I had mapped out several posts for Morrison’s run on Action Comics, but on rereading, they don’t seem to warrant that much thought. For one thing, the run doesn’t amount to much in terms of page count. Morrison left the title after eighteen issues, plus a zero issue, which, when you take away the backup stories, means this run isn’t much longer than All-Star Superman, and is nowhere near the size and scope of his other mainstream superhero runs.
There’s also the sense that we’ve seen a lot of this before, Morrison working through ideas he hadn’t found a place for in other series, or returning to old ideas to see if he had a new angle on them. This too is a very typical Morrison move. Scenes from Zenith show up almost whole cloth in The Invisibles. “Rock of Ages” is a rough draft of Final Crisis. But here, the later versions feel like the lesser versions.
There may be a bigger question, which is hard to look at from this angle, which is whether or not Grant Morrison’s approach to superheroes through a constant ramping up of scale has itself become exhausted by 2012. The next post will cover his JLA run, which is a clear mission statement on what superhero comics can do: they can be unimaginably big budget spectacles. There was a scale possible in comics that was impossible on film, and in 1996, this is undeniably true. We were still four years away from Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie, and even that film is surprisingly small scale. This run of Action Comics ends almost exactly a year after The Avengers movie, where the cosmic scale Morrison advocates plays out on screen. Which means comics may need to start doing something different.
One more thing I want to address up front so I’m not harping about it later: the art. Rags Morales is at best an odd fit for this run. This is not to say he’s not supremely talented. I mean, look at this:
But as the story progressed, I wondered if there was an earlier pitch for the series that he was paired with, one that stayed with the young, rough and tumble Superman for longer. Morales is a solid traditionalist, and as the story becomes more fractured approaching an ending, there’s a nagging sense that an artist willing to be a bit more inventive with page layouts might have communicated the narrative better. Add to that the fact Morales is assisted throughout the run by Brad Walker. Walker…gets better. Even by the end of his time on Action, he’s a better draftsman, and his Aquaman run as part of Rebirth is very good. But early on, his overlined faces, and a peculiar habit of making mouths look strained, calls to mind Jon Tottleben on Swamp Thing and Miracleman, and very few people are going to benefit from that comparison.
While we’re talking art, here is a lovely page from the zero issue by Ben Oliver. No reason, it’s just really pretty.
Okay, to it then. I’m going to make the bold assertion that there is an optimal reading order for this series if you want to approximately read the narrative chronologically, and that is to start with issue 0, read 1–4, followed by 7 and 8, then 5 and 6, and then the remainder of the run, 9–18. To be fair, I’m not going to talk about them in that order. But it might help to read them that way. Maybe.
The reason for quibbling over chronology here is that this entire run is the story of Superman fighting a fifth dimensional entity that can attack him throughout his personal timeline. It’s a possible answer to the question of what comics can do that movies can’t. There are tricks available for messing around with narrative time on a comic book page that won’t work within film, which has an inescapable linear element. That’s not to say it can’t be done on film, but there are different limits.
The insanely powerful fifth dimensional entity is something Morrison’s done before, most notably in “Crisis Times Five” during his JLA run. I’ll be getting to that one next, but the short version is, it involved insanely powerful fifth dimensional entities, including Johnny Thunder’s thunderbolt. And it introduces the idea that Mr. Mxyzptlk, the derby-sporting imp that occasionally pesters Superman, is one of them, although Mxy isn’t a major player in the arc.
Mr. Mxyzptlk isn’t entirely crucial to this story either, except as backstory and coma-patient MacGuffin. Also, ComaPatient MacGuffin is a great name for a lounge jazz band. So why wouldn’t Morrison just go ahead and have Mxy be the big bad? Well, because Mr. Mxyzptlk brings all of Superman’s foes together has been done. In fact, it’s been done by Alan Moore.
The last three issues are the big battle between Superman and Lord Vyndktyv (sound it out) and his Anti-Superman Army. Oh and also the Legion of Superheroes. Oh and also a group of neo-sapien psychics from the future called the Wanderers, whose name I had to go back and find even though I reread these comics like an hour ago.
Oh, and also the Corporate Superman from Another Dimension, which I’m going to talk about more in a later post, but is here largely to make the statement that the marriage of superheroes and corporate commerce is bad bad bad. I’m not saying I disagree, but it’s maybe one more idea than the scaffolding of this story can support, and it’s a more interesting argument in terms of other Superman stories than it is in terms of this one here.
The big battle, ominously titled “The Second Death of Superman”, immediately settles one of readers’ longstanding questions about the relaunched DC Universe by asserting that yes, the death of Superman is a thing that happened. It also places itself, and that story, in the larger context of DC crises by invoking “red skies.”
A little jargon lesson here. Red skies are to DC events what Uatu the Watcher is to Marvel events. They are a signal to the reader that heavy shit is about to go down. That’s how they’re supposed to work as a visual signifier within the comics. But the term “red sky event” or “red sky tie-in” is DC fan slang for the issue of a comic that relates to the big, end-of-the-world action going on elsewhere solely by having the skies red and having a character acknowledge the redness of said skies. So in a way, red skies in a comic signal editorial mandate hanging over the storyline proper.
Morrison invokes red skies here in both senses, given his tendency to attempt critique of corporate comics from within corporate comics. I’m going to argue when we get there that The Death of Superman is something bigger than editorial mandate or simple cash grab (I mean, it’s those things too), but it’s key to point out that Morrison to some degree understands some of the narrative problems with Superman’s history as being tied to his status as an intellectual property controlled by a massive corporation. The red skies thing is somewhat subtle. Other bits are less so.
And again, it’s not an invalid critique. It’s just a mystery as to what it’s doing here, in this particular storyline.
The cannon-fodder, I mean, the Anti-Superman Army, has been somewhat established leading into the big conflict. Well, they’ve been introduced at least. They took a shot at Superman back in those fill-in issues, where they hid in the memory of his first encounter with the Legion. The idea of this moment of continuity carrying something inherently toxic is clever: how Superman, Superboy, and the Legion fit together has proven an ongoing problem for DC continuity wonks, as well as their legal team. Like I think I mentioned elsewhere, copyright issues around Superboy have been historically more contentious than those around Superman, meaning that from time to time, the idea that kiddie Supes put on tights and palled around with the Legion has had to be taken off the table. Even leaving that out, you have a situation where, a thousand years in the future, the Legion is inspired by Superman’s legacy, then they go back into the past and inspire him to be Superman. It’s certainly not the only paradox in DC continuity, but it’s one that potentially destabilizes not only the whole Legion concept, but Superman’s origin as well.
I wonder if Morrison had plans to actually do storylines with the Rainbow K-Squad and/or Drekken, but he never gets around to it. Nimrod, who is pretty much Kraven the Hunter, gets a storyline in which he manages to fail to be the antagonist, showing up at Clark Kent’s apartment right after Kent has been “killed off”. Xa-Du makes an appearance just long enough to get taken out by Superman’s dog. Not the most intimidating team of second or third stringers, and even in a weakened state, Superman dispatches them fairly easily. This leaves him face to craggy face with Vyndktyv, who he defeats using the ending of “The Last of the Time Lords”, which is to say, the “clap if you believe in fairies gambit”, with an assist from the psychic neo-sapiens whose name I just had to check again and yes, they are called the Wanderers. They go round and round and oh never mind.
And then there’s this:
Morrison has made the case elsewhere that Superman’s greatest power might be ongoingness (see the last panel of Superman Beyond), but this is more tricky and more cynical. It actually tracks really closely with the sense of failure and repetition creeping into Morrison’s Batman run around this time. Combined with the bits of critique on editorial interference, this feels like a statement on the futility of change with corporate superheroes. It’s painful seeing this from someone who, in the past, has projected the idea that superheroes are an almost infinite well-spring of narrative possibility, but it fits with what’s come immediately before and what’s about to happen to the series. This “bold new direction” will be quietly abandoned. Another bold new direction will shortly be trotted out, only to descend into an utter quagmire of editorial and creative headbutting. And a few weeks from when I’m writing this, which is to say only six years after Morrison’s run ends, the whole thing will get relaunched again with a new Man of Steel mini-series, headed by a creative talent recently acquired by DC from their competition over at Marvel. Rather than ongoing, it does feel reiterative, if not recursive.
Two things I want to look at before we move backward in Morrison’s timeline and forward in Superman’s (or possibly sideways for Supes? Depends on your take as to where storylines go once they’ve been retconned). The first is something silly, which is that Morrison, after starting out with a depowered Superman, quickly begins adding to his power set in ways that are kind of a mess.
I mean, it’s no different from what happened to the character over time, with powers added as the plot required. But I feel like there are easier ways to save Lois here than “super surgical prowess.” The increased power levels move the character back toward a place that many think makes him impossible to write in a compelling way, which is to say a Superman that is basically all-powerful. There’s a line of argument that says this is a problem because he becomes unrelatable, but for my money, that’s trash. It becomes a problem because writers expend their best efforts coming up with a credible physical threat and lose sight of the character. There are people out there who are surgeons. Presumably they have friends. So the power to do surgery really well probably does not make a character inherently unrelatable. That said, I am generally annoyed when instant learning and/or eidetic memory is added to a character’s power set. Except for Oracle. It’s cool when it’s Oracle.
(Mark Waid used to get around this by having Wally West unable to retain anything he learned at superspeed. Then for some reason, Geoff Johns made Bart Allen totally able to retain everything he read at superspeed. Once again proving my theory: Geoff Johns fucking hates Mark Waid.)
The last thing, and the thing that shows both the promise of this take on Superman and why it might be less than palatable to a corporate entity building its cinematic universe (ha) around Superman as a moral compass, is that the scenes with Superman and the Justice League are gold.
Outside of a shared and continuous universe, this narrative thread has real potential. There were moments the New 52 seemed to flirt with the idea of Superman as a benevolent dictator. For the most part, they felt like Geoff Johns was cribbing from Alan Moore’s “Twilight of the Superheroes” pitch, with Superman and Wonder Woman coupling off, an intervention in Kandhaq that necessitated the US government’s involvement. None of these ideas were ultimately explored, but the possibility of Morrison doing his own version of The Dark Knight Returns with Superman as the noble outlaw is infinitely more appealing to me than the Superman: Year One Frank Miller will be inflicting on us later this year.
All told, what do we end up with? Well, you know that time The Police got back together and decided to re-record some of their hits? Kind of that. Past the initial idea, there’s little in this run Morrison hasn’t done elsewhere and better. Like this, which calls back to the New Gods material in JLA but never does anything with it:
I’ve been blaming Batman-induced exhaustion, but I wonder if Supergods is to blame. I’m not going to do a full post on it, but I snatched up Morrison’s memoir/treatise when it was published. It felt a little like dancing about architecture, as the saying goes. Sometimes making the ideas behind the thing explicit damages the thing itself.
Anyway, Morrison manages to work in this joke:
This will become relevant as we jump into JLA, but also reminds me of Man Green Man Yellow and that it’s been ages since I read The Filth.
Next time: white Martians! Superman wrestles an angel! Imps from the fifth dimension, but more interesting and fun than these here imps from the fifth dimension! New Gods! Very very old gods! It’s JLA, and it’s pretty fantastic.