Superman: Grounded Vol. 1, do yourself a favor and go read just the first full chapter, originally published as Superman #701. From Superman fixing the car, to the diner, to the drug dealers, to the jumper, and finally Superman quoting Thoreau in the end, writer J. Michael Straczynski presents a clear study on the existence of heroism in every person. Grounded may not be a perfect storyline, but Superman #701 is one of those rare perfect issues.
Superman: Grounded Vol. 2, unfortunately, lacks any such perfect issue.
The book itself claims to have been co-written by Straczynski and Chris Roberson. In a later War Rocket Ajax interview, however, Roberson says it's all his, and I believe him, because the writing her lacks Straczynski's mastery. But I'm not here to quibble with Roberson's writing in this book -- it didn't move me, but you can find plenty other reviews that look at that on an issue-by-issue basis.
Rather, what actually offends me about the second volume of Grounded is the way in which it dismisses and at times even outright disputes what Straczynski established in Grounded, Vol. 1. Straczynski and Roberson are having a conversation about Superman in Grounded, with each writer expressing their side in a volume; Straczynski's, I believe, was a complicated and critical look at Superman that still preserved the character's heroism, while I find Roberson's too reductive and somewhat pandering.
I'm struck again by two scenes in Straczynski's Superman #701, one where Superman sets fire to all the drugs in dealers' private residences even though he doesn't have a warrant; and when Superman promises a suicidal woman that he'll let her jump if he can't talk her down. In both of these instances, the law has an interest in prosecuting the dealers (or protecting private property) and in keeping the woman alive. But Straczynski's Superman recognizes both sides of the issues -- that there's a greater good in destroying the drugs and in respecting the woman's own choice about her life (even if we're meant to understood that Superman would have saved the woman irrespective); Straczynski's Superman respects the law but isn't beholden by it (like, I understand, Grant Morrison's current Action Comics Superman).
The first chapter of Roberson's Grounded offers Superman a similar dilemma, but approaches it differently. Superman encounters a plant in Kansas that's been polluting the water; he and Lois Lane's first reaction is to close the plant, but when Superman understands how many jobs will be lost, he reconsiders. This is entirely reasonable; no one is for pollution, but closing a plant is much simpler in comics than in real life. Yet Lois is unrepentant, and Roberson has Superman threaten to kill the story Lois wants to write -- both hyperbolic and impossible -- such that the reader sees Lois as right and Superman as wrong.
Straczynski's Superman recognized moral ambiguity; Roberson's Superman recognizes moral ambiguity, but the story credits it to depression and clouded judgment. In Roberson's judgment, it seems, Superman ought not face any shades of gray, just conflicts presented with so-called "comic book simplicity."
(That artist Allan Goldman draws an unbelievably buxom Lois Lane in a low-cut shirt and short-shorts with a bare midriff, with a backpack as if she's going on safari in the middle of Kansas, helps this issue's credibility not at all. For an example of the kind of sexual gratuity that brings comics down -- not excessive sex in a sexual scene, but sexual gratuity in a non-sexual scene -- see this issue.)
Similarly, Roberson proceeds to reframe key scenes from Grounded Vol. 1. Superman meets Flash Barry Allen again and asks him about Barry's statement in volume one that when he runs, he only sees a blur around him. Straczynski's implication in the first volume had been that DC's superheroes are out of touch with the common person; Straczynski backed this up with Superman meeting Batman Dick Grayson on the JLA satellite orbiting Earth, away from humanity. But in Superman and Barry's second meeting, Roberson has Barry laugh and say he was only "joking" before, and that he sees the people around him as he runs.
Granted, Barry Allen comes off the worse in Straczynski's version, but I find downright insulting that Roberson alters the scene as if Superman (and the audience) just doesn't "get" Barry's joke. It's not unprecedented that Straczynski should suggest DC heroes lack humanity (see Marvel's more human characters versus DC's superheroes) nor that Superman, after the cosmic New Krypton adventure should need to reconnect with his human roots. Roberson's offers a "I'm OK, you're OK, nothing to see here" aesthetic in which the DC heroes are plenty human and Superman misunderstands just because he's "depressed," which is much less interesting to me than what Straczynski attempted.
Roberson also suggests that because of Superman's "depression," he misheard the concerned mother Straczynski's presented who said that Superman's presence attracts danger ("You are a gun"); rather, Roberson says, she told Superman, "You are a hero." Again, Roberson simplifies unnecessarily. Ultimately we know the truth lies with the Superman fan that Roberson uses in the end who proves that Superman's presence does more good than harm, but in Roberson's version no one thinks Superman is a threat.
In Marc Guggenheim's Justice Society: Supertown, we have Jay Garrick taking responsibility for rebuilding a town that his team destroyed fighting a supervillain. Now, this is comics, and I don't expect every writer to establish in every story that every hero pay for every car they might crush battling an enemy. But for Roberson to offer near unanimous love for Superman, even going so far as to edit out a lone critical voice in Straczynski's story, stretches suspension of disbelief for me.
Roberson implies that Superman didn't need to take his Grounded walk because there's really no disconnect between Superman and humanity after New Krypton. I accept that Superman isn't Batman, and he ought be loved and given parades in Metropolis because that's part of the fun, but Roberson discounts the audience's ability to both appreciate Superman and also take a critical look at the character. To reconsider Superman isn't disloyal, and it isn't "depression," and I don't like that Roberson blames Superman's difficulties on such.
Superman: Grounded Vol. 2 suggests that Roberson is a long-time, dedicated Superman fan. There are continuity notes galore here, with call-backs to Superman: The Odyssey, Superman: Transformed, Steel and Live Wire and the Supermen of America (and in the issue DC unfortunately cancelled, Sinbad). And Roberson does right by the final issue before the DC New 52 relaunch, ending it like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? with Superman's signature wink. I sense I might like a general Superman story from Chris Roberson more if it didn't seem he was trying to clean up after J. Michael Straczynski; as much a fan as I was of Grounded Vol. 1, that wasn't what I wanted from volume 2.
[Includes original and variant covers. Printed on glossy paper]
We're keeping on with Superman this week -- coming up, we check in with some of Superman's allies in Return of Doomsday.