Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics has been met with both high praise and no small measure of bewilderment. But this is a legendary run – you just need to think five dimensionally.
When Morrison was announced as the writer of Action Comics #1, back in 2011, there was a great deal of excitement within the comics community. The man who had given us one of the greatest Superman books of all time, All-Star Superman, seemed a poetic choice as the architect of this brand new history. Morrison spoke of his love for the original Golden Age character, his socialist roots and desire to do good in the world; Superman as a folk tale, before he became the centrepiece of our modern mythology. The young Kal, standing proud and over-confident in his American jeans and self-branded t-shirt, cape flying behind him as he raced from one adventure to the next.
Action Comics, set five years behind the current day Superman comic, was to show us how Kal went from farmboy to international hero – from brash young man to a wiser one – but also to introduce all the pieces of the puzzle that make him who he is. There was fan outcry at the pre-publication revelations that Clark and Lois would no longer be a couple, and that Clark’s parents would no longer be alive. Comic fans, strangely adverse to change in a constantly recycling continuity, were outraged at the lack of a romantic plot with Lois, perhaps inadvertently recasting her in their minds as in existence only to please the leading man. The lack of parents of course linked this Superman much more strongly to his Golden Age roots, and removed him too from any existing connections to the world he found himself living on. An alien alone.
As Morrison’s run kicked off, with newspapers still fascinated by the jean-clad Superman and somehow missing the alarm bells that usually come with any mention of “socialism”, it soon became clear that Morrison’s ambitions were far greater than previously stated. This was not to be merely the introduction of the character, but the making of him – joining up pieces of a fragmented puzzle to show the whole, a Superman for a new generation of readers that brought the best of every previous incarnation along for the ride. Perhaps not surprising given the writers similar treatment of Batman, but the sheer scale of this particular endeavour given the extremely tight timescale is rather phenomenal.
Unsurprisingly, many readers were somewhat lost at various points – because when I say fragmented, I am being quite literal. After only four issues it was necessary for artist Rags Morales to need a break to catch up, and another plot was inserted with both the baby Kal’s escape from Krypton, and a future Superman returning to a point in time not long after the previous issue. The change in art style thanks to Andy Kubert for this two issue interlude helped underscore the time difference, and in issue seven we were back on our original track. These interludes became a signature of Morrison’s run, with further adventures spending time on the Superman of Earth 23 – and a meta teaser for Morrison’s upcoming Multiversity – as well as a Halloween trip to the Phantom Zone, and of course the obligatory issue zero with its genuinely heartwarming tale.
But here’s the thing: Morrison planned a short six issue run on the comic. When the first artist change came up, he told me that:
“…for me it hits the long term collections of it to have things done like that but at the same time it brings back a lot of the freshness and improvisation of doing comics again and just responding to that and also sometimes you know they’ll be like we need a two part filler here – okay I’ll just come up with something, and it might not necessarily fit it in to the middle of this but okay, you need a filler.”
And yet, every little aspect of this comic – from the future plot to the Phantom Zone to the appearance of the little teetotal man in the first panel of issue one – suggests a much grander plan. If I was uncharitable I’d chalk this up to a mild case of fibbing, but I know that’s not the case. Of course it’s likely that someone with so much knowledge of the DC universe would subconsciously drop little things in to the narrative that might turn out to be useful later – but for a six issue run? It’s a marvellous little contradiction that is completely in keeping with the unfolding story itself, perhaps demanding that it be told.
So we have the initial plot, the tale of Clark finding his feet as an investigative journalist and being a superhero in a world without superheroes – for he was the first – while the world reacts with suspicion, just in time for the Collectors to appear on the scene labelling Earth as a doomed planet. Clark is also receiving communications from a secretive person named Icarus, while Lex Luthor attempts to negotiate for his own life with the incoming alien threat. Superman of course saves the day, after pushing himself further than ever before, and the people of Earth are happy to have their own personal saviour. Kal even gets a shiny new suit out of it.
This alone woud be a solid little arc, establishing Kal as an accepted hero, uniting him with Brainiac and his Fortress of Solitude, placing Lex, Lois and Jimmy on our radar of people to look out for, and… well, also hinting at the involvement of the 5th dimension, casually mentioning a missed visit that is later revealed to be the Legion of Superheroes, foreshadowing the appearance (and constant invisible presence) of Krypto, a suggestion that the small man is the devil, and the introduction of Nimrod who we know will shoot Superman in the brain in the future because we’ve seen it in a past issue, as well as the K-Men who don’t actually quite exist yet because they’re from the future also, and the future form of Eric Drekken and the existence of the “First Superman”.
All in all, it’s a good job Morrison stayed on to write more as while those plot bunnies would have given any writer much to play with, it’s clear that by now there was a greater plan in mind. In the first 8 issues, the fragments were already starting to tug apart, and I was reminded of Morrison’s fondness for telling stories that can only be told in comic form. In comics, unlike say films or games, each story is already a four dimensional experience – the reader is in control of the pacing and movement through time, even able to reverse time or skip from one time to another. With comics, the one thing that sets them apart from all other media – for me – is the gap between the panels. What happens in the gutters is completely unique to each and every reader, from the simple movements of a character across time, to the shifts between place, person and stories. When a writer chooses to increase those gaps, not only between sequenced panels but between issues, between pages, and between stories being told simultaneously at different time points, the story becomes even more interactive. A co-creation between creators and readers alike.
The fragments can be jarring, until you read further and more gaps are filled. This is partly due to the nature of the Big Bad, a 5th dimensional bastard named Vyndktvx, but it also serves to both explain the multitude of artists on the book, and to fill in those five years between issue one and where the character is supposed to end up. Five years over a handful of issues results in snapshots in time, little episodes that are important in the forming of Superman himself rather than an exhaustive chronological list. Superman was hated and feared – but not for long. Superman gave up his Clark Kent identity – but not for long. Superman is exasperated by the perceived inactivity of the other superheroes – but not for long. Superman plays can and mouse with Lex Luthor – but not for long. Superman interacts with Lois and Jimmy – but not for long. And so on. We know who Superman becomes, we have seen that story before in a million different varieties. But for this Superman, what is important? The chance to say goodbye to his father. The return of his faithful hound who never left his side. The children who found shelter in his cape. His landlady who gave everything to help him survive. That Kents never give up and that no matter what, he’ll never really be alone.
This is not the Superman of All-Star Superman. That Superman was older, matured, and a perfect focus of the Silver Age made real. This Superman is born from the pages of the Golden Age, each issue showing another edge of the same character while introducing the instruments of his incredibly complex life. He’s just a man who will never give up – the message at both the beginning of issue one as he threatens a corrupt businessman, to the end of issue eighteen where he hugs his dog and jokes about his hard won fight for both his life and the entire universe. An alien alone perhaps, but one who is very human. All-Star Superman was a god you could believe in; Action Comics Superman gets shit done.
Having Superman face off against the devil, a jealous little man from another dimension who poses as dealer, bartender and lawyer, is a neat touch. Vyndktvx is not only attacking Kal at the end of the run but has been attacking him all his life, sometimes in ways that Kal will never know and perhaps never should. He is even the figure responsible for the Super-Doomsday, an “unstoppable killer franchise from a parallel reality” that is perhaps a shade too close to our own little Earth. Commentary on Superman as corporate symbol would appear to be in conflict with Morrison’s previous comments on Superman’s heritage, but not when you look between the lines. Vyndktvx’s pledge to “make coins of” Superman, and his subsequent failure is a clear illustration that Superman the mythic symbol of our age lives beyond corporate lines and greed. His past may be murky, but Superman’s ability to inspire is unstoppable. At least, in the hands of Morrison.
The revelation that the universe was born from Mxyzptlk’s hat, and subsequently that many worlds were destroyed by the multitude, the three dimensional interpretation of the multispear, is an interesting play on gods toying with their creations from above – and of course a parallel of the ability of creators to manipulate their own paper universes. That Kal is a favourite of his 5th dimensional audience for his ability to not be controlled – alongside his father – places him at the centre of the story for reasons beyond him simply being Superman. His angering of a petty god leads to his life being irrevocably damaged, neatly fitting in with the New 52 changes and perhaps hinting at a deeper message.
This is an ambitious run, all the more so for how everything does in fact tie together in the end. Even the smallest throwaway comments in the early issues are given meaning in later reveals, while the back up strips by Sholly Fisch (and the Action Comics Annual #1) are uncannily in tune with the main comic as well as giving deeper insights into Kal’s humanity. As time and story starts to slide sideways, with Vyndktvx breaking the fourth wall, the creators themselves appearing alongside the hand of god, and angels tumbling from the sky, the time slips start to collide with the whole picture becoming clear. With the arrival of the final issue I spent a few hours reading the entire run first, and the effect is rather like standing back from a tapestry to see all the threads intertwine.
Honestly, I could spend thousands of words picking out all the links and meta-touches here, and still it would do no good – because what you, dear reader, insert in between those gaps and how you read the comic, through the manipulation of time and touch, and what you decide it all comes to… well that’s what makes the comic.
But I defy anyone not to have a little sniffle at the return of Krypto, and for the boys who borrowed Superman’s cape.
Ha-la Kal-El, ha-la-la!
Action Comics #1-18
Writer: Grant Morrison
Pencillers: Rags Morales, Brad Walker, Andy Kubert, Gene Ha, Travel Foreman, Cafu
Inkers: Andrew Hennessy, Mark Propst
Colourist: Brad Anderson, Art Lyon
Cover Artist: Rags Morales, Brad Anderson
Letters: Steve Wands, Patrick Brosseau
Editor: Matt Idelson, Will Moss
[Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter]