Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Action Comics (vol. 2) Issues 1-8: "Superman and the Men of Steel" (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back for Part 2 of my analysis of Grant Morrison's revamp of Action Comics.

Now, while the first four issues of this run were met with positivity, there were some cries of disappointment from the fan community. Looking back, a lot of that stemmed from comparisons to Morrison's earlier work with the character. Taken on their own terms, Action 1-4 stand as exhilarating collections of set pieces, filled with heart and crafted with great attention to detail. It's also where the main arc that Morrison has been building comes into focus, and we're reminded what a gold mine of mad ideas the old Scot is at his best.

Issue 5 is probably the single most divisive issue in the entire collection: it was not just a digression from the main plot in the previous issues, just as that action seemed to be reaching a climax, but a dense and complex one. If you loved it, you were hooked for the rest of the run, if you hated it, were glad to hear Morrison was only staying another year. Without further ado...

Issue 5: Rocket Song

 This issue follows the desperate final moments before the destruction of Krypton and Kal-El's arrival on Earth before flashing forward to a second story running parallel to the one in Action Comics 1-4, concerning the Little Man's Anti-Superman Army coming back in time to steal the Kryptonite engine and the Superman of the future returning with the Legion to stop them.

So began the Age of Superhumans. With new hopes, new fears, new wonders, new challenges...and new and unimaginable evils.

This quote, delivered to us by the self-aware rocket ship, is the essence of Morrison's entire project on Action. To recast the image of Superman in the mold of the great myths of the world, to restore him to his place as the first and greatest of all superheroes, and to pit him against an adversary who will test even his superhuman capabilities. Morrison is the primal storyteller, sitting around the fire, telling you a story you (and he) already know the ending of, but using it to explain the world around us.

The use of the rocket as the narrator is not just a standard bit of Morrisonian oddity, but an inspired narrative decision. We know how all this will turn out, it's the origin, but we afforded a new perspective on it through a different set of eyes. The machine assertion that humanity's technical skills (Level 10 tools) far outstrips it's ethical progress (in the hands of tribal warring states) is the situation that necessitates Superman coming here-- we need the next step. Even if Jor-El doesn't know Earth exists in this version, his arrival feels more like fate than ever before.

The heroism and humanity of Jor-El and Lara, desperately trying to save something of a dying world never doubting that there's always a way. The faith and resourcefulness of Jonathan and Martha, who defy the military and authority structures to do the right thing. They don't know it, but we know their faith will be rewarded when this infant repays the love he has been shown a million times over by becoming both Krypton's legacy, and Earth's favorite son. His entrance compels all humans to reach a new ethical level, or in words Morrison has already used, to understand:

"We're all in this together, and we're all we've got."

This new world is naturally met by temptation and cruelty on a new scale, in the form of the shadowy Anti-Superman Army led by the mysterious Little Man. Bringing us right into...

Issue 6: When Superman Learned to Fly

Morrison follows up his recasting of the origin with the greatest episode of Doctor Who never written. The Little Man offers the Anti-Superman Army (Drekken; Susie Thompkins; Nimrod; Xa-Du; The Kryptonite Men; The Sisterhood of Abiding Hate in Their Shroudship; and Metalak) who we are not yet familiar with a piece of kryptonite if they will perform an act in his name. Meanwhile, Superman and the Legion are in Brainiac's ship, which Superman identifies as his "original Fortress", and points out the various bits of time travel that have made this moment necessary. The Kryptonite engine has been stolen from the rocket, if it isn't returned the rocket will "die" and the Brainiac AI onboard will re-infect the station...and the Earth.

After a fascinating beat where Cosmic Boy reveals he could restart the Big Bang from a AA battery (good to know), Superman engages the first of his new villains, Drekken. The obvious symbolism of battling an evolver in a story whose subtext is that it is the evolution of the superhero myth should be apparent. Also, full props to Andy Kubert for making Drekken's Encephalo tyrannus form as terrifying as possible here.

Morrison drops a gorgeous, trippy, idea into our laps here: Earlier (but depicted later in the run) Nimrod the Hunter fired a lead pellet into Superman's head. That lead pelled contained tesseract space; making it bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The ASA have retreated with the kryptonite engine into Superman's head. Superman confirms this when he experiences subtle changes in his usually perfect recall. So the Legion travel back further into time, reveal that they've been disguised as the K-Men all along, whereupon the Little Man makes a tactical retreat, incidentally revealing that he's from the 5th Dimension when he disappears with a word.

The ensuing battle poisons Superman with the Kryptonite in his head, and Drekken tries to take advantage. Superman, filled with kryptonite energy reaches his rocketship which is repowered and defeats Drekken. The Legion return with what's left of the Kryptonite, saving the rocket. The story closes with Legion ruminating on what they mean for Clark; an absolute affirmation of the future he will create through his example.

These are actually my favorite issues of the run until the last three. Morrison just accomplishes so much, in so little time: a new origin with some surprising old faces turning up, an entirely new cadre of villains who are attacking Superman on a scale we've never seen before, and a reaffirmation of what the Legion is and what their place is Superman's mythos. But now it's back to the main storyline, and a showdown with the brand-new Brainiac in...

Issue 7: Superman's Doomsday Decision


Issue 8: Superman Meets the Collector of Worlds

For this final portion I will eschew a synopsis and concentrate on the themes of these two books, which form the conclusion of the first stage of Morrison's revamp, and what they say to us as comic fans, and people.

Superman is engaged in a two-issue battle against the avatars of fear. Brainiac is afraid of the Multitude, afraid of the universe, afraid of true growth. He bottles, preserves, collects with no thought to the quality of life for what he has preserved. Metallo is afraid, both as an agent of Brainiac, and as John Corben. He's afraid of what the concept of a Superman means to the ordinary man doing his best, he's so afraid Superman has taken Lois away, he doesn't understand that he never had her to begin with. Lex Luthor is afraid, and in that moment of fear he allows himself to be used by a force he doesn't understand, and ultimately humiliated by being saved by the very man he conspired against. It's a powerful lesson, but his tragedy is he'll only learn half of it. General Lane is afraid of anything he can't control and his standard response is to shoot that thing, and he receives a gentle put-down from a Superman who feels fear at the coming adventure, but never allows himself to be overwhelmed by it.

The Little Man creates fear, but for now, seems above it himself. He bears closer inspection later.

The major threat that Brainiac represents is eternal stasis; a null state. He may never grow, never change, never develop-- he must become part of the collection or die. A secondary threat is the temptation to affirm himself as god or man-- Kryptonian or Human. Superman re-affirms his primacy by embracing both sides of his nature, and assuming both aspects of his nature. Fully god and fully man, he recognizes that the earlier dilemma was inherently false. Only life matters.

Superman also changes and develops organically; the people of Metropolis show him through their vigil that they don't need a bully-- they need a hero. For the first time, Superman is conscious of his effect on human beings as a positive, and the Superman who emerges at the end is, paradoxically, both more human (at the ceremony) and more Kryptonian (aboard the Fortress). It's also a Superman that has a new set of challenges which are foreboding precisely because they haven't been explained yet: What is the multitude that Brainiac feared? Who is the Little Man? As Superman looks out into the ocean of stars in the book's final panel, it's hard to imagine this isn't pressing on him, as it is on us.


  1. Great review. I've been itching for more Superman stories ever since I read All Star, but I've heard polarizing things about Grant's Action Comics. This has convinced me to go give it a shot.

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Nick.

    It WAS a polarizing run, but not because of it's content. Morrison had the whole story in his head from the opening, and unless you were willing to re-read older issues you could miss important elements that were there from the beginning. I expect actually the book gains a great deal of cohesion from being collected in a trade.

    Look for my review of Issues 9-18, coming soon.