You could forgive comic-book readers for thinking Frank Miller favored Batman over Superman. Miller wrote two of the Dark Knight's most definitive tales of the '80s: 1986's "The Dark Knight Returns" about a battle-worn, older Batman, and 1987's "Batman: Year One," which was a look at Bruce Wayne's rookie year under the cowl.
In "The Dark Knight Returns," Miller's aged and armored Caped Crusader delivers bloody blows with his fists and spiked boots to the jaw of a Superman serving as a by-the-book antagonist. Miller says it was a fight he enjoyed crafting.
But Miller also says the Superman in "Dark Knight Returns" was the one he needed for that story, and never represented how he felt about the DC icon overall.
Far from it. As Miller, 62, puts it, Superman was a childhood favorite and the reason he got into comics in the first place. So when DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio told Miller he wanted him to write a new "Year One" coming-of-age story for DC's new Black Label imprint featuring the Man of Steel, Miller couldn't wait to get started.
"I was just jumping up and down saying, 'I thought you'd never ask,' " he said.
"Superman: Year One," written by Miller and illustrated by his longtime collaborator John Romita Jr., is a three-issue miniseries that the duo uses to explore Clark Kent's journey from alien baby to the world's greatest superhero.
"In ['Batman: Year One'], I felt like I was filling in a large empty space that was only covered by a couple of panels in the [original] origin story. In [this] one, [it] is really quite the opposite. It's like … sorting out the stuff that's actually relevant and turning it into a study of who [Superman] is," Miller said of the project, which debuted last month. "Batman is a guy you can sum up really quickly, but Superman's more complex."
The first issue of "Superman: Year One" sees a young Clark juggling the social caste systems of high school and dodging bullies without revealing his super-strength. But Miller says this Superman adventure isn't meant to start off as pure teen drama. It's the story of an outsider becoming one with a world he was never intended to be a part of.
"I want to portray Superman as the ultimate immigrant," he said. "That's part of why he's so much part of the American dream. He travels like Moses from outer space, and he goes up and down and falls in love with the right things about America because they are new to him. And he's a representation of that."
Part of the book that stands out from many other iterations of Superman's origin story is Clark's decision to join the Navy and train with the Navy SEALs. Clark learns "that he could be a killing machine," Miller said. "The combination of all of the military training and the lessons from his parents and his upbringing brings on his conviction that he is not a killer."
DiDio says publishing "Superman: Year One" under Black Label, which at times includes large-page formats and longer stories (the first issue is 64 pages, compared with the standard 22), allows star talent such as Miller and Romita to tell stories featuring classic characters and push boundaries without being weighed down by continuity.
"What Frank did was find a different lens to tell [Superman's story] through," DiDio said. Artistically, "I think this is some of the best work John Romita Jr. has done here at DC."