By this point, I suspect I’m not the only person who’s noticed that Chris Roberson has quietly taken the “Grounded” storyline in “Superman” progressively farther away from its original remit. Instead of dealing with “every day person” issues like child abuse and immigration, we’re getting team-ups with the Flash, an entire multi-dimensional league of Supermen, and now a flashback to an early team-up between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne.
Maybe because this issue is almost all flashback, though, that I think it’s the weakest of Roberson’s issues to date. Even then it’s still all right, just not up to the more fantastical and imaginative issues he’s worked on. Instead, it’s a slightly slow-moving story of how Clark and Bruce, pre-secret-identities (but already with their own super abilities) defend Bhutran (a thinly-disguised analogue of Tibet) from the forces of the Chinese army.
While there’s a brief handwave toward everyone protecting each other’s secrets, there’s something slightly off-putting about seeing Clark Kent (sans secret identity) casually hefting tanks over his head, while Bruce Wayne has a flock of conveniently located bats attacking at his side. Add in that neither the set-up nor the fight itself is terribly interesting, and it’s a little weak. Then again, Roberson seems less interested with the idea of protecting a dig site in Ogden, Utah (the subject of the framing story), which is dispatched so quickly it feels like he’s changed his mind.
Travel Foreman pencils the flashback story, and with one exception it’s the high point of the issue, looking like a cross between Chris Weston and Leinil Francis Yu. With thin lines and meticulous detail, we get some gorgeous scenes of the Himalayan landscape, old school Chinese army uniforms, and beautiful decorations in the monastery. It’s a shame that Clark’s face inexplicably looks old and (on occasion) strangely beaten up throughout these flashbacks, though; shouldn’t he look young and fresh? Eddy Barrows is around for the framing sequence in the present day, and while it’s all right, there’s something slightly disturbing about the strange wasp waists he keeps giving Superman and Batman, even with all of their pectoral muscles still built up. It makes them look slightly twisted and misshapen every time the tiny little waists appear (first when Superman’s flying in, then later with Batman giving Superman a pep talk), and it takes away from the better figures Barrows draws elsewhere.
As entertaining as it is to watch Roberson reshape “Grounded” into a more interesting story, it is a reminder that on some level he’s still stuck to some parts of J. Michael Straczynski’s basic outline. We’ve had enough of Roberson now, though, to make me think that (even with this not being his best issue) Roberson would be an excellent full time writer on the book once “Grounded” is over. The worst Roberson/Straczynski issue is still better than the best Straczynski solo script, after all. That’s a good sign. Hopefully, DC editorial agrees.