Shiny Shelf

Superman #708

By Lance Parkin on 21 February 2011

Six months ago, I reviewed ‘Superman’ #700, which had the prologue for Grounded, the new story in which Superman decided he needed to connect with ordinary people and so began to walk from the East Coast of America to the West. I quite liked the Prologue – it seemed to be setting up something quite bold and potentially iconic, and at least it was a Superman story about Superman.

I said:

“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.”

And … go on, guess.

If I was the Superman editor, I’d have jumped on ‘Grounded’ the moment it was pitched. I’d have run into my boss’s office and blurted it all out. Such a strong, simple idea. Twelve issues, twelve different parts of the country, a real sense of beginning, middle and end. I really do understand why they did it, even before you take into account it would be J. Michael Straczynski writing it. But there was work to do after that, lots of thinking through and sorting out, and it became clear very quickly that all that stuff was being done, as it were, on the hoof. As with ‘Earth-One’, it very much felt like we were watching JMS work what Superman meant as a character on the page, rather than presenting us with his considered conclusions.

‘Grounded’ didn’t work. Instead of a strong, central Superman there was a weird dithery, wordy jerk. Instead of connecting with real people and their real concerns, he did things like go to a place where the car plant had just closed and then get some aliens who were living nearby to magically give everyone new jobs. This was a Superman who said odd things like it wasn’t fair Castro was still alive, and did even odder things like let a factory keep polluting because if he didn’t, it would be bad for the economy. Superman could have preached a clear, inspiring message as he walked, or he could have listened. Instead, he just sort of waffled on.

JMS left in record time, Chris Roberson took over as the writer. His first full issue sees Superman reconnect with his roots and keeping it real. by … going to a Fortress in another dimension that’s full of variant versions of himself, including a giant gorilla Superman. This is actually quite fun … but it is exactly what Reed Richards just did in ‘Fantastic Four’. Which is exactly what Tom Strong did in ‘Tom Strong’, Supreme did in ‘Supreme’ and, er, Superman did in ‘Final Crisis’. And ‘DC 1,000,000′. And when the future Supermans come to see him in a field, it is a bit like that bit in ‘All Star Superman’ where the future Supermans come to see him in a field.

You can hear the screeching of brakes. it turns out that the super-dithering and acting out of character wasn’t bad writing, it was because he was being given magic depression by … a woman with sunglasses. And the issue was solicited as having Wonder Woman in it – the new Wonder Woman from the story arc JMS started but walked away from. And she’s on the cover. So Roberson remembers to put her in, right at the end.

The moral dilemma at the beginning of ‘Grounded’ was ’should I help ordinary people with everyday problems or go off into space and do cosmic stuff?’, it’s now ’should I save this schoolbus and ensure that I kick off a million year galactic dynasty dedicated to inspiring truth and justice or … er, not?’. And that hits at the heart of the Superman Problem DC have. We’re constantly told that Superman is an inspiring figure in the DC Universe, both to other superheroes and people generally. But we never see it, we’re only ever told it. It would be good – desireable, even – to have a Superman who was a great leader but who worried about his power. A huge flaw with the JMS run and the ‘Earth-One’ graphic novel was that Superman now seems to have no innate goodness, no instinct for right and wrong, he has to be told everything. I mean … everything. In Earth-One he sees a giant robot about to stomp on Jimmy Olsen and dithers. In ‘Smallville’, Clark is endlessly deferring the big decision to become Superman, because the moment he does, the show ends. But the comics are that next show, Superman’s already Superman, he’s been Superman since 1938, so why is he, in 2011, acting like this is the 73rd season of ‘Smallville’ *? We have a Superman now who is so incredibly passive, he doesn’t even get depressed by himself, he has to have depression given to him.

I very firmly believe Superman is the most interesting character in superhero comics. Best supporting cast, biggest range of available stories, most glorious heritage, most interesting philosophical grounding, best analogy for America. The instinct for ‘Grounded’ – Superman, there, middle of every panel, iconic in his costume, doing something very simple that only Superman could do … that was a good one. Having a Superman who doesn’t assume he’s always right … very healthy. But we need a bold, confident Superman. One who believes in what he says. DC are constantly asking us if the World Needs A Superman. Well, right now, Superman needs a Superman.

* (warning: this may happen, Tom Welling would only be ninety-six)

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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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