On page 1, panel 1, the first dialogue in the comic goes to real estate developer Glen Glenmorgan says, “and it’s a done deal! How about a drink to celebrate this turning point?” to a small, bald man in glasses. We don’t know exactly the nature of the deal itself, but from a metaphysical standpoint, it is as if Glenmorgan is speaking for Morrison himself. Glenmorgan is not only speaking about some deal that he has made, but quite literally about the comic the reader is holding in his or her hand. “Action Comics has relaunched with a new #1. Now, let’s celebrate the new era” Morrison seems to be saying.
The short man will appear sparingly throughout the run at the start and will eventually be the main antagonist of the series. And so, while he is an exceptionally important character, I will save my analysis of the character until near the end when the details of the villain are clearer. For now, he is simply the Dealmaker.
Superman arrives on the scene in a red blur and snarls to Glenmorgan, “Rats. Rats with money. And rats with guns. I’m your worst nightmare.” The police arrive just in time to see Superman holding Glenmorgan over the edge of the building. Glenmorgan refuses to admit to any wrong-doings and so Superman drops him from the building and then promptly catches him on the ground just before impact. A shaken Glenmorgan then breaks down and begins confessing to all of his crimes, “I’m guilty . . . I used illegal cheap labor . . . no safety standards . . . I bribed city officials . . . I lied . . . I lied . . . to everyone.”
There are a number of departures in this opening sequence. First, the subject matter itself is more grounded than a normal Superman story. There are no mega-powerful universe conquerors demanding to battle. Glen Glenmorgan isn’t a brilliant scientist or a supervillain in any way. He is a sleazy landlord and business tycoon which hasn’t been the standard Superman villain for decades now.
Next, Superman’s methodology in this opening sequence is more than a little of a departure for the hero. For the first seven pages of the issue, every time his face is shown, Superman’s eyes are fiercely glowing red. His aggressive, threatening demeanor is a far cry from the hero we have known for the past few decades and his use of fear tactics along with his antagonistic relationship with the police is seemingly more suited to Batman rather than Superman.
Before the New 52, Clark Kent would have investigated any wrongdoing of Glenmorgan and after gathering hard evidence, he would have confronted Glenmorgan in a civil fashion. This Superman is young and brash, though. He’s a 20-something who has to operate outside of the law in order for justice to be served. People used to complain that Superman’s ideology was too old-fashioned or too fatherly in a way, but this Superman is anything but. He is the liberal-minded college kid with the powers of a god and he is ready to change the world. And so, after using his X-ray vision to identify an ulcer in Detective Blake, and catching a bullet in his hand, Superman takes off and is on the move again.
The narrative shifts for a page to Lex Luthor and General Sam Lane discussing tactics to capture Superman. Morrison’s All-Star Superman also begins with a confrontation between Luthor and Lane, but the Lex Luthor of Action Comics is no megalomaniacal madman hell-bent on Superman’s destruction. This Luthor is more calm and reserved that his All-Star Superman counterpart because this game is new to him. He still has an ego and he still has a xenophobic agenda against Superman, but he is more subdued and is more or less a supporting character within the title rather than an antagonist in the series. Leaving out Luthor is somewhat of a welcome change given how perfect their relationship is in All-Star Superman, and it allows for Morrison to explore new villains that he has created for the Superman universe.
After the short digression, its back to Superman in action where he is saving innocents from being killed as their apartment building is demolished. This is the first instance of a construction motif that will persist throughout Morrison’s tenure on the title. Construction is meant to represent progress and change, but in this issue, the destruction of the tenement building metaphorically represents the end of the old Superman. Pre-New 52 Superman stories weren’t really concerned with the plight of the working class, but this new age folk hero Superman is an altogether different hero, or rather, a hero that is much more in line with what creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had in mind.
After a battle with some tanks, Superman makes the sound “GD” after being shot which Jeff Lamb, owner of The Comic Conspiracy in Asheboro, North Carolina, interpreted to be blasphemous abbreviation of “Goddamn.” This led to Lamb’s 15 minutes of fame when he banned all Morrison comics from his story over the perceived blasphemy. The controversy, while seemingly minor, set the internet on fire and Morrison would later publicly state that there was no blasphemy intended and that it was merely the sound Superman made upon getting shot. While this has little to do with the construction of Action Comics #1, Morrison’s relationship with the internet will become important in understanding later issues.
The scene ends with Superman being surrounded by the people he saved. They pledge to protect him so that he can make a safe getaway and off he goes again. It’s in this moment that the folk hero of the people motif is at its strongest. After so many writers for so many years tried making Superman relatable and human, all it really took was for him to threaten corrupt businessmen and save a few innocent lives. None of the people he saves look to him like he is a savior; they look to him as if he is one of them which is relatively easy to do when his powers are limited enough that he can’t even fly yet.
Finally, Superman changes into Clark Kent as he goes home to his crappy apartment where his landlady, Mrs. Nyxly (the lack of any vowels should be a red flag to all Superman readers), is waiting. Clark’s horrible living conditions and his lack of money to provide for himself further the reader’s connection to his plight as Superman. But Morrison never portrays Superman as being “down-on-his-luck” in the same way that Marvel portrays Spider-man. Instead, Clark Kent is presented as humble, working class, and proud of the work he does. Nyxly and Clark discuss Superman’s exploits including throwing Neo-Nazis and stopping an abusive husband (no doubt a reference to the 1938 Action Comics) and as Clark is about to leave, Nyxly mentions that Clark’s friends had stopped by, “Two men and a woman – a blonde, very nice, very good-looking.” The reference is no doubt to Cosmic Man, Lightning Man, and Saturn Woman from the Legion of Super-Heroes which we won’t really know until later issues, but the suggestion that Superman is not alone even without his parents or being married to Lois is a powerful one.
After a brief phone conversation with Jimmy Olsen, Clark heads off to stop a runaway train. Before he leaves, the stoop of his apartment features a graffiti tag that looks like Will Eisner’s signature and it is with this subtle reference that it becomes clear where Morrison and Morales seem to have found some inspiration for their Superman. One of Eisner’s most famous works is A Contract with God Trilogy which revolved around a specific tenement building on Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. Eisner’s works were powerful tales of humanity and poverty, and at least in this issue, we can view Morrison’s interpretation of Superman as what it would have been like if Will Eisner himself had written the hero. But it also calls attention to the expressive nature of Morales’s face work. Some characters have exaggerated faces when reacting in shock the way that reminds the reader of Eisner’s own expressive face work .
The issue ends with Lex Luthor combining the tests of “faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive” into one threat as he turns a runaway train into a bullet to stop Superman or as Morrison puts it in the supplemental material in Action Comics #2, “he’s actually punched in the chest by the ‘speeding bullet.’” Trains are a continuing motif in many of Grant Morrison’s stories and are often used as a symbol for a transformative experience. Trains are important in the Invisibles, during the Manhattan Guardian storyline of Seven Soldiers, and at various points in his Batman run. What is never really mentioned, however, is that the train in question is an elevated train also known as the “L” train or the “El” train. Of course, Superman’s Kryptonian name is Kal-El and the name “El” is Hebrew for “God.” And so, in his final act of the first issue, Kal-El must stop the El train in his final transformative experience into a super-hero.