It’s funny how taking Superman back to his late ’30s roots feel so modern and refreshing, isn’t it? An anti-establishment Man of Steel hunted by the United States military with Lex Luthor at the helm helped kick off the relaunched “Action Comics,” and the second issue raises the stakes with Superman strapped into an electric chair and tortured as Luthor and his team try to figure out how to actually do lasting damage to the hero. What’s most surprising is how entertaining that is. How easy it is to laugh it off — for both us and Superman himself. It may be a cliche, but this isn’t your dad’s Superman; it’s your (great) granddad’s and it’s rather good.
Instead of the regular jealousy angle with Lex Luthor, his arguments against Superman hold more weight in this relaunched “Action Comics.” He gets the support of the military because Superman is an alien, continually referring to the hero as ‘it’ and treating him like some specimen. It’s not quite personal yet and Grant Morrison is building to that, this issue providing the first big step when Superman breaks free and physically dominates (emasculates, you could argue) Luthor. It seems a more natural way to build their rivalry/feud.
What’s really enjoyable about this issue is how, even after being so beaten down by Luthor and the military, when Superman escapes there’s a playful joy to his actions. He isn’t bitter or even angry; he simply wants to get free, get back his cape, and seems to enjoy smashing through the military base to accomplish those goals. Even at this young age, he’s got the wisdom to shrug off their attempts to hurt him as almost childish. Already he shows the compassion that so defines the character when it would be understandable for him to run amuck through the soldiers with little regard for their lives.
Part of the whimsical joy that Superman exhibits comes from Rags Morales’ art. For a character that’s just spent an indeterminate amount of time getting electrocuted, gassed with sarin, and tortured in any numbers of other ways, he sure does smile a lot. In the backmatter for this issue, Morrison mentions a twinkle in the character’s eye that he wants to come through and it does. He looks like he’s having fun with his powers and when was the last time you can say that about Superman?
As much as Morales’ interpretation of Superman is great, his Lex Luthor is almost the opposite. His Luthor leaves no impression; he’s a blobby cipher visually that lacks a clear, defining look aside from his lack of hair. Morales’s art fluctuates in quality throughout the issue with some panels fully rendered and others looking like they’re lacking in detail or refinement. Brent Anderson’s assistance helps round out the issue, but doesn’t sidestep some of those messy-looking panels or pages.
For the first time in a long time, Superman is a vibrant, engaging character thanks to “Action Comics.” His core values haven’t been lost, merely shifted to different targets than traditional for the character, harkening back to when the character debuted in “Action Comics” in the late ’30s. It’s a bold reworking of the character and, so far, it’s made for some highly entertaining comics.