A few weeks ago, my friend Kyle Hunter loaned me his hardcover compilation of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. The idea behind that comic and others like it from DC was to let top-tier creators tell whatever stories they wanted to tell about major superheroes without worrying too much about how everything fit into the continuity of the DC Universe.
In the case of Superman, that continuity goes back to 1938, when the character ushered in the super-hero age of comics. John Byrne slightly re-imagined and updated the Man of Tomorrow in 1985 in the shadow of the Crisis on Infinite Earths mega-series (in some ways a precursor to the type of reshuffling we’re currently seeing with the New 52), but mostly things remained the same.
The stuff that Byrne cut out (other Kryptonian survivors, the super-dog Krypto, etc.) eventually all got re-added to the series by other creators over the years, as favorite bits of old continuity often do. Morrison was responsible for a great deal of this, and also added significant new elements to the lore of DC’s most famous character during his stint on JLA in the early 2000s, famously positing a version of the DCU set one million issues of Action Comics into the future, complete with hints regarding Superman’s fate and a lineage of heroes in blue and red spanning the centuries.
Clearly, Grant Morrison loves Superman. His 12-issue run on All-Star Superman weaved his new Superman mythology with classic Silver Age elements to create the ultimate showdown between Kal-El and his arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor. With art from Frank Quitely, one of my favorite artists working in comics today, All-Star Superman went a long way toward re-kindling my recent interest in comics, and is probably largely responsible for me getting back into DC with the New 52.
The prospect of Grant Morrison writing Action Comics was one of the things that pushed me over the edge, and this issue was one of the comics I was most looking forward to as I jumped into this grand experiment. It’s one of the reasons I decided to organize my weekly reviews alphabetically.
So I came into this issue with high expectations. I was pleased to discover that art duties on the book would be handled by Rags Morales, whom I first encountered doing pencils on the old Forgotten Realms comic by Jeff Grubb, and who I really enjoyed in the semi-comedic Hourman series that came out of Grant Morrison’s “One Million” event. Morales is a clean penciller with a strong sense of narrative composition, so I was eager to see what he could do with Grant Morrison at the helm.
Most importantly, I wanted to know: With a fresh start and a blank slate, how would Morrison write Superman as an interesting, compelling character?
I’m probably more of a sucker for cheesy Silver Age elements of Superman’s backstory than most comic readers. I LIKE Krypto. I LIKE the Fortress of Solitude with the giant door shaped like a keyhole. I like all incarnations of Brainiac, the Phantom Zone, pretty much the lot of it. I’ve never actively read Superman comics regularly, but the character is basically unavoidable at DC, and most regular readers know the broad strokes of his history and mythology by heart.
Over the years, this has become a problem. All of these elements have been used so often that writers have changed them to keep things interesting, all the while moving the baseline away from the mythical strengths of the character.
Superman is at his best when he’s a reporter for the Daily Planet, working with the brassy Lois Lane who discounts Clark Kent while at the same time harvesting a borderline-romantic obsession with Superman. At the time DC decided they needed to reboot their universe, Lois had long known Clark and Superman were the same person. Hell, the two of them were even married.
This sort of development is probably necessary to keep the hardcore readers interested, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that kind of ruins the comic for casual and new readers. The reboot gives DC the opportunity to go back to the beginning and tell the mythology-heavy stories from a more modern perspective.
Interestingly, Morrison chooses to go back to the very beginning of the character. The Superman on display in Action Comics #1—a quite young hero who has been in Metropolis only 6 months—owes a lot more to the Golden Age 1939 version of the character than to the sort of gee-whiz Silver Age take that has informed his development over the last decade or so.
Several years ago, I received a hardcover compilation of the first year of Action Comics for a Christmas gift. I was somewhat surprised to see that most of the early Superman stories featured a very politically progressive Superman that seemed infused with New Deal optimism and public spirit. This Superman was far more likely to battle corrupt businessmen and on-the-take union bosses than aliens or supervillains.
Morrison’s young Superman, clad in a t-shirt and jeans with a cape he can stuff in his pocket, would get along quite well with the idealistic original Superman. After breaking into the hideout of a criminal business leader, defeating his gang, and holding the criminal over the edge of a balcony to scare the life out of him, this Superman even says to a bunch of cops “I’ll put him down… just as soon as he makes a full confession. To someone who still believes the law works the same for rich and poor alike. BECAUSE THAT AIN’T SUPERMAN!”
Or, rather, it WAS Superman 70 years ago, and it looks like it’s Superman today, at least six months after arriving in Metropolis.
A brief diversion here for a minute to talk about time in the New DCU. From what I can glean from two issues, the “now” of most issues is five years from the first official appearance of Superman in Metropolis. Some heroes, like Batman, existed in the shadows before this, but Supes was the “first” public Superhero, the guy that inspired pretty much everyone else.
That means this issue takes place at least four and a half years prior to the “now” of the current DCU. That means that this “version” of Superman isn’t the same as the one we saw in last week’s Justice League #1, or the one who appears in lots of other comics to come over the next three weeks.
I’ve seen some readers on the net speculate that this Superman isn’t the real Superman at all, and there’s some reason to think that might be the case. He’s quite stringent in his political beliefs and support for the little guy, and some of his methods struck me as a bit brutal for Superman, more akin to what you might expect from a darker hero like Batman.
But I think that’s misguided, or at least I hope it is. I want this brash, idealistic young Superman to be the real Superman. I want Action Comics to stay in this early, little-explored era of Superman’s history.
Because this take on Superman is legitimately DIFFERENT, and it’s legitimately INTERESTING.
I want to see how this Superman evolves into the more classic character. I want to see how he deals with having to compromise his idealism. I want to see him get a job at the Daily Planet, and to develop a relationship with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen.
Got help me, I’m actually interested in Action Comics. That hasn’t been the case since Alan Moore ended the Silver Age version with the brilliant “What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” on the eve of Crisis 26 years ago.
The story: Young Superman trashes the apartment of criminal business leader Mr. Glenmorgan, proves to a bunch of cops that he is, indeed, bulletproof just like they say in the Daily Planet, and leaps home to his dingy apartment to have a nicely executed dialogue with his landlady. I say leaps because, like the 1939 version of the character, this Superman is much less powerful. He can’t fly, he isn’t immune to all sorts of damage. Like I said, he’s actually INTERESTING.
Anyway, cut to a military control room, where General Lane and Lex Luthor talk about Superman as an alien parasite who will eventually destroy human civilization. I hadn’t remembered Lois Lane’s father being in the comics at all, but Morrison casts him in a role similar to General Ross in the Hulk comics, something that strikes me as a swipe but which will add dramatic tension to the series, so I’m willing to give it a pass. The military has put Luthor on retainer to help them capture Superman, but General Lane seems skeptical that he can make it happen.
The rest of the issue involves Lex Luthor basically proving that, universe re-imagining be damned, he’s still the cleverest man in the DCU. There is an incident with a wrecking ball and a tenement (a certain lure for progressive young Superman), a speeding train going out of control, and a battle against tanks. The whole thing turns out to be an elaborate (and successful) plan of Luthor’s to defeat Superman, and the final panel of the comic reveals our hero helpless and about to be captured by the military.
The whole thing simply works. Morrison and Morales combine to maximize the narrative form of sequential art, putting this significantly ahead of last week’s Justice League, which really suffers by comparison. In addition to that issue’s snappy dialogue and cool drawings, this one has a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and a fast-moving narrative that utilizes every panel to further the story. There’s a great two-page sequence with the careening, crashing bullet train (with Lois and Jimmy inside!) that uses no dialogue at all, letting the images tell the story.
The issue stands up to repeated readings, and hints at a strong future in store for Action Comics, and very possibly for the entire New 52 experiment.
As long as they keep making Action Comics like this one, I will definitely keep buying.