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New Comics! Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale and Dueling Versions of the Origin of Superman!

Here are some of the comic books I’ve been reading lately:

Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale — This gorgeous hardcover graphic novel finally reveals the mysterious back-story of Shepherd Book, the enigmatic preacher from Joss Whedon’s dearly-missed TV series Firefly.  I always felt that the character, played to such perfection by Ron Glass, was one of the more intriguing members of the show’s ensemble.  This man of peace clearly had a great deal of knowledge of war, and about the inner workings of the Alliance, but we never got to know the character’s full story.  With Book’s tragic death in the film Serenity, and that film’s poor box office killing the hope of any further sequels, it seemed that Firefly fans would be left always wondering about the much hinted-at history of Shepherd Book.

Dark Horse Comics to the rescue!  The publisher has put out several Serenity comic books over the past few years, but The Shepherd’s Tale is the high-point.  Written by Joss Whedon and his brother Zack Whedon (a very talented writer in his own right, Zack was a key creative voice behind Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and wrote Dark Horse’s terrific recent Terminator series), this is the official, canon, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth version of Shepherd Book’s story.  It’s a wonderful tale, presented in vignettes told in reverse chronological order.  In a clever touch, we begin with Book’s death (and, by the way, Book’s narration of the moment of his death is so perfect, so wonderful, that once again my heart aches at the demise of Firefly) and then work our way back through his life.  (I should note here that, as wonderful as the choice to present Book’s life in reverse chronological order is, its impact was a bit diminished for me since I have long held Star Trek Annual #3, “Retrospect,” published by DC Comics back in 1988, to be one of the greatest comic books I’ve ever read.  That issue, written by Peter David and illustrated by Curt Swan & Ricardo Villagran, presents the story of Scotty’s life-long love affair with a doomed woman in reverse order, from the moment he learns of her death back all the way to their first encounter as little kids.  It broke my heart when I first read it as a kid, and I have re-read it a thousand times in the years since.  But back to Serenity…)

Chris Samnee’s art is gorgeous, dense and atmospheric.  He’s not an expert at capturing the features of the actors from the TV series, but his art is so expressive that I didn’t mind a bit.  He totally captures the “feel” of Shepherd Book, and he’s an expert at creating a rich environment of backgrounds for each different scene in the story.  I’m a big fan.

In the end, I only have two complaints.  One, the depiction of how Book was associated with the Alliance and how that association ended (which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here) seems to contradict the reaction of the Alliance officers to Book’s ID in the episode “Safe.”  Those soldiers seemed to be in awe of Book, and just seeing his ID caused them to extend every courtesy to the Firefly crew.  I can’t see how that would be their reaction based on what we see in The Shepherd’s Tale of the end of Book’s Alliance career.

My second complaint?  It’s too damn short!  The story is jam-packed, but 48 pages isn’t nearly enough space to do justice to Book’s story.  Every sequence is wonderful, but I still somehow felt that this was just the Cliff Notes’ version of Book’s life-story.  But, sigh, we Firefly fans will take what we can get.  And when what we get is something as masterfully crafted as this, we really should count ourselves supremely lucky.  More, please!!

Superman: Earth One — This hardcover graphic novel is apparently the first in DC’s new line of Earth One graphic novels.  This effort is described by DC as “an all-new continuity re-imagining DC’s top heroes,” but to me what it really feels like is writer J. Michael Straczynski’s pitch at what he thinks a new Superman movie should be.  It’s a fast-paced trip through Superman’s origin, his arrival in Metropolis, his first meeting with Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White, and then there’s a big action-spectacle finish with attacking aliens above Metropolis.  This really feels like a movie pitch to me!

Though I’m a big fan of Mr. Straczynski’s work, I must admit that this graphic novel left me completely cold.  I didn’t find myself connecting to this young, hooded sweatshirt-wearing version of Superman.  And while Mr. Straczynski and artist Shane Davis make a lot of tweaks to the familiar Superman character, most of those changes felt arbitrary and odd.  In many respects, the story occupies an uncomfortable middle-ground between trying to hew to the familiar Superman character and making whole-sale changes to the familiar beats.  I wonder if this would have been a stronger story had Mr. Styraczynski gone farther and really blown up our established idea of the Superman story.  Let’s take the Superman costume.  Mr. Davis adds a lot of little tweaks to the design — some visible seams, an extra band of yellow around the S chest emblem, etc. — but the over-all effect is pretty much that of the classic Superman costume.  I just don’t really get it — to me it seems like one should just stick with the classic outfit, OR be really brave and totally re-design the look.

Many of the other changes just didn’t work for me.  For instance, as a big fan of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, it’s long-since been ingrained in me that Lois Lane wrote the Daily Planet’s first big story about Superman.  But in this version, it’s young Clark who writes that piece, and that’s what gets him a job at the Daily Planet.  Huh?  First of all, I’m a bit uncomfortable at the idea that Clark basically cheats to get the job — he didn’t have to do any work to “get” the interview, since he IS Superman!  I’d rather think that Clark got his job at the Daily Planet purely on the strength of his own writing and hard work (as opposed to the benefit of any super-powers).  Also, it’s ludicrous to me that Perry White, who had earlier in the story decided NOT to hire young Clark, wouldn’t immediately suspect that this kid just made up the whole interview.  I mean, it’s one thing if Lois, an established reporter, comes in with the one-in-a-million Superman interview — but this kid from nowhere?  It just doesn’t work for me.

I respect the work that Mr. Straczynski and Mr. Davis and the rest of their collaborators put into this project (I will note that the coloring by Barbara Ciardo is really dynamite), and I enjoyed that this installment was of such a generous length (136 pages), but overall it didn’t make much of an impression on me.

Superman: Secret Origin — Now THIS re-telling of Superman’s origin, though, is another story!  Due to the delays in the publication of this six-issue mini-series by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, after reading the first few issues I decided to wait until all six issues had come out before going back and reading the whole story, and now that I have I can say that I was completely BOWLED OVER by this fantastic series.  Unlike Superman: Earth One, Secret Origin is technically set in the official DC universe, but Mr. Johns did no less a degree of reworking of the classic origin tale than did Mr. Straczynski.  But whereas Mr. Straczynski tried to go his own way, the brilliance of Mr. Johns’ tale is the way he’s drawn together elements from so many of the different versions of Superman’s story into one unified whole.  The look of Superman’s spaceship has a pre-Crisis feel to it, and Mr. Johns has brought back the pre-Crisis idea that Superman adopted the guise of Superboy before coming to Metropolis.  (But in a clever twist, Johns implies that Superboy kept his activities secret, so he’s able to preserve the big Superman “reveal” for his arrival in Metropolis.)  The look and characterizations of Lois and the Daily Planet gang feel very post-Crisis to me, as does the look and characterization of Lex Luthor.  Mr. Johns utilizes the notion from Smallville that young Clark’s burgeoning heat-vision was activated by, um, let’s just say his burgeoning hormones.  He takes the crystalline look of Kryptonian technology and the Fortress of Solitude from Richard Donner’s Superman movies, and, of course, artist Gary Frank does a staggeringly phenomenal job of channeling Christopher Reeve when drawing Superman/Clark.  (I really can’t say enough about how much joy seeing Mr. Frank’s Christopher Reeve Superman/Clark brings me.  It’s such a great homage to that iconic performance, and Mr. Frank is a skilled enough draftsman that he’s able to maintain Mr. Reeves’ likeness while still keeping his drawings fresh and lively, and not looking stiff and overly photo-referenced.)  Also, I was really tickled at how, although the specifics of the situation in Secret Origin are different, Lois Lane’s first encounter with Superman still involves she and a helicopter falling off of a tall building, as it did in Superman: The Movie.

Let me highlight the scene in issue three when Clark Kent first arrives at the Daily Planet office and meets Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White.  This is a classic moment, and we’ve seen countless different versions of it in the comics, in the movies, in the TV shows (Smallville, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), etc.  Somehow Mr. Johns is able to walk a magical line between creating a new version of this scene that is entirely his own, and yet one that echoes so the many versions of this moment that we’ve seen before.  Everything just seems right.  (I feel bad continuing to bash Superman: Earth One, but that graphic novel also contains a version of this scene, but for me that version just feels a little too “off” to me whereas everything here in Superman: Secret Origins just feels “right.”  I recognize that this might just be a matter of taste, but that’s my feeling!)  Again, a big part of this scene’s success — and that of the series as a whole — is the astounding art team of John Frank and inker Jon Sibal.   There’s such intricate detail in the images, and yet also such a goofy looseness to the drawings, that is just magical.  I could look at the panel on pg. 12, when Perry drinks his coffee and Lois says “Can I help you?” all day.

Hey, DC, I would LOVE to continue reading the further adventures of this version of Superman, with this creative team!!  So how about continuing the story, huh?  I feel like there’s so much more to tell.  Bring on Superman: Year Two by Johns, Frank, Sibal, and Anderson!  Pretty please…?

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