By Allison Eckel
A year ago, I wrote that Superman was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after losing New Krypton. He has nearly completed his year of walking across the U.S. and he does not seem to be any better. In July’s Superman 713, the penultimate installment of Grounded, writer Chris Roberson name-drops Under a Yellow Sun, which in the DCU is the second novel published by Clark Kent. Since Roberson left this Easter egg in plain sight, I decided to snatch it. Inside I found a fascinating look at one of Clark Kent’s earlier struggles with personal failure and enjoyed comparing it to the current Grounded event.
Under a Yellow Sun is a book within a book. It is a graphic novel written by J.F. Moore and published at a time when Clark is still re-entering his life after a return from the dead (1994). In Yellow Sun, we get some of Clark’s prose, some of his action illustrated, and some of what he is living as he is writing. It is a “day in the life of Superman” type of story. Clark goes to work, stresses about paying bills, dodges his boss, misses deadlines, flubs a conversation with his girlfriend … just like he’s a regular guy. Also, he and Lois uncover a mystery of corporate corruption that they know leads to Luthor but they can’t prove. Clark encounters a rampant culture of “why fight it?” and he feels emotionally defeated. He feels like “the city’s hardest-working boy scout,” fighting the good fight, helping those less-fortunate, but for what? A dark, empty apartment because he didn’t pay the electric bill. And the lady he’s trying to save would rather play by Luthor’s rules because life is more comfortable that way.
Moore’s Clark is experiencing a personal crisis, something akin to “Why am I trying so hard if no one cares anyway?” This is a thirty-something’s crisis of reality. In our twenties, we have big ideas, stars in ours eyes, ambitions. When we get to the big game – be it government, corporation, environment, etc. – we often find it so much more broken than we ever imagined was possible. After fighting the good fight for a few years, we will face a moment of personal crisis: Effecting change in this massive, broken system is so slow and seemingly pointless, should we continue or start looking out for ourselves? Clark says to Lois: “Maybe I finally realized that justice is the real fiction.”
Part of what makes Superman so timeless, universal, essential, is that in the end, he will always choose to continue fighting for good, regardless of the speed of change and of the personal impact. But what if Superman finds he cannot even define such black-and-white terms as “good” and “evil” anymore?
In the year-long Grounded story arc, Clark is again struggling with a personal crisis. But this time, instead of a hopeful young go-getter, he is a seasoned veteran who has been to war and lost almost everything. He is asking himself a similar question – What is the point of anything I do? – but this time, everything is bigger, heavier, and nihilism is undermining his hopeful nature. He is not just fighting rampant corruption and a culture that accepts it. He’s fighting his own motivation to even care.
In Yellow Sun, Luthor says to Superman, “You fear falling from grace more than anything.” A fall from grace can be interpreted many ways. To Superman, such a fall might come from taking a life. Clark plays with the idea of his novel’s protagonist killing the bad guy in the end, because it’s what he really wanted to do to Luthor. This idea is referenced again in Action Comics 775 (2001), when Manchester Black tries to push Superman to the point of blind, murderous rage. In both cases, simply ending the bad guy would have been so much easier than teaching him a lesson. But then, everything that is Superman would have died too. I don’t believe Superman fears that he might one day go too far. I believe to him, a fall from grace is more about failure.
Yes, Doomsday defeated him in Superman 75 (1992). But Superman is always prepared to die, if the fight goes that far. He is not, however, prepared to let others die – indeed, to let others down. When the last vestiges of his re-found Kryptonian civilization exploded in 2010, he experienced his most profound failure of his life. His very soul is damaged. So, in July last year, he started walking.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski launched the Grounded story arc last summer to explore this deep psychological trauma resulting from Superman’s greatest failure to date. Unfortunately, this great idea became wrapped in money. At least, that’s what I am left to assume from the media blitz surrounding DC Comics’ announcement that Grounded would be stretched over 12 months and take Superman to lots of cities across the country. I get the publicity stunt; I don’t get the overly long timeline. If I wanted 12 issues of trauma and depression I would reread The Watchmen. But that’s not why I read comics. And don’t get me started on the fact that the creator of the story arc bailed on it before it really launched, leaving substitute writer Chris Roberson to clean up the mess. I respect Roberson for taking on this tough task. He has made the best of an ugly situation.
Which brings me to Superman 713. Superman announces to Superboy and Supergirl that he’s hanging up his tights and cape and sticking to being Clark, full time. If he needs to save anyone, he’ll do it Smallville style, like a “blue blur.” This decision is rational: He won’t turn his back on people in need, but he is tired of putting himself out there as some symbol. The rest of the issue just upsets me. A random guy in a coffee shop butts in on Clark’s reverie to expound on why Superman is awesome. Okay, a little lecture may be warranted. But the subsequent tour of the townspeople is too much. Too heavy handed by Roberson. In the All Things Fun! new comics vidcast of July 13, I characterized this bit as cloying.
The lack of civilian support for Superman throughout this Grounded story has irked me. Superman’s walk was well-publicized within the DCU’s fictional press. I would think that his fans, those he saved, appreciative civilians, etc., would have gotten together to help this man who has helped them for so long. Towns would have put up displays of gratitude like the one in Action Comics 567, which opens with the mayor of Coaltown dedicating a statue to Superman for his help extinguishing an underground coal fire. Now, Superman is hurting, everyone can see it, and the citizenry is doing… what? Waving to him from across the street like he’s walking to the market for milk?
A grass-roots appreciation effort is what I would have liked to see in issue 713, instead of that ridiculous family who thanks God every day because Superman saved their cat (!), I would rather see our buttinsky fanboy show Clark how the people have been writing him letters, making him pictures, etc., for being that symbol he is so ready to cast off. Like when Harry Potter finally returns to his parents’ house in Deathly Hallows and finds all of the encouraging messages people have left for him. Harry had no idea people were pulling for him and the shock of that discovery bolstered him. For Superman, where is the outreach from the people he walks past? When our heroes are in trouble, we rally to help. Wouldn’t it follow that if the greatest hero in the DCU was so depressed that he is walking for a year instead living his life that the American people would rally around him? That they would at least reach out to show him appreciation? They would just give it; it would not need a random guy in an S t-shirt to ask them their opinion.
In Yellow Sun, Clark works out his personal crisis for himself, by talking with his friends and writing fiction as therapy. In Grounded, he is so broken that the few friends who have reached out to him have left empty handed. Roberson has one issue left of Grounded to work through this. Even though Superman will be re-booted along with the rest of DC’s titles in September, simply letting this depression linger would under serve the character and all he’s experienced over the past several years. Not to mention the fact that the eventual collected edition would be really lame with an ending that just peters out. So, I am looking to August 3rd with great expectation and not a little bit of anxiety.
We know from reading recent events in Action Comics that Superman will return to fighting form, but it’s the how and the why that interest me at this point. Superman 714 pictures Our Hero soaring in the sky, no longer “grounded,” and with a Mona Lisa-esque grin. I expect all will be resolved, but as with real-life personal crises, all should not be forgotten.