Every couple of years, DC Comics refreshes their properties by updating and retelling their origins for modern audiences. In the 1980s, there was “The Man of Steel,” which re-envisioned Lex Luthor as a Gordon Gecko-ish corporate raider and Lois Lane as an independent woman with a tragic fashion sense. A few years ago, “The Man of Steel” was replaced by “Superman: Birthright,” which canonized elements of the “Smallville” television series. Just last year, “Birthright” was replaced by “Superman: Secret Origin,” a more timeless version with a distinctly old-fashioned feel. Its more timely and contemporary counterpart came out today in the form of a new graphic novel called “Superman: Earth One,” written by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrated by Shane Davis. Its major innovation? It seems to turn Superman into Mr. Spock from J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” To explain how, I’ll need to talk about the details of “Earth One”‘s plot, so please consider anything below the ad as potential spoiler territory.
One element that’s remained consistent through all the variations of Superman’s origin, from comics to radio to television to movies, is the destruction of his home planet Krypton by natural disaster. Essentially, Superman’s scientist father Jor-El is always like Al Gore: he predicts the disaster, but his warnings are met by skepticism. When he’s proven right, and the planet is destroyed, he saves his only son by sending him in a rocket ship to Earth.
Straczynski keeps most of the broad strokes, but adds one crucial distinction: in his telling, the planet doesn’t self-destruct, it’s destroyed by bitter aliens from Krypton’s sister planet Dheron. These Dheronians drill through Krypton’s surface and create an energy field in its core that destabilizes and then destroys the planet. The Dheronians had made a bargain with a shadowy figure to attain this technology; Superman’s escape from the planet as a baby broke that bargain. And so a group of Dheronians have scoured the galaxy for twenty years looking for him. “Earth One”‘s big climactic battle is between Superman and Tyrell, the evil leader of Dheronians, as the aliens launch their drills and try to destroy our planet the same way they destroyed Krypton. Superman boards a one man spaceship that he instinctively knows how to pilot and uses it to destroy the Dheronian mothership and deactivate their drills.
If you’ve seen Abrams’ “Star Trek,” the similarities should be obvious. Spock’s home planet, Vulcan, is destroyed by bitter aliens from the Vulcans’ sister race, the Romulans. These Romulans drill through Vulcan’s surface and create a black hole in its core that destabilizes and then destroys the planet. That act is the culmination of the Romulans’ lengthy hunt for Spock: they blame him for their planet’s earlier destruction, but he manages to elude them on a trip through time. And so a group of Romulans have scoured the galaxy for twenty years looking for him. “Star Trek”‘s big climactic battle is between Spock (and Captain Kirk) and Nero, the evil leader of the Romulans, as the aliens launch their drills and try to destroy our planet the same way they destroyed Vulcan. Spock boards a one man spaceship that he instinctively knows how to pilot and uses it to destroy the Romulan mothership and deactivate their drills.
“Superman: Year One” is a 125 page book. It must have taken months to write and draw. The project was announced on DC’s website in December of 2009 and who knows how long Straczynski was working on the story before then, probably long before “Star Trek”‘s release. So I’m going to give Straczynski the benefit of the doubt — as a prolific and successful writer of comics, film, and television, he’s certainly earned it — and chalk this up to an incredible coincidence. In any case, it’s far more interesting to consider what these two very similar reboots of two very different franchises say about how creators are updating decades old properities for modern audiences and tastes.
Both Superman and Mr. Spock are characters who are defined by their lack of outward definition, their blankness: Superman’s unflappable goodness and Spock’s cool, emotionless logic. These new interpretations give them both strong motivations for justice (or revenge, depending on how you see it), and reimagines them as far more aggressive, hot-tempered personalities. Apparently it’s not enough anymore for Superman or Spock to have been raised by kind, loving, and intelligent parents. In order to becomes heroes, they have to have been wronged in a significant way.
Are current audiences incapable of relating to heroes who are good simply for the sake of being good? Maybe. We live in cynical times, when we distrust our government and our leaders as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s only fitting that we would be skeptical of anyone whose motivations to do something are pure and selfless. To fight for truth, justice, and the American way, or to boldly go where no one’s gone before, you might need a little bit of a push.