Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Action #17

With next month’s Action #18, Grant Morrison’s run on Superman will come to an end, wrapping up the extended story that redefined DC’s flagship character.

Defining and redefining Superman has been a quagmire for DC over the last 15 years. This was true only three years ago when I expounded on the topic in my review of Geoff Johns’ Superman: Secret Origin #1. That series redefined Superman’s past in a way that summed up changes which had been in progress since Infinite Crisis. It was only to serve as the status quo for two years before being discarded for another, total, reboot. And in fact since then, we have also seen another heavily-sold out-of-continuity Superman origin in J. Michael Straczynski’s Earth One version of Superman, and a fleeting glimpse of a Superman who dies young in DC’s current Earth 2 title. If that’s not confusing enough for fans, the “2” and the “One” in those titles do not serve as part of a sequence, and they are piled on top of earlier Earth Ones and Twos (or 1s and 2s). The nomenclature alone produces vertigo if not nausea. Yet another out-of-continuity story called DC Universe Online (but it was not online) showed yet another Superman for 52 issues.

A new Superman in Grant Morrison’s hands had been long-anticipated. Morrison wrote Superman as part of his Justice League run starting in 1997, and shortly thereafter was part of a pitch called Superman 2000 which did not come to pass. In 2005, Morrison began a 12-issue run on All Star Superman, a fantastically popular mini-siries taking place in its own continuity, which in many ways was a prequel for the Superman we finally saw as part of the 2011 DCnU that is the main continuity of DC’s stories, for now.

With this series at the pause between the penult and ultimate issues, it stands as a single body of work which does not fail to reflect plotlines we’ve seen in all of those other Superman redefinitions mentioned above, a quilted kaleidoscope of stories and storylines which are rehashes of stores we had just seen. Brainiac double-crossing Luthor? Seen it in Online. General Lane directing a US Army plot against Superman and Superman’s tight association with the Legion of Super Heroes? Seen those in Secret Origin and other Geoff Johns stories in then-current continuity. Clark Kent beginning his journalistic career as a poor young man in the slums? Seen it in Earth One. Yet, it is hard to fault Morrison for reworking those almost-current stories: If he avoided every storyline in those several retreads, he would have had to write a story by negation, leaving holes in Superman’s DCnU history just to spite those other works. Morrison did not choose that path, and so we have a maxi-series from Morrison that looks like a blend of half a dozen other recent works.

And that includes Morrison’s own. Morrison’s Action employs elements from his All Star Superman title, including a key role for characters from Mxyzptlk’s Fifth Dimension, which provides the key villain in Action. Morrison has also used the Fifth Dimension in his JLA run and with his use of Bat-Mite in Batman.

Structurally, the run strongly resembles Morrison’s runs on Batman. In Morrison's first run on Batman, in issues #655–681, the hero faces a single dominant threat whose plot is at first hidden, from both the hero and the reader, surfacing in a series of smaller threats, calculated to test the hero without toppling him, before culminating in a final showdown between Doctor Hurt and Batman in Batman R.I.P. Morrison's Action run has a parallel structure, with the Little Man, who appears in the very first panel, proving to be the ultimate victim who confronts Superman directly only in the final issues. Both Doctor Hurt and Vyndktvx make pretensions to be the Devil, using the word "deal" like it's going out of style. Vyndktvx is often drawn three-faced, like Satan in Dante's Inferno. However, while the Batman story was fundamentally the story of a single plot by Doctor Hurt calculated to topple Batman, the Action story is a series of Superman adventures primarily featuring independent menaces, a few of whom Vyndktvx recruits for a single assault. Both stories are spread widely over time. Both wrap the events of much older stories into their telling. Both villains have identities held out as a mystery. Ultimately, The Little Man seen in the very first panel of Action #1 is given a complete backstory in terms of Fifth Dimension intrigue. There is no longer mystery regarding who he is, but we await the ending of a climactic battle, which began to crescendo in the final pages of Action #14.

The references to past Superman stories, both prominent and obscure, are more numerous than I will attempt to catalog here. Characters originating in Superman stories from every era from the Thirties through the Nineties have appeared in passing and in the foreground. I will mention, instead of the smaller facets, three larger stories that have impacted the narrative here in a very central way.

At the end of the pre-COIE era, two stories were published the same month wrapping up the pre-Byrne Superman. Both of these stories, on the surface unrelated, depicted a suddenly evil Mr. Mxyzptlk as the villain. By far the more famous of the two, Alan Moore's Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? also had the structure of a larger villain (Mxyzptlk) throwing secondary menaces (as great as Luthor and Brainiac) at Superman before the hero and villain took each other down in a battle that undid them both, in different ways. A less well-known story by Steve Gerber in DC Comics Presents #97 showed a Mxyzptlk who had been punished by his own kind and who merged with the Phantom Zone and its villains before attacking Superman one last time. In this story, Mxyzptlk achieves a tactical and strategic victory, apparently poisoning the Earth with kryptonite (with the added horror of Argo City's dead bodies showering out of the sky), then leaving a defeated Superman behind in what was, technically, the last moments we saw of the pre-Byrne continuity. Morrison has based his run, thematically, where pre-Crisis continuity ended, with a new Fifth Dimensional villain posing the ultimate threat to Superman, so that Mxyzptlk's inherently benevolent nature can be preserved for future stories. By utilizing the same thematic menace as that of Moore's story, Morrison may be giving Superman a chance to face that threat that ended "him" before, and overcome it, just as he is with the Doomsday threat from yet another continuity. It will be interesting to see if the final issue makes more explicit reference to WHTTMOT?

A subsequent work, mending the pre- and post- Crisis worlds from the other side of the divide, Keith Giffen's run on the Legion of Superheroes dealt with the gaping hole in continuity that the LSH had been inspired by Superboy, but in the Byrne run, there had never been a Superboy. We promptly saw the emergence of another "Earth", the Pocket Universe, which led to Byrne's Superman going through a spiritual ordeal after killing that Universe's Phantom Zone villains. More germane to the present run, Giffen rebooted the LSH not once but several times in rapid succession, with the Legionnaires deliberately rebooting their own timeline to undo histories where one of their villains had triumphed as the undisputed master of the 30th Century. The Time Trapper, Mordru, and Glorith all have the capacity to become dictators of the Legion's universe, and so they reboot the universe until they create a timeline where a "Balance of Powers" leaves a free universe in which the LSH battles these villains, neutralizing them. In Action #17, Morrison seems to utilize the very same idea when the Legionnaires plan to "wipe out [their] entire history" and thus save Superman's life as well as "stop the rise of Universo." Morrison puts the LSH here in the same predicament they faced in Giffen's multiple timelines; this is, incidentally, a device he also used in his JLA story Rock of Ages where heroes overcome a despot villain's rule not by defeating him per se but by rebooting the timeline so that the victory by Darkseid never happened.

Another story serving as the template for this one is Morrison's own Final Crisis and its related crossover, Superman Beyond. The title page of Action #17, like the last page of Action #16, shows the Super-Doomsday creature poised to kill Superman just as the first page of Superman Beyond shows a flash-forward to the fateful battle between Superman and Mandrakk. Like the Bane Batman from Batman #664-665, it shows a meld of the hero with the Nineties villain who broke him. The creature incorporates elements of Mandrakk, the Nineties Doomsday with the armor Superman of Superman Beyond, the evil Superman from Morrison's Animal Man, and more generally every anti-Superman we've seen over the decades. Picking up the theme of Final Crisis as a story about story, the Super-Doomsday creature refers to itself as a "franchise", in a fourth-wall reference to itself as an alternate character that strives to defeat the DCnU Superman. It is a "thought" that we first saw in Action #9, where the Lois Lane of its parallel universe defines to it as the product of selling out, of a Superman "brand" designed by experts to have "maximum cross-spectrum, wide-platform appeal, a violent, troubled, faceless anti-hero... a global marketing icon." It sounds like Morrison has a very specific villain in mind, something that Warner Brothers might be creating and incorporating into video games right now.

In every aspect of this run, we see a Morrison trademark: postmodernism rendered in the terms of the comic genre. In his Batman run, Morrison delivered unconventional narratives that were explained in the story with Batman-appropriate devices such as hallucinogens and brainwashing. Here, as in JLAAll Star Superman and Superman Beyond, Morrison accomplishes the same postmodernist storytelling through Superman-appropriate devices such as time travel and multiple dimensions. The reader's experience, either way, is one of unreliable narration and dramatic irony. The vehicle for creating this is specific to the hero, and ties in with a heritage from past decades when postmodernism was not the aim.

As with Final Crisis and Batman: RIP, the jump-cuts in narration may detract from many readers' enjoyment. In what now makes four consecutive issues, we have seen a cliffhanger with the first two simply put aside as the story picks up in the next issue. As the structure is so heavily borrowed from other Morrison stories, and the conventional payoffs blunted by his sleight of hand, the story is not likely to be remembered as a fan favorite nor as one of his milestones. What is most admirable here is that he worked his tricks, in many ways familiar and well-worn, in ways so specific to this particular character.

On two other levels, the story works assiduously and brilliantly to serve red meat to the fans: It does, after all, reboot Superman in ways that many fans yearned for. It overturns many aspects of the past continuity that overstayed their welcome. Perhaps to greater effect, it shows Morrison's gift for the flourish, the moment of perfection. When miniaturized Luthor looks out of shrunken Metropolis and sees Superman's symbol looming outside the jar, to the call "Look, up in the sky!" Morrison shows Superman winning every way at once. Inasmuch as Morrison has shown that he will let threads drop (or hang), we see Clark's vow to his father to wage a battle for justice.

In what is the final cliffhanger of Morrison's run, just as Super-Doomsday is about to kill Superman, Luthor arrives, saying "Nobody kills Superman but Lex Luthor!" If this seems familiar, it is not an accident. The very first monthly issue of John Byrne's run, in Superman Vol. 2 #1, ends with Metallo about to kill Superman when Metallo is suddenly teleported away. This is explained in #2 when Luthor says, "Of course I stopped you, Metallo. The killing of Superman is a pleasure reserved for myself."

The Morrison run in Action will have a lasting impact. It will serve as the definition of Superman's origin for untold years to come. And it is such an intricate story, it will be a work worth studying. It remains to be seen how much, in conventional terms as a comic, it will be enjoyed. While it is certain that Superman will, with help, triumph over Vyndktvx and Super-Doomsday, it is less clear that Morrison will triumph unconditionally over the commercial Superman that Super-Doomsday represents.