Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Grant Morrison’s super-symphony

Action Comics #1

Action Comics vol. 2 #1

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.

Story continues below

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.



You know, I think I’m the only one who could try and summarize Morrison’s plot of Final Crisis into a simple who/what/where/why/how thing:
Who are the big bads? The reborn Darkseid and Mandrakk the Dark Monitor
What is happening? Mandrakk, through said reborn Darkseid, is feasting on the very fabric of reality, and as a result, existence is threatened.
Where is it happening? In the multiverse and the HQ of the Monitors.
Why is it happening? Mandrakk is a vampire who needs to feed on life to survive.
How? Darkseid is his silly straw for drinking the Multiverse dry.

DC Comics best writer. period.

@Acer, Great summary!!! Never saw Final Crisis so clearly. Props to you!

Morrison brought Gregory Reed back? Or at least established him in Nu52 canon? I loved him! Remember the back-up story where he lost his contacts so he dug out an old pair of glasses he hadn’t worn in years, and when he put them on, looked in the mirror and found Clark Kent looking back at him he realized that not only had he discovered Supes’ secret identity, but he couldn’t go to an important job interview (at Galaxy Broadcasting, no less!) without giving the secret away to everyone? I forget how they got out of that one, but I’m pretty sure it involved an ape costume or super-ventriloquism or both.

@Tick Tockin
ANYTHING to make sense of Morrison’s gobbledeegook. I think I understand JIM Morrison more clearly.

I really enjoyed Morrison’s take on Clark Kent. A crusader for social injustice more so then even Superman was.

DC Comics best highly hyped overrated writer. Period.

While Geof Johns is the Michael Bay of comic books.

I really feel like most of the time I’m the only one that does not care for his writing. Yes he adds a lot to his stories and he does long stories which I do like (as most writers hit it and quite it now a days), they just don’t make sense. I get he loves the 60’s/70’s Superman/Batman I just don’t. This is all just my opinion though and I know most will disagree and I’m fine with that.

What?! A Superman story for all time? No. You’ve transported your own meaning on to what is a random convoluted story. Unfortunately, Morrison fans seem to think that complex equals intelligent. I won’t deny that he’s, on occasion, written some good stuff, but there’s no way Action Comics is even close to that. The difference between Grant and I, is that I don’t get paid to write shit while tripping balls.

I really like Morrisons stuff, but his Action did not deliver what was needed for a reboot of the Greatest DC hero. It was again, Morrison throwing out his “Superman is more than a man, he is an Idea…” philosophy. Instead of giving us a year of Young Superman being introduced and getting us excited with the new concepts of meeting new villians, he jumps all over the place, plopping in Villians that are already established with all colors of Kryptonite. The joy of discovery was taken away. We didn’t learn along the way, we had to play catch up and hope things made sense. DC really screwed their roll out of the new 52. No organized plan.

He was starting to lose me around issue 15, but 18 brought it all together in a nice way. I’m a Morrison fan, but I’ll be the first person to say that we’re owed a redo on the last issue of Final Crisis. I get the “I want the reader to create the story” bit. But I need more story to do that with. Prior to issue 7, it had a great build up, but the stuff we wanted to see just got mentioned when heroes were telling stories to children as they put them into ice trays(you read it right). And then as soon as the story was over it was never mentioned again. So really what was the point?

And his Action Comics run was great, but had little or nothing to do with the new DCU. It didn’t even tie into the other Superman title in the slightest. The result was a disjointed mess that still hasn’t been fixed. How many creative teams have there been on Superman now? And Action seems to be playing catch up now that Morrison’s left. I kind of wish he’d written the first 6 issues and left it to someone else after that. Cause that intro was perfect (or could have been without the very odd two issue interlude between 5 and 7).

Comic-Reader Lad

March 23, 2013 at 12:54 pm

So glad Morrison is gone from mainstream comics for the most part. Hope Multiuniversity is ignorable, and Wonder Woman takes place in its own All-Star world.

Was excited for a more centered, classic Superman from Diggle/Daniel, but now that’s over before it began.

Once again, editor Matt Idelson keeps ruining Superman. Having Morrison relaunch Superman was a mistake from word one. I get that Morrison is a marquee name, but his mainstream superhero stories rarely deliver, and no subsequent writer really knows how to follow up on them. As a result, the accompanying “Superman” title was in flux and led to several creative team changes in the first year.

Superman’s sales are down again, but for now there’s the hope that Snyder and Lee can deliver. At least we know that Idelson’s heavy-handed editorial style can’t run roughshod over those two creators, and they’ll be able to tell pretty much whatever story they want.

“DC Comics best highly hyped overrated writer. Period.”

The answer to that is……Scott Snyder

Morrison turned Superman into a jerk. Just like with Batman, Snyder’s going to have to clean up his mess.

After a few issues, I could hardly stand this run any longer. Tommo hit the nail on the head:

“Unfortunately, Morrison fans seem to think that complex equals intelligent.”

If something that is supposed to be a reboot requires a massive understanding of Superman’s 70+ year history, then it’s a retelling that failed on every level. I was hopeful after the first few issues, but lost interest almost completely after issue 10. It was incomprehensible and I can only pray that Snyder sets things right. I’ve really been looking forward to get in to a Superman title for the long haul, and have yet to find it.

I think Morrison pulled off his STORY pretty well (unlike Final Crisis), but as a REBOOT it doesn’t fit the bill. I actually enjoyed the conclusion of this Morrison story arc, also unlike Final Crisis and Return of Bruce Wayne. It was convoluted but not impossibly random. I’m hoping this shows he has learned from his past projects and will carry this into the future.

how will snyder clean up this “mess”? tell a bunch of multiparters with anticlimactic endings? maybe base lex luthor off of some 90s serial killer movie trope? outside of “the black mirror” i’d say the new emperor has no clothes….

Snyder outdid Morrison’s Batman by miles. I’ll take something with a few problems like “Court of Owls” over garbage like “Batman RIP” or “Final Crisis” which requires you to read everything ever written just to make sense of the surface events. Snyder returned Batman to being about Batman and his rogues, not some cosmic mythology.

Morrison made Superman into a complete asshole, can we really trust him with it? Leave it up to somebody like Synder who doesn’t have to reference something that happened in panel 4 of Batman vol 1 45 or an umbrella stand the Penguin used in an obscure story from 1976 and make it the key to BatGod saving the universe.

Singing a song to restore the universe my ass. If it weren’t for All-Star Superman, I wouldn’t think Morrison understands Superman at all. I’ll leave it to Snyder who knows how to tell a story without trying to be esoteric just for the hell of it.

looking at the interview Diggle’s work doesn’t look that interesting to me. I’m in the Superman’s blood should be liquid sunlight camp, and you shouldn’t have to work in Lois Lane.

so did you actually read “maximum joker”? what was the point of the whole exercise? i’ve never seen something hyped so ridiculously and not deliver whatsoever. don’t even get me started on rotworld…

Chris Brennaman

March 24, 2013 at 7:25 am

Its seems to me a lot (not all, mind you) online Morrison hate comes down to readers being insulted that they’re confronted with a story the either have to think about or one that doesn’t read like a standard, seen-it-before take on their favorite hero.

Yes, that’s it. We don’t like to “Think” about a story. Wish we were all as smart as you. EGADS!

No, the problem is comics about caped men punching other caped men doesn’t have to be meta to be layered and satisfying and I’m not interested in some douchebag’s convoluted mythology when it’s hard enough to keep up with the regular stuff in comics as it is.

I guess I’m in the minority here. I find Morrison’s writing utterly incomprehensible. I wish he would simply write a good story instead of trying to redefine the very nature of story telling. I thought the idea was that the story was to be about Superman, and not Morrison’s desire to redefine “meta textual” stories. I can’t say I was entertained by his run. I would love if someone explained to me what I’m not getting.

The Morrison Action Comics run was a jumbled, incomprehensible mess of a story. I don’t see how anyone can honestly say that this is how a comic book should be written. The early issues make a point of establishing Clark Kent. A few issues later he disappears from the book. Then he is killed off. For what purpose? Shouldn’t these first 18 issues of Action Comics establish who this “New 52″ Clark Kent is and what is relationship with Lois and Jimmy Olsen is?

Other issues in the series jump forward in time with no explanation. We start out learning about the early Superman and then suddenly we are reading a random adventure with the current Superman. And what purpose does it serve to waste pages on the Legion of Superheroes when we aren’t even learning anything about how the early Superman transformed into the older Superman. And did I mention that the Clark Kent character is all but ignored as the issues in this series continue.

As the run continues we get a random issue about an alternate African American Superman. We know next to nothing about the “New 52″ Superman (did he fight the Doomsday we remember from the old continuity, for example) but instead of giving us stories about this new and potentially exciting Superman, we are reading about an alternate continuity Superman and being introduced to a new Lois Lane who isn’t the same character that we were introduced to when the New 52 continuity began. Again, what is the purpose of all this?

Finally, milestones that could be expanded into really memorable scenes are just thrown away. Superman gets his new outfit with virtually no explanation and no fanfare. He just puts it on and attaches his cape. There is no significance whatsoever. The entire Krypton destruction is similarly wasted as it is rushed out in a single issue. In this version, Jor-El didn’t even pick Earth to send his son. He was just launching him out anywhere and allowing the computer to pick the destination. The Fortress of Solitude shows up in this run, but again, there’s no time spent on the need for the home, or how Superman designed it. It’s just there one day.

I was glad to see this mess of a story end. Some of the problems could have been solved by using a narrator to recap the previous issue’s storyline. But most of the problem is the result of bad, sloppy writing. The constantly changing art (sometimes more than one artist IN THE SAME ISSUE) didn’t help either.

To see how “New 52″ can be done properly, see Scott Snyder’s run in “Batman”.

Morrison’s run was utterly awful. Look, I loved All-Star Superman; there, his meta textual analysis of Superman was, dare I say it, beautiful. Unfortunately,when it came to Action Comics, he either didn’t get or didn’t care that this was supposed to be a reintroduction of Superman. Instead of going for a straightforward Action Comics, Morrison decided to go with this fetid soup that requires a primer–thank Spock someone can put pen to paper to try to make sense of this crap! Each issue, I heard myself progressively going from anticipation to mild confusion to outright frustration. By issue 15 or 16, I thought, “Jesus, isn’t this so-called storyline OVER?” Issue 18 didn’t give me anything in the neighborhood of a fist-pumping YEAH! moment; rather, I felt as though I’d slogged through a swamp.

Don’t worry, on this comment thread, not liking Grant Morrison is pretty much the norm.

While I don’t think the run goes to the heights this article makes it out to be, I think it all wrapped up pretty nicely. Wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but it’ll pretty much be the end of my Superman experience until Snyder launches his book.

I thought this was a very interesting way to view Action Comics 18. I read this before reading the issue unfortunately so I can’t say what I would’ve thought beforehand, but it didn’t seem like a terribly difficult comic book to follow. Full of big ideas and probably the best take on Mxy yet, I enjoyed it and this run on Superman in general.

Admittedly I hope there’s more “connective tissue” to Multiversity and Wonder Woman: Earth One, but as it stands I think this was a perfectly fine comic book, up to Morrison’s usual standards.

morrison is terrible

March 25, 2013 at 7:04 pm

convoluted nonsense with ZERO story structure

I appreciate the analysis and appreciate what Morrison tried to do. Ultimately I think his story fell flat and he didn’t do any service to a new relaunch. Plus, the art was uneven throughout. I generally love Morrison’s work, but this series was a chore to get through…not from a comprehension point (well, sometimes it was) but from a poor enjoyment standpoint.

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