Written by J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI and CHRIS ROBERSON
Art by EDDY BARROWS, TRAVEL FOREMAN and J.P. MAYER
Cover by JOHN CASSADAY; 1:10 Variant cover by ADAM HUGHES
It would be interesting to have been in the room during any number of calls between writer Chris Roberson and editors Matt Idleson and Wil Moss.
J. Michael Straczynski is beloved amongst sci-fi fans for his creation of Babylon 5 (a show I was oddly loyal to during my college years), and wrote the well-regarded film Changeling, which was directed by Clint Eastwood and has a considerable writing career in television and movies. He's also occasionally been a favorite writer in comics, and I was a fan of, oh.... the first half of his work on Amazing Spider-Man.
DC landing JMS was supposed to be a coup. The comic nerderati enthusiasm for the Geoff Johns reboot of Superman with Infinite Crisis had been squandered with the sprawling New Krypton storyline. JMS would arrive, tell some kick-ass Superman stories and all would be well. He had professed publicly to a great love for Superman and told (repeatedly) a story about stopping thieves himself thanks to Superman's inspiration. It was going to be a thing. And then the interviews started to hit...
JMS was planning to send Superman on a 1-year walking tour of the US where he would meet and greet with everyday people. I've already talked about this, and I don't think I need to rehash the details, but... it didn't go well for either JMS or for the readers. I could only be in so much denial about what a misfire the Grounded storyline felt like, even as I could see there was a nugget of a great idea in there.
Roberson, a writer who's star has been on a crazy meteoric rise the past two years, was somehow handed the book, and he's working alchemy, turning lead to gold. Honestly, I had only heard Roberson's name in conjunction with iZombie before I picked up his Superman title and read the first iZombie issue before trade-waiting it.
Again, I don't know what those conversations were like between Roberson and editorial, but he's doing something only a few writers do that I absolutely love, and which Geoff Johns does practically as an art-form. He's taking some of the flubs of the JMS-penned issues and mining them for story points, both including them in the narrative and assuring readers "no, DC did not go completely crazy".
From comments in interviews, it seems Roberson only ever got an outline from editorial as to what JMS planned to do before he basically quit both Superman and Wonder Woman mid-story. So that's a bit of context.
In this issue Superman wanders into Ogden, Utah where he saves a woman from beings truck by a car. Returning her "home", he's directed to an archaeological site, but the real story is the flashback sequence embedded in the issue. Talking to the archaeologist, Superman sees an "S" shield projected onto the clouds with ultraviolet, and flies off to see who is looking for him.
Fair warning: from here on out there are plenty of spoilers
For, really, the first time since Final Crisis, Superman gets to have a chance to speak with Bruce Wayne/ Batman (he had previously spoken with Dick Grayson in the Batman costume about 6 issues ago). The two recall a meeting that took place prior to either assuming their names and costumes, and its a bit of fan-wank, but... Several years ago a one-shot entitled Superman: The Odyssey was released. Mostly forgettable, the one shot did feature a brief meeting of a young Clark Kent and an unnamed Bruce Wayne on the steps of a temple.
Clearly, the same image stuck in Roberson's head that caught in mine, and it was fun to see Roberson take an opportunity to explore that meeting and place it directly into continuity. What follows is a tale of an early meeting of the World's Finest, and how it would presage their careers. The great thing is that, from a fan service perspective, Roberson also namedrops the first meeting "Superman" and "Batman" from Man of Steel, and a short story by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale in which a young Bruce Wayne is taken on a cross-country trip in the family limo by Alfred, and the tire pops in Smallville.
After a decade of writers coming to Superman with no terrific love for the character and seemingly just hop scotching across titles at DC, its stupendous to see a writer who knows his Superman AND can write around this background as a shared history rather than a tangle of continuity or just namechecking.
While the flashback sequence is great (I won't take anything away from 20-somethings Clark and Bruce taking on a force they don't understand yet as Vandal Savage), the climax really comes as Bruce talks to Clark, and says what we've all been thinking: you're not quite right because you've been grieving.
In the mind's eye of the public (both in the DCU and in our own), Superman does not grieve. But given the events of the Superman titles since the first Brainiac robot showed up a couple of years ago in the Superman books, Superman has a lot to grieve for, and might not even know how to do so. Unlike the original comics in which Superboy lost his parents at the age of 18 and Kandor never ceased to exist, or the movies in which there is no Kandor and Jonathan's death occurs around the age of 18, Superman in this continuity has lost his father and his civilization (and chance for belonging) in one fell swoop.
Its not a stunning revelation, but its also a new era at DC if Batman is allowed to have such a conversation with Superman without shouting at him to get it together. For once, you can see why Superman would bother to talk to Batman outside the context of JLA meetings.
But in having this conversation, Roberson also works some of that alchemy. And this is where I'd refer to how interesting those conversations must have been at the DC offices. Roberson IS a good writer, and he's worked wonders, but I'd love to know if it was him bringing ways to address the problems the readership had with the story or if it was the editors. Frankly, I hope it was Roberson, because the moment of "can we do this?" would have been some serious gold for those of us who like awkward moments.
One of the most derided scenes in early issues of Grounded featured Superman lecturing a man on the street about morality and that man's duty. It went over... poorly. Superman, when will written, wins hearts and minds mostly by example and action, not pedantic lecturing. Roberson's Batman actually refers to the scene and in a bit of metatextual apology to readers tells Superman he was behaving out of character, but we have to forgive him as he forgives himself.
It may be a bit forced or a bit clunky to read months and months later, and will most certainly read better one day in a collected edition where one hasn't pondered that sequence with months inbetween installments, but it does so much to rehabilitate a broken narrative, as so much of what Roberson has written has done.
Flat out, DC can't afford to kowtow to writers anymore if it isn't in service to their staple characters. They can be in the business of name writers, but they also have a longterm duty to first serve their licensed characters to make sure there's a wealth of information that people can enjoy in comics and which can be looked at for treatment in other media. Making these kinds of adjustments mid-story is a pleasure to read, even if it isn't as streamlined as it could be.
And if there was one last bit of gold I enjoyed - it was the suggestion to Superman that a SQUAD of Supermen might be a good thing, too, if Batman was willing to go worldwide.
So, yes, DC... I would read that. And I hope that's where you're going with this whole Doomsday thing.
Oh, right... the art.
I don't know if there's much new to add from previous statements about Barrow's art. I've been very pleased with recent issues, and I think the look is right for the most mainstream Superman book. The flashback sequences also looked pretty great, drawn by Travel Foreman and meant to ape the style of The Odyssey.