Review: Superman: Grounded Vol. 2 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 23, 2012

If you haven't read 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.

[Contains spoilers]

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.
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16 comments:

  1. I completely agree with you.

    I found Grounded Vol. 1 a very good, emotional and moving Superman story.

    Finally a writer goes deep into Superman's mind, instead of his powers, and I loved it.

    Grounded Vol. 2 was so... comics-bookish. Such depth was thrown with the same "is all magic" stuff.

    I also recommend Grounded 1. The second volume, while not terrible, is not as good as the first one.

    In Volume one I see the Superman I always saw and admire in a fight that is rarely seen. An inner fight.

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  2. I'm honestly astonished you feel this way. I thought that Stracsynski's work on the two monthlies--Superman and Wonder Woman--were awful and lacked any real meaning (despite some potentially interesting high concepts), and that the titles were redeemed only when the replacement writers, Roberson and Hester, took over. Basically, I thought that they made brilliance out of the dreck they were given.

    Apparently, you feel differently.

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  3. I do feel differently, though I respect your alternate take (thought Odyssey tripped a bit when Hester came on in the first volume, too). Let me ask, can you point out a scene in Roberson's Grounded, Vol. 2, that you thought was a marked improvement over volume one? I'm curious to hear your take on a specific scene so I can consider it through the eyes of someone who liked it.

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  4. That's interesting, sounds like you liked this arc for the exact reasons others hated it, and hated it for the reasons others liked it. Perhaps it really is a matter of taste. Or maybe it's a perspective difference coming from reading it in issues vs. a collected edition -- I've read comic books arc I loved in the past that other people hated, and I suspect it's because I read them all at once instead of over agonizing months.

    You seem disappointed about lack of payoff for the problems JMS set up in volume one. Where do you think he was going with it? What would've been a satisfying ending? Maybe you saw it going somewhere specific where other people thought it wasn't going anywhere at all.

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  5. Wow, I find it so interesting reading this review (and of Vol 1) and comparing it to the comments that the "Internet comics community" had when the issues were coming out. It seemed like JMS's issues received a lot of negative feedback, while some felt that Roberson improved things. That was my impression of it, anyway. I wasn't reading the issues so maybe I misinterpreted (or misremembered!) what everyone was saying.

    Still, CE, I trust your reviews far more than Joe Somebody on some forum. It's really too bad that JMS didn't get to finish his runs on Superman and Wonder Woman; perhaps, once finished, people would have had greater appreciation for what he was trying to do in those stories.

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  6. I should have refreshed the page before I posted my comment. I guess I didn't misremember the negativity after all. :-)

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  7. Grounded volume 1 was the best superman story I had read in ages at the time, which was when the hardback came out, Straczynski is a pretty awesome writer, he always seems to capture the spirit of the character he's writing, amazing spider-man i'm looking at you.

    This review is spot on. JMS gave the superman character so much depth, and while I enjoyed the new krypton saga, volume 1 of grounded made me realise exactly what this character means to people and why he has become such a powerful symbol over the years and also why he seems to be so difficult to write well.

    I can't remember any other superman publication that has this inner conflict of character, and that makes you think about things so much. Its great that volume 1 is so self-aware and that for a brief period superman was brought into a real world where everything wasn't so black and white. I guess to give fuel to the anti-superman fire, it's nice to see him thinking about things and not solving them simply by punching them.

    It's a damn shame that straczynski didn't finish the masterpiece that he started

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  8. As much as I agree with this, I just can bring myself to fault Roberson. Not entirely at least. He was thrown in to a situation that he could not help but lose in. He is a perfectly capable writer both in and out of comics. This book screams editorial interference. From the Story that failed to make the cut to the revisions noted in your post that were not even 5 issues old. The story that replaced the Muslim/kitty in a tree (depending on who you believe)story was easily the best issue in the back half of this arc. For those that missed it, it is a great Krypto story that will probably never be collected anywhere, since it was an old inventory book that DC had wanted to forget about. It was the show stealer, and had Grounded vol 2 been even half as good as that single issue, it would have been far better than the "we phoned it in" book we ended up with.

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  9. The Krypto story (just to be clear, and you might have intended this) was Kurt Busiek's, not Chris Roberson's.

    No doubt the second volume has editorial interference from top to bottom, and the reversals within could just as easily be Roberson's as the editor's -- it's hard to say. To be sure, the kind of non-questioning, "all my values are OK" Superman that comes out of the second volume of Grounded seems like the kind of non-controversial direction DC was headed, in line with killing the Sinbad issue.

    At the same time, at that War Rocket Ajax link, Roberson seems pretty straightforward about what was his and what was not, and he says Grounded Vol. 2 was mostly his, so I tend to believe that.

    Where did I think Grounded was going, as Anoymous asked? Straczynski had the scene where Superman fought that beast in his dream, with the woman asking him if he'd keep fighting to save people even if it was useless. Obviously we know the answer is "yes," but I wonder if Straczynski would have pursued that further -- not just whether Superman would continue to fight against impossible odds, but whether he could inspire those around him to do the same.

    Straczynski set up a Superman who followed the law but wasn't beholden to it, who thought about what was right for the people in front of him, not just what was right. After Grounded, I'd have been interested to see Superman take that attitude back to Metropolis, maybe start to speak out to the people of Metropolis against Lex Luthor, cause some consternation with the police, and so on. Not to get too "topical," but this might've been the start of Superman as the head of a "people's movement" of sorts -- similar, I think, to what Grant Morrison is doing now in Action Comics.

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  10. "one where Superman sets fire to all the drugs in dealers' private residences even though he doesn't have a warrant"

    Not sure I understand this bit. Does Superman have some affiliation with a law enforcement agency that would allow him to obtain search warrants? Even if he got one, he could only seize but not destroy the relevant evidence.

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  11. Yes, that's true; it's not as though Superman asks Inspector Henderson for permission before he destroys Lex Luthor's latest war machine. The drug dealer, however, is chiding Superman in the scene that Superman "abide[s] by the law" and so therefore can't take away their drugs or knock their houses down. Which, I grant, does suggest the dealer hasn't seen Superman destroy one of Luthor's war machines on TV; at the same time, under the auspices of the DC Universe, I think if the public at large had a sense that Superman was going into houses and taking away anything he thought was bad, people might get a little nervous, so maybe the dealer isn't far off in saying that's not something Superman *normally* does.

    Combined with the scene with the jumper, where Superman knocks out a spotlight much to the chagrin of the police because the jumper asks him to, I think what Straczynski is trying to show is that his interpretation of Superman is one where Superman has a strict moral code -- a humanistic moral code, perhaps -- that doesn't necessarily abide by the rule of law or being chums with the police. And that's an attractive Superman to me, whereas Roberson's Superman who *must* choose the environment over the jobs of the Kansas factory workers is a Superman too cut and dried for my tastes.

    Love the discussion going on here. Just for good measure, here's a link to my review of Superman: Grounded Vol. 1. Thanks.

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  12. I'm actually kind of amazed you liked this. I thought it was good for some Superdickery style laughs and not much more.

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  13. Great review---rarely do i post, but i felt a definite discrepancy between v.1 & v.2.

    Your review has put into words what i accurately feel is the reason for my dislike of the 2nd volume.

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  14. Thanks, Anon. Comment more!

    @dl316bh -- Just to be clear, liked vol. 1, didn't like vol. 2. Your results may vary. Cheers!

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  15. I finally got hold of this at my LPL (local public library), and I think I liked it, but not enough to purchase it. I liked the way the tone shifts from Super-Emo more towards Grant Morrison's "Superman is the best idea we've ever had" theory. I definitely noticed the reversals you outline above, and those really detracted from my enjoyment, as well as the apparent filler chapters with Batman and The Flash. I had to chuckle at the "This guy doesn't know Superman!" scene in which the writers have to be commenting on the Internet backlash, but overall I liked the ending as an "ending" to the story because I've always been partial to stories that point to Superman's legacy being as important as his actual good deeds.

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  16. I agree with much of what you pointed out, but I feel the book is good if you let it stand as it's own title and terms. I simply like to think about the vol.1 as "Straczynski's Grounded" and Vol.2 is "Roberson's Grounded".

    Just think about Vol.1 and vol.2 as different ways of how Superman would act like after New Krypton.

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