Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"I've Never Seen a Man Fly.": Superman #700 - #702

What will Clark Kent do when The Daily Planet finally sells it's last hard copy and succumbs to the final death blow that has struck the newspaper industry? Surely, the greatest and most powerful daily document of journalistic integrity will go on, marching into the future on the web and iPad, just as every newspaper from The New York Times to Bild has already done. The lavish art nouveau monument that is the skyscraper that houses the Daily Planet offices will stand, but will the offices themselves shrink? Will the paper lose a few floors of space, as staff is downsized, and most writers and reporters work from their homes and beats scattered around the world? When the hustle and dynamic energy of the bullpen and the news-floor dies to a soft tone, where will that leave Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter?

Does it matter, really? We see Mr. Kent in suit and tie, with press pass and notepad in hand, so little these days, it could easily be forgotten that he even is a journalist, and supposedly a pretty damn fine one, too, for if it is to be believed that The Daily Planet stands as one of the world's greatest newspapers, home to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lois Lane - amongst others one assumes - then the fact that Clark Kent is on staff and in the inner circle with Ms. Lane, top photo-journalist James Olsen, and long-serving Editor-in-Chief Perry White, that he, too, must be a reporter of record? Why bring this up? Why bring up the resume of the alter-ego of the world's greatest hero Superman? Because, apparently, there are those who've forgotten this, and they are, unfortunately working on the book that bears our heroes name.

Let's take a step back. Right now, Superman is in a crisis of confidence, and so, starting in the anniversary issue #700, he decided that he had spent too much time in outer space, messing around with his Justice League buddies, saving the multiverse from absolute enslavement and destruction, and needed to get back to the important things in life, namely, exercise. So, Superman, a being more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, decides to become an Olympic power-walker, and get himself in shape for London 2012. OK, I'm being slightly facetious here (read, sarcastic). Superman isn't training for the London games, and his motivation isn't to emulate senior citizen mall-walkers, but he is walking. Superman. Is. Walking. Across America. Because he needs to get back in touch with the people of this fine nation. He needs to eat a Philly cheesesteak in Philadelphia. He needs to play school-yard basketball with some black-stereotypes in Detroit. He needs to help a man fix his truck's severed fuel line, and help a diner organize their stockroom. Superman, the worlds greatest hero, as part-time busboy and auto mechanic. Someone thought this was all a good idea.

Again, the reason Superman is walking across the United States of America is ostensibly so he can see first-hand the problems facing the hard-working, everyday people of the country. A group of blue-collars in Philadelphia tells him about the drug problem facing their community, about the gangs who've moved into abandoned foreclosed homes and transformed them into crack-houses. An old security guard in Flint tells Superman about the ravages the global recession and credit crisis have had on the auto-industry, tours him around a closed-down factory while spewing forth jingoistic platitudes straight out of a Chevy truck commercial. ("The smell of hot steel being poured...like we were pouring the future for all the world to see.") All of this so that Superman can learn about the problems facing the human race, the people he has sworn to protect. This is the main conceit of the story arc by J. Michael Straczynski entitled "Grounded". This is also it's biggest failing.

Is one to believe that reporter of record, one of The Daily Planet's finest, husband of the acclaimed Lois Lane, needs some diner folk to teach him about drugs and gangs in the urban inner-city? That he needs a security guard to tell him tale of the massive global recession that has mired the world in economic trouble for nearly two years, causing the near-complete shut-down of American manufacturing? Jeesh, maybe Lois was right all those years; maybe Clark Kent is an idiot.

For a being that can hear a pin drop from miles away, who can see through all but one substance, who can fly and move beyond the limits of physics; who has been in every part of our world and the universe thousands of times over; has dealt with world leaders, prime ministers, presidents, warlords, dictators, and all-manner of politicians; this sudden need of his to learn about the problems facing the "real" people of America comes across as, at best, slightly insane, and at worst, downright condescending and ill-conceived.

This all leads to a story-line that is absolutely fraught with laughable contradictions. There are moments when JMS wants to have it both ways, wants to play up the intelligence of his main character, even while he has mired him in a construct that requires him to appear ignorant. At the end of issue #701, Superman is engaged in conversation with a random citizen (no doubt one of those hard-working Americans Superman is supposed to be learning about) a gentleman who asks him why he is walking around Philly and not out "saving the world". Superman summons forth his latest power, that being the power to transform into a University humanities professor, and proceeds to regale this private citizen with the tale of the night Henry Thoreau was jailed. It's a verbose and belittling monologue that makes Superman seem arrogant and self-righteous, like an annoying party-guest trying to woo a sex partner with his book-learning. One is surprised when the passage ends and we are not given a term paper to write by Professor Superman. (The hard-ass!)

It also serves to throw a stone in the glass-house of JMS's story construct. Superman as Thoreau scholar doesn't jibe with Superman as oblivious hero. While I like the idea that Superman takes advantage of his super-speed-reading ability to get the classics in, it leads me to believe he would use that same ability to pick up the Times every day, or perhaps, even, the paper he works for. This scene coming at the end of the issue serves to invalidate everything that comes before it.

There are holes and contrivances all over the place. In issue #702, the old factory security guard who tours Superman around the plant, falls into a coughing fit and collapsing in near-death. Superman scoops him up and flies him to a group of local space-aliens he recently discovered were living in secret disguise in Detroit. He bursts in and shouts for them to save the old man's life, because, "His condition is beyond me, beyond any Earth medicine...." Superman isn't a doctor, but he plays one on TV, so well, in fact, he can tell within a matter of split-seconds that a coughing fit is beyond all the limits of modern Earth science. Apparently while Supes speed-reads Thoreau he takes time out for the New England Journal of Medicine. Lucky break those highly-advanced aliens happened to be in the neighborhood, and lucky for him he happened to stumble upon them just hours before this emergency. These kind of lucky coincidences add up to form a very contrived story, one that feels greatly unfocused.

Those alien beings, the ones living in secret in Detroit? Well, if you guessed that they are meant to serve as a very obvious metaphor for our own current struggle with immigration policy in this country, then you would be right. Don't pat yourself on the back too much for getting it, though, because JMS spells it out pretty implicitly, having Superman deliver the line, "Could you possibly have picked a worse time to immigrate here illegally...?" Superman understands this because he knows what's been going on with the battle over immigration legislation, over laws passed in the state of Arizona, laws subsequently vilified by the Federal government. Superman must obviously keep up with current events. Maybe he watches CNN clips on his iPhone? Or maybe a taco vendor in Mesa told him all about it while they sat on a bench sharing a carne asada burrito.

The issue ends with Superman on his mobile phone, chatting with Lois who sits back in her cubicle in the Daily Planet. (Still in that shoddy cubby? You'd think that Pulitzer would have moved her into an office.) It's actually a charming little scene between husband and wife, where the road warrior reporter Clark Kent engages in playful and flirty banter with his wife back home. It's a moment that serves as a bittersweet coda, for it shows what's truly missing from most of this story: whimsy and playfulness. If one goes back and re-reads the original Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Superman stories from the first issues of Action Comics, one sees a very hard-edged and aggressive Superman, surely. One also finds a Superman full of child-like charm, dashing across telephone lines, delivering quick puns worthy of eye-winks. Superman solves crimes, fights for justice, serves as a champion of the oppressed; but he has fun while doing it. It never occurred to Siegel and Shuster in those early days that having superpowers could be a pain or burden. To those men with the hearts of children, leaping tall buildings could be nothing but joy. Perhaps they were mired in too much innocence, an innocence that we see as unsophisticated with our modern eyes? I disagree. I want to watch Superman fly, not walk. I want to watch Superman have fun, because flying would be fun.
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Superman #702 written by J. Michael Straczynski, with art by Eddy Barrows and J.P. Mayer, was released on 11 August, 2010 by DC Comics.

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