When news of DC’s relaunch first hit the web, and it was announced to much excitement that Grant Morrison would be writing Action Comics, the famous writer talked about how he and artist Rags Morales would create a new language for comics in their Superman saga. Some wondered what this meant: was it anything more substantial than vague marketing hyperbole? Then I read Supergods – Grant Morrison’s history of the superhero genre/partial biography, released shortly after the relaunch was announced – and all of a sudden the answer was clear.
As one can probably imagine from any history of the superhero genre, the first chapter sees Morrison talk at length about Superman. The whole passage (and indeed, the whole book) is fascinating reading, but of particular interest to me was his in-depth case study of the original Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He imagines approaching the book as a reader in 1938 – the initial ambiguity over whether this mysterious Superman was a hero or a villain, the awe at him engaging in amazing feats far beyond the reach of his pulp predecessors – and praises this landmark comic (which now sells for millions of dollars) for inventing a new kind of storytelling, creating the superhero comic. And from there, it clicked: this new Action Comics #1 is the first Action Comics #1 since that first one that launched the superhero genre, and Grant Morrison and Rags Morales are approaching this comic with the goal of recreating the experience readers felt back then for today’s jaded audience. Just reading Morrison’s description of that first Superman comic having non-stop action from panel to panel – bam, bam, bam – something new and exciting constantly happening with every image, I imagined what a modern version of that might be like… and it really had me anticipating this comic.
Action Comics #1 lives up to much of that promise. As was the case with the Siegel and Shuster original, we begin the action in media res, and the pace doesn’t let up until all 29 pages of story have flown by. In a lot of ways, I think Action Comics could have been more deserving of being the one DC comic to lead the charge and launch the New 52 last week than Justice League. Not only is it a better comic, but it more powerfully conveys a sense of newness to this world. We’ve all gotten so used to Superman, and he’s become such a safe, iconic character, that it takes quite a lot of skill to take us back to a place where he was new, even threatening, but Morrison and Morales pull it off. Morrison’s plotting seems to put us forever one step behind him, in the perspective of those observing him as they struggle to keep up. Morales’ art, meanwhile, gives us a Superman often cast into shadow, glowing red eyes glaring out at us, enhancing the alien qualities of the character. As for the much-maligned T-shirt and jeans outfit, in the context of the story, it works. It gives us a Superman that’s almost believable, casting aside the familiar iconography of the superhero genre and making us think what it might actually be like if someone in a world not unlike our own started to manifest these incredible powers.
Based on the preview that was released last week, which featured Superman throwing around corrupt businessmen and taunting negligent cops, some folk on the internet were unhappy with Superman’s characterisation, saying he came across as a “jock” or a “douche”. I didn’t think that someone who shows zero tolerance for injustice and bullies qualifies as a douche, and in the context of the issue as a whole I think my stance has been further vindicated. Though the government, the law and the corrupt fear him, regular people, particularly the downtrodden, love him, and in one touching sequence, protectively encircle him when he’s confronted by the military. This is Superman as man of the people, again taking him right back to his roots. He’s also a Superman who bruises, who bleeds, who can’t yet fly, someone who has not yet reached the peak of his powers. He’s relatable. That carries over to his alter ego as well. Clark Kent is still a journalist, but rather than dressing him up in a suit and giving him a 1930s nerd chic combover, he dresses younger, more casually, looking more like a farmboy in the big city. He lives in a small apartment and struggles to pay his rent, perhaps feeling more in touch with young professionals who might now be the most likely target audience for a comic. We also get a sense that Clark Kent the reporter is more than just the convenient disguise for Superman: the pursuit of truth at the core of journalism is something Clark passionately believes in, and it would appear his superhuman persona is in fact an extension of that, as the nasty individuals he’s investigating are the same people he goes after as Superman.
And of course, even in the early days, you can’t have Superman without Lex Luthor. Superman’s ever-evolving nemesis now finds himself in the role of independent contractor doing freelance work for the military, offering scientific insight into how best to stop and capture this mysterious alien being. Luthor is largely in the shadows in this issue, but we do get glimpses into his personality and motivations. Him constantly referring to Superman as “it” rather than “he” was a nice touch, and one speech talking about how the introduction of foreign creatures in the animal kingdom can result in the eradication of indigenous species was particularly effective. We have seen from All Star Superman that Morrison writes a great Lex Luthor, so I can’t wait to see how his role expands as this story develops.
The artwork of Rags Morales has its odd ropey moment (in particular, Lex Luthor’s age, facial structure and body shape seems to change almost on a panel-to-panel basis), but for the most part, he excels in bringing to dramatic life every amazing feat Morrison’s script calls upon him to portray. As touched upon above, his Superman is great, always the most interesting part of every page he appears on. With the way his body language is laid out, you can feel the effort that goes behind every move for this young and inexperienced Superman, bringing new life and excitement to all the famous gestures we can often take for granted.
As for Morrison, this is the master of the dizzying high-concept at his most open and accessible, telling a story that I think can appeal to everyone, from loyal Super-fans to dubious cynics. I had high expectations for Action Comics #1 from the moment it was announced, expectations that rose even further after reading Supergods, so it’s a testament to the quality of this comic that those expectations were mostly fulfilled. This is the Superman comic we’ve been waiting for.