Morrison's Superman very good, but not great (yet)

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service

There’s a new Superman in town, and he’s … OK.


When DC Comics re-launched the titles comprising its superhero universe last year, they took the opportunity to re-tool the Man of Steel a little bit. Action Comics started over with a new first issue, showing Superman in his earliest days – which, in this new universe, is five years ago. (Superman began again, too, but set in the present day.)


And in a stroke of brilliance, DC hired Grant Morrison to write Action Comics. Morrison is famous (or infamous) for gigantic, mind-blowing concepts and ideas (that are occasionally incomprehensible). He’s the author of one of the best Superman stories every written, All-Star Superman. He’s also a Scotsman who’s thought more about American superheroes than any American, penning the instant classic Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.


And at first it seemed we were heading for something memorable. I raved about last September’s Action Comics #1 on my website, which gave us a Superman reminiscent of his 1938 debut – a man “only” as powerful as a locomotive, one who jumped instead of flying, with New Deal ideals and a passion for fighting on behalf of the common man.


So I was looking forward to the first collection, out this month. Superman: Action Comics Volume 1 – Superman and the Men of Steel ($24.99) collects the first eight issues of the new Action Comics. And for better or worse, it was not what I expected.


Which is perhaps my own fault. I was so surprised – and pleased – to see a Superman with an attitude that I wanted the emphasis on that concept to continue. Not just because I also tend to side with the underdog, but because it’s bold, it’s brash and it’s courageous storytelling – all things you haven’t been able to say about the Superman books for a long, long time. Like it or loathe it, this Superman was feisty, with an edge.


But that turned out to be an element of the story, not the focus. Instead, subsequent issues of Action Comics went about the business of building major, and familiar, components of Superman’s world. Morrison keeps to the core of elements like Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, the Daily Planet, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Ma and Pa Kent, Steel, the Bottle City of Kandor and kryptonite, but retools some of the details for the 21st century.


And, since it’s Morrison, this was a lot of fun with some big, big ideas. I liked most of what he did, especially making Jimmy Olsen and Clark Kent contemporaries and best friends. (The days when an older Superman and a younger Jimmy can be “pals” without raising eyebrows are long gone.) He re-imagines Krypton as the perfect scientific utopia imagined in 1930s science fiction with modern SF twists, which works on a number of levels. Also, in the bonus material in the back, Morrison says he wanted to recreate the feeling of Superman’s early stories with “nonstop, kinetic, muscular action” – something he achieves with rousing success. (Morrison notes in the back that you can tell when Superman’s in trouble – it’s when he’s not in motion.)


As to the art, I’m a big fan of artist Rags Morales, who brings not only tremendous talent and skill to the page, but deep thought to the concepts. For example, Morales says of Superman that he imagined him as a combination of Steve Reeves (the 1950s TV Superman) and the king of rock and roll. “When he’s catching the bullet, he’s got that Elvis light in the corner of his eye.”


So this is an excellent update to the Man of Steel, especially compared to other such attempts, such as Superman: Earth One (2011), Superman: Secret Origin (2009) and Superman: Birthright (2003). All of those also took the basic story we’re all familiar with and attempted to tweak it for the current century, with mixed results. Action Comics is more imaginative and entertaining on almost every level.


So call it the prejudice of high expectations. When you attach the name Grant Morrison to Superman, I expect to have my brain blown out the back of my head. But Action Comics Volume 1 is “only” a terrific comics collection full of action, humor and high concept.


This would be a high-water mark for any other book, with any other creative team. With Morrison and Morales, though, I expect the best is yet to come.


Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at



1. Superman: Action Comics Volume 1 -- Superman and the Men of Steel collects the first eight issues of the new Action Comics. Copyright DC Entertainment Inc.

2. Superman battles one of Brainiac's robots on the cover to Action Comics #4. Copyright DC Entertainment Inc.
3. Baby Kal-El is launched from the doomed planet Krypton on the cover to Action Comics #5. Copyright DC Entertainment Inc. 

Views: 467

Comment by Jason Marconnet (Pint sized mod) on August 23, 2012 at 6:08pm

Nice review, Cap! I read up to issue 11 or 12 of Action Comics before dropping it. It had it's moments as you said but it wasn't enough to hold my interest. I may pick up the whole thing once it's eventually collecting in one mega collection.


We have been discussing All Star Superman on the board and I entertained the discussion of the comparison between the characterization of Superman in All Star and the new Action comics.

Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on August 23, 2012 at 6:52pm

For example, Morales says of Superman that he imagined him as a combination of Steve Reeves (the 1950s TV Superman) and the king of rock and roll. “When he’s catching the bullet, he’s got that Elvis light in the corner of his eye.”

Shouldn't that be George Reeves, Cap?

Comment by The Baron on August 23, 2012 at 7:14pm

Wasn't George Reeves the one who did all those Hercules movies?  ;)

Comment by Emerkeith Davyjack on August 23, 2012 at 7:52pm

...Does it contain the occasional " Superverse " back-up stories in those issues NOT Grant-ed , CC ?????????

Comment by Captain Comics on August 24, 2012 at 1:06am

Shouldn't that be George Reeves, Cap?


By George, Travis, I don't know. When I read Morales' remarks in the book, I assumed he meant George Reeves, the Superman guy, and read it that way. But looking at it now, he sure as heck says Steve Reeves, the Hercules guy. 


Looking at Morales' Superman, I sure think he's talking George. But he said Steve, and maybe he means Steve. So I have to go with Hercules.


Thanks for pointing it out!

Comment by Figserello on August 24, 2012 at 1:30am

Are you sitting comfortably, Cap?  Well here's something to put in your pipe and smoke!


Robin Olsen posted it elsewhere, but couldn't transfer it to this thread when he realised he'd posted it in the wrong place.


Before I get to the subject at hand, I would like to give some belated praise to Frank Quitely - his work with Morrison is too good to put into the proper words. And now for my bitching - Cap, I read your review of ACTION and I noticed it's about Superman's earlier years, so I don't know what to expect out of the title when it gets caught up to the present day - but if what you're saying here is an indicator, then I just know we're gonna have to forget everything we've read over the last 10-20 years or so (AGAIN!) and start all over (AGAIN!). So you think Superman and Jimmy Olsen being closer together in age is a good idea, huh? Great, why don't you just write Morrison a nice gushy fan letter and encourage him to just throw out everything that's gone before and keep making changes just for the sake of change? You may think I'm nitpicking over one little thing, but you just wait until that ol' snowball gets done rolling to the bottom of the hill. Yeah, sure, the kids will love it, but what are they, like, 10% of the audience these days? I guarantee that no amount of tweaking in the world is going to tear them away from their video games and (ahem) computers long enough to actually do something as quaint as reading comics, so why do the mainstream publishers keep trying and trying to pander to an audience that just isn't there while us older readers get the shaft (REPEATEDLY!)? Keep it up and we'll have to change your name to Mr. Reboot Age! As for Morrison's SUPERGODS book, I couldn't get through the first chapter, and when I leafed through the rest, my worst fears were confirmed - it was too much like work to read the thing. Why do so many critics come up with so much over-anylitical, INTELLECTUAL TWADDLE? Comics are supposed to be fun, people! I remember when teachers used to take your comics away, not write thesises about them! Okay, that"s twice today that I've vented my spleen, and if I've alienated anyone, now you know what all these "upgrades" are doing to me!


Take it away!

Comment by John Dunbar on August 24, 2012 at 9:23am

I know you guys are being a little tongue in cheek, but I think - no, scratch that, I know - that our good Captain can accept opposing views and criticism of his opinions with grace and poise.

Comment by Captain Comics on August 24, 2012 at 1:19pm

John's right, Robin -- I don't mind debate, because differing tastes is what keeps things interesting. If everybody liked the same things, there would be even less variety than there is now, and what a dull world it would be. One reason, I guess, that one of the catchphrases on this site is "that's what makes horse races."

Further, I'm of two minds about reboots myself.

In the negative column, I also get tired of -- and occasionally enraged by -- reboots. I dropped Spider-Man after more than 40 years because "One More Day" was One Step Too Far, requiring me to -- as you put it -- forget everything I'd read for 10 years. Worse, I think OMD fundamentally changed the character. (The Peter Parker I grew up with wouldn't make a deal with the devil.) The endless Hawkman reboots made the character unreadable for a while, and the less said about the endless re-invention of the Legion of Super-Heroes -- only to, thankfully, return to the original continuity -- the better. 

I remember being enraged when, in the early 19909s, Marvel was on the verge of revealing that Peter Parker had been dead since Amazing Spider-Man #150, and that his delusional clone had been the star of the book ever since. Re-writing/dumping so many years of continuity simply infuriated me -- and so many others that Marvel dropped the idea. 

I also hate it when characters are changed for no story-driven or thoughtful reason -- change for the sake of change. If a change doesn't improve anything, says I, don't do it

On the plus side, some reboots are good, and some are downright necessary. If comics don't continually re-invent characters that have been around for 50 or 70 years to be relevant to new generations, they will quickly go the way of vaudeville. I'd rather have a slightly changed Superman than one relegated to the dustbin of history, a quaint pop culture footnote that appeared for a couple of decades before being discarded.

This is exactly why mythology is so messy and non-linear; Hercules stories would emphasize one thing to appeal to one generation, and then get "re-booted" to appeal to the next. Nobody wants to read about their father's heroes -- they want their own. (Or for their fathers' heroes to more or less reject their fathers' values and embrace the new generation's values, as happens in every generation at puberty.)

Further, I'm a complete hypocrite about reboots when I complain about them but secretly embrace a fix of something that has bothered me forever. One thing that has bothered me forever is sidekicks. Ever since I was a lad I thought there was something wrong with adult heroes dragging 12-year-olds (or whatever) into combat. Slowly but surely, the Batman mythos is working its way around to justifying it, and most other hero histories are dropping the idea entirely as they get rebooted. (See: Green Arrow, the new Kid Flash.) I welcome this.

And, yes, another thing that has bothered me since I started reading comics in the early 1960s was Jimmy Olsen. Why would a 35-year-old Superman take an interest in an underage cub reporter? The character only works as comedy relief, which is in fact how he was played in the Silver Age (mostly) and the 1950s TV show. But whenever you try to take the character seriously -- the movies, current comics -- it just gets creepy. But by making Jimmy and CLARK contemporaries and besties, all of that is erased in a stroke. Which is a huge relief to me, and admirable also for its artfulness. And Jimmy can still be comedy relief, if need be. Win-win.

And can anyone really argue that Alan Moore's "The Anatomy Lesson" wasn't -- despite being a reboot, or retcon, or whatever -- a huge improvement over the previous iteration of Swamp Thing? It changed not a word of what came before, but made the character more plausible, plus it launched a zillion new plots and stories. Without "The Anatomy Lesson," Swamp Thing wasn't even viable any more, and would be long gone by now. All of us benefited from "The Anatomy Lesson," as we've enjoyed decades of stories that wouldn't have existed if not Moore's reboot.

Is that too much "intellectual twaddle"? :) Seriously, I know comics are supposed to be fun, and in my better moments that's how I approach them. But I can't enjoy them if the premise doesn't make sense to my bubbling, scheming, restless subconscious. I need a rock-solid foundation beneath the four-color facade, in order to suspend my disbelief sufficiently to have this fun you speak of. If that foundation is weak due to the passage of time, then it needs to be shored up now and then.

Finally, I have to say that the reason I'm still reading Marvel and DC almost 50 years after I picked up my first Fantastic Four is because I've been willing to roll with change, even embrace it when it seems to promise a stronger, more entertaining character. If I was unwilling or unable to embrace change, then I would have stopped buying comics when the Silver Age ended and this site wouldn't be here.

Please don't take that last remark as criticism of those who don't embrace change, or stick to a given era or whatever. We're all different, and it's the mix of all those different perspectives, the give-and-take of debate and discussion, that allows us to share a very personal and solitary hobby with each other. 

But for me -- and I can speak only for me -- what keeps me in the game is the wonder and excitement of "what comes next," while still appreciating "what came before." 

Comment by Captain Comics on August 24, 2012 at 4:35pm

I don't expect Superman to date Wonder Woman any longer than it takes for a Superman movie to come out with Superman dating Lois Lane. 

Comment by Captain Comics on September 19, 2012 at 12:22pm

Maybe not enough people saw Superman Returns! 

I really thought Superman was a Super-creep in that movie. Spying on his ex-girlfriend, being a deadbeat dad, etc.


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