Superman: Year One #1
Mark Doyle (editor), Danny Miki (inker), Frank Miller (writer), John Romita Jr. (artist), Alex Sinclair (colorist), Amedeo Turturro (associate editor), John Workman (letterer)
June 19th, 2019
Is there anyone in comics more infinitely frustrating than Frank Miller? One of the most iconic, notorious, and lauded creators in the industry. A man who has at times been an enfant terrible, the most popular artist alive, and a raving misogynist racist. That last part is important, because even the best of Miller’s work is steeped in his problematic worldview, whether it’s his constant abuse and torture of every female character that he comes across or his clear fetishization of women of color. His most famous works like Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns, and Daredevil: Born Again are all great examples of how absolutely shit he is when it comes to greater nuance or thoughtfulness.
Lest we not forget that Miller attempted to write a Batman comic post-9/11 that was so racist DC refused to publish it. That Islamaphobic rant became Legendary Comics’ Holy Terror, a horrific and messy screed—that was clearly a Batman comic—about a character who killed Muslim people. The book is profoundly offensive and was so widely reviled that it almost seemed that Miller’s storied career had finally come off the rails. But over the last couple of years, he’s been on something of a redemption trail, first with a new chapter in his Dark Knight trilogy that started with the intriguing prospect of a female Batman and ended with even more problematic terrorist analogies built around Krypton and Kandor.
The creator followed that up with huge announcements at DC Comics, including a Carrie Kelley YA graphic novel with artist Ben Caldwell and Superman: Year One, a reimagining of the origin of DC’s most iconic hero. Both of those seem like a very bad fit, and I say that as someone who has long struggled with my love of (some of) Miller’s work and the realities of who he is as a person. Just objectively, though, it’s pretty clear that a man who has often struggled to represent women as anything other than sex objects isn’t a good choice for a teen heroine YA book. And his tendency to lean into the more violent and edgy aspects of the DC Universe means that he arguably isn’t a good choice to take on the Big Blue Boy Scout either.
Well, the first of those titles has arrived with Superman: Year One hitting shelves today and it’s … fine. But it’s also not at all fine. It’s maddening and ridiculous and has one page that is so frenetic, pretty, and ultimately badly laid out that you might not realize what you’re reading. I didn’t. Until I tried to parse the page again and realized that in a classic Frank Miller move, it was an attempted rape on a high school-aged Lana Lang.
As I read the words “No don’t touch me,” and the response “Oh, we’ll touch you, we’ll touch you good,” everything else fell out of focus. It’s not that the book doesn’t have good points. Workman’s letters are strong, Sinclair’s colors have depth and often pop off the page, and JR Jr. is … well, late-stage JR Jr.* But, honestly, to me, as a reader, all of that stops mattering because every single one of those men okayed this hackneyed and unnecessary attempted assault which dragged me straight out of the book and deep into my “fucking comics” feelings.
I included every single credit on this book at the top of this review, more so than we usually do in a standard review. There’s a simple reason for this: with a little due diligence, it’s very clear that each of these creators and editors appear to be men. Not one woman is credited as working on this book and maybe if they had been they would have advised the team to skip the two pages in which Lana Lang is thrown to the ground and physically assaulted until she’s saved by Superman. Maybe they wouldn’t; maybe this page would have spoken to them in some way as it surely will to some readers no matter their gender. But for me, it was another example of lazy writing and shock tactics which drag the reader out of the story faster than a speeding bullet.
The thing about the attempted rape is that it’s so crass, so throw away, that it doesn’t have any impact on anyone other than the reader. The characters are “fine.” The moment is played as almost a flirtation between Lana and Clark, leading to some truly terrible writing from Miller as he describes Clark learning to fly in such terms as, “He gets up and he stays up … So he can give Lana one hell of a ride.” There’s something about the whole endeavor that makes you feel dirty as you read the book, and each page turn becomes a silent prayer that we don’t get a teen Superman sex scene. Luckily, we don’t. But Clark does join the military, in case you weren’t aware that Miller doesn’t understand Superman or why people love him after 81 years.
The back of Superman: Year One states “you can’t have justice without truth,” and the truth is this perfectly average book is tarnished by one of the most tired narrative devices that have been dragging down big two comics for decades. There was no need, want, or reason for this unnecessary addition to canon, and once again comics will become embroiled in an overactive conversation about a man who should have retired a long time ago. Even by writing this I’m playing into that game, but I’m angry, infuriated, tired, and bored of my trauma being used as a tool for bored men with a weird interest in the sex lives and trauma of young women. After the debacle of the Bat-Penis (which was much better than this), you’d think that the Black Label editorial would be being more thoughtful. But Superman: Year One is just yet another example of how to many men at DC, mature comics mean sex, dicks, and, yeah, probably rape.
* On an unrelated note I’m still haunted by the panel where Clark is sitting on a silo and has a monstrously giant head for no reason, so what the fuck JR jr.? Your dad would never.