Chris Roberson, the multi-talented writer behind Vertigo's two "Fables" miniseries, "Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love" and "Cinderella: Fables are Forever," as well as his and Mike Allred's "iZombie," has recently added a new title to his ever-increasing plate: DC Comics' "Superman."
On the heels of the emotionally devastating "New Krypton" event, "Grounded" follows the Man of Steel as he hoofs it across the USA to do a little soul-searching and reconnect with the American people. In January, Roberson took the reins of Superman's cross-country walk from the storyline's originator, writer J. Michael Straczynski, and will script the remainder of the story arc. Straczynski's sudden departure from the comic after only six issues took many fans by surprise, and Roberson was no exception, telling CBR News, "The day I got the call [to write "Superman"] was the day I found out Straczynski was stepping back from it."
A dedicated Superman fan since childhood, Roberson was more than happy to take over scripting the widely-publicized storyline Straczynski began half a year earlier. "The obsession with Superman may have gone earlier, but the photographic record of me constantly wearing Superman T-shirts and Superman Halloween costumes year-round, begin at age six," said Roberson, adding, "When I got the call in October about taking over the book, I started jumping for joy -- and I haven't stopped since."
Though he has had no direct contact with the "Babylon 5" writer in regard to taking over "Grounded," when Roberson came onboard, series editors Wil Moss and Matt Idelson handed him a high-level outline that Straczynski had created early in the run.
"The analogy I always use is that it's the travel itinerary for a cross-country road trip; it spells out a couple of key locations to hit and specifies where and when the journey is supposed to end, but along the way there's a lot of room for side-trips and improvisation," said Roberson.
Fans immediately noticed that the incoming writer's first two issues took a darker tone than Straczynski's, with Superman allowing a chemical plant to pollute a small town's environment, hints from the Superman Squad that the Man of Steel is "losing himself" and threats from evil school teacher Ms. Jennings that Superman's "descent is only beginning." However, Roberson said those issues are the darkest the run is going to get, and readers should expect things to lighten up starting with March's issue #709.
"In the aftermath first of Pa Kent's death before the 'New Krypton' arc started, and then the destruction of New Krypton left him pretty messed up -- he's a pretty emotionally broken guy, because the Post-Crisis Superman is a character who never dealt with personal loss," said Roberson. Explaining that while Pre-Crisis Superman lost Ma and Pa Kent while he was still Superboy, "Post-Crisis version, they were still always around. And even though he learned later in life that Jor-El and Lara had died and that Krypton had been destroyed, he never knew them personally."
Roberson continued, "In my first issue, I wanted to really make things worse before I made things better; I wanted to show that this was a Superman who had really lost his way." Thus the scene at the chemical plant in issue #707 where Superman not only allows workers to go on polluting the environment, he physically intimidates Lois Lane in order to prevent her from running an expose on the plant. Sparking fierce debate among fans, Roberson told CBR News that his point is that Superman chose incorrectly.
"The crux of the matter for me is that Superman is totally wrong -- not because of the merits of the environmental side versus the industrial side, but the disagreement he has with Lois is over the truth," said Roberson. "This is a guy who stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way, and in this issue he's running away from the truth."
If elements of Superman's real-world factory problems sound familiar, that is because Roberson is a fan of the Elliot S. Maggin 1972 comic "Must There Be a Superman?" a story that thematically influenced his take on the character.
"In 'Must There Be a Superman,' Maggin's first story writing the character, Superman gets embroiled in a very down-to-earth, real world dispute between management and labor at a big industrial agricultural farm, and he comes in on the side of a whistleblower named Manuel. He makes his decision about what his role as Superman in human society is," said Roberson. Hence in Roberson's first story, "[Superman's] confronted by a whistleblower named Manuel in a very real world, industrial versus environmental concern, and makes a decision -- but it's the wrong one," said Roberson.
"When I read JMS's 'Grounded' as it was coming out, it felt to me that it was touching on a lot of the same issues Maggin had dealt with in '72," added Roberson.
But with all this talk of Superman losing himself, Superman doubting himself and Superman figuring out who he is, it's easy for a reader to get lost as well. With that in mind, we asked Roberson, who is Superman?
"Exactly what's on the label: Superman stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way," Roberson answered. "Superman is not a character who trucks in moral ambiguity. He's not a character who exists in a world of grays. There's always an answer where Superman is concerned. Superman is a figure who exists to remove obstacles that prevent regular people from hearing the truth, receiving justice, or pursuing life, liberty and happiness."
With the return of the Superman Squad and the Fortress of Solidarity, Roberson is engaging in a fair bit of world building, a tendency he blames on reading RPG manuals as a kid.
"I wanted to work a structure into ["Grounded"] that would allow us to show in more concrete terms the role Superman plays in society," said Roberson, adding, "It's something that we'll be coming back to a lot."
To that end, as Superman continues his walk across America, Roberson promises a mixture of new villains, old villains and regular folk rounding out the bad guys Superman has to face.
"It'll switch back and forth between mundane issues and sort of more typical super heroics," said Roberson, divulging that natural disaster, the villain Livewire, land-usage issues and the armies of Vandal Savage will all appear in upcoming issues. "But again, the super heroic fights against big super villains will be set in the context of the kinds of issues Superman's dealing with."
Roberson laughed when asked if he is staying on as Superman's full-time writer after "Grounded" concludes, admitting that though he would "give up a finger to do so," nothing has been confirmed. "I think it's above my pay grade, as Phil Hester says when they ask him about 'Wonder Woman.' They told me they'll find me something to do, and I have no idea what it is."
"Superman" #709 hits stores March 16