Friday, May 4, 2012

Review: Action Comics #9

Action Comics #9 came out this week and was another standout issue by Grant Morrison with great guest art by Gene Ha.

It was one of those typical wild Morrison issues with crazy concepts and a whole new Superman to think about, the Superman of Earth 23. But it also commented on creators' rights, the plight of Siegel and Shuster, and most importantly the concept of Superman as a whole. While I was floored by the issue, just a fantastical story told as a 'done in one' sprint, in some ways it saddened me. Because I think Morrison's metatextual themes of Superman resonated with me, especially in this day when the current Superman seems to be on the verge of a thematic frameshift, becoming something un-Superman like.

I always say it, I am a jaded middle aged comic book fan. I have read a lot of comics and I have seen stories told and retold.  So when a story moves me, as this one did, it is a good thing. It means the book is of the highest quality. And the ending moved me, maybe for the wrong reasons.

I will reiterate my feeling that we are still learning about the DCnU Superman. I think I have a decent idea of who this Morrison early Superman is. But I want to learn more. I want to understand more than the foundation of this incarnation. So maybe this was the wrong time for a 'rest issue' with an alternate Superman. But more importantly, why couldn't this story have been told with the current Superman. Why did the hero of the book need to be the E-23 Superman. Why couldn't Morrison have the hero be the E-1 Superman? And frankly that is the thing which saddened me. Because this was a great Superman story. Did DC not think the heroics and ethics of the E-23 Superman could be shown in the E-1 Superman? And if that is true ... well ... then I don't know what Superman is anymore.

The issue starts on E-23 with that Superman fighting a battle-suit wearing Luthor. It all feels familiar despite the fact that we haven't seen that in the new DCnU yet.

This Luthor has created a 'Musical Meta-Machine', a device ringing on oblique frequencies. Who knows what it could do!

The idea of vibrations and melodies being linked to the universe is something Morrison has explored before in Final Crisis. Remember when Superman sang to defeat Darkseid? That might be my favorite moment in that series.

The machine opens up a portal through which a one eyed Lois emerges. With her are Jimmy and Clark horribly burned and dead and dying respectively. Lois says she has seen a number of Supermen throughout her dimensional travels. What makes this Superman so special?

It gives Morrison the opportunity to show this Superman's origin in a 2 page spread a la Siegel and Shuster and even the origins in the back of Countdown, etc.

There are some nice differences here. One, Morrison shows his knowledge of what came before having this Superman come from the Kryptonian island of Vathlo. And, he has this Kal land in the inner city. But the basics are still there, desperate parents, kindly couple.

Here is where we get into some of the commentary behind the story as well as some Morrison lunacy.

On their original Earth, Lois, Clark, and Jimmy created a machine that could give ideas independent life, that the melody of their thoughts could become reality. Okay, pretty trippy.

Here I love flourishes like Lois reading the old 70s sword/science comic Starfire. And Jimmy wearing a turtles shirt ... after all he was turtle boy.

The machine works for the three of them and they dream up Superman, a messiah to save the world. But their creation only lasts 25 minutes. They didn't have the power to create anything more longlasting.

During that brief stay, their Superman was a being pure and simple and good. That is what Superman should be!

But when they can't bring him back to life, they ask for help. And like Siegel and Shuster, they sign on the dotted line, selling their machine and their idea to a rather nefarious looking Overcorp.

Given all the angst about creator rights going on in the medium right now, this has to be a statement from Morrison. The three 'creators' had the right idea for Superman ... but when faced with lawyers, or having their idea stolen from them, or not seeing their idea in some incarnation, they sign the bottom line.

This teary eyed Lois talks about how the Superman now created for a 'cross-spectrum, wide platform appeal' is a violent, troubled, faceless anti-hero concealing a tragic secret life. That is not what Superman is supposed to be ... and yet, I can't help think that we are headed there given the countless stories of Superman being distrusted, attacked by the people he wants to save, isolated.

Is Morrison also making some comment on comics now? How no character is 'simple, pure, and good'. How everyone is 'violent, faceless, and troubled'? He has to be. And he is right. When Captain Marvel is now an angry young man hiding under a cloak, you know the world of comics is backwards right now.

And it makes me sad.

Still, this 'cool' Superman sells like hot cakes. His symbol eerily similar to a swastika, that Superman makes people feel like they are part of something, even if it is tyranny.

But that symbol splashed everywhere is somewhat evocative of our world where Superman has been on everything from lingerie to peanut butter. 

And look at him as he emerges from the phase array, more robot than man, ready to attack and kill.

That is a dreadful face ... but it might be the face of comics.

How upside-down is that concept of Superman?

Enough to have him actually be what Luthor has claimed Superman is ... a smug fascist bully. Against that Superman, Luthor is the hero.

Of course, the 'real' Superman ... or the idea of Superman ... is neither smug nor fascist nor a bully. That is why Luthor is the villain. Because he can't see that Superman is 'pure, simple, and good' ... or at least he should be.

Despite having killed other Supermen on other worlds, this robotic and violent Superman is defeated by the Superman of Earth 23, shoved back into the Meta-Musical machine and trapped between wavelengths.

The Superman of Earth 23 is simple, pure, and good ... defeating a bigger opponent through determination. There shouldn't be a violent, smug, fascist Superman in any universe. Let him exist between dimensions ... for now.

And here is the best and saddest panel of the book.

This Lois, who has seen her idea corrupted, who has seen countless Supermen die, states that the Earth 23 Superman is 'Superman done right'. Of course he is, he is good and pure and relentless, willing to fight for truth and justice, willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others.

Does that mean that the Earth 1 Superman isn't 'Superman done right'? Couldn't/shouldn't the Earth 1 Superman have been the star in this story? Can't we have an Earth 1 Superman who is simple and pure and good? Wouldn't this have been a great done-in-one story for the current Superman, letting us know what he stands for?

Look, there is no denying this was a great Superman story. It hit on all the things I like about Superman as a concept. It hit on all the things I fear about the Superman and comic book heroes of the present/future. And it showed how good will defeat evil.

But why does all that have to be on another Earth?

Maybe this is simply a prelude. Maybe that Over-Superman will break free of his dimensional prison and threaten the Earth 1 Superman. Maybe Morrison wants to show that only a simple and pure Superman can defeat that guy, so that when our Superman faces it, we will be shown that he is what Superman should be? Maybe.

Or maybe Morrison thinks that 'our' Superman is too far gone, too warped by marketing and wide appeal and the current comic market to ever go back to that bright light that he was before. And so we need an alternate universe to remind us of what Superman really is. And that is a little depressing.

Gene Ha's work is wonderful here, bold and crisp in the right spots, a little muddy and warped and dark where it needs to be. I wish he would land on a monthly.

So overall a wonderful issue ... but one that gave me a lot to think about.

Overall grade: A


Dave Mullen said...

Lot of very thoughtful obserations there... I think you're on to something with this issue being some sort of cry from Morrison as I have had some trouble trying to make sense of what we've been served with in the nine issues thus far. Telling Superman's origin and formative adventures is surely the focal point to the entire excercose, The two issue Legion timetravel filler was nice but odd, but now an entire issue devoted to some parallel earth Superman? Where's the sense to all of this?

I've just read this issue and yeah, it's a decent enough story, but why now and why make it so irrelevant to the story so far? I suppose this might be picked up on and developed in future issues, maybe it will tie into Darkseid's rampage across the multiverse, but right now with a mandate to reintroduce Superman to aa new audience and making the book accessable I'm thinking it's failing. Badly.
Morrison is being allowed to revisit ideas he had in the previous continuity and the cross-universe Supermen in his Final Crisis spin-off, but all of this so far is baggage I don't think Superman needs right now. I think the accessability of the character is being severely compromised and I don't agree with introducing these 'other' Supermen (earth-2) when the real one is still newborn and underdeveloped.
I do get the feeling Superman is falling back into bad habits concerning DCs handling of him, a lack of focus has already become painfully evident.

valerie21601 said...

Isn't Morrison suppose to be preparing to write a maxi-series for DC called Multiversity? Where were we would see all of the NEW 52 alternate universes and their changes?

Anj said...

Thanks for comments.

I agree Dave that the 'now' part of it bugs me the most. The rotating creators on the Superman book, the 'rest issue' here.

Meanwhile, the bat books storm forward with a massive cross-over.

I worry about Superman these days.

And Val, we have been hearing about Multiversity for a bit and maybe this is a prelude. But it doesn't change my up and down feelings for this issue.

valerie21601 said...

I have heard how long Morrison has been working on it too. I wonder if this was a hint of what is to come.

There is hints about DC is going to have a multiverse crossover in a near future.