obsolete or are they going to be more powerful than ever?
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of people seemed certain that the future would be found in the original graphic novel. For people like Will Eisner, the idea of creating a square-bound, non-serialized “book” that could sit on a bookstore shelf between Dostoyevsky and Faulkner was the ticket to respectability for both the artist and the medium.
As a result, there was a surge of graphic novels, both independent and mainstream. DC and Marvel even experimented with a few superhero books like X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Daredevil: Love and War, and Arkham Asylum. The message seemed clear. Monthly comics would soon be extinct. Everyone would be able to identify the brave new world of the 21st century, not only by all those proverbial flying cars, but also from the abundance of original graphic novels.
That never happened. Sure, the original graphic novel has fared better than the flying car, but it hasn’t exactly transformed the industry. While it’s more common among independent art comics, even many of the most celebrated creators like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware continue to serialize much of their work first.
I certainly don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of the industry—business and economics often cause my eyes to glaze over—but it takes an infrastructure to support such irregular or intermittent publications. In simpler terms, if an artist can’t secure significant advance money, there’s no way to just take a year off to create a graphic novel. A person’s got to pay the bills, and even Ramen Noodles cost money.
In addition to the business difficulties, the prestige factor of the graphic novel format has become largely irrelevant. As collections of serialized comics like Maus, Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sandman have demonstrated, the book reading world doesn’t really differentiate between original graphic novels and trade paperback collections. At the end of the day, a book’s a book.
All of which makes DC’s “Earth One” series particularly unusual. Launched in 2010, the idea was to present accessible, out-of-continuity versions of the company’s most popular characters in stories told by top creators. Such an alternate line certainly has precedent—both Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe and DC’s “All Star” titles began with similar goals—but the Earth One books have one key distinction—they are published as original graphic novels.
Even though the early volumes have sold well, DC’s commitment to the line has seemed tepid, at best. Before this year, they had published two Superman volumes and one Batman. Three books in five years … that’s not much of a line—especially for a company that often gluts the market with 52 comics a month. But times change. This year they’ve already published a third Superman volume, and with a second Batman on the way and a long-awaited, Grant Morrison-penned Wonder Woman book in the fall, the Earth One line will have effectively doubled its size by the end of the year.
Perhaps our flying cars are closer than we thought.
So what do these books have to offer? I didn’t care much for the first Batman volume, but the Superman series has a lot going for it. Written by J. Michael Straczynski with art by Ardian Syaf and, in the first two volumes, Shane Davis, the series is like an outreach program for non-comics fans. For the casual reader browsing in a Barnes & Noble, here is a handsome, hardback book series that owes nothing to the often dreary and convoluted crossovers that have marred DC’s Superman books for over 20 years now. The Earth One Superman is clean, fresh, and baggage free—like a new movie franchise or TV show.
That concept may not satisfy regular monthly comics readers, but it certainly works for me. I’ve never understood the appeal of editorially-driven stories by a committee of creators sprinkled over several titles. Part of what I’ve enjoyed about Superman: Earth One is that it feels like a clear, unified vision, one that Straczynski has been slowly building since 2010.
As a re-thinking of the Superman mythos, Straczynski takes a few bold steps—fundamentally changing the relationship with Lois and the nature of Lex Luthor—but ultimately this isn’t an exercise in reinventing the wheel, nor is it like one of the old Elseworlds books where everything is different, but not. Most of the familiar trappings of the Superman universe are still here and still largely the same.
Instead, the strength of the books comes from texture. For one of the few times in Superman’s history, the series actually gives us a plausible twentysomething Clark Kent/Superman. When John Byrne rebooted the character in the ‘80s, the result was a confident 35-year-old who lived in a sleek high-rise apartment. Straczynski’s Clark lives in the sort of apartment complex you would expect for a millennial who makes his living as a beginning reporter at a newspaper. In other words, it’s pretty run-down with drug addicts on the front steps and prostitutes living across the hall.
And yet, it’s not depicted as squalid or melodramatic. The drug addicts and prostitutes are actually pretty nice—just people getting by in the big city, much like the farm boy-turned-reporter. And in the same way, The Daily Planet isn’t a stand-in for The New York Times, nor is it a sleazy tabloid. It’s a slowly dying newspaper, like countless other slowly dying papers across the country. Neither the apartment nor the paper is seedy; they’re real.
And Straczynski, Davis, and Syaf have done an excellent job of capturing the same sense of balance with Clark’s age. He’s clearly not a fully mature “adult”—there’s a boyishness in his face and manner and he often makes mistakes, but he’s also not an angst-driven teenager patronizingly written to appeal to “the kids.”
But what I like most about the Earth One Superman series are the little touches. Straczynski has a cast full of professional writers here, so he frequently indulges in little metafictional moments where characters self-consciously note each other’s sentence construction, “edit” themselves on the page, or speak as if they were actually writing their words.
For example, in the latest book, when Lois tries to get Superman’s attention and he jokes that she “could’ve just Facebooked,” she responds sarcastically, “Ha comma Ha comma.” She’s essentially texting him, but doing so verbally, objectifying both the words and the punctuation for effect. Later in the same conversation, when Lois tries to explain why many people don’t trust him, Superman interrupts her to point out that she is mixing her metaphors—something she later calls him on as well.
Likewise, in one of the most striking moments, when Lisa—the young woman who lives across the hall, struggles to explain a hypothetical question to Clark, she unleashes a 121-word sentence worthy of Henry James at his most dense. Even though what Lisa is asking is important, Clark’s response draws attention to the dialogue rather than the content: “Wow … I’m in awe of the sheer architecture of that sentence. It was like looking at the Sistine Chapel … if the Sistine Chapel were made out of words.”
These bits of writerly commentary aren’t the point of the book, but they provide the kind of texture that marks the difference between a purely formulaic genre story where plot reigns supreme and one like Straczynski’s that offers multiple layers of interest along the way. The same could be said for the political subtext of Superman’s ill-considered attempt at regime change in a fictional country. These are things—both aesthetic and thematic—for a reader to chew on.
But perhaps most impressive is the relationship between Clark and his Mary Magdalene-esque neighbor Lisa who works as a professional escort. Not only does Clark not judge her, he also doesn’t try to reform her. She already wants a different job—she doesn’t need Clark’s disapproval for motivation. And the reader doesn’t need to see Clark’s disapproval either. That would only serve to reinforce old social hierarchies. Instead, Straczynski demonstrates Clark’s “goodness,” not by distancing him from Lisa’s profession, but rather by demonstrating his unconditional acceptance of her as a person.
The relationship between the two has a subtle and unanticipated power. The old Superman used to thrill readers with the promise, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Straczynski’s Superman offers a different promise: “You’ll believe a man can accept others.”
That’s a superpower we could all learn from.