SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for "Superman" #700, in stores today.
When DC Comics announced that writer J. Michael Straczynski would be taking over their core "Superman" title with today's issue #700, word soon spread of the writer's plans for a story that saw Superman reconnect with America and Americans in a plot where he walked across the country. Today, the publisher made it clear that said reconnection would be more literal than readers might have expected.
In a story in USA Today, DC and JMS announced that the upcoming "Grounded" arc as drawn by artist Eddy Barrows will not only see the Man of Steel visiting a number of larger American cities from Philadelphia to Seattle with many stops in between, the character will also be stopping by small towns where his real life fans live...if they can convince JMS that they're worthy. Starting on July 1, readers who live within 50 miles of Superman's walking path are encouraged to write 75 to 1,000-word essays describing why their home town deserves a visit from the superhero – including proof of their communities' comic book and literary interests as well as any reasons why Superman would want to go there. Nine winners will have their town worked into JMS' story and receive signed copies of the comic by the writer and Barrows. (A full copy of the contest rules can be read at DC's blog, The Source).
For more on the origins of his intensive idea, what it means for the character of Superman, how he hopes to bring the hero and the country closer together and what he expects from fans writing in, JMS spoke with CBR News.
CBR News: Joe, I usually hate to start interviews with writers by doing the "where did this idea come from?" thing, but with a project like "Grounded," the question is almost begging to be asked. Did you conceive of this story idea before the real-world participation angle came into play, or were the two ideas linked from when you first started planning your "Superman" run?
J. Michael Straczynski: I was having dinner with Dan DiDio during one of his visits to LA. He mentioned wanting to make Superman more relevant, that he’d kind of lost his position as America's (and Earth's) First Hero. Putting him in one big cosmic event after another had actually resulted in pushing him farther from his adopted homeworld, and filling the book with other Kryptonians who had their own Superman-esque symbols and the same power set had diluted what makes Superman unique.
So I said, "I think I have a solution, but it's totally counter-intuitive, so it'll take cojones the size of Stonehenge for any publisher to go along with this, because the odds of failure are freaking immense." Fortunately, we’re at a place now with DC where they’ll take chances and approve stories that they might not have approved in earlier years, so he wanted to know more.
I said, "Superman can fly around the planet in seconds, but he doesn’t really see much of it. He’s above it. So let’s pin him to the ground. Let him come to a point where he realizes that while he hasn't precisely lost touch with his adopted homeworld, he does need to re-engage with that world, and America in particular, in a profoundly personal way. Let him walk across the country and get involved with the personal stories of those he encounters. Let's see America through his eyes, and Superman through America's eyes."
But this couldn’t be just a theoretical journey, or it wouldn’t count. I felt strongly at the time that we had to get the country involved in this. Get the nation talking and thinking about Superman again. Let folks get involved and write in and explain why Superman should come to their town. Then we can have him actually visit that town, that street, in the pages of the book. Make it kind of an event contained within one book, Superman Across America.
On a basic plot level, what brings the Man of Steel to undertake this journey? Is there an opening conflict – either of the big sci-fi action variety or the human drama variety – that motivates him over the course of your arc?
#700 picks up after the New Krypton debacle, and Superman is talking to a bunch of reporters, laying out what his next step will be, and it’s the same outer-space stuff, when a woman approaches him through the crowd and just slaps him, hard. She knows he can’t be hurt by it, but she hopes he can feel it, feel her grief. We discover that while Superman was out doing his New Krypton thing, her husband died of a tumor that he could have fixed with ease...but he didn’t, because he wasn’t here, he was out there somewhere. This strikes Superman hard, and he begins to realize that he’s let his eyes drift from where he may be most needed...and sets out to try and correct that.
That said, any good story works both for its own internal story logic and for its metaphorical underpinnings, although it seems like this one will be particularly complex for both ends of that equation. In your view, why does Superman need to reconnect with America within the comic itself as well as in a broader cultural sense with our society?
The dilemma with Superman kind of parallels the political dynamic at the moment, where the average guy in the street feels that there is a disconnect between those in power and everybody else. Superman has kind of become this distant, aloof figure on a high mountaintop, doing vast and terribly important things that don’t seem to involve us, his adopted family. So the book works within its own continuity, as a fictional story, and outside in the current political landscape as a larger metaphor for how power has come to be perceived.
To "walk the map" that Superman will be taking on for a moment, the story gets rolling in Philadelphia. Certainly there's a lot of history and personality there to fit into a tale like this, but what was it about Philly that screamed "starting point" for this story as opposes to other East Coast cities, from New York to Boston?
Starting in New York, Metropolis or Boston would be the logical, and thus the most over-done choice. So I did a fair amount of research on Philadelphia, and even sent on Google street-view links to Eddy so he’d have specific visuals to go with the story I was telling. So we use actual streets and blocks and neighborhoods.
On one level, where better to start off Superman than the City of Brotherly Love? After making that choice, Dan pointed out that there’s a Philly con at that same time, so it worked out perfectly.
From there, you've got a variety of cities playing a role in this story, from the Midwest to the Southwest to the West Coast. What kind of considerations went in to choosing the route? Do you have a lot of hard and fast rules for what will happen in each city, or do you have to play it a bit loose at times until you see what the fan submissions bring forth?
I set up a rough through-line of stories based on the general geography of where he was traveling as my safety net, which will allow me to go off and create elements more specific to various areas as we go along. So there’s an aspect of being free and loose but I can’t fall too far thanks to the safety net. It has to be flexible enough to adjust to the wishes and decisions of the readers.
The important thing is to bring him through areas that could provide different sorts of stories and environments. Based on those environments, we can open it up to the country to decide which towns he will pass through on his journey. We will take him through the best and the worst parts of us as a people and a nation, through pleasant suburban neighborhoods and blighted inner cities...through farmland and the rust-belt, through urban settings and parts of the country where there are just miles and miles of miles and miles...allowing us to see our strengths as a people and our frailties with equal honesty, an exploration of the better and darker angels of our nature, in which Superman will find that there are some things he can fix, and some that are beyond even his reach.
Speaking of the fans and their contributions to this projects, the logistics of this thing seem both exciting and daunting. Who, between you, your editors and Eddy Barrows, will be diving into the stack of mail along the line, and what do you expect the response and the process to be like?
[DC Publicity Manager] Alex Segura, God bless him, is taking first whack at the stack. He’ll narrow it down and fire off the best to me, and I’ll make the call from there. I suspect that the response will be substantial, so it’ll be a matter of whittling through the letters to see what sparks.
The contest announcement literally leaves the power to get Superman's attention in the hands of fans, leaving the kinds of essays and presentations they make to you up to them. What kinds of things are you hoping will be included in the submissions? Are you looking for something in particular?
Enthusiasm counts for a lot. Beyond that, it’s whatever a community can bring to make the difference. Will the mayor declare Superman Day on the day the book comes out in their city, or hand Superman the key to the city (which we would realize in the book)? Is there a local reporter who’d be willing to conduct an "interview" with Superman at a local coffee shop (I would provide the responses)? Reference photos that we can use legally are also a help. Anything that says, "We as a community would like to invite Superman to come by and visit us in the pages of the book."
There was never any thought of having an actual guy show up dressed as Superman, by the way. It’s too complicated. Besides, when George Reeves used to visit events as Superman, the kids ended up running off crying because Superman couldn’t actually fly.
Of course, this journey won't be without its own complications and threats...it is a Superman comic after all! The solicitation mentions those who'd rather not see the Man of Steel complete his journey. What can you say at this point about those antagonists in this series?
There are bureaucrats and those who don’t like the idea on its own terms...people who are involved in dark business that Superman could accidentally discover...and those who have come here from other worlds, who have moved into abandoned cities, buildings and neighborhoods and risk discovery.
And being a Superman series, I have to ask after the supporting cast. How will Lois, Jimmy and the rest of the crew be covering this journey for the Daily Planet or otherwise be working their way into this cross-country story?
Lois shows up in #701, and will appear again at various points of the story. Jim may also show up, as will others who will journey alongside Superman for some of his journey.
Overall, the promise of both this story and this contest is the idea that Superman is looking to change America as it changes him. When all is said and done, how would you like people to view Superman differently than they do now? In other words, what do you hope an idea like this can accomplish for the character's role in our culture?
I would like to revive the perception of Superman as the hero of the average guy, and a symbol of hope, because that’s how he started out in the aftermath of the Great Depression: a force of infinite power who was there on the side of people who had no other recourse, no hope. Superman stands for what is best in us, in what we hope we are when push comes to shove. He shouldn’t be this guy on a distant mountaintop...he should be the court of last resort for the guy on the street, who can turn a corner and find the most powerful man on the planet standing there, saying "How can I help?" For the lost, the dispossessed, the runaway, the thrown-away, and for those who just need an image to associate with hope, I think this is a profoundly powerful image.
"Superman" #700, an anniversary issue including the first chapter of JMS and Eddy Barrows' "Grounded" arc, is on sale in comic shops today.