Monday, July 19, 2010

Superman 701

So, I said I was going to review Superman 701, the much ballyhooed start of the John Michael Staczynski era on Superman, scheduled to run 12 issues.

On Friday, I finally made it to Austin Books and picked up the issue.

It's okay. Better than average, I suppose. I quite like Barrow's artwork in the manner of the style that DC seems to have adopted from wholesale from a crew of Brazilian artists.

The issue is a bit complicated to discuss in light of my new solemn vow to not discuss other reviews and what's being said by other fans, but here goes:

JMS is getting as back to basics as possible with Superman, while retaining the current status-quo of Superman. He didn't ask to relaunch the character, drop continuity, depower Superman, insist he never spent time with the Legion... instead, JMS is interested in what it means to have Superman, several years into his career and established as a major figure in the public world, walk among us in full costume.

I say "back to basics", because JMS's take on Superman almost has more in common with Golden and early Silver Age presentations of The Man of Steel. JMS sees Superman as a person taking pleasure in his powers and not hesitating to crack wise or poke fun at others trying to give him a hard time. As Superman is a bit of a Rorschach test for readers, putting any kind of personality on Superman other than earnest farmboy or generic action hero is a bold move on the part of JMS. Many want a Superman who would never have a sarcastic comment or a cutting remark, but Superman is the same guy who used to move the planet around just to keep Lois guessing vis-a-vis the secret identity shtick. He forced arms dealers to fight in their own wars.

For the first few decades of Superman's career, the character also lived and worked among mere mortals. He was truly special in the city of Metropolis, aside from the odd genie Jimmy might accidentally release, or the occasional appearance by a Phantom Zone criminal. In the comics, on the radio, on television, Superman was interacting with us mere mortals, but if we can point to a major change that started even prior to Crisis on Infinite Earths, its that Superman has been less and less likely to spend time during any particular issue face-to-face with anyone not in a spandex suit.

During his run on Action Comics, Geoff Johns did what he could to rehabilitate the almost ghost-like Daily Planet, a structure which, since around 2000 has appeared to exist only to be blown up once or twice a year to kick start a story and to ostensibly give Lois something to do. Too many writers have wanted to leap into the action, and forgotten that the Planet was always the human side of Superman, where the character came to talk with friends and be a part of the world, either as Clark or Superman.

We've seen Superman in space, Superman with the Justice League, Superman hopping between the worlds of the Multi-Verse, Superman fighting New Gods, Coluans and Kryptonians...

Instead, JMS delivers a Superman that walks among people, has a sandwich, talks with them, and helps them in big and small ways.

So... if that's where JMS is starting, I'm not faulting him for that.

Unfortunately, you get the feeling that JMS is so excited by this assignment, so ready to say everything he could possibly say about Superman, that he's not pacing himself.

Its not necessarily wrong to have Superman quote Henry David Thoreau to get the wheels turning, but here, JMS turns Superman into a bit of a lecturer. No better is the well-meaning, but oddly written few lines about how its unfair that notorious personality A gets to live, but beloved personality B had to die. The point JMS was trying to make, and the point of view he seemed to be imparting is a fair and valid one to attribute to the character, but ultimately, its JMS expressing his POV on Superman by telling rather than just showing. In the rush to explain what he's up to, to lay the groundwork for what he has planned, JMS almost talks too much, using Superman as his mouthpiece.

An interesting bit that JMS is bringing to the table is building the groundwork for how Superman interacts with humanity. In small ways, JMS builds a case for how Superman must make decisions about what he does and does not do as a god among mortals. Upon seeing a man in denial about a heart condition and advises the man to see a doctor (and I know has been widely read as a heart attack that Superman walks away from, but which... c'mon, guys... spotting heart trouble and cracking the sound barrier to rush a man to the hospital are two different things), he bows to the knowledge that he can't be everywhere to stop drug dealers but hopes people will stand up for themselves, etc...

And, of course, one can almost guess that JMS didn't read All Star Superman before putting finger to keyboard as he mimics the now famous sequence of Superman talking to a ledge jumper, his scene going on a bit longer than Morrison and Quitely's 1 page word on the subject.

But what the two sequences are presenting are intended to produce two different ideas. Morrison and Quitely elegantly demonstrate that among Superman's greatest powers is his empathy and ability to share strength. JMS (and to a lesser extent, Barrows) seem to be suggesting something about Superman following some sort of inner Prime Directive of allowing humanity to decide for itself.

Its an interesting germ of an idea, and it addresses one of the central questions that arises when you do put away the Metallo's and Parasite's and start considering how Superman can live in a world with flawed beings and not become a tyrant. What are the jobs for a Superman?

My biggest complaint was probably the "Superman faces the drug dealers" sequence. I don't have any problem with Superman staring down dealers or his plan of action, or the dialog. It does help illustrate Superman's "policy" (for lack of a better term), that he will stop one person from over powering another if he can help it, but that he'd prefer that people find the courage to fight for themselves. Unfortunately, the sequence ends when a bunch of black guys get run off to make things safe for a precocious little white kid... That just plays a little (read: a lot) awkwardly.

First issues are always a rough spot, even in the best of circumstances. I'm curious how this will read as the story progresses and JMS's plots and themes begin to more concretely form. Its an intriguing, if occasionally frustrating, first issue.

But its a lot more interesting to read than the entirety of "War of the Supermen".

(editor's note: the material below was added after initial publication)

I read a lot of superhero comics in any given month. As a hobby, I have read them mostly continuously since sixth grade. As much as I would have liked for the post "War of the Supermen" stories see Superman return to Metropolis and get back to the sort of comic we haven't seen in Superman in over a year, I realized how excited I was for a mainstream comic that was doing something a bit different, and not just for a single issue. And how odd it is that "doing something different" is giving a superhero a few minutes away from maniacs in armored suits, laser guns, fragments of alien homeworlds, alien invaders, etc...

So if I give the comic a little extra space, forgive me. I know I can turn to any of 300 different titles on the shelf and get more superhero action than a man can stand. So don't worry, I'm doing that, too (I read Green Lantern and Flash, so I'm covered, thanks).

I'll likely update you cats as to how its going as new issues arrive.

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