In 2011, DC relaunched all of its superhero titles under the New 52 initiative. Billed as a “soft reboot”, the effects of the initiative on DC Universe continuity were murky, but they seemed to amount to “we will keep that which we like when we choose to and ignore that which we do not.” The Green Lantern books continued unaffected, as did the central Batman titles. The Killing Joke was still canon, although Barbara Gordon was miraculously out of her wheelchair, but the formation of the Justice League got a complete re-write, overwriting Mark Waid’s JLA: Year One with a new origin story by Geoff Johns. Man, does Geoff Johns hate Mark Waid? Mmmaybe.
For a while leading up to the reboot, the DCU had orbited around three main creative loci: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, and Dan DiDio, and as the New 52 started up, it looked to be more of the same. Johns was on Justice League and Aquaman, Morrison had the Action Comics relaunch and the continuation of his long-form Batman storyline, and DiDio was shepherding new or underused properties around the fringes. But by this point, Morrison’s influence on the meta-narrative of the DCU was waning. Final Crisis sold well, but had little effect on continuity. His long-promised Multiversity, which would lay out the underlying structure of the DC multiverse would finally drop in 2014 and feel more like an afterthought or an indulgence than a working map of the DCU.
Morrison would later admit to feeling burned out on superheroes around this point in his career. It was Batman that broke him, and the fatigue is most pronounced in the back half of his Batman Incorporated series. Batman & Robin, The Return of Bruce Wayne and the first volume of Batman Incorporated are electric, but his run on Batman limps over the finish line, dragged down by Morrison’s commitment to kill of Damian Wayne, and an inability to come up with a way for Batman to recover from the loss.
What’s more, Morrison had already made his major statement on Superman with All-Star Superman in 2005. Running around the same time as his Batman run began, both books leaned heavily into the characters’ weird Silver Age histories. Now, asked to reinvent Superman in 2011, at a point of creative exhaustion, Morrison opted to look further back, returning Superman to his Golden Age roots. It’s an approach he’d also take on Earth One: Wonder Woman, with similarly mixed results. The idea was that there were elements in the core concept that could be mined and modernized. With Wonder Woman, it was the highly idiosyncratic sexual politics of the character’s creator, William Moulton-Marsten, which were largely whitewashed after his death.
With Superman, it was a reimagining of the character as a brash young warrior for social justice. In the first issue, Superman is taking on a corporate criminal, establishing himself as an extralegal moral guardian of the city. He’s hugely powered down from the canonical Superman we’d come to know, stripped of a lot of the abilities he’d accreted over decades.
A note on this. Modern Superman is a prime example of what’s known in comics as “power creep.” This is when a writer needs a character’s superpowers to do something they haven’t before, so he just adds it or retcons it in. This is why, for instance, it is Marvel Comics canon that Wolverine can regenerate from a single drop of his own blood. Superhearing, cold breath, even flight, were later add-ons to a character who could, originally, only manage to leap a tall building in a single bound. And this was the thirties. Buildings weren’t even that tall.
In addition to being stripped of his powers, for the first couple issues, Superman doesn’t have a proper costume, just a sweet tee-shirt and jeans combo. And also a cape. It’s a good look, and Rags Morales is excellent at differentiating Superman and Clark despite the similarities in their wardrobe.
Morales also creates a vastly different visual vocabulary for how Superman moves. Rather than the iconic flight pose, we see a Supers who looks more like he’s running, throwing his body into the fight. It’s a visual aesthetic that feels fresh, and to be honest, the premise was promising.
But there were problems, almost out of the gate. Of the major characters relaunched for the New 52, maybe none of the relaunches were botched quite like Superman. The Superman title, initially written and drawn by George Perez, became a creative revolving door after only a handful of issues, ending up written by Scott Lobdell for some unknown reason. And on Action, delays meant that after four issues of story, the book interjected a B-plot about Krypton and the Legion of Superheroes that attempted to tie into the main story but only managed to confuse things. This did get us some beautiful pages of Krypton by Gene Ha, and some threads that would sort of pay off down the line, but month to month, it served as a major momentum killer to a story that already felt cluttered and derivative of Geoff Johns’ recent Brainiac storyline.
There’s another problem with a brash, cocky, street-level, de-powered Superman. He can work well in his own books, but it’s difficult to fit him into the larger DC Universe. In the Justice League book, set up as the DCU flagship, Geoff Johns largely abandons this take on the character after a couple issues because, frankly, he comes off as a jerk. And there are characters in the Justice League who are much better suited to being jerks.
Yes, I’m talking about Aquaman.
It allows a little bit of a shift of the DCU’s moral center to Wonder Woman, which, I’ve either mentioned here or on Twitter, is a vastly more interesting take on the DCU. But the hard edges got sanded off quickly and the New 52 Superman reverted to his friendly, helpful self.
Sidenote: if you want to see a working model of a street-level, de-powered Superman, the early parts of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s run on Action are brilliant. But again, it quickly becomes apparent that Superman serves certain narrative needs in the DCU, and the clash of artistic intent and editorial mandate effectively derailed the efforts of Pak, Kuder, and Gene Luen Yang to do something really interesting with the character. Within twelve issues, Action goes from iconic images of Superman holding the line against abusive police officers in a low-income neighborhood of Metropolis to some serious nonsense involving Vandal Savage.
As for the story, and here I’m going over issues one through four, then seven and eight, it’s a retread of Johns’ Brainiac storyline, or at least a return to the idea of Brainiac as a “collector of worlds”, along with some of the concepts from later in Johns’ run and the issues that followed, where Luthor is working with the government to bring down Superman. Here, they manage to capture Supes and effectively torture him (almost all of this if off panel), before he escapes. Public opinion in Metropolis is firmly set against its new alien protector, until some bigger, badder alien types arrive.
In cahoots with Lex Luthor, Brainiac miniaturizes Metropolis to add it to his collection. Also Brainiac is maybe the internet? Never one to go subtle, Morrison sets up Superman to choose between saving the bottled city of Kandor or saving Metropolis.
There’s “hanging a lantern” on a narrative question, and then there’s “aiming a massive bank of Klieg lights” at a narrative question. If the central question around a portrayal of Superman is always “Is he fundamentally Superman or Clark Kent?”, Morrison solves it exactly the way you would expect Grant Morrison to solve it: the alchemical fusion of opposites.
I would fucking love to reach the point in my career where someone said, “Alchemical fusion of opposites? Yeah, typical Bob Proehl move.”
Superman refuses the choice between Earth and Krypton. He flicks the rocket he came to earth in, which is also very tiny, into Brainiac’s, um, brain, where it blossoms into Kryptonian crystal thingies. The most despised becomes the most beloved, dialectical synthesis, that old schtick.
Metropolis is returned to its proper size. Kandor, which has been miniaturized for so long the process has become permanent, remains a tiny memento mori on Brainiac’s ship, which will serve as Superman’s Fortress of Solitude until…some point later when he builds his other Fortress of Solitude. Maybe this becomes the Justice League satellite? Or he sublets it to the Justice League? My Justice League issues are buried somewhere, and Google is only giving me the pre-Flashpoint Watchtower and satellite, so if anyone can help out here, I’d appreciate it.
That’s sort of it for story. There’s some foreshadowing about the Multitude. There’s the introduction of an evil imp, along with Clark’s landlady, Ms. Nyxly, who will both turn out to be bigger deals, and Steel, who’s quickly relegated to back up features written by Sholly Fisch. After the flash and bang of the first couple pages, it feels like Superman by numbers. Morrison still has a couple ideas to play out, and we’ll see them probably two posts down the line. But overall, this introduction feels as if it had one good idea to it, and even that wasn’t sustainable.
People bash on Mark Waid’s Champions for feeling like teenagers written by a middle aged dude, and there’s a bit of that here. Superman, freshly embarked on his heroic career, is supposed to be new and vibrant. But Morrison, at an ebb moment in his writing career, comes off a little tired and flat.