Superman Versus the City of Tomorrow
writer - Grant Morrison
penciller - Rags Morales
inker - Rick Bryant
colorist - Brad Anderson
letterer - Patrick Brosseau
cover - Rags Morales & Brad Anderson, variant cover - Jim Lee & Alex Sinclair
associate editor - Wil Moss, editor - Matt Idleson
this review is of the print edition, standard cover
Like with last week's Justice League #1, its impossible to discuss this comic and pretend that I don't know anything about Superman. And while I may speculate about what someone coming to Superman might think (either for the first time or after having had never read a Superman comic), that's most definitely a guess. We're way past that here at The Signal Watch.
Launching alongside another dozen DC Comics titles, its a little hard to process that the point behind this issue is that - like its 1938 counterpart - this issue of Action Comics is telling the story of the first time a super human, a super man, appears in a world in which such a concept isn't weighed down with preconceptions of a man in a cape fighting crime. Advantage to 1938 when Superman wasn't a household word and hadn't launched a bajillion costumed crime-fighting descendants in print or in TV and movies in every corner of the globe. In fact, there's a certain bit of speculative fiction here that its 2000-something, and we have to imagine a world in which kids don't grow up jumping off their beds with towels tied around their necks and the biggest hit Hollywood can conceive of doesn't include Batmobiles.
As the cover and pre-release materials have suggested, this is a Superman who doesn't really have a concept of a superhero outfit, and is doing what a lot of 20-somethings would do, and wearing jeans and a t-shirt to go out and do his thing.
The issue will, no doubt, draw comparisons to Batman: Year One in drawing down the authorities on Superman, but its a necessary part of the story, just as the Alcalde's soldiers chasing Zorro about old Los Angeles were part of that tale, and Robin Hood was pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham and his underlings. Superman v. Law Enforcement (and not just some authority figure with a chip on their shoulder) is a take we haven't seen since pre-Wertham days, and it adds a bit of the punk back into Superman.
The point of a super man, as its been since 1938, has been to be the person who could shake off the bullets of cops and crooks alike and ignore the layers of protection men of means or power employ to insulate themselves from threats or legal recourse.
And so our story begins in medias res. No doomed planet, desperate scientists nor last hopes. No kindly couple. Just a man in a t-shirt holding a corrupt contractor aloft, turning the tables on a patio full of men with guns, taking away what they've considered power up til now.
The playfulness of the early Superman (and an aspect of the character that, if writers didn't understand was there, they were usually doomed to failure) is in full effect. Yeah, this Superman wants for Glenmorgan to confess in full to a police office (ie: "someone who still believes the law works the same for rich and poor alike" - something our Superman is beyond believing with the corruption of Metropolis), but its not hard to see he's ready to bounce Glenmorgan around like a yo-yo while cracking wise to the cops while they fruitlessly lobbed bullets his direction. Its not hard to look at the old and original Superman comics and see what Morrison sees in those early days, where Superman was a mystery man cut from the cloth of Douglas Fairbanks and not an icon of virtue.
This is such a rough, kid-like Superman. He's unpolished and flailing at his side gig as a crusader. He's awkward enough that he's bothering Jimmy Olsen, and while he's doing good work as a reporter, his personal life is non-existent (except for a possible spoiler that I'm not going to read too much into). Its a different take, where Clark's life isn't such a put-on, but its an interesting one.
In a lot of ways, this is the kind of superhero I think people like - the kind of "working outside the law to do my thing" aspect of superheroes, but in this Superman its got the added weight not of a personal vendetta or whatever other "dark" quest our heroes are on, but the burden of standing up the corrupt and powerful in a way that isn't pea-shooters and petitions, but that could fundamentally change things in Clark Kent's Metropolis. That's actually kind of interesting.
Its also a Superman that hurts people and has to stand by while people are hurt (and who seems like he, himself, can still feel some pain). We learn he's tossed a wifebeater into the river, breaking several of the man's bones - not something you would have seen in the recent run on Superman, and that he's not counting on cops to pick up his pieces. I think this run will be about the journey to the Superman we know, but in the meantime we're getting a more haphazard force loosed in the middle of a major city.
We talk about this a bit here, but once it becomes all about the insular nature of superheroes and supervillains clobbering each other over grudges and interpersonal problems, and less about a person using their abilities to better the world, the more superhero comics seem to become muddled and forget what makes superheroes cool (and the hook that so often engages folks in superhero origin stories but loses them by the 3rd movie).
We do get both Luthor and Gen. Samuel Lane (Lois Lane's father), who discuss the past 6 months of discovery and pursuit of Superman - something the military has a vested interest in, and Lex retains his xenophobia of Superman. In some ways, its pulling the best from recent efforts like Mark Waid's terrific Birthright and Johns' recent re-architecture and re-imaging of the Superman line (something I'm a bit bummed got so derailed).
I have to say Morales' art was always one of my favorite parts of Identity Crisis, and I think he's firing on all cylinders here. His Lex and Sam Lane have very specific looks, and his Superman seems to have roots in those early Shuster issues, with squinty eyes and almost tousled hair, like someone in action. Lex seems to have a hint of the Superman: The Animated Series look to him, and that's okay by me.
The blinkered malevolence of Sam Lane puts him in bed with a Lex capable of intricate, Rube Goldberg-like plotting, who can play on the corruption of the likes of Glenmorgan to get his trap for Superman in place. Its a nice bit of what we became familiar with in Morrison's All Star run on Superman, and its nice to see it here as well.
We get a quick look at Lois and Jimmy (who I believe are working at The Planet, while Clark slaves away elsewhere - but its not named, sure to be a plot point). Lois seems herself, harkening back to the nose-for-news, and tough city gal we got in early Superman, parts of the Bronze Age, Margot Kidder's Lois and even early Byrne-era Superman before Lois seemed to soften.
|Action Comics #1 variant by Jim Lee|
But in the chaos, we can see what sort of world Morrison is building, a sort of rough sketch impression. There's simply more going on here than what you're going to pick up on a first pass, and there's no reason to think that Morrison isn't putting the same deep-level work into his Action Comics as he did that drove fans to develop an "annotated" Batman. He's building a Metropolis owned by men so corrupt the police fear them and know they're owned seemingly without being on their payroll, and men so diabolical they'd destroy buildings with people inside just to snare their strange visitor from another world. Its a city with people in need of a man who can shrug off their bullets and ignore the handcuffs when the law is set to protect the malevolent.
Its not a perfect debut issue, and we don't get all the pieces introduced as elegantly as we did in Birthright (honestly, I wouldn't want to have to follow Waid or even Johns in having to reboot so soon, and supposedly friendly colleagues of Morrison's). And while I don't think we can accuse Morrison of writing for the trade here, we're going to have to be a bit patient and let things unfold. Like so much of his work, its rarely the first issue that really grabs you, but the picture as a whole as the issues arrive, month after month.
But to his credit, Morrison seamlessly worked in scenes that demonstrated that our Superman is already faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and is maybe not yet exactly more powerful than a locomotive. And that seems like a pretty good start.