For years now, the problem that all Superman writers must face is how to show the heroism and humanity in the world’s most powerful and recognizable hero.
Prior to the New 52, Geoff Johns and Richard Donner had an interesting run in Action Comics that somewhat went beyond the pro-wrestling plots that could easily plague Superman. Their stories mostly centered on interpreting the relationships of Superman which included Superman as a father in “Last Son of Krypton,” Superman as a son in “Bizarroworld,” and Superman as a friend and icon in their Legion of Super-Heroes arc. While these were great stories, the heroism of Superman revolved around him punching whatever powerful being was set on destroying him or his family rather than an altruistic motivation for heroism. Furthermore, the humanity displayed from Superman simply comes from the threat that the people he loves most will be taken away from him. So, both the heroism and humanity that Superman exhibits in these stories comes from a superficial, outside place rather than an inner-desire to do good.
After Johns left, Greg Rucka took the reins on the series as the “World of New Krypton” storyline took over all Superman titles for a year. Superman was replaced in Action Comics with Kryptonian super-heroes Nightwing and Flamebird, and the central story revolved around the political conflicts on Krypton. While the story was certainly interesting and a departure from the norm, it moved further and further away from the social liberator that Superman was originally conceived to be. With issue #890, Action Comics changed once again as Paul Cornell took over writing chores and the series starred Lex Luthor. Cornell’s tenure on the title was a fun and insightful look into the mind of Luthor, but it still wasn’t Superman starring in the title that made him famous.
If readers wanted Superman, they had only one choice and that was in the pages of his titular book (and even then, he was replaced by the Daxamite hero Mon-El during “World of New Krypton”) which is interesting when compared to DC’s other most recognizable hero, Batman, who has starred in at least four series for decades now. The predominant argument for Batman’s success compared to Superman has always seemed to be that Batman is more relatable than Superman because of his humanity. But efforts to make Superman more human often end in failure, as seen with J. Michael Straczynski’s (a.k.a. JMS) story “Grounded,” which had the hero walking across America and reconnecting with average people. However, rather than becoming more human, Superman came off as condescending, as he preached to people how they should live their lives. Walking across America made him seem less “super” and more than a little full of himself. Perhaps bored with his own story, JMS left Superman before the end of “Grounded.”
This idea of making Superman more human has plagued the hero for years. From Johns emphasizing interpersonal relationships to “World of New Krypton,” where Superman tries fitting in with other Kryptonians to the JMS story where Superman is preachy – all were attempts at fixing something that wasn’t broken. For years, it seemed as if writers just didn’t get what made Superman work, with the obvious exception being Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. And so, when Grant Morrison was announced as the writer for the New 52 relaunch of Action Comics, all seemed to be right with the world.
However, Morrison’s time on Action Comics didn’t live up to the expectations that many had for the run. In the January 14th 2013 post of his “When Words Collide” column on Comic Book Resources, Grant Morrison expert Tim Callahan criticized the Action Comics relaunch saying, “I just feel like someone who has been given something that’s broken – that looks like it should work, but it doesn’t – and I’m just trying to make some sense out of where the pieces don’t fit, and why the gears aren’t turning the way they should.” Callahan’s frustrations boil down to issues with the diminished role of Lex Luthor, inconsistent art, a story that doesn’t seem fit with the themes and motifs that Morrison is known for within his career, and (perhaps the most damning element to Callahan of all) the Action Comics Superman doesn’t fit with how Morrison has previously written the character. The evidence Callahan presents is certainly well-argued and warranted, but these arguments seem to be less of a critical assessment of the work itself and more of a reaction to the series as a comparison to Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman; a point which Callahan hammers home at the conclusion of his article when he states, “Superman isn’t a guy who wears t-shirts and jeans and workboots and threatens corrupt businessmen. He’s not a hesitant young man who wears space armor and waits for things to happen to him. He’s a demi-god who saves planets and retreats into the heart of the sun to be reborn for the future. That’s the Superman Morrison is more comfortable with. That’s the one worth reading about.”
Make no mistake, Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman is unquestionably one of the most perfect series ever made. Issues were largely self-contained and featured a strong mythological atmosphere about them. Superman was a god, but he was also beautifully human and relatable. However, one has to remember that this was a deliberately constructed series that took from November 2005 to October 2008 to complete twelve issues. It could never be a monthly title given the attention to detail within the writing and the complex nature of the artwork.
Speaking of the art, much of All-Star Superman’s success can be attributed to Frank Quitely’s gorgeous artwork. Every panel was pure perfection, with kinetic action and lovely emotion during the quieter moments. And so, when DC announced the New 52, along with Grant Morrison and Rags Morales on Action Comics, readers had high expectations for Morrison’s writing and made unfair comparisons between Morales and Quitely because the two have very different artistic sensibilities. Morales doesn’t have the attention to detail that Quitely has, but his art presents more human-like characters. In short, Quitely draws gods and Morales draws people. So, while Morales might not be as objectively talented as Quitely, his artwork is still great, but it serves a different function, which is perfect for Morrison’s purposes on Action Comics. But Morales’s artwork wasn’t the only controversy surrounding the changes made to Superman.
Before the first issue was released, it was announced that Ma and Pa Kent wouldn’t be alive when Superman became active in Metropolis. It was also announced that Lois Lane and Superman would no longer be married (which isn’t really a problem for Morrison’s Action Comics, given that it takes place at the beginning of Superman’s career). Both of these revelations set forth a firestorm of complaints (as any announcement ever does), with the most memorable complaint being from a poster named Nature Boy on DC Women Kicking Ass’s tumblr who stated, “to eliminate Ma and Pa Kent, to eliminate Clark Kent in favor of ‘Oh poor Kal-El the angry lonely alien,’ and furthermore to eliminate the pairing to trump all other pairings, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, is sacrilegious” which is an odd argument to make given how Superman began in 1938.
Since his creation in 1938, Superman has understandably evolved and changed with the times. And so, there are a number of differences between the original incarnation of Superman and what we have come to know about him today. In his original incarnation, the Kents weren’t even mentioned because Clark grew up in an orphanage. Furthermore, Superman couldn’t fly, and he wasn’t quite as invulnerable as we consider him today. When we compare the original Superman from Action Comics #1 to the god-like character in All-Star Superman, they are almost unrecognizable characters in terms of powers. Therefore, it would be unfair to compare Morrison’s interpretation of Superman in his Action Comics to the Superman in All-Star Superman, because they are serving two different functions. If All-Star Superman’s purpose was to show what a modern interpretation of a Silver-Age Superman would be like, then Action Comics is meant to show what a modern interpretation of what a Golden-Age Superman would be like. If All-Star Superman is mythology, then Action Comics is a folk tale.
Set five years ago in the New 52’s past, Morrison’s goal is to show a younger, brasher Superman. However, unlike other “Year One” type stories that feature an unconfident hero learning the ropes, Morrison presents Superman as a hero whose powers and abilities have made him almost overconfident. The central premise is “What would a powerful, liberal 20-something do to clean up the world?” which is almost exactly what the original Action Comics was about in 1938.
Superman may be the prototype for all super-heroes, but over the years, heroism in comic books has changed from characters becoming proactive forces of change to reactive defenders of the status quo. In the 1938 Action Comics #1, Superman was always on the move and stopping corrupt politicians and abusive husbands. As the years have passed, he has become the hero who seems to exist to battle whatever threat has come to destroy him rather than confronting existing evils in the world and changing it for the better. Because Superman is the ultimate hero, it can be difficult to give him a proper threat to challenge him and also go beyond the common villain motif of being “bent on world domination.” Perhaps the biggest perpetrator of this type of story comes in the form of Superman: The Animated Series. More often than not, episodes revolve around the “villain-of-the-week” showing up to kill Superman because . . . well . . . he’s Superman and he should be killed. The result deludes the heroism of Superman. Instead of changing the world because it’s the right thing to do, stories become like professional wrestling where two combatants battle one another just to prove superiority.
But Morrison’s run returns to the idea of the hero for social justice (at least at the start) and moves away from the sort of professional wrestling style of writing that had plagued the character for years. And even though real-world social justice isn’t really what Morrison does best, he is more than successful in making Superman into the more relatable, more human hero that other writers had attempted to write in the past and does so without having to rely upon a supporting cast to create vulnerability the way Johns and Donner did during their run. So, while Action Comics never quite rises to the standard of perfection set forth by All-Star Superman, it is certainly an excellent series that rebuilds Superman for a new generation and succeeds in establishing new depths of the hero’s mythology.