Friday, August 5, 2011

Review: Superman #714

Superman #714 came out this week and was a fascinating issue to read for a number of different reasons.

First off, this was the final chapter of the 'Grounded' storyline, an arc that I have maligned in places and praised in others. In some ways I think the timing was simply off. After New Krypton, after years of Superman away from the title and away from his supporting cast or even his rogue's gallery, sending Superman on a walk away from who he is wasn't what I was looking for. Add to that the relatively awful portrayal of Superman in the early issues of this storyline followed by the  PR hit of JMS leaving the book after being given the keys to the kingdom, and the arc seemed somewhat doomed.Certainly, I don't think 'Grounded' will stand the test of time as classic arc, referenced and mentioned by comic fans in the years to come. Sure, the cover says '"Grounded" No More!' but in my head I was thinking 'No More "Grounded" !!!!'

But there is more than just that here. This was the last issue for *this* Superman, the last issue before the relaunch of the DCnU. As such, this is the capstone of the last 25 years. Sure, the Superman here looks very different from the one John Byrne introduced in The Man of Steel. But it is the same character and we are saying goodbye to him. As a result, this issue needed to allow us to not only say goodbye to Grounded but also goodbye to the post-Crisis Superman. And as a finale, this needed to celebrate everything that makes Superman who he is.

Chris Roberson took over "Grounded" once JMS left the arc and has done his very best to resuscitate the book and Superman. And for the most part I think he has done a very very good job, having Superman work his way back to his roots rather than walk away from them. Last issue was something of a speed bump in the improvement of the book, Superman taking a step backwards in his overcoming his depression. Thankfully, Roberson rebounds nicely here ending the story and the title neatly, showcasing the basic concepts of the character of Superman. Yes, maybe their is a bit of whiff of sentimentality here but this is a goodbye issue. I expected sentiment.

And it was an absolute joy to see Jamal Igle's work on this issue. To see all that subtlety in character expression and body language again, adding to the story, making it a fuller experience was a joy. Heck, we even got to see him draw Linda Lang again!

The story picks up right where last issue left off, with the possessed school teacher threatening Lois and demanding a showdown with Superman.

Realizing that this is a job for him, Superman reclaims his costume off the tree stump where he left it that issue and flies into the fray. With a quick blast of heat vision, he is able to grab Lois and whisk her away. Dropping her off miles away, Superman promises to talk to Lois as soon as the threat passes. She also wants to talk to him.

The lack of Lois as a way to ... well ... ground Superman has been one of the things I have not liked about this story. Still, it was nice to see that the two are willing to hash things out here.

After a brief skirmish in the street with the typical property damage, Superman hopes to take the fight to a safer place. He calls upon the Superman Squad to open up a portal into Still Zone where their headquarters is.

It's a smart way to defuse the situation. There is no need to fight here, trapped in this realm. So the two may as well talk.

And so we learn about what happened to teacher Miss Jennings from Ohio.

It turns out the crystal she grabbed was an 'interrogation sunstone', a way of extracting memories from one Kryptonian mind and put it in another. Unfortunately, Jennings grabbed it just as Superman walked by, absorbing his super-depression, his doubt and fear and sadness.

The art works so well here, especially the shot of Jennings distorted face through the crystal, showing how she has become warped. Great stuff there.

I wonder if that was really what the crystal was supposed to be in JMS' version of this story.

Filled with that super-negativism, Jennings became the living embodiment of Superman's depression. And as time passed it gave her great power, both physical strength and the ability to warp Superman's perceptions.

Roberson actually shows us some of these events where Superman's senses were distorted. One of the more vile scenes in Grounded was the woman in the park telling Superman to take off, equating him to a gun. Here we see she said practically the opposite. We have seen this throughout the story ... panels from Superman's point of view are very different from panels shot from the reverse ... scowling people becoming smiling people, etc. This panel shows that Superman is still an inspiration for people.

Still, I don't know if I quite understand Jennings' motivations though. So as the living embodiment of Superman's depression, she wants him to become more and more depressed? At times she seems angry to have all these negative feelings in her head. You would think she might want him to get better.

In the middle of this exchange is this moment, probably my favorite of the book.

Superman apologizes to Jennings. He isn't angry at what she has done. He is sorry that he has caused her so much pain. That is pure Superman.

But even better, he finally voices that he is a victim of the destruction of New Krypton, suffering with guilt and grief. And he won't let anyone else be a victim of that tragedy. The destruction of New Krypton should be weighing on him; I was glad to see him actually say it.

If the crystal has filled Jennings with the negative feelings he has had maybe Superman can overwhelm the crystal with all of the good feelings he has reclaimed over his walk across America.

Grabbing the crystal,Superman floods it with hope. He remembers truth (an image of a young Clark with Pa), justice (shaking hands with Batman), and the American Way (looking up at the flag - defined as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by Roberson). All very nice images that show where Superman has come from, who he is. These feelings overload the crystal, exploding it.

Now I could pull out just last issue where Superman wasn't feeling so wonderful and warm and fuzzy, throwing off his costume. That's why last issue's opening scene with Supergirl and Superboy was such a step backwards.  Or I could ask why Superman heard all the good things the people had to say to him at the end of last issue if Jennings was warping how he perceived things. Or I could say this was a little schmaltzy.

But the truth is Superman stands for hope and truth and justice and the American way. To see him win a battle just on his convictions actually worked for me here. With the crystal gone, Superman answers the question nagging him. Must there be a Superman? The answer is yes.

Suddenly 'grounded', suddenly himself again, refilled with his beliefs and heroic ideals, there is little left for Superman to do but patch things up with the people he has hurt. First and foremost is Lois.

It is a short reconciliation scene, but he and Lois make up quickly. Appropriately, Superman apologizes to Lois.

But I can't thank Roberson enough for this portion where Lois shows why she is the right partner for Superman, why she is so strong. For me the worst issue of 'Grounded' was the issue where Superman manhandled Lois asking her to bury a story. Here she says she still ran it. Truth is one of her values, as much as it is for him. That's why Lois can stand that so close this icon. She is one herself.

And then he hands out signal watches to the expanded Superman family, including Steel, Super-chief, Iron Munro and Livewire.

And of course, he gives one to Conner and Linda too! This is probably the formation of the Superman Squad we saw first here in Grounded.

How great to see Igle drawing Linda again. My guess is Linda is another casualty of the DCnU.

And we even learn that Jennings must somehow retain some of her super-powers afterwards. She is the Superwoman in the Squad.

And that is a very nice tiny piece to this story too. Superman is an inspiration even to some of his enemies. She is a hero because of him. Maybe that crystal filled her with his hope just as it had his despair.

I would have loved to see more of the Superman Squad and I bet Roberson would love to write more.

And the final images of Grounded, of this Superman's story, is the Squad talking about how nothing could ever keep Superman apart from Lois and that together they fight for truth, justice and the American way.

The book ends with a wink to the audience, another great piece of Superman mythos.

So what is left for me to say?

Well, I still have to go way back and question just why DC would green light Grounded to begin with. Those first issues were flawed and made me wonder if JMS even likes the character. He certainly made Superman something of a creep in those early chapters.

That said, I really have to commend Chris Roberson for making the back half of this story a much better read. The approach of having Superman work his way back to his core by interacting with his friends and family, remembering what formed him, brought us to this satisfying conclusion. Grounded was a sow's ear before he came on. I'd love to hear how much he veered from Straczynski's initial notes to bring the story here.

And, as I said, this was a issue was a nice send off for this incarnation of Superman. It is a shame that we won't see what would have happened next for this reinvigorated version of the character.

Overall grade: B+


Anonymous said...

Great review, as always, Anj. Thanks so much for all your great work reviewing this story and all the many others over the years. Roberson certainly did his best to redeem what I initially found to be a tasteless (and never-ending) story: Fourteen issues, including three fill-ins (Lois, Perry, and Krypto), a cancelled issue (#712), and even a month where the book didn't come out at all. That's a heck of a lot of delays. But still, Roberson is a talented writer, and I commend him for making the best of a "sow's ear," as you call it.

Anonymous said...

'Grounded' has commenced!


Martin Gray said...

Great review, Chris Roberson deserves some kind of award for Services To My Stomach. And you're right to highlight the beautiful artwork my Jamal and co. It's good that Superman and Lois went out on a good note.