Sunday, January 16, 2011

Superman #707 - Ambiguous Awesome

Well I've been sick for nearly four days now and you know what that means! I have an excuse to get high out of my mind on cough meds, lay in bed all day, and read comics. I honestly don't remember much of the last few days, but when I woke up naked in my bath tub with some strange tattoo of a phone number on my ass I there was one particular comic I had in my grasp. It was Superman #707. I know it's been a while since I reviewed an issue of Superman. Blame Marvel. They've been churning out so many X-men books it's been hard to find time to review others. That doesn't mean my love for Superman has waned. The Grounded arc that has had Superman taking a casual stroll across the country Forest Gump style (minus the retardation) continues to tell some painfully down-to-Earth yet remarkably relevant stories.

For anyone who had been following DC comics the past few years, they're probably still dizzy as fuck from all the big events that have come within another Linsey Lohan drug arrest of destroying the universe. Between Final Crisis, Blackest Night, War of the Supermen, and the return of Bruce Wayne it's been like successive rounds of C4 being detonated from within your skull. There's only so much brain matter that survives so when a story like Grounded comes along, it takes a while to put the bits of brain back together in just the right order so you can appreciate it. It may not work for those who have become the equivalent of DC meth heads who need shot after shot of universe-ending Michael Bay style destruction. But for those who appreciate a damn find story, Grounded has been a case study in what makes Superman the most iconic comic character ever.

So far Superman has walked through run downed cities and the small town places that Sarah Palin loves to campaign in. Yet wherever he goes, he finds time to save a few lives. This issue has him starting off in Des Moines Iowa, a part of the country so white that a visit from President Obama completely fucks up the entire demographic stats. There's nothing too remarkable about his feats. He stops a bank robbery, stops a freight train, and catches a helicopter. It's the equivalent of my grandpa's old routine of waking up, getting his coffee, and scratching himself in just the right way that it ruins my appetite for the morning. It doesn't sound too grounded, but then he shows he's still somewhat ordinary by calling his wife on a cell phone. He doesn't use some high-tech communication gizmo that projects a hologram out of his ass. He uses a regular, as-seen-on-Monday-Night-Football-commercials cell phone. Even Lois points out that he could use something a bit more sophisticated, but Superman makes a point to show people that he's still human on some levels and you can't get more human than listening to your wife nag you over the phone.

Naturally, the whole "grounded" concept of walking through the streets of America goes out the window the moment Superman hears that Lois is in danger. Like Sarah Palin, she attracts craziness and all it's influences wherever she goes. This time it comes in the form of an exploding chemical plant. Because in the world of comic books, what could be more evil than a chemical plant that makes all those toxic chemicals that make modern life so wonderful? Superman does his job and doesn't do it the everyman way either. He uses flight, strength, and X-ray vision to assess the problem. There's only so down-to-Earth a guy can be and still be a kick-ass superhero and this is one case where pragmatics overshadow principles.

The damage is about what you would expect of an exploding chemical plant in a comic book. That is to say it makes BP look an ethical golden boy. Superman gets the workers to safety as he's so good at doing. It's hard to surmise how in one page he can get what must be hundreds if not thousands of workers out of a structure that just exploded, but then again he's fucking Superman. Still, there's only so much you can leave to the imagination before even the elf on your shoulder starts crying bullshit. It actually makes the whole using-his-super-speed-to-create-a-whirlwind-of-water-from-a-conveniently-located-stream act a lot more believable.

He doesn't stop there either. See this is one of those instances of the little things in a comic. Traditionally, writers who don't give enough of a damn get lazy and just blow through one scene the same way Madonna used to blow through the NBA All-Star game. They don't pay attention to the finer details that turns a boring scene into something awesome.

Now J. Michael Straczynski could have easily stopped at putting out the fire, but he didn't. He must have watched a few of those 9/11 truther videos because Superman mentions how the fires weakened the metal structure. So to prevent a bunch of far left crazies from claiming it was a government sponsored demolition he flies off and 'borrows' some steel bars from a passing truck. Now before you think 'borrows' means steal, Superman does mention that he'll check to make sure the insurance company covers the cost of the bars he uses. So he really is 'borrowing' and enriching an insurance company. So everybody wins (except for maybe the truck driver, but fuck that guy). And he puts these bars to good use too, using them to strengthen the structure and prevent it from collapsing. Thus rendering him an accomplice to more 9/11 truthers as complacent in a conspiracy just like everything else in the world. Sorry Superman, but you just can't win with some people.

So the toxic chemical plant is saved and the profits of a soulless chemical company are safe. Shareholders rejoice! Well it doesn't take THAT much of a left wing message. Okay actually, this is a comic that's read by young kids who still have the hippie parts of their brain active so of course there will be some tree hugging bullshit. It's not unreasonable either. Remember Lois and how she just happened to be near the plant when it exploded? Well it isn't because she ran over a stampede of black cats while shooting mirrors from under a ladder with a shotgun that has 666 etched in the stock. She was doing an investigative piece on how this plant was fucking up the environment by ignoring the basic safety procedures that most kids learn from their parents when they get smacked for not doing the dishes. It's got everything the people at Greenpeace probably masterbate to: bribery, corporate greed, and environmental destruction.

Superman does what any reporter who happens to be a superhero in a comic would do. He checks his facts (as opposed to filling in the blanks with bullshit as 98 percent of most mainstream news does in real life). He confirms in a second what probably would have taken years to test. The plant has been polluting the water like an army of bears with diarrhea taking a bath in a pond. Now if George Soros had his way, the comic would end here. But Glenn Beck must have bought stock in DC comics because it gets a little more complicated.

While the plant may be shitty, the workers make an impassioned plea to Superman. As it turns out, this evil chemical plant is actually doing some good besides making the toxic shit that we modern folk love to consume. It's the only major employer in the area. Despite the toxic shit, it's a good place to work that pays well and allows men to support their families. So all you ultra-liberal types better look away because hearing this side of the argument tends to make you as uncomfortable as Justin Bieber in the Vatican.

This puts Superman in the most uncomfortable position he could possibly be in...moral ambiguity. This is a shot to the scrotum because Superman doesn't deal with moral ambiguity. That's more like Batman's deal. In fact, Batman could probably sue Superman for half the Fortress of Solitude (and possibly win with his high-paid legal team) for his flirtation with moral ambiguity. But for once Superman does not have a black or white decision to make. It's not as simple as beating the shit out of Lex Luthor or throwing Darkseid into the sun. He either has to shut down a plan to protect the environment or save the plant to protect the people. It's an unfamiliar position for a guy who really isn't put in this position very often.

He ends up with a somewhat hallow compromise. He makes the guys at the plant promise to do a better job of cleaning up and in return he won't use his Superman level influence to shut it down. That's like telling bankers that they can still make shitty loans that screw people over so long as they don't screw people too badly. To be fair Superman does mention he'll come by and check and he's not nearly as easy to bribe as your local bureaucrat. So we might be able to assume the plant will be more inclined to shape up, at least a hell of a lot more of Superman was an EPA agent.

This is great for the plant, the workers, and greed-based capitalism. However, Lois is pissed. As most readers already know, Lois is a rare mutant freak among the reporter population in that she has no tolerance for glossing over the truth. Even if the truth sucks, she's going to report it. So Superman has to do something no man, not even the most powerful hero on the planet, it strong enough to do. He tells his wife to stand down. That's not a result of the cough medicine fucking me up. Superman actually tells Lois Lane that she can't run a story.

Take a few minutes for that to sink in because it's quite possibly the most uncomfortable thing a man who wears his underwear on the outside can possibly do. It's a new twist on the whole "Grounded" theme. The world from above may seem like a pretty cut and dry piece from some kids Ipad. But when you get down to the finer details, it's not so black and white. Superman wants to do good, but that's not as easy as rescuing a kitty from a tree. In order to save an entire community, he has to tell his wife not to run a story. Feminists may start protesting outside of DC comics when they read this book because Lois actually listens. I know, in pretty much every other sitcom or popular TV show the man would be the one to act like a pussy. But this time, Lois caves in and is not too happy about it. So while he does manage to save the plant and the livelihood of an entire community, his wife is now very upset with him and I imagine his penis is just as pissed (figuratively speaking).

It make for a pretty mixed ending. Does Superman save the day this time? If so it comes at the cost of his wife's scorn. For many men that's a hell of a cost. So as he gets back to his walk across America, he tries calling Lois. As expected, he gets her voice mail. That's universal woman's code for "I don't want to talk to you, asshole." It would have made for a real downer of an ending. But just as Superman is questioning the whole black and white aspect of morality, he's confronted with what is either a vision from the future or a the result of inhaling some really awesome chemicals at that plant. A bunch of Superman-dressed teenagers and a kid just appear right in front of him and say they can answer his questions. They call themselves the Superman squad. Again, this isn't me overdosing from cough syrup (although I did suspect it the first time I read this book). It's really random and doesn't really fit with anything that's happened with Grounded thus far, but it happens. I'm not sure what to make of it. I may need to down some extra doses of Nyquil to figure it out between now and when the next issue comes out.

So yeah, it's a somewhat cuckoo ending and one that sort of distracts from the theme of moral ambiguity. Without that last page, this is a pretty insightful book from a series that's known for being about as insightful as a Rocky Balboa movie. For the first time in quite a while Superman has to wrestle with the moral ambiguity of being a hero. He sees a wrong in the world, but by correcting that wrong it only does more wrong. So he has to compromise and when it comes to what's right and wrong, Superman doesn't compromise. Well this time he had to make a decision and it forced him to confront his wife in a very unpleasant way. It may be a commentary on marriage as well in that even when you make a whole community happy, if you piss off your wife you might as well stick your dick in a toaster. It plays up Superman's humanity and for a guy that really isn't human, that goes a long way.

There's still the matter of that last page that sort of disrupts the vibe of this issue. Superman is left wrestling with this whole moral ambiguity concept and out of nowhere a bunch of Superpeople appear and claim to have the answers? Even in comics, you have to be somewhat high for that to be believable. There's also some of the little things like saving every worker in that plant when it fucking exploded. It's one of those little things that the Grounded arc has been good about covering until now. It's not so egregious that it makes you want to write an angry letter to the editor and cite articles of Scientific America and Wikipedia to point out all the bullshit. But it does prevent the comic from matching the awesome of previous issues.

With the previous issues in mind, Superman #707 is still pretty damn awesome. It's as pure a Superman story as you can get without putting on a costume and flying to Richard Donner's old house and shooting your own series of youtube videos. It shows conflict and strife in Superman's life without having to blow up the whole freakin' DC universe. Some of the little things and the ending are a little sketchy though. That's why for this issue I give it a 4 out of 5. Superman is still a hero of heroes and when he's confronted with moral ambiguity, it really does make for great story. It's part of what has made the Grounded arc so enjoyable and for anybody who appreciates this extra layer to a comic, then it's a great time to be a Superman fan. Nuff said!

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