In the supplemental material in the issue, Grant Morrison writes, “Superman is mankind at its best, and Lex Luthor is us at our worst . . . but they’re both us.” It’s a sentiment that provided the foundation for their relationship in All-Star Superman, but Luthor’s brief appearance in the first issue only hinted at this dynamic. Physically, Luthor is a little pudgy and he is constantly drinking energy drinks. He is self-centered, arrogant, and xenophobic. In the first issue, Superman is a man of action and always on the move while Luthor simply observes from a safe place. But this issue will show the depths of Luthor’s evil.
The cover to Action Comics #2 is of Superman strapped to an electric chair and surrounded by guns as Luthor observes safely behind glass. While this is a far cry from the light-hearted, whimsical content of golden and silver age comics, the cover sets the scene for the rest of the issue much like the covers during the golden and silver age eras. In an older era, a cover might have Superman transformed into a gorilla or his head might be turned into an ant which would make readers curious as to how he would get out of his latest predicament. Usually, whatever problem presented itself on the cover would be resolved within a few pages, and it was rarely ever the real focus of the story. By having Superman strapped to an electric chair, he is sparking curiosity in readers by showing a vulnerable Man of Steel. However, Superman’s torture scene will take much longer to resolve than the problems that faced the hero during the golden or silver ages.
Morrison’s initial mission statement for Action Comics was to emphasize the “action” in the title. Superman would be a being in perpetual motion just as he was during the golden age; always on the move and righting the wrongs that were being done to the average person. Superman’s action inherently connects to the motif of progress. Action is progress and Superman represents both. However, Superman is now in a vulnerable position because he isn’t moving. As Morrison writes in the supplemental material to issue #2, “You can tell he’s in danger simply because he’s no longer in motion!”
As the limits of Superman’s invulnerability are tested by Luthor’s team of scientists, it is clear that some of the men are uncomfortable with the experiments. Dr. John Henry Irons confronts Luthor directly about the torture saying, “Torturing a man on U.S. soil, or anywhere else is unacceptable!” to which Luthor replies, “Those laws apply to human beings, surely. And tell me how we can torture a so-called man with steel-hard skin, and hair that can’t be cut?” By dehumanizing Superman, Luthor has invented a similar justification that the Nazis used in torturing prisoners in concentration camps. And ultimately, their goals are not so dissimilar. Nazi scientists used prisoners as test subjects to understand the limitations of the human body just as Luthor is doing to Superman. Also, given that Superman was created by two Jewish creators and that his Kryptonian name of “Kal-El” means “the voice of God,” it’s obvious that the metaphor for Nazi experiments is inherent in this scene. After all, Luthor represents the worst of humanity.
But, it’s when Luthor bluntly states that “dissecting this creature will teach us how to build warrior gods” that things become really interesting. If Luthor represents the worst of humanity, then to weaponize an idea that is inherently good like Superman is evil. Superman represents progress or the next step in our evolution which should be to help the poor and downtrodden rather than profit from them as Glenmorgan and Luthor do. However, Luthor rebels against the next step of evolution and would rather cling to fear and the idea that “might makes right.” Seen from this angle, the conflict between Superman and Lex Luthor is essentially liberalism versus conservatism; the warrior for the people battling the face of the corporation.
Understood at another level, Superman is the first hero; the prototype by which hundreds of characters were created afterward. Dissecting Superman is exactly what writers and artists have been doing since 1938 in order to profit from this idea. Also, in a way, this is what Mark Millar’s The Ultimates was about; the military searched for the serum that created Captain America in order to build an army of superhumans. Morrison has been critical of this idea of realism within comics as seen in Supergods,
For Mark Millar, it was a given that any real-world superhero would be co-opted by the powers that be and recruited as a soldier. The Moore-Miller Superman of the eighties, that helpless, reconstructed tool of the ruling class, became the template for a new generation of reengineered characters. In The Ultimates, everyone worked for the government, but it was all cool. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, superheroes strove to preserve and embody the values of a defiant military-industrial corporate complex or they didn’t work at all. The brief era of The Authority had passed and left the “bastards” in charge as usual (354 – 355).
This quote perfectly encompasses everything about this issue. By taking Superman back to his golden age roots of defying the government, Morrison is not only writing against the paramilitary super-hero pastiche that Warren Ellis began with Stormwatch and The Authority and Mark Millar had made financially successful during The Ultimates, but he is also writing against the idea that heroes can only be flag-waving patriots who must be dedicated to their country. Morrison is championing the individual as super-hero just as he did during The Invisibles.
In his criticism of Morrison’s Action Comics, Tim Callahan argues, “this is a series in which Morrison upends his typical thematic concerns” and while the point that Callahan is making is that Superman doesn’t experience a transcendent moment where he becomes some sort of zen-like hero, Callahan misses the point about individuality that Morrison is known for. Superman defies the government in Morrison’s Action Comics because positive change can begin with individuals rather than a reliance on military might. If more people were like Superman and took active roles in changing the world around them, then maybe the world would be a better place.
The alternative to Superman’s individualism is Lex Luthor’s conformity. Luthor’s xenophobic paranoia completely revolves around the idea of militarization as he claims that Superman’s rocket is a “bullet aimed at this planet . . . aimed and fired from an alien gun.” As brilliant as Lex Luthor is, he can only see the world through the lens of weapons. He defeated Superman at the end of the first issue with a giant bullet, wants to dissect the hero to make more weapons, and sees the spaceship that saved Superman’s life as a bullet. He is limited in his thoughts and can only see life through that lens.
In his commentary about Lex Luthor, Tim Callahan questions the diminished role of the villain. Callahan points out that when Superman is rebooted, writers usually “do something meaningful with Lex Luthor” and then wonders if Morrison is, “taking the bold stance of trying to revamp Superman without an equal-and-opposite threat in the form of Lex Luthor.” But, Luthor still is Superman’s equal and opposite as we see in this issue; however, the form that Luthor takes as Superman’s opposite simply isn’t dynamic enough on the page. Superman is the man of action and Luthor is the man who is always behind the computer screen. It’s true that Morrison doesn’t write Lex Luthor the same way he did in All-Star Superman, but that story has already been told and done perfectly, so it would be superfluous to tell it again. In short, nothing will top the interaction between Superman and Lex Luthor at the conclusion of All-Star Superman #12, so why try when there are so many other ideas can expand upon Superman’s mythology?
Finally, Superman breaks free from his captivity, grabs Luthor and says, “Now, you took something that belongs to me, Doc. Call me sentimental, but I want it back right now or I break your scrawny neck” which, once again, sent tremors through the internet at the idea of Superman threatening to kill Lex Luthor. One has to remember that this is a younger Superman, however. He is brash and because Luthor has been threatening him, Superman feels it is necessary to play upon Luthor’s fears. An older Superman would be in more control of his temper, but this one has a way to go.
After breaking free, Superman rescues his cape (which was shown as also being indestructible earlier in the issue), and discovers his space ship as well. In the supplemental material for this issue, Morrison explains, “the cape, the rocket, the costume, the ship we see at the end of #2 – everything is part of the story and has characters arcs of its own. Every little bit of the Superman legend is turned into something meaningful in its own right.” Morrison explored similar ideas in the final issue of Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne where the pearls, the bell, and the gun are all explained as symbols that helped create Batman; the cape, the rocket, and the costume are all the parts that make up Superman and will be told in coming issues.
Finally, the conclusion of the issue is perhaps the most damning evidence against Lex Luthor. In an effort to gain the upper hand in his war against Superman, he has joined forces with a mysterious partner. Luthor rides in his limo and he is speaking on the phone to no response, but it is clear that he knows his new partner isn’t of this world because he asks, “I want to know what I’ve been talking to! What are you?” It is one thing for Luthor to hate Superman out of fear of the Other, but to sell out his “values” (or, in Luthor’s case, selling out his xenophobia rather than a value) is to show that he is willing to give in at any moment that may be opportune for him.
From here, Luthor will only make minor appearances, but Morrison’s one issue of Superman versus Lex Luthor was exactly everything it needed to be. It established their conflict with one another in terms of separate ideologies and presented Superman as the symbol of hope and perserverance and Luthor as the worst that humanity has to offer. What more could anyone want from an issue?