“Grounded” (part 1)
Technically, Superman #701 was not J. Michael Straczynski’s debut on the title. In the previous issue he wrote a short prelude to “Grounded” in which some lady yells at Superman for not curing cancer and Superman reacts by storming off like a baby. Without that context, this issue comes off a lot better, so you’re not missing much if you missed it.
By now I’m sure most of you know the premise: Superman walks around the country to find himself. It’s a surprisingly low key start for Straczynski, he of such ambitious genre storytelling as Babylon 5 and Rising Stars. Granted, recent Superman comics have been about galactic battles and new Kryptons, so it’s smart to ground the guy a bit.
If this were a self contained issue, it’d be called “The Day Superman Came To Town!” But this is probably, like, twelve issues, so I imagine the novelty going to wear real thin. This first installment, however, is a series of cute vignettes: Superman walks around Philadelphia and just helps people. He uses his X-ray vision to detect problems in car engines and circulatory systems alike, rearranges a diner’s storeroom with his superspeed and uses his superliteracy to quote Thoreau. For all its O’Neill/Adams “Hard-Traveling Heroes” vibes, it also has a small town quaintness.
That is, when he’s not doing things that seem tailor made for Superdickery -- lighting drug dealers’ houses on fire with heat vision and flying fat beardos into the air to frighten them into shutting up. When someone points out that the drug dealers will settle somewhere else, Superman’s reaction is essentially, “Eh, but they’re not here anymore, are they?” Which is kind of the problem when you do a socially conscious Superman story--how does he not decide to be a relentless fascist? How does it not always come back to the Authority deposing despots and throwing them to the angry masses?
As much as I’m slagging it, Straczynski kinda had me until the climax, in which Superman persuades a jumper not to kill herself. If it sounds familiar, it’s because Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely already did it in All-Star Superman with one beautiful, heartwrenching page that said all it needed to say. Six powerful, elegant panels. I’d get it framed in my house if I weren’t poor. J. Michael Straczyski and Eddy Barrows? They do it in six goddamn pages of incessant yakking. That’s thirty panels followed by a full-page shot of Superman hugging the crying girl as Supes’ cape wraps around her. It’s even the same image, just with words instead of a silent hug.
Which reveals the problem with Straczynski (ignoring the really ill-conceived stuff like his run “The Amazing Totem Spider-Rape” and “Girls Night Out Before Barbara Gordon Gets Shot in the Spine” ) his scripts are overwritten. Most of the time he can’t not put a word balloon in a panel, which suggests a distrust of the artist. And the guy writes screenplays, so there’s no excuse.
At least it’s not bad to look at. Eddy Barrows is a fairly solid artist for the book, though his Superman fluctuates between sensibly muscular and approaching the dreaded Caucasian Hulk territory where he just looks stupid. If he’s Super, he doesn’t need gigantic muscles. He’s got a bit of a Brent Anderson vibe--and I think Astro City is a good comparison to draw with this book--particularly in the facial expression territory. His pages are often six panels stacked on one another, but this kind of story isn’t really conducive to sequential experimentation.
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