JMS Takes SUPERMAN On a Walk Across America in "GROUNDED"

JMS Talks SUPERMAN: GROUNDED

A image from "Grounded"

Superman may be best known for flying through the sky like a bird or a plane, but not anymore.

For the next year, the hero is "Grounded."

In a concept by writer J. Michael Straczynski, the Superman title takes the caped hero and puts him on "walkabout," re-connecting him with the American Way he claims to protect. He's not powerless, but is choosing to walk across America. Today's release of the milestone 700th issue of Superman introduces the idea, and the "Grounded" story kicks off with July's Superman #701.

DC Comics is putting marketing muscle behind the "Grounded" concept with an essay contest that fans can enter to win a "visit" to their hometown in the pages of Superman. It's all part of Straczynski's effort to "turn the eyes of the country back onto Superman after a long period where it's sort of been distracted by other things."

The "Grounded" story is one that even Straczynski admits takes some big "cojones" to attempt within the current comic book landscape. After all, Superman has been away from Earth for months now, living on a planet called New Krypton.

In his absence, Action Comics and Superman concentrated on an extended family of Superman characters, keeping Clark Kent out of his costume and out of the skies over Metropolis.

That all ended when last month's War of the Supermen event saw the destruction of New Krypton and the return of Superman to Earth.

So just when readers seem relieved the hero's exile from Metropolis is finished, Straczynski is removing him again. While Superman will still feature Clark Kent, he's traversing the comic's pages on foot, and Action Comics launches a story next month that focuses on Lex Luthor instead of Superman.

But Straczynski believes the "Grounded" story is not only necessary for re-establishing Superman's relevancy after his New Krypton escapades, but that it will spawn the type of uniquely personal stories the character needs to get back to his core.

The writer also points out that "Grounded" doesn't completely remove Superman from the DCU, with the character still reacting to global threats as needed while on his foot journey within the pages of Superman.

Besides, he teased, who's to say some of the rest of the DCU won't come join him on his walk?

Straczynski, the screenwriter for Babylon 5 and Changeling, joined DC Comics last year as an exclusive writer after almost a decade writing for Marvel Comics, including a six-year run on Amazing Spider-Man. He's already writing The Brave and the Bold and the upcoming Superman: Earth One graphic novel for DC, and begins writing Wonder Woman with next month's Issue #600.

Newsarama talked with the writer about what he's hoping to accomplish with "Grounded," and why putting Clark Kent on foot is the way to do it.

Newsarama: When did you come up with the premise behind "Grounded," and as a writer, what was the appeal of writing Superman on this type of journey?

J. Michael Straczynski: As with a lot of what I'm doing for DC, it happened over a dinner with Dan DiDio during one of his visits to LA. He was talking about the need to make Superman more relevant than he'd been in a while, and that putting him in one big cosmic world-shattering event after another had not had the effect of strengthening him as a character. While there's something kind of fun about seeing a bunch of Kryptonians running around with their own Superman-esque symbols and the same power set, I think it sands away much of what makes Superman unique. And seeming to turn his back on Earth in favor of New Krypton further dilutes his position as America's (and Earth's) First Hero.

A image from "Grounded"

So I said, "I think I have a solution, but you have to understand that it's totally counter-intuitive, so it'll take cojones the size of Stonehenge for any publisher to go along with this because the odds of failure are freaking immense." He said to go for it, and I said, "Take this man, who can fly around the planet in seconds, and pin him to the ground. Let him come to a point where — in the aftermath of New Krypton — he realizes that while he hasn't precisely lost touch with his adopted homeworld, he does need to re-engage with that world, and America in particular, in a profoundly personal way. Let him walk across the country and get involved with the personal stories of those he encounters. Let's see America through his eyes, and Superman through America's eyes."

Speaking as a writer (instead of, I suppose, a diet soft drink), this is the kind of story that really turns on story and character and emotion, which for me is the only reason to write anything. So it's a great opportunity on that basis. And let's remember that when Superman started out decades ago, he wasn't running around the galaxy on big, cosmic stories. He was helping ordinary folks deal with criminals and psychopaths and others out there, preying on those who didn't have the money or the connections to protect themselves. The whole point of Superman, as originally created, was to be the ally of those who had no other allies. It put that magnitude of power, the most powerful guy in the world, in the service of those who had no hope, no chance.

Over time, he kind of wandered away from that basic premise, and when that happens, you lose the core of the character, his purpose...and you end up with what everybody calls the Big Blue Boy Scout, because then it's free-floating good will rather than being the scary, powerful avenger of the besieged average guy.

Nrama: Was it tough to convince DC to let you take Superman away from Metropolis for a year? What was it about this idea to remove Superman from the shared universe that sold everyone on it?

Straczynski: There's this whacky notion out there that I want Superman to appear nowhere else during this run, and I don't quite know how it gained currency, but it ain't so. I set up in the first issue that if he should be needed for an emergency, he will of course go and handle it, then return and pick up where he left off. The main thing is that the journey continue on foot from end to end. As for convincing DC, Dan et al loved the idea from the git-go. At the same time, it scared the hell out of them, because like setting Asgard in Oklahoma, pinning Superman to the ground is totally counter to what's been done in the past...but in the long run, that's what makes it work, because we haven't seen it before. With Superman, this is the kind of story that really isn't being told much anywhere else, so we have the field pretty much to ourselves.

Nrama: Why did you think it was the right thing to do after his experience with New Krypton in particular?

Straczynski: A lot of folks are looking at Superman in the aftermath of New Krypton and saying, "Do you really belong here? Are you really one of us, or one of them? If you're one of us, then you need to show it, and be here when we need you." For Kal-El, the idea of returning to or reviving Krypton is one of those lifelong dreams that, as we all experience from time to time, was a dream of the past best left unrealized. It's like going AWOL from your current love and getting back together with a girlfriend who made you crazy before...after a few weeks you begin to remember why this didn't work the first time. When you come back to your true love, as Lucy might say, there's some s'plainin' you gotta do, Ricky.

When he was gone on one big story or another, there were things on Earth that didn't get done because he simply wasn't here. He's confronted by one of those in 700, something that he can't do anything about. It's over. But it raises the question, what else did he miss when he was gone? The best way to find out is to go out there and look around.

Nrama: It seems like Superman is one character who is associated with both the small-town farmland and the big city. Is that why you said you're bringing him back to his "roots" — because he's going back to that small town side of himself — and are you tapping into his ability to identify with both rural and urban America as he encounters both on this journey?

Straczynski: Yes, he has a foot in both worlds, so he can relate to both sides. And the needs of those two sides are sometimes the same, and sometimes different. So his journey is also a way of assessing the current situation: What needs doing? What have I missed? Where is the country right now?

At risk of going all meta on this interview — thinking about and commenting on it in the process of doing it — I've noticed an interesting disconnect (not with this one but) with some of the interviews that have been coming along in this regard. There's this sense from some in the media that if Superman goes into the heart of America, he's going into hicksville. One interviewer suggested that Superman would be out there listening to Arlo Guthrie and "jumping on trains with hobos," which I think betrays more of how they see Middle America than how Superman sees it.

The America that Superman will be walking through, the path we've chosen for him, takes him through the best and the worst parts of us as a people and a nation. He will be going through pleasant suburban neighborhoods and blighted inner cities...through farmland and the rust-belt, where empty factories mirror the absence of hope...we will show our strengths and our frailties with equal honesty. This is not meant to be a bucolic, homespun paean to blinkered Americana...more like an exploration of the better and darker angels of our nature, in which Superman will find that there are some things he can fix, and some that are beyond even his reach.

Nrama: Will he encounter villains in those areas? Or will the conflicts be of a different nature?

An image from "Grounded"

Straczynski: It'll be a mix of things, because I don't like to walk in the same stream twice (which is impossible anyway, if you believe Heraclitus, but that's another story for another time). In the first full-length issue, he encounters drug dealers who have dug in deep into a city's heart, a suicidal woman (which is actually one of the more emotional stories in that issue), and other very personal, very human problems, some of which, again, defy easy solutions. Later, he encounters some off-worlders who are living here secretly, and other forces that have moved into the deserted, shadowed parts of abandoned cities once no one else was watching. So there will be situations that test his strength, and others that test his compassion and his resolve.

Nrama: When you were announced as the new writer on Superman, you mentioned that one of your earliest memories as a child was the Fleischer cartoons and Superman saving Lois. With your decision to remove Superman from that familiar imagery, do you feel like that "Metropolis/Lois-savior" side of Superman has been mined too much? Or is there a reason for moving the character away from what most fans see as his iconic role?

Straczynski: I don't see this as a permanent situation. This story is about getting right with the country again, with his adopted home. The iconic elements of the character — Metropolis, the Daily Planet, Lois, Jim — are there for a reason: They work. But a little time away will make all of that more vital and freshen it up.

Nrama: You also talked about Superman as a symbol for people to hold onto, helping them believe in their own abilities. Within the DC Universe, will removing him from Metropolis and from the public eye mean his symbolism is also removed? Is there a danger in the world not having Superman to look up to?

Straczynski: Not at all. If anything, it's meant to extend that sense of hope to the rest of the world, and to America, instead of confining it to Metropolis. I'm sure there are some in Metropolis who believe that it is the whole world, but it ain't.

Understand: I've lived all over the country myself —we moved about every six months as I was growing up, moving 21 times in my first 17 years — and I've lived in decent situations and some that were pretty grim. I've lived in places where hope dies on the vine, where someone like me with aspirations to be a writer gets told "don't bother, guys like you never make it out of the streets." I've seen parts of inner cities where you can walk for blocks without seeing a single store that isn't boarded up and empty... closed factories... I've seen the best and the worst of the American dream, and I can tell you without hesitation that that Superman is a symbol of hope for a lot of people around the country who don't have any of their own left to draw upon. And to see Superman come into that world, that town, those streets becomes a stark reminder that anything is possible. And that reminder is desperately important right now. It can make all the difference.

Nrama: What effect will this have on his relationship with Lois Lane? And how will you handle their marriage if Superman's away for so long?

Straczynski: They will meet up from time to time. She has a brief appearance in Issue #701, and will appear again here and there as she catches up with him. We may also see others he knows catching up with him and walking with him for a while. If anything, I think this will strengthen their relationship.

Nrama: How are you coordinating Superman's travels with the contest DC is doing about where Superman visits?

Straczynski : At the same time that I first suggested the idea of having Superman walk across the country, I said, "you've got to get the country involved in this. Get the nation talking and thinking about Superman again. Let folks get involved and write in and explain why Superman should come to their town. Then we can have him actually visit that town, that street, in the pages of the book."

Once that was decided, DC and I went back and forth several times working out different routes that would bring him through some of the most divergent areas that could provide different sorts of stories and environments. So now that this has been worked out, we're going to open it up to the country to decide which towns he will pass through on his journey. I think this will help turn the eyes of the country back onto Superman after a long period where it's sort of been distracted by other things.

Nrama: Why do you think the contest is fitting for a story about Superman connecting on a local level?

Straczynski: Because for a lot of people, Superman is and has always been America's hero. He stands for what we believe is the best within us: limitless strength tempered by compassion, that can bear adversity and emerge stronger on the other side. He stands for what we all feel we would like to be able to stand for, when standing is hardest.

 

Go anywhere in the country — and I mean anywhere — and walk around the nearest shopping mall. You'll find at least two or three people wearing Superman shirts, or caps, or tattoos. He's a part of us. Recently, I was watching the news, and in three separate stories (one in New York, another in Florida, and a piece of footage from the Gaza Strip), I saw somebody in the background a Superman t-shirt or symbol. Just as an exercise, next time you go out, just keep an eye out...see how many times you see it.

Nrama: The preservation of the "American Way" once touted as Superman's goal doesn't seem to be the same as it once was, since it's such a hard concept to define. As the character goes off to get back in touch with America," have you had to kind of figure out exactly what the "American Way" is?

Straczynski: Certainly that's what he's going to have to figure out as he continues his journey. On a certain level, I don't think there is an answer to what the American way is, because it is constantly being re-defined. It's also been exploited and capitalized upon and politicized by one side or the other to the point that a certain degree of cynicism has attached itself to that term.

I think it's about accepting the darker parts of our nature without giving into them or over-valuing them, and recognizing the better parts of our nature without thinking them naive or foolish, without mistaking kindness for weakness. The American Way is an amalgam of our compassion, our strengths, our failings and our attempts to build a better world, a more perfect union. More fundamentally, when we are at our best, it's about tolerance, and community, and being honest enough to see where we need improvement... to support the status quo when it is right, and correct it when it is wrong. It's about seeking justice over vengeance, regard over fame, charity over mean-spiritedness. Not as a nation of chumps and do-gooders, but as human beings. I'm a big believer in the words of Father Perrault in Lost Horizon: that all religions and all creeds and in particular the American experience at its best boils down to one admonition, that we should be kind to one another.

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