Friday, June 28, 2013

Action Comics (vol. 2) Issues 9-12; 0: "Bulletproof"

Welcome to the second part of my series on Grant Morrison's revamp of Action Comics! Last time we covered Superman's first showdown with his two greatest adversaries, as well as Superman and the Legion taking on the Little Man's Anti-Superman Army for the only piece of kryptonite in existence. Those issues formed a more or less cohesive story, but here is where Morrison's larger second story begins to take shape. Many of Morrison's most robust themes with regards to Superman: his status as a trans-universal archetype; the role of mass media and corporate branding on him; his impossible enemies; his essential humanity and heroism; get a more robust treatment here than they did in the first segment. Let's dive in.

Issue 9: "The Curse of Superman"

This issue seemed to be another digression at first-- a discussion of creator rights, corporate domination, and short-sighted political idealism smuggled into a backdoor pilot for his long discussed Multiversity series, but in coming back a year later, this issue is the one that feels the most like a microcosm of the entire series. What is essential to the superhero beyond his status as a corporate spokesperson? Why does he endure? Morrison has no pat answers here, frustratingly so for a writer who has had so much to say about this kind of conceptual work in New X-Men and JLA, but he is frightfully clever in this issue.

Consider the reappearance of his "Obama-Superman" from Final Crisis, a year earlier. The relentless optimism that character seemed designed to evoke is tempered by the first real indicia that the author(s) understand how scary a Superman who felt entitled to the office of President would be. This President can execute his OWN drone strikes. That said, he exists to serve a story function first and foremost: a Superman who is close enough to our own that we freely recognize him as partaking in the archetype, but different enough to remain distinct and justify his existence.

Confronting this new Superman are three distinct forces: a Lex Luthor who is much further along in his evolutionary process than our own, a Lois Lane who has sold out to the Little Man unknowingly and created a monster but who retains her essential heroism, and Superdoom a tulpa corporate Superman and who is rendered by stooges as "...a violent, troubled, faceless anti-hero concealing a tragic secret life, a global marketing icon." Which seems as much a condemnation of bloodthirsty comic book fans as it does the mass media corporations that control them.

The heroes win themselves a temporary respite, but the question has been raised: Can Superman exist as something more than a brand name and logo? The rest of Morrison's run is an attempt to find not so much closure as a possibility space for a real (in a psychological sense) Superman to survive both the original sin that created him (Siegel and Shuster sold him for a mere 200 dollars and watched their creation birth a media empire while losing all control over him) and the continuing exploitation by people who have no interest in what the icon represents and seek to use him as a distraction from, and not a call to solve, the world's problems. Morrison is recasting the entire world as a superhero comic, and it's daring if not totally realized work.

Issue 10: "Bulletproof"

A senseless murder, which Morrison has the good taste to merely allude to, triggers a crisis of conscience for the Man of Steel even as he's being hunted by the Little Man's latest pawn, Nimrod the Hunter. When a former associate of Glen Glenmorgan blows himself up to try and kill Clark Kent, Superman decides to use the incident as an opportunity to excise his human alter ego, and continue on as Superman 24/7.

This issue is the inverse of Issue 3, whereas there the Superman persona had been tarnished and attacked and Clark seemed willing to abandon it, here the real evil that humans are capable of, and the rest of the Justice League's hesitation to tackle it lead Clark to a huge blunder-- renouncing his human identity. Superman even tells a murderer he'll let "your kind" deal with him, which is a sign that he's in a bad place emotionally. Fitting that his Justice League compatriots seem all too human in their brief appearance; they're more concerned with their own secret identities (Batman) and families (The Flash) than with the systemic causes of human tragedy.

If the first portion of this run saw Clark learn that Superman must be a symbol and not a bully, this portion will teach him that he cannot become a symbol at the expense of being a man. The retooled Captain Comet who is shown coming to Metropolis will serve as a stark portrait of a "superman" who is unburdened by the concerns of the average man, and seeks to impose his will on the world writ-large. The subplot of Nimrod coldly stalking Superman through his life as Clark Kent, all the while not realized that Clark has picked up the tail and is baiting him in is satisfying emotionally, but not as interesting for the purposes of this analysis.

Superman has made his second mistake, and the next two issues will comprise the penance for it.

Issue 11: "Superman's New Secret Identity"

Rags Morales tells us the whole story in just a few pages: Superman handles alien machine xenoformers called Metalek and rebuilds the housing development destroyed in the battle, he doesn't even stop to say a few words before racing crosstown to his new secret identity as a firefighter named Johnny Clark, who keeps his coworkers at a distance. He smiles once, during a particularly tense escape from a burning building. He's Superman 24/7 now, and even though he loves saving people something doesn't feel right and Clark Kent's absence is palpable.

Superman's conference with Batman is refreshing, to say the least. After a frustrating conversation with the Justice League last month, Batman and Superman are working to help one another and try to understand the other's predicament. Morrison in a very short sequence helps us remember why these two are such a natural pairing in the first place. Best friends aren't carbon copies of one another, they're complimentary pieces and they can respond to one another with respect and sympathy. Good to see.

We're introduced (or, like Nimrod and Metalek reintroduced from Issue 5) to Lois' niece Susie Thompkins, who is no ordinary little girl. She's drawing a beautiful Moebius pattern, and talking about giving her hamsters  every name in the world at the same time and what it would sound like backwards. Not so subtle confirmation that it's the Fifth Dimension is at the heart of all this.

Meanwhile, Superman is onboard the Fortress trying to investigate why all these alien powers are coming to Earth. His Brainiac AI informs him that Earth is on a list of doomed worlds, and all the previous worlds on the list were destroyed, however Krypton which was on the list was not destroyed by The Multitude, because it was beaten back by Jor-El who "did the impossible." The issue closes with Captain Comet (who was introduced in the previous issue) attempting to abduct Susie (who identifies as a "neo sapien") who is too valuable to lose in the coming destruction of Earth. As Superman races to the scene in his new civilian identity, his fire truck is commandeered by a Metalek and it slams into Lois Lane. Superman is then subdued by Captain Comet's "4 lobed post human brain" as we close.

This is part two of a three part story so we'll save the overall analysis for...

Issue 12: "Return of the Forgotten Superman!"

A tour de force.

Superman is awakened from a perfect dream world by his own subconscious, which reminds him that Lois Lane is dying and he's being attacked by a crowd that's mind controlled by Captain Comet. Comet lets Susie read his mind, from which we learn his origin as an inhuman Superman, and meet the Oort-kind who scour the galaxy to preserve neo sapiens like Susie. Superman recovers from Comet's control, and empties his mind in order to finally beat him back. He then rushes Lois to a hospital, reads every medical textbook ever published in ten minutes, and performs life-saving surgery. Batman then arrives with a flash drive, which Superman reads without the aid of a computer and advises him to find a way to bring Clark back. Superman confers with Mrs. Nxyly who uses Fifth Dimensional magic to restore Clark Kent so that no one will remember his "death." She then informs Superman of the true threat all along: Vyndktvx, a 5th dimensional sorcerer has "closed his jaws around" Superman and there's very little time left. The issue closes with the Little Man, now named, offering Susie a deal...


Superman finally breaks through the negativity and second guessing that has plagued the last couple issues and once more recommits himself to his mission. in doing so, he defeats Captain Comet who is an obvious "dark mirror" for Superman. Facing down Comet, who was cast out by his parents and thus regards humans as animals, shows Superman once for all how strongly Clark Kent animated his values and priorities. Captain Comet is the conduit through which Superman remembers what was noble and wonderful about Clark, and the experiences that shaped. never once is all this explicitly stated, it's just the beautiful confluence of events that Morrison has put together.

The operation scene reminded me of the Silver Age Superman, in the best possible way. No fear, no "it's out of my hands", he takes the situation into his own hands quickly and confidently and does the job better than the best human could. Superman, as originally conceived, was "a Hercules in strength and a genius in intellect" one of the things that makes Grant a favorite 'round these parts is that he remembers the second part is as important as the first.

The ending not only contains a wonderful panel where Mrs. Nxyly shows Superman her "true" form, but also finally lays the situation out: for the first time, Superman is confronted by a 5th Dimensional entity who is well and truly EVIL. Not mischievous, not irritating, but a being that's coming to destroy him and everything he loves and has had time to prepare to do so. Which naturally brings us to...

Issue 0: "The Boy Who Stole Superman's Cape"


DC in its infinite wisdom decided that it would celebrate the one year anniversary of its reboot by putting out an entire month of "Zero Issue" prequel stories. So, just as Morrison is building narrative momentum, we jump all the way back to before Action 1 to see how the whole thing began, but with the benefit of everything we've learned so far.

Surprisingly, what could have been a disaster is the single best issue of the run since 5 and 6, and the credit has to go to Ben Oliver who did the art for this month's main story. His hyper real watercolors make the incredible moments, like Superman's cape breaking a butcher's knife, feel beautiful and cinematic. Morrison plays against the recent stories, and returns to the almost Golden Age redux tone of Issue 1 in a smaller story about Superman's first adventure, battling Glen Glenmorgan and domestic abuse while being hotly pursued by Lois Lane. The pure origin stuff we've seen before (though I confess I love that the issue begins with Clark ordering the first Superman T Shirts), but it's a warm and friendly familiarity that I don't mind. The classic beats can be revisited, if there's enough new for it to not be a simple rehash. Highly recommended.

Conclusion: This was a much more difficult piece to write than my review of Act 1 was, because the middle portion always begins in medias res and hints at something greater to come rather than standing on its own terms, but this is still the work of a prodigious artist. The simple moments of inspiration that Superman is capable of really shine through here, from rebuilding the destroyed housing after fighting Metalek to stopping the "powerful locomotive" from running over the boys in the zero issue, Morrison never forgets that Superman's standard of heroism is higher than any other. It's not enough to beat the bad guys and preserve the status quo-- Superman is always building towards a better world, by helping us see that it's possible to live in one.

What's also truly exciting is that Superman is facing down a 5th Dimensional threat that is far more subtle and insidious than any he has previously faced. Morrison may be the one living comic writer who could orchestrate an assault on Superman through space and time that is this vast and far reaching, and he's merely hinting at a foe whose mastery is so great that Superman is for the first time truly vulnerable.

Final Part coming soon, guys.

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