Humanity, Heroism, and Action:

Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #12

Captain Comet has invaded Superman’s mind and created a false history that secretly reveals Clark’s desires (and also what most fans would probably want from the hero). Ma and Pa Kent wave their son goodbye as he heads off to Metropolis to get a job at the Daily Planet. He joins the Justice League and remarks that they are “like a new Camelot.” Finally, he and Lois Lane are married as superpowered heroes fly through the skies of Metropolis. Superman remarks, “A golden age has begun” which suggests that a new Kryptonian utopia has been born on Earth. Unfortunately, it’s all an illusion and Superman is really being beaten by citizens possessed by Captain Comet as Lois is dying after being hit by a car in the past issue.

The issue is largely the standard Superman versus villain slugfest that we’ve read a number of times before, but rather than the fate of Metropolis in the balance, it is the fate of Susie. Comet doesn’t want to kill anyone, he just wants to take Susie away from Earth to train her as a new kind of evolved hero. If we slightly change our perspective of Susie’s story and to view her as the primary subject in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, then Captain Comet is acting as the supernatural aid that will bring Susie to a state of enlightenment that will allow her to one day become a hero. However, Superman is preventing her from crossing that threshold seemingly because of Captain Comet’s approach towards the situation. Comet treats the citizens of Metropolis as animals as evidenced when Susie begs Comet to save Lois’s life and he replies, “I’m sorry, child, I’m not a veterinarian.” Had he presented his argument for taking Susie away and compromised with Superman, perhaps it would be a different situation. Then again, this issue would be without a central conflict, so for the sake of the action, Captain Comet is presented as being nothing more than an interstellar kidnapper who hates Earth and so, Superman has to stop him because that’s what Superman does.

Despite the logical missteps in the conflict with Captain Comet, he has the makings of a great villain because (much like Lex Luthor) Captain Comet is an interesting reflection of Superman. Adam Blake (no relation to Inspector Blake from earlier issues of Morrison’s Action Comics) was born as Clark’s spaceship crashed to Earth. Then, as a child, Adam started exhibiting telekinesis. As his mother is dying, Adam tries saving her, but explains, “I try to help people, but … your consciousness can’t separate from your body like mine can. Your hardware – your software – it’s all the same thing, I’m so sorry. I can only save you in my memory, mom, but don’t be scared … in there, you’ll live forever.” So, like Superman, Captain Comet was a Kansas farm boy who used his powers to help people, but unlike Superman, Comet’s powers alienated himself from his father and then the rest of humanity. Superman doesn’t view his powers as a separation that makes him superior, but because humanity’s hardware and software are the same, Comet views humanity as being lesser beings. While Superman uses his powers to inspire others to be better, Comet’s powers have caused him to view himself to be an outsider. He describes the rest of his life as being “condemned to this zoo” until he was visited by an alien race known as “the Oort-kind” who “scour the super-cosmos in search of neo sapiens” like Comet and Susie.

It’s when Captain Comet begins viewing himself as “neo-sapien” that the most important distinction between Superman and Comet is revealed. Superman’s powers have given him the responsibility to protect all life no matter how small (as evidenced by his protection of a murderer’s hamsters from issue #10) while Captain Comet’s powers have given him a cold, calculating logic that has changed his perception regarding the value of life. He refuses to save Lois because he reasons that “she is one of six billion of her kind” while Susie is “one of five known Neo Sapiens.” Therefore, Susie’s life is worth more than Lois because she is rarer.

Comet is pragmatic in his sentimentality; logically, because Susie is rare, she must be taken from Earth and trained as a neo-sapien. But, Superman is a man of action, so he embraces his emotions and his instinct to act which is what allows him to defeat Captain Comet. Superman explains how he has to beat Captain Comet, “If I stop thinking – if I stop doubting and second-guessing myself – if I just rely on instinct – on what I do best – and put my trust in action!” and the hero proceeds to beat Comet as he did before. But, it’s Susie who really saves the day by blinding Captain Comet which allows Superman to get the upper hand.

In the end, Captain Comet tries explaining, “I’m here to save her! To save all of you!” and as he teleports away, Superman points out that “you went about it the wrong way” showing that the sense of superiority that Comet brought with him to Earth is what really prevented him from being a hero. In Tim Callahan’s assessment of Action Comics, he criticizes Morrison’s emphasis on physicality saying that typical Morrison plots revolve around:

“characters (who) move from flawed physicality to transcendent spirituality. Body gives way to mind. And in many of his stories, characters literally rise about their physical bonds or the entire world is transformed into a more transcendent state. See “Zenith” or “Animal Man” or “Flex Mentallo” or “The Invisibles” or a half dozen other Morrison comics for examples. That’s Morrison’s default concern. It threads through most, if not all, of his comic book work.

But with Action Comics, Morrison is ostensibly trying to tell the reverse story. He’s giving us a Superman that is trying to embrace the physical world and the concerns of the common man, and there’s even a character in the form of Captain Comet who is the what if version of a Superman who tried to rise above the physical realm. In Action Comics, Captain Comet is a villain. He’s the anti-Clark Kent, and his distance from the common man has led to his corruption.”

So, while Callahan is correct that the conflict between Superman and Captain Comet doesn’t follow the typical Morrison motif of the power of the mind over brute force, we can see that Morrison is still playing with those ideas in an interesting way. Comet’s mind is what distances him from humanity; his own father fears him because of his powers. But because Clark’s powers are physical and are therefore somehow less scary because people can actually see them in action, he isn’t feared like Captain Comet is. Though Captain Comet is in opposition to Superman in issues #11 and #12, Morrison doesn’t present him as a villain. Comet is merely a misunderstood hero because of the strange nature of his powers. And if Comet and Superman are opposites because of their powers, then the consequences of those powers must be opposites as well. Comet’s mind gives him hubris while Superman’s strength leads to his humility. With all of this in mind, it’s worth remembering that it isn’t Superman’s physicality that leads to Captain Comet’s defeat, but the power of Susie’s mind that defeats him.

Finally, their conflict is worth examining on a level of meta-commentary. Superman and Captain Comet come from the same origin, but Superman’s advantage over Comet is his “S” sigil. The Superman “S” is a sign of protection and one that is taken up by people all over the world as a symbol of strength and heroism. Captain Comet is without a sigil and is therefore less relatable because there is no symbol for others to rally behind. So, their conflict could be interpreted as a commentary on the special nature of Superman. Dozens and dozens of heroes over the years have been created based on the elements of Superman and none have been as successful as the hero himself, because that sigil is just so powerful. It’s a dollar sign, but it is also a snake that eats the competition.

Captain Comet may have been defeated, but Lois Lane is still dying. Superman rushes her to the hospital and when the doctor’s give him the news that she won’t make it, he reads through every medical text published, and then uses his powers to operate on Lois to save her life. It’s a beautiful moment that reaffirms that Superman can do anything when he has to. Morrison had presented this idea earlier when Superman had to run fast enough to break through Earth’s atmosphere to reach the Collector’s ship, but that was a moment that displayed Superman’s physicality. Saving Lois by reading every medical textbook, and then using his powers quickly and precisely enough to save her life is a completely different and far more impressive feat and better exhibits that Superman can do anything with proper motivation. It’s a beautiful moment that perfectly addresses Callahan’s criticisms of Morrison’s emphasis on physicality; when faced with impossible odds, Superman expands his mind to learn 10 years’ worth of information in a matter of seconds and then with a perfect molding of mind and body, is able to save her life.

After saving Lois, Superman is visited by Batman who explains that Clark Kent is an essential identity who is just as heroic as Superman. It’s another touching, very human moment between the two as Batman comforts his friend by putting his arm around him (mostly to put a bat-tracer on, but it’s the thought that counts). From there, Clark returns to his apartment where his landlady Mrs. N is waiting for him.

It turns out that Mrs. Nyxly is actually a 5th-dimensional being named Nyxlygsptlnz and while most fans had predicted that the Dealmaker was the classic Superman villain Mr. Mxyzptlk, it turns out that his name is Lord Vyndktvx. Though Mrs. N doesn’t give all of the details, we know that Mxyzptlk  is married to her and that Vyndktvx hurt her husband and “killed the king-thing Brpxz” and that he also hates Superman for some reason. We won’t know more about this conflict until issue #15, but Mrs. N uses one of her three wishes to undo Clark Kent’s death and make his friends forget.

Mrs. N’s wish may feel like a cheap deus ex machina solution to the Clark Kent problem, but Morrison is using it as a metacommentary on the nature of comics. Her wish effectively hits the “reset” button just as DC hit the reset button after Flashpoint to create the New 52. If ideas become too complex, convoluted, or difficult to work with, then they can simply be wished away and everything starts over again. This may seem cheap (and to many critical internet users, it is cheap), but the beauty of comic books is that they aren’t real life and they can be reset. The hero who turned villain will one day be redeemed. The hero who changed identities will go back to the original identity one day. Even death can’t stop superheroes because the hero that died in the major crossover will come back triumphantly. Unlike real life, the status quo can always return and while it may seem cheap or contrived or unrealistic, it is the unrealistic nature of the idea that there is something known as “status quo” that makes comic books comforting and beautiful.

Before the New 52, the Superman idea had become a confused mess. For years, the Clark Kent identity was marginalized and didn’t seem to matter as much as Superman punching the latest threat. When J. Michael Straczynski began writing Superman, the hero walked across America and Clark Kent was non-existent. During James Robinson’s tenure, Superman was living on the planet New Krypton amongst his people. But then, DC Comics hit the reset button and Clark Kent could matter again. His identity and his importance could be reestablished and Morrison made him matter. It was Clark Kent who took down Glen Glenmorgan and it was clear that Clark Kent’s personal beliefs fueled his reason to be Superman rather than Clark Kent being a mask for Superman. And when the identity was “killed,” Morrison shows that it can easily be fixed with a wish.

The most amusing idea in this scene is when Clark tries to make the excuse that Superman saved him and that he had to pretend to be dead, Mrs. N notes that “no one will believe that.” Her insistence that his excuse is unbelievable could be interpreted as commentary that readers wouldn’t believe that excuse and complain, but using one of her three wishes from the 5th dimension is somehow more believable of an explanation for fixing the problem of Clark Kent’s death. Readers can accept the bizarre and fantastic plot changes, but they can’t accept lame excuses. It’s a strange dichotomy between what readers can accept and what is redeemed ridiculous in a comic book, and Morrison has perfectly explored this situation through Mrs. Nyxly saving Clark Kent.

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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

editor, contributor


  1. Chris S says:

    I finally bought the complete set of Action Comics for Christmas, partly because I’ve enjoyed these articles. Are you going to finish the series?

  2. David Mann says:

    I generally try to refrain from leaving comments of the “why don’t you…” sort. They often come across as demanding and borderline disrespectful of the creators’ other pursuits, which for you has included a book. But I would implore you to finish this. This was a phenomenal run on an often poorly-served character that’s been horribly underrated, and to see as intelligent an analysis as this has been wonderful.

    Also, I’m invested in you finishing it because I’d like to know if you have any clue whatsoever who the “there’s a white dog” vagrant was in issue 3. Almost 3 years later and I still have no idea who that was supposed to be.

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