Weighing in on Superman #701

July 20, 2010

Pause with me for a detour into the land of geek diatribes. I generally save my comic book posts for year-end recaps or notable graphic novel reviews, but the comic blogosphere is buzzing incessantly about this particular issue and the wealth of angry negativity addressed towards it provoked me to write a countering opinion.

Last month Superman issue #700 was released–quite an accomplishment for a book to be that long-running. Superman in its comic book incarnation has had its share of ups and downs, but when it’s up it is remarkable and worthy of the pop culture icon status its protagonist has held for multiple decades.  Issue 700 was underwhelming, however; consisting of a few short segments, the first was a nice epilogue to the “War of the Supermen” crossover that stretched out over several DC titles for the past year; the second was a “lost tale” of Superman helping Robin in Gotham; and the last was the prologue to the new arc which writer J M Straczynski has been tapped by DC to deliver. JMS set up the story quickly–a woman approached Superman and delivered a “slap heard ’round the world” to him because he wasn’t on earth to save her husband from cancer during his year-long absence. Had Superman been at the right place at the right time, he could have detected her husband’s cancer and helped to save him. Certainly Superman can’t be everywhere all the time, this is an issue introduced every so often as a story point; but this time it provoked Superman to become “grounded” for the near-future–walking around the country and trying to reacquaint himself with average people.

Issue 701 launched that story–Superman in full-on Forrest Gump mode, traversing the US and dealing with personal, one-on-one issues. The result from this reader’s point of view was an entertaining start to a story that could easily be one of the funnest and most “positive” comic reading experiences of the year…though the internet is quick to showcase this may be a minority opinion. First off is a clear hatred by many fanboys for JMS–though considered by many to be a top-notch writer in the comics field, his detractors consistently accuse him of being one of the worst (Jeph Loeb can be considered a person in this unflattering position as well). Some fans simply refuse to like anything with JMS’s name attached to it, for whatever reason. This is baffling in many ways though, because despite his occasional short-comings, he’s delivered some really great writing: the award winning run on “Thor,” the standalone “Girl’s Night Out” issue of “Brave and the Bold” (#33) this year which might be the best single issue of a main-stream comic all year, much of his pre-OMD/BND “Amazing Spider Man” run, and  his screenplay for the Eastwood-directed  modern classic “Changeling,” to name a few.

Then there’s the “not my Superman” furor–any time a new writer takes on a classic character, there’s an uproar that the current storyline or take doesn’t live up to a particular readers memories of their favorite prior take– JMS isn’t going to give us John Byrne’s, Kurt Busiek’s, Grant Morrison’s, or anyone else’s version of Superman–he’s going to give us JMS’s version of Superman. Not to say he’s going to deliver a fully original version either–Superman’s stories have been told for 60 years in multiple mediums and there’s arguably no Superman tale left untold. All a writer can do is deliver a Superman story that resonates, that taps into action, emotion, and fantasy; a Superman tale that sparks childlike wonder in the reader, that brings back the reader’s favorite Superman memories and reinterprets them in a way that makes them feel new. Superman is the superhero archetype and a good Superman reading experience invokes the aspects of comics reading that was most fun to us as children but that works for us in new ways as adults.

Now, JMS doesn’t execute the “good Superman storytelling” factors perfectly, but he’s on the right track. The best versions of Superman in recent years–Geoof Johns and Gary Franks run on “Action Comics,” Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s “All Star Superman,” Bryan Singer’s film “Superman Returns,” and perhaps seasons 2-4 of “Smallville”–rank with some of the best Superman tales ever, and that’s saying something. JMS isn’t quite there yet, but give him time, he’s only just begun this arc. Certainly, he’s aped or copycatted aspects (possibly inadvertently) of even those recent tales. Online critics have complained his 6 page suicide talk-down to the ledge sitter was done in one page in “All Star.” Yet that scene worked very powerfully here for JMS nonetheless.

What issue 701 gives us is a human Superman but a wise Superman. Here is a character that lives in a world where he must make the right choices; there is wrong and there is right, and although the real world gets so much messier, it doesn’t for Superman and his inner resolve or moral clarity never waivers. Some readers complained that he quoted Thoreau to a person crossing his path–I thought that worked marvelously. Or that out of respect for the law he didn’t enter the drug dealer’s houses but yet he looked in with his Xray vision and set their stashes on fire–yet that was an entertaining and likable scene. A huge complaint concerns the scene in which Superman approaches the elderly man with the heart condition–Superman tells the man to get to a doctor soon. Readers bemoan the fact that Superman didn’t rush the man to the clinic personally, but I would guess that Superman could tell from looking that death wasn’t imminent but that treatment was needed; it also shows that Superman believes the individual has personal responsibility–the man has been warned and now Superman trusts that the man is intelligent enough to take care of the problem.

Here’s the speech that many readers attacked: “…in the end, all we can do is look at where we’re standing and say we will not allow this, here. Over there has to stand for itself, has to speak for itself. Because it’s only when over there becomes here that we can stop this once and for all.”  This bit of comic book moralizing infuriated many a reader, but I found it wholly in line with this incarnation of Superman. Superman is attacking problems here, one at a time and on a personal level. He addresses some passer-by’s in a way that stresses they must become responsible for making the right decisions as well. He’s stressing we must first take care of ourselves and mind our own choices before we look to “correct” the choices of others; on from that, he’s saying that we have to take care of our environment and our community before branching out. Once this way of dealing with situations spreads out and “over there” begins to do the same thing, then in effect “over there” becomes “here” in a way that we are all taking care of ourselves and each other. Do I want this type of message in every comic? No. Do I always buy it or do I find some unrevealed and staggeringly original truth in its vocalization in a Superman comic that I’ve never found elsewhere? No. Do I agree with it on every level and in every way? No. But it works for this comic in this instance.

All in all, I’m excited about JMS’s current arc and look forward to see what comes out of it.

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5 Responses to “Weighing in on Superman #701”

  1. dwhamby1 said

    I heard a conversation on NPR about this story line and the biggest criticism I heard was that the dude is walking across the US and skips the South! He doesn’t go through a huge part of the US.

    I think he should head to Arizona and deal with the insane immigration laws that are making so many of us angry. The surge against hispanics is shameful and that could be a great statement from DC. He could also go through major cities like Atlanta and deal with other social issues- racism, etc. How about a visit to a factory in Alabama where folks make 8 bucks an hour cutting up chickens? Or a field of immigrant workers making 8 bucks an hour cutting lettuce in the 100 degree heat so we can save money on our burgers at McDonalds?

    • dmhamby2 said

      Well,he just started walking. The first issue was almost entirely set in Philadelphia (of course Philly locals complained that there weren’t any landmarks depicted in the art). There are lots of things he can do if each issue over the next year addresses different problems in different locations, as your comment suggests.

      • dmhamby2 said

        Also, JMS was the writer for “Babylon 5.” I never saw that show, you watched it didn’t you?

  2. dwhamby1 said

    Mr. Comic man. I would love you to write an article on:
    The Comic Convention. What do you think about it? Has it sold out? Has geek become in? What do you think about Hollywood’s invasion of the c con?
    Also about the new Avengers movie and the DC and Marvel movies coming out these days and those to come. What do you think about them? Best? Worst?

  3. dmhamby2 said

    I’ve honestly never been to a Con but would love to–one thing that deters me is knowing the amount of money I would be tempted to spend at one.
    As for movies–I’m leary of the Avengers one, it could work but it might be horrible. Hollywood is taking the comic book ideas and running with them trying to exploit on the audience and this isn’t always a good thing. Look at the terrible “Jonah Hex,” that from the preview alone you could tell was terrible and that looked very little like the actual DC title that gains rave reviews every month–like what was with the sci-fi tech on horses when the title is more traditional gritty western? But when the comic movies are good, they’re good- Batman Begins was great and “Dark Knight” was a classic of any film ever, the high mark for comic book adaptations. I’m hoping Nolan will tie it all up with an excellent end to the trilogy when the third one comes out. “Iron Man” was good and its sequel was enjoyable. The original 3 Xmen fims were good. I loved “Superman Returns” although apparently a lot of people didn’t and it’s getting retconned. I’m not sure how “Green Lantern” will turn out. “V for Vendetta” and “Watchmen” were handled very well. Spider Man films had their moments but I think Green Goblin was done a bit too cheesy and the third one was too hodge-podge–the 2nd was great.

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