Superman: Grounded is a twelve-issue story written by J. Michael Straczynski which took up Superman # 700-712. Issues 700-706 have been released in hardcover, with 707-712 scheduled to be released next month. The basic premise of the story is that in the aftermath of the 100 Minute War, in which New Krypton is destroyed, Superman is feeling disconnected from the average American, and really just Earth in general. He gets… uncharacteristcally mopey and philosophical, and the series raises a number of the most interesting and pervasive philosophical and ethical issues with the concept of superheroes, though it fails to come up with anything like adequate answers for any of them.
This isn’t going to be a particularly long post, but there were a number of minor legal issues, most of which we’ve talked about previously, that come up in the course of the story.
First, in the very opening pages of # 700, a woman accosts Superman, accusing of him of not being there for her husband, who recently died of brain cancer. We talked about the duty to rescue back in January, and as you may recall, there is ordinarily no legal duty to rescue, or even to go out of one’s way to do good for others. But this is more because it’s the only practical way of running a legal system than because anyone thinks it accurately reflects moral norms. Which is what really gets to Superman here. No one suggests that he had any legal duty to do anything for this man, but the woman certainly seems to think he had a moral duty to do so, and Superman has trouble coming up with a plausible explanation for why she isn’t right. Which is about as far as that particular line of inquiry goes. This story is far better at raising questions than it is at answering them. Which is sort of in keeping with Straczynski’s oeuvre, when you think about it.
In # 701, Superman stops in at a diner in Philadelphia and tries to order a cheesesteak but realizes he doesn’t actually have any money. He doesn’t have enough cash, as he doesn’t normally go shopping while in uniform, nor does he have any ID or a credit card. This harkens back to one of the first posts we made, about superheroes and alter egos. If Superman wants to maintain the secrecy of his identity as Clark Kent, he’s not going to be able to use a credit card with Kent’s name on it, and even though credit card companies seem to be willing to issue cards to dogs, even the dogs have fixed addresses.
Superman winds up paying for the meal with labor, i.e. he cleans up the back room in about a second and a half. Is this legal? On the face of it, sure: business owners are entirely capable of setting whatever prices they choose for their goods, and there’s nothing absolutely preventing them from accepting service instead of cash or other negotiables. But it’s certainly discouraged, as there’s the real potential for tax evasion and other forms of financial malfeasance there. The government has an interest in tracking financial transactions in so far as they are entitled to taxes on those transactions—Pennsylvania has a 6% state sales tax, and Philadelphia County adds another 2% on top—and the IRS doesn’t really like it much either; strictly speaking, barter transactions should be reported as taxable income. Louisiana has actually passed a law making it illegal to use cash in second-hand sales, trying to put a stop to the market in stolen property and the underground economy in general. One or two instances or transactions isn’t going to be a problem, but if an audit reveals that this sort of thing happens with regularity, eyebrows will go up. It’s possible to explain this away, but it would have to be explained.
On the very next page, Superman confronts some drug dealers who boldly assert that he can’t do anything to them, as he can’t go into their property without trespassing, and using his x-ray vision, while not trespassing, would not produce any admissible evidence. They’re right on the first count but wrong on the second, since the Fourth Amendment likely wouldn’t apply to Superman. Nonetheless, simply seeing drugs inside a building wouldn’t give Superman a legal justification for trespass.
So how does Superman solve this dilemma? Easy, he just light their stashes on fire, which is an…interesting choice. Superman is probably guilty of arson here, which is defined in Penn. Cons. Stat. § 3301(a), so he’s trading a misdemeanor (simple trespass) for a dangerous felony (arson). He’s definitely deliberately setting fire to a structure. But this also has to be either with the intent (or reckless disregard for) putting another person in danger, including a firefighter, or with the intent to damage or destroy the structure. He can probably say that he had the situation in control to the point that no one was going to be in danger—he is Superman after all—but he’s probably going to lose on the damage to the structure element. Yes, his intention was to destroy the drugs, but the way he chose to do that had the unavoidable side-effect of setting fire to the building, and he knew that. So, uh, what the hell, Supes?
A few issues later there’s sort of a nod to his immigration problems when he uncovers a cell of aliens who have set up shop in Detroit. He says, under his breath, “Could you possibly have picked a worse time to immigrate here illegally…?” They immediately call him on his hypocrisy, and he doesn’t really have an adequate comeback. So that’s about as far as that goes. But he later convinces them to start a biotech company in Detroit, and the FDA seems to have basically just signed off on that suspiciously quickly. A reporter asks “Mr. [Director], isn’t it unusual for the FDA to approve such activities by a firm this new to the research industry?” The real question has nothing to do with how new the firm is and everything to do with the fact that the approval process seems to have taken about eight hours. Try eight months, if not eight years. Also, the head of the FDA is the Commissioner not the Director. But whatever.
A few issues later, Superman barges in to the basement where a child has been thrown after having been beaten by his father. This, as it turns out, is probably okay. Even though Superman isn’t a mandatory reporter under Michigan’s child abuse prevention laws, most states either explicitly permit or will at least tend to look the other way on things like trespassing where the welfare of a child is at issue. The rest of the incident goes pretty smoothly. Superman doesn’t hurt the low-life father, he takes him to the cops, to take things from there. Any evidentiary issues are overcome by the testimony of the mother and child.
We’ll take a look at the rest of the story once the second volume comes out, but so far, legal issues are handled both in surprising detail and relatively well. They manage to avoid some of the most obvious pitfalls into which comic books frequently fall, and they name-check some of the more arcane issues. Mis-identifying the head of a federal agency isn’t something we’re going to quibble all that hard about, as we had to look it up ourselves.