The Old 52: Action Comics & The Birthplace of Modern Morrison


When they began their run on Action Comics in 2011, Grant Morrison was at a crucial juncture in their comics career. After returning to DC in the early 2000s following the end of their run on New X-Men, they launched into a staggering creative frenzy that took them through the first act of their Batman epic, their cult classic take on The Seven Soldiers of Victory, and the multi-Eisner Award winning All-Star Superman with their defining artistic partner Frank Quitely, along with significant contributions to the acclaimed 52. Their mid-naughts imperial phase culminated when Dan DiDio finally handed them the keys to the kingdom and allowed them to do their take on a classic DC Crisis event, leading to the seven-issue Final Crisis with J.G. Jones and Doug Mahnke. Instead of delivering a classic crossover action comic (heh), Morrison wrote a baroque, austere story about the apocalypse powered by symbolism and metaphor as much, if not moreso, than by narrative logic, an ontologically dense exploration of DC’s icons that contrasted them with grimy images of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World New Gods to advance Morrison’s concept of the Justice League as the gods of the Fifth World.

Related:

Grant Morrison DC reading order

New 52 reading order

DC’s New 52 10 Years Later

the final crisis

It was a disaster. DC editorial failed to properly coordinate between Morrison and the writers of series leading into the event such as Jim Starlin’s Death of the New Gods and Paul Dini and co.’s Countdown to Final Crisis, leading to Morrison’s series directly contradicting the events of its preludes. The critical response was at best ambivalent, and it garnered an instantly dire reception amongst the comic fan community, who — as it turned out — weren’t looking for an experimental, narratively-fragmented story with a heaping of metafiction out of their big blockbuster summer event! The hatred Final Crisis garnered was so immediate and so overwhelming that DiDio felt comfortable mocking the story within a week (a week!) of the final issue’s release. Even those of us who are fond of the story (and I very much am) have to concede that it was an unmitigated failure. And when Blackest Night came out five months later to critical and fan acclaim, it became clear that, as Morrison once quipped with barely-suppressed bitterness, “I brought the DC Universe to life, and it fell in love with Geoff Johns.”

It was a rough blow to Morrison. Their artistic legacy was already unimpeachable, but it seemed as though the glory days were over, and DC would never again entrust them to helm the ship. They continued their work on Batman & Robin, but their creative control was slipping; DC mandated that Morrison bring Bruce Wayne back to the present within two years of his nominal ‘death’, and when the New 52 reboot came, they were replaced as the head writer of the Bat-line in favor of rising star Scott Snyder.

However, even if Morrison was no longer DC’s golden child, they were a popular and critically-beloved author, and DC were in the market for popular and critically-beloved hits. The New 52 was a big swing, and anything less than a reaction of effusive acclaim would be a failure (uh-oh). And while Morrison had fumbled with Final Crisis, they were still the writer of what was already perhaps the most beloved Superman comic of all-time, eliciting more excitement for the character than any comic since (to paraphrase a cutting line from Infinite Crisis) Superman had died, nearly two decades prior. So while DC rescheduled Batman: Leviathan, they dangled a prize too tantalizing for Morrison to resist: the chance to launch the first Action Comics #1 since the series’ initial publication in 1938. Morrison initially signed on for eighteen issues, alluding to the possibility of doing more in interviews at the time: “I’ll just probably stay on after the same way I did on Batman: I work out the first year or so and then I find myself getting much more involved in it once I’ve done a few issues, so I’m hoping once I’m done the sixteen I’ll just keep going as long as it seems exciting.” However, once that initial batch was done, they left the title, which would be their last ongoing DC work (with the exception of the final issues of their Batman Incorporated run) for nearly a decade.

The intervening decade would be a period of creative gestation for Morrison, as they began to shift away from many of the thematic concerns and stylistic tics of their career up until that point. Multiversity, published from 2014-2015, was perhaps their last great superhero work, as much a eulogy for their work in the DCU as it was a love letter to its potential. Beginning with Happy!, they began to focus more on television writing than on their comics work, and when they returned to monthly comics with The Green Lantern in 2018, they made a visible effort to apply the lessons they’d learnt in the writers rooms at UCP to comics, launching with a seasons model that has quietly become a major influence on DC’s publishing (between Ram V’s The Swamp Thing, the relaunched Milestone comics, and James Tynion IV’s The Nice House on the Lake). Morrison’s pursuit of artistic growth in this period often led to awkward storytelling that didn’t rank with their best work, even with highs such as the whimsical Klaus and the cheerfully nihilistic Annihilator, but here at the beginning of the 2020s, it looks like that work is starting to pay off. Watching them playfully tweak Stranger Things’ nose in Proctor Valley Road has been fun, and I’m more excited for their upcoming novella than almost any new work of theirs since I began reading comics.

With two significant creative periods for Morrison on either side of it — the imperial phase, and the post-television residency experiments — it’s easy to look over Action Comics. It’s a fairly short run tied to one of the most maligned periods in DC’s history; obviously of interest to fans of All-Star Superman, but inessential for those interested in Morrison’s oeuvre. However, I would push back against that. Reading the run in its entirety for the first time only a couple months ago, it struck me that 2011’s Action Comics contains the first glimmers of Morrison’s exploration of televisual storytelling that would come to define their 2010s output. As such, while it might not be a perennial in its own right, it shows Morrison at the tipping point, leaning towards the future.

But before I get into all that, I want to talk about the first issue for a bit.

SUPERMAN VS. THE CITY OF TOMORROW (#1)

… is the best debut issue of the New 52 (and I have the hardcover collecting all 52, a Christmas gift from a more innocent time when I thought Dan Jurgens’ and Aaron Lopresti’s Justice League International was worth reading because it co-starred Batman), a delightful standalone story on its own merits, and deserving of being made a permanent addition to any future Best-Of Superman collections. It’s pretty much everything you’d want out of ‘Grant Morrison reinventing Superman from the ground-up,’ full of details that build out Clark’s world in a way that could easily sustain years’ worth of stories. Indeed, one of the disappointments of the run is that Morrison so quickly abandons the setup they so lovingly establish — by Issue #8, Superman has donned Jim Lee’s redesigned costume, and by #14, the run jumps to the present-day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at what the issue itself offers.

The opening scene dives right into the action (appropriately enough), as Morrison quickly sketches Mr. Glenmorgan as the archetypal Wall Street bastard. And in the third panel, Superman flies in, delivering a line I don’t think anyone would have expected Superman to say: “Rats. Rats with money. / And rats with guns. I’m your worst nightmare.” We then cut to the lobby, where the police rush in and survey the carnage. It’s extremely small-scale by the standards of Superman’s powers, with a man chucked halfway through the wall while two goons are bound together by a steel bar bent into a clasp, but the tactile nature of the violence lends it an awe — and, indeed, terror — that a generic supervillain battle never reaches. The effect is reinforced by the petrified words of Mr. Glenmorgan’s assistant: “Hurling them around like they weighed nothing! Flames shooting out of his eyes! Don’t let him get me!

Within two pages, Morrison has completely defamiliarized Superman, the newly rough-edged personality and the emphasis on the dissonance between the ‘grounded’ setting and superpowers managing to erase over 70 years of history in the reader’s mind and allowing us to view him as if for the first time. Rags Morales’s art is key to making this work — his pencils are tight, but have an element of cartoonishness, a halfway point between Neal Adams and Michael Golden, and the heavy inks give his illustrations a strong sense of weight. It adds an element of verisimilitude whilst remaining poppy and fun, a balancing act that’s perfectly suited to the tone Morrison’s story sets. As the cops advance up the apartment complex in the third page, the destruction looks palpable even as the characters navigating the space look slightly exaggerated. The cops demand that Superman put Mr. Glenmorgan down, to which he smirkingly replies, “Sure, officer, I’ll put him down… / Just as soon as he makes a full confession. To someone who still believes the law works the same for rich and poor alike,” leading to a splash panel that in a just world will be homaged in comics being published twenty years from now:

Beautiful. Within four pages, we have a perfect understanding of this new Superman’s character and of his adversarial relationship with the Metropolis establishment. Morrison has taken Superman back to his roots as a social crusader, one who challenged the problems within society instead of defending society from those without. A scant four years after the subprime mortgage financial crash, this was a perfect angle to take on Superman, taking him out of the realm of the slightly remote and crashing him directly into the zeitgeist. Like I said earlier, I respect & understand Morrison’s choice to structure their run on the comic as the evolution of Superman from this primordial version to a full-fledged superhero, but it’s such a shame that this version didn’t get the chance to breathe.

Superman jumps down the building, scaring the wits out of Mr. Glenmorgan and successfully eliciting a confession of all the usual rich people crimes: think back to any news stories you’ve read about working conditions at Amazon, and you’ll get the gist. Superman cheerfully banters with the police, warning one very high-strung detective about his ulcer, before catching a bullet fired by a panicked policeman. “You know the deal, Metropolis,” he says before he joyously flees the scene. “Treat people right or expect a visit from me.” We then cut to a high-tech military base, where General Sam Lane is watching an overview of Metropolis alongside a young Lex Luthor. This is perhaps the funniest of Morrison’s reconceptualizations — Lex becomes a slightly chubby, insecure nerd who compulsively sips energy drinks while self-aggrandizingly waxing poetic about how much he loves his country. They’re working to lure Superman into a trap, so Lex targets a building filled with squatters for demolition. The thematic territory of the issue is extremely tight — Superman is the champion of the oppressed, fighting against an establishment that doesn’t care about the little people. When a tank blasts Superman with heavy munitions, the squatters block the artillery, one of them shouting, “Enough! This guy just saved our lives! My kids! / What the hell is wrong with you people!

The grateful Superman flies back to his apartment, where we’re introduced to his tough-but-kind landlady, Mrs N., and Clark reveals that his investigative work runs parallel to his superheroic exploits — exposing corruption in the union docks. He calls Jimmy, who Morrison makes Clark’s best friend at an opposing newspaper, who’s pursuing a lead with Lois (Clark’s journalistic rival) on a futuristic bullet-train. This turns out to be another one of Lex’s traps; he purposely derails the train, which — when Superman catches it — acts more or less as a giant steel bullet. Superman saves the passengers’ lives, but is rendered unconscious, free to be picked up by the military.

WORLD AGAINST SUPERMAN (#2-4, 7-8)

Superman wakes up strapped to an electric chair, as Lex supervises a variety of torture methods — electricity, acid, poison gas — in an attempt to figure out Superman’s physiology. During the retinue of torture, he mocks Superman, telling him that he can drop the disguise. Lex knows about the planet Krypton and seems to think that Kryptonians don’t naturally resemble humans. His theory?

We’ll come back to that.

Superman escapes the facility, to find that Mr. Glenmorgan has turned the tide of public opinion against him, and he realizes that his aggressive posturing has left himself vulnerable to spin by an untrusting media. As he begins to feel like he’s failed his mission, we see that Lex got his information on Krypton (really just the name) from an unknown source — Brainiac, depicted as a Lovecraftian monster of metal tentacles. Brainiac invades, taking over industrial plants to produce robot soldiers, before shrinking Metropolis into a Kandor-style bottle and flying away. Superman shakes off his blues and pursues it, in the process discovering his New 52 armor and the spaceship that brought him to Earth. He defeats Brainiac by flicking the miniaturized rocket into Brainiac’s brain, which expands and destroys him, and becomes Earth’s hero.

It’s all classic, boilerplate superhero-origin stuff; perfectly entertaining, but as the story moves further from the grounded and into the realm of the space opera, it loses much of the spark that made #1 so brilliant. That being said, there are a wealth of clever grace notes as one would expect from Morrison: John Corben, the soldier who becomes Metallo, gets a nice arc as he gives up his humanity to fight Superman, gets brainwashed by Brainiac, and finally resists his brainwashing to save Superman; the cuts back to Mr. Glenmorgan and Detective Blake of the bad ulcer reacting to the insanity of their new lives is hilarious; and, of course, every word out of Luthor’s mouth is sheer bliss. I particularly love, as Henry Irons resigns in horror at Superman’s torture in #2, Lex’s blasé response, “So… We’ve established that torture is a very bad thing. / Let’s take it to 300,000 volts at 10 amps.

However, you’ll note that we skipped over #5-6. This is because they aren’t actually part of the opening story; indeed, I’m fairly sure they were originally intended to be #7-8, immediately after the first arc’s ending, but were moved up when it became clear that Rags Morales wasn’t going to be able to finish his pages in time. This is far less obtrusive than you’d expect — in my opinion, it actually improves the story, because its plot revolves around Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes time-travelling back to the events of World Against Superman. Its form matches its function: an achronological story published early, interrupting the story the characters have traveled back to. You might even say that it’s… timey-wimey.

OH CHRIST, SHE’S MAKING IT ABOUT DOCTOR WHO AGAIN

I know. I know! I’m sorry! I promise that there’s a good reason behind the comparison, and it’s not because I have an extremely limited frame of reference, nor because I think all time-travel stories are automatically inspired by Doctor Who.

#5 is told from the perspective of the rocket ship that flew Kal-El to Earth, filling in key elements of his backstory, giving an alternate perspective on the events of World Against Superman, and setting up future issues of the run. We see the final moments of Jor-El and Lara, as they briefly consider retreating to the Phantom Zone before the criminals that Jor-El locked up threaten them and begin to break down the dimensional barriers. Krypto launches himself into the Phantom Zone to keep the family safe, and Lara reminds Jor-El of the prototype rocket ship that (in a nice touch) they built together. Krypton explodes, and the rocket ship lands next to Jonathan and Martha Kent’s pickup as they ponder over the deformed calf one of their neighbor’s animals gave birth to. To prevent the military from taking Kal-El, Jonathan dresses the calf in metal and tells them it was the passenger in the rocket. “I reckon I found me a spaceman,” he says, and we learn the origin of Lex’s hilarious error in #2. From there, we see the events of #2-8 play out, spoiling parts of the story for those reading the issues in the order of publication in the process, which would be annoying if it weren’t so audacious. And we then see Brainiac’s mothership, converted into a proto-Fortress of Solitude, as the Anti-Superman Squad invades and tears out the rocket ship’s heart, which is made of Kryptonite.

#6 is a more straightforward story, as Superman, along with Lightning Lad, Cosmic Boy, and Saturn Girl, try to track down the Anti-Superman Squad and restore the Kryptonite engine to its proper place. Here, the Doctor Who references come in droves:

  1. Saturn Girl muses that they’re facing an enemy “that can erect impregnable shields around events,” echoing the Doctor Who device of fixed points in time;
  2. Superman wonders “How the time bubble can have more room inside than out,” just like the Doctor’s TARDIS;
  3. In flashbacks to Clark’s youth, the color of the barn changes from blue to red, what would normally be dismissed by readers as a simple continuity error — until Morrison reveals that they’re an indication that Superman’s mind is being tampered with, a repeat of the trick Steven Moffat pulls in Series 5 finale The Big Bang, when the Doctor travels back to the events of the episode Flesh and Stone, explaining why he was wearing his coat after losing it earlier in the episode;
  4. The Sisterhood of Abiding Hate bear a striking similarity to the Adherents of the Repeated Meme in Series 1 episode The End of the World, and are likewise revealed to be not what they seem;
  5. And the very structure of a fully-formed protagonist from the future going back to the era of an embryonic version of the series lead, published/broadcast early in the writer’s time on the character, is a dead-ringer for River Song’s introduction in Series 4 two-parter Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.

If the echoes of Doctor Who were limited to this two-parter, it would be a fun thing to note in a broad overview of the run, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough to justify my thesis that Morrison’s Action Comics represents their first flirtation with bringing televisual storytelling to their comics. However, there’s a reason I keep looping back to the deformed calf from #2 (finally, she explains herself).

Elizabeth Sandifer, author of The Last War in Albion, which is probably the best work of comics criticism being published these days, used to write a series called TARDIS Eruditorum, tracking the history of Britain through the lens of an episode-by-episode look at Doctor Who. In her entry on the Series 6 episode A Good Man Goes To War (which was broadcast just three months before the publication of Superman Versus The City of Tomorrow), she coined the term ‘narrative substitution’ to describe the standard operating procedure of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes from this era:

“Narrative substitution works by initially appearing to tell one type of story, and then rejecting that story, typically on ethical or ideological grounds, generally by revealing that the story was in fact an entirely different type of story all along… narrative substitutions are textual games that assume an audience who is on the lookout for the substitution and carefully watching the shells as they are cycled about the table.”

This is, obviously, an approach that leans heavily on metafiction, and furthermore relies on the assumption that its audience is narratively savvy enough to identify the signifiers & tropes of the genre of story they’re being told. It’s not hard to see how this would be compatible with the way Morrison tells stories (and Morrison has singled out Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner as their favorite era of the show). But Morrison isn’t engaging in a straightforward example of narrative substitution: the final mode of storytelling — a superhero story — is a predetermined element of writing a series like Action Comics. Instead, they’re using the vocabulary of narrative substitution and making it a textual element of Superman’s arc throughout their run.

Throughout World Against Superman, the main characters mistake what kind of story they’re in. Superman believes himself to be a 21st-century Doc Savage, an extra-normal man who uses his heightened physical capabilities to right society’s wrongs. Lex Luthor believes himself to be in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, trying to root out a parasitic alien organism taking on the form of a man. John Corben thinks he’s in a Robert Heinlein novel, where the virile, masculine army man enhanced by sci-fi weaponry will vanquish the alien foe. In #6, the present-day Superman gazes at the Earth and reflects, “Down there, right now, the word ‘Superhero’ had just come into existence” after he saved Metropolis for the first time. While the defined genre of the story precludes a true use of narrative substitution, Morrison makes this a feature, not a bug. Morrison’s run on Action Comics examines the question of how the concept of a ‘superhero’ was first established in the New 52 continuity, a bolder embrace of the conceptual possibilities opened up by the reboot than any other writer approached. Which is a question that the run’s defining villain addresses head-on.

THE OVERCORP SUPERMAN (#9-18)

#9 serves roughly the same narrative function as Batman #666 — although instead of showing an alternate future, it takes us to an alternate universe: Earth-23, home of Calvin Ellis, AKA “Making Barack Obama Superman sure must’ve seemed like a good idea a decade ago, huh”. Despite how rapidly the idea aged, the story’s still as bracing as it was a decade ago. Calvin stumbles upon a dimension-hopping apparatus powered by sound (in a callback to the harmonic resonance plot resolution from Final Crisis) called the Transmitter Symphonic Array, through which an alternate version of Lois Lane hops in, accompanied by the burnt corpse of Jimmy Olsen and the nearly-dead Clark Kent. On their Earth, they created the idea of Superman as a way of inspiring the world, but were convinced to sell out to OverCorp in the basest capitalist way you could imagine: “[You want to retain the] Rights? But we’d be taking all the risks. But that’s why we have lawyers, isn’t it? / You do have lawyers? Yes?” OverCorp gathers a team of experts to turn Superman into a “Global marketing icon,” a horrifying vision of predatory corporate IP management:

The dying Clark laments, “… he becomes anything you want… him… to be… our world… wanted that…” as the OverCorp Superman attacks Calvin. After fending him off using the boxing advice of Muhammad Ali, along with an assist from a ranting Luthor (“You’re the raw essence, the beast in Superman! The smug fascist bully boy I saw there all along!”), Ellis is able to push the OverCorp Superman back into the Transmitter Symphonic Array. The issue ends with Lois and Calvin introducing themselves to one another, as Lois speculates, “I guess you must be Superman done right.” This issue is one of the two great triumphs of Morrison’s run, alongside #1, a passionate indictment of the failures of corporate-controlled superheroes that presents the ideal version of the Superman concept as a black man, the promise of which is only starting to be fulfilled now with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new movie.

The next arc is a tight three issues, expanding on Clark’s early concerns about whether he’s using his powers to make the world a better place as best as he can, and whether the identity of Clark Kent is holding him back. It’s fun but relatively lightweight, packing in Morrison’s usual density of concepts between the idea of the First Superman in Kansas’s past, a Kraven-the-Hunter type called Nimrod who tries (and fails) to hunt Superman down, and the reveal that Clark’s landlady is Mr. Mxyptlk’s wife, attacked by Lord Vyndktvx — Mr. Glenmorgan’s assistant from #1, the Anti-Superman Squad’s organizer from #5-6, and the head of OverCorp who elicits Lois’s, Clark’s, and Jimmy’s selling-out of the Superman™ concept — and who can be seen at the issue’s end lurking over Lois’s telepathic niece Susie.

The highlight of the arc is the subplot where Morrison tracks the early development of Superman & Batman’s relationship from tense standoffishness to mutual respect and admiration (even if Batman plants a small homing device on Superman’s cape in the final panel), which is as much of a hoot as you’d imagine. And the Doctor Who references continue with the appearance of Daleks Metaleks, a legally distinct entity that the BBC can’t sue for copyright infringement over (which even borrow a move from Steven Moffat’s 2012 episode Asylum of the Daleks and possess a man’s body while its metal appendages burst out of his skull). However, it also begins to show the problem with keeping Rags Morales past the first arc — he’s simply not an artist who can maintain a monthly schedule, necessitating DC’s stable of mediocre fill-in artists to cover some of his pages even after four of the first 13 were handled by Andy Kubert, Gene Ha, and Travel Foreman.

#13 is a lovely little Halloween story following Clark as he finally rescues Krypto from the Phantom Zone, as Morrison once again proves to be the best animal writer in comics (bolstered by a standout backup story by Sholly Fisch, whose lovely character vignettes are a consistent delight throughout Morrison’s run), ending with Vyndktvx recruiting Phantom Ghost Xa-Du, who made his first appearance as a member of the Anti-Superman Squad in #6, which reinforcing #6’s place as a lynchpin of the run, containing a plethora of payoffs that succeeding issues provide the setups for. Morrison is clearly having fun with the non-chronological storytelling.

The final arc begins in #14, as Superman travels to Mars and fights the Metaleks and a swarm of violent, carnivorous angels known as the Collective, which are revealed to be an aspect of Vyndktvx striking simultaneously against him and Jor-El. The story quickly becomes a kaleidoscope of fractured chronology as we learn the true origin of Vyndktvx: he was a court jester of the 5th Dimension who was replaced by the superior showman Mxyptlk, taking his revenge against Mxyptlk’s greatest trick: Superman, the trick who tricked back, who always outsmarted him and sent him home. Morrison brings all the threads of the run together, as Vyndktvx unleashes the OverCorp Superman, the Anti-Superman Squad, and his own 5th-Dimensional assault against Superman. Superman’s many allies from the run — from the First Superman to the Legion of Super-Heroes, the citizens of Metropolis rising to help him to a raving Lex Luthor in an echo of #9 — unite to help him fend off Vyndktvx, and the story ends with Superman giving up the chance to have Vyndktvx’s effects on his life erased (including, it’s implied, the death of Jonathan and Martha) in favor of having the people who died on his mission to Mars resurrected. It’s certainly on the high-end of complexity and difficulty in monthly comics, with Morrison finally paying off their promise to show “Superman’s life as seen from a five-dimensional perspective,” but it’s far from impossible if you’re willing to devote some real attention to it, and the giddy onslaught of ideas is a huge thrill. And thus, having wrapped everything up in a neat (well, for certain values of the word) bow, the run ends.

When I first read Grant Morrison’s Action Comics, I liked it well enough, but I was still fairly ambivalent. The inconsistency of the art was annoying, and — being a long-time lover of T-Shirt Superman — I felt that the run’s strengths were too heavily weighted towards its front half. However, the more times I’ve re-read it, the more I’ve come to appreciate the density of thought and playful inventiveness of the run, bolstered by Morrison’s always-exceptional handle on Superman’s voice and character. The bizarre fractal structure can make it a bit unapproachable, but it’s a series that grows on you. And as a hardcore Whovian, it’s a joy to see Morrison liberally stealing from their favorite show’s toolbox and using it to write a Superman story unlike any other. Morrison’s Action Comics has plenty of fans, or at least enough to justify a hardcover omnibus, but I still think it’s due for a closer look, 10 years on. It rewards careful examination.

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