With the announcement that the latter half of the "Grounded" storyline in "Superman" will be scripted off of J. Michael Straczynski's plot outline by Chris Roberson, what little attention was being paid to the book seems to have instantly vanished. Now that I've sitting down with the latest issue, though, I can't help but think that the book shifting to Roberson's scripts might be the best thing for the series.
The bulk of "Superman" #705 takes an old and familiar story for the title, letting Superman deal with an abusive father. It's easy to see why so many writers have gone back to this well; it's a villain that readers may have encountered themselves. In many ways, it's almost like we're reading a public service announcement in the form of a comic, a reminder about the good and bad people out there.
Here's the big question, though: do people who read "Superman" want to read this sort of story? I suspect the answer is somewhere along the lines of, "not really." Or at least, not with this level of triteness. The abusive father is a large, beefy man with a mustache (why do almost all fictional abusive fathers have a mustache?) who is so over the top in his snarling behavior that all he's missing is a set of devil horns. The young boy has big blue eyes that regularly well with tears. The mother manages to both be cringing and unable to stand up to her husband, yet the second she's away from him suddenly spills everything to the police. And then, at the end, one of the police officers says a bit of dialogue so fake that it's slightly mind-boggling. "Good thing you came along, Superman. Otherwise we might never have known about any of this. It needed you to get to the bottom of it." It's of course a set-up for Superman explaining that no, anyone could have been a hero there, but it's so badly written that it's hard to believe this is the same writer who's done such a good job elsewhere. This feels more like a Lifetime cable channel movie about spousal abuse rather than anything even remotely realistic.
If you rewind a bit, though, and boil the issue down to its basic elements, you can see it's not so bad. "Superman is upset by claims that his walk across the country is attracting violence. A young boy excited about Superman has an abusive father. Superman's dreams are affecting his physical self, while a now-unfamiliar Wonder Woman makes an appearance. Superman ends up helping the family become safe from the abusive father." There's a lot of ways those plot elements could have played out when you go from outline to actual script, and it gives me some hope that Roberson's arrival might end up pulling Straczynski's "Grounded" into something more appealing.
Wellington Dias steps in to pencil part of the issue with Eddy Barrows, and overall their styles match fairly well. They've both got that clean look that the Super-books so often use as their house style, although strangely enough both of them seem to be having problems with expressions this month. The "you are a gun" woman in Chicago, for instance, has such a vacant, glazed look on her face that I thought we were going to learn she was a zombie. And it wasn't until three pages after it first appeared that I realized we were supposed to think that Superman's face was beaten up after his dream, because it looked just like it was drawn elsewhere. And the less said about Superman's snarling expression toward the end of the book, the better. It's too bad because for every good pose or expression here (and there are some nice, classy images here), there's another one that undoes it.
Right now, "Superman" isn't where it should be. Considering the strong groups of books coming out of the Batman stable, it's a little frustrating to see what should be the one of the three flagship titles at DC Comics not quite hitting the mark. (Fortunately there's still the entertaining "Action Comics" right now.) Here's hoping that in 2011 Roberson can turn "Grounded" into the entertaining story that it has the potential to be.