Straczynski Leaves the Superman Monthly in Limbo

Yesterday’s announcement that J. Michael Straczynski will be dropping writing duties on the Superman and Wonder Woman monthly titles in deference to concentrating on original graphic novels will have numerous repercussions on the comic world at large. I’m most concerned with the possible consequences it will have on Superman’s ongoing adventures. The last few years have been an interesting era for Superman comics. Last year, the man of steel was in the middle of the New Krypton saga being lead by writer James Robinson. The massive storyline told the tale of Superman’s home planet being reborn from survivors on Kandor. It ran for over a year, teased the idea of a big finale, and then ended quietly in a four-issue miniseries after sales fell and critics turned sour. It’s also likely that New Krypton’s end was rushed a bit to make way for big name writer J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Superman’s title.

               The transition from the sci-fi blockbuster that was New Krypton to Straczynski’s more philosophical take on Superman was less than clean. Superman had just watched the Kryptonian race wiped out for a second time at the hands of American forces in the conclusion to the War of the Supermen mini-series. In the beginning of Straczynski’s “Grounded” in Superman #700, however, Superman appears unconcerned about the genocide of his race but does become emotionally troubled after being slapped in the face by a woman who believes Superman let her husband die of cancer. This was an auspicious start to Straczynski’s run because it signaled that he was not interested in Superman’s recent history or continuity and wanted to initiate his story as quickly as possible without dealing with what came before. To fans that jumped onto Superman simply for Straczynski, this was not a problem because they would rather just jump into JMS’ tale without having to be bogged down by the New Krypton’s somewhat-complex history. However, to many long-time Superman readers who want to see all the character’s adventures as a single, unified story, Straczynski’s unwillingness to deal with New Krypton’s aftermath didn’t make sense in context of the story and spoke to an egotism within JMS. Three and a half issues of Straczynski’s “Grounded” storyline hit the shelves with a few delays and mixed reviews before JMS himself announced he would be dropping the Superman monthly title to focus on his popular graphic novel series, Superman: Earth One.

               Though it may be a better decision for JMS’ career since Superman: Earth One was released to better sales and reviews than “Grounded,” his fly-by-night departure from the book may leave Superman’s monthly title in a sort of limbo. Writing duties for Superman will pass from Straczynski to relative unknown Chris Roberson who will conclude Straczynski’s “Grounded” in a contracted manner using JMS’ notes. This move will, in all likelihood, kill “Grounded.” Many readers will leave the book along with JMS and no matter how talented Chris Roberson is he won’t be able to finish “Grounded” the same way Straczynski would have which will dilute the story and its themes. Then DC will have to face the problem of what to do next. Where do you go with Superman after two major storylines that were not completed as originally planned? What story do you tell after New Krypton and Grounded and do you trust an unknown like Roberson to tell it or do you try to reach for another big name writer? In any event, it feels like the Superman title is some ways away from being stabilized.

               In a lot of ways, the current Superman dilemma reminds me of the years shortly before Crisis on Infinite Earths and the John Byrne revamp. DC knew they were going in a brand new direction with Superman but they still had some time to publish Superman stories under the old guard. This created a lot of Superman stories that dropped new plot threads only to go nowhere as well as stories that were single-serving plots that you could forget the next day without feeling guilty. I’ve heard Superman in these years described as a “lame duck.” The story’s meant little because the creators knew there was no tomorrow. Are we in that sort of situation now only with no revamp in sight to work towards? The Straczynski situation also begs the question of whether we should be trying to tell these stories in continuity like they’re a single story. Many fans of “Grounded” were quick to blame long-time Superman fans for complaining over the lack of continuity rather than accepting the JMS story-arc as it came. This rang with the time-honored criticism of Superman fans being part of the problem. Granted, those of us who are loyal Superman fans all have one, specific era of the character in mind that we always want to see reflected in the current stories. We also rarely agree with each other as fans of the Man of Steel. It’s been suggested that the character’s history and fan expectations make Superman nearly impossible to write. But is the solution to this really doing away with continuity and taking each story as a brand new world? That approach seemed to work for All-Star Superman and Superman: Earth One which achieved popularity and critical acclaim out-of-continuity. Or do we try to forge ahead in continuity hoping a writer who can deal with all the history and pressure comes around? One thing is certain, Superman lacks a definitive direction. As long as that’s true, his monthly title will continue to struggle with sales and popularity. Who out there can save the man who always saves the day? Who can save Superman?

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