Humanity, Heroism, and Action:

Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #11

The construction motif returns on page one of this issue as Metalek attacks Metropolis and destroys a tenement building in the process. Metalek is an artificial intelligence that looks like construction equipment and was first mentioned long ago in the pages of Morrison’s JLA: Classified run. The first real appearance of Metalek was in the pages of Morrison’s Batman and Robin when Batman visits Knight and Squire in England. Superman and Metalek will have a more significant meeting later in Morrison’s run on Action Comics, but for now, Metalek demands “Bow! To! Metalek” and Superman replies as he rips out Metalek’s robot brain, “Bow? That’s not how we do things ‘round here” which connects to the previous issue where Superman had proposed that the Justice League become more active in changing the world. Superman has no desire to be a ruler of the world – he wants everyone to live freely and he will protect against tyrants.

Instead of thanking Superman for saving their lives, people beg him to help them further. One man says, “You can fly away from this, but we been left homeless.” It’s an amusing moment given the number of times Superman has battled a monster and then simply flown off after all of the damage has been done. Mad scientists, monsters, robots, and creatures from space attack Metropolis all the time, and now Morrison is exploring what Superman would do to help people after an attack which again ties back into his conversation with the Justice League from the previous issue where Superman insisted that they end poverty rather than just battle space monsters.

So, instead of simply flying off, Superman replies, “if everybody wants to pitch in, we can rebuild these houses better than before. Who’s with me?” Superman doesn’t offer to build it all by himself; he is encouraging everyone to work together to fix the problem. He wants to inspire humanity to build a better tomorrow rather than simply solving their problems, but in the midst of the building’s construction, one man sits down for a smoke break and says, “Guy’s doing the work of ten men. How am I supposed to compete with that?” Another man replies, “It ain’t a competition. Get off yer butt” showing that superman’s ideology is rubbing off on people.

While the issue of the lazy man is the most obvious side-effect of Superman’s existence, the commodification of everything Superman touches is another. After rebuilding the apartment complex better than before, a reporter from channel 38 (again, the year of Superman’s creation) asks Superman, “Have you any idea what these homes will be worth now?” Superman himself isn’t just a commodity, but the building that he helped reconstruct is a commodity as well. The reporter’s question indicates that the people who once lived in this building will no longer be able to afford their apartments because Superman’s involvement has raised the price of the apartments.

The construction motif works on multiple levels here.

First, on the most basic level, the construction motif is being used as a metaphor for the destruction of the Clark Kent identity from the last issue. Now that Clark Kent is “dead,” Superman must reconstruct an identity for himself and Metalek is the representation of this destruction and Superman’s belief that things can be made better shows his optimism even in the face of the direst of circumstances. Their homes may have been destroyed, but Superman insists that their homes were no good to begin with and that they can build better ones as long as they work  together.

Next, Superman’s insistence that they can build a better building can be interpreted as the deconstruction of Superman. Morrison has been analyzing the different elements of Superman in order to better understand the core of the character. Krypton, the spaceship, the cape, Krypto, the Clark Kent identity – Morrison wants to examine each of these elements if he is going to rebuild them to show why Superman matters.

Finally, the new apartments being worth more connects to the corporate Superman idea from back in issue #9 where the Superman symbol is corrupted in exchange for profits. Morrison is rebuilding Superman and then the hero will be worth more to DC. Not only that, but writers who contribute to the Superman mythology are “worth” more as well because they have contributed to a massive narrative that has gone on for 75 years. The Superman idea couldn’t go on for as long as it has if it were only conceived by two men. Superman continues to exist because people have built and rebuilt the franchise over and over again throughout the years. The result is that the Superman idea inspires readers to be good human beings and it will also make people (Warner Bros) wealthy.

After the incident with Metalek, Superman changes into his new identity of fireman Johnny Clark (note the 19 on his fireman’s helmet connects his new identity to part of the year Superman was created and 19 is also half of 38). Morrison has been reintroducing Superman as a modern day folk hero and Superman’s new identity of “Johnny Clark” goes along with this idea by making the hero seem like “Johnny Appleseed.” And, once again, “1938” is a significant number but this time it is the number of the fire station. Johnny Clark isn’t Clark Kent, though. He is more of a loner and he keeps to himself, but the job of fireman allows for him to be Superman all the time. When Johnny visits George Taylor in the hospital, however, the editor of the Daily Star wishes that Clark Kent were still alive. Superman seems to realize that Clark Kent was more than just a throwaway identity – he really is Kent and he did a lot of good through his reporting.

Superman then seeks out the advice of Batman on how to handle the situation. The interaction between Superman and Batman is the highlight of the issue because even though their conversation revolves around dead identities and houses in space, it is a completely  relatable  situation. We can all relate to seeking advice from our friends, but the advice Superman needs Batman’s advice over how to repair his secret identity. Afterward, we might go out to dinner with a friend, but Superman and Batman go out to fight crime. It’s a moment that shows Superman’s vulnerability without making him seem weak.

Lois brings the hamsters from issue #10 to her step-niece Susie and we learn that she is more than just an ordinary little girl. As Susie tries settling on names for her new pets, she ponders, “imagine if they could have every name at the same time, and then they’d never get bored. Imagine if everyone had every name ever all at the same time – what would it sound like backwards?” Lois dismisses Susie’s  ideas as just a part of a child’s active imagination, but Susie exhibits psychic powers as she explains that her new pets are disturbed because “they saw some bad things. But I think I can help them get over it.” The scene ends rather ominously as we see that Susie’s eyes have turned into a star field.

Meanwhile, Superman ponders what the appearance of Metalek means for Earth. He knows that something called “The Multitude” is coming toward Earth. Brainiac describes the Multitude as “beautiful and numberless and without mercy. No one has ever seen them and survived. They leave in the wake of their passing the wreckage of worlds.” But as Superman worries that it is hopeless to stop them, Brainiac explains, “Jor-El, your father, repelled the multitude. But what he did was declared impossible.” Presenting Jor-El as being heroic goes along with Morrison’s proclivity for heroic fathers like his own dad.

As Lois and Susie leave a movie called “Puck in Manhattan” (another 5th Dimensional imp like the Dealmaker or Mxyzptlk), a mysterious, hooded man has come to Metropolis looking for Susie who he calls “The Future Child.” We will later learn that he is the New 52’s Captain Comet. Lois realizes that he must be the man she mistook for Superman during the Blake Farm Ghost incident (also known to readers as “Earth’s First Superman” which was mentioned in issue #6). Johnny Clark and fire engine 1938 are speeding along to a fire when the driver of the truck has been possessed by Metalek who tries to kill Susie, but kills Lois instead.

Captain Comet explains to Susie that she is a “nutant” or “neo-sapiens born one hundred thousand years ahead of our time to prepare the way and inherit the Earth.” Then, as Superman readies himself to fight, Captain Comet explains, “I have a four-lobed post-human brain augmented with super-e.s.p.  technology. You’re big, you’re tough, and you can’t be hurt – but your mind- I can punch through your mind like a wet paper bag.” These two statements from Comet set him up as a diametric opposite to Superman.

Comet embraces Susie as a member of a new race and believes that they should leave humanity to destruction. Superman sees members of the Justice League as his equals and wants to save humanity. Superman is the pinnacle of human physicality and Comet is the pinnacle of the mind. And so, their battle will be matter versus mind. However, if Comet is the pinnacle of the human mind, then this suggests that mankind really isn’t worth saving because he has already logically weighed the situation and its different variables out.

But, of course, that will be for next time.

While most of the Sholly Fisch-written backup stories aren’t really applicable to the overarching themes that Morrison establishes, this issue is an exception. Jimmy Olsen visits a t-shirt shop that claims to be the first to have printed Superman’s shirts. The shopkeeper justifies the high price of a Superman t-shirt by telling the story of how Superman saved the shopkeeper from being robbed after ordering a number of t-shirts with the “S” insignia on them. After the shopkeeper’s story, we learn that other print shops claim the exact same story.

It’s a fun short story on the surface, but when compared to issue #9’s assertion of Superman’s symbol being corrupted as a corporate hypersigil, it becomes a rather dark story. Metropolis t-shirt printing shops use Superman’s symbol to increase their profits; they corrupt the symbol by using it for their own corporate gain and people fall for it. The comparison is even more profound when we think of the number of different types of Superman shirts in our own world. The Superman “S” has been redecorated in hunter’s camouflage and hot pink. It can be found famously tattooed on basketball star Shaquille O’Neal and has become part of the star’s own brand. The Red Cross has used the Superman “S” as part of its blood drives. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim invoked the hero’s name in his controversial (and exceptionally ignorant) documentary Waiting for Superman. Jim Croce warned against “tugging on Superman’s cape” in his song “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” Sholly Fisch’s story is just one small example of a much larger idea that there are hundreds and hundreds of examples of the Superman’s name or his sigil being used for any number of people, products, or ideas to increase profits or attention.

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Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website and the co-creator of the crime comic . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

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Also by Cody Walker:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh: Understanding Grant Morrison\'s Batman


Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

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