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“He’ll Do it Because it’s Impossible” — Grant Morrison’s Superman in the New 52!

I’ve been re-reading Grant Morrison’s long run on Batman (click here for part one, and here for part two of my notes on my re-reading project), and I will be back soon with my next installment of commentary on that complex, years-long run.  But last year, while winding down his run on Batman, Grant Morrison also began writing DC Comics’ other biggest hero: Superman.

In late 2011, DC Comics rebooted their entire universe, ending all of their comic-book series and re-launching 52 titles with new #1 issues, in what they called “The New 52.”  (The number 52 has significance in the DC Universe, too complicated to go into here, but suffice it to say that number wasn’t chosen by accident.)  I’ve written about this universe-wide re-launch before (click here and here for some of my comments from last year).  The re-boot of the universe was a little bit uneven.  The Batman and Green Lantern books, though they re-started from new issue number one’s just like all the other DC titles, picked up their storylines seemingly uninterrupted from the pre-“New 52” re-launch.  Other series more dramatically wiped away all of the previous years’ worth of story-lines and continuity.  Most dramatically, this was done with Superman.

When Action Comics re-launched, we were presented with a young, inexperienced version of Superman, one who had just recently arrived in Metropolis.  This Superman was crafted, intentionally, to more closely resemble Superman as he was when he was originally created back in the ’30s.  Rather than the immensely super-powered Superman of recent years, this Superman — while still super-powered — is more limited.  He can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he can’t fly.  He can be beaten and bloodied.  Young Clark Kent doesn’t work for the Daily Planet, he works for a much smaller newspaper called the Star.  The whole Superman story was re-started from the ground floor.

Grant Morrison took over Action Comics with the new issue #1, and proceeded to write the series for nineteen issues (issues #1-18, plus an issue #o that was published between #12 and #13).  Now, Grant Morrison had already written what I would consider to be possibly the greatest Superman story ever written: All Star Superman.  In that twelve-issue run from a decade ago, illustrated by Frank Quitely, Mr. Morrison told a tale set outside of the regular DC Universe continuity, cherry-picking various aspects of Superman’s presentation from the half-century of Superman stories that had been told, in order to present a sort of “ultimate” version of the Superman character.  This version of Superman contained aspects of the modern version of the character, mixed with some of the more far-out aspects of earlier incarnations of the character, mixed with some of Mr. Morrison’s usual brand of weirdness.  The result is magnificent.  In the story, Superman is confronted, in the very first issue, with the reality of his impending death.  What follows is a sort of “twelve challenges of Superman” story as the Man of Steel attempts to set his affairs in order, while being confronted by many of the iconic menaces from his past (Lex Luthor, Bizarro, evil Kryptonians, etc.).  In a crazy way, Mr. Morrison managed to squeeze in pretty much every different iconic style of Superman adventure into the twelve issues.  It’s a haunting, almost beautiful fable of Superman, and the last issue presents the very best version of a “last” Superman story that I have ever read.  It’s spectacular.  (All Star Superman is available in a collected form, and it was even adapted into an animated film — click here for my thoughts on that.)

So I was obviously interested and excited when I heard that Grant Morrison would be returning to Superman, though I wondered whether any story he could tell could possibly top what he’d accomplished with All Star Superman.  Indeed, as it turns out, Mr. Morrison’s run on Action Comics doesn’t hold a candle to All-Star Superman.  It is, though, a most intriguing reinvention of the character of Superman that, to my delight, does turn into a super-complex, classic Grant Morrison-style tale in the second half of the run.

As I wrote above, I think Superman was one of the most dramatically re-thought characters in the “New 52.”  This isn’t a re-telling of the familiar Superman origin.  No, Grant Morrison and illustrator Rags Morales present us, in the early issues of their Action Comics run, with a very new version of the character.  More than he has ever been before, the Superman we meet in those early issues is a social crusader, trying to right wrongs in Metropolis that would benefit the average man on the street.  When we first see him in Action Comics #1, Superman isn’t battling aliens of super-villains — he is tangling with corrupt cops and businessmen.

Even the costume that Mr. Morrison and Mr. Morales give their Superman screams street-level.  Their Superman doesn’t have any fancy duds.  He has a t-shirt with the Superman emblem, above jeans and work-boots.  It isn’t really a super-hero costume at all.  (You can see a few images here.)

I was intrigued, at the time, by this new, youthful version of Superman, and after reading Mr. Morrison’s complete run I must say that I am a little surprised by how well it worked for me.  It definitely feels different, that’s for sure, and I do still have some disbelief that this is really the “official” version of DC’s Superman.  If this was an alternate universe story, like Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s “Earth One” reinvention of Batman that came out last year — click here for my review of that terrific graphic novel — then I think no one would be complaining about the depiction, and that everyone would be praising Mr. Morrison for this new, social-crusader spin on Superman.  It’s the fact that these issues of Action Comics are presenting the new, canonical early-days of Superman that made the changes that Mr. Morrison made to the mythos so eyebrow-raising for many.  (Though, in point of fact, as I commented above, while much of what Mr. Morrison did was a departure from recent versions of Superman, a lot of his changes did actually harken back to what I know of how Superman was originally presented in the ’30s.)

Rags Morales’ artwork on the run is top-notch.  His line-work is reminiscent, to me, or Joe Kubert and Will Eisner, which is extremely high praise.  The connection is also interesting, because both Mr. Kubert and most especially Mr. Eisner, told a lot of street-level stories.  When Mr. Morales brings to life the tenements and slums of Metropolis, I am reminded of so many of Mr. Eisner’s stories set in the poor, working-class areas of New York.

Unfortunately, Mr. Morales and the various inkers assigned to the book clearly had some trouble getting the artwork done on time.  As a result, starting right away in issue #2, other artists would have to jump in to illustrate certain pages/sequences in the book.  I credit the editors for at least structuring things so that, when a new penciller would have to step in, at least they would take on a complete sequence.  So that after several pages of Mr. Morales illustrating a Superman fight, when we shift to, say, a scene of Lois Lane talking to her father, that page would be illustrated by someone else.  That is at least less jarring than switching artists in the middle of a scene or sequence, but I must say the constant shift of artists within issues — not to mention how many different inkers were utilized, often giving Mr. Morales’ artwork a very different look from page to page — was certainly a distraction.  The artwork also lead to what I assume were unexpected re-shufflings of the story, so that, for example, the big Superman-Brainiac fight in issue #4 ends with the note “To be continued in Action Comics #7.”  I assume that the stories published in issues #5 and #6 — great issues, by the way, illustrated by another artist (Andy Kubert) that give insight into the last days on Krypton and Clark Kent’s youth — were originally intended to appear in the series after the conclusion of the Brainiac story (in issue #8), but that they were inserted there because the artwork for the conclusion of the Brainiac story wasn’t ready.  This sort of confusion also gives us moments such as the back-up in issue #10, which contains an editor’s note that the story takes place after the events of issue #11.  The same thing happens in issue #17, in which we get a back-up story that an editor’s note tells us takes place after the events of the next issue, #18.  (This is mildly annoying now, when I can just put the issue down, read the next one, and then come back and read the back-up — but this was super-annoying when these comics were originally published, and I had to wait a month to get the next issue.)

Which brings me to the back-up stories.  Starting in issue #4, each issue of Action Comics contained a short (usually 8-page) back-up feature, written by another writer (Sholly Fisch) and illustrated by other artists.  At first I found this very annoying.  We meet “Steel” in the middle of issue #4, but his fight with John Corben (Metallo — though he is never referred to as such by Mr. Morrison) is interrupted with an editor’s note to “check out this issue’s back-up to see how this fight plays out!”  My interpretation was that Rags Morales couldn’t get the artwork finished, so they decided to have another artist handle the Steel-Metallo fight, and include it as a back-up.  I found this to be really choppy and frustrating as a reader.  I just want to read the story, without all these interruptions!  But as the issues proceeded, I found some of the back-up features to be really excellent, critical pieces of the larger story.  Issue #0’s back-up, illustrated by Cafu, gives some juicy back-story on the villain we’d met in issue #10 & 11 (The Blake Farm Ghost) as well as the creature we saw Superman fighting in issue #5.  The back-up in issue #14, illustrated gorgeously by Chris Sprouse, is a lovely, melancholy little tale (featuring real-life very smart dude Neil deGrasse Tyson!!), and the back-up in issue #15, also illustrated by Chris Sprouse, made me care about the character of Mr. Mxyzptlk more than I ever have before.

While I enjoyed the early issues of Mr. Morrison’s run, in which he was establishing this new, younger, more street-level version of Superman, I really started getting into his story with what I had at first, as I’d mentioned above, felt were “fill-in” issues in the middle of the Brainiac story — issues #5 and #6, illustrated by Andy Kubert.  Issue #5 gives us a tantalizing look at Mr. Morrison’s version of Krypton (jumping off from the spectacular work that artist Gene Ha did in the opening pages of issue #3 — yet another example of a guest artist filling in for a few pages for regular-penciler Mr. Morales), while issue #6 is our first taste of full-on Grant Morrison wonderful weirdness, a story involving the Legion of Super-Heroes (from the 31st century) fighting a group of Anti-Superman baddies inside a miniaturized bullet embedded in Superman’s head.  Oh yeah!

Once the Brainiac story wraps up in issue #8, issue #9 makes clear that the apparent digressions of issues #5 and #6 were nothing of the sort, and that Mr. Morrison was spinning a much more elaborate, bizarre tale than one might have thought.  Action Comics #9 takes place entirely on an alternate world (Earth 23, if you had to know), in which an African-American Superman is also President of the United States.  But when he meets a Lois Lane and a critically-injured Clark Kent from another dimension, being chased by a homicidal, mechanized Superman, things get very complicated very quickly.  At first, issue #9 feels like a one-shot tale, just a fun bit of alternate-universe weirdness, but of course, this being Grant Morrison, the events of that issue wind up coming back into play by the end of the story.

Indeed, in what I am beginning to discover is a trademark of Mr. Morrison’s writing, much of his story-telling is circular rather than linear.  By this I mean two things.  One, Mr. Morrison is fond of presenting us with over-lapping stories, so that as we read certain issues of his work, we are jumping from story-to-story (and often from character-to-character and/or location-to-location) as we move from panel to panel.  It feels like we’re reading multiple overlapping stories all at the same time.  I mentioned this approach in my commentary on Mr. Morrison’s Batman run, specifically Batman #673, the “Joe Chill in Hell” story, and the climactic four issues of Mr. Morrison’s Superman story, in Action Comics #15-18, are all structured in this manner.  It means you really have to pay super-close attention when you’re reading, but it’s a really creative, exhilarating method of story-telling.

But even more than that, I have noticed that Mr. Morrison loves to present the events in his stories in an out-of-order fashion, rather than in straight chronological order.  This is in evidence throughout his run on Action Comics.  In issue #6, as I’d mentioned above, we see Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes fighting bad-guys in a miniaturized bullet inside Superman’s head, but it isn’t until issue #17 that we see the hunter Nimrod shoot that bullet.  In fact, issue #6 is our introduction to a whole host of characters in an “Anti-Superman Army,” but one has to read the next ten-or-so issues to see those characters gradually introduced, as a mysterious imp slowly gathers together a powerful group of baddies to oppose Superman.  In issue #3, a bag-lady whispers to Clark that “There’s a ghost watching over you… there’s a white dog.”  You don’t learn until issue #13 that she’s referring to Krypto.  (Yes, Mr. Morison included Krypto in this newly-revamped version of Superman!)  In issue #1, there’s a throw-away line in which Clark Kent’s landlady mentions that “your friends stopped by earlier… two men and a woman… I thought they were actors.”  I didn’t think anything of that line at the time, but if you pay close attention to issue #17 you’ll learn that those three people were members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, attempting to stop a time-travel attack on Superman.  This is an extremely complex way to structure one’s stories, but I love it.  Mr. Morrison’s work always rewards repeated re-readings.

I have some quibbles.  There are certainly aspects of the story that I don’t feel I quite understood, particularly once things get really crazy with the time-fracturing 5-dimensional attack on Superman in the last five or so issues of the run.  I’m not sure how the Blake’s Farm Ghost could seem to be so evil and uncaring in issues #10 and #11 and then be so happy to help save the day in issue #18.  I’m not quite sure how Clark rescued himself from the Phantom Zone in issue #13, nor how Za-Du was able to escape again, after the events of that issue, to menace Superman as part of the imp’s Anti-Superman Army.  (Nor, for that matter, what exactly happened to Krypto, what with that business of his “ghost” following Clark Kent around for twenty years…).  I’m not sure how exactly Superman defeated the Multitude in issue #14.  (Why would an electrical blast which failed to permanently harm Superman destroy the entire Multitude?)  Who compiled the list of doomed worlds referred to so often in the story?  What happened to Lex Luthor at the end?  (I didn’t quite follow how/why he suddently pops up in his battle-suit at the end of issue #17, only to vanish a few pages into #18, at which point we seem to see him, for one panel, in prison somewhere.  Huh?)  Was Mrs. N. saved by the events at the end of issue #18?  If so, why wasn’t Vyndktyx’s attack on Ma and Pa Kent also reversed?  Just what was the deal with that robo-Superman turning into Doomsday?

So I have some unanswered questions, but I feel that’s also a usual mark of Grant Morrison’s work.  I feel like his stories almost always leave questions, things to be wondered about and debated, things that perhaps will stand a little clearer on my NEXT re-reading of the story.  I tend to get a little frustrated when mysteries in a story aren’t resolved to my satisfaction, and so that’s something I often find myself on the edge of bother about when reading Grant Morrison’s work.  But I also find that I usually forgive those concerns when reading Mr. Morrison’s stories, because the stories themselves are so wonderfully complex and compelling.  Grant Morrison writes smart, sophisticated comic books, and I would rather feel like things maybe got a little TOO complex for my taste than to read yet another dumbed-down super-hero punch-’em-up.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Morrison’s run on Action Comics.  He has spun another ripping Superman yarn, one that I am sure I will enjoy revisiting many times in the future.

OK, now back to re-reading Mr. Morrison’s  long run on Batman!!  I’ll be back soon (hopefully in the next week or so) with my next installment of that re-reading project.

Mr. Morrison’s run on Action Comics is available in three collected-editions: Superman and the Men of Steel, Bulletproof, and At the End of Days.

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