Superman: Earth One - Volume 3 is not a good comic-book story. But it's one that stands in direct opposition to the sorta-okay Superman movie that came out in 2013. It pushes back at that thing that happened in the movie. You know, the thing that pissed off a lot of Superman fans.
(That was your spoiler warning, everyone.)
To put it more plainly, in this new, not-that-good Superman comic Clark Kent doesn't kill anyone in this adventure. He gets a chance to, but chooses not to.
Released last week, Earth One - Volume 3 is worth considering as part of the ongoing effort to make The Last Son of Krypton seem cool and relevant. Superman's been around more than 75 years. He is a character that your parents and grandparents could have grown up on, which might make Clark Kent seem less cool than, say, Tony Stark. As a result, Kal-El's caretakers are continuously trying to freshen the guy up for modern audiences. The Man of Steel movie from 2012 tried it one way and the most interesting thing about DC Comics' new high-profile graphic novel is that it can be read as a rebuttal to that film's most controversial scene.
This new story features the same main villain as Man of Steel, a would-be military despot named Zod who also hails from Superman's long-dead home planet of Krypton. Here, he's recast as Kal-El's uncle, and their fateful family reunion is deceptively happy at first. Then, after Zod tells the governments of the world that he will eliminate Superman for them, Superman learns the true evil nature of his father's brother. The last remaining Kryptonians come to blows in the heart of Metropolis.
Both Kryptonians are recovering from being de-powered by human super-science and are far less powerful. They slug it out but Superman never even comes close to snapping the neck of his parents' murderer. However, someone does kill Zod. It's just not just Superman. This whole sequence feels like a weird compromise. He doesn't pick up a gun and kill Zod himself, and Superman is presumably so weak that he can't save his evil uncle.
The comic isn't marketed as a rebuttal to anything, of course. They'd never be that bold and who knows how productions schedules for the movie and graphic novel synced up, if at all. Still, the whole Superman: Earth One affair has been presented as a refresh, a part of DC's effort to create some Superman fiction that is unhindered by what has come before.
Long-running superhero comics are often laden with the baggage of story continuity. In order to fully understand why a colourfully clad character wants to do what to whom, it's often best to be versed in all the intricate lore that's accrued around them over multiple decades. DC Comics has tried to reset its universe multiple times to make it easier to understand, but that practice has created its own problems. A few years ago, the publisher created the Earth One graphic novels to attract new readers by telling new stories about its most important characters, free of all that baggage.
Written by J. Michael Straczynski with art by Shane Davis, the Superman: Earth One hardcovers have previously introduced a Clark Kent with a changed origin story and sexual frustrations. The mainline Superman came from a planet that blew up either by accident or neglect, but this one's was destroyed by an alien race. Regular Superman doesn't chat with his mum about his unmet needs. This one does. The tweaks have felt like exercises in having change for change's sake, and didn't make anything about Superman feel fresher.
Volume 3—drawn by new artist Ardian Syaf—has similar tweaks. Lois Lane cooks up a giant S-Shield beacon that shines a light in the sky so that she can talk to Superman. The Lex and Alexandra Luthor husband and wife team suffer a tragedy that makes the surviving Luthor hate Kal-El but—surprise!—this time the Luthor archenemy is a woman. But those smaller changes pale before the most significant moment in Volume 3, which is where Superman could conceivably kill Zod.
The biggest problems with Vol. 3 are similar to what plagued the previous two volumes. It's entirely too self-conscious for its own good, wielding all the aggregate symbolism of Superman like a blunt cudgel to hammer its point-of-view home. And that point-of-view is a bland assemblage of latter-day tropes about Superman: he's the Best of Humanity but he's Not From Here, Governments Won't Trust Him, He Can't Let Himself Get Too Close to Anyone and blah, blah blah. Even the potentially intriguing decision to have him not kill someone who clearly deserves it returns him to the status quo he's had for decades.
Every big-deal Superman story that comes down the pike is accompanied by a burning question: what does it mean to write him in this moment? Does one explore and mutate his super-abilities to make him more powerful or vulnerable? Is there a way to meditate on his status as a piece of Americana without seeming jingoistic or sentimental? Is the Superman in question happy? Plagued by doubts? An autocrat driven by loss? The most frustrating thing about the Superman: Earth One books is that they don't deliver a definitive sense of the character. In the effort to make him seem relatable, he loses all distinction. Superman gives a speech to the UN after learning the nations of the Earth were trying to help kill him. It comes off as whiny and entitled, like someone who can't fly above humanity's foibles. It might be how real people act but doesn't feel super at all.
Both the Man of Steel movie and Superman: Earth One graphic novel trilogy are failed experiments to recombine the various component parts of Superman. One gave us a Clark Kent who killed a fellow Kryptonian and screamed with remorse. The other delivers a Superman who doesn't murder but petulantly lectures Earth's leaders. Neither one of them feel like the Superman readers need or want right now.