Michael Straczynsk • Shane Davis • Ardian Syaf
Geoff Johns • Gary Frank
Grant Morrison • Yanick Paquette • Nathan Fairbairn • Todd Klein
Earth One: Genesis
By 2010, Marvel was deep into its Ultimates Universe, their alternate universe for experimenting with modernizing their heroes and taking big swings. By the same token, DC was mostly past the failure of its All-Star line, which attempted the same approach and met some success, but ultimately never coalesced into a cohesive vision the way Ultimates had.
Earth One is an attempt at replicating the first and fixing the second. Like Ultimates, the line focuses on retelling the origins of popular superheroes now recast in the 21st century. And like All-Star, it tries to do that by giving DC’s top talent a ton of freedom.
It’s also something of a footnote in DC’s publication history. We’re here to discuss why.
Earth One: What Works
J. Michael Stracynski kicks the universe off at its most logical introduction: Superman. While Batman’s monthly sales and filmic popularity may have eclipsed Kal-El’s long ago, the big boy scout is still the center of DC’s whole line.
On paper, Stracynski was an ideal pick. He’d just left Marvel where he’d delivered some stellar work. His work on Thor, Silver Surfer, and Supreme Power’s Hyperion proved he could tackle the main concern with Superman: making compelling characters out of beings with godlike powers. Furthermore, JMS’ contributions to Amazing Spider-Man showed he could be counted on to make meaningful additions to a publisher’s lynchpin.
And Stracynski managed to deliver that in this series. It’s just that it wasn’t always consistent or equally distributed. But before we can get into that, I do want to point out JMS’ more intriguing and quietly impactful change to the Superman origin story: Krypton One.
From its Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster roots, through Byrne, Donner, and even Moore, Krypton has been consistently shown to be a veritable paradise; one where scientific and cultural advancement have elevated their people to nearly idealized beings. A utopia that irony, tragedy, or prophecy have doomed to be destroyed by its own greed, hubris, and ignorance.
First written in the early 30s, Krypton, its last-born son, and America are laid out as an allegorical warning about WWII and a time where “the good lack all conviction.” But, as Byrne picked up on, it can also be a prescient alarm over the Red Scare of 1917-1920 and the Cold War. Fears over man’s inherent flaws leading to the importance of for moral and physical supremacy; Krypton being open to either Cold War interpretation as either the decadent culture that falls by its own arrogance or a socialist hellscape too complacent to avoid an obvious armageddon. Either way, America needs saving from this fate.
Regardless of which version or reading you take, the main continuity fits a single message: Superman comes from a world where the people’s greatest enemy was themselves
This is where J. Michael Stracynski splits the Earth One story. In his tale, Krypton is destroyed as the final act of endless war with Dheronia, the impoverished sister planet of Krypton that managed to evolve a single species. A pale, powerful, Czarnian looking race. The warlord Tyrell (later revealed with help from Zod-El) changes the story to an external threat model.
In other words, Krypton prime represents a world where conflict existed… but it had peace had prevaded to the point that the biggest threat left was the one its citizens made themselves. That world is often presented as a (near) utopia but for that flaw. And the exploding part. On the other hand, Krypton One is a planet at war, where outsiders and strangers pose the biggest threat, thus promoting baser instincts of exploitation, distrust, violence.
And both worlds leave an impact on their last sons, with main continuity Superman guided by the view that people are generally good and merely need help being so, while the Superman of Krypton Prime has a much more war-like mindset with his lack of empathy and preference for murdering opponents. (Watching
This war, this seemingly small change from inner to outer focus, alters the entire universe.
Johns and Frank were coming in hot off Action Comics. Johns, in fact, was coming in on fire after his seminal runs on Green Lantern and The Flash which had no doubt earned him his new title of DC’s Chief Creative Officer.
It’s easy to imagine that the combined hype of fan anticipation, Batman being the on-average number one selling book in the industry, and Johns promotion helped to make this the most anticipated release in the line. Certainly, the swirling movie rumors didn’t hurt. Ultimately, the title outsold any other in the line, with about 150% of Superman’s sales, even with that being the first in the line.
Johns’ retooling of Batman set out to deal with the “Batgod” problem. With Batman: Earth One, Johns’ stated purpose was to strip the character of the near-omnipotent layers of plot armor and general fanservice he’d gained after The Dark Knight Returns, returning the hero to his status as the only mortal founding member of the Justice League.
Johns gives fans a very different Bruce Wayne. One that starts off as an obnoxiously spoiled and arrogant child and is not instantly ennobled by his parents’ deaths, choosing not to go train for his life as a masked vigilante. The effect is so drastic that the Batman in this book is not a martial arts expert, escape artist, or world-class detective. He’s still that same arrogant kid, more or less, plus a decade or two of untreated mental trauma (in my opinion, this is a far more damaged Bruce Wayne than we’re used to.)
Rather than any single narrative element, it’s this choice to depower the main character that sets the title apart. Particularly as a less grandiose Batman leaves rooms for other characters and fan-favorites like a Don Johnson-looking Alfred with special forces training, a heroic Killer Croc, and a strangely normal Penguin.
Wonder Woman: Earth One v1 (2016)
It’s a painful question for far too many people. And to be honest, I’m not satisfied that Morrison answers their own. Certainly, I’m not here to justify that or any other choice. But I can’t avoid it when discussing the book.
Princess Diana’s origin story — that of the warrior daughter of a warrior queen, born in paradise only to leave to save the world — has really caught on since Morrison began. Given all, that’s happened in the last five years (to say nothing of the millennia before), it’s no surprise people would gravitate towards a literal women’s paradise defined by heroism, equality, and Ancient Greek nobility?
But the truth is, that’s only its modern state. Diana’s initial origin from the 40s is hands-down the most problematic of DC’s Trinity. Bringing that Golden Age story back for Earth One might be right up Morrison’s alley, but it’s still so surprising to see.
This was the nation’s original name, dating back to William Moulton Marston and H. G. Peter. This is the maiden name of the place and it’s got a certain, sexual overtone that feels just a bit out of place today. This is precisely how one could describe the 1940s version of Themyscira.
Dianna and the Amazons have always been closely tied to Greek Myth, to the point that it feels uncomfortable (particularly now) how strenuously the films, modern comics, and the character herself keep from addressing those myths head-on. The uncomfortable truth is that sexual violence makes up the absolute bedrock of the whole of Olympus lore. From gods and goddesses to monsters and mortals, a plurality of the stories features some kind of violation.
Zeus turned into animals and even sunshine to assault mortal women. Hera devised cruel and grisly ways to prevent his victims from having children. The myths of spring and blank. Medusa was once a beautiful priestess of Athena until Possideon attacked her, violating her vow of chastity of causing her famous punishment. Even the Minotaur was a rapist and a cannibal. And yet, they all blithely appear in this feminist icon’s history or even family tree!
Which brings us again to the question: can and should sexual violence be addressed in art?
I’m still not convinced by Morrison’s answer to that begging maxim. But when they remake the Amazons as their own culture, apart from and in (partial) conflict with Greece, they do make it hard to justify that portion of Diana’s cannon and its unquestioned existence.
Earth One: What Doesn’t Work, And Was It Successful?
Stracynski recast Clark Kent as an all-powerful outsider. Perhaps even the poison son of a wartorn world. It’s a compelling idea, but the result is… not. At launch, the series was heavily criticized for its dark, morose, “emo” version of Superman.
It’s a criticism I went in thinking I’d overturn. After all, the stated purpose of Superman: Earth One was to offer up a new version of Superman. And being both a fan of JMS’ other works and my acting role as a snob, I went into this thinking I’d find a reason to overturn that. But damn if that criticism isn’t spot on. Really, my only rebuttal is in the music choice.
The idea of Kal-El as a reflection of the new immigrant experience, one that feels excluded and alienated, tracks as a concept. However, in execution, it’s perhaps too great a leap. He can feel more alien and dangerous or could feel more distant from humanity. But JMS’ seemingly hopeless or at least much less sympathetic Kryptonian can be downright disorienting and unrecognizable.
The Entirety of Batman
Geoff Johns is an undeniably successful and important writer. Rebirth and Flashpoint feel downright necessary to practically the whole of DC’s publishing efforts. But Johns is not without his detractors. Particularly among Batman fans, plenty of whom have said that the author either doesn’t know how to write the Dark Knight or else straight-up hates him on a fundamental level. Back in 2012, it seemed ridiculous to suggest Johns would do anything less than his best on this. But after Three Jokers…
Johns’ concept of bringing Batman away from his Batgod status and way back down to his founding principles was a good idea. At least, potentially. And certainly, that concept sold well. But reading it now, his story is an even worse misrepresentation than Earth One Superman, making this book easily the worst of the bunch.
Johns doesn’t just bring the character down, he does so at every given opportunity. It’s not just confined to the martial arts and other “powers.” His Batman is a coward, walking away on his first patrol, knowingly leaving someone in distress. His Bruce Wayne is an even more unfeeling monster than before and it’s heavily suggested that he holds some responsibility for his own parents’ deaths. He’s also a total buffoon, so far from the “Great Detective” moniker that he accidentally reveals his identity to the Penguin in the very first trade (after being facerolled by the tiny septuagenarian.) In fact, every single character from Alfred to Bullock bests Batman in some way and Johns makes damn sure his audience knows it.
Under Geoff Johns’ pen, Batman has gone from the heights of human aspiration down to less than nothing. Like Superman, you can take away a few constituent parts and still have most of the whole. But a Batman without cunning, sacrifice or great purpose is as useful as a Superman without humanity.
Which bothers me only a fraction as much as how hard Johns underlines how intentional the choice was. I’m about to talk a lot of mess about Wonder Woman, but unbelievably, I think it might actually be Batman that’s the most explicitly, unerringly insulting towards its fanbase.
Wonder Woman’s World of Man
Wonder Woman is the first female superhero to be mentioned in the same breath as Superman. And there are plenty of progressive messages to admire in those issues. No less than Gloria Steinem herself has praised the character as a feminist icon and those early stories as inspiration. So it follows that creating a major new incarnation of the Wonder Woman canon is likely going to be seen as a comment on women in general or perhaps reflecting contemporary feminine ideal.
Put more simply: Wonder Woman: Earth One, like its Batman and Superman counterparts, is going to be judged upon what does or does not, should or shouldn’t make up a “Wonder Woman comic.” Only in Diana’s case, the implications are much further reaching. That was a big question in 2012. It’s an even deeper question these nine years later.
That Morrison used the book to ask “can and should sexual violence be addressed in art?” demands that judgment. The first pages of the very first issue describe the rape of Hippolyta and the Amazons. The scene is as explicit as it is unexpected. For whatever else it is, using that story as an opening is beyond aggressive and subjecting a Wonder Woman readership borders on sadistic. The heroine has been a refuge to countless people struggling with precisely this kind of trauma, and if using this story without warning doesn’t betray them then certainly is pushes them out.
I’m still furious about that. I have zero interest in discussing the merits of that approach.
But I’m also angry that the title has studiously ignored this detail before now. Hippolyta has two primary myths about her and both involve sex, violence, and betrayal. Over the decades, the Wonder Woman title has done a lot to whitewash those facts. In fact, sexual violence and the punishment of women form the bedrock of an unconscionable amount of Greek Myth. And this title has spent decades lying and whitewashing these details. Even Wonder Woman’s famous exclamation, “Great Hera!,” is a massive problem given that Hera has killed more women, mothers, and unborn infants than any other Olympian.
Absolutely none of that justifies the myth’s usage here. Worse, the entire rest of the book is filled with this kind of problem. There’s a lot of Betty Page in Yanick Paquette’s version of Princess Diana.
- Is that good because it’s accurate to the initial issues or the age they were made in?
- Is the aesthetic terrible for what it says about how we value women?
- Does it confront how Marston and Peter valued their creation as both a feminist ideal and a cheesecake pin-up with heavy BDSM overtones?
These conflicts go into overdrive once Diana enters the World of Man. Diana represents an ideal, which means putting her next to anything draws inference. In fact, that inference between two successive images (called the “Kuleshov effect”) is unavoidable in humans. And in the case of this book, totally undefined.
- When Diana meets a bunch of stereotypical sorority sisters, the difference between the Princess’ noble ideal vs. the base hedonism of the sisters pushes that cheesecake question even further.
- How would a place called “Paradise Island” allow such crassness or deny the simplest pleasures of the self?
- And what exactly does it mean when a feminist superhero stands next to a proxy of Rebel Wilson, complete with her cliche fat jokes?
- Compared to the Amazons, mortals appear far better at co-operation while also way worse at it. Which one does the book think is overriding?
The choice of making Earth One Trevor makes so much sense you’ll be tempted to forget history and wonder why this is the first we’re seeing it. The parallels are so obvious, right down to the fact that the historical Amazon myth is enormously influenced by Greece’s involvement in Africa. This is precisely the kind of decision Wonder Woman should make and Morrison’s story should live up to that standard.
And yet they depict Diana presenting Trevor with a collar and way more than once, Trevor ends up in shackles and restraints. If we’re going to point to Wonder Woman’s standards as a sign of its ideals, then there is simply no way to see these actions as anything other than clear assault and racially-tinged abuse. If the title is going to strike out against the permissive attitudes, convenient excuses, and the shield of ignorance that so define misogyny and sexual violence then there can be no other way to interpret these actions.
Morrison has demonstrated in other books that he knows this. He even explicitly highlights the racism in some of the questionable events.
So when the book does play these things off as a joke, as ignorance, what the hell are we supposed to infer. And at other times, when those same actions are used to draw explicit corollaries between African and Amazonian (read: women’s) histories being marked indelibly by rape, sexual exploitation, slavery, powerlessness, and institutionalized othering? How do we take that?
Was Earth One a Success or Failure?
I think, ultimately, Earth One was never allowed to be either. Superman came out in rough shape but pushing Johns’ Batman back two years to synergize with the Nolan films only made that shape look worse. It left the line thin and in the wind. That delay was only followed by further, worsening delays to the rest of the titles, which had the effect of making this new, harmonious vision look like a disorganized, disconnected afterthought. For fans, that’s a bad investment. For DC, however, it was a situation they couldn’t admit. There’s no way to explain to consumers or investors that something this big failed.
The answer to that was also the final nail in Earth One’s coffin: the New 52. That initiative took the same reboot approach, had it executed by many of the same creators including Johns, Morrison, and Lemire (whose Teen Titans was one of the best parts of the Earth One experiment.) To compound matters, New 52 gave titles the prestige of being main continuity (as opposed to Earth One’s lowly alternate universe) which often means better coverage, sales, and editorial support.
Grant Morrison began writing Action Comics five years before their first issue of Wonder Woman would be published. That’s no excuse, but realistically I can’t think of any way that situation ends with them having the time and editorial focus to an equal job on both. Not given the size of the first and what the massive delay says about the second.
Still, when these books did things right, I think they brought real value to DC as a whole. This feels particularly true in the cases of both the Superman and Wonder Woman films that followed. Earth One also gave rise to some great books that are sadly not collected here. Including Lemire & Dodson’s Teen Titans: Earth One, which has shared some DNA with Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways, and Bechko & Hardman’s Green Lantern: Earth One, with its Adam Strange meets Alien thing. And it is really interesting getting to compare the other big difference between Earth One and New 52: The first choosing to start with the familiar “Year One” template and the second starting in media res, decades into the lore. There are a lot of factors that contributed to the sales difference between these two series, but having the time to figure out important questions has got to be one of the top ones.
And I think there’s real value in that knowledge. In the opinion of this Monday morning quarterback, DC missed a lot of obvious issues with their All-Star line-up. And I feel Earth One addressed some of those issues while providing a conceptual test-bed for something new. To me, New 52 relies on what Earth One learns. Like a lot of the decisions that went into it, I think Earth One falls down on its stated aims but goes a long way to show what might be necessary for finding what makes up the core of these icons. At the very least, we got Snyder’s Batman out of the deal.