Shiny Shelf

Superman #700

By Lance Parkin on 01 July 2010

“You will believe a man can walk.” – Mark Waid, on Twitter.

‘Superman’ #700 marks the launch of a new direction for Superman, under the aegis of J. Michael Straczynski, who’s kept himself busy, but is probably still best known as the creator of Babylon 5.

I’m very firmly of the belief that Superman stories should be about Superman, in Metropolis, with all his powers, and that costume, and his supporting cast like Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, fighting Lex Luthor. It’s a great template, not least because it’s about what Superman is unable to do – when he’s out in space doing cosmic things, planets will (and invariably do) shatter. Superman was born as Krypton blew apart. Exploding worlds are his natural habitat.

In Metropolis, the great battle is an almost obsessive struggle to keep things just as they are – propping every building up, saving every single bystander from the slightest injury. Superman becomes Prufrock, only he’s a being capable of genuinely disturbing the whole universe with the slightest movement.

Like ‘Star Trek’, like the Jedi Knights, Superman is an American fantasy about being armed to the teeth, but never, ever using the magical weapons because of self-restraint and commitment to powerful values.

They could kill you ten times over, just by thinking about it, from orbit. They can do anything… so they’ve dedicated that great power to helping humanity build and maintain utopia.

It’s a great set up. For many years, now, DC haven’t thought it was enough to sustain a regular book. They haven’t known what to do with Superman, other than mount yet another relaunch.

They can only think to run two Superman stories – ‘look, it’s an evil Superman’ and ‘could a world cope without Superman?’. The first leads to fistfights, the second to long periods where Superman doesn’t have his powers, doesn’t wear his costume, or has left the Earth, or where his replacements struggle to cope. The just-concluded ‘World of New Krypton’ featured a planet of Evil Supermans and Superman… putting on a grey jumpsuit and going to live there, while his replacements… you get the drift.

DC have spent a long time thinking that the only way to tell Superman stories is to take Superman out of them, that there is no appetite for stories where Superman is centre stage and relevant. Worse still, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely showed them how it was done in ‘All-Star Superman’, a book that sold in huge quantities, got massive critical acclaim and basically left no excuses.

So… another relaunch. At this stage we’ve only had a short prelude. JMS’s strip is ten pages tucked at the back of an oversized anniversary issue. There are two other strips, one of which feels like a fill in issue they’ve had on file for a while, the other is a tying up of loose ends that’s the sort of crossing the ‘T’s a running series needs, but nothing more than that.

It’s a little worrying that by far the most interesting thing in the issue – including JMS’s prelude – is some press release bumf for Paul Cornell’s* run on ‘Action Comics’, which will feature Lex Luthor. That looks superb – a future issue involves, if the cover is to be believed, Gorilla Grodd wanting to eat Luthor, and so coming after him with a giant spoon.

JMS’s story sets out its new approach and it’s certainly not a crazy or dull one. It’s a back to basics relaunch, a fairly shameless riff on the old ‘Green Lantern/Green Arrow story’ where an elderly African American berates Green Lantern for worrying more about the blue people in space than the black people on Earth.

In this prelude, Superman is berated by a woman whose husband died of cancer – why can’t Superman solve real problems, like cancer, instead of flying around space?

There’s a stumbling block here, if you let it be one. At the end of ‘World of New Krypton’, an army of evil Supermans flew to Earth with the intent of eradicating the entire human race. They are so powerful that the human race is expected to last mere minutes.

Superman, at great cost, defeated this invasion. Within the fiction, I think Superman would be within his rights to point out that this qualifies as a ‘real problem’, and he just saved literally everyone on the entire planet, so perhaps the young widow might want to get stuffed.

Leaving that aside, because I think we can all see the meta point being made, the story works.

What follows is Superman wondering if the widow had a point, chatting to people who don’t understand the issue, then JMS does what he frequently does, and has a ‘my father said to me’ moment, where it turns out dad had a piece of homely wisdom that fits perfectly.

(It became almost a running joke on ‘Babylon 5′: Sheridan’s dad, apparently, told him “son, never start a war, but by god always finish one.” There’s a ‘my father said to me’ moment in the trailer to the movie ‘The Changeling’.)

After this, Superman picks up some dirt, has a bit of a cry and decides to stop flying around. Instead he’s going to walk from one coast of America to the other. To reconnect.

And it’s overwrought, introspective, a little bit ludicrous, absurdly asserts that America=world, but it’s simple and iconic… and, taking all that together, manages to be more like Superman than virtually anything else that’s been published in the last twenty years. If this is the most striking, best-told part of this story, then Superman’s still in trouble. If it’s merely a springboard to the good stuff, then Superman’s looking good.

* Full disclosure: I know Paul, we both used to write ‘Doctor Who’ books back in the day.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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