The Best of DC’s New 52: #1, Action Comics

1. Action Comics – Grant Morrison, Rags Morales, and Rick Bryant

Grant Morrison is the Radiohead of comics creators. He reinvents without losing sight of the power of the medium, shaking lose from the expected while celebrating the sanctity of the established. Every time he dons his fiction suit and dives into the mythstream, he creates something worth experiencing. Sometimes challenging, oftentimes multilayered, but always engaging, these are constructs that grant repeat readers/listeners/devotees new rewards with every visit. He loves comics; and the passion for the story, character, and fabric of four-color futures comes through with every project and plotline. I’ll read everything he writes, and I’ll expect everything to be worth my time. The track record speaks for itself: beyond the pre-Vertigo fantasy that first brought Morrison to our attention, he has gone on to craft some of the greatest X-Men, Justice League, and Batman stories ever conceived. Handing over the reins for DC’s most important book, the comic that started it all, makes perfect sense. And the funny thing is, Grant Morrison has already written the great Superman story.

All-Star Superman, created with fellow Scotsman Frank Quitely, debuted in 2005. Over the course of its twelve issues, Superman transcends popular culture iconography and is situated properly in the pantheon of literary deities. The story opens with news that Superman, now more powerful than ever, has one year to live. The very source of his abilities, our solar system’s yellow sun, has over-saturated his cells. His final acts, delineated as twelve Herculean labors, give epic context to everything from his relationship with Lois, to the existence of Bizarro World, to the villainy of Lex Luthor. Free of the constraints of continuity and irrespective of whatever Crisis reset button had been recently pushed, All-Star Superman is the Superman story for all time, complete with loving tribute to the real, prophetic power of Joe Shuster. As Morrison himself explains in 2011’s Supergods, “Stories can break hearts or foment revolutions. Words can put electricity into our hearts or make our blood run cold. And the idea of Superman is every bit as real as the idea of God” (p. 415).

If All-Star was Morrison’s chance to write Superman at his most powerful, a near-omnipotent being tasked with near-insurmountable challenges, then the new Action Comics series is a chance to reinvent Kal-El’s beginnings. This series is partially removed from DC’s New 52 continuity, initially set five years before the events of other books like Perez’s Superman or Johns and Lee’s Justice League. This young Superman is significantly less powerful than the Superman we’d been accustomed to, reminiscent of the character’s earliest adventures (Siegel and Shuster’s original Superman, back in 1938, couldn’t even fly), and is possessed of a brash, youthful exuberance that borders on arrogance.

Like a guitarist in a band of 17-year-olds, experience doesn’t even come into it — he just does it. He’s a superhero — he doesn’t have to think. He’s a kid who’s been set free from Ma and Pa Kent. Both of them are dead, and suddenly he thinks, “I’m the most powerful thing on the planet. It’s time to start cleaning up!” It seemed like you could get a really good story out of a young man who’s not considering what he’s doing — he’s just doing it because it feels right. – Grant Morrison

What feels right, for Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent, also brilliantly re-explored by Morrison, is to blow the lid on a political scandal simmering under the shiny exterior of the City of Tomorrow. Meanwhile, a young Lex Luthor is employed by the military to capture, interrogate and analyze this alien intruder who is running around Metropolis at terrific speeds with a striking “S” on his chest. Morrison wanted to put the “action” back in Action Comics, and this fast-paced introduction to the series, culminating in an incredible (and ironic) final splash page in the first issue (I won’t spoil it), accomplishes just that.

Then it gets even better. An alien invasion spearheaded by that city-shrinking maniacal cosmic collector, Braniac, woven into a series of flashbacks of Superman’s Kryptonian origin and the bottling of Kandor. Throw in a time-traveling Legion of Super-Heroes twist, along with the origins of Steel, and we already have the makings of the next great Superman story. And because it’s Morrison, the script is perfectly tooled and the plots are intricately orchestrated. Newcomers to the Superman mythos are not left Wiki-scrambling for references or explanations. Anything obtuse or mysterious is intentionally so, all part of an overarching storyline that promises to be the best capes-n-tights event of the last two years. Yes, it’s that good.

Rags Morales, who broke in with DC’s Black Condor miniseries back in 1992, really came into his own on 2004’s Identity Crisis. With Action, he again marries a penchant for cartoonish expression to fluid, dynamic action sequencing. The swagger of a young Superhero is undeniable.

I thought, “What are the two iconic things that Superman would be to me?” He’d be part Steve Reeves and part Elvis. When he’s catching the bullet, he’s got that Elvis light in the corner of his eye. – Rags Morales

And if Morales’s accomplished linework isn’t enough, we’re treated to Krypton sequences courtesy of Gene Ha. His stylized character design and futuristic architecture are the stuff of sci-fi wet dreams.

For veteran comics readers, DC diehards included, the story is a love letter to decades of continuity. Fans nervous about the New 52 initiative should rejoice in this reworking of Super-history. The characterization is flawless; from Clark Kent to Lex Luthor, Lois Lane to Jimmy Olsen, we immediately get the sense that these characters we’ve known forever have come to life, breathing in Siegel and Maggin, exhaling Byrne and Moore. Past history is treated reverentially; concepts and situations never recycled, but reinvigorated.

Except, there’s this whole Brainiac thing…

So, personally, I haven’t really enjoyed a Superman yarn since Geoff Johns and Gary Frank brought the Silver Age Brainiac back to the DCU in a 2008 Action Comics arc. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s Johns’s finest work. So what’s Morrison doing, not even three years later, writing what will, in all probability, be an even better Brainiac story? The answer might lie in Johns’s current Justice League storyline. Readers of this blog are no doubt aware that we’ve been underwhelmed, to say the least, with this opening punch to the DCnU (I was disappointed from the start; my pal ghostmann was a bit more vociferous by the time issue five rolled around). In this awful new JLA series, the team forms to combat the evil that is Darkseid, the god-level villain created by the inimitable Jack Kirby back in 1970.  Hold on again… I feel like we just read the ultimate Darkseid story… We did. Also in 2008. Final Crisis, my personal pick for the best DC event in their lengthy history (arguments from ghostmann, I know, but we can debate that later). Oh, and it was written by Grant Morrison. So, hey Grant, I’m going to snag Jim Lee and we’re going to kickstart this great big DC reboot with a Darkseid story. Cool? Hey Geoff, fuck you. I’m going to out-Brainiac the last good thing you ever did.

At least, that’s what I’d like to think happened…

There’s also something to be said about number 9. Justice League Dark. It just happens to be one of the best books in the DCnU with one of the stupidest titles. Get past the hokey and superfluous connection to DC’s main team book, and read this for the kind of twisted sorcery-infused adventure that you hope for every time you mentally narrate a Magic: The Gathering match (I can’t be the only who does this). This is also (surprise!) a re-introduction of Vertigo characters back into the DC universe. Peter Milligan gets to resurrect Shade, The Changing Man and here come Madame Xanadu and John Constantine for good measure. It’s what we’ve secretly been wishing for since Constantine and Dream last hung out together way back in ’89.

6 thoughts on “The Best of DC’s New 52: #1, Action Comics”

  1. nice one mike.

    oh, and while I think Crisis on Infinite Earths was the “biggest event in comics ever”, I do think that Final Crisis is a better read.

      1. oh and a question: How do you feel about the current issues of Action? The first 4 issues were pretty solid and followed the young superman in jeans and t-shirt. Then all of the sudden we fast forward into the future and superman’s hanging with the Legion and theres a army of anti-supermen we know nothing about.

        the comic seems to be derailing.

      2. Derailing? Hardly. I love it. In fact, this is how I can appreciate the Legion: a few characters at a time. The mystery is intentional, I assume, and it’s intriguing. He seems to be weaving in the silver age Superboy/Legion origin ideas into his new-Supes epic. I trust in Morrison. Big plans and big ideas.

        The Brainiac bizness was promised to return in #7.

  2. I don’t know man, I have this nagging feeling that this wasn’t part of Morrisons master plan, and the sudden departure of the Young Superman is a result of Rags Morales not being able to get the pages in on time, so they had to go with a side story with other artists to keep the book on schedule.

    1. I’m sure the plan was to give Rags a break from the beginning, but I still think it’s all connected. If it was a sidestory scenario, Morrison wouldn’t be scripting it. It’d be something more like the backup features.

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