By Allison Eckel
I found Action Comics no. 1 off-putting. It is set in a different time from the rest of the New 52 (an ambiguous “five years ago”). The Superman we all know so well acts very un-Superman-like – in fact, he’s kind of a jerk. He even pulls a page from Batman’s playbook (although he doesn’t yet realize it) and suspends a bad guy upside down in the air until he confesses. Most of the issue is action and kinetic energy, with our T-shirt-wearing super-hero getting the tar beat out of him by a wrecking ball and a speeding train. Exciting, but as a fan of Superman of the past 30 years, I felt like Alice following that darned white rabbit down its hole. I wrote about my apprehension of this re-jigger, and after reading issue no. 1, I was not optimistic for the future of DC Comics.
Then I read issue no. 2, including the pages at the end of the book on which the creative team explain what they did. Now, usually, if a comic book needs the creators to explain it, then I say something went wrong in the storytelling. However, in the New 52, many things are different. Reading these explanatory pages kept me reading Action Comics, and then, the comic made sense.
What follows is my deconstruction of what I think writer Grant Morrison and artist Rags Morales are doing with Action Comics, and therefore, why I think it is among the top books of the New 52. I must confess, most of this has been laid out for me (and all of you) to find by Morrison, who seems to work hard at ensuring his readers never take comics as easy, light fluff.
With DC wiping its editorial slate (mostly) clean and re-launching their characters in the New 52, Morrison is seizing his opportunity to bring Superman back to his beginnings, a character he describes in his book Supergods:
“The Superman who made his debut on the cover of Action Comics no. 1 was just a demigod, not yet the pop deity he would become,” Morrison writes on page 4. “[T]his Superman was unable to fly, resorting instead to tremendous single bounds. He could neither orbit the world at the speed of light nor stop the flow of time. That would come later. In his youth, he was almost believable. [Creators] Siegel and Shuster were careful to ground his adventures in a contemporary city, much like New York, in a fictional would haunted by the all-too-familiar injustices of the real one.”
Morrison and Morales are working closely together to deliver at least three distinct-yet-seamlessly entwined levels to Action Comics to achieve this modern re-set of Superman: the action, the canon, and the commentary.
For action, Morrison has already stated that Clark’s powers are now less than most of us are used to. He cannot yet fly and he can be hurt, just not easily. In the back of Action Comics no. 2, Morrison explains that he is, “constantly putting Superman up against very physical objects.” Indeed, the first three issues of this new run have been packed with scenes in which Clark meets the seemingly immovable object, and does not always win. He comes out battered, bruised, bloodied.
The quiet moments are still filled with detail. Morales has made a point of differentiating Clark-in-cape and Clark. Morales explained that he “put [Clark] in baggy clothing to hide his muscles. Maybe stoop his posture a little bit, make him slack-jawed … so he doesn’t look at all like a hero …. He’s a very good actor, which is a super power I don’t think many other superheroes have.”
While Morrison re-sets Superman’s powers, he is taking every element of his canon – no matter when in the past 73 years they were introduced – shaking them up, and tossing them on the table like Yahtze dice. What they spell is the mother of all retcons. Ma and Pa Kent? Yes, they found him, but they died, prompting his move to Metropolis. Lois? She’s there, but they barely know each other, and barely like each other. Jimmy? They seem to be about the same age now; Clark thinks they’re pals, but Jimmy seems annoyed by him. The Daily Planet? Lois and Jimmy work for it, but Clark doesn’t (yet?). Lex Luthor? Still brilliant, still scheming, still sees “Superman” as an affront to his Humanism (he seems fairly unchanged, actually). This is all unrolling organically with the stories, so readers get to put the canon pieces together whenever Morrison lets us.
The third level I can see in these stories is commentary. Morrison has already written that Superman originally appeared in a fictional city as flawed as a real one. And so, Action Comics no. 1 launches us into the new Metropolis, complete with business tycoons who may do good turns on the surface, but make shady deals under the table. In this Metropolis, people are thankful to be saved, but pissed that their homes were taken out in the process.
In this version of the DC universe, the government gets its hands on Superman early in his crime fighting career, and experiment on him to test his limits and learn his weaknesses. This is new for the DCU of my youth. The first I remember seeing this in the DCU was this summer’s Flashpoint: Project Superman, written by Scott Snyder. In this alternate reality story, the government found baby Kal-el’s rocket, not the Kents. The alien baby was raised in a protected cell, the subject of endless scientific research. This is probably a more realistic outcome to the “what if” of an alien baby falling to Earth. I don’t know what inspiration Morrison is drawing from Flashpoint, but the similarities are striking to me. The post-Flashpoint DCU is not the idealized place I knew in my youth. Now, the government tortures Superman, and the people he once saved will picket for him to “go home.”
I see this as a level of social commentary that is not exactly meta fiction, but more subtle. Morrison lets Metropolitans react to Superman in a way that might be consistent with how New Yorkers might react to a man in a silly little cape suddenly leaping buildings.
Now that I view Action Comics through this lens of seamlessly entwined action, new canon, and social commentary, I am excited to read more. Beginning with issue no. 4, on sale December 7, readers will be treated to back-up stories by guest creators. Reportedly, these stories will be approved by Morrison in order to fit within the context and framework he and Morales are building in the main story. First up is Sholly Fisch, who has been writing whip-smart stories for The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I love smart comics, and the new Action Comics is among the smartest titles DC Comics is currently publishing.