Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: Superman #707

Superman #707 was released last week, the first chapter of 'Grounded' that is scripted by new writer Chris Roberson from a plot by J. Michael Straczynski.

I am trying to be patient with 'Grounded' and hope that Roberson might be able to improve this arc. So far I just haven't enjoyed 'Grounded'. Superman is portrayed in an almost negative light, condescending at times, aloof or apathetic elsewhere.  And when there has been opportunity to use the title to talk about social issues within the country, it has been handled in such a heavy-handed way that it borders on unintentional parody. And I haven't even mentioned the 2 interlude issues which only delayed this story coming to a close.

I don't exactly know what Straczynski was thinking with this arc and I guess I'll never know since he has flown the coop. But that abandonment of the book gave Roberson the opportunity to right the ship. I don't know how much autonomy he has since he is working from JMS' notes. Unfortunately, this issue was the same old 'Grounded' for me; another issue where Superman comes off as 'wrong'. This isn't the Superman I grew up reading. This really isn't a Superman I want to be reading.

Eddy Barrows didn't pencil this issue. Allan Goldman steps in and does his best to channel Barrows style. But there are some missteps on art this issue as well.

The issue opens with Superman walking through Iowa and pitching in to foil some robberies and save some lives. Despite doing this, he seems mired in emotional fatigue, questioning who he is. He calls Lois on her cell phone (he says using the phone will further connect him to the plight of the common man) and vocalizes how he doesn't know who he is anymore. 'Truth, justice, and the American way' are just words. Is he doing any good at all? My guess is the policeman we see him shielding from gunfire and the girl he saves from being run over by a train would emphatically say 'yes'. This doesn't sound like the man that Ma and Pa raised to use his powers to inspire.

It is interesting to see the Iowan crowds around Superman. In a panel from his perspective, the townspeople see angry or suspicious. When we see the same scene from the citizens' viewpoint, they are smiling, pointing, and taking pictures of Superman. It is a subtle hint that perhaps all this angst is in Superman's mind ... maybe thrust there as mind control?

Perhaps the most glaring art faux pas in this issue is Goldman's portrayal of Lois. What exactly is she wearing here? This just doesn't look like anything Lois Lane would be caught dead in, especially when we learn she is doing hard-core investigative journalism, researching environmental infractions in a factory in Kansas. And never has Lois had such ... ahem ... pulchritude. It is so off-putting that she distracted me from the story every time she is seen.

Lois is standing outside the factory when chemical drums within explode. Superman springs into action, flying immediately to the facility, saving all the workers. After extinguishing the blaze, Superman realizes that the very structure of the plant has been compromised. He needs to prop the walls up and uses some steel rods from a local transport truck to do the job.

But again we see this rather cranky response to Superman by people. Here the truck driver call him Super-jerk.

Lois begins explaining the story to Superman. A worker from the plant has noticed multiple violations of environmental standards. This is an older factory which has passed inspection through a series of bribes. The smokestacks put pollutants in the air and chloride compounds are being dumped into the ground water nearby.

No matter who he talks to about the problem, the worker gets the run-around. The bribes stop local inspectors from blowing the whistle.

In fact, it is these same safety issues that lead to the recent explosion.

Lois thinks a high profile expose in the Daily Planet might lead to solutions.

The workers of the plant are nearby ... remember Superman just had to save them from dying in a chemical fire ... and begin to defend the plant.

Well ... they can't defend the lapses in their environmental safeguards. Instead, the workers talk about the economic crisis the town is facing, how the plant is the only place which continues to hire and pay, how without that paycheck these men can't continue their idyllic existence of Sunday's in the park.

So even if the chloride is killing plants and local wildlife, it isn't effecting human life. And does Superman really want to bankrupt a whole town and its citizens?

What would Superman say to this?

Well this Superman can't really make a decision instead commenting on how things aren't always black and white. This is gray.

Lois is rightly outraged. But ... ugh ... look at that Lois. It's ludicrous.

The truth is Superman would probably worry about the local plant and wildlife. But more importantly, there is more going on here that just leaky chemical drums. This place almost went up in a ball of fire just seconds ago. Its structure needed to be propped up with steel beams. Would Superman think a paycheck was worth endangering these people's lives to the point that it is worth sending them back into a sort of OSHA minefield?

Listening to this from afar is the possessed school teacher from a few issues back. When hearing Superman say that it isn't always easy to tell right from wrong, she smiles.

But Superman not telling right from wrong? That isn't Superman. Ever.

I have a theory about this woman and the direction of 'Grounded' but more about that at the end.

In the end, Superman demands that the plant get up to code and he is going to come back and check to make sure it is going to happen. But the plant can remain open. Superman won't blow the whistle about the infractions.

It seems a little naive. Certainly the fire will bring in other reporters besides Lois, other organizations besides the local crooked inspectors. Can he just sweep this all under the rug with a couple of sentences?

And wouldn't he at least try to bring those officials who took bribes to justice? Remember, their illegal actions led to the explosion that almost killed all these people. How can Superman just overlook that near loss of life? Somehow he does.

And what's worse, he demands that Lois kill the story.

When she refuses, he actually grabs her and emphatically repeats that she can't run it. It has a feeling of physical intimidation, doesn't it? Would Superman ever ever do that? Would Superman ever tell a reporter to hide the truth? Bury a story? Would he ever grab a reporter, let alone his wife, and demand that? It is perhaps the most unsettling, the most distasteful part of the issue. Superman doesn't do this. He doesn't.

And look at Lois, all cleavage and short shorts here.Ugh.

Fed up with Superman's actions, she storms off.

Not surprising, she refuses to answer his calls. Why should she? Why would she?

As he bemoans his inability to see the right path, he is interrupted by the Superman Squad, a group wearing S-shields and promising to help answer his questions. At least this is an interesting ending.

But this whole issue just read completely wrong to me. Completely .... wrong.

Superman is supposed to be the role model, supposed to be what everyone ... superhero or common person ... inspires to be like. I don't like this Superman.

Now maybe this whole thing is supposed to be some telepathic, some emotional warfare on Superman, breaking him down. Maybe I am supposed to not like this conflicted guy so that when he defeats whatever is doing this to him, whenever we see him regain his resolve, we'll be happy to have him back. But is painful to read this.

So if this is some attack on the Man of Steel, who is behind it? Well, this instability of Superman reminds me of the this storyline from the late 1990s where a villain named Dominus controls Superman, making him paranoid about his ability to safeguard the world. That Superman creates an army of super-robots to patrol the Earth 24/7 and sets himself as king of the world. Could this be Dominus again?

My theory is that the school teacher has been possessed by one of Zod's men in the Phantom Zone. Remember, War of the Supermen ended with all the Kryptonian soldiers being banished to the Zone. Could they all be so evil they deserve that fate? Or was there some 'gray' in their actions such that putting them in the Zone could be construed as 'wrong'. What if this story actually is a counterpoint to War of the Supermen? What if this is to teach Superman the lesson that putting 'innocent' Kryptonians in the Zone was the wrong thing to do?

Theories aside, it is getting more and more difficult to read this book. All I want is a true Superman book again. And 'Grounded' isn't it.

Overall grade: D


Martin Gray said...

Nice review, Anj. Well, you know my opinion of the book, so let's get to your theory.

If DC do suddenly call 'mind control via school-teacher' - possessed or otherwise - I'll cry foul. Because Superman was acting off miles before he came across teacher and her town.

If DC tries to play the mind control card at all I'll be well-peeved because it's so obviously a U-turn ... there is no way JMS intended such at the start of this storyline; he's used Superman to bounce questions off from the start. That was his stated intention. Ham-fisted as the approach has proven, I believe he was at least sincere in intent. To then claim Superman is possessed or whatever would be too much.

Also, how many times have we seen Superman off his head post-Crisis? Yes, there was Dominus, there was the nervous breakdown when he thought he was Gangbuster ... it's no wonder Lex Luthor and General Lane think he's a danger to the planet.

By the way, thanks for reminding me of the Dominus storyline, one of my favourites of that period. My absolute favourite is the Time and Time Again storyline, with its shifting time periods and art styles.

mathematicscore said...

Astute as always, Anj! Superman defending Corporate interests because they provide paychecks to the working man... Yeah, that really excites me and inspires me to be a better person.

Didn't Grant Morrison show us that uncertain, morally paralyzed Superman doesn't work? If Superman should always reflect the emotional state of America, shouldn't this be a time the "tough get going?" Didn't early, barely-out-of-the-Great-Depression Superman regularly actually fix social problems like this?

Throw some corrupt officials in jail, Super speed fix up/improve the plant...heck use Kryptonian technology to put all this pollution crap behind us; Superman would do plenty different than whoever this clown is.

I will second the love for Time and Time Again.

Gear said...

Thanks ANJ, great review.

I'm having a very hard time with this because I'm a big JMS booster, having absolutely loved most everything he's done before he came to DC, and I just don't understand how someone who has written things I like so much could produce something quite so... well, tone deaf, insipid, downright bad. I don't know what else to say, you've said it so well. Superman, manhandling Lois. Wow.

I keep wanting Clark to wake up and say, "Lois, you won't believe the nightmare I just had", like the final episode of the Bob Newhart show. I don't know how else they're going to dig themselves out of this one otherwise short of a big Crisis style reboot.

And the art. Why is Lois Lane dressed that way? That's not anything a professional adult woman would dress in to go anywhere, hiking through the country or otherwise. Particularly alone. My goodness, I want to send Goldman a catalog from L.L. Bean or Cabela's or REI. Or he could just Google the phrase "Women's Hiking Shorts", that's all the research that's needed. It's like he got his notion of women's clothing from a music video.

I'm hoping the reason Lois didn't answer is that she's on the phone making some calls. "Kara? Bruce? Diana? I need help now, something's seriously wrong with Clark!"

This comic is breaking my heart. As Silver-Age Superman would say, "Great Scott! Gasp!... Sob!... Choke!"

Sterling? Could you come back and fix Superman? Please?

Kandou Erik said...

I recall a time Superman would demolish an entire neighborhood slum, with nary an afterthought for the consequences of such an act.

I am immensely glad JMS is off the title. I only wish Chris Roberson didn't have to be associated with this plot-line. Based on what I've read of iZombie - I think a Roberson written Superman story would be awesome! Maybe DC will give him a chance to do his own story after ruining his good name in association with this story.

Anonymous said...

Just when I thought this couldn't get any worse. This is quite possibly the worst Superman story of all time, and that's not hyperbole. I have never been as thoroughly disgusted with a comic book than I have Superman over the last seven months. How the heck are they going to retcon this story out of existence? Let me guess: it's all part of a villain's master plan to have Superman behaving like a sociopath, perhaps under the influence of some new form of Kryptonite? It does not matter. This story is a disgrace. We had an entire issue about the horrors of domestic violence, and now this issue we have Superman verbally and physically intimidating his own wife! We have Lois dressing like a prostitute for no good reason. I could go on, but what would be the point? I've made my opinion clear.

This story is a disgrace. For eight long months, we've endured this thing, and there's still seven months to go. I just don't think I can take it any longer. When I saw Superman put his hand on Lois' arm, I got sick to my stomach, literally.

By the way, Superman does care about the environment. The real Superman, the Superman I know and grew up with, would figure out a way to save the plants, water, and animals while also fixing the factory and having everyone keep their jobs.

Sorry for the long comment. I am just revolted by this whole thing. After reading this, I pulled out my "Superman for the Animals" charity comic to wash the foul taste from my mouth. Check the dollar bins for this at your next convention. If you want to see Superman acting like the hero that he is toward the environment, then this is it.


valerie21601 said...

The way DC Comics is handling this storyline it's like their trying to ruin Superman on purpose. Its like their trying to make him second or third rate hero for some unknown reason, trying to devalue him.

This really makes me wonder what is truly going on behind the scenes there.

I have a conspiracy theory about why their doing it but will keep it to myself for now.
It's on the level of John Feer paranoia.

Gear said...

I have a conspiracy theory about why their doing it but will keep it to myself for now.

I know how you feel. I just try to remind myself it's more likely that they're just failing at their work.

"Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness." - Goethe

The League said...

I am not going to say this is a great comic or even a good comic. And I agree that JMS and DC greatly miscalculated on this storyline. I also suspect editorial forced this one on Idleson and he's making the best of a bad situation.

I'm not sure if Roberson is pulling a Sterling Gates and saying "oh, ha, yeah... all of that bad writing was just Kryptonite poisoning". I have no idea. (which saved Supergirl for me, btw)

All of that aside: I don't really understand why so many reviews have come down on this issue stating that "Superman always knows what to do" or "the answer is obvious". (a) If the answer is always obvious and Superman is always right, and he always wins, is invulnerable, etc... then... why are bothering to read this? Why are YOU bothering to read these comics? That's not rhetorical. That's a real question. (b) Nothing about the situation painted was obvious. We have exactly these problems all over the planet in hundreds of variations, and they go unresolved every single day. Superman super-ing a solution as we saw in the Aliens in Detroit issues was deeply unsatisfactory story wise. As was Superman burning up the drug dealer's stashes. Here, I think we're getting to the heart of the issue. Life is complicated when you're not just facing down intergalactic despots.

Maybe I'm alone, but a quick, super-resolution to this quandry would have left me feeling that the writer didn't understand the gravity of both arguments, and a quick solution was as much a problem as trying to suggest Superman just supered away disease and famine in our world.

I don't read comics, Superman or otherwise, to get a reassuring pat on the head. I'll take a writer challenging me by way of Superman, any day. Enjoy some nuance and complication. And hope that Roberson's final pages there point to something new and great. The response to this comic has been... astounding.

That said... yeah, Superman is clearly acting off, and folks who think he's being "mischaracterized" are likely somewhat correct. I HOPE we don't go to the mind control well again, and its something more creative.

Anj said...

(a) If the answer is always obvious and Superman is always right, and he always wins, is invulnerable, etc... then... why are bothering to read this? Why are YOU bothering to read these comics? That's not rhetorical. That's a real question.

Thanks for all the great comments from everyone. I really had a negative feeling about this issue when I was done so sorry if this review was more visceral than my usual.

And thanks for your comment, League. I have toyed with the idea of 'voting with my dollars' and dropping the title but I am too much of a Superman fan to just stop reading right now.

I don't want Superman to just magically make people's problems go away. As you say, without conflict there can be no story.

But I do want him to solve some problems. I just felt this issue he made the wrong decisions. If he wants to give the plant the chance to make things right ... that is fine. But he shouldn't have Lois kill the story, instead ask her to focus on the plant's new dedication for safety. And he should bring the inspectors to justice or this potential tragedy will happen at the plant down the road. There was too much injustice or wrongdoing left untouched here for me to feel good about what Supes did.

Whenever you inject 'real life' issues into superhero comics, the storytelling becomes tricky. It needs to be of the highest quality or it will fail. I look at the Paul Dini/Alex Ross 'Superman Peace on Earth' as a great example of that sort of story done right.

But if you are going to do a year long story about human problems and super-heroes, it better be pitch perfect. And this, so far, isn't.

Gear said...

ANJ, sorry in advance for the length of my response, but this is a good question and deserves some thought.

If the answer is always obvious and Superman is always right, and he always wins, is invulnerable, etc... then... why are bothering to read this? Why are YOU bothering to read these comics? That's not rhetorical. That's a real question.

OK, that’s a good question. I’m reading comics for good story telling, good writing, art that amazes me (or at least doesn’t make me say “WTF?”), and a ripping good yarn. When I don’t think that’s what I’m getting I grow unhappy.

I don’t expect Superman to be always right, always win, always invulnerable. But I do expect him, and every character I read, to conform to some basic core values that define the character. If they don’t, I expect it to either be explained, have early hints that something’s up, or have lots of people who know that character to have those core values to be questioning what’s going on. One of Superman’s core values is Truth (yes, as in Truth, Justice, and the American Way.) And in this episode he blithely signs on to a lie via obstruction of justice and the cover-up of criminal activity (bribery and falsification of inspection records.) And that's for something that’s going to come out within weeks anyway as the state and federal inspectors flock to the disaster site, OSHA begins looking over safety records, and the EPA starts independent testing of the dirt, air, and ground water as always happens after a big chemical fire.

I’m not looking for a quick resolution, I’m looking for a better definition and exposition of the problem in a way that isn’t out of tune with what I’ve been told about the character and the way the world works. If he’s under mind control, that might explain it. But even then when they hit a value that’s at the core of his being he should immediately question his actions and say “Wait… this isn’t right… what am I doing?” Even if he then rationalizes his way out of it. Instead he’s doing it and questioning afterwards, which says it’s not a core value but instead a peripheral one.

And when our friends or family begin behaving in ways that violate what we know is at the core of their personality we question it as well. When I mentioned Lois calling Kara, Bruce, and Diana earlier in this thread I was only being partially facetious. All of his friends and peers in the JLA know who he is and how he behaves. If this was good writing they’d be giving this aspect some basic lip service, a panel or two such as Kara saying to Bruce “Clark’s behaving so strange, it’s not like him. Something’s wrong, something’s really wrong, and I don’t know what to do. Super powers don’t help this sort of thing. Bats, you always know what to do, you’ve got to help.” Or Lois talking to Martha Kent on the phone, telling her how worried she is. Something! But we get nothing, this might as well be a Silver Age imaginary story for the depth of character interaction we’re getting while Clark is suffering from what looks like a nervous breakdown.

I’m a huge JMS fan, I’ve followed him for a long time and have a lot of faith in his ability to produce a product I’ll enjoy. I also know his writing style is to plant things in his story telling that pop up to surprise much later, which means that the real payback is 6 months to a year down the road. Because of this I was being very patient with the story telling, I knew there were some “bangs” coming that would surprise and entertain me. But for whatever reason he’s off on other projects and the story is now being scripted from his plot notes and I have no idea if the delayed gratification I was used to with a JMS project is going to happen. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s not. Or even if he really had something devious and interesting in mind. So, I’m annoyed, frustrated, and disappointed. It feels like I was led down the garden path and I’m not getting what I thought I was buying. And it comes out in my review.

The League said...

I actually agree with all of what you said. And, yes, "Peace on Earth" accomplished what I think is happening with Superman in a much better way. Its not that you can't tell the story, you have to do it well.

What I have to point out is that readers seem to take exception to how Superman dealt with Lois and killing the story and decided "that's wrong". Well, exactly. So, what is Roberson and/ or JMS trying to tell us? We have to be active participants in the story and not just judges of what we like and don't like, and remember that this is essentially the 2nd act turning point in JMS's outline. Watching Star Wars we don't decide at the 1/3rd mark that Luke's uncle and aunt are dead and he should just throw in the towel.

I'm not sure monthly comics can take the beehive of criticism that comes with the format. People had very strong negative feelings on All Star Superman and other successes while each individual issue was coming out. But as a whole... now considered an instant classic.

I don't know how to overcome the problem that the initial 12-issue story is now 14.25, and that its going to be over a year from start to finish. That's an editorial problem if ever there was one.

I'd just like to see some patience out of my fellow comic readers if they plan to stick with the monthly format (I've actually given up on monthlies for everything BUT Superman books). You can't expect the same reading experience as with a trade or graphic novel, but the comics are increasingly written for the eventual collection, and a lot of readers are bailing before the point of sthe story even becomes clear, not just here, but across all of comics.

The League said...

whoop, I directed my comment at anj, but I think it applies to Gear as well.

And I do want to reiterate: I don't think this is a great comic at this time, but I'm just seeing certain trends in comic reviews that I find curious.

Martin Gray said...

There's nothing I see as curious, The League. Most people reviewing Superman a la JMS simply don't like the book. There's nothing sinister going on - perhaps he's just not a good fit for the series?

Gear said...

ANJ, I hope you don't mind the extended meta-discussion in the comments section. It's an interesting and important issue, but I'll shut up if you think we're going too far off track. Anyway....

What I have to point out is that readers seem to take exception to how Superman dealt with Lois and killing the story and decided "that's wrong". Well, exactly.

It could be a good direction to take the story. There could be great pathos and drama, it might be the best Superman story ever. There's a very interesting story there to be told, and I'd like to hear it. How will Superman recover from this problem? Can Lois forgive him? Should she?

But, as a reader, by the time the I got to that point in the story I was already frustrated by some of the art, the dialog, and what seemed to me to be very poor execution. As an example, the very first panel has Superman protecting a police officer from bullets. He has his gun drawn, but didn't put his car between himself and the bank where the robbery was taking place, basic police procedure in this sort of situation. He has his back turned to the crime scene as if he wasn't paying any attention. This was the first panel. And I'm already making grumbling noises.

On the next page I see Lois. What's that she's wearing? I swear, every artist that draws a woman wearing shorts like that should be made to wear a pair just like it and walk a mile. I'll buy the vaseline and aspirin when they're done. And that top! And those... um, when did she get those? She looks like Cat Grant in training.

It went on, and on. And on.

By the time I got to the scene where Superman begins the spouse abuse I had totally lost my ability to suspend disbelief, to stay in the story, and work with the writer. They'd lost me, so it would be very difficult for me to take something that repellant and say to myself "Well, maybe they've got something in mind here, I'll go with it." Nope, I was done. I think I'm not the only one.

I'd just like to see some patience out of my fellow comic readers if they plan to stick with the monthly format (I've actually given up on monthlies for everything BUT Superman books). You can't expect the same reading experience as with a trade or graphic novel, but the comics are increasingly written for the eventual collection, and a lot of readers are bailing before the point of sthe story even becomes clear, not just here, but across all of comics.

And there it is. The stories aren't being written for the monthly trade, they're being written for collections. But it's those of us that buy the monthly comics (I still spend about $100/month on floppies) that are writing the stinky comments. They're writing for the collections, selling the product in tiny bite-size pieces to the montly crowd, and are worried when the monthly crowd thinks a product not written for them reads like... well, like something written for a different audience and format. And it's the monthly market that is slowly evaporating, but it's also that monthly market that produces the sales that keep a particular comic in business. What to do? Howzabout maybe write a few more comics for us montly schlubs. You can have New Krypton, and War Of The Superman, and Zombie-Heroes from the Darkest Night. Give me Supergirl #58 and #59, or Batgirl #14, and Amanda Conner's stuff. I'll buy the mutli-issue epics that are eventually meaningless if I can be entertained by the shorter stuff with some humanity.

I have patience - I give them my money. And a lot of it. Since the early 60's in fact, when I could buy two comics and still get change for my quarter. It's those of us that are still buying lots of monthly comics that are showing the patience. But I'm not going to be served a grilled cheese sandwich and call it tenderloin steak, then or now. Sorry.

Anj said...

I don't mind the discussion at all. I think it's great.

I prefer monthlies over trades as well. And I have the patience to ride out a story to its conclusion even if the beginning is perplexing ... assuming the story is good. I don't know if we have that here.

Part of my reaction may be that this story came right after New Krypton. We haven't had a true Superman story since John's Brainiac story. That was late 2008! That doesn't mean I want only formulaic 'punch the bad guys' story. Far from it. Heck, I loved All Star Superman, every issue.

But Grounded came on the heels of NK. And it also is looooonng. We aren't even half way through. We've had 2 interludes.

When you add when it is happening, and its length, I think I can have the expectation that I'll get very good stories.

I suppose that another perk of monthlies is that you can leave at any time without spending as much as you would for trades. I left the JMS' Wonder Woman after 2 issues because I could already tell it wasn't for me.

Kandou Erik said...

I commented before about the issue. I had paged through most of it on the way home from the comic store, and saw all of the incipid story beats - so I thought I was justified in joining in and saying it sucked too.

I was damn surprised when I actually read it, though - as I thought it was pretty good. Not saying Superman's decision was correct or anything, but the whole story just felt different and better. Plus the colorist really elevated the art, adding all those glowy effects to Superman when he was flying around at super speed.

Seriously, color me surprised - I did not expect to have this reaction! I gotta hand it to Roberson - he's completely saved this gosh-awful storyline. Now I really hope he gets a chance to write his own tale after finishing this up.

Oh, and before the rotten fruit and bricks come flying my way -- it's just my opinion. I readily sympathize with everyone else's opinions. I though I shared the same opinion as well.

Dean Trippe said...

Superman was wrong. Lois was right. For the first time in Grounded, Superman's sudden dickishness is being called out. Telling Lois to kill the story is the last straw. It's a giant flashing sign to the reader that something's wrong with Supes. Something big. And I don't think it's mind-control.

Anj said...

For the first time in Grounded, Superman's sudden dickishness is being called out. Telling Lois to kill the story is the last straw. It's a giant flashing sign to the reader that something's wrong with Supes. Something big. And I don't think it's mind-control.

Thanks so much for the comment.

I hope a plausible and satisfactory explanation is coming ... and soon.