As iconic as Superman is, he’s often handled in an ineffective manner that spoils his grand potential as the ultimate in individual achievement. Too often stories focus on the “Super” and less on the “man” aspect of his character. These tales involve Kal-El battling aliens, demigods, and other super humans in far out, fantastical tales.
However, Superman’s publication roots are far more humble than such extravagant adventures of derring-do. Superman, as originally conceived by creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was a defender of the common man against big business, cruel landlords and corrupt politicians. Hailing from the Great Depression, Superman was a cathartic creation of working class America, setting right the wrongs many blue collared workers experienced in harsh and uncertain economic times. This aspect of his character, crusading for a liberal social agenda, has been largely lost over the intervening decades, replaced by otherworldly encounters and superhero slug fests. Until now that is.
Comic superstar J. Michael Straczynski is currently behind the wheel of the on-going Superman series. Straczynski’s debut in Superman #700 began a fresh new saga for the Last Son of Krypton. Building on years of lackluster stories, Straczynski does away with visceral adventure and super powered bravado. In its place comes a new direction called “Grounded”. Not only is Superman literally grounded, eschewing his most iconic super power, but he is taking the time to reconnect with the average human on a walk across America.
While the results have been mixed, with certain elements played exceptionally well while others appear heavy handed, the concept is never the less incredibly audacious. Straczynski is a master of reinvention. His past comic work with Spider-Man, Thor and the Squadron Supreme are abject lessons in franchise regeneration. Through a combination of poignant themes, long form storytelling and distilling a character to their essence, Straczynski has re-energized every property under his influence. His abilities are now at work in Superman.
While only three issues in, starting at #700 up to this month’s #702, Straczynski already finds himself in a unique position as a storyteller with the gravitas to bring Superman back to his more earthbound roots. Man of Steel writers and artists after Siegel and Shuster constantly strove to make Superman bigger, bolder and more expansive. Straczynski reverses this trend by boiling the Man of Tomorrow down to his core.
That, quite literally, is being the Man of Tomorrow. Playing up Superman’s messianic aspects while having Big Blue interact with the populace in ways previously unseen, such as a scenic walk through South Philadelphia or Detroit, is a true breath of fresh air. The promise of Superman as a beacon of humanity and hope is on full display. Instead of battling alien conquerors, Superman battles poverty, depression and apathy, problems that certainly require a Superman’s help to solve. This new lesson in humility brings a sense of change to comic’s oldest creation. While this story is in its infancy, the journey will certainly prove to be enlightening.