On their Source Blog this morning, DC Comics announced a new line of ongoing graphic novels called Earth One that will feature “the most powerful heroes of the DC Universe, with their first years and earliest moments retold in a standalone, original graphic novel format, on a new earth with an all-new continuity”. Now, I like the idea of a series of ongoing graphic novels, provided the price is right—like, maybe no more than $10-12 a book for 100 pages or so. Geoff Johns and Gary Frank are doing Batman: Earth One, which I’m sure will be worth a look—those guys are on a bit of a streak lately—and J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis will be handling Superman: Earth One. I’m not a big fan of either creator, so that doesn’t do much for me. However, it does even less for me considering the fact that this new, updated origin for Superman has been announced while yet another new, updated origin—by Johns and Frank, no less!—hasn't even finished yet! To add insult to injury, that currently-running series, Superman: Secret Origin, is pretty much the only Superman title I have any interest in reading right now. When said story is the umpteenth retelling of a story everyone and their dog knows by heart, what does that tell you about the quality of the line these days?
Here’s the problem, as I see it: the first modern redo of Superman’s origin was released in 1986, as the six-part miniseries The Man of Steel, written and illustrated by John Byrne. Seventeen years later, Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu revamped Supie’s early years yet again in the twelve-part Superman: Birthright, and now, only six years after that, Superman’s beginnings are being chronicled once more in Secret Origin. This mini should wrap up in early 2010, and all signs seem to be pointing towards the fact that the Earth One books will ship later that same year (although, I’m going to be realistic here and say 2011 is probably more likely).
So, let’s do the math: The Man of Steel drops in 1986. Seventeen years after, Birthright arrives in 2003. 2009 brings us Secret Origin, a mere six years later. Then, in 2010 (or so), Earth One will endeavour to tell the world pretty much the same goddamned story, only one, maybe two years later! At this rate, I expect yet another revised origin story to be announced before Earth One has even shipped. If these trends continue, DC Comics will be publishing an ongoing monthly series of continuously revamped Superman origin stories before Obama’s first term is up.
This is the kind of thinking that makes me nervous for DC’s future. When they're not busy squeezing more and more money out of an existing, shrinking fanbase (hello, JSA All Stars!), or stretching what might have been a nicely self-contained storyline into a yearlong, multi-title event (I’m looking at you, Blackest Night and New Krypton), they’re resorting to repackaging all-too familiar stories. Maybe if the monthly books were better and more accessible (like, say, the Johns run on Action Comics or Morrison and Quitely’s terrific All-Star Superman), DC wouldn’t need to worry about making a new line that is accessible. After all, how can you possibly beat this for a re-telling of Superman’s origin?
There you have it—four panels, eight words, and we’re off to the races. People want to buy Superman comics when they’re good. They don’t give a damn about continuity or format, and they already know his origin story. Creating a new line like this is almost like admitting defeat, or acknowledging that the regular line of books is hopelessly polluted with confusing continuity and conflicting backstory. It’s a short-term, desperate solution. I wouldn’t have a problem with a line of graphic novels that told new, self-contained stories featuring the DC characters, books that maybe linked together to form larger stories in a shared universe that is occasionally mentioned but never dwelled upon. And who knows? Maybe Earth One will become that. But by promising us a heaping dose of same old-same old right off the bat, it’s off to a shaky start.