Note: I do not recommend that young kids read either this review or the comic being discussed due to a reference to mature content.
Frank Miller is a controversial comic creator, but he’s still a talented one. I’m not that familiar with his work, honestly, but I have read one of his more recent creations, 2019’s 3-issue series Superman: Year One. It’s a retelling of Superman’s origins, but a rather unusual one in some ways.
Issue #1 is the one I’ll be reviewing here and the one I recommend the most. Interestingly, I actually feel like the individual issues of this series can stand alone for the most part, which is both a good and bad thing in some ways (though the bad part is irrelevant as far as the first issue is concerned). I will likely review the other two issues at a later date (though, as a preview of my thoughts, I’ll just say that I also recommend #2 but don’t recommend #3, as sadly there was a steep drop in quality). This review won’t be spoiler-free, but I also won’t give too many details of the plot away.
The first issue was the most “normal”, but it was also amazing. It’s the standard things you’d expect from a Superman origin, but done in an especially compelling way. Krypton’s destruction is brief but powerful – I actually teared up, which I’m not sure has ever happened before when going over this part of Superman’s origin. It was presented in a way that was poetic yet also very immediate with beautiful art depicting the destruction. The death of Krypton is often taken for granted, but something about the way it’s portrayed here made me feel the depth of loss as well as the suddenness of the catastrophe.
When we get to the Kents, the toddler Clark is depicted as having subtle psychic powers to nudge his adoptive father into taking him home, which I think is an interesting idea. Clark’s childhood has a wholesomeness and cuteness to it without abandoning the weirdness of his powers (I always prefer it when Clark has at least some powers in his childhood, so that’s a plus for me). I love moments that drive home the fact that Clark has to learn to handle people and everything around him gently.
When we get to him as a teenager, we see Clark deal with issues that are normal, but with the twist of he himself not being normal – stuff like bullies and his first relationship in the form of Lana Lang. It works incredibly well because the emotions surrounding these things feel so intense and accurate to how they feel in the moment, and the interaction with these things and Clark’s powers and formations of his values and desires is very interesting.
I like how the Kents are depicted. They don’t feel perfect or over-idealized, but they feel very loving and real. We get to see stuff like Martha worrying about losing track of Clark because of his powers and her deep sadness when he leaves the farm. We also see an interesting scene where Martha tries to teach Clark strict nonviolence, and Jonathan reluctantly agrees with her in front of Clark, but in private teaches him that it’s not so simple. I like seeing that the two have different viewpoints in a major way, and not wanting to fight in front of Clark is understandable and admirable. Another moment I love is when Clark is succeeding in football due to his powers and his parents look disapproving as they watch, but they don’t show them harping on it or anything.
The issue ends in a very interesting way. Clark thinks that the way to learn more about the world so that he can protect it is by seeing the world, and he decides to do that by joining the Navy. It’s a pretty unique twist, and as we see in the next issue, it actually works quite well. There’s a final scene where as Clark leaves Smallville, he hones in on Lana using his recently more fully realized super scences. It’s quite touching.
In general, issue #1 did an amazing job showing the intensity of a young person’s experience while also showing how Clark’s powers interact with it all. It was emotional, endearing, and even thought-provoking. Honestly, it might just be my favorite Superman origin.
I will say the art isn’t perfect – though the backgrounds and coloring are beautiful, the bodies and faces of people look a bit odd at times. (Funnily enough, I think the biggest example of this can be found on the cover itself – what’s going on with Superman’s leg, and why are his arms so dang long?) But they usually look good and even when they’re odd-looking, it’s not so distracting that it takes away from the story significantly.
Also, something that made me a bit uncomfortable and prevents me from recommending this story to younger readers is the fact that at one point, some teenage boys attack the teenage Lana and subtly threaten to sexually assault her, though they’re not able to even prepare to do so before Superman intervenes. It’s not inherently bad to depict bad people wanting to do bad things in a comic, but it just felt unnecessary and like it doesn’t really add anything to the story either.
Overall, Superman Year One #1 is a masterpiece. I don’t know how else to sum it up. I highly recommend giving it a try.