Last Wednesday marked the end of Grant Morrison’s 18-issue run on Action Comics, the series that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first introduced Superman to the world back in 1938. Though it wasn’t the perfect comic book, it was definitely the most entertaining Superman book of DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch. Initially Morrison sought to return Superman to his roots as a champion for the oppressed. But like a child suffering from Tourette syndrome trying to hold in his or her outbursts, Morrison couldn’t restrain his flair for wackiness for long, ultimately pitting the Man of Steel against an evil imp from the 5th Dimension.
While the Superman title covered the modern-day adventures of The New 52, Action Comics took us five years into the past when the hero made his Metropolis debut. The opening of Action Comics #1 depicted a “Bruce Springsteen Superman” in a t-shirt, jeans and work boots threatening a corrupt businessman, echoing the no-nonsense social champion of Siegel and Shuster. The challenges that Superman initially faced in the Action Comics weren’t super-powered aliens or elaborate death traps, but man-made obstacles: wrecking balls, high-speed bullet trains and military weaponry. Many Superman stories leave Clark Kent on the sidelines, but Morrison wisely highlighted that Clark is just as valuable if not more so than Superman himself. This Clark was a self-made man, who picked himself up from being orphaned later in life and forged a path as an unwavering journalist. The first year or so of Action Comics also saw interesting reinventions of Superman villains like Lex Luthor and Brainiac, while others could’ve used a little more depth, including Metallo and the Kryptonite Men.
After part of Metropolis was shrunken and bottled by Brainiac, Morrison made the curious choice of taking a two issue break to once again revisit Superman’s origin and Krypton’s destruction, this time through the eyes of Superman’s sentient escape pod. Issues #5 and #6 amped the sci-fi level up to 11 with a heady Superman story full of time travel and villains we hadn’t been introduced to yet. This was the first sign that Superman wasn’t going to keep his boots on forever. Similar to those issues, there were a few standalone issues throughout Action Comics that really allowed Morrison’s genius to shine through. Issue #9 told the story of Calvin Ellis, the African-American Superman who also happened to be the President of the United States. The story was a frightening and poignant allegory to the fates of Siegel and Shuster as well as the corporate machine. Issue #13 gave us the return of Krypto the superdog as well as an intriguing new villain from Krypton. Xa-Du was the living embodiment of the Phantom Zone, which was no longer simply a prison in negative space, but one that forced its prisoners to wander life unseen and unheard, as true phantoms.
It’s notions like Xa-Du and the corrupted corporate Superman of a parallel earth that make Action Comics strong. Likewise was the series endgame with “the little man” Vyndktvx from the 5th Dimension. While the execution of this very complicated plot may not have come across seamlessly, the concept was pretty impressive. We had Superman acting as the “Super Scientist” that he was in the Silver Age, trying to think outside of the dimensional box in order to defeat an all-knowing enemy. Though the explorations of these intellectual feats were truncated, it was refreshing to see Superman use his brain in tangent with his brawn. The way that Morrison plays with our 3rd Dimension vs the evil imp’s 5th Dimension is a mind-bending delight, especially when it comes off as throw-away dialogue like “I taught your mother how to use her blood as an escape pod to the 2nd Dimension, don’t you get it?” It’s a line that simultaneously makes no sense and all the sense in the world.
Let’s pause for a minute and look over the artwork of Action Comics. For the majority of the run Rags Morales took top billing as artist for our young, brash Man of Steel. Morales’ has a knack for sketching characters whose souls are personified in their expressive faces, as evidenced in 2004’s Identity Crisis. The “Springsteen Superman” introduced to us in issue #1 was a man of the people, standing up to the establishment. Morales drew Superman as a young man who visibly enjoyed showing off and got mad at injustices without ever losing the essential qualities that make him Superman. Dressed in his t-shirt and jeans, Superman was a fit athlete, but as Clark Kent he hid behind his large glasses, scruffy hair and oversized sweatshirts. Morales wavered a bit with the dawn of Superman’s new armor however. In early renditions, Superman looked like a little kid putting on his father’s clothes; though Morales eventually got a hang of the odd Kryptonian suit. With The New 52’s strict monthly deadlines, some of the heavy lifting was shouldered by Morales’ fellow artists like Brent Anderson, Brad Walker and Gene Ha. In addition Gene Ha, Ben Oliver, Travel Foreman and fan favorite Andy Kubert did the art for the standalone issues. Depending on who was doing the colors, Morales’ looser style didn’t exactly fit with the supporting pencils of Walker and Anderson at first. Over the course of the series however, Walker complemented Morales quite well, which was solidified in the finale of Action Comics #18.
As I mentioned earlier, Action Comics introduced plenty of fascinating ideas and characters, but didn’t necessarily provide the space to flesh them out. The “Anti-Superman Squad” comprised of colorful characters who hated Earth’s champion, but their motivations or place in the bigger picture were kind of murky. The latter half of Morrison’s run introduced the character of Adam Blake, The New 52 reboot of Captain Comet. While the character was mildly interesting, his inclusion was confusing and he left as quickly as he arrived, only to reappear at the end. With a villain like Vyndktvx who existed outside of time and space, the continuity of the last five issues was a little fuzzy, with events taking place at different points in the past, present and future. That being said, it was a more coherent read in one sitting opposed to the monthly basis in which it was released.
Grant Morrison’s Action Comics is not as strong as All-Star Superman, but it doesn’t really need to be. Instead Action Comics #1-18 was a grand experiment with the first superhero, who can fall prey to boredom under less talented writers. The social champion and psychedelic Superman may disappear now that Grant Morrison is gone, but hopefully his work on the character will inspire new comic book creators to dare to be different. Now I will leave you just like any good imp of the 5th Dimension with my own words: “!yenaLeD leahciM”