Saturday, 19 February 2011

Superman: J. Michael Straczynski's Grounded - My Tuppence Worth

Anyone casting a cursory glance over this blog may have noticed I'm a bit of a fan of a certain Man of Steel.  I'm also a fan of the work of J. Michael Straczynski, largely due to his long run on Amazing Spider-Man.  While there are a few dodgy bits to say the least I would argue that JMS' Spidey run rescued the character from a quagmire of '90s mediocrity and really moved the character forward, at least for awhile.  You can imagine then, how excited I was to learn that JMS was a massive Superman fan and was taking over writing duties on the main Superman title.  I enjoyed the New Krypton storyline that preceded JMS but it's fair to say that the storyline sagged in the middle and went on just a little bit too long.  I was ready for something different from Superman, something that would push the character forward while simultaneously reminding me of why I loved the character in the first place.  With Grounded JMS seemed to be promising just that.

But it wasn't to be.

JMS promised to take Superman "back to his roots. Bring him back to the soil that nourished him, literally and figuratively. 'Pin him to the Earth,'....Let him set out on a journey across America, on foot, so that we can see ourselves in his eyes and he can see himself in ours, and gain a better understanding on both sides as to who we are, who he is, and where we’re going."  Grounded was to be a story about Superman walking across the U.S.A, a different State for every issue.  Along the way he would attempt to reconnect with the ordinary people of the Earth that he felt he had neglected while fighting cosmic battles above their heads.  I thought it sounded like an interesting idea and was eager to see what JMS made of it.  I was however, in a minority.  The internet was awash with fans dismissing the story as a failure before one page of it had even seen print.  And unfortunately JMS just went ahead and proved the buggers right!

The internet is full of bloggers offering their tuppence worth on why Grounded just hasn't worked.  The most interesting article I've read on the subject was by Comics Alliance's Jason Michelitch who named the storyline the worst comic of 2010.  While I don't feel it's the worst comic of 2010 (Justice League: Rise of Arsenal has to take that crown) it's hard not to agree with Michelitch's main point of contention with the story.  From the very beginning of the story JMS is on the defensive.  Practically every word out of Superman's mouth is an attempt by JMS to justify this storyline.  In Michelitch's words the story "has a very clear message: Anyone who criticizes this comic is stupid and shallow and should shut the hell up."  If JMS had shut the hell up and allowed the story to be judged on it's own merits he could have got away with it, but instead he chose to lecture his readers with pretentious speeches about Henry Thoreau.  How can Superman reconnect with the common man if he's coming across as smug and preachy?  

The worst scene in the story so far has to be the bit in issue #701 where Superman flies a big fat reporter (who's blatantly meant to represent JMS' internet critics) into the sky for daring to ask why Superman wants to walk across America in the first place.  This scene was pure self indulgence.  If JMS is so bothered about what nerds say about him on the internet then I would much prefer him to take the Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back route and track down each negative blogger and beat the crap out of them on their doorstep.  At least that way he'd get it out of his system and I wouldn't have to read such bitchy, pointless rubbish in my comics!

There's another problem with Grounded that isn't really JMS' fault.  The whole Superman-wracked-with-doubt thing has already been done fairly recently, indeed it was a prominent theme in 2005/2006's Infinte Crisis.  We really didn't need to see this theme readdressed a mere four years later, even if JMS is addressing it in a different way.  In my opinion Greg Rucka wrote the last word on the 'troubled with doubt Superman' just before Infinite Crisis with the brilliant and under-rated Ruin Revealed storyline.  Rucka poses Superman an impossible question; what if you had no choice but to kill a villain in order to save lives?  Without spoiling too much, Rucka's solution is simple.  Other heroes may have to face this choice but Superman will always find another way because, quite simply, he is Superman.  After seeing Rucka have Superman lay many of his doubts to rest in such an entertaining way I'm finding it difficult to see the character once more questioning his role.  

Adventures of Superman #647 art by Renato Guedes

It's not all bad news though.  There are two things that have stopped this comic being the worst of 2010, at least as far as I'm concerned.  The first is Eddy Barrows artwork.  While Superman is busy being a preachy knobhead the only thing that stops me from attempting to reach into the page and give him a slap is Barrows' art.  Barrows has been expressing Superman's doubt as a sort of subtle, quiet sadness which really imbues the character with dignity.  Under Barrows' pen, JMS' preachy dialogue almost works.  Almost.  

Grounded's second saving grace has been issue #705.  JMS shows us a young boy eagerly awaiting Superman's passage through his town as he hopes Superman will save him from his abusive father.  Superman has been psychically attacked by an unknown foe during a dream and the injuries he sustained have physically manifested themselves in the form of a black eye which Lois has covered with make-up.  When Superman eventually passes the boy's house the boy is locked in the basement and Superman almost misses his cries for help.  Of course he hears them just in time and rescues the boy.  When the boy notices Superman's concealed shiner he asks "Does your Dad beat you too?"

The whole issue is so well written that despite knowing that Superman was inevitably going to rescue the boy I was on the edge of my seat as he passed the house.  When the boy asked Superman his question my heart broke and I couldn't wait to see Daddy getting a well deserved kicking.  Granted, it's a bit of a simplistic view of a very serious issue (a charge that can be levelled at most of the issues that JMS addresses during Grounded) but JMS played my emotions so well that I'll forgive him this time.

Of course despite this, the biggest problem with Grounded is that JMS has buggered off halfway through and left some other poor sod to cobble together the rest of the story from his notes!  To be fair JMS has left to concentrate on the second instalment of the far more satisfying Superman: Earth One, so at least he's concentrating on a Superman story that is working.  And Chris Roberson seems to be doing a pretty good job as JMS' replacement so far.  With Roberson at the wheel, JMS' preaching and defensiveness are no longer a factor and the story has been the better for it.  

So as a return to Superman's roots and an attempt to connect Superman with the common man once more, Grounded has failed.  But with J. Michael Straczynski's ego now taken out of the equation, we may at least get an enjoyable story out of it.

(Follow this link for my take on Roberson's Grounded.)


  1. Awesome stuff, Paul! I think I agree with pretty much everything you've stated here. From nothing touching Rise of Arsenal in pure awfulness, to issue #705 being the best issue of the short JMS Supes run(it was definitely my high-point ratings-wise), to the fact that we just went through the self-doubting Superman not that long ago. You perfectly put into words what I'd suspect a lot of Superman fans have been thinking since the JMS run began. If nothing else, hopefully we'll get a really good Supes: Earth One sequel with JMS giving that most of his comic book attention.

  2. Thanks dude. Despite Grounded's problems I really enjoyed Earth One, I really hope the sequel's good.

  3. That dialogue reads a lot like The Silver Surfer more than Superman...



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