I thought a lot about Superman Earth One (SEO) after it was released in October. It wasn’t overly stimulated by the book, though I know i wanted to be. SEO presents a unique opportunity, one to re-establish The Man of Steel as a modern superhero. After I put it down, my first thought was, that’s it? Where’s the rest of it? Even during my read, I felt like something is missing. I chalked it up to being a bad book, but it got me thinking, why is this a bad book. It took me awhile to realize, but I finally figured it out; this book isn’t a bad book, merely a misguided book, and it took watching Superman: The Movie (STM) to understand this.
If you haven’t read SEO, it opens up with a young Clark Kent, somewhere between 20-25, on a train to the big City of Metropolis. Over these panels we have a conversation between Clark and his mother, Martha, about Clark deciding to take the train when he could easily fly. Clark wants time to think, to figure out what’s going to happen when he arrives. Upon arriving in Metropolis, Clark rents a hotel room for the foreseeable future and goes looking for a job. When you have superhuman strength, speed, intelligence and you can fly, any job could be at your disposal, and JMS shows us this. He tries out for a football and baseball, and is amazing. He goes to a high tech science lab and figures out a complex problem after only looking at it for seconds. He even looks into writing for a newspaper. Clark Kent of Earth One is capable of anything, but he still doesn’t know what or who he wants to be. JMS is tapping into a big fear of a lot of 20 somethings out there. What now, what can I do. As an older 20 something, I can tell you that this is a very big fear. Clark though is special; he can do great things, and his parents want him to do great things, like any parent would. However, they want him to be Superman, and even go to the extreme of making a costume for him, but you don’t know if Clark has ever said, yes I want to be a superhero. When Clark finally does become Superman it is because Earth is threatened by a race of aliens who are after him, and only he can stop them.
I decided one morning that I would watch Superman: The Movie while I did some writing, and I noticed one major difference between the two takes on the Man of Tomorrow. In STM, Clark becomes Superman within the first act of the movie, while in SEO, Clark becomes Superman at the end of the second act. The question immediately arises; why? What it comes down to is the journey that each Clark takes, or in the case of SEO, the lack there of. It’s not just any journey, but the hero’s journey that Clark goes through in STM, and doesn’t go through in SEO, well barely goes through.
Joseph Campbell, author of the Hero with a Thousand Faces, came up with a loose frame work that outlines the various steps/stages of the heroes journey. Campbell complies thousands of years of stories, from myths to fairy tales, to highlight each stage of the journey. The most important piece to remember about the journey that each stage has a variety of events that can take place and at the most the journey should be looked/read as frame or structure to set a story too. The best modern example I can give of the hero’s journey is Star Wars. After reading Campbell, director George Lucas applied Campbell’s work to his story. A year after Star Wars came out, Superman: The Movie was released and it too followed the hero’s journey, and that’s what STM and SEO start out with, but in different places.
When Superman: The Movie opens with Jor-El sending his only son on a journey to Earth, as Krypton explodes. Superman Earth One begins as Clark starts his journey to Metropolis. The audience then begins their own journey with these two characters in two different stages of their life. Martha and Jonathan take the place of the audience and are introduced to baby Clark at the same time we are, and we are shown his great strength as he lifts the back of the Kent’s truck up. Like Martha and Jonathan, the audience is stunned by this little boy’s strength. When the reader meets the Clark Kent of Earth One, he’s sitting on the bus choosing not to fly. Right away JMS is telling his audience that he wants to show you a different Superman, a thinking Superman. These openings also show something else to their audiences, different points of the hero’s journey.
The first stage of every hero’s journey is the call to adventure. It could be the call to fight the dragon or to save the princess, or in the case of STM be the call into the world of the hero, or as the call in the realm of superheroes, the origin story. Because both stories involve the origin of Superman, I am going to stay with the part of the journey. In an origin story, the call to adventure begins with our soon to be hero living his or her life in a world that is familiar to them. For Spider-Man, he is an awkward, geeky teenager, who is bugged by those at school. For Batman, he is just a boy out to the movies with his parents. The next stage of the call is the actual call, the inciting incident, the moment that soon to hero’s life is changed forever, a moment that will set him on his journey. For Iron Man this is his capture by the terrorists, which force him to build his suit of armour.
The call continues with perhaps the most important piece, the helper or guide. This character can direct him towards, give the hero an item or consul him in the ways of the world the hero towards the final piece of the call. Luke has Obi-Wan and Arthur has Merlin. The final piece of the call to adventure is the crossing of the threshold into the new world that the hero will now inhabit. Spider-Man crosses the threshold when his uncle is killed and he learns what responsibility is and has to live his life without him. Batman crosses the threshold once he steps onto the streets of Gotham as Batman after travelling the world, honing his body and his mind. Once the call to adventure is complete, well there are more stages to Campbell’s journey, some which include meeting helpers (guys like Han and Chewie). However, for this article, I will stick to the first stage of the journey, because without a first good step the rest of the journey can be rough.
Superman: The Movie opens up at the beginning of Clark’s hero’s journey. After landing in Smallville and being taken in by the Kents, Clark grows up as an teenager looking for acceptance and who he is. Clark lives on the farm, goes to school, has a crush on a girl, and besides his powers, is a normal teenager. His call to adventure is a tragic one; the death of his adoptive father due to a heart attack, something he can’t stop, even with all his powers. This sets Clark on a journey of self discovery after finding a piece from his ship, which leads him all the way to the arctic. Once there, he throws the green crystal from his ship into the ice, which, after much shaking and quaking, becomes a giant ice fortress. Within the ice fortress is the conscious/ knowledge of Clark’s real father, Jor-El, who explains to Clark who he is and why he was sent there, one of which is to help the people of Earth. After Many years at the fortress, Clark decides to become Superman, and fly’s off to Metropolis, the hub of America to help the people of Earth. Through the help of his fathers Clark can step into Metropolis, a different world then the farm and life he grew up in, and on to save the world, which he does.
Superman Earth One is a story that jumps between the present and the past, and opens up with Clark on the bus to Metropolis. When we first see Clark then, he is leaving what he knows in the farm and his family and crossing the threshold into the unknown. There is a large one page panel of Clark looking up at the skyscrapers in wonder; it is clear that Clark is in a world he doesn’t know. Opening the story this way is just one way to tell the hero’s journey, only becoming an issue if the story misses the other beats of the call to adventure. Working sequentially then, Earth One Clark grows up on the farm and has a difficult time fitting with those around him; he always needs to keep his powers in check so he doesn’t hurt anyone, making him appear weak. So Earth One Clark has a very similar childhood to STM Clark, and like their childhood both Clark’s fathers die, but unlike in STM, in SEO we don’t see Jonathan’s death and we don’t know if his death causes Clark to go on his journey to Metropolis. Also, in STM, Clark goes to Metropolis to help the planet that has adopted him, saved him even from certain death. Earth One Clark goes to Metropolis to find himself, he doesn’t even know about his Krypton heritage when he goes, just that he crash landed on a ship when he was a baby. It could be said then that Clark’s trip to Metropolis isn’t his threshold crossing moment. If not, then what is?
Clark of Earth One’s world changes when the alien attack comes to Earth looking for Clark. When the dust is settled at the end of the book, Metropolis is a changed place that Superman must now live in. So the alien attack is the call to adventure and defeating them is the crossing the threshold, or the dragon battle (more on this in a second), but there is still something missing. There is no guide/helper. The closest thing Earth One Clark has to a guide is a piece of his spaceship, which after being caught in a fire and touched by Clark, shows him his final minutes on Krypton, as his parents send him off to Earth. If we consider this an adequate representation of the guide figure, it would still be missing two important pieces. The glimpse does not offer any information on who Clark actually is and does it give Clark any advice as to what he should do going forward. However, I will argue that the supplementary guide in SEO lets Clark know that his parents sent him to Earth so he could live, and this may be the very reason that Clark decides to become Superman. Quickly going back to the dragon battle notion; if we replace the crossing of the threshold with the dragon battle ending to the call to adventure, the hero would still need a guide. The guide is not only synonymous will the crossing of the threshold, but any of ending stage to the call to adventure. While there is inklings of the call to adventure structure in Superman Earth One its lack of essentials, such as a proper guide and threshold can limit Clark’s rise to Superman. Furthermore, STM finishes the hero’s journey by visiting every stage of Campbell’s outline. SEO ends it’s tale half-way through the outline.
It may not seem necessary to follow Campbell’s outline as much as one can, but with a hero like Superman, the first superhero, following an outline is proven to work, see the many myths and fairy tales that have stood the test of time, plus the most well known Superman origin, the one that is still referred to today, Superman: The Movie even makes use of this outline. The hero’s journey is a story that has been used for so long that it has become a format that has been ingrained into our collective conscious. Even films use the outline of the hero’s journey to build their stories. A script is based on five plot points, each point mimics the plot points in the hero’s journey: the inciting incident or call and the lock in, or threshold crossing, are the first two points.
For Superman Earth One to create a modern telling of the Man of Steel, JMS would have needed to effectively use the hero’s journey to re-tell Superman’s origin. Only then could the audience have seen the first true superhero come to life, again.