My feelings regarding Frank Miller are complicated. On the one hand, he’s one of the most influential comic creators of all time. His take on Daredevil reinvented the character of Matt Murdock. His Batman: Year One defined the character for at least one generation of comic readers. And Sin City helped to promote the idea of comics as adult entertainment more than any mini-series since The Dark Knight Returns. Miller is rightly revered for these works.
On the other hand, somewhere along the line Miller changed and his work changed with him. Success can test a man as surely as failure and some think Miller got lazy after so many years of seemingly being incapable of doing wrong. Suddenly everything Miller was involved in was written and drawn like Sin City. Even his collaborations with other creators began to feature the same Film Noir narrations and an increasingly minimalist art style.
I wasn’t a fan of Miller’s work during this time. All-Star Batman and Robin read like a mockery of Miller’s Batman work and indeed many were convinced that Miller was intentionally satirizing himself. Similar defenses were made regarding Miller’s Holy Terror, which some said was a parody of WWII-era propaganda comics as viewed through the lens of a post-9/11 America but most viewed as outright racist. (It is worth noting that Miller renounced Holy Terror in a 2018 interview.)
Yet even in his darkest moments, there were still glimmers of the Frank Miller we loved. Most of The Dark Knight Strikes Back was crap, but the moment where Captain Marvel muses on where a wish goes after it is made just before sacrificing himself is pure magic. Ditto the moment of high comedy in All-Star Batman and Robin where Batman offers Green Lantern a glass of lemonade while sitting in a room where everything is painted bright yellow… including him!
This brings us to Superman: Year One and the question of what Frank Miller we have writing it. Is it the old master? Or the angry old man? I’ll answer that question with three words.
Welcome back, Frank.
Superman: Year One #1 is a fine return to form for Frank Miller as a writer. Oh, Frank still indulges in his monologues and his dialogue is a little forced at times. (“I know where I’d be, were I he…” Pa Kent says, when he discovers Clark snuck out in the middle of the night.) Still, the big, melodramatic speeches hit more than they miss.
Where this book truly excels is in how Miller examines the classic elements of a story and characters that most comic readers are familiar with and finds little ways to make them seem fresh and interesting. For instance, the destruction of Krypton and Kal-El’s adoption by The Kents is now depicted through the eyes of a toddler Kal-El, who can’t comprehend that his world is coming to an end. He innocently assumes the bright lights and people shouting in the distance is a celebration of some kind.
And yet, despite this moment and one other great one I will not spoil, I once again find myself conflicted about Miller’s story choices. He introduces an unnecessary attempted rape into the backstory of Lana Lang, so that Clark can play George McFly to her Lorraine Baines and save her from Smallville’s version of Biff Tannen. Cliche? Yes, but it sets up a truly gorgeous sequence where Clark flies for the first time and perhaps the best depiction of the Clark/Lana romance I’ve ever seen. It’s simultaneously everything hackish I’ve come to dislike about Miller’s recent output and everything I love about his older work.
I have similarly conflicted feelings about the artwork by John Romita Jr. – another big name whose recent work hasn’t been on-par with the comics that made him famous. Most of this issue is devoted to showing Clark Kent as a high-school student, but the way Romita Jr. draws the characters doesn’t scan with that. The faces are too childish and the proportions of the bodies too compact. Even allowing for the fact that Clark hangs out with the smaller, late-bloomers, most of the characters look far younger than they should. Even Ma and Pa Kent look fresh-faced for a farm couple, with the only acknowledgement of their aging being a bit of grey in the hair. Yet the flow of the story from panel to panel is still smooth and relates the text well enough, even if there are a few points where Clark’s arms seem too long for his body and the forces are posed.
Still, for everything about this book that made me shake my head, I found myself enjoying it more often than not. And the end of the issue sets up a change to Clark Kent’s background that makes a surprising amount of sense and left me wondering why no other retelling of Superman’s origins took this step. For that reason alone, I’m willing to come back for Part Two and recommend this book.
Superman: Year One #1 releases on June 19, 2019!
Written by The Critic The Internet Deserves, but not the one it needs right now…. Matt Morrison. He’s a smart-ass guardian. A sarcastic protector. A Snark Knight.