Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison Edition

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Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics has been met with both high praise and no small measure of bewilderment. But this is a legendary run – you just need to think five dimensionally.

psych Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison Edition

When Morrison was announced as the writer of Action Comics #1, back in 2011, there was a great deal of excitement within the comics community. The man who had given us one of the greatest Superman books of all time, All-Star Superman, seemed a poetic choice as the architect of this brand new history. Morrison spoke of his love for the original Golden Age character, his socialist roots and desire to do good in the world; Superman as a folk tale, before he became the centrepiece of our modern mythology. The young Kal, standing proud and over-confident in his American jeans and self-branded t-shirt, cape flying behind him as he raced from one adventure to the next.

Action Comics, set five years behind the current day Superman comic, was to show us how Kal went from farmboy to international hero – from brash young man to a wiser one – but also to introduce all the pieces of the puzzle that make him who he is. There was fan outcry at the pre-publication revelations that Clark and Lois would no longer be a couple, and that Clark’s parents would no longer be alive. Comic fans, strangely adverse to change in a constantly recycling continuity, were outraged at the lack of a romantic plot with Lois, perhaps inadvertently recasting her in their minds as in existence only to please the leading man. The lack of parents of course linked this Superman much more strongly to his Golden Age roots, and removed him too from any existing connections to the world he found himself living on. An alien alone.

ac 01 200x300 Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison EditionAs Morrison’s run kicked off, with newspapers still fascinated by the jean-clad Superman and somehow missing the alarm bells that usually come with any mention of “socialism”, it soon became clear that Morrison’s ambitions were far greater than previously stated. This was not to be merely the introduction of the character, but the making of him – joining up pieces of a fragmented puzzle to show the whole, a Superman for a new generation of readers that brought the best of every previous incarnation along for the ride. Perhaps not surprising given the writers similar treatment of Batman, but the sheer scale of this particular endeavour given the extremely tight timescale is rather phenomenal.

Unsurprisingly, many readers were somewhat lost at various points – because when I say fragmented, I am being quite literal. After only four issues it was necessary for artist Rags Morales to need a break to catch up, and another plot was inserted with both the baby Kal’s escape from Krypton, and a future Superman returning to a point in time not long after the previous issue. The change in art style thanks to Andy Kubert for this two issue interlude helped underscore the time difference, and in issue seven we were back on our original track. These interludes became a signature of Morrison’s run, with further adventures spending time on the Superman of Earth 23 – and a meta teaser for Morrison’s upcoming Multiversity – as well as a Halloween trip to the Phantom Zone, and of course the obligatory issue zero with its genuinely heartwarming tale.

But here’s the thing: Morrison planned a short six issue run on the comic. When the first artist change came up, he told me that:

“…for me it hits the long term collections of it to have things done like that but at the same time it brings back a lot of the freshness and improvisation of doing comics again and just responding to that and also sometimes you know they’ll be like we need a two part filler here – okay I’ll just come up with something, and it might not necessarily fit it in to the middle of this but okay, you need a filler.”

And yet, every little aspect of this comic – from the future plot to the Phantom Zone to the appearance of the little teetotal man in the first panel of issue one – suggests a much grander plan. If I was uncharitable I’d chalk this up to a mild case of fibbing, but I know that’s not the case. Of course it’s likely that someone with so much knowledge of the DC universe would subconsciously drop little things in to the narrative that might turn out to be useful later – but for a six issue run? It’s a marvellous little contradiction that is completely in keeping with the unfolding story itself, perhaps demanding that it be told.

ac 02 200x300 Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison EditionSo we have the initial plot, the tale of Clark finding his feet as an investigative journalist and being a superhero in a world without superheroes – for he was the first – while the world reacts with suspicion, just in time for the Collectors to appear on the scene labelling Earth as a doomed planet. Clark is also receiving communications from a secretive person named Icarus, while Lex Luthor attempts to negotiate for his own life with the incoming alien threat. Superman of course saves the day, after pushing himself further than ever before, and the people of Earth are happy to have their own personal saviour. Kal even gets a shiny new suit out of it.

This alone woud be a solid little arc, establishing Kal as an accepted hero, uniting him with Brainiac and his Fortress of Solitude, placing Lex, Lois and Jimmy on our radar of people to look out for, and… well, also hinting at the involvement of the 5th dimension, casually mentioning a missed visit that is later revealed to be the Legion of Superheroes, foreshadowing the appearance (and constant invisible presence) of Krypto, a suggestion that the small man is the devil, and the introduction of Nimrod who we know will shoot Superman in the brain in the future because we’ve seen it in a past issue, as well as the K-Men who don’t actually quite exist yet because they’re from the future also, and the future form of Eric Drekken and the existence of the “First Superman”.

brain Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison Edition

All in all, it’s a good job Morrison stayed on to write more as while those plot bunnies would have given any writer much to play with, it’s clear that by now there was a greater plan in mind. In the first 8 issues, the fragments were already starting to tug apart, and I was reminded of Morrison’s fondness for telling stories that can only be told in comic form. In comics, unlike say films or games, each story is already a four dimensional experience – the reader is in control of the pacing and movement through time, even able to reverse time or skip from one time to another. With comics, the one thing that sets them apart from all other media – for me – is the gap between the panels. What happens in the gutters is completely unique to each and every reader, from the simple movements of a character across time, to the shifts between place, person and stories. When a writer chooses to increase those gaps, not only between sequenced panels but between issues, between pages, and between stories being told simultaneously at different time points, the story becomes even more interactive. A co-creation between creators and readers alike.

ac 05 200x300 Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison EditionThe fragments can be jarring, until you read further and more gaps are filled. This is partly due to the nature of the Big Bad, a 5th dimensional bastard named Vyndktvx, but it also serves to both explain the multitude of artists on the book, and to fill in those five years between issue one and where the character is supposed to end up. Five years over a handful of issues results in snapshots in time, little episodes that are important in the forming of Superman himself rather than an exhaustive chronological list. Superman was hated and feared – but not for long. Superman gave up his Clark Kent identity – but not for long. Superman is exasperated by the perceived inactivity of the other superheroes – but not for long. Superman plays can and mouse with Lex Luthor – but not for long. Superman interacts with Lois and Jimmy – but not for long. And so on. We know who Superman becomes, we have seen that story before in a million different varieties. But for this Superman, what is important? The chance to say goodbye to his father. The return of his faithful hound who never left his side. The children who found shelter in his cape. His landlady who gave everything to help him survive. That Kents never give up and that no matter what, he’ll never really be alone.

ac 09 200x300 Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison EditionThis is not the Superman of All-Star Superman. That Superman was older, matured, and a perfect focus of the Silver Age made real. This Superman is born from the pages of the Golden Age, each issue showing another edge of the same character while introducing the instruments of his incredibly complex life. He’s just a man who will never give up – the message at both the beginning of issue one as he threatens a corrupt businessman, to the end of issue eighteen where he hugs his dog and jokes about his hard won fight for both his life and the entire universe. An alien alone perhaps, but one who is very human. All-Star Superman was a god you could believe in; Action Comics Superman gets shit done.

ac 14 198x300 Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison EditionHaving Superman face off against the devil, a jealous little man from another dimension who poses as dealer, bartender and lawyer, is a neat touch. Vyndktvx is not only attacking Kal at the end of the run but has been attacking him all his life, sometimes in ways that Kal will never know and perhaps never should. He is even the figure responsible for the Super-Doomsday, an “unstoppable killer franchise from a parallel reality” that is perhaps a shade too close to our own little Earth. Commentary on Superman as corporate symbol would appear to be in conflict with Morrison’s previous comments on Superman’s heritage, but not when you look between the lines. Vyndktvx’s pledge to “make coins of” Superman, and his subsequent failure is a clear illustration that Superman the mythic symbol of our age lives beyond corporate lines and greed. His past may be murky, but Superman’s ability to inspire is unstoppable. At least, in the hands of Morrison.

The revelation that the universe was born from Mxyzptlk’s hat, and subsequently that many worlds were destroyed by the multitude, the three dimensional interpretation of the multispear, is an interesting play on gods toying with their creations from above – and of course a parallel of the ability of creators to manipulate their own paper universes. That Kal is a favourite of his 5th dimensional audience for his ability to not be controlled – alongside his father – places him at the centre of the story for reasons beyond him simply being Superman. His angering of a petty god leads to his life being irrevocably damaged, neatly fitting in with the New 52 changes and perhaps hinting at a deeper message.

ac 00 195x300 Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison EditionThis is an ambitious run, all the more so for how everything does in fact tie together in the end. Even the smallest throwaway comments in the early issues are given meaning in later reveals, while the back up strips by Sholly Fisch (and the Action Comics Annual #1) are uncannily in tune with the main comic as well as giving deeper insights into Kal’s humanity. As time and story starts to slide sideways, with Vyndktvx breaking the fourth wall, the creators themselves appearing alongside the hand of god, and angels tumbling from the sky, the time slips start to collide with the whole picture becoming clear. With the arrival of the final issue I spent a few hours reading the entire run first, and the effect is rather like standing back from a tapestry to see all the threads intertwine.

Honestly, I could spend thousands of words picking out all the links and meta-touches here, and still it would do no good – because what you, dear reader, insert in between those gaps and how you read the comic, through the manipulation of time and touch, and what you decide it all comes to… well that’s what makes the comic.

But I defy anyone not to have a little sniffle at the return of Krypto, and for the boys who borrowed Superman’s cape.

spin Review: Action Comics, the Grant Morrison Edition

Ha-la Kal-El, ha-la-la!

Action Comics #1-18
Writer: Grant Morrison

Pencillers: Rags Morales, Brad Walker, Andy Kubert, Gene Ha, Travel Foreman, Cafu
Inkers: Andrew Hennessy, Mark Propst

Colourist: Brad Anderson, Art Lyon
Cover Artist: Rags Morales, Brad Anderson

Letters: Steve Wands, Patrick Brosseau
Editor: Matt Idelson, Will Moss
Publisher: DC

[Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter]

Comments

  1. Laura, thanks for this. Morrison is my favorite writer and I haven’t yet had a chance to reread his entire Action run, but this definitely helps me get some of my thoughts in place. Two things in particular jumped out at me reading this:

    1) You accurately point out that Morrison’s Action is a tapestry. I wonder if this is Grant’s attempt to write something as intricately constructed as Moore’s Watchmen without the misanthropy? Morrison has often said it’s the form he admires about Watchmen, after all…

    2) The idea that Action is a tribute to Golden Age Superman is a really interesting one, especially when paired with All-Star being Morrison embracing the Silver Age. I’m starting to think Grant has worked backwards through the eras of Superman, starting with Modern (when he wrote JLA) – and it looks like most of his superhero work is done for the foreseeable future. Very interesting trajectory for a writer, I think. But this point is just my thinking out loud – sorry it’s so ill-formed. Thanks again for the great piece!

  2. Allen Rubinstein says:

    Superman shot in the brain? Earth 23? Fighting the devil?

    Reading about superheros sometimes sounds like a hilarious acid trip.

  3. repurp says:

    it was crap

  4. LobsterAfternoon says:

    DC did itself no favors on this book. The art alone made me drop it.

  5. Eric – regarding your first point, there’s actually quite an interesting difference between this run on Action Comics and the likes of say Watchmen or All-Star Superman. The latter were of course both limited runs with a finite end, whereas Action was very much written on the go – particularly with those artist changes leading to inserted storylines. The fact that it does read as intricately and cleverly as it does is a real credit to Morrison – although the fact that little snippets of the grander plan were in place from the beginning is equally interesting!

    Either Morrison likes to leave plots dangling or little mysteries in place and later figure out what they mean, or as he holds the whole pattern in his head he is often writing things that subconsciously work out from a later angle into something greater.

    Or, y’know, he’s in the fifth dimension already ;)

  6. Daniel Mendoza says:

    Your review is trying to find or point some virtues where does not exist such. The take of Grant Morrison in Action Comics is just bad. You can find good ideas, but very poorly developed in it.

  7. I would agree with many comments here that the run’s single issues, when taken as such, may seem disjointed and fragmented. Morrison’s clipped dialogue and transcendental plotlines aren’t for everyone.

    But the *quality* of his writing, the obvious reverence he holds for the character and its mythos, is staggering. (Not to mention his reverence for related source material, from L’il Abner to Scott McCloud.) I was pleased to read this review, which codified a lot of what I had been reflecting on in regards to the run.

    Were there some missteps? Sure. I’m still not convinced it was worth throwing Ma and Pa on the pyre, for example. But so much was done so very, very right… Not the least of which was restoring Superman to his pedestal as a thinking fan’s clever, brawny, brawling, dangerous, masculine seeker of justice and a walking piece of Americana iconography.

    This is one of the very few New 52 revivals that completely works, soup to nuts. Well done, Morrison. Well done, Fisch. Well done, Rags.

    And well done, Sneddon!

  8. Ralf Haring says:

    I ducked out after nine issues and barely remember what was in them at this point. It was a disappointment after All-Star Superman.

  9. I think the references to the Golden Age Superman the reviewer notes are spot on. Having recently read some of the Superman Chronicle volumes, I was really surprised to see how many story elements from those early tales work their way into this run. It made me really admire a storyline that left me tepid at times. All in all, reading these issues through with those early adventures in mind (and see the nods to them that Morrison provides) truly made this a remarkable run with the character. Not everyone’s cup of tea — obviously. But much better than I think some are willing to allow.

  10. I enjoyed Morrison’s run on Action Comics. I guess I’m in the minority here. I thought it was different from the norm and I found it really entertaining.

  11. I enjoyed the hell out of it. It certainly reads better all at once, though.

  12. Brian Spence says:

    I think it’s pretty typical Morrison superhero stuff, with a little Invisibles thrown in. Nowhere near his best work. Later issues are just way too dense with weirdness for my taste.

  13. Honestly? It was worth burning down the entire DC universe to create this Superman.

    This run, though uneven, was the most original, important, and spot on superhero story in recent times. This is the Superman that created the genre.

    I always compare Morrison to Neil Gaiman. the crazy thing about reading Gaiman is that he comes up with these amazing, bonkers ideas but then has the chops to back it up in a story.

    Morrison has even more bonkers ideas, but his story is always coming apart at the seams, so I can see why folks were turned off. But it’s too bad, because this is the best superhero writing out there right now.

    Power, originality, and spot on superheroics. I hope everyone was reading it, but it’s more likely they were all reading about Robin getting killed. (Again.)

  14. Morrison failed in a fundamental way on this book. The concept of the New 52 was to reinvigorate these older characters for a new audience, free of baggage and accessible. Morrison’s writing although undoubtly interesting and complex is largely inaccessible for folks who don’t regularly read comics. He is telling a disjointed tapestry full of Superman Easter eggs for the seasoned Superman reader but the elusive new reader is no doubt baffled by these strange and bizarre plot lines. I am glad it’s so exciting and rewarding for the Superman reader but looking at sales it does not look like he has done much to advance the brand. This Morrison Superman arc is really a microcosm of what’s wrong with comics, writers telling stories for a select group of hard core fans that no casual reader would understand or touch.

  15. Robin was killed off BY Grant Morrison!!

  16. Smelly says:

    I love it when experienced comics readers are concerned about new comics readers and how overwhelmed they must be by history/mythology/story. Sorry but this is part of what makes comics so great. The depth of story and mythology around these characters is both staggering and amazing – I dont think it should ever be thought of as actual baggage!

    As a new comic reader, I cut my teeth on Morrison’s RIP run and I loved it. It was challenging and subtle and nuanced. If instead I had only read a Bendis penned Avengers comic – I would most likely not still be a comic reader….

  17. Smelly says:

    Also I liked this review, thanks for your well constructed thoughts on this run!

  18. A few random thoughts:

    Morrisson’s AC needs to be read at least a few times to be fully appreciated. To all the early quitters: Your loss. This story works a lot like Seven Soldiers. Try reading it in a few different orders.

    I love the easter eggs and references.I’m sure I’m overlooking many cause I’m relatively new to the world of Superman but that only means that there’s a lot of stuff to like once I know more!

    Sholly Fisch backup stories are not that great. Well they fitted properly a lot of the times but can’t say it was really inspired writing.

    About the art. The run had some great art: Andy Kubert, Gene Ha are some of the business’ best. Rags Morales did an ok job. It looked kinetic and fitted the young and vibrant nature of a young Superman and also was a good match for a book called Action Comics. I could feel the action. On the downside, Morales art was a bit crude and also not very clear in describing what was happening. Morrisson has had a fair share of mediocre artists to his books. It could be far worse: JLA. Doom Patrol. Invisibles, partly. All these had artists worse or not much better than Morales.

    I think Morrisson’s AC is a solid read and for me it’s almost as good as his Batman. I love both the epic scale and longevity of Batman and the tight and compact of AC. Both are epic in their own way.

  19. Thomas Reale says:

    I just wanted to add my two cents to the chatter here. I was a diehard comic book reader growing up, and then I moved away from the genre in my twenties. With the new 52, I jumped back in. After the first few issues of AC I decided that it would be best to read the whole Morrison run in one go once it finished, as I was forgetting things month to month. Once the final issue did come out, I had a really enjoyable weekend. I loved the art, and I loved this take on Superman. Previously, I found the idea of Superman as a somewhat boring, cliche figure in our contemporary mythos of superhero characters, but I’m totally on board now, and I look forward to other writers, hopefully, taking on some strange, interwoven narrative as Morrison has established. I loved it.

  20. Josh Martin says:

    I read the first 8 issues and thought it was decent. Not bad. But then I got into the following issues and I ran into the problem that someone else mentioned above. The New 52 was meant to make things easy and fun to dig into, especially as a new reader. I’m not new, but I’m a little fresher with DC than I was with Marvel. But either way, I got really lost by issue 11 or so. Not lost as in, “I don’t get it” but lost as in “Why am I here?” There seemed to be very little that was keeping me attracted to a character that I’ve always struggled to be interested in. It’s happened before. I liked John’s Brainiac story, and John’s is very hit or miss for me. Regardless, it was tough to keep me interested, month to month, even when I really wanted to be. Here’s to hoping that a full read-through in one sitting will capture my attention better.

  21. Michael Hayden says:

    I grew up an X-Men fanboy. I zealously collected it and all of the tributary series (New Mutants, Excalibur, X-Factor, X-Force) until Chris Claremont left and Rob Liefeld ruined everything. It was so disappointing that I gave up comics for 20 years.

    DC’s “New 52″ and Marvel’s “Marvel NOW” succeeded in getting me back to comics. I’ve been working my way through many of the new series, as TPBs borrowed from my local library. I’m trying to find some that I like. I’m on Action Comics right now, and this review has helped to address some of my frustration. Only some, though.

    I see what Grant Morrison was trying to do, just as I see how the style was a deliberate throwback/tribute to the Golden Age. I particularly like the contrast between the young, brash, dangerously self-righteous Superman and the more mature Superman that most people know. But ultimately, I have to agree with Jesse’s take above: I, as a new reader, simply don’t enjoy the poor artwork and the disjointed, overly nostalgic storyline. I do not want to continue reading, and in that sense, the run was a failure.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Beat – Action Comics, the Grant Morrison [...]

  2. [...] COMICS #18: Nothing I can say would be put any better than Laura Sneddon at the Beat did.  This ending took the series from “jumbled mindscrewy mess” to absolutely [...]

  3. [...] Taking a young Superman wearing some clothes that approximated the colours of the traditional costume, Morrison then brought Superman all the way through to meet with his present day version, with the Jim Lee costume. Gordon suggested that the story had got quite complicated. “The last five were quite twisty,” said Morrison, “but before that, honestly, I thought they were quite simple stories.” (Our review here!) [...]

  4. […] runners up: Action Comics #1-18 by Grant Morrison, Rags Morales, Brad Anderson; Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples; The […]

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