It is one of the most familiar scenes in all of superhero comics. Hal Jordan, Green Lantern, is right in the middle of a dilemma when, from off-panel, a new voice enters the scene.
“I want to ask the ring-slinger a question,” the voice begins. We know already that the questioner’s concerns run deeper than the present emergency.
Indeed, you might think you know where this is going -- an elderly African-American man’s earnest soliloquy, a space-cop’s perceptions up-ended -- and if you were reading April 1970's classic Green Lantern vol. 2 #76, you’d be right.
However, this is Late September 1992's Green Lantern vol. 3 #29. The mood is lighter, the space-cop’s temples have grayed, and the speaker is extraterrestrial:
We’ve been learning of you on our monitor screens ... how you work for the white skins ... and how on this planet of yours you helped out the brown skins ... and you’ve done considerable for the black skins!
Only there are skins you haven’t bothered with -- the blue, orange, and purple skins! I want to know ... how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!
In 1970, the old man’s “answer me that” hit Hal like a punch in the gut. The Hal of 1992 shrugs, casts his eyes toward heaven and sighs, “... what’re you gonna do?”
* * *
It takes a lot of guts to make fun of “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight.” GL #76's pivotal story launched what has since been dubbed the “Hard-Traveling Heroes” arc, as Green Lantern and Green Arrow sought the soul of a nation. In the issue’s final speech balloon, Green Arrow says encouragingly, “[t]here’s a fine country out there someplace! Let’s go find it!”
What followed was an earnest attempt to meld superhero fantasy with everyday concerns, and thereby make escapist adventure “relevant.” Other series had similar story arcs: Captain America and the Falcon went on at least one road trip, Reed and Sue Richards established suburban secret identities, and Wally West lived modestly with his mother in an apartment. Writer William Messner-Loebs, who was on Flash for that last one, also had Doctor Fate remake her inner-city neighborhood, and gave Wonder Woman a job at the local Taco Whiz. Of course, such attempts at relevance go all the way back to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who had Superman fight menaces as (relatively) mundane as abusive husbands and greedy bosses.
Appropriately, today we have Superman #701, the debut-in-earnest of writer J. Michael Straczynski, penciller Eddy Barrows, and inker J.P. Mayer, collectively telling the story of a Man of Steel trying to reconnect with everyday folks. This he aims to do by walking across America, destination unknown (“I’ll know when I get there,” he says), helping people as best he can along the way.
It’s a storyline that, quite frankly, I was prepared to dislike. I haven’t been a fan of JMS’ superhero work, and I especially disliked Supreme Power, the Marvel MAX parody of Supes and the Justice League. Besides, after spending more than a year with the “New Krypton” storyline, I was ready to get back to the more traditional Super-setup: Lois, Metropolis, maybe a “Look! Up in the sky!” -- and especially Clark Kent. I didn’t want another year or so of radical reinvention. Specifically, I didn’t want a year’s worth of Emo Superman Is Emo, with a lot of self-doubt, reluctance to use his powers, and/or weeping into Wonder Woman’s shoulder.
Fortunately, there is none of that in Superman #701, which on the whole was quite endearing -- if a little clumsy at times.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for “Grounded,” Part 1...
Perhaps the key to this kind of story is convincing the reader that the guy in spandex exists in the same world as the people in actual clothes. Here the issue gets off to a rocky start, because our first good look at Superman includes a rather eerie X-ray vision glow around his eyes. Not the kind of thing which puts you at ease around the guy who’s looking into your engine block. Barrows, Mayer, and colorist Rod Reis do better once they open up their own field of vision, showing us the crowd of reporters swarming around Superman. On page 3, Barrows jumps effectively from one point of view to the next, and breaks up the page with a background-free crowd shot, to shift from Superman finishing up a good deed to being interviewed for the umpteenth time. He works like that for much of the issue, and he keeps things lively even when the story relies on dialogue and repeated panels.
The sequence which spans pages 3 and 4 also helps establish the “regular guy’s” relationship to Superman, albeit filtered through the perception of the news media. They suspect any number of paranormal influences: Red Kryptonite, magic, a secret mission, or some sort of mysterious power loss. They -- acting at least partly as a collective straw-man for the reader’s doubts, I’m sure -- expect Superman to be flying high above them, not walking amongst them. Superman answers one particularly skeptical reporter by flying him suddenly to 10,000 feet and back. This apparently allays any remaining suspicions, probably also reassuring the reader that Supes won’t be denying his powers during this arc.
A series of vignettes follows, in which Superman works off his lunch bill (he doesn’t carry much cash, and no plastic), destroys the inventories of a handful of drug dealers, discourages some teens from running a red light, and diagnoses “heartburn” as something more serious.
The rest of the issue (pages 13-20, by my count) deals with a woman named Felicity, perched on a ledge high above the sidewalk and ready to end it all. A policeman asks Superman if he’d “like to go up there and grab her,” but the Man of Steel demurs: “No. But I’ll talk with her.”
And talk they do, him floating in mid-air and her angry, animated, and tearful. She makes him promise that he won’t try to rescue her by force (“because you’re stronger than me ... because you know I can’t stop you”), and that if she chooses to jump, he won’t stop her. Because Superman never lies (a tenet foreshadowed earlier by Mr. 10,000 Feet), he so promises ... and accepting that Superman would make that sort of promise is, I imagine, the point at which a reader either a) lets JMS and company take him the rest of the way, or b) rolls his eyes and checks issue #702 off the shopping list.
This philosophical quandary -- how much must Superman do? -- gets to the heart of the character’s modern iteration. If any of us had powers and abilities sufficient to get Felicity off that ledge so she could get the help she so clearly needs, I daresay many of us would. Scoop her up at super-speed, throw an Oan-energy bubble around her, snare her in a magic lasso (and along the way make her confront some essential, life-saving truth), snap a sleeping-gas capsule under her nose, whatever. We might well empathize with her, and even help her work through her difficulties ... but we might also see her as just the latest in a series of crises large and small, hers needing resolution so that we can move on. Indeed, for the first twelve pages of this issue, Superman has done just that, with quick attention to car troubles, heart troubles, cluttered storerooms, and unsafe neighborhoods.
Superman stays with Felicity, though, for the next six pages. She complains that she’s not able to “save the world,” and instead has become trapped in a meaningless existence. “It’s not fair,” she yells, “and don’t you dare tell me it is!” Superman agrees, adding “[b]ut it’s not unfair, either. It just ... is.”
“That’s the best you can do?” Felicity cries; and honestly, this reader was a little skeptical himself. Superman explains that “sometimes we don’t [save the world,]” so instead, “you think about saving just one person. Because sometimes,” as we are reminded of Krypton’s destruction, “that’s enough.”
It may be a cop-out, but in the context of the story the soundness of Superman’s philosophy is almost beside the point. More important is the extent to which the reader believes that Superman would say (and d0) these things. Superman #701 succeeds because its main character feels authentic -- not in the sense that he’s worked out an unassailable ethical code, or even that he can command a certain moral authority, but that he’s capable of empathizing with ordinary people in pain. While Felicity is far from an original character, she is nevertheless believable to a degree that her fate feels legitimately in doubt. It means that when Superman volunteers to keep her company even after the sun goes down and the spotlights start to bother her eyes, the reader can believe she is his top priority.
Now, at this point Straczynski has Superman tell Felicity about someone in his past who committed suicide. It happened “many years ago,” she was “terminally ill, where every day was an agony,” and she “knew without question that she would never have another happy day.” The story is meant to convince Felicity that Superman understands why people commit suicide, and it lets him ease into letting her choose either to live or die.
I’m not going to talk specifically about that choice, because I want to focus on this mysterious woman from Superman’s past. This to me was an awkward bit of storytelling, mostly because it felt too convenient. To put it bluntly, I don’t remember her, so the example has less impact than the Krypton flashback mentioned above. Obviously it’s not impossible for Superman to have befriended this woman over his long career, and obviously it’s not impossible for that friendship to go unmentioned until now. (Assuming she isn't someone established, we may meet her later on in flashback.) However, her fate goes to the story’s ultimate question, which is whether Superman does lie. We are inclined to believe that he doesn’t, but the end of the issue leaves that deliberately in doubt. If Superman doesn’t lie, then (assuming no shenanigans involving other super-types) he risks Felicity’s death on his conscience. However, if Superman does lie, then he’s betrayed Felicity’s trust, and perhaps the reader’s as well.
And that, in turn, goes back to the “how much must Superman do?” question. Superman’s powers approach both omnipotence and omniscience, and the more he decides to use them, the less free will he leaves humanity. (I hesitate to make a Supernanny-state joke here, for obvious reasons.) So what? we might ask. An umbrella is pretty good at protecting us from rain -- why shouldn’t Superman be more concerned with being our umbrella against super-menaces? That’s not an unreasonable point of view ... but as we’ve seen, every now and then you get into Green Lantern #76 territory, and you have to reconcile fighting super-menaces with solving more relevant concerns.
One solution, demonstrated in the aforementioned Green Lantern #29, is to strike a balance between the two. After being confronted by his extraterrestrial questioner, Hal assures him -- and his orange- and purple-skinned companions -- that he plans to visit every inhabited planet in the sector, to see just what each does need from its local Green Lantern. If Gerard Jones had stayed on Green Lantern longer than he did (and/or if Hal hadn’t gone a little funny), maybe we would have seen just that. Likewise, Superman explains to the media gaggle that he’ll interrupt his walk for a crisis ... but he’ll resume walking once the crisis has passed.
I’m happy with that attitude. It’s always fun to see Superman in full-on cosmic-crusader mode, plowing through alien armadas with a combination of heat vision and brute force. Depending on how “Grounded” goes, I might be ready for that sooner than JMS et al. might like. For now, though, this was a good issue, and a good start to the Man of Steel’s journey.