Ever since J. Michael Straczynski began the “Grounded” arc in “Superman,” he’s helped readers with an easy answer to a common question: “What is the worst mainstream comic right now?”
Well, maybe that wasn’t such a common question, but it sure was an easy answer: “Superman.”
Straczynski’s “Grounded” story started off poorly, with laughable bathos and an over-earnest attempt to connect the Man of Steel with the “common man,” and it stumbled along for months (with a couple of fill-in issues in between) following that same, misguided course. A dull, sincere, un-Supermanlike Superman, solving social problems like child abuse and workforce reductions in expedient, black-and-white fashion, with little concern for the nuances of the issue and little concern for actually telling a story that used Superman in any meaningful way. Superman wasn’t all that super, when Straczynski was in charge.
It’s important to discuss Straczynski’s aborted run before talking about “Superman” #707, because even though the “Babylon 5” creator is credited with the plot of this issue, this is a Chris Roberson comic. And Roberson is saving this sinking ship, turning it toward clear waters, and, um, avoiding the sharks of post-Bronze Age social pedantry (or whatever other nautical metaphor means that this comic is way better than the last half dozen).
Nearly every scene in this comic subverts what Straczynski has been doing with the character by seemingly continuing on the same course, yet counteracting the absurdity with the dialogue.
Lois, for example, points out the ridiculousness of Superman using a cell phone, when he has so many other ways to communicate via long distance. Later, Superman “solves” an environmental dispute at the chemical plant with a speech, and yet it becomes abundantly clear that something is wrong with this Superman. He’s not acting like himself. He’s under the influence of…something (or someone).
All of which retroactively makes the Straczynski issues more interesting, as the silly plots and goofy characterization of Superman were all part of this larger mind control scenario, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. But though I’m always reluctant to ascribe intentions to a creative team, or to guess at behind-the-scenes shenanigans, this “Superman” issue seems to point to a single interpretation: Straczynski’s planned direction has been abandoned, and rather than throw his story away and say it had all been a dream, Roberson is in a situation where he has to transition out of a bad premise and head toward something that could rejuvenate this series.
And though the artwork of Allan Goldman doesn’t help this story fully achieve its apparent goal (his Lois Lane is preposterous-looking, and the stone-faced “emoting” from the characters doesn’t aid the dialogue as much as it should), Roberson has nearly done the improbable. He’s made “Grounded” worth reading, and offered hope that future issues will be even better, mostly by leaving behind everything that made this series unbearable over the past year.
After all, not only is Superman back (or at least directly told that he has a problem), but the Superman Squad is around to help. And wherever the Superman Squad goes, I’m sure to follow, particularly if Chris Roberson is leading the charge.