While the first three issues of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics could never match up to the perfection of All-Star Superman, the series had established a slow, methodical unveiling of Superman’s mythology in a way that works. The first issue established the everyman Superman – a hero for the poor, down-trodden masses. The second issue emphasized the dichotomy between Superman as the man of action and Lex Luthor as the man behind the scenes. Then, the third issue began with a flashback to Krypton to establish Superman’s origins. However, it’s the fourth issue of Action Comics where the series starts to falter.
John Corben is now the Voice of the Colony of the Collector of Worlds who has hacked the world’s computers in order to manufacture Terminaut robots to prepare Metropolis for his collection. It’s a fairly standard, run-of-the-mill invasion plot and it somehow lacks the typical Morrison twist that would make the idea unique. The Terminauts are generic robot foot soldiers and while John Corben was never anyone’s favorite Superman villain, he is especially lame and one-dimensional here. The only defense one can muster for this story is that it feels like a plot from a 40s or 50s classic sci-fi story. So, if Action Comics is Morrison’s attempt at a golden age Superman, then the plot is appropriately golden-agey enough to let some of the less exciting elements slide.
When Superman finally arrives on the scene, he is wearing a white Superman shirt instead of the standard blue. It seems like a printing error at first, but it will be resolved in later issues. For now, the white makes Superman seem more like a guardian angel as he leaps into battle with the Terminaut soldiers. However, the Terminauts aren’t simply attacking humans. Instead, their mission is to “preserve significant artifacts” which includes robbing a museum and jewelry store. It’s a subtle hint that maybe the Terminauts aren’t as evil as they may seem – a point that is nullified when Corben finally meets Lois and melts her car.
If any character or moment can shoulder the blame for why this issue is so bad, it has to be John Corben who is the embodiment of contradictions. In the old universe, he was Metallo, but now he is being controlled by Brainiac. The Terminauts are sent to preserve the world, but Corben’s jealousy is causing him to destroy everything in his path to get to Lois Lane. So, Lois tries to appeal to Corben’s humanity (the same humanity that is causing him to go crazy as the Voice, right?) and he tries killing her.
Then, when Superman arrives on the scene, the two battle it out and Corben announces, “From the moment humankind suspected your existence, work was begun on the ultimate Anti-Superman weapon. I am that weapon. Made to destroy you!” And despite how poorly written and forced his dialogue is, the reader is set up to believe that their confrontation will be one of monumental proportions. After all, John Corben is the first super-villain that Superman has faced in the series so far so it stands to reason that this fight should be memorable. However, in the middle of their battle, John Henry Irons (a.k.a. Steel) arrives on the scene to battle Corben and their fight ends with an editor’s note to “check out this issue’s backup to see how this fight plays out!”
While the introduction of Steel is moderately exciting because it shows Superman’s influence is spreading, (and given that John Henry Irons is named after folk legend John Henry the steel-driving man, it furthers the idea of superheroes as folk heroes) shoving the battle between Steel and Corben to the end of the book as part of the supplemental material disrupts the flow of the narrative and diminishes the impact of the villain of the issue. If Corben was indeed created by the military as an “Anti-Superman” weapon, then shouldn’t it be Superman who defeats it? But, perhaps Corben and Superman aren’t really meant to be opposites. Perhaps Steel is Corben’s opposite which would make him the “Pro-Superman” weapon – a weapon that has been inspired by Superman. This leads to some significance in the conflict between Steel and Corben, but this interpretation still suffers from the same flaw of a lackluster conclusion because it is resolved in the backup material.
However, the issue isn’t a total loss as Lex Luthor still gets a few moments to shine. The issue begins with Luthor screaming that he had warned everyone that “one alien appears, and suddenly there are ten” showing that he will make deals that go against his principles and then continue lying about them later. Luthor is delightfully cowardly as he hides in an Army truck and demands to be taken to safety. And during Superman’s battle with Corben, Luthor demands that the truck turn back to run Superman over. It’s a small, but perfect character moment as the selfless Superman is further kicked down by the ultimately selfish Luthor.
Finally, the issue ends with part of Metropolis miniaturized and captured in a bottle by the Collector (who is shown to be a bug-like creature with a prominent brain), Steel informing Superman that Corben “disappeared” (showing that their fight won’t even be resolved in the backup material), and Superman joining forces with General Lane to take down the Collector. No mention is made of the Terminauts, but we can presume that the news that Corben has disappeared means that all Terminauts have disappeared as well. Worst of all, the issue ends with “Continued in Action Comics #7” meaning that there will be two issues in-between this one and the last two issues of the Collector story.
Morrison works best when he lets loose a barrage of wild ideas in short, kinetic stories. Batman & Robin is a perfect example of this kind of storytelling; three-issue arcs with plenty of character moments that allow for the stars to play off of each other’s strengths. By the time Morrison’s first arc on Action Comics is complete, he could have told almost three complete Batman & Robin stories. But, again, perhaps it’s unfair to compare Morrison’s Action Comics to his other work. After all, Action Comics is part of the New 52, and should be viewed in a different light. But even when read in a vacuum without looking at Morrison’s other work, Action Comics still suffers from a slower pace that doesn’t befit the title. Yes, Superman is always on the move, righting wrongs, and battling bad guys, but slowly unveiling Superman’s world eventually feels boring rather than planned and methodical.
Finally, the less said about the Sholly Fisch backup, the better.
Fortunately, Action Comics #4 is the worst of Morrison’s run and things get much better from here.