Monday, July 18, 2011

SUPERMAN: GROUNDED: Is THIS the "American Way?"

Ok, we've all heard how Superman renounced his citizenship, and "The American Way," in a one-shot, out-of-continuity story in issue of Action Comics 900 ("The Incident", a story which D.C. has emphasized is not canon.) But did you know that meanwhile, in continuity, he's been walking the country, for about a year now, trying to reconnect with America?

For all the ruckus in the mainstream media over Superman's supposed betrayal, there's been little, in comparison, over the "Grounded" storyline, which started in June of 2010. (It doesn't help that the story's been delayed by creative setbacks, which have held the story up.) It features a Superman who feels so disconnected from his country that he decides to walk, not fly, in order to reconnect. Now, the story may have started last summer, but you'd have to be blind not to see how the latest controversy has steered the direction; in Superman #713, "Clark Kent Abandons Superman!", Superman announces to Superboy and Supergirl that he is giving up the mantle:
Supergirl: "What about 'Truth, Justice, and the American Way'? You giving up on that, too?"

Superman: "No, those are good ideas, and worth defending. I just won't be doing it as Superman."

After this, Clark Kent begins to write an article, "Must There Be a Superman?", and his answer is "No." (This title is an allusion to a previous story of the same name, in which aliens put the idea in his head that maybe he's done more harm than good by playing "big brother" to the human race, making us too reliant on him.) A Superman fan gets wind of this, and has Clark speak with different people who answer all his objections, and reaffirms his mission as Superman. It's written almost as if in apology to the "The Incident."

What's most notable about the "Grounded" storyline is that, like the Action 900 story, it, too, has not been well-received; in the comics community, it was claimed to be the "Worst Comic of 2010" on the Comics Alliance website, in an article by Jason Michelitch, but for different reasons. In contrast to the Action Comics 900 story, the author of the story is criticized for his simplistic jingoism.

Instead of being some grand statement on heroism and America, "Grounded" is just one introductory issue bloated with preposterous ego, two mediocre and forgettable Superman stories in #702 and #703, and then #705, a rushed piece of mechanical hackwork featuring a child abuse story made up of half-remembered garbage cliches from network television specials 20 years ago.

One might be tempted to claim that the writer of this piece is simply "Anti-American" when he writes that 'I have no idea what [writer] Straczynski ultimately intended to say with "Grounded," and since he isn't finishing the story, I'll never know. But Superman #701 reads like a mini-thesis of its own, and it has a very clear message: Anyone who criticizes this comic is stupid and shallow and should shut the hell up."

While that is a crack at the story's writer, it could be taken as a criticism of the jingoism throughout the comic. I have no idea who Michelitch is, or his politics, but that doesn't matter, because, unfortunately, my own reading of #713 corresponds with his; it's simply warmed-over, contradictory platitudes about what it means to be "American." Half of it reads like a threat, with Superman as the stand-in for "Big Brother" government, who only those who have something to hide don't trust ("Look, the only people who are afraid of Superman, I think, are people who've done something wrong"), and the other half promotes the altruistic saviour that people have come to count on, and love...without good little sycophants ("He helps everyone who needs him. That's the American Way.") Put the two together, and you get the bi-partisan hybrid-child of fascist authority and "New Deal" style-communism.

That brings me to the real issue: Why is it so hard, nowadays, for people to write pro-American stories that aren't shallow, jingoistic, and ham-fisted? And if this is, in fact, a good pro-American story, then why isn't it being embraced from the rooftops by the very people who decried "The Incident"?

The answer, I believe, was suggested by Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto, in her analysis of "good" Naturalism versus "bad" Romanticism. The Superman story shares characteristics with the popular literature of Rand's day, and her critique could apply today:

The highest function of Romanticism--the projection of moral values--is an extremely difficult task under any moral code, rational or not, and, in literary history, only the top rank of Romanticists were able to attempt it. Given the added burden of an irrational code, such as altruism, the majority of Romantic writers had to avoid that task--which led to the weakness and neglect of the element of characterization in their writing....Thus, the emphasis on action, the neglect of human psychology, the lack of convincing motivation were progressively dissociating Romanticism from reality..."

She also writes that "There were several reasons why Naturalism outlasted Romanticism, even if not for long. Chief among them is the fact that Naturalism's standards are much less demanding. A third-rate naturalist may still have some perceptive observations to offer; a third-rate Romanticist has nothing."

The problems that Rand spells out for Romanticism are a mirror to the problematic side of "pro-American" Superman. The contradiction of Superman's altruism and his fantastical nature mirror the view of America as founded on Christian principles that contradict its history of capitalism and individualism. Combine that with poor storytelling and appeals to an insipid, anemic morality, and you get good, wholesome shlock that simply doesn't convince. The Comics Alliance article spells out this problem with the "Grounded" story by pointing to Superman's discussion of Thoreau's On Civil Disobedience:
The problem with making Thoreau a generic patron of holier-than-thouness, though, is that it ignores that his principles weren't generic. He wasn't. Superman isn't the principled outsider in these comics. He's the roving monitor of the status quo.
"Grounded" is full of this kind of ponderous, pretentious gobbledygook, meant to show the reader how important and thoughtful it all is. Over and over, Straczynski inserts shrill arguments for how seriously the reader should take this pointless exercise in Superman solving "real" problems through glib assertions of nonsense axioms and generous application of brute force and intimidation. It's made all the more ludicrous, then, by Straczynski leaving mid-thought, before delivering any of the intellectual meat promised by the self-important build-up.

Now, I'd ask you to determine, yourself, if the charges hold, but the theme of the charges, if true, make me believe that the reason why Superman's anti-American stories get more attention than the pro-American ones, is, sadly, that the anti-American ones are more perceptive in their observations, and that much more effective. And if that's the case, then, to quote the my blogging partner's last post, "That's it. I'm officially done with mainstream superhero comics."