YOU WILL BELIEVE A MAN CAN FLY AND STILL BE BORING - Superman 700
Superman reaches its milestone issue number 700 this week, meaning it's as good a time as any to do a giant-sized issue marking both the high round number and a point between the end of one saga and the beginning of another. The issue begins with recent Superman scribe James Robinson and finishes with upcoming writer J. Michael Straczynski with another tale inserted between them written by Dan Jurgens (who also did layouts for his story). The three stories combine to demonstrate the versatility of Superman as a character, and how he can mean very different things to different creators as well as to the different fictional characters in his life.
That difference in most pronounced between the first half of Robinson's story and Straczynski's piece. In case you haven't heard, Straczynski's first arc as writer
will see a year of Superman walking across the United States trying to reexamine the ordinary lives he's dedicated his existence to protecting and worries that he's lost touch with. There've been a lot of comments to the effect that walking Superman sounds like a ridiculous, boring premise for a story. You know, as compared to the last six hundred and ninety-nine issues of flying and punching, a formula that's bound to be exciting forever.
I couldn't help but read the first few pages of Robinson's story, in which a Superman who's recently returned to Earth engages in a little fist-to-face-to-body slammed-through-several-walls interaction with Parasite, and be reminded of how I've never found Superman to be as interesting a character as other superheroes. There's so little drama. Most Superman stories revolve around the question "Will Superman be able to punch hard enough to stop whatever the current problem is?" with the answer being a pretty reliable "Yes, he will."
Sometimes a writer attempts to create tension by introducing some obstacle and going "Uh oh, here's something that someone would have to punch really, really hard to deal with. Maybe harder than Superman can punch?" and again the answer will be "Oh, no wait, Superman can totally punch hard enough."
And then, of course, there's Kryptonite, the all-purpose legacy MacGuffin that can sometimes be brought in whenever writers go, "Oh no, we have to write a story about an invincible hero again, how can we make things hard for him?" I'm not sure why there's such fondness for Kryptonite's recurrent plot device appearances. If there was some object that caused Batman to suddenly lose all his detective abilities that was introduced over and over again in order to actually make things hard for him I'm pretty sure we all would have gotten real tired of it long ago.
I guess what I'm crankily saying here is that having a physically invulnerable super strong protagonist is, for me, pretty dull if all he has to do is deal with physical threats over and over again. To me Superman's only interesting when something threatens his emotional and psychological vulnerabilities. For example, see the finer points of Grant Morrison's "All-Star Superman," or for that matter Morrison's primary motivation for Superman in his Final Crisis series "Superman Beyond". Or for a more recent example, the dilemma posed to a future Superman in Paul Levitz's recent "Superman/Batman" Annual.
So I found Straczynski's story here, in which Superman tries to come to grips with a world in which people see him as a near-godlike perfect being who is expected to save everyone, everywhere, without fail, far, far more fascinating than cliched one liners with a villain who gets knocked through several large shelves of crates. Now, the rest of Robinson's story is better, with a touching reunion between Superman and Lois after he's returned to Earth. But none of that changes the fact that I had almost no interest in Robinson's run before but now I'm actually finding myself looking forward to the next issue of an in-continuity Superman book, an almost unprecedented experience for me.
I should also mention Jurgens's story, which is basically "Two and a Half Men" if the characters were replaced by Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Dick Grayson. I am basing this analogy solely on advertisements I've seen for this show, as I've never actually watched a real episode. This is mostly due to the fact that if it appears on television forces beyond my control cause me to emit a loud howl of fear and frantically smash at the nearest remote control until it goes away.
Admittedly this would not happen if the characters were actually Batman, Superman and Robin and the show were written by Dan Jurgens. His story has a few fun moments, as Superman comes to the aid of Robin when the then-still freshly recruited sidekick decides to fight crime on his own. There are playful touches vaguely reminiscent of the silver-age era Superman that used his powers to screw with people for his own amusement, contrasted nicely against a Batman acting as an overly-protective guardian grumbling in the direction of anyone interfering in his young ward's development. It's a pleasant light touch in the middle of the book that offers a good contrast between Robinson's action/romance and Straczynski's more introspective work.