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Superman comic cover art Artwork: John Romita Jr., Danny Miki, Alex Sinclair/DC Comics

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Inside the art that empowers Frank Miller’s Superman: Year One

You’ll believe a kid can fly

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Batman: Year One set the tone for Batman stories, and over 30 years of ever-churning continuity, remains the hero’s definitive origin story. So when DC Comics announced its Black Label imprint with a slew of big-name creators on the company’s biggest characters, one stood out for sheer significance: Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.’s Superman: Year One.

The pitch is obvious: This is Miller’s opportunity to define the moment that Clark Kent became Superman in the same way he reframed the moment Bruce Wayne became Batman. And thanks to Black Label’s particular mandate, the story can be built without the constraints of continuity.

But Black Label isn’t just a loose canvas for writers — it’s also a bigger canvas, literally. The pages of a Black Label book are taller and wider than those of a standard monthly comic, nearly square in proportion. And we wanted to know what happens when you take a Superman comic to widescreen format.

Polygon talked to all four of the artists working with Miller on Superman: Year One #1, out this week: penciller John Romita Jr., inker Danny Miki, colorist Alex Sinclair, and letterer John Workman. With their commentary, we can show you exactly how they crafted their take one of the most iconic Superman moments a creative team can tackle: a young Clark Kent reveling in his ability to fly.

Romita told Polygon that contrary to what you might think, a comic doesn’t get easier to draw when there are less superheroics in it.

“If I had to choose something that would be considered challenging,” he said via email, “I’d say the middle and high school years imagery that is a large part of the first issue. I had to get references on schools, and students of varying ages, and make it all look natural. The regular everyday stuff can be as difficult or more than the superhero stuff.”

When I asked him about these pages specifically, he replied, “As far as Superman’s first flight is concerned, it didn’t occur to me to think of it in that light. It was a blast, just like every other moment in this story.”

John Romita Jr.’s raw pencils of Clark Kent in Superman: Year One #1, DC Comics (2019).
Romita’s pencils of Clark flying, before inking, coloring, and lettering.
John Romita Jr./DC Comics

“I absolutely love the page of Clark flying past the old couple,” inker Danny Miki said. “I just love the way he is flying around carelessly so I thought it’d be cool if he was flying upside down looking at the Milky Way as he’s barreling in the sky.”

An inker has a lot of control over how a penciller’s work is translated into the stark blacks and whites needed for the printing process, and Miki shared that it was particularly important for him to nail the comedic expression on old Hiram Caustic’s face.

An inked page of Clark Kent flying from Superman: Year One #1, DC Comics (2019).
Danny Miki’s finished inks over Romita’s pencils.
John Romita Jr., Danny Miki/DC Comics

Miki says he knew going in that inking a Black Label book would require more time — by the simple fact that the pages were physically bigger — though he relished an opportunity to use “the bigger boards like our comic book forefathers used.”

Artist Danny Miki inking stars onto a page of Superman: Year One #1, DC Comics (2019).
Miki’s inking process.
Photo: Danny Miki

The real learning curve turned to to be about scale, not size. “Increasing the page sizes didn’t necessarily mean more details but at times larger detail. I found myself inking as detailed as I would a regular size board. So, I had to change the way I ink a bit.”

Colorist Alex Sinclair also pointed out immediately that the biggest change the Black Label format causes is that each page takes longer, saying, “The new format/size makes each page the equivalent of working on a double-page spread.”

“Before I started on the project I decided to use a very organic, watercolor-like, digital painting style. I usually work dark to light when I render pages” — laying the darker colors down first, and the lighter on top, as one would with opaque materials like acrylic paints — “but to make the watercolor approach look even more realistic, I am coloring these pages light to dark.”

Three stages of coloring work by Alex Sinclair on a page of Superman: Year One #1, DC Comics (2019).
Three stages of Sinclair’s work, beginning with flats, where the basic color regions of the page are digitally isolated from the inks; to initial colors; to final lighting and effects.
John Romita Jr., Danny Miki, Alex Sinclair/DC Comics

“John and Danny depicted [this] moment so beautifully that I wanted to do their work justice,” Sinclair said of the page of Clark flying. “I really pushed the blue palette on it to make it look more dreamlike. So many people dream that they are flying that I wanted the reader to pause and wonder if young Clark was dreaming or actually flying.”

John Workman told Polygon that the Black Label format took him back to his days at the U.K.’s Heavy Metal magazine, and that it affected his work in a particularly direct way. Workman made the lettering for Superman: Year One “subtly larger. Not much, and I’m not sure that most readers will even notice, except perhaps subconsciously.”

Clark Kent and Lana Lang in Superman: Year One #1, DC Comics (2019). Frank Miller, John Romita Jr., Danny Miki, Alex Sinclair, John Workman/DC Comics
Clark Kent thinking of Lana Lang in Superman: Year One #1, DC Comics (2019). Frank Miller, John Romita Jr., Danny Miki, Alex Sinclair, John Workman/DC Comics

Paradoxically, the goal of good comics lettering is both to be a guide for the reader’s eye through the combined work of the penciller, inker, and colorist; and also to make the reading experience as seamless and natural as possible. That can make it easy to overlook, as Workman’s description of his process reveals.

“I loved these two pages,” Workman said. “They move from serene to dynamic and then to a kind of calm. I made use of the lettering to lead the reader through this sequence. The stacked ‘Love/Lana’ in panel three of page 50 is straightforward, as is the certainty of ‘first love.’ After that, the balloons start to ‘bounce’ a bit, culminating in the movement around the flying Clark in the two main panels on page 51.”

Superman: Year One #1 hit digital shelves and local comic shops this week.