Early last year the company now known as DC Comics hit its 75th birthday, not long after the latest permutation in its structure — the creation of DC Entertainment, a layer of management betwixt the comics-producing offices and next-level-up parent company Warner Bros. Entertainment.
DC bullet ® DC Comics.
"DC" comics have actually been published under various corporate names, most prominently (aside from the longstanding current one of DC Comics itself) National Periodical Publications. But the initials DC — for Detective Comics, the series that began the partnership from which we can directly trace the company's modern incarnation — have branded its works for almost its entire existence. The label "A Superman DC Publication" became standard on covers and in advertisements in 1941, once the Man of Steel's position as the company's flagship character was irrefutably clear; it first appeared on an issue of Superman itself with #13. Until the stamp changed nearly a decade later to read "Superman DC National Comics" — and remained thus through 1970 — editorial matter in the comics referred to the publishing line as Superman-DC far more often than as National.
Standard cover to Superman #700 © 2010 DC Comics. Pencils,
Inks: Gary Frank. Colors: Brad Anderson. Typography: Unknown.
I talked about all this in a 2010 post that apparently never went up again after last April's blog attack. Since I'm not going to spare the time reformatting that piece now, I wanted to reiterate the above pertinent piece of DC history because the conceit of this post is that last summer I picked up a Wonder Woman DC publication as well as Superman and Batman DCCs. By which I mean, in a reversal of the Roman-numeral pun in the title of the aforementioned post, that I've read Wonder Woman #600, Superman #700, and Batman #700, milestone issues that conveniently came along in the middle of their publisher's diamond anniversary.
The issues, released in June and dated August, were each priced at $4.99 for 60 pages (total; 10-15 less of original creative content). I decided to splurge on them as a possible milestone in my own 35-year run of collecting periodical comics — minus several years off in the past decade for
Left: Variant cover to Superman: New Krypton Special #1 © 2008 DC Comics.
Pencils, Colors: Renato Guedes. Inks: José Wilson Magalhães. Typography: Unknown.
Right: Standard cover to Superman: War of the Supermen #1 © 2010 DC Comics.
Pencils: Eddy Barrows. Inks: J.P. Mayer. Colors: Rod Reis. Typography: Unknown.
You sometimes hear fans of characters lament that they're not reading their current stories exactly because they hold the characters so dear. I know the feeling well. To keep buying Action Comics when it's boring or stagnant for the sake of maintaining a run in one's collection — and hope that things turn around soon — is understandable (if ever more dubious an expense); to plunk down one's cash when the creative direction is truly poor or offensive, however, is a disservice not just to oneself but to every other reader who'd be better off with the publisher getting the message when sales dry up. Viewers of television series go through something similar in terms of deciding when to break the habit, yet as with series of mystery, teen-drama, or science-fiction prose novels, there's often an obvious and irreversible downward spiral on TV — sometimes critic-proof, sometimes leading to cancellation— whereas in the case of periodical comics starring perennially published characters there's always the likelihood that a change in creative teams and even a serious shift in the status quo will bring a return to greatness.
I've stopped reading Superman plenty of times, through at least as many periods as those in which I've made it a point to purchase most or all of the Man of Steel's family of titles. When I began getting comics again after that oft-referenced hiatus, my budget went to a few choice "independent" series plus the newly resurgent Hellboy (last title I'd ever drop) and the DC Universe that I'd loved, always in theory and usually in practice, since childhood — or, I should say, DC Multiverse, not only because the contemporary mainstream DC Universe was not the same continuity familiar from my younger days (or even the recent past) but because something called Infinite Crisis was upon us and blowing open the doors to parallel realities once more. The Superman titles have gone through a few new directions in that time, some good, some less inspiring; I gave them up in early 2009 when Action Comics, Superman, and the latest Supergirl series all became embroiled in the implausible, uninteresting New Krypton storyline that would have required even more monthly purchases to follow completely.
New Krypton spun out of Superman's first actual meeting with Brainiac in the flesh — per the latest haphazard overwriting of continuity — after Kal-El rescued an entire shrunken city of survivors from his home planet. But unlike past iterations of Kandor, in which its inhabitants were usually confined to a foot-tall jug in Superman's Fortress of Solitude, the so-called Last Son of Krypton (already established as really neither metaphorically nor literally any such thing) returned his kin to normal size and tried to help them adjust to life on Earth; when that didn't work out, it was on to colonization-cum-creation of another sphere opposite Earth's solar orbit. This led to a prolonged absence from his adoptive world — which along with loss of his powers and the gist of Grounded, the multi-part arc that kicks off in Superman #700, is among the recycled sediment in the well to which the Man of Steel's writers and editors repeatedly return for big would-be events.
Panel from first story in Superman #700 © 2010 DC Comics. Script: James Robinson.
Pencils, Inks: Bernard Chang. Colors: Kevin Senft as Blond. Letters: John J. Hill.
Superman #700, edited by Matt Idelson with Wil Moss, opens with a 16-page story titled "The Comeback" that has Superman returning to Earth after the events of the many New Krypton arcs — which culminated in a weekly miniseries titled War of the Supermen — and reuniting with Lois Lane. I should note here for the benefit of my beloved readers who don't follow comics at all but are eyeing this entry anyway that the mainstream DC Universe Superman has, as Clark Kent, been married to Lois for 15 years our time and, oh, at least a tenth of that in the continuity that's about to be rejiggered again. My first-ever printed review of Superman, done for the Oberlin College newspaper 20 years ago, noted with bemusement that Lois — engaged but not yet married to Clark, and newly aware of his double identity — called the Man of Tomorrow "babe". James Robinson, Superman writer during the New Krypton era, apparently has Lois call him "baby"; I found this even more distracting than "babe" and indeed more distracting than the famously weird Robinson syntax. Bernard Chang's line art offers some choice panel composition and figure work (reminiscent in places of Rick Leonardi) but is uneven in both style and quality. The main villain of the piece is the quickly dispatched Parasite, whose presence mostly served to remind me of Kurt Busiek's not-long-ago stint as Superman scribe (more on which below).
Panel from Robin story in Superman #700 © 2010 DC Comics. Script, Layouts: Dan Jurgens.
Finished Pencils, Inks: Norm Rapmund. Colors: Pete Pantazis. Letters: John J. Hill.
Next up is a curious contribution from Dan Jurgens, lead writer/artist of the 1992 Death of Superman storyline that resulted from the powers that be at Warner Bros. asking DC to put off marrying the comics' Lois and Clark so that TV's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman could have greater romantic tension. Set during Superman and Batman's early years, the 16-page "Geometry" involves an unintentional team-up between the Man of Steel and Dick Grayson when he was still Robin the Boy Wonder. The usual strengths and weaknesses of Jurgens' layouts are on display, not done any favors by Norm Rapmund's finishes (completed pencils, then inks), and while the plot isn't bad it would've felt less like a throwaway tale in a more extensive anthology built around stories from throughout Superman's career.
First two pages from Grounded prologue in Superman #700 © 2010 DC Comics.
We're back in the present with the 10-page Grounded prologue "The Slap Heard
'round the World". Grounded was to be a twelve-issue Superman storyline written by J. Michael Straczynski, but deadlines or other conflicts soon necessitated both fill-in issues and the hiring of Chris Roberson to work from Straczynski's plots. You might've seen the media coverage of Grounded last summer, reporting that after the events of New Krypton the Man of Steel is called out on indifference to the trials of everyday folks and tries to regain his connection to humanity by walking across the country.
Standard cover to Superman #701 © 2010 DC Comics.
Pencils, Inks: John Cassaday. Colors: David Baron.
One reason why I've been paring down my periodical comics haul is that the minimum per-issue price of $2.99 is very hard to justify for what's almost always just one chapter of a longer story — too seldom what Heidi MacDonald memorably called a "satisfying chunk". So I went for Superman #700, as I said above, in part to have a fitting last issue of the title should I never buy another; there was a real likelihood that if and when I checked the series out again it would be via collected editions or maybe even digitally. As it happened I ended up getting #701 the very next month because I wanted to give Grounded a shot and because the first city spotlighted was Philadelphia.
Panels from Grounded prologue in Superman #700 © 2010 DC Comics. Script: J. Michael
Straczynski. Pencils: Eddy Barrows. Inks: J.P. Mayer. Colors: Rod Reis. Letters: John J. Hill.
Grounded's prologue in #700 has a couple of pertinent scenes set squarely within the current DC Universe, as Superman confers with an adult Dick Grayson, now Batman, aboard the Justice League satellite and then stops The Flash to find out what he sees running at Mach Impossible. The formal Part One in #701 is where the Man of Steel's stroll of America actually begins, with Lois Lane strangely — even more strangely given their exchanges in "The Comeback" the previous issue — asking in some stolen moments with Superman ahead of the crowd following him what she should tell Perry White about Clark Kent's absence, as if he made his decision during or immediately after the prologue and hadn't discussed it with her at all.
Page from Grounded Part One in Superman #701 © 2010 DC
Comics. Script: J. Michael Straczynski. Pencils: Eddy Barrows.
Inks: J.P. Mayer. Colors: Rod Reis. Letters: John J. Hill.
I'll grant that Superman might have a public-image problem in the wake of the Kryptonians' behavior on Earth and the "hundred-minute war" referenced in "The Comeback" (apparently waged mostly in space). But he doesn't seem to be legally or morally blamed for whatever went down, just chastised by a grieving woman for "trying to prevent some interstellar crisis" while her husband was dying of a tumor that Superman could've surgically zapped with his heat vision — which prompts his supposed walkabout of humility and understanding. Straczynski does acknowledge through dialogue in #700 that the "Superman can't be everywhere at once" riff has been played before, and the first full, 22-page chapter of Grounded in #701 finds the Man of Steel making the point that we can only ever be responsible for "here". Yet I don't buy that Superman — raised by humans, married to a human, living among humans as a human because that's how he thinks of himself or (depending on your interpretation; the mythology has had it both ways over the years) because of a need to understand what it's like to be one of the people he's sworn to protect — has lost or can lose the perspective of the common folk.
Neither do I buy that the majority of people in the DC Universe have a lack of faith or trust in him. The suspension of disbelief crucial to non-deconstructionist superhero stories — or more properly the assumptions that we make in mentally (and often not entirely consciously) filling out the unreferenced aspects of such fiction — breaks down when you linger on, for instance, why the Man of Tomorrow hasn't single-handedly used his tremendous power and surviving Kryptonian artifacts to truly bring about the World of Tomorrow, providing nearly magical technology and freedom from wants or ailments, never mind that The Flash and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern aren't using their gifts and resources in similar fashion. You eventually have to conclude that either Superman is an outright jackass or there are in-continuity considerations that we don't necessarily see smoothing out such edges; often stories do deal with the clash of mundane life and the fantastic, the better ones skirting or addressing the topic reasonably as opposed to pointing out pink elephants and then just waving them off.
Superman is of course capable of having a crisis of conscience, thanks to some deeply rooted self-doubt over his place in a world where he's a virtual god or to questioning by other parties over whether he's interfering too much (or even too little) with Earth's destiny, but it's a plot point that has to be handled as delicately and infrequently as possible. Elliot S. Maggin asked the question "Must There Be a Superman?" in 1972's Superman #247; others have touched upon the same theme as that celebrated story over the years, perhaps none as notably or as extremely as Mark Waid and Alex Ross in the 1996 Elseworlds miniseries Kingdom Come, with Kurt Busiek merging elements of both Maggin's in-continuity quandary and Kingdom Come's possible-future approach as recently as the Camelot Falls storyline that began in 2006's Superman #254.
Yet despite not just those psychological studies but the very fabric of his origins
as told and retold from 1939's Superman #1 to 1986's Man of Steel revamp to 2003's Superman: Birthright — just about everywhen except for the mid-20th-century era from which Maggin drew the Kal-El vs. Clark Kent tension he loved to prod in both comics and prose — Grounded Part One shows Superman chatting with folks on the street, disrupting neighborhood drug dealers, and listening to a distraught potential jumper as if he, pushing-40 reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper raised on a Kansas farm, were only just discovering the triumphs and trials of "real America". Superman, or at least my Superman, already does this kind of stuff all the time. He's as grounded as they come – which as much as his amazing powers is what makes him Superman — or we'd be reading Waid's Irredeemable.
Panel from Grounded Part One in Superman #701 © 2010 DC Comics. Script: J. Michael
Straczynski. Pencils: Eddy Barrows. Inks: J.P. Mayer. Colors: Rod Reis. Letters: John J. Hill.
While points should go to Straczynski for not just parading Superman past the Liberty Bell and other Philadelphia landmarks, by the way, there's no real sense of place in #701 outside of the lame order of "a Philly cheese-steak sandwich" at a diner, which does not bode well for authentic local color in future issues. You can find "Philly cheese-steak sandwich" on the menu in diners here, yes, but nobody would actually order one at a diner. Unless you were without chaperone and had never been to town before — and it's not as if this guy has never been to Philadelphia — you would go to a pizza parlor or steak-sandwich shop, where it's usually only called a "steak sandwich" if it's plain and otherwise is just a "cheese steak" or (with tomato sauce) a "pizza steak" (no "Philly" modifier, naturally, since that's redundant anywhere in the vicinity from the Lehigh Valley to the Jersey Shore).
The Grounded stories in #700 and #701 were handled by the same creative team, with new artists as well as writer Roberson rotating in on later issues. Eddy Barrows' pencils and J.P. Meyer's inks are professional if nothing special, with Rod Reis providing the kind of overdone colors typical to modern comics; John J. Hill's balloon placement is fine, although the lettering font that he chose is (despite its popularity) too distractingly rounded for my tastes in such a dramatic setting. What makes or breaks a series, though, absent singularly radiant or execrable art, is the writing. And the entire premise of Grounded is flawed, which is a particular shame given that there are at least as many nicely done small moments as there are questionable ones so far.
Variant cover to Superman #700 © 2010 DC Comics. Pencils,
Inks: Eduardo Risso. Colors: Trish Mulvihill. Typography: Unknown.
Superman #701 and beyond sport covers from John Cassaday. The main cover to #700 (seen near the top of this post), Lois Lane and Superman awkwardly posed with limbs akimbo, was drawn by Gary Frank and colored by Brad Anderson. Eduardo Risso homaged Neal Adams' classic cover to 1970's Superman #233 for variants sporting DC's 75th-anniversary branding that could be ordered by comics shops on an incentive basis, one colored by Trish Mulvihill and the other sans color save for red in the logo.
Superman #700 followed the Grounded prologue with single-page articles on Action Comics, Supergirl, and the new Superboy title, authored by those series' writers, as well as a 4-page preview of Action Comics #890. Each was intriguing, but none enough to get me to jump on board at a time when I was either unfamiliar or dissatisfied with recent Superman storylines and shying away from periodical comics. This is where DC's double-down decision to largely reboot its chief continuity and institute same-day digital release of new issues could seriously expand its readership if only the literal price of entry could be brought down.
Can you remember last year? Did you buy Superman #700 and/or #701? What did you think?