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.
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.
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 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.
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]