Earth One is a trilogy of graphic novels taking a look at the Superman of an alternate universe, where much remains as we know it, yet tinkering is also possible in order to sustain the suspense. J. Michael Straczynski tinkers very well.

Clark Kent arriving in Metropolis and being offered a reporter’s job by the Daily Planet is familiar. What isn’t is Straczynski’s snappy dialogue and a look what other careers Kent might have pursued, and at that point the familiarity ceases. Straczynski incorporates many known narrative sequences – the destruction of Krypton, a tenacious Lois Lane and a spirited Jimmy Olsen, the familiar costume – yet recontextualises them. This process of taking elements we all know and providing a logical alternative explanation for them frequently occurs in passing, making it all the more impressive. Amid all the detail, one question he swerves is why Kryptonians so resemble humans.

This Clark Kent differs from the usual young version. He’s not had a career as Superboy, and is uncertain and self-reflective about using his powers for the greater good. It’s an interesting story point that the decision is eventually forced on him, so we don’t know what choices he’d have otherwise made.

The young Clark has received guidance from his foster parents, and we drop back in on them as the plot continues. With a lesser mind at the helm the advice could be corn-fed homilies, but Straczynski endows them with a lifetime of erudition and he’s equally convincing with Perry White, newspaper editor, and also the sleazy head of a tech company. Not quite as impressive is the book’s predominant threat, drawn by Shane Davis as Lobo with a pair of wings. There is a purpose for his presence harking back to the destruction of Krypton, but what would make for an excellent movie sequence falls flat on the page.

Davis’ art is very good, and very effective when it comes to visual characterisation, but unspectacular. There’s no problem with storytelling, but close the book and there’s not a page that will stick in the memory. He accentuates aspects of the story via a full page illustration, but often would have better picked other elements as their focus. His full page of Krypton exploding, for instance, is no worse than dozens previously seen, yet knowing this a more imaginative artist might have chosen to depict it differently. His art’s also not presented at its best due to the dullness of Barbara Ciardo’s colouring, a problem throughout the series. It could be intended to represent this being a darker Superman than we know, but it’s misguided as the dull shades are the first impression on opening the book.

Straczynski leaves a few matters open-ended in the event of a second book, which eventually materialised, and follows the story with a reproduction of Clark Kent’s newspaper article on Superman’s emergence. In addition to providing a nice touch, it offers further insight into how Straczynski sculpts Superman’s character. Davis ends the book with some sketches detailing his approach.

Batman, Wonder Woman and the Teen Titans all later received the Earth One treatment, although via other creators.