Frank Miller (Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns, 300) and John Romita Jr. (Amazing Spider-man , X-Men, Daredevil: Man Without Fear) join forces to put their own spin on the origin of Earth’s greatest hero, Superman. While adhering to the basic tenets of Superman’s story - an orphan from a doomed planet is sent to Earth, raised by a Kansas couple, and becomes Earth’s greatest hero - Miller and Romita put their own spin on the Man of Steel’s beginnings. Published under DC Comics newly dubbed, more “adult” label, DC Black Label, the creative team sought to create a story that is geared towards more mature audiences. Therefore, there is content featured in this Superman story that is not typical of the Blue Boy Scout.
The three issues contained in this volume are separated by a title based on the geographical location by which each plot is centralized. These three locations are Smallville, Atlantis, and Metropolis. Fittingly, the opening of book one features the imminent destruction of Kal-El’s (Superman’s) home planet, Krypton. The look and feel of the Kryptonian civilization is very reminiscent of the reimagining of Superman’s culture of origin in the 1990s: futuristic with towering spires, the splayed neon of advanced technology, and minimalistic, draped clothing resembling a futuristic Greek society. As explosions ransack the serene setting, baby Kal-El is placed into an escape pod in an attempt to spare him from the planet’s fate.
The first page of this book is introduced by a nameless narrator who describes each scene and Superman’s motivations in the eeriest of details. This narration is characteristically written in short, factual statements, as opposed to abstract thoughts that are typical of reading a character’s inner monologue. For instance, in the first panel of page one, describing the destruction of the planet Krypton, the narration reads, “The air seems to boil. Lightning flashes. Thunder roars. A planet wide storm. There is no rain. No relief. The crust roars and wrenches. Everything falls and clatters and breaks. Everything screams.” This type of narration continues throughout the book. It does not appear to be the reflective thoughts of the main character, as if Superman is retelling his own story, rather the descriptive words of an unknown third party witness to these events.
As is traditionally expected of this story, Kal-El’s escape pod lands on Earth in a field in Kansas and is discovered by a man named Jonathan Kent who then takes the child home to his wife, Martha. As has been the trend in most recently tellings of Superman’s origin, Jonathan and Martha were not elderly when they discovered Kal-El, rather they are a young couple with no children. The Kents adopted the child and named him Clark. The story continues as expected, mostly, with Clark slowly developing unexplainable abilities with which he and his adopted parents must cope. However, the story takes a turn from the typical when Clark reaches high school. Much of the Smallville plot line surrounds Clark’s frustration with a group of bullies in his school. Clark, in Peter Parker-like fashion, is treated as an outcast and therefore befriends others who are regarded similarly. Clark’s underlying annoyance with the browbeaters is that he knows he could teach them a lesson but he is hesitant to show his strength because of his father’s warnings. However, Clark made a choice to use his abilities when Lana Lang, Clark’s love interest, is threatened outside of her home. As the ruffians threatened to rape Lana, Clark arrived just in time to stop them. It is at this moment that Clark decided he would become a defender of the weak - a hero. The most direct course, in Clark’s mind, is to join the U.S. military. It is here that Superman: Year One makes its most unexpected turn. This reader found this idea to be fascinating and ingenious. Why wouldn’t Superman be a soldier? Think of the possibilities. Of course, one begins to think of Captain America with laser vision. Book one ends as Clark is headed to basic training, saying goodbye to his Kansas home and his first love.
Part Two is titled “Atlantis” but opens in Great Lakes, IL at the Naval Station where Clark is now a cadet in the U.S. Navy. Clark’s strength and stamina are evident to his superiors immediately. As he did playing football at Smallville High, Clark is holding back his true potential as to not raise suspicion. But one of Clark’s colonel’s, Col. Kurtzberg, suspects that there is more to this Kansas boy than meets the eye. One night, while the rest of the soldiers are sleeping, Clark is awoke by the sound of women’s voices coming from out in the ocean. As he goes to investigate, Clark is met by Kurtzberg who tells Clark that he is hearing Mermaids (but Clark didn’t hear that from him). This is an interesting storytelling choice. This scene confirms that Kurtzberg is open to accepting possibilities beyond the norm, though he is unwilling to voice that belief among his peers. In the following weeks, Clark was lured out to the sea by the mermaids, who he learned are Atlanteans, and fell in love with the princess of Atlantis, the daughter of King Poseidon. In order to prove himself a worthy suitor, Poseidon submitted Clark to a series of grueling tests, all of which Superman passed with ease. It was at this time that Clark donned his costume for the first time and the legend of Superman began to grow.
Back on land, the Navy cadets are recruited to run an emergency mission. A military vessel had been hijacked by pirates and Clark’s camp was the closest aid. During the mission, Clark protected his classmates from a live grenade and outed himself as something more than human. As a result, Clark Kent was honorably discharged from military service, listing the cause as insubordination. The higher-ups were concerned that, given Clark’s abilities, he would not be willing or able to follow orders. As Clark packed his bags his classmates stood in solute and Col. Kurtzberg encouraged Clark to use his gifts for the betterment of the world and for the benefit of mankind. In a way, Clark gave Kurtzberg confirmation of his belief in the paranormal.
Chapter three opened as an intrepid reporter in a submarine dove into the ocean to investigate the growing legend of the “Superman.” Lois Lane had heard the stories of a mysterious man who comes from the sea to do wondrous feats. But Miss Lane was getting too close to discovering Atlantis, so her sub was struck by Atlantean defenses. Just in the nick of time, Superman arrived to save the reporter from her watery fate. After a run-in on shore with the U.S. military, Superman realized that his legend is growing too large and too fast for him to remain in Atlantis, so he follow Lois Lane to the city of Metropolis. It was there, in the bustling city, that Superman found he could live out his true heroic potential. From petty crimes to terrorist attacks, Superman was able to save the day daily and the people of Metropolis championed their new-found savior.
Interestingly, each chapter of this story is not only centered around a particular location but also a particular woman. In true comic book fashion, each of Clark’s love interests’s initials are “L. L.” Lana Lang, Clark’s Smallville High sweetheart; Lori Lemaris, the daughter of Poseidon; and Lois Lane, the rising star reporter from Metropolis.
Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. are two of the most distinct and prolific artists in the comic book business. Both artists’s styles are instantly recognizable due to their easily distinguishable characteristics: Miller’s use of hard angles and dark shading, and Romita’s similar rough edges and attention to detail. For this Superman project, Romita carried the bulk of the weight as the artist, with Miller providing the occasional cover. Romita’s art throughout the book is top notch and, in my opinion, some of his best work. Romita’s artistic approach to the Man of Steel depicted him similar to the classic Superman with an air of majesty and debonair about him. The artists decided to forego the use of the classic Superman “S” emblem, opting for a more angular design that is unique to Superman: Year One. The art of this book carries the excellent writing, supporting it with epic scenes and dynamic juxtaposition.
The writing in this book was ominous, but intriguing. The nameless narrator brought a mysterious element to the story that made it feel otherworldly and distinctive. Despite this book being a retelling of a prevalent story, it felt wholly unique and singular while also being grounded in a world that felt familiar and welcoming. It is apparent that Miller and Romita shared the creative process of coming up with the story for Superman: Year One, but then split the responsibility of writing and art between the two of them with Miller primarily carrying the role of writer. The writing is reminiscent of Miller’s other works, yet with an air of hopefulness and joy that is not typical of his style. The dialogue is entertaining and adds to the story, steering into the occasional pun, with the shining element being the narration. For example, consider this excerpt from a panel in which Superman is lifting Lois' destroyed submarine out of the ocean: “And to they wait… and they watch. They watch the hero as, like Atlas, he heaves his massive back into his task… and he laughs at gravity… as he always does… he laughs at gravity… and he lifts his impossible burden up… up… and away.”
Miller and Romita’s take on Superman is full of “wow” moments that approach the character in a unique way, truly unlike any preceding Superman tale. Clark’s motivation in these books is clear-cut, simple and altruistic. Despite its more adult leaning, Year One captures the inspiration of Superman’s heroism unlike other stories. Moreover, Superman portrays a true southern gentleman, treating his peers, elders, and superiors with the utmost respect, even in times of disagreement.
Superman, like Jesus Christ, is an example of complete power under control. Philippians 2:7 says that Jesus “emptied himself” to become a man, meaning that he had the power of God in the body of a man. Jesus was capable of anything and everything, but only used his power for the good of others and to make God known. Similarly, Superman chose to use his powers for good and had to learn to keep his power in check in order to use it rightly.
Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. present an unusual but welcome adaptation of Superman’s origin that, although geared towards more mature readers, still presents the Man of Steel as a symbol of justice and goodwill. Fans of the franchise will enjoy this eccentric approach the Last Son of Krypton while newcomers may discover a Superman that is their quintessential version.
- Great storytelling.
- A new take on classic characters.
- Dynamic art.
- Adult language/themes.
- Threat of sexual assault.
Violence: Being that Superman typically solves his problems by punching a villain in the face, this book features some physical violence but very little gore. There is one scene that features a young girl being assaulted by a group of boys who threaten to rape her.
Sexual Content: Besides the aforementioned threat of rape, Superman is involved in physical romantic relationships with multiple women in this book. None of which are graphic or even highly suggestive, but do feature physical embraces and kissing.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Occasional consumption of alcohol.
Spiritual Content: As one chapter is set in rural Kansas, the local church and priest are featured in the story, with Christian religion viewed as part of the culture. Recognizing the existence of alien worlds and the under-water lost city of Atlantis, other deities are suggested besides the Christian God. Superman, despite making some mistakes, displays an altruistic desire to do good and to help others.
Language/Crude Humor: In an attempt to make this book more “adult”, more crude language is used in this book than would typically be found in a Superman comic.
Other Negative Content: DC’s Black Label comics are geared more towards mature audiences, so the content of this story features adult themes and situations that are not typical for this character.
Positive Content: Superman/Clark is portrayed as a young man of integrity who respects and obeys his parents, as well as others in authority such as the U.S. military.
Length: 211 pages
Release Date: November 12, 2019
Age Rating: 18+
Writer(s): Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.
Artist(s): John Romita Jr., Frank Miller
Inks: Danny Miki
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Letterer: John Workman
Publisher: DC Black Label Comics
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure