For about a straight decade, Marvel Comics' Ultimate line has been one of varied success. The first series coming out of it, Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis, presented the idea of a new, concurrently running continuity free from constraints of the mainline continuity, and allowed old, familiar characters to be reintroduced to new generations as if they had just begun. Over the years, the premise has allowed for great stories (The first 50 issues of USM, the first two volumes of The Ultimates) and for some badly delayed and lackluster ones (Wolverine vs. Hulk, Ultimatum). One of the questions on peoples' minds over the years has been whether or not DC would follow suit in some capacity.
Here's your answer: Earth One. After Geoff Johns' Infinite Crisis, the previous layout of the DC Universe was changed. What was Earth One (the mainline DC Universe) was moved to a "New" Earth. Over the last four years, we've seen other worlds presented across the new 52-world multiverse, but the one missing link was the current status of Earth One. Now we know: it's a new, modern DC Universe. Characters that are timeless in the DCU haven't even been seen yet, and appropriately, mimicking the real world to an extent, Superman is the first hero to present himself in this new Earth One.
Now, keep in mind, it pisses me off a bit that people rag on Superman for being "outdated," because I personally feel that who he is and what he represents are timeless ideals. It's only in the hands of an incapable writer, that doesn't know how to properly characterize him, that he comes across as a "boy scout." If people say he's a boy scout because he doesn't cheat on his wife with some super hero groupie, then they'd also probably see someone that points a gun at someone without killing them as a boy scout.
People don't even really know what that means. He's a moral leader, yes, but he sees a greater good beyond what, in his eyes and ours, can be seen as trivialities. If they got a writer for this project that would try and turn Superman into Edward Cullen or Justin Bieber, pop for the sake of pop, this would've been an absolute disaster. Fortunately, they got someone to do this job who cares about the Man of Steel.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski, who has a large reverence for the character of Superman, is the writer tasked with reintroducing him to this modern audience. Straczynski has proven himself on some of the biggest of characters in the super hero pantheon, particularly Thor and Spider-Man. When Straczynski made the jump to DC about 18 months back, this was a project that they announced relatively quickly. Straczynski is great at analyzing the motivations behind characters. He made the title of the God of Thunder and that place in Asgard Thor's motivation. He continued the tradition of Stan Lee and made responsibility Spidey's motivation throughout his run. In Earth One, Straczynski has an opportunity to change Superman's motivations into something else entirely. I'm relieved that he didn't, but he definitely revised the reasons those motivations are there.
Earth One's Clark Kent still has the farmland grounding everyone knows about, but this Clark seems to be more aware of his differences from everyone than justifying his similarities to everyone. This is a Clark Kent that actually toys with the idea of cashing in on his superior physical and mental attributes moreso than he's ever been shown pursuing that path. The world around Clark is decidedly more muted than his main world in the DC Universe. If you walk down any modern American city street today, it looks very much like this Metropolis. Not exactly a "City of Tomorrow," but also inclusive of reality moreso than the Metropolis we're familiar with.
This Clark also has a decidedly different aesthetic than the one we know about. He seems to be a fair amount shorter and stockier than the mainline version, he dresses a bit more "hipster," and he's not really trying to create much of a difference between himself and Superman other than his way of conducting himself in public.
The villain of the story I won't say too much about, but he's a new character that is an inspired choice. Straczynski has talked openly about the new villain's connection to the destruction of this universe's Krypton, and that was the most innovative idea to the villain's motivation. There are portions of this story that feel a little convenient, especially around the villain's unleashing of his campaign toward Earth, but the villain and his intentions are relatively fresh considering the climate of Superman stories we've been getting for the last few years.
As far as other familiar characters, Martha Kent is mostly unaltered. She's a bit more proactive in the formation of the Superman identity, but she's mostly the Ma we know. Perry White is largely unaltered except for the addition of more editorial language, but his verbosity and anger remains intact. Lois Lane may be the most unaltered character, I'm not seeing anything new from her here. The best alteration? Jimmy Olsen. He's a batsh*t crazy photojournalist that's ready to do whatever he needs to do in order to get a great picture, and would even die if it means seeking the truth. There's a fantastic moment in here where Jimmy stares down the villain in this story, ready to die.
Shane Davis' artwork is, in a word, stellar. His style gives the story a gritty reality that hasn't really been seen in a Superman story since maybe Gary Frank, but even Frank's work isn't as hyper-realistic/gritty as this. There's a distinct style, but he's able to render different faces for different characters very clearly and his cityscape looks fantastic. The Kryptonian structures and ship that appears here looks truly alien, and the villains, while humanoid to a degree, carry harsh spikes and alien-like colors that are very distinctive. The way he uses sunlight in the layouts of the images is also very strong, the entire work has a slightly sepia tone that is unique but also strangely evocative of realism.
Overall, this isn't as basic a reinvention as DC might have you think, but that's not a bad thing at all. The story does it's job of introducing Superman as a basically new component of our world, and allows a new story free of continuity to take flight. There are times when it dives, but for the most part, Superman: Earth One flies as gracefully as the Man of Steel himself.
GRADE = B