Friday, January 14, 2011

Superman 707 arrives/ Continuing the "Grounded" Storyline

Superman #707
Story Outline by J. Michael Straczynski
Script by Chris Roberson
Pencils by Allan Goldman
Inks by Ebel Ferreira

A Whole Lot of Background:

Yesterday I ventured out to Austin Books and Comics and picked up Superman 707 as part of a signing that was held for Austin local Chris Roberson, who worked from an outline by J. Michael Straczynski.  I did get the issue signed, etc...  And I am very happy to have an Austin local on the book.

Roberson has his hands full coming on in the middle of what's been a fairly major and public catastrophe for DC Comics and the Superman line of books, in particular.  When Geoff Johns left the Superman books to work on other projects and take on the role of Chief Creative Officer for DC, DC handed the reigns off to well regarded writer Greg Rucka, who had done a good job on Action Comics circa 2005-2006.  Unfortunately, Rucka was handed an idea that didn't really sound like his cup of tea (the iffy Nightwing and Flamebird storyline while Superman ran around New Krypton in a spin-off maxi-series).  Few Superman fans felt that the year-long story-arc was well executed, and it left the books in an odd place.  Clearly DC had expected for the hook of Superman abandoning his own titles, etc... was going to be huge.

So, in the best of circumstances, taking over a book mid-stream is a tough job.

Enter JMS, the mind behind the much-beloved sci-fi epic, Babylon 5, writer of the very good film Changeling, and a guy who I thought had taken some pretty good whacks at comic work at Marvel with Spider-Man (and I liked The Twelve until it stopped coming out), but who had kind of flamed out with a storyline that just lost me.  Nonetheless, I was glad to hear DC was invested enough in Superman as a character that they would bring on JMS.

JMS's storyline, Grounded, followed Superman on a cross-country walk as he, in a state of PTSD after New Krypton*, realized he wasn't in touch with the very people he was trying to protect.

Look, I have very, very mixed feelings about what followed.  Far be it from me to say that the story is perfect.  That's simply not the case.  The dialog was iffy and JMS clumsily wrote in straw man arguments for Superman to supposedly dismiss.  Whether its the fault of the artist or JMS, the racial coding on some of this was a little... hard to swallow.

But the truth is that the online reaction to the story has been hyperbolic and reveals more about the mindset of comic readers and, frankly, their inability to understand nuance or even try to stay with a story that didn't resort to extreme violence, awkward attempts at sexiness, a team-up or insular comic-book logic to push it forward.  At some point in the discourse (and fairly early on), JMS ceased being the one who was wrong in the conversation, no matter the quality of the work.

Not every writer is going to be brilliant, and not every story from a great writer is going to be gold.  But I could appreciate that JMS was at least trying to posit how Superman would look in the world, and that the kinds of solutions Superman provides are temporary solutions at best, and that the world is, in fact, a deeply complicated place.**

People following the comic know that of the prior 6.25 issues of JMS's run, 2 were substitute issues written by G. Willow Wilson, a writer whose work I don't know much about.  JMS and DC cited health issues, and because that seems reasonable, I'm going with JMS's story.

While I didn't love the execution, I at least liked the questions Wilson brought up.  Its basic character and world-building stuff that writers seem to ignore all too often when thinking about writing Superman.  But the bottom line is that JMS had only written 4 .25 issues, and its impossible to know what JMS intended for the duration of what was supposed to be his 12 issue run.

So, on to actually discussing 707

I have no idea what part here is JMS, and what part is Roberson.  I hate to even hazard a guess.

What's interesting is that Roberson seems to have a feel for the Bronze/ Silver Age Superman that Geoff Johns was trying to bring back to the DCU (and that I've personally begun to feel is a lot more fun than the COIE to IC Superman) than JMS.  There's something oddly Bronze Age about how the story is set up, from the chemical plant fire to Superman's discussion with Lois (in which she comments that he seems... off), and continuing right to the twist ending - leading to much bigger things.  I can't exactly put my finger on it, but I wouldn't cry to see the book drawn by Curt Swan.

Not all of the dialog is as smooth as it could be, and I'm not sure how this will fit with the overall DC Comics approach where Blackest Night and Batman & Robin are hot commodities, but the story serves as a bridge between the last few issues of Superman's trek and wherever Roberson is sending him next.

Most runs have a rough first issue (I'd include Morrison's first couple issues on Batman) until the writer settles in and the audience goes a bit more along with the writer.  I'll be watching the next few issues to see Roberson truly take the reins of the story and see what he can do to get the Superman book back on track, even if Grounded itself can't quite be saved.

The moral dilemma of the story centers around an environmental issue vs. and economic issue.  A chemical plant is definitely damaging the environment (but not people) but the factory is the last sustaining economic factor in the town.  Its a microcosm of America's (and much of the planet's) grappling with the needs of the economy versus the longterm environmental impact of polluters.

In reviews I read online, a  lot of reviewers went so far as to claim the solution was obvious or simple, and Superman's indecision was ridiculous.  Others pointed to "mind control".  But the bottom line is:  If you step away for two seconds and/ or actually read the paper - this isn't a simple issue.  For anybody (try Googling "Kyoto Protocols").  Nor should it be seen as a simple issue for Superman to magic away because he's Super.

The discrepancy between what Superman can and can't do, and maybe what we can all do if we tried, is much of what JMS was trying to say with his Grounded storyline.  I'm not sure its okay to use Superman to wish-fulfill away abusive parents, infestations of drugs in economically challenged communities, etc...  and keep Superman on the side of the angels while providing a longterm solution or keeping him on police duty 24/7 in every crook where people have decided to live, everywhere on the planet. 

Its often difficult to try to reconcile Superman's first appearances as an unstoppable social crusader (which, for the modern reader is a vintage throwback) with the knowledge that its semi-offensive to suggest in a comic that, say, Superman would resolve something as serious as the tragedy in Haiti.   You can't have Superman stop 9/11 in the comics any more than, during WWII the editors were willing to put him on the front lines in Europe, which is about the time Superman quit dealing with real-world issues in the comics.***

The problem may be:  the story of the superhero living and acting in the "real world" makes for a decent fill-in-issue or writing assignment by some fresh faced young writer outside of comics who thinks they are making some point nobody ever considered (you see a lot of that in different media, from short stories to websites.  Also, Superman stealing people's girlfriends.).  But sustained over 12 issues, I'm not sure reminding the audience at every turn that their superhero of choice is a bit ineffective on the macroscale, or that real-world problems are actually difficult to grapple with is something a lot of superhero fans are going to grok and/ or embrace.

But Superman, for the last 60 years of his publication history hasn't been about Superman fixing everything wrong with the world like a helpful genie.  If we want to look at the character, the point is to use what you have to make the world better when and where you can with what you have.  

Whether this story grips you personally as a reader who was hoping Superman would heat-vision a tank or something, then...  sure, I can see why you'd be disappointed, but I thought Roberson handled Superman's frustration pretty well.  With a hint that something else was going on, as the story indicated.

Oh my god, shut up internet

I made a solemn vow not to talk about what the rest of the internet was saying.  But...

And I want to be clear, here:  I don't know Roberson.  I have nothing invested in whether he succeeds or fails with his issue.  But if you're going to criticize the issue...  at least make it clear you either actually read it or that you can understand what you read.

Its an odd failing of long-form storytelling that comics produced by DC and Marvel rely on the monthly format.  And as an odder artifact, it seems the review and reviewer work entirely in the realm of the 22 pages in front of them, as if there's been nothing before and what the writer sees in a single issue is all there is.  That point of view can be defended, but sometimes...  cheezus.  You kind of want to slap the reviewer in the head and ask what public school failed them.

If the argument between Superman and Lois felt a little weird or awkward...  congratulations.  You picked up on what was a fairly obvious tip-off from the writer (along with the many suggestions that Superman was having issues) that something is up.  It does not mean Roberson is necessarily doing something wrong either with a character or with a story. And, I believe, he's taking the story back to a place that's maybe a little more familiar and a better space for Superman and superhero comic readers.

In conclusion

The last page of issue 707 suggests that (1) something else is at hand and that (2) Roberson plans to take Superman in a different direction now that he's got the keys to the car.

I'm going to hold out on telling you that you need to run out there and buy this comic any more than I was saying that about most other Superman comics.  But what I will say is that rather than another several months of up's and down's that we saw with JMS, we now have the potential for a better Superman comic. 

I, uhm...  I did not love Allan Goldman's pencils, I am afraid.  Serviceable, but this was obviously a pretty quick turnaround.

*  Spoiler alert:  The city of Kandor exploded, killing 10's of 1000's of Kryptonians and Zod attacked Earth with a fleet of Kryptonian soldiers
**but I about choked on the "aliens in Detroit" story
***for those of you gleefully leaping to your keyboards and the comment section: this also applies to virtually every character in every heroic fictional action story in every medium, which is why I'm interested to see Superman, the 800 lb gorilla of American Genre storytelling, put up against actual crises

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