Not Your Daddy’s Superman:

How Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #1 Works

Having slammed Justice League #1 so severely in the last week, I feel as if I’d be remiss not to point out how excellent Action Comics #1 is and how it gets right virtually everything that Justice League #1 gets wrong.

Action Comics #1Both issues retell their respective super-heroes’ early years in a contemporary, decompressed style. Both also have a sense of super-hero spectacle. But Action Comics #1 makes these actually work, including some moments of remarkable intelligence.

But first, the shadow of Grant Morrison is great enough that it requires some negotiation, before we dive into his most recent offering. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m no worshiper at the altar of Grant. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve followed his work since Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Arkham Asylum. I’ve gone on to publish two books about him — Timothy Callahan’s Grant Morrison: The Early Years and Patrick Meaney’s Our Sentence is Up: Seeing Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles — and to co-produce Patrick Meaney’s documentary film Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods. But the reaction to Morrison in comics is too often between those who think he can do no wrong and those who think he’s incomprehensible. Extremism on one side spurs extremism on the other, a defensive reaction. I’m personally in neither camp. So while I admire Seven Soldiers, I’m not in love with it. Morrison’s Batman, while not perfect, blew me away, but his Batman and Robin left me cold. I like the ideas behind Final Crisis, but I thought the execution left a lot to be desired. To me, Morrison’s a major writer and a significant thinker, both in and outside of comics, and anything he does is worth thinking about. But that doesn’t mean he’s above criticism.

Morrison has tackled Superman before, most notably in All Star Superman, which has become a Superman classic. That’s a very high bar to set for yourself, and Action Comics #1 doesn’t quite meet it.

But Action Comics #1 is far more revolutionary in its take on the character. Because this Superman, at a much earlier stage in his career, is considerably darker.

In fact, the revelation that this is a vigilante Superman provides the twist or the punch on the bottom of the first page of Action Comics #1. Superman arrives at the lair of some corrupt businessmen, wearing a Superman T-shirt and jeans, emphasizing that this is an early version of the character. And on the bottom of the first page, he glares at the reader, his eyes glowing with threatening energy.

Action Comics #1, bottom of page 1

This is not your daddy’s Superman.

But although Morrison gives us a glimpse of Superman on this first page, he wisely shifts away from the character. After this brief taste, we get two pages in which the police arrive. Their dialogue and what they witness further emphasizes Superman’s extra-legal status. There’s tension as they approach this being of incredible power. They’re clearly afraid that Superman’s going to do something violent, and they’re clearly conscious of the fact that they can’t do much to stop him. They’re also normal human beings, without super-powers, making them audience identification figures, and this ratchets up the drama of encountering Superman, as the police and the reader does on the bottom of page three.

Action Comics #1, bottom of page 3Notice how Superman isn’t even shown in the first of these two panels. A little more of him is shown in the next panel, although he’s cropped by the panel’s edges. This sense of visual revelation continues as the reader turns the page, encountering a dramatic double-page spread.

Action Comics #1, pages 4-5

This is an excellent use of the comics form. If you’re going to have single, double-page images, you ought to use them dramatically, and Action Comics #1 knows this.

The cool thing about this dramatic revelation is that it works whether you know Superman’s history or not. If you’re new to Superman, all of this underlines Superman’s power and paints him as a super-powered vigilante, which is a pretty novel concept for the general audience. But if you know Superman as he’s largely been presented in the last several decades, this is all the more shocking, because it conflicts so strongly with Superman’s strong adherence to the law.

For example, Superman’s often called “the Man of Tomorrow” and Metropolis, by extension, is “the City of Tomorrow.” The title of this story, given on that two-page image, is “Superman Versus the City of Tomorrow” — obviously announcing the issue’s dramatic upturning of the character’s status quo. But even if you don’t know that status quo, the title still makes sense, sounding like one of the dramatic titles from the pulps that preceded and inspired Superman.

But going even further, if you really know Superman’s history, all of this has a far deeper resonance.

To understand why, we have to go back to the first Action Comics #1, back in 1938. There, Superman wasn’t yet the embodiment of “truth, justice, and the American way.” No, he was a vigilante, much like Batman but with super-powers. In his first adventure, he batters a man who’s committing domestic violence. (For more on the character as he originally appeared, check out Cody Walker’s Action Comics #1 and the Superman we Know and Love.”)

In his new Action Comics #1, Grant Morrison returns Superman to this primal state, recasting it through a modern lens.

It’s a move that could easily be denounced by fans as going against the essential core of the character… were it not for how this was Superman actually started. In fact, Morrison’s take could be seen as more faithful to the character than his 1950s, smiling law-enforcer incarnation, which has to some extent been dominant ever since.

It’s also a move that solves the essential problem with Superman: he’s seen as too much of a Boy Scout. He’s a goody-two-shoes, a throwback to the morality of The Andy Griffith Show. And as such, he’s boring. Or at least, he has trouble competing with the X-Men.

It’s not that Superman needs to be dark. It’s just that he needs to be less of an enforcer of the status quo. He might be incredibly powerful, but he’s usually portrayed in a way that makes him, to contemporary eyes, kind of a pussy.

That is, more than anything, why Superman hasn’t worked in recent years. Why other versions of the Superman archetype, like Apollo of The Authority (and now Paul Cornell’s new Stormwatch) or Mark Millar’s ingenious alternate Superman of Superman: Red Son, have been more successful than in-continuity Superman comics and movies. (And hey, I’ve been pointing this out, off and on, since 2002.)

Grant Morrison has solved this problem with Superman. And he’s done so by turning back to Superman’s origins. It’s not unlike the way creators took Batman, in the 1970s and 1980s, back to his earliest, darker days.

Yeah, that’s how revolutionary this is. It’s pointing the way forward for the character, solving a problem that other writers, both in comics and in Hollywood, have struggled painfully to solve.

Now, it’s doubtful that Morrison intends for Superman to remain a vigilante. His Action Comics takes place six months after Superman debuted. It’s likely that, by DC’s new contemporary continuity, set some five or six years later, Superman is a far more conventional figure — although this has yet to be seen.

But the important thing is that you don’t have to know any of this to appreciate this introductory sequence. If you do, it adds a whole additional layer of meaning, allowing you to appreciate what this new Action Comics #1 is accomplishing, how it manages to be revolutionary while still showing fidelity and love for the character’s history. But you don’t have to know any of that to appreciate the drama of the sequence, which is essentially about a super-powered vigilante opposed by the police.

In fact, if you’re new to Superman, you might even appreciate this sequence more than the super-hero adept. Because that puts you in the position of the police, without powers, who confront Superman here. They, like the new reader, are basically outsiders to Superman and to super-powers. And this makes the careful widening of perspective that leads into the double-page spread all the more dramatic.

As a point of contrast, Justice League #1 also includes a double-page spread in its early pages. It even features the police confronting a super-hero high atop that super-hero’s city. But Justice League‘s writer, Geoff Johns, forgoes the intermediate two pages in which Morrison focuses on the police. As a result, what we get is entirely straightforward: police helicopters shooting at a fleeing Batman.

Now, this should be a far more dramatic image than the double-page splash in Action Comics #1. After all, nothing’s happening in that Action Comics two-page panel: the police have raised their guns, but no one’s firing. In Justice League #1, the police are firing everywhere, and Batman, who we may be meeting here for the first time, is fleeing for his life. Why, he’s even gritting his teeth and jumping forward, fists outstretched, as if he’s about to bound forward like a dog.

This should certainly make for dramatic material. Yet it feels hollow. The police are firing and Batman’s fleeing, all very melodramatic stuff, but the reader has no idea why he or she is supposed to care. The spectacle itself is supposed to be enough.

The story doesn’t even have a proper title, because it’s only “part one” of a larger story.

Compared to this, the double-page splash in Action Comics seems positively static. And yet it packs far more of a punch, because Morrison has set it up so carefully.

Action Comics #1, pages 4-5

There are no helicopters. Guns are raised but not firing. There’s a threat of violence, but Superman’s simply holding someone in the air. It’s certainly a far cry from spraying the Gotham landscape with machine-gun fire.

But it works for two reasons. First, it’s been set up properly, through the focus on the police and the slow revelation of where Superman is standing and what he’s doing until we explode into this two-page panel. Second, Superman holding a wealthy person over a railing means far more than some anonymous cops firing at Batman. No one, not even those new to Batman, think he’s going to die, so that image is stripped of its power. But no one, whether new to Superman or not, expects him to threaten someone’s life. Even if we don’t know how uncharacteristic this is for Superman, we’ve been shown the policemen’s impotency on the previous two pages.

It’s a truly surprising image, and it thus manages to be more dramatic than all the helicopters with their firing machine guns.

It’s also an expertly composed image. Just look at the use of light and shadow, adding to the image’s drama. More importantly, notice the realistic use of foreshortening, as we hover over Superman’s head, so that we’re closer to his potential victim. This is certainly not an easy composition to pull off, but Rags Morales achieves it with effortless grace.

This choice of perspective allows us to look down onto the city, letting us feel the threat facing this potential victim. Compare this to Justice League‘s splash page, in which the perspective is from slightly under Batman. Thus, although we see buildings rising beyond Batman and the helicopters, there’s no sense of risk. The point of view, from slightly under Batman, also makes the reader “look up” to him, emphasizing his invulnerability even while under fire. This might make Batman seem cool, but it helps strip what should be a dramatic image of any sense of actual threat.

In fact, readers of Justice League #1 would be forgiven for failing to note, from this two-page image alone, that the scene takes place on a rooftop. They’d similarly be forgiven for thinking Batman’s bounding with his fists like a dog. But Rags Morales grounds his two-page image in actual space, so that we understand exactly where everyone’s standing on the rooftop, and how close they are to one another and to that rooftop’s edge. In comparison, Jim Lee’s image feels generic, lacking almost any sense of actual space or placement within that space.

The two images, while similar in so many ways, couldn’t be more different. One has all the stuff of melodrama, but only functions on the most superficial of levels. The other’s carefully constructed, both artistically and as part of a larger narrative, and invests its far more limited spectacle with meaning.

As Action Comics #1 continues, Superman takes to the air and intimidates the corrupt businessman before landing and again confronting the police. On page nine, a policeman fires at Superman for the first time. Although it’s a single shot, it allows the story to demonstrate Superman’s invulnerability (having already demonstrated his flight).

Action Comics #1, top of page 9

Coincidentally, page nine of Justice League #1 also uses police bullets to demonstrate a super-hero’s invulnerability — the newly-arrived Green Lantern’s. Those police helicopters have found Batman and Green Lantern, and they’re spraying the scene indiscriminately with machine-gun fire. Green Lantern dutifully tells Batman that “They’re wasting their bullets. This force field can stand up to… well, anything.”

I guess that provides some new information. But it violates the creative writing dictum “show, don’t tell.” In other words, we already see Green Lantern standing up to a hail of machine-gun fire. He doesn’t need to explain this to Batman. His claim to be able to withstand “well, anything” isn’t believable, since it’s obviously unnecessary macho bragging, so it hardly adds any new information at all. It’s a little like the way comics from previous decades, especially at Silver Age Marvel Comics, would use captions to describe exactly what the reader was seeing already.

This only underlines how effortlessly and cleverly Morrison and Morales are able to impart much the same information in Action Comics #1. In fact, Morrison is clearly aware of how demonstrating a super-hero’s invulnerability through gunfire is a cliche. “Let me guess,” he says. “Always one of you wants to know if it’s true what The Daily Planet says about me, right?” And a single policeman fires a single shot, which Superman catches in the palm of his hand.

“Satisfied?” Superman asks the officer. But he’s also asking the reader. We don’t need to see a hail of bullets, fired by impossibly aggressive cops, bursting melodramatically against Superman’s skin. We get it.

But Morrison also communicates Superman’s invulnerability in a far more effective and, well, satisfying way. Because Superman’s so confident that he’s clearly bored with the police shooting at him. Like the reader, he’s seen that before. So he virtually invites an officer to take a shot, understanding that the police, like the reader, won’t be satisfied that he really is invulnerable until they see it. Superman’s so obviously unconcerned with gunfire that he almost acts put-upon. And this confidence does more to communicate his invulnerability than all the policemen’s bullets ever could.

Ironically, Green Lantern in Justice League is supposed to be arrogant. We mostly know this because he acts insanely stupidly. In the thin line between cockiness and stupidity, Green Lantern’s clearly far over the line. Yet in this one scene, Morrison establishes Superman as justifiably confident, and he does so with a single bullet and with smart dialogue.

In fact, just before the gunshot business, Superman responds to an officer shouting “You’re under arrest!” with “You need to call your doctor about that ulcer, Detective Blake. I can see it throbbing fit to burst from here.” That’s confidence. That’s invulnerability.

But of course, it also establishes another of Superman’s powers — his X-ray vision.

It’s also phenomenally smart. Because it’s realistic, despite Morrison claiming to eschew realism in his super-heroes. After all, if Superman had X-ray vision, he’d see this kind of thing all the time. How brilliant is it that, while someone can wave a gun at Superman, he can see into the body of his would-be assailant and instantly diagnose a serious medical condition? How much more one-sided could such a confrontation be?

But of course, it’s also phenomenally fun. Far more so than yet another hollow scene with helicopters and machine guns. And so much for the vicious lie that realism or intelligence need be at odds with super-hero fun.

In case we really need cops firing machine guns, page ten of Action Comics #1 gives us just that, as Superman makes his exit. But what’s far more compelling there is Superman’s blissful smile, or his dialogue (“Catch me if you can!“), again communicating his carefree, confident character.

As Action Comics #1 continues, we’re introduced to Lex Luthor and to General Lane, Lois Lane’s father. They call Superman “it,” demonstrating how they don’t see him as human. Luthor points out that Superman “didn’t refuse the name,” which underlines the cockiness of this version of Superman — but which is also true of Superman before Grant Morrison got a hold of him. In other words, Morrison has managed to stay true to the character, while explaining or adding to him. And he does this effortlessly, through a single sentence of dialogue.

On the same page of Justice League #1, the story’s only villain is apparently shooting sparks out of his butt while Green Lantern creates green bats to fight the helicopters.

That’s not to say that, despite its intelligence, Action Comics #1 doesn’t have problems. I’d fault the same scene that introduces General Lane and Lex Luthor for working better if the reader has some kind of past knowledge of these characters. It helps if readers know who Lois Lane is, when reading this page for the first time, although she will appear later in the issue. It also helps if readers know Lex Luthor is a villain, although that too will soon become clear. Minor faults, to be sure, but worth mentioning.

The story of Action Comics suddenly becomes a lot more conventional, as Superman defends innocents from Lex Luthor’s machinations. There’s some nonsense here, like the military apparently going along with Luthor swinging wrecking balls at inhabited buildings (even if those buildings are slated for demolition), tanks firing in an urban area, and silliness such as fully automated helicopters and electrified nets.

But even here, at the comic’s weakest and most cliched, Morrison emphasizes how Superman defends the innocent. He’s appalled at the way his attackers don’t seem to care for civilians, and he endeavors to defend them. The civilians, in turn, bravely defend Superman on the street, helping him escape.

In other words, Superman is a hero. He might go against the law, but he stands for regular, good people. As revolutionary as this take on Superman may be, Morrison hasn’t changed that, and that’s to his credit. Of course, such a sequence is especially important because Superman has threatened a man’s life and violated the law. But more than that, the sequence establishes what a super-hero is. And this is especially important because this issue is the first one, designed to function as someone’s introduction to the character and even to super-hero comics.

Yet such a sequence is fairly rare these days. It’s not in Justice League #1, for example. There, even as Gotham is being drowned in a hail of gunfire and flames, the most we get is a single panel in which Green Lantern bothers to put out the fires. There’s not a single image of a family fearing these flames, nor screaming as machine-gun fire tears through their window. In fact, neither Batman nor Green Lantern mentions the civilians being endangered, even as they put out the fires. It doesn’t enter their mind.

And there, Green Lantern is introduced by using deadly force on strangers, with no sign that the comic is even aware of the terrible moral implications of such an act. It’s an act which in Action Comics #1 would align Green Lantern with the story’s villains.

After returning home and changing into his Clark Kent persona, Morrison establishes Kent’s personality and that he’s often late with the rent. Rags Morales admirably depicts his landlord, a middle-aged woman, as a real person and not a gorgeous 20-something.

While not a stunning sequence, there’s intelligence here too. Dialogue casually discusses how Superman stopped a wife-beater, which further characterizes Superman for the new reader but also refers to the aforementioned sequence from the original Action Comics #1. In this way, Morrison demonstrates, in the story itself, that his new take on Superman is legitimate, rooted in and respectful of the character’s history.

Superman then has to stop a runaway elevated train, in a sequence that echoes both Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2. Like the earlier attacks on Superman, it’s not the issue’s strongest sequence, and the art seems to get strangely cartoony in places, as if some of it was rushed. (Although it does contain a great panel in which Superman says “ow” very softly.)

Action Comics #1, bottom of page 24

Still, the sequence serves its function. It also briefly establishes Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, as well as Superman’s concern for them. More surprisingly, Clark Kent is said to be working for a rival paper, having not yet joined the Daily Planet.

The train attack is a step too far even for General Lane, who’s previously endorsed endangering civilians on a more minor level. But this time, his daughter, Lois Lane, is on the train. In justifying his actions, Lex Luthor gives what is perhaps the best explanation ever given for the way he perceives Superman as a threat to humanity: he cites how invasive species decimate the existing ecosystem. It’s a strained metaphor, but it works, especially by invoking the law of unintended consequences. The very presence of Superman is bound to affect humanity in unexpected ways, and both Lex Luthor and General Lane seem invested in the status quo.

from Action Comics #1, page 28

The issue ends with Superman apparently defeated, which is certainly an excellent cliffhanger for a first issue. Even if readers don’t come to the issue caring about Superman, this cliffhanger still means something. First, the issue’s established Superman’s confident power, so his defeat represents something of a twist. Second, the issue’s bothered to establish Superman’s goodness, so even new readers know his defeat isn’t a good thing. Third, the issue’s established the evil of his opponents, who are content to endanger civilians, so we certainly don’t want the hero falling into their hands. It’s not the best cliffhanger ever, but it’s serviceable because of how it’s been set up.

It also makes the story feel like a complete chapter, with an actual ending, even if that ending obviously isn’t the end of the overall story.

Compare this with the ending of Justice League #1, in which Superman simply shows up, which gets a splash page all its own. Yet unless we already know and care about Superman, this cliffhanger (such as it is) means nothing. And it certainly doesn’t leave the reader feel like he or she has read a complete story, even if it’s only a chapter.

But there’s one other difference between the two issues. Action Comics #1 runs 29 pages. Justice League #1 runs 24. Both cost $3.99, one dollar more than the normal 20-page issue at $2.99.

None of this should be taken to imply that Action Comics #1 is a masterpiece. It’s definitely good, but it’s not quite great. Its first ten pages, taken as its own short story, would be great — and that’s high praise indeed. But the various threats to Superman that follow feel a bit too run-of-the-mill.

Still, there’s plenty of cleverness throughout, including things I haven’t mentioned. (How great is the policeman mentioning that laws can be violated now, since Superman defies the law of gravity? And what a lovely character touch, when Clark Kent casually says, as an aside, that the lock on his apartment is her responsibility?)

But if anything, the flaws make Action Comics #1 more approachable as a model. What it does right can be copied. Without being a mad Scottish genius.

It’s not unfathomable. It’s also not perfect. But it can still serve as a beacon.

For how to write Superman, certainly. But for how to write super-heroes too.

Tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Julian Darius:

This Lightning, This Madness: Understanding Alan Moore\'s Miracleman, Book One

author

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe

contributor

producer

A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

contributor

Classics on Infinite Earths: The Justice League and DC Crossover Canon

author

executive producer

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

contributor

producer

executive producer

When Manga Came to America: Super-Hero Revisionism in Mai, the Psychic Girl

author

a short documentary on Chris Claremont's historic run and its influence

executive producer

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews

introduction

Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization

co-author

Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

contributor

The Weirdest Sci-Fi Comic Ever Made: Understanding Jack Kirby\'s 2001: A Space Odyssey

author

The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil

contributor

Everything and a Mini-Series for the Kitchen Sink: Understanding Infinite Crisis

author

Revisionism, Radical Experimentation, and Dystopia in Keith Giffen\'s Legion of Super-Heroes

author

And the Universe so Big: Understanding Batman: The Killing Joke

author

a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

executive producer

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

contributor

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen

contributor

a documentary on the life and work of celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison

executive producer

Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen

author

Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes

contributor

Not pictured:

6 Comments

  1. Favorite line: He might be incredibly powerful, but he’s usually portrayed in a way that makes him, to contemporary eyes, kind of a pussy.

    I just love that you called Superman a pussy, even just by inference. Great article. I can’t add anything of substance cause I think you said it all.

    If DC takes its que from this book and even Animal Man we could be alright.

  2. David Balan says:

    Fascinating! I’m writing a review of why I actually don’t like Action Comics #1 at all, as we speak! (type?) Although it has less to do with the content and more its presentation – ought to be fun to compare!

Leave a Reply