Today, Patrick and Michael are discussing the Superman: Earth One 2, originally released October 31st, 2012.
Patrick: You remember that scene in Mallrats where they’re talking about how Clark has sex? I believe the term “Kryptonite condom” was applied rather liberally to that sequence. It’s a funny conversation, and certainly sparks one of those “oh yeah, how does Superman have sex?” questions. So when J. Michael Straczynski explores the issue of Clark’s sexuality, you can’t say he’s answering a question that no one asked. After all, human sexuality is an immensely complicated subject, and there are countless works of fiction that ask uncomfortable questions about it — throw an all-powerful being with unknown limits into the mix and you’ve got yourself some compelling story-fodder. Right? Turns out that when you address Kryptonian sexuality, you need the same maturity and attention to subtlety that you would need to explore human sexuality. I’ve never known either of these to be qualities of Straczynski’s writing, so Superman Earth One 2 is less a disappointment and more an inevitability.
Superman: Earth One 2 continues the adventures of this DC side-world. It should go without saying, but none of the other DC continuity or the continuity of the New 52 belongs in this world at all. Only Earth One books allowed in this reality. It’s fascinating that DC would carry over this line of Earth One stories from the pre-reboot era, and publish them in a slightly different format. It’s a universe slowly constructed through the occasional release of graphic novels. This is the third Earth One book, and they like to jam pack these things full of incident, so let’s get to it.
Clark Kent has just proved himself to be a hot-shot reporter. Y’know — the kind that can get an exclusive interview with Superman for some reason. Showing her mettle, Lois Lane’s suspicions are triggered by this impossible exclusivity and she launches a full investigation into the life of Clark Kent. Her findings are extraordinary only in how average they are: a smart kid, Clark leveled-off early in life and started to pull Cs in all of his classes, and avoided extra curricular activities. (Which, in 21st century lingo, is just a bad student, by the way. Whatever, “C means average” is the dictating principle here.) But eventually compassion gets the better of her and Lois concedes that the only thing Clark seems guilty of is trying to be invisible. But what’s weighing heavily on Clark’s… we’ll say “mind” – what’s weighing heavily on Clark’s mind are the sexual advances of his foxy new neighbor. But Clark is worried: he doesn’t want to accidentally fuck her in half (there’s not a less crass way to state that). There’s a moment where he’s powered down from his adventures as Superman, but he misses that window by being passed out. But he gets this weird moral out when she admits that “sometimes … to make ends meet, [she] hook[s] on the side.” More on that in a minute.
But first there’s some actual Supermanning in this Superman book! Superman attempts to intervene when the island nation of Borada is struck by a tsunami. But the international community has become wary of the Superman menace (because helpful things are always considered menaces), and the leader of Borada, General Samsa, threatens violence against his own people if Superman doesn’t leave them alone. Why Superman doesn’t simply physically remove this genocidal maniac is a question for a different day, but Supes backs down immediately and returns to Metropolis. Good thing too: there’s a new villain on the prowl that absorbs energy – from people, from cars, from atomic weapons fired into his chest, and eventually from Superman himself. He is The Parasite. And then he absorbs Superman’s powers, he gets fucking beefy. The design of this character is actually pretty cool.
After getting his ass kicked a few times, Superman employs some Kryptonian crystal-armor to prevent further energy sappage. During their climactic battle, Parasite’s sister appears and tries to reason with him. Parasite gives her a hug and — you guessed it — drains all the life from her body. While Parasite’s mourning his dead sister, Superman sucker punches him and saves the day. Empowered by this confrontation, Superman returns to Borada and arms the resistance, allowing them a fair shot at their own freedom.
This book is all about Superman feeling powerless. He is unable to satisfy his sexual urges because of the danger involved; he’s unable to save Borada because a maniac’s cruelty is greater than his benevolence. And all of that is directly personified in the Parasite. There’s some backstory about who Parasite was before the transformation, but it’s super-generic villain stuff: a violent loner with soft spot for protecting his sister. This development falls flat — there’s really no need to know who the Parasite is, especially when the concept of powerlessness is so prevalent throughout the rest of the book. Check out this sequence wherein Clark images what he could really achieve with his strength if only he could use it:
Like I said up-top, I think the issue of Superman’s sexuality is an interesting one, but it’s explored so clumsily here. A woman almost literally throws herself into Clark’s lap and he has to fend of her advances. The woman here is the foul temptress, trying to lure our hero off his straight an narrow path — and the morally dubious nature of her sexuality is confirmed when she’s like “oh yeah, I’m also a prostitute.” Ugh — it’s such a gross way to view women. At this risk of climbing up on a soapbox, I find this thread of the story morally reprehensible. We all discovered our own sexuality through trial and error, and the emotional rigors that come with both. Straczynski paints Clark as a bro who’s just pissed off he didn’t get to bust a nut on this bitch’s tits. And if you think I’m projecting here, take a look at how artist Shane Davis draws this woman.
The theme of powerlessness is so solid, I just wish this aspect of the story could have been handled with more care. Admittedly, I may want the kind of story that wouldn’t be suitable for a teen-rated superhero comic book — a patient someone to work through Clark’s various sexual superpowers with him. What do you think, Mike? Am I asking for something impossible? Or am I asking for something boring? Or am I making mountains out of mole hills?Michael: I don’t think you’re asking too much — a modicum of thought put into Superman’s sexuality as it relates to his connection with humanity. And I’m only bored by a story that fails to thoughtfully address its own complicated question. It’s fitting that this issue deals with Clark’s pursuit of mediocrity in order to be ignored; I found this issue to be so full of worn-out tropes that I could barely keep my eyes from skimming ahead.
It’s worth noting that Straczynski takes the lazy approach at almost every turn…. As you pointed out, the Parasite’s character-development is so ordinary that we can simply assume all of it, beat-by-beat, without the dedicated panels. Most everyone’s wants are shallow, so Straczynski packs the dialogue with hacky old jokes just to keep anyone from monologuing. Perhaps the easiest choices are revealed in the main conflict with Parasite. Superman prepares for battle by asking his ship to build a crystal shield. The ship complies, but not without warning Superman that it won’t work perfectly and it doesn’t. Just like ship said. If only the ship could fight.
So why do we both find Stracynski’s treatment of Superman’s sexuality so much more offensively ordinary? I submit that our eyes have been trained to gloss over — and perhaps, forgive — some cliches. I think of it as a defense mechanism that allows us to salvage as much enjoyment from a story as possible. But when the author tackles a novel, interesting question — like Superman’s uncertain and potentially dangerous sexual development — these easy, shallow choices stick out like that neighbor’s bodacious rack.
Since I’m not as familiar with the author as you are, Patrick, I did feel my share of disappointment as the story introduced some beautiful elements, only to trample them mere panels later. Superman losing his power for a few hours was one of my favorite moments in the issue; he feels vulnerable, insignificant, fearful, and “in awe” of humanity’s fortitude. Then he finds out his almost-girlfriend is and she becomes a romantic non-starter. The one thing we actually want Straczynski to explain goes unaddressed as a forgone conclusion; she admits she feels “safe” around Superman, and the reader assumes this is his out. Who the fuck does Superman think he is? He turns away from her and says “If there’s something I should know…you should tell me yourself.” What happened to Superman’s newfound respect for the strength it takes to be human? And how does that epiphany land him squarely in American Puritanism?
Maybe Superman is projecting a fatherly judgement he thinks she needs when he quotes his own father’s gentle admonishment “I don’t approve of what you did, but I understand why you felt you had to do it”, adding “I guess that applies to this too”. “Felt you had to”… “I guess that applies”. What woman would take comfort in this prick? Ah yeah, the same woman who says “Yaaaaaay….I’ve got my friend back…I’ve got my friend back!”. Straczynski couldn’t infantilize her more if he changed all her Rs to Ws.
But he saves the best for last when he chooses to arm the Boradan rebels against the General in a twisted and kind of childish eye-for-an-eye philosophy. It’s funny that Superman struggled an entire volume just to make a very very easy choice. I hope he’s around when the armed rebels exact genocidal reprisal on the former ruling class — then maybe he’ll actually have to address a difficult decision
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?