For the first time in many years – and to my great delight – I have a local comic book shop again. Located a mere ten-minutes drive from my home is the Stevenage-based Limited Edition Comix, which I discovered while developing UniComics last year. Now, Stevenage isn’t the nicest place on Earth – though it’s far from the worst – but the presence of Ltd.Ed Comix – along with an HMV, a Waterstones and a massive Tesco’s – provides me with the wherewithal to habitually confront the town’s consistently high-tide of squawking Chavs and the wholly-depressing presence of a dirty white “Cash 4 Gold” portacabin in the main town square, where a solitary and distinctly unfriendly-looking man sits, chain-smoking and reading a newspaper, patiently waiting for the arrival of the financially-desperate.
ANYWAY. My discovery of a local comics shop has allowed to me to return to two beloved and greatly-missed elements of my life-long apprecation of Comics. The first is the buying of single issues of comics, something I haven’t done for many years. As any comics fan will know, there’s a particular thrill to be had scanning the racks for the latest issues of your favourite characters or series, amassing a pile and then heading home to hungrily-devour each 24-page burst of story and art. Secondly, there’s the pleasure of spending time in a shop devoted to Comics, sadly a diminishing opportunity. Ltd. Ed, run by the genial Richard Emms, is a pleasing little oasis of unbridled comics geekery, perfectly catering for some lengthy browsing: a central island of back issue boxes, surounded by shelves stuffed with new issues, trade paperbacks/hardcover collections, Manga books and with an array of action figures and other tasty merch peering down on visitors. Heavy metal plays in the background, alongside energetic discussion of the minutiae of [insert series here]. Love it.
My latest visit – a twenty quid splurge on an assortment of DC superhero fare – provided me with a potent reminder of just how powerful superhero comics can be. Suitably enough, it involved the first and, to my mind, the best superhero: Superman.
Superman #701 sees the start of “GROUNDED”, an arc by J.M Straczynski which seeks to take a more intimate view of Superman and his relationship with the people he’s sworn to protect. Following a period where Superman was drawn away from Earth, he returns to widespread ire and a sense of abandonment. In one piercing instance, The Man of Steel is confronted by a young woman whose husband died of a brain tumour – and ailment that, she believes, he could have detected and removed, but he was too busy with some “big interstellar crisis”. In her anger, she slaps Superman – in full view of TV cameras. Stunned, he flies off into space, where he ruminates on whether he has lost his connection with humanity. He decides to rectify this by walking across America, through the small towns and big cities, seeing everyday life that he habitually flies far, far above. It’s certainly an interesting concept and, in this opening issue, Straczynski, perfectly paired with artist Eddy Barrows, crafts an exquiste and striking portrayal of Superman’s primary power: his role as a beacon of hope.
Specifically, it’s a delicate and deeply moving sequence where, walking through Philadephia, Superman comes across the emergency services trying to coax down a suicidal young woman threatening to jump off a building. Superman flies up to talk to her, where she initially angrily rebuffs him, ordering him not to force her to safety. He agrees and floats there, listening to her heartbreaking story of grief and life falling far short of her youthful expectations. Exhausted, she asks to rest and Superman simply floats there, watching her for hours until, in the middle of the night, Superman explains that he had a terminally-ill friend who decided to kill themselves, because she knew she would never have another happy day. While he didn’t approve, he understood and this leads him to make the stricken girl an offer:
“If you honestly believe, in your heart of hearts, that you never, ever have another happy day… then step out in to the air. I’ll keep my promise. I won’t stop you. But if you think there’s a chance – no matter how small – that there might be just one more happy day out there… then take my hand.”
The girl steps out in to the air and…
Despite skirting a little too close to condoning suicide – and there’s simply no way that Superman would allow the woman to fall to her death – it’s a beautifully-nuanced and resonant sequence, where the answer to a very-real and intensely intimate problem is not in an epic display of physical, supernatural power, but one of pure empathy, anchored on a belief that, no matter how bad things get, it can get better and that we can be strong enough to make it so. To me, this has always been the core and incredibly-magnetic attraction of Superman. Yes, the flashy super-heroics are wonderful and terrifically engrossing, but, when I was young, I drew considerable solace and inspiration from the idea that Superman was someone who would always be straight with you, would always believe in you and whose sheer optimism and unquenchable belief in Humanity served as a reminder that we can be more than we are. That’s a very potent and compelling idea – if not “cool” or “edgy” – and I’ve always seen it as the key to Superman’s elemental power as an enduring fictional creation, one who has undergone very little change since his debut in June 1938.
Seventy-two years on, and with superhero comics habitually competing with the visceral thrills of movies and video games, there’s something rather wonderful about Straczynski’s expression of the saving power of Hope.