From 2005-2007, DC Comics used Infinite Crisis, 52, and Final Crisis to revise their universe, setting up twenty-first century versions of their iconic heroes. These efforts culminated with Superman: Secret Origin, a 2010 series that retold, yet again, the Man of Steel's formative years.
Less than a year later, DC announced they were ending all current issues. Come September, all DC comics will begin again at #1, with younger-looking heroes and a new history. Superman even receives a new costume. While many welcome the removal of the red outer-underwear, the added military collar looks just as dorky, and the success of the great Reboot remains uncertain.
One of the side effects of the corporate decision: the 2011 storylines become the last with the characters as recent readers have known them, and the final comics to bear the original numbering. For Superman, that count goes back to the Great Depression.
Oddly enough, the Man of Steel's 2010-2011 storyline had him experiencing a great depression, Gumping across America, wondering if he remained relevant and trying to reconnect with the ordinary person.
It's not a new idea for a comic book. Green Arrow and Green Lantern played Jack Kerouac in the 1970s, and many readers recall the arc fondly. Many a superhero fan from that same era got their start with Billy Batson and his Mentor driving their RV over the "highways and byways of the land on a never-ending mission: to right wrongs, to develop understanding, and to seek justice for all!" Grounded had potential. As Jules Feiffer writes, "once you've made a man super, you've plotted him out of believable conflict." Some of the best Superman stories have explored, instead, the interactions of the icon and symbol with the everyday and the mundane. And if graphic novels such as Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns deconstructed the superhero, this was a chance for DC to reconstruct the concept, by having their flagship character examine himself.
The early issues received widespread acclaim as the worst comic-book story of the year. The story found a new direction and fared better, before being cut short by DC's reboot plans. As a bonus, Superman dragged DC into a controversy about Muslims and kitty-cats.
Writers: J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Roberson
Artists: Eddy Bararows, J.P. Mayer, Jimal Igle, et al.
Writer: G. Willow Wilson
Artists: Leandro Oliveira, Walden Wong.
#706: Writer: G. Willow Wilson
Artist: Amilcar Pinna.
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artists: Rick Leonardi, Jonathan Sibal.
#701: The Man of Steel begins his journey in Philly, where he hangs in a local diner, confronts some drug dealers, counsels a potential suicide, and exchanges 2:00 AM philosophy with a guy out walking his poodle.
As a starting point, it has potential, in that it sets the kind of tone I expected for this story. We see a number of small interactions between the iconic fantasy character and average-seeming people in recognizable circumstances. We don't really get a story, and Superman's character seems really off in places, but I liked what Straczynski seemed to have in mind. The Man of Steel weighing in on a neighborhood discussion? Eating a steak sandwich at the local diner and asking people about their concerns? Driving away the drug dealers without resorting to violence? Listening to a distraught woman? No, DC likely couldn't give us a year of this and make it work, but I hoped that they might develop specific stories rooted in human experience.
That's not how things turn out. What's worse, Superman's depression has him behaving in some problematic ways, and it's not at all certain the writers know how to handle him.
#702: We're in Detroit next, but we're also in the DC Universe, so things can't stay street for long. While interacting with the average folk, shooting hoops and helping out a local kid, Supes encounters a group of aliens living quietly, in a suburban house, maybe off Woodward Avenue. We're barely into the arc and the premise has been dashed in favor of a mediocre, Silver Age style story.
#703: Superman: Over in Danville, Ohio (near Cleveland, his real birthplace), Superman has a conversation with the Batman, and then encounters traditional comic book threats: a villain who dislikes superheroes, and her pawn, a town drunk who has temporary superpowers. It's really in these two issues that the serious problems with Grounded begin.
I figured Superman would encounter some typical comic-book villains and tropes, but I wanted the story to remain, well, grounded. However, #703 introduces a villain who, we learn, is manipulating both Superman's feelings and the public's responses, artificially. Superman could have wondered about his purpose and influence, for example, without wandering out of character, without his doubts resulting from outside manipulation, and the consequences being so atypical we have to assume somebody unearthed some red kryptonite. The public could have asked questions that a living scientific marvel would raise. However, it's all part of a plot. We get a mopey, out-of-character protagonist, but one suffering from artificial mopiness. This half-assed approach satisfies neither those who want a traditional Superman story nor those who seek meaningful super-soul-searching.
Other things seem out of place. The encounter with Batman in this issue makes sense, until we realize that, at the time, Bruce Wayne remains dead, and this is Dick Grayson behind the cowl and ears. He's a very different character than Bruce, and yet here, he acts like the Dark Knight and Superman's trusted old friend. Dick isn't quite either of those things.
#704: "The Road Not Taken"—Superman only briefly appears in this "Interlude," which features Lois Lane contemplating her role as the woman who shares Superman's limelight. It's an interesting concept, at least.
The art may be the issue's biggest problem. The DC Universe has always featured an improbable number of people who look like supermodels. Wong and Oliveira's efforts in 704 makes the characters look more like realistic mannequins dressed by someone with a fondness for tight clothing.
#705: "Visitation Rights"—En route to Chicago, Superman deals with a man who abuses wife and child. Our hero addresses the problem, despite the arc's secret villain haunting his psyche. Superman vs Social Problem has been done before. Here, it's done to excess. The abusive man has no character beyond Hyperbolic Abusive Creepy Guy, and the conclusion plays like a really cheesy Public Service Announcement.
You really can judge this book by its cover: it features an excessively cute little kid in a Superman t-shirt, looking imploringly up at the reader from out of tearing eyes, one of which has been blackened.
#706: "Breaking News"—In another Interlude (so soon?), the Daily Planet's staff deals with a potential Super-scandal, one made possible by the Internet and Photoshop and all that other Scary New Technology that threatens traditional media. This interlude had potential. “Breaking News” would have been a much better story a decade ago, when the technologies exploited were newer. It also would have been better if the photo of Lois and Supes had been real, as it certainly could have been. The conclusion amounts to a cheat, an easy way out.
#707: "Part Five"—Under the influence of the series villain, Superman becomes more morally ambiguous than ever, does some less than noble things, and alienates Lois. Heck, he bullies and intimidates Lois into not running a story.
In the final panel, members of something called the Superman Squad materialize with Important News. This issue at leaves gives us some direction, and its opening scenes show Superman engaging in actual superheroics. The first and second halves contrast what readers expect, and what the series has been giving us.
It's not especially good, but it holds out hope.
Around this point, Chris Roberson became the series' chief writer, with clear instructions to turn things around. The subsequent issues go out of their way to present comix like they used to be. We have more-or-less stand-alone stories (albeit with references to the ongoing arc) in which people in garish outfits use their superpowers to help people, and then deliver Eagle Scout platitudes at the end. They're not groundbreaking, but the next few issues are the best Grounded will get.
To this point, we have mopey attitudes and failed potential. Now Superman and his readers will have some naive fun, and we can all be amazed the old formula still works at all.
#708: "Part Six"—When a series experiences troubles, someone inevitably brings out the guest stars, and that's what happens in the next three issues. In this one, the Man of Steel, still hounded by his secret villain, encounters Wonder Woman. We also take a sidetrip to the "Fortress of Solidarity" where we meet the Superman Squad, future heroes who look like the results of a Silver Age contest along the lines of, "Design and draw a NEW costume for Superman or Supergirl! Win a trip to Palisades Park! Finalists posted in issue #351!" Of course, they know what's happening to Superman and, of course, they can't tell him the full truth.
Superman and Wonder Woman save lots of people from disaster, in a story with some respectable art. Due to events in her own comic, however, the two characters retroactively don't know each other, making for a confusing team-up.
#709: "Part Seven"-- We get a very typical Superman story here, with a guest-appearance by the Flash, a plot driven by BSium Krytonian tech, and a hilarious bit of fan service.1 The artwork won't win any awards, but it's decent comic-book standard.
#710: "Part Eight" brings Batman back into the story. It's the restored Bruce Wayne this time, and something interesting happens. The heroes recall their first meeting, before either of them wore tights. It's a very silly premise, and exactly what the casual reader might expect to find in a Superman comic.
#711: "Part Nine"—in Las Vegas, Superman saves Jimmy Olsen (again), battles Livewire, and we receive some clues regarding our mystery villain. It's not as good as the previous two issues, but it works.
#712: "Lost Boy"-- Somewhere between the still-unexplained decision to drop the original, completed story and the public announcement of the Great Reboot, DC decided to pull a previously-unpublished 52
story unrelated to the current arc, one starring Krypto
the Superdog. It's well handled. Indeed, the depiction of Krypto represents the best characterization in these issues, as he deals with the apparent death of his master. It makes, however, a very strange filler at this point in time.
And there is, of course, the matter of Islam and felines.
In a story that was finished and even advertised on DC's website, Superman finds himself in LA where the latest hero, the overtly Muslim Sharif, fights crime while dealing with anti-Islamic prejudice. The story's abrupt cancellation led to a range of rumors.
Some claim that DC succumbed to anti-Islamic sentiment—even though Batman has recently trained a Muslim hero. Another rumor holds that DC worried certain passages would be misconstrued as supporting anti-Islamic sentiments. The most bizarre story claims DC nixed the tale because Superman rescues a cat—even though he does exactly that in #713, and the replacement story for this issue features a canine protagonist. Other sources say the story just didn't fit with Grounded, despite the fact that the story arc has wandered all over the map, both literally and figuratively.
I don't know what the truth is here, but I wish DC would release some kind of official statement.
#713: "Part Eleven"-- With two issues to tie up everything, we're deep in the story arc again. The Moper of Steel contacts Superboy
and tells them he's abandoning Superman and will continue, Smallville
-like, to help people in secret. He advises they do likewise, since the heroic ideal and public hero cause more trouble than they're worth. He then encounters a Superman fan, a stand-in for the reader, with whom he spends most of the remaining pages debating.
He also rescues a rather ticked-looking kitty-cat from a tree.
In the final panels, our mystery villain goes very public. Could this be the End of Lois Lane???-- or will the Man of Steel once again take up the Tights and Save the Day???
#714: "Finale"—Considering they (well, Roberson, principally) had to pull a conclusion out of thin air, they didn't do too poorly. It's rushed and relies on an epilogue by a member of the Superman Squad, but it's no worse than many past comic books. We get some kind of conclusion to the current incarnation of Superman.
He had many adventures, we're told, and continued to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. As an ending, it could have been better, but it certainly could have been worse.
We'll see if the Man of the Twenty-first Century fares better or worse come September. And how long it takes DC to drop that stupid collar.
1. Back in the 1970s, DC published the surreally bizarre Superhero Dictionary, a kid's tome illustrated with DC characters. It boasts more than its share of images suggestive of, at the very least, too much caffeine and six-martini luncheons, but the definition of "forty" took the cake and became an online meme.
Lex Luthor, in his idiotic 70s purple-and-green outfit, laughs maniacally as he pulls an elementary looking cart filled with pastries. We're informed:
When no one was looking, Lex Luthor
took forty cakes. He took 40 cakes.
That's as many as four tens.
And that's terrible.
In a Grounded flashback we learn that, yes, angry with a school decision, a teenage Lex Luthor stole, from a planned bake sale, forty cakes.
And that's terrible.
Quirky in-jokes can work well or fall flat. I applaud the creators of #709 for making canon, however briefly, this popular internet meme.