A few years ago (post-“All-Star Superman” and post-“Final Crisis”) I did this thing where I reread all of the Grant Morrison Superman comics. Not just the ones with the word “Superman” in the title, or the ones where he prominently appeared, but all the Morrison U.K. prose pieces and the Superman cameos in “Animal Man” or “Doom Patrol” up through the “JLA” stories and beyond.
I shuffled those appearances into a chronological retelling of the story of Superman through Morrison’s work and CBR ran it as a special three-part series called “Grant Morrison’s Superman Saga.” Here’s PART ONE, PART TWO and PART THREE for your reading pleasure.
It was mostly plot summary with a sliver of analysis, but the point was to show that Morrison was telling a single story over multiple decades across multiple series, but that his Superman was a progression toward transcendence. The story would never truly end. “To be continued” is the essence of the story, but the super-human Superman of Morrison’s earlier stories had risen to defeat cosmic forces of darkness with a song before inhabiting the rejuvenating solar machinery of the sun and emerging in the distant future where he would become a golden Superman of pure idealism.
That’s how the Superman Saga goes.
Or it did, until the New 52.
Grant Morrison and Rags Morales launched one of the most-highly anticipated series of the DC reboot with their “Action Comics” run in the fall of 2011. Of all the comics in that new, relaunched batch, Morrison’s rebuilding of Superman seemed like a sure thing. Even Rags Morales, who had never interested me as an artist, had recently shown great skill in the first couple of issues of the ultimately-disappointing pulp series called “First Wave,” and he seemed like he’d be able to capture the noble-farm-boy-in-the-big-city struggle that Morrison seemed intent on bringing to the reboot. In my “Reader’s Guide to the New 52,” I recommended that readers “Definitely buy it!” (Exclamation point and all!) And I declared that the series “looks to be the heart and soul of the relaunched DCU.”
I was wrong. And that was soon obvious to most readers who picked up the first couple of issues of “Action Comics.” It wasn’t something people needed to buy or read or even look in the direction of. And it certainly wasn’t the “heart and soul of the relaunched DCU.” It was a flawed sidebar, at best. A lumpy, sometimes unattractive piece of furniture that was off to the side of the DCU. I don’t know what ended up becoming the true heart and soul of the New 52, maybe nothing (and maybe that’s a larger problem), but it certainly wasn’t “Action Comics.”
And now here we are, nearing the end of Morrison and Morales’s run on the series, with only one issue left to go, and the series has emerged as something compelling and interesting, but it’s still a mess. It has improved since the early issues, but only in its scope, not necessarily in its execution.
What went wrong? Why isn’t “Action Comics” great?
I realize part of this might seem like me throwing some kind of petulant temper tantrum. It could be seen as me saying, “We were promised something great! Grant Morrison on Superman has always been great! Why is this not great?!? What is wrong with the universe? And where’s my Superman Snuggie?!? Wah!”
I don’t feel that way, though. I just feel like someone who has been given something that’s broken — that looks like it should work, but it doesn’t — and I’m just trying to make some sense out of where the pieces don’t fit, and why the gears aren’t turning the way they should. Where does “Action Comics” go awry, I wonder? And here we are.
So here’s my thinking on that topic, knowing that we still have one more issue left to go and Morrison has a strong record with endings, so there may be more substance in the completed series than what we’ve seen so far. But most of the flaws of “Action Comics” can’t be saved by even the best imaginable ending. These fault lines run pretty deep. The foundation is irreparably cracked.
The problems, as I see them:
This isn’t a Consistent Take on Superman
This Clark Kent/Superman character that Morrison’s writing and Morales (among others) is drawing isn’t part of Morrison’s larger Superman Saga. The characterization doesn’t fit. And that’s to be expected, I suppose, since this is part of a rebooted universe, so this is a “new” take on the character that wouldn’t fit into the old continuity. The problem is that Morrison has always had his own continuity that was not quite the same as the DCU continuity. You can trace Superman’s growth from childhood into adulthood and into the distant future via Morrison’s previous Superman work.
In “Action Comics,” we get something that just doesn’t belong in that continuum. This Superman is a scrapper in a way that other guy never was, not in Morrison’s telling anyway. This Superman is dorky and uncertain and…well, he’s even inconsistent about all of that. It’s as if Morrison wants to tell a story about the New Deal-era Superman, with his rugged sense of justice and punching out corrupt businessmen, but he can’t commit to that interpretation. His own tendencies toward the austere and crazy-imaginative and transcendent hamper Morrison’s ability to tell a convincing story about a street-level super-puncher with inner conflict. The opening few issues, with the t-shirt-clad superhero barreling into battle, are the only indication of the direction Morrison once wanted to try. It’s not completely abandoned, but when the rest of the series is basically a chronologically-fractured showdown between Superman and the cast of villains from throughout time and space that call themselves the Anti-Superman Army, well that New Deal stuff seems like it was all just a false prologue. It was basically abandoned, to be replaced by allusions to Superman stories from the Old 52 that were more in keeping with Morrison’s usual weird-but-cosmically-charged interests. I’ll cycle back to this in a few minutes.
Lex Luthor is an Insubstantial Evil Creep
Superman hasn’t been rebooted all that many times, but whenever someone does a new take on Superman — particularly a new take on his origin or his early years — they do something meaningful with Lex Luthor. Perhaps Morrison is unwilling to play that game and he’s taking the bold stance of trying to revamp Superman without an equal-and-opposite threat in the form of Lex Luthor, but it just doesn’t work effectively. Luthor is present in this “Action Comics” run, but he’s a sniveling know-it-all rather than a central threat. He’s portrayed like a character who would make a good Peter Lorre role, someone who would be the second-in-command baddie, a weasely sidekick for a real villain. He has one note: he’s disgusted by Superman’s alien origins, and he’s a coward. Well, that’s two notes, I guess, but not the kind of notes that make for a Lex Luthor worth reading about. “Action Comics” is weakened by this flat, feeble interpretation of Lex Luthor.
The Artistic Shifts Have Destroyed any Sense of Internal Reality
Before I reread this “Action Comics” run last week, I remembered the work of Rags Morales (and his inker Rick Bryant) as mostly a disaster of cramped panels and characters with heads too large to create a sense of superheroic proportions. But when I looked at the issues again, I was impressed by several moments where the Morales/Bryant team really sold the scrappy Superman approach. The double-page splash in the opening issue, where Superman stands on the ledge, holding Glenmorgan above his head, is a powerful image of this new take on Superman. It’s a menacing but heroic image. And in the most recent issue, Morales’s imagery of a ferocious Krypto is appropriately frightening. I can see how Morales could have been the right choice for the series.
But there are only flashes of that. The rest of Morales’s work on “Action Comics” involves hunched characters cramming themselves into inelegant panel layouts, and I don’t know how much the look of the characters clothing was made up by Morales and how much was handed down by Morrison or editorial, but the civilian clothes in this series are strange and consistently unattractive. What’s with the baggy striped sweater Clark insists on wearing? Is Lois wearing some kind of turtleneck with jeans and white sneakers? Are these characters all dressed via a Target clearance rack circa 2002?
But as bad as some of that looks, it’s the rotation of a half-dozen fill-in artists that breaks the illusion that this is any kind of consistent fictional world. On some issues, several artists rotate through, doing a handful of pages each. At other times, someone like Gene Ha comes along for a full issue and shows what a great-looking comic “Action Comics” can be. And then there’s the Chris Sprouse back-up stories in the most recent two issues, which make you pause and reflect on how much better this series could have been if Chris Sprouse had drawn every issue. It’s just a disappointing artistic mess with moments that show the potential that was never consistently reached.
The Series is Undone by Its Own Physicality
Ultimately, though, I think the reason “Action Comics” doesn’t work — feels so inconsistent above and beyond the artistic shifts — is that this is a series in which Morrison upends his typical thematic concerns. Morrison, throughout his career, has emphasized a kind of gnostic progression in his stories. The simplified version is this: characters move from flawed physicality to transcendent spirituality. Body gives way to mind. And in many of his stories, characters literally rise about their physical bonds or the entire world is transformed into a more transcendent state. See “Zenith” or “Animal Man” or “Flex Mentallo” or “The Invisibles” or a half dozen other Morrison comics for examples. That’s Morrison’s default concern. It threads through most, if not all, of his comic book work.
But with “Action Comics,” Morrison is ostensibly trying to tell the reverse story. He’s giving us a Superman that is trying to embrace the physical world and the concerns of the common man, and there’s even a character in the form of Captain Comet who is the what if version of a Superman who tried to rise above the physical realm. In “Action Comics,” Captain Comet is a villain. He’s the anti-Clark Kent, and his distance from the common man has led to his corruption.
And the major villain of the overall story seems to be a 5th dimensional imp crossed with Satan. Maybe a tribute to Elliot S! Maggin’s C. W. Saturn from “Miracle Monday” blended with the climactic confrontation on Robert Mayer’s “Superfolks.” Yet in Morrison’s own “Batman R.I.P.” story, we learn “imagination is the 5th dimension.” So Morrison is in the unusual position of favoring physicality over imagination in “Action Comics,” or at least pretending to do so. Or maybe exploring the possibility. But it just seems false. Unconvincing. Untrue to the kinds of stories Morrison has told before and the kind he tells best. Morrison can’t pull off a Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster take on a scrappy Superman because he doesn’t, based on everything he’s ever said or written outside of this one series, believe that’s who Superman is.
Superman isn’t a guy who wears t-shirts and jeans and workboots and threatens corrupt businessmen. He’s not a hesitant young man who wears space armor and waits for things to happen to him. He’s a demi-god who saves planets and retreats into the heart of the sun to be reborn for the future. That’s the Superman Morrison is more comfortable with. That’s the one worth reading about.