Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Superman's Long Walk

Apparently Superman is going for a walk.

I don't have high hopes for Straczynski's run. Which is a shame, because the concept actually appeals to me.

If you haven't noticed, based on my undying love for "Superman Returns" and my as-yet-largely-unspoken love for It's Superman, my tastes in Superman stories run a little less conventional than most people's. There's a post in there someplace--probably a Superman Sunday, once I'm done with this Origins series and I've organized my thoughts a bit--but ultimately I generally really like Superman stories that focus more on Superman's character and how he relates to others. As much as I enjoy stories where Superman punches things, whereupon said things fall down, break, or explode, I think Clark Kent is a very interesting character and I'd like to see stories that utilize and challenge his character in addition to his muscles and abilities.

In that regard, "Grounded" sounds like my kind of story. The idea of Superman walking across America, dealing with the death of his species at the hands of his father-in-law, as he reconnects with humans and his adopted home, is the kind of character-focused story that seems like it'd be right up my alley. In fact, young Clark Kent did something similar before donning the Superman identity in It's Superman, which I may have mentioned that I really enjoyed.

Unfortunately, I've been reading Superman long enough to expect the worst from this arc, for a few reasons.

First, it's a big-name writer taking over a major Superman title for a super-hyped extended story arc that purports to change everything. In my experience, mostly from the last several years, that's a recipe for disaster. Last time, it was James Robinson, whose run was a mixed bag that was mostly mediocre, with some good ideas poorly executed (though mercifully spared from the garbage Robinson was apparently churning out in "Cry for Justice"). Before that, it was Johns and Donner; Johns' run wasn't terrible (though he used the same trick to revamp both the Toyman and Brainiac in adjacent storylines) but before Donner left, it was pretty rough going. The stories weren't terrible in a vacuum, but I think Donner's influence really amped up Johns' '70s Superman nostalgia-writing, which meant jettisoning any continuity or characterization that was inconvenient. Before that, Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee, both fresh off successful Batman stories, crafted one of the most incoherent and plodding Superman stories in recent memory. That was very shortly after Joe Casey and Stephen T. Seagle held half of the Superman titles in a long reign of boredom and incoherence. Now, I don't want to assume that there's necessarily a continuing pattern here, but it sure seems like the big-named major-hype Superman arcs turn out to be at best disappointing and at worst complete crap.

The upshot of the pattern is that, in nearly every case, the under-the-radar title(s) have been significantly better, sometimes to the point of being amazing. Rucka's Action Comics had some missteps, but was generally better than Robinson's Superman (and Robinson came on Superman right around the time that Johns was having his best arc on Action). While Johns and Donner were turning in some sub-par work, Busiek was rocking the house on Action Comics. While Azzarello wasted Jim Lee's time on Superman (and while Chuck Austen did what Chuck Austen usually does on Action Comics), Greg Rucka's first run on Adventures of Superman turned out some of the best Superman comics in years. Before that, Joe Kelly and Mark Schultz were turning in work that was consistently better than Casey and Seagle's books (even if it wasn't great). If the pattern holds, then Paul Cornell's run on Action Comics should be fantastic, and early reports (and his track record) seem to bear that out.

The other problem I have is that it feels like a bit of déjà vu. I realize it's kind of a nitpicky fanboy thing to criticize comics--in particular Superman comics--for doing a story that's been done before--especially in this case, when the last time was nine years ago, but I think it's worth mentioning.

Anyone remember "Our Worlds at War"? It was a major crossover event that spun out of the Superman books and revolved around the universe-destroying threat of Imperiex. It resulted in the death of Hippolyta, the apparent deaths of Sam Lane and Guy Gardner, and the destruction of the Kent farm (among other Pluto). Afterward, Superman was distraught. His parents were missing, Earth had gone through a pretty terrible crisis, thousands of alien refugees had taken up residence on the planet, and oh, he had to team up with Darkseid and Lex Luthor to beat Imperiex. He spent an issue rebuilding the farm and contemplating how he could go back to being Superman after all the planet had lost. This led to a change in his costume (it was darkened, and most of the yellow was replaced with black) and a somewhat different attitude, for a time. The post-war month featured four stories displaying this new outlook, where Superman asserted humans' need to do some of the cleanup themselves, and he approached several supervillains with offers to change their ways (Major Disaster took him up on the offer, which led to his position on the Justice League Elite). Eventually, the Man of Steel even started seeing a psychiatrist.

Why bring this up? Besides being thematically similar, I think it shows one of the big problems with Straczynski's pitch: when "Our Worlds At War" ended, Superman did his moping and coping for a month (with extended ramifications that didn't impede his usual "save Metropolis from monsters and robots" mission). Four weekly issues of his regular title, which still had superhero action of the time-traveling, villain-fighting variety, as compared to twelve or thirteen monthly issues of Superman walking. This is a problem.

This is a problem because it looks like Superman's being taken out of circulation for another year. For those counting, that's three in recent history ("52," "New Krypton," and now "Grounded"). This is a problem because Superman only has two monthly titles running right now, and he won't be appearing in the other one for at least the first story arc. This is a problem because Superman has the most recognizable supporting cast in comics, and it appears to be yet another story that won't be using them.

And it's a problem because apparently it all starts with a woman blaming Superman for not curing her husband's brain tumor. Now, frankly, this is the kind of thing that might indeed make Superman feel bad. After all, the weight most frequently and heavily on his shoulders is his inability to save everyone. Still, Superman's come to accept that burden, having dealt with it as many times as he has. I suspect that his response to the woman would be something like, "Even with all of our powers, there are things that even superheroes can't do."

Do you know why I think that might be his response? Because that's what he told a kid with a brain tumor after Supergirl promised to save him. Seriously, this isn't a new thing for Superman, it's not even a new thing for Superman within the last two years. I don't necessarily expect Straczynski to have read the last couple of years' worth of Superman family comics before starting his arc (though I don't think that'd be an unreasonable expectation), but I expect someone to have done so. Maybe, I don't know, some kind of editor? Like maybe Mike Idelson, the editor for the Superman family of titles, who edited Supergirl #26 when that quoted exchange happened?

The Supergirl arc was actually quite good, exploring Kara's idealism and naivete and drive, while pitting her against the nasty side of human nature, the ridiculous motivations of comic book villains, and the necessities of comic plots. It also took only six issues, two of which had extended time travel sequence bits, and most of which revolved around the brilliant idea of using Resurrection Man's tektite technology to try to cure cancer (and eventually, to try to resurrect the child). Given the tone of the prologue, I don't suspect that's what we'll be seeing for the next year of "Superman."

I'm all for stories about Superman's pain over being unable to save everyone. I'm all for stories about Superman connecting with normal people, saving cats from trees, and so forth. I'm all for stories about the mythic, messianic aspects of Superman's character. I even understand how something that he didn't bat an eye at two years ago might, after he witnessed his people's genocide, have some greater impact on him. But I'm sick and tired of overlong stories where Superman is deconstructed in a vacuum, I'm sick and tired of people who don't understand the difference between serialized storytelling and complete stories released in installments. I'm sick and tired of Superman having to earn back humanity's trust (humanity, having just committed genocide, might want to think about who has justified trust issues). I'm sick and tired of Superman crying and moping, which has been the go-to attitude for Superman writers for years now. Is Smallville to blame? That Five for Fighting song? Or just some misguided idea that there's no drama in seeing Superman happy and doing amazing things with his superhuman abilities?

Saving cats from trees is something Superman does, but it's something he does in the middle of a battle against a giant nuclear robot about to destroy Metropolis. Could we maybe have a year or two where Superman just fights mad scientists, saves the world, loves his wife, and writes stories about it in the newspaper again?


LurkerWithout said...

Sounds like its a perfect time for Busiek to start putting out new Astro City stories focused on Samaritan. And yeah, the buzz on Cornell seems to be all positive that I'm seeing...

reedsolomon.matr1x at said...

I don't think anyone truly believed that Guy Gardner was really dead. His powers at the time required a bit more than what was shown on page to kill him.

Anthony Strand said...

You have your Johns/Donner and your Busiek confused. Busiek was actually on Superman while Johns and Donner were on Action, not the other way around.

Anthony Strand said...

But also, I agree with your point entirely. I just read "Emperor Joker" for the first time recently, and I couldn't believe how much crazy nonsense happened in it, in just two months. Why aren't Superman comics like that all the time?