"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
With his 19-issue Action Comics saga, Grant Morrison has almost literally written a Superman story for all time. “For every time” might be more accurate, because it plays with chronology like a kid jumbling up a Rubik’s Cube. Morrison begins with tales of Superman’s earliest days, then jumps into the New 52’s present for a couple of issues (bringing in the 31st century’s Legion of Super-Heroes) before wrapping up the first arc and proceeding on to “now.” The result is a macro-level adventure that draws liberally from every era of Superman, blends those disparate elements into a fine pureé, and repositions the mix as a self-reflective epic. This is the Superman legend as alpha and omega, beginning and end, reinvention and restoration, and it’s a heck of a thing.
It’s also a pretty daunting read. I spent about three hours Tuesday night with issues 1 through 17 (and Issue 0, of course) and still didn’t catch every nuance and reference. However, the overall impression is a familiar one: Superman’s real power comes more from the idea of “Superman” than from the effects of yellow-sun rays. On its own this is rather hokey, or at least dismissable as such, and a reader casually flipping through Action Vol. 2 #18 might wonder what all the fuss was about. To be fair, a more dedicated reader might wonder that as well; but I think it’s a lot less likely.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for Action Comics #18 and its predecessors:
When Morrison (aided by writer Sholly Fisch and artists including Rags Morales, who gets a very clever cameo in Issue 18, Brent Anderson, Brad Walker and Chris Sprouse) started this whole thing in September 2011, it was with a very bare-bones Man of Steel in a homemade costume with scaled-back powers. Action Comics also stood somewhat alone, sharing the stands with the more “fully developed” hero of Superman, Justice League and the rest of the line. While this allowed Morrison and company to reframe Superman’s role in the world, the practicalities of a shared universe also required Early Supes to become, at some point, the guy in the Kryptonian armor. This was accomplished rather poetically when Superman, whose powers had been increasing steadily, somehow found it within himself to turn his super-leaps into a low-orbit ascent. It wore the soles off his shoes and reduced his clothes to tatters, but it got him onto Brainiac’s starship. It also showed that Superman can do whatever it takes at the dramatically appropriate moment, which is a not-unreasonable way to view the character.
As a giant, bruising big-boss villain, Morrison uses the straw man Super-Doomsday, first seen in Issue 9 fighting Earth-23’s nearly flawless President Superman. There, Super-Doomsday personified every market-tested, attention-grabbing, superficial aspect of superheroes — a monster made by committee and apparently fueled by cynicism — and was defeated by a Superman who was pretty much his opposite number. Now we know that Vyndktvx controls Super-Doomsday, but during the final battle the little trickster also appeals to Metropolis’ citizens to choose his offer of immortality over whatever allegiance they might feel to Superman. Since they hadn’t always embraced the Last Son of Krypton unconditionally, there’s some nominal dramatic tension. Action #18 also revisits Issue 9’s attempts at creator-rights relevance, with Vyndktvx calling Superman a symbol of exploitation. Morrison is clearly going for the irony (perhaps inviting readers to remember the Siegel/Shuster “creation scene” from All Star Superman), but his own public statements on DC’s treatment of Superman’s creators may muddy the message. Accordingly, Super-Doomsday loses a little in the gravitas department. He’s scary, sure; but he’s a gimmick — which, admittedly, was the point of the original Doomsday 20-odd years ago …
More pertinent is Morrison’s treatment of Vyndktvx as the Devil. Like late-period Professor Zoom, he’s responsible for “breaking” Superman’s life, including killing the Kents, and all — if I’ve got this right — out of some pseudo-Oedipal hatred of his father, Mxyzptlk. Naturally, this recalls “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” but it’s more homage than ripoff. Mxyzptlk isn’t Alan Moore’s bored immortal, choosing evil after so many years of frivolity. Instead, he’s a more “pure” antagonist, whose history with Superman is only an allusion in the context of this story, but which history forms the basis for both his loyalty and his son’s ire. That’s maybe not the best way to dramatize one of the story’s main conflicts, but in the spirit of the story itself pulling from other “unseen” parts of Superman mythology it works more often than not. Again, I’m still a little fuzzy on Vyndktvx’s details.
Regardless, making Vyndktvx eternal and implacable only heightens the stakes for Superman, making his climactic declaration (“For every you — there’s someone like me to fight back”) especially effective. Superman doesn’t beat the Devil with strength or heat vision, but by drawing on the collective will of humanity; which, not surprisingly, is reminded it likes him pretty well. This too is another Morrison trope, seen at the end of both his first and final JLA arcs (ordinary humans repel the White Martians with millions of cigarette lighters; ordinary humans repel Mageddon with temporary super-powers), but that just means it’s not out of place here. Besides, it’s been more than a dozen years since Morrison left JLA.
Indeed, the theme of “Superman as inspiration” is all over Issue 18. Besides the three original Legionnaires, Captain Comet brings the rest of the Wanderers (based on a Legion spinoff group which was C-list even in the Legion books) and recruits a couple of new members. In nice bits of symmetry, they’re engaged against the Superman Revenge Squad while the Legionnaires (Superman’s “descendants”) protect Mxyzptlk’s son Ferlin. The backup story (written by Fisch, penciled by Sprouse, inked by Karl Story) is a sweet epilogue about a little boy’s brush with the legend. It’s inspiration in miniature, ornamented with various familiar Super-elements.
The whole thing — meaning Morrison’s entire Action run — ends up being deliberately metatextual. This was a different way to do Superman, thanks both to the New 52 reboot and to Vyndktvx’s meddling. It needs to accommodate not only the other regular Superman books, but also the notion that Superman has had five-plus years’ worth of New 52 adventures. It also finds time to incorporate various minutiae, like Red Kryptonite transformations, Superman-Red and Superman-Blue, and (in earlier issues) the Electro-Supes suit, the South American Fortress of Solitude, and Super-actor Gregory Reed. Nineteen issues means lots of room for minutiae, but nostalgia wasn’t the main point of Morrison’s run. Luthor’s appearance at the end of Issue 17 only lasts a few pages into #18, and Brainiac and Metallo are still “five years” in the past. This final arc was about pulling back to see the bigger picture, and in fact the singular resolution, of Superman’s never-ending battle. While Vyndktvx may return, as of Issue 18 he has lost for all time.
(Speaking of which, I’ll be honest: I thought part of Action #18 would involve yet another “soft reboot” of New 52 Superman’s history. After all, the backup story in Action #17 involved a time-tossed Superman showing up in Smallville and explaining that the timeline was resetting itself. Maybe that just means a loophole has opened for some enterprising Superman writer down the road, but for now, nothing seems to have changed. Superman gets one wish as a result of beating Vyndktvx, and he uses it to bring back a boy the evil imp killed on Mars.)
Ultimately, I have to admire the planning and care which went into these 19 issues. Taken together, they’re a fine Superman story. They certainly look very nice, thanks to the fine work of the stylistically-complementary artistic teams. However, as the basis for establishing the character of the New 52 Superman, I don’t know how effective they are, because Morrison seems to rely on reader preconceptions. Put another way, it’s not quite clear how much Superman grows as a person over the course of these 19 issues — or, for that matter, if he’s even supposed to grow and change. The Superman of Issue 1 is maybe a little more brash than the one in Issue 18, with any differences apparently ascribed to the five-year time jump. If the charm of this story is in its thematic simplicity (Superman vs. The Devil), that’s also one of its potential weaknesses. Morrison’s run may stand alone, but that may also mean it doesn’t exert as much influence on his successors.
In that respect, I’m pretty disappointed that Andy Diggle won’t be Action’s new regular writer after all. I enjoyed reading about his plans for the book, and I’m always hopeful that Superman will bring out the best in his creative personnel. Tony Daniel worked with Grant Morrison on “Batman R.I.P.,” and (after a few issues from Judd Winick and Mark Bagley) took over Batman as writer/artist when Morrison and Frank Quitely launched Batman and Robin. Maybe that means Daniel (and/or whoever might follow him long-term — what about Fisch?) will be inspired sufficiently by Morrison’s nineteen issues to attempt something comparably ambitious.
In Final Crisis, Morrison had Superman sing the universe back into being. Now his Action run turns out to be a symphony, featuring new arrangements for some very familiar themes. What will the next conductor(s) do? If the legacy of Morrison’s “inspirational Superman” story is merely to inspire them to greater works, that’d be about right.