This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.
On paper, Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’ Action Comics should have been a slam dunk.
The title was announced as part of DC’s “new 52” relaunch, a resetting of the comic book giant’s continuity beginning in September 2011. Designed to revitalise the line, shoring up sales numbers and providing a clear point of entry, the “new 52” was clearly intended as a “jumping on” point for new and lapsed comic fans. It was bold and radical, an even greater departure for the company than their reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1986. The comic book publisher gave themselves a blank slate.
In theory, this was a great idea; anything was possible and everything was on the table. In practice, the execution was more muddled; the massive experiment curtailed by a very conservative aesthetic. In many respects, the “new 52” felt like more of the same; familiar mid-tier talent working on familiar mid-tier ideas. The most interesting books were those that dared to do things differently; Scott Snyder inverting Alan Moore’s brilliant twist on Swamp Thing made for iconoclastic reading, as did Brian Azzarello’s ground-up reimagining of Wonder Woman.
In contrast, a lot of the line felt like hedging. Hellblazer was cancelled so that John Constantine could be dragged under the corporate umbrella in Justice League Dark, all in the name of coporate synergy. The Wildstorm characters were ported over into mainstream continuity, in spite of the fact that they were largely redundant or incompatible. Instead of courting either exciting new talent or industry veterans, the company had difficulty drawing top-tier talent. Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld were among the relaunch’s heavy hitters.
To be fair, there were bright spots. But the ideas and concepts that were interesting were frequently hobbled by the demands of the publisher. All-Star Western was diminished by having to tie to Gotham City continuity, while attempts at genre diversity in books like Demon Knights or I, Vampire were under-promoted. Emphasis was placed squarely on monthly print sales numbers, with little patience for books to grow their audiences whether online or through collected editions.
In spite of all the confusion and chaos of the relaunch, Grant Morrison writing Action Comics was the cause of considerable excitement. Morrison was one of few comic book writers who could legitimately be described as a superstar, arguably with a higher profile outside mainstream comics than executives Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. Having Morrison on a monthly book was a big deal, particularly a monthly book as important to the company’s legacy as Action Comics. (Then again, the relaunch also chose to put Tony Daniel on Detective Comics, so there’s that.)
More than that, the book represented something of a homecoming for Morrison. Although the character of Superman had struggled with issues of relevance in the twenty-first century, Morrison had been the architect of one of the character’s most beloved stories. All-Star Superman is widely regarded as one of the best Superman stories ever published. Having its author writing a monthly book as part of the relaunch was a big deal. Following high-profile misfires like New Krypton or Grounded, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to put Superman back on the right course.
In many respects, Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics typifies the sort of push-and-pull at the publisher as part of the relaunch. The great ideas smothered by corporate mandates, the tension between familiarity and novelty, the burden of expectation even while trying to chart a new course. For better or worse, Action Comics could be seen as the flagship of DC’s “new 52” initiative. This seems entirely appropriate, given the title’s historical significance to DC comics.
There is a tension at the heart of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run. Quite frankly, Morrison’s conception of Superman is not compatible with DC’s attempt at a (relatively) hard reboot on multiple levels. Indeed, it is telling that Morrison’s original six-issue pitch had nothing to do with the “new 52”:
Yeah, initially the idea was to do a six-issue story, which was all that I’d come in to do back then. When Dan came to me and said I’d be relaunching Superman, or restarting Superman, I had some ideas left over from All-Star, where I’d do a young Superman story. I really wanted to do a T-shirt and jeans and a different idea.
Morrison’s original six-issue pitch was expanded to a run three times that length, and there is a sense of strain as the story is stretched and re-purposed. Morrison’s Action Comics lacks the sense of purpose and drive that marks his best work, feeling almost messily improvised in places.
To be fair, Morrison’s arc is very meticulously set-up, with hints and nods teased across the entirety of the run. The “little man” (subsequently revealed to be Vyndktvx) appears in the first pages of the run; he even makes reference to a “deal”, setting up the run’s recurring arc words. Of course, his theft of Glenmorgan’s tie is ultimately revealed as a narrative dead end towards the conclusion of the run, but there is a sense that Morrison at least knew the direction of his run when he began.
Indeed, the run is peppered with little internal nods and references that echo backwards and forwards reflecting the “timey wimey” nature of Vyndktvx’s plot against Superman. For instance, a homeless person references the “ghost” of Kryto (the “white dog”) watching over Clark before Krypto is actually introduced. It should be noted, however, that these elements become more pronounced once Morrison moves beyond his six issue story, although the groundwork is laid in the two-issue interlude towards the end of that arc.
Morrison is an awkward fit with the “new 52” on a purely conceptual basis. Morrison is a writer whose interests have always tended towards continuity and history. It is not uncommon for deluxe editions of Morrison’s mainstream comics to come with footnotes and design sketches citing particular examples or influences from the rich history of the larger shared universe. After all, the cornerstone of Morrison’s Batman run is the suggestion that every Batman story is in continuity.
More than that, Morrison’s own stories tend to exist within their own shared continuity. Themes and characters serve as connecting threads across an impressive body of work, with his work on DC One Million tying into All-Star Superman, despite the fact that DC considers the latter an “out-of-continuity” tale. There are even hints of that continuity to be found in the Action Comics; Morrison finally introduces the villainous Metallek, a menace referenced in Justice League of America and cameoing in Batman and Robin.
Indeed, Morrison’s own continuity is in evidence over his Action Comics run. The most stand-alone story in the run, The Curse of Superman, serves as the run’s thematic nexus, but it also serves as something of a stealth preview of Morrison’s forthcoming work on Multiversity. The single-issue story focuses on Calvin Ellis, the black Superman who is also President of the United States, a character who had previously appeared in Final Crisis and would serve as a major character in Multiversity.
There are other recurring Morrisonian elements reverberating through Action Comics creating an implied and indirect continuity between his work. When Lex Luther builds a weapon to defeat Calvin Ellis, that alternate Superman speculates that it must be a “musical meta-machine.” This mirrors Superman’s use of music with the “miracle machine” at the climax of Final Crisis, both drawing attention to sound as an element that exists outside of the range of comic book narratives.
One of the core selling points of the “new 52” was the idea of rendering DC’s continuity accessible to new or casual readers. As with Crisis on Infinite Earths, the objective was to create a streamlined continuity that would not scare away the potential audience. Senior Vice-President Bob Wayne described the initiative as “the best jumping on point to read monthly comics in a generation.” Of course, the actual relaunch had something of a mixed track record at that, completely rebooting some characters while leaving others relatively untouched.
Action Comics somewhat typifies that tension within the “new 52”, between the desire to create something new while still holding on to something of the past. Much more than his work on the character in All-Star Superman, Morrison weaves the history and continuity of Superman into his run on Action Comics, to the point that the run feels like a cheeky attempt to subvert the clean reboot by porting as much continuity across Flashpoint as humanly possible, suggesting that perhaps the idea of Superman has survived the line-wide reboot.
(It should be noted that not all characters were treated equally when it came to the fresh start of the “new 52.” Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang had a fresh start with Wonder Woman, completely re-writing and re-working the character’s history from scratch. In contrast, Green Lantern and Batman largely carried over continuity from before the reboot, acknowledging their place among the company’s most successful properties. In practice, Superman fell somewhere between those two extremes.)
Morrison makes the character’s continuity one of the focal points of his run. At one point, Clark Kent freaks out on reading accounts of Superman’s heroics that do not line up with the current timeline. “This doesn’t make any sense at all,” he protests. “These photos — these stories — everything before this date here. It’s not Superman. It can’t be Superman.” The reports are subsequently revealed to reference another Superman, one who slipped out of historical record and effectively became a victim of discontinuity.
However, Morrison also treats Superman himself as a tether to this lost continuity. At another point is revealed that Vyndktvx and his Anti-Superman Army are hiding tucked away in a tesseract buried within Superman’s skull, turning the character into something of a trojan horse. Within the same story, the Legion of Superheroes use Superman’s memories as a defensive weapon. Morrison then uses Superman’s memory to reaffirm the classic continuity detail of having a teenage Superman interact with the time-travelling Legion of Superheroes.
Even that little detail is rich with symbolism and subtext. The Legion of Superheroes remains something of a continuity controversy for DC comics, largely rooted in the decision to divorce them from Superman’s continuity following Crisis on Infinite Earths, treating them as an element that cluttered Superman’s backstory. It was revealed that the Legion’s encounters with a teenager Clark Kent (“Superboy”) all took place in a “pocket universe” created by the villain the Time Trapper, a development which somewhat convoluted continuity.
It is perhaps telling that so much of Morrison’s run hinges on classic Silver Age concepts. The main antagonist of the run is Vyndktvx, a fifth dimensional imp tied to mischievous Silver Age foe Mister Mxyzptlk. For his part, Mister Mxyzptlk spends the bulk of the run in a coma, perhaps acknowledging how latent all of this continuity is. A recurring plot thread focuses on the story of Silver Age companion Kryto the Wonder Dog, now rendered nothing but an ethereal spirit haunting the narrative. Throughout Morrison’s run, the past is present; even if it is not always evident.
This becomes most obvious towards the climax of the run, when it seems that continuity explodes around Superman and Morrison uses the opportunity to pull as much of the character’s history into the story as possible. The third-to-last issue of the run is even titled The Second Death of Superman, making it clear that The Death and Return of Superman remains continuity in the rebooted DC universe. However, the details are hazy, bleeding into one another like some fuzzy half-remembered dream.
Setting the tone for what is to come, Nyxly explains that Vyndktvx can make it feel like “the sky is red.” Those red skies seem to combine both Crisis on Infinite Earths with the The Death and Return of Superman, creating a symbolic link between the death of the original DC continuity and the death of Superman. “Lois, when was the only time you ever saw a red sun like that?” Jimmy asks. Lois responds, “The Daily Planet called it Doomsday! The day Superman died!”
The result is something of a heightened remix of classic Superman imagery and iconography drawn from across the character’s history, as if Morrison is struggling to cram as much as possible into the space afforded. Seeking a moment’s respite from the conflict, Superman flees to his “Yucatan Base”; a minor detail suggesting that Vyndktvx has forgotten the time Superman moved his Fortress of Solitude to the Amazon Jungle, as many fans have tried to do over the years. Another panel even teases a glimpse of Superman Red and Superman Blue.
Morrison does not even restrict himself to coopting mainstream comic book continuity, taking the opportunity afforded by the reboot to slip in nods towards all manner of other classic stories. The decision to tie Brainiac to the destruction of Krypton, positioning the villain as the planet’s answer to the internet, feels like a conscious nod towards the characterisation of Brainiac in Last Son of Krypton and Stolen Memories, episodes of Superman: The Animated Series. Similarly, an arc following the “death” of Clark Kent mirrors The Late Mister Kent.
There are echoes of Mark Millar’s Red Son to be found in Morrison’s Action Comics run, from the fascist re-branding of the Superman symbol in The Curse of Superman through to the idea of cyclic history at the end of the run. This makes sense, given that Morrison has taken credit for the cyclical nature of the ending to Red Son; in a way, this is re-appropriation. Similarly, Superman’s threat to a child murderer to “burn out the parts of [his] brain that make [him] hurt people” recall both the Superman “robots” of Red Son and the lobotomies of A Better World.
Indeed, Morrison even draws in continuity from outside the familiar framework of Superman. Adam Blake is a recurring character over the run, identified by Clark Kent as “the First Superman — the one no one remembered.” Wearing his costume, Blake has a smooth bald head and powers that are more psychic than physical. In many ways, he recalls the original Superman developed by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for their 1933 short comic The Reign of the Superman. Appropriately enough, he is more a villain than a hero.
Continuity becomes a battleground over the course of Morrison’s run on Action Comics. History is lost and reclaimed, erased and rewritten. Vyndktvx could be read as a stand-in for DC comics in a number of different ways. In particular, he can read as the embodiment of their continuity tampering. One of the most controversial revisions that the “new 52” made to Superman’s continuity was to kill of Ma and Pa Kent. Much like the decision to separate Clark and Lois, the death of the Kents served to isolate and alienate Clark.
Towards the end of the run, Morrison makes it clear that not only is Vyndktvx responsible for the death of the Kents, making him a proxy for DC’s editorial staff, but also that the death of the Kents is a mistake. “He messed up a lot of things and changed the way it was supposed to be,” Nyxly confesses to Superman as the finalé kicks into gear. There is a sense of unease and discomfort in Action Comics about the wiping and rewriting of the character’s history and legacy.
However, as with a lot of this Action Comics run, there is a sense of eternal fracture and division on the matter. Morrison seems caught between two extremes. On the one hand, the narrative positions the meddling Vyndktvx as the ultimate evil rewriting history and repurposing Superman for his own end. At the same time, Morrison is wary about the knee-jerk rejection of change and modernity. If Vyndktvx represents the excesses of DC editorial’s revisions of Superman, then the Collector embodies the forces of entropy through knee-jerk fan conservatism.
The Collector is presented as the obsessive fans who immediately and reflexively rejected the “new 52”, terrified of change or revision. The Collector speaks to the reactionary elements of comic book fandom, the people who want characters and concepts to remain trapped in amber and frozen in time, locked in “permanent micro-stasis”; fans who would keep these superheroes locked in a particular style like the Collector keeps the bottled cities. The Collector’s dialogue reinforces this metaphor. “Secure. Preserve. Complete the collection.”
The Collector is not interested in life or evolution. He is only interested in his own collection. He is the kind of invested fan who freaked out about the renumberings of Action Comics and Detective Comics. (He is also, sadly, the kind of fan that DC is appeasing by changing the numbering back.) The Collector is only interested in Superman as a piece of trivia, as a collectible, as a piece of minutia. “You are required to complete the collection. To secure its value and rarity. Your ship and you in mint condition.”
Action Comics finds itself trapped between two extremes. As much fun as Morrison has dragging back in old continuity and criticising the logic driving the reboot, he also has a great deal of fun rebuilding the Superman mythos from the ground up. This is most obvious in the opening arc, in which Morrison essentially plots out Superman’s journey through his own history. The first act plays as a microcosm of Superman’s early publication history, cliff notes restructured as narrative moving at a frantic pace.
Superman begins as a defender of the downtrodden, vanquishing slum lords and wife-beaters like he did in those early Golden Age appearances. Superman finds himself facing human obstacles, from tanks to wrecking balls to cranes. However, the grit of the Golden Age quickly gives way to the wonder of the Silver Age; robots, kryptonite, Metallo, the Legion of Superheroes, Brainiac, Krypto. It is not until the third issue that these elements begin to manifest themselves, with flashbacks to Krypton and the coming of the Collector.
In some respects, it feels like Morrison is even playing with Alan Moore’s classic Superman story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Moore was responsible for writing the “last” story to feature Superman before the continuity reshuffle of Crisis on Infinite Earths; Morrison finds himself tasked with writing the “first” story to feature Superman after the continuity reshuffle of Flashpoint. The irony could not be lost on Morrison, given the dynamic that existed between the two comic book creators.
Both Moore and Morrison decide to pit Superman against more aggressive representatives of the fifth dimension, Moore imagining an evil Mister Mxyzptlk and Morrison offering a fifth dimension menace whose name is phonetically close to “vindictive.” Indeed, Morrison makes a point to suggest that both Mxyzptlk and Vyndktvx are both magicians in the fifth dimension, reflecting the Moore and Morrison’s shared fascination with magic. There is no small irony in Moore and Morrison bookending the post-Crisis and pre-Flashpoint era in such a way.
As much as Action Comics fixates upon the finer details of Superman’s continuity, there is also a fascination with an archetypal “broad strokes” approach to the character and his iconography. As Morrison argues in the afterword to the second issue:
The rocket is Moses’ basket, the basket that the Hindi hero Karna was placed in — the idea of people putting a child into the river of destiny. The cape, the rocket, the costume, the ship we see at the end of #2 — everything is part of the story and has character arcs of its own. Every little bit of the Superman legend is turned into something meaningful in its own right.
Indeed, the run suggests that Superman is an archetype himself, that the multiverse might be populated with “more than one weak, watered-down imitation of Superman.”
Morrison even revisits some of his own favourite themes. Much like Final Crisis featured a bullet that was the metaphysical archetype of a bullet, and that images like the pearls and the gun were essential ingredients to creating Batman in The Return of Bruce Wayne, Morrison fashions Kryptonite itself as an archetype. Vyndktvx trading in the idea of Kryptonite. “From this original derive all the unstable, exotic isotopes such as Red-K and Silver-K and Black. These deadly variants, including blue, the most terrible of all, can and will be grown from this one primary crystal.”
This creates a strange conflict at the heart of the run. On the hand, Morrison is cheekily and consciously exploring the nuances and grooves of the continuity just erased by Flashpoint. On the other, Morrison is rewriting the mythology of Superman in his own way. To be fair, this quite similar to Morrison’s work on Batman or All-Star Superman, but there is an ambivalence to his work here that makes Action Comics seem more uneven and uncertain. It feels very much like a compromised work.
Again, there is a sense that Action Comics was trapped by the “new 52.” In particular, the comic’s unevenness and inconsistency is reflected in the artwork. Across Morrison’s eighteen issues on the title, he works with eight different artists; Rag Morales, Andy Kubert, Travel Foreman, Cafu, Brad Walker, Ben Oliver, Gene Ha, Rick Bryant. Not all (or even most) of these styles are compatible, meaning that there is a sizable stylistic shift between (or even within) issues. As result, the inconsistencies within Action Comics are rendered visible.
Rags Morales was introduced as the monthly artist on Action Comics. It was a good choice. Morales is a high-profile artist, having worked on Identity Crisis. More than that, Morales has a nice sense of movement and dynamism. Given that Morrison was putting the emphasis on the “action” aspect of Action Comics, Morales was a comfortable fit. And his artwork fits quite comfortably, particularly in that first issue where it seems like Superman is hitting (and getting hit by) absolutely everything. It is visceral and energetic.
Indeed, a lot of the charm of Action Comics comes from the dynamic style that Morrison has tailored to Morales’ strengths. Morrison has a reputation for tweaking and toning his work to best suit his artistic collaborators, and there are certainly moments within this Action Comics run where it seems like the creative team is on fine form. In many respects, Action Comics represents a firm rejection of the introspective and insecure Superman of recent years. This is not the character who gave up his United States citizenship or walked across the continent.
Confronting Captain Comet, Superman figures out the best way to defeat his opponent’s psychic assaults. “What if I stop doubting and second-guessing myself– if I just rely on instinct — on what I do best — and put my trust in action!” he realises. It is an approach that works. There is an engaging kinetic style to Rags Morales’ artwork that makes Superman feel more like a man of action than he has been in a long time. When working in tandem, Morrison and Morales suggest that Action Comics is more than just a title; it is a mission statement.
However, Rags Morales is not a writer who can stick to a monthly schedule. Very few modern artists can. Jim Lee strained on Justice League; Greg Capullo needed to take occasional breathers on Batman; even Cliff Chiang had to rotated into and out of Wonder Woman. Indeed, that is part of the reason why artists like Greg Land are such fixtures, despite questions about the legitimacy of their work; the ability to produce twenty-odd pages of content within a thirty-day window is rare and valued skill in the modern comic book industry.
While fans might complain that classic artists like Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby never had any hassle hitting (several) such deadlines with higher page-counts, this remains a reality of the industry. It is something that readers and publishers need to accept. Certainly, Grant Morrison is no stranger to this reality. There were massive artist-driven delays on his projects like New X-Men or Final Crisis. The only question is how best to deal with it. There are plenty of options open to a resourceful writer and publisher.
In the case of a prestige book, it seems reasonable to wait for a slow artist. The twelve issues of All-Star Superman took three years to come out, and the result was a comic that stood the test of time. The twenty-seven issues of Planetary came out over a decade. However, as part of the “new 52” initiative, DC committed to shipping their books on a fixed monthly schedule, with Dan Didio arguing:
It’s more hard-line than in the past for several reasons, and one is that it’s the largest concern we’ve heard from retailers on a continual basis. They’ve been concerned in the past about our inability to put out books on a consistent basis, especially the books that people are looking for.
The reality is that we’re in a periodical business. Periodical means that we have to be out every month. We’ve made a contract with the retailers, and a contract with the fans, to deliver our product to them on a consistent basis, and we should do so.
Over time, we’ve gotten a little lax in our delivery, and people were willing to wait for books because those books mattered to them. But as it spread throughout the business, people became less patient and sales suffered for it.
Didio’s argument makes a certain amount of sense, but seems rooted in a decidedly old-fashioned vision of the comic book industry. The hard monthly schedule betrays one of the big issues with the whole “new 52” initiative; it is predicated on monthly sales at bricks-and-mortar comic book stores, with no eye to longevity or sustainability.
This seems like a rather narrow perspective for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the advent of specialty comic book stores and the direct market were responsible for the decline of the industry. Comic book stores turned comic books from a popular medium into a niche market. While that business reality has meant that comic book stores are an essential part of the comic book economy, it does suggest that comic book publishers should not treat their concerns as paramount. Treating bricks-and-mortar retailers as the be-all and end-all is self-defeating.
It could be argued that DC’s most lucrative approach is based on “evergreen” stories that thrive outside the direct monthly market. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are the best examples of this approach, with the company keeping those stories in print in multiple formats. There are more recent success stories with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Bill Willingham’s Fables. These are all comics that were published by DC within the framework of monthly comic book publishing, but which took on a life afterwards as self-contained stories.
This is, historically, one big advantage that DC has had over Marvel when it comes to the mass market. Marvel has a fantastic reprint department, but it does not have anything with that level of pop culture penetration. People who have never set foot in a comic book store will have read Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns or Sandman. The fact that recent years have seen DC publishing spin-offs and sequels and follow-ups to these classic narratives acknowledges as much, regardless of the quality of those follow-ups.
One of the more short-sighted and narrow-minded aspects of the “new 52” was the primacy of the rigourous monthly schedule and the focus on monthly sales as a measure of success. The “new 52” arrived at a point where comics were going digital, less than three years before digital giant Amazon would buy digital comics provider Comixology. It was a transitory moment in comic book publishing. Although all indications are digital has yet to eclipse print sales, the “new 52” arrived at a point where comics were no longer disposable monthly treats; they would be around in perpetuity.
Although there were some nods towards diversity in the line, there was little support or patience with the more adventurous titles. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray had enjoyed an extended seventy-issue run on Jonah Hex that had lasted seventy issues in part due to trade and international sales; their re-branded All-Star Western lasted only thirty-four issues and was subject to radical retools and overhauls. China Miéville’s Dial H had all the makings of a cult favourite and slow-grower, if only it had been afforded more than fifteen issues.
Action Comics suffers from this rigid approach to scheduling. As early as the second issue, it is quite clear that Morales is not going to keep to a monthly schedule. There are panels that have quite clearly been drawn by other artists slotted awkwardly into his work, while his anatomy and body work becomes a bit strained. The comic is diminished by the choice to rush the art to print rather than allotting Morales the necessary time to fix and tweak it. The comic might ship a few weeks late, but the product will hold up better in the long term.
DC had done something similar with Morrison’s work in the past. Although both the later issues of Final Crisis and Batman Incorporated were rushed to print with fill-in work, later collected editions afforded the artists the opportunity to clean up and correct their work. Indeed, entire pages were added to Final Crisis while entire pages were re-drafted for Batman Incorporated. While it would be nice to get such a “fix” for Action Comics, the issues are woven pretty deep into the fabric of the comic.
Most notably, the efforts to Morales to a monthly schedule cause more serious plotting problems. Morrison has to halt his introductory arc for a two-issue fill-in illustrated by Adam Kubert so that Morales can finish that first six-issue story. The result is disorientating and disjointed, and not in a good way. Morrison pauses his big Superman origin story to tell a “timey wimey” Legion of Superheroes story that admittedly sets up a lot of later developments. While the time-travel excuses some of the confusion, it still saps the momentum of the run.
DC was so adamant in its refusal to delay books that Morales was not even afforded the opportunity to finish whole issues, meaning that there is minimal consistency on an issue-to-issue (and occasionally page-to-page) basis. This is a shame, because Morrison does try to accomodate his artist at various points in the schedule. Gene Ha does great work in bringing Krypton to the page, for example, as a flashback dream sequence in the third issue. Ha also does great work on Morrison’s standalone story The Curse of Superman, set on an alternate world.
Indeed, one of the highlights of Morrison’s run is very consciously tailored towards its fill-in artist. The Ghost in the Fortress of Solitude was published in October 2012, with Travel Foreman providing artwork. There is something quite unexpected about Halloween story featuring Superman, even if Morrison quite skilfully ties it into the established Phantom Zone mythology. Foreman is perfectly suited to the story’s creepy tone. Sadly, not all of the fill-ins and transitions are handled as well.
The uneven artwork – and the impact it has upon the plotting of the run – contributes to the sense of disjointedness running through the nineteen issues. However, it speaks to a larger unevenness in the run, one that ties back to Action Comics‘ relationship with its publisher. Reading Action Comics, there is a sense of ambivalence towards Superman. Unlike All-Star Superman, which is predicated upon Morrison’s abiding and affection for Superman, there is a sense that Action Comics finds the scribe somewhat less comfortable with the iconic character.
Action Comics arrived at a strange time for Morrison and DC comics. For DC comics, it represented a new beginning for the Man of Steel, an opportunity to start over with a clean slate. For Morrison, it came towards the end of his work at the publisher. Although Morrison still had Multiversity ahead of him, Action Comics arrived at a point where Morrison was disengaging from mainstream superhero comics. His epic Batman run was winding down at the same time, and he was preparing to branch out into indie publishers.
There is a sense of fatigue to Morrison’s work on both Batman Incorporated and Action Comics, as if the writer cannot wait to escape monthly superhero comics and broaden his horizons. This made a certain amount of sense. Morrison had published Supergods, his thesis statement on superhero comic books, in 2011 around the same time that Action Comics launched. He had also spent most of the early years of the twenty-first century watching his former protege, Mark Millar, enjoy extreme success licensing creator-owned work.
Action Comics does not seem as romantic in its portrayal of its protagonist as All-Star Superman had been. There are certainly moments. The comic returns time and time again to the idea of Superman as an idea and inspiration. When an apartment building is knocked down in a fight, Superman does not rebuild it singlehandedly. Instead, he rallies the residents to help him. “If everybody wants to pitch in, we can rebuild these houses better than before. Who’s with me?” he asks.
Although Superman could build a replacement without any assistance, Morrison makes it clear that this is not the point the exercise. “Check him out,” one of the residents observes. “Guy’s doing the work of ten men… how am I supposed to compete with that?” Another apartment owner replies, “It ain’t a competition. Get off yer butt.” Morrison stresses the importance of Superman as a symbol as a legend. Indeed, it is a theme that works very well with the inclusion of the Legion of Superheroes in his backstory.
However, there is also a sense that Morrison is less enthused by superheroes than he once was. Throughout Morrison’s work, superheroes are treated as transcendent and wonderous. His Justice League of America run makes everybody on Earth a superhero. His New X-Men really pushes the idea of the X-Men as a leap forward. All-Star Superman ends with the character going to live in the heart of the sun. In contrast, Action Comics is a lot more cynical about its central character.
In fact, Action Comics could be seen as a rejection of some of Morrison’s core superhero themes, as Morrison expert Tim Callahan has noted:
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.
There is an argument to be made that Action Comics is an origin story and so should contrast with All-Star Superman, but it is not entirely convincing.
However, it does not feel like Action Comics is setting up or foreshadowing these themes. Instead, it seems consciously wary of the concept of superheroes in a way that feels decidedly more cynical than the bulk of Morrison’s writing. While All-Star Superman features Superman giving up his Clark Kent identity for good, Action Comics cannot imagine such a possibility. The idea of Superman transcending humanity is presented as worrying and unsettling; something to be avoided.
“The explosion at the Star gave me a chance to retire Clark Kent,” Superman confesses to Batman. “It felt like I’d outlived him. Superman seems to take up more and more of my time these days.” This is not a good thing. Indeed, Superman is contrasted with Captain Comet; another intergalactic immigrant who grew up Kansas, but who abandoned his connection to humanity for talk of “the future child”, “nutants” and “neo-sapiens.” His young recruit, Susie, is herself corrupted by Vyndktvx, losing touch with her humanity.
Part of this seems to be a wariness of Superman himself. Throughout the run, Morrison repeatedly suggests that there is something inherently broken and corrupt about the Man of Tomorrow. Early on, Vyndktvx is able to smuggle the Anti-Superman Army inside the hero’s head. With a healthy dose of irony, Erik warns the hero, “Evull’s in yu, Superman!” It is a literal statement of the situation as it stands, but it hints something bubbling just beneath the surface waiting to be exposed.
The Curse of Superman lays all of this out in a rather candid fashion, with Calvin Ellis meeting a version of Lois who escaped from a world where Superman has become something horrific rather than heroic. In this world, the idea of Superman has been perverted and rendered as something akin to Morrison’s Anti-Life Equation; a soul-consuming meme. “Everybody wears its brand,” Lois explains. “It makes people feel part of something big and new and cool. Superman helps them forget the reality of their drab, obedient, lonely lives.”
This provides a marked contrast with the idea of Superman as defender of the downtrodden, as introduced in the opening arc. Perhaps it reflects Morrison’s own anxieties about how Superman has evolved as a corporate symbol from his early roots, as articulated in Supergods:
But if the story of Jesus has a central theme, it’s surely this: When a god elects to come to Earth, he has to make a few sacrifices. In order to be born, Superman was called upon to surrender a few of his principles. As the price of incarnation, the son of Jor-El was compelled to make a terrible bargain with the complex, twisty forces of this material world. That S is a serpent, too, and carries its own curse.
Irony, the cosmic “stuff” of which it seems our lives are secretly woven, had the perfect man in its sights all along. And so it came to pass that our socialist, utopian, humanist hero was slowly transformed into a marketing tool, a patriotic stooge, and, worse; the betrayer of his own creators. Leaving his fathers behind on the doomed planet Poverty, the Superman, with his immediate need to be real, flew into the hands of anyone who could afford to hire him.
This is perhaps reflected best in the characterisation of Vyndktvx as something of a capitalist monster. His pitch is always the same, sweeping across eternity. “Let’s make a deal.” The rampant capitalism of Vyndktvx stands in stark contrast to the version of Superman introduced threatening slum lords.
However, Morrison seems to suggest that Superman is not as pure as he might appear. Over the course of the run, Clark Kent drifts away from that angry social avenger. He struggles to make the Justice League more proactive, but the comic treats the sequence as ridiculous; the Justice League standing in an empty barn unable to look out for a pair of hamsters, let alone the entire planet. Superman has become less of a young radical, less likely to confront people like Glen Glenmorgan. (Indeed, Luthor uses Superman as a tool to depose Glenmorgan for his own ends.)
Super Doomsday is just all the darkness in Superman bubbling to the surface. “You’re the raw essence of the beast in Superman!” accuses Luther. “The smug fascist bully boy I saw there all along!” Whereas All-Star Superman allowed Luther to realise that he was wrong (and had always been wrong), Action Comics affords the supervillain some hint of vindication. Maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with Superman, maybe there is a flaw in the foundation.
“They call you a hero,” reflects Vyndktvx. “But there’s blood on your noble crest. A stain that can never come out. The mark of betrayal and exploitation.” He continues, “Your ‘S’ a dollar sign!” It seems like Superman is branded and corrupted by the system of which he is part. After all, comics like Superman and Action Comics are ultimately commercial product that is intended to ship units rather than to provide any material benefit. That is very much at odds with Morrison’s conception of Superman as an idea so pure and good it might improve mankind.
It should be noted that Morrison’s run on Action Comics took place in the context of a lawsuit by the heirs of Siegel and Shuster to determine ownership of the character. The lawsuit was eventually resolved in 2013, in favour of DC’s ownership of the character under the conditions of their “work for hire” contract. This was very much a part of the context of Action Comics, to the point that the original cheque paying $130 for the character surfaced in October 2011, the month after Morrison’s first issue.
This would seem to be a major part of the cynicism on display in Action Comics. Morrison repeatedly focuses on the symbolism of Superman, imbuing his cape and his rocket with mythic power. Towards the end of the run, he does something similar with the iconic “S” shield, acknowledging that it is something of a blood red dollar sign. Jimmy and Lois tie the red skies to “the red — in Superman’s ‘S’?” Morrison presents that deal as something of an original and inescapable sin for Superman; the character is trapped and corrupted by it.
To be fair, this ambivalence echoes through Morrison’s work on Batman Incorporated, which was being published at the same time. In the final pages of Morrison’s extended eight-year run, the idea that Bruce Wayne is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle that grants no release or growth felt like something of a mixed blessing. “Batman and Robin will never die!” had been a note of optimism and reassurance when it appeared at the end of Batman R.I.P. By the end of Batman Incorporated, the same sentiment had been tinged with cynicism and exhaustion.
(The notion of mainstream superhero comics as trapped in a perpetual cycle of repeat and reinvention also reverberates through the final pages of Morrison’s Action Comics run. In the fifth dimension, it is suggested that the characters are simply moving in one big circle where the same drama plays out over and over again. The closing pages of the comic find Jor-El offering a similar sentiment while looking over his son sleeping in a crib. Nineteen issues into the run, the comic is still back where it started. There is no escape.)
However, this half-cynical half-romantic tone is well-suited to the Batman mythos. Batman has always been a somewhat tragic character, even before the reinvention that came with The Dark Knight Returns. It seems appropriate for Morrison to end his extended run on the character by striking an ambiguous note, suggesting that little has been accomplished and that all the sound and fury must allow for a return to the status quo. Batman is a character who is well suited to a curious cocktail of sadness and hopefulness.
On the other hand, it feels like an awkward note for Morrison to strike with Superman, particularly given his previous work on the character. Action Comics feels rather weird and melancholy in the larger context of Morrison’s major superhero note, the closing page featuring a bruised Clark Kent suggesting that we should see “the other guy.” It is a strange note on which to close, particularly given that this arrives towards the end (at least for the moment) of Morrison’s work at DC comics.
Action Comics feels like Morrison reflecting on the fact that maybe Superman just isn’t so super, which provides a rather downbeat conclusion to a run that began with such energy and verve.