I have just read the Superman graphic novel “Grounded,” written by an author whose last name I can’t even spell much less pronounce, so let’s just call him JMS. You want to know who he is (and trust me, you do), then go wikipediate Babylon 5.

Anyway, the plot arc goes like this: Kryptonians are discovered under the thrall of supercomputer Brainiac, and are rescued. Said Kryptonians use Brainac’s technology to create a new planet hereonin dubbed New Krypton. In order to foster good relations and to reconnect with his heritage Superman voluntarily goes to New Krypton to ease the transition the thousand or so people who suddenly have superpowers.

Now remember, these Kryptonians did not get the strong moral compass that the Kents taught Clark. Some egos are bound to grow. Tempers get short. Invasion seems imminent. In the end New Krypton is destroyed, and Superman’s reputation is at an all-time low. Blaming himself, Superman believes that his failures with New Krypton result as becoming disconnected to the average person he supposedly protects. So, alone, in full Superman gear, he starts walking across America. In Austraila this journey is called “walkabout.”

A walkabout is a very simple concept. The idea is to walk until you face yourself (metaphorically speaking). It involves re-connecting to the simple things that one forgets while going through the motions. It requires facing your troubles and have a heart-to-heart talk with your inner demons. Sounds silly? Here’s an example.

What is fascinating to me is that this is not JMS’ first use of the walkabout idea. In his science-fiction show Babylon 5, he introduces a physician by the name of Dr. Stephen Biggs, Chief Medical Officer of Babylon 5. He is responsible for the welfare of millions of beings, and as such is under tremendous pressure. Eventually he becomes addicted to stimulants so he can continue to act full time in that role. The addiction gets the better of him, leading to his resignation and personal journey.

The walkabout has done it’s job. Biggs realizes that he doesn’t have to become more capable of workloads, just that he has to get things done smarter. It’s the same for Superman. By going on this walkabout Superman discovers the real-time consequences of his acts (brilliantly shown when a full-scale battle demolishes an entire town). Although he rebuilds all that he has destroyed, he realizes that while he can re-create a town, he can’t give the townspeople back their family heirlooms or sense of security.

He also comes to realize the more pedestrian possibilities of his powers. One mother complains that Superman’s use of heat and X-ray vision could have located and treated the cancer that killed her husband. It is clear that this notion was a complete surprise to Superman, and he didn’t respond with my obvious reaction: that he can’t save everyone.

Superman’s walkabout is far from over. He’s still on this journey to figure out his place as the planet’s champion and the effective use of his duty. There isn’t much challenges to a hero that can destroy an alien planet by sneezing, but JMS’ delivers the poignant, almost universal punch to the gut: getting free from the moral quagmires that haunt all of us. For that, JMS, I salute you.

Advertisements