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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.