Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Action Comics #18

The final installment in Grant Morrison's extended Superman story is like a piece that fit just as it must, in the shape of the hole the unfinished puzzle was missing. Surprises? Not so many. There was no doubt Superman would beat Vyndktvx, and the way he did it, well that didn't matter so much. In fact, what was it? Or did he beat him a thousand times?

For anyone looking to be deeply invested in a linear plot, this multidimensional story about a 5-dimensional villain left them hanging, although the past several issues should have made that clear. The 18-issue run gradually turned more and more into a fractured, postmodernist experience that used science fiction to explain the twisted structure which was about the science fiction it was describing, a self-writing meta story which has been Morrison's vision in his previous Superman works. In that regard, there was nothing new here, and the greatest difference from Action #14-17 and Action #18 is that the cliffhangers all convert into victories, as we knew they must.

To the extent there is a story, it is this: Vyndktvx, being a 5-dimensional being, attacks Superman not just in space but in time; Superman wins when he realizes that from Vyndktvx's perspective, there is only one attack he will ever make against Superman, and by beating him once, Superman beats him many times, and every time. So of the many fronts on which Superman and his allies are fighting Vyndktvx, which of them is crucial? One, all, or none, but Superman's victory is preordained, and as he starts doing stuff to one-up Vyndktvx, it all works at once, ending in a definitive defeat of Vyndktvx, and saving every life that was jeopardized along the way, including those which earlier seemed to have been lost. Does the Legion of Super Heroes' plan succeed? Yes. Did Mrs. Nyxly really die? No, and we see her live happily ever after with Mxyzptlk. Did the little boy and other colonists on Mars die? No, because the one wish Mrs. Nyxly had left was used on something red (Mars) to set them all right again. And of course, Superman and Krypto survived, and there the story ended, like a final panel from the Sixties, with the man and his dog in a definitive happy ending.

And in many ways, it was from the Sixties, and the happy ending was definitive. As with Morrison's Final Crisis, Superman Beyond, and All Star Superman, the story has too many references to serial storytelling structure for us to miss the larger message. The story of Superman isn't a lot of stories. It's basically one story, where the strong and just man defeats evil. From 1938 until the Sixties or so, Superman most stories happened in circular time, time out of time, where everything was always put right back where it started at the end of the story. As a Superman mythology grew, Superman began to live in linear time, with some stories changing his world in significant new ways, with new Kryptonians and other major changes coming along, gradually writing a larger narrative with a beginning and middle... and at last, in 1986, an end. Which led to a new beginning, and recently, another end. Because Superman is still in circular time, and if the circles take 25 years to come around where they started, that's still a circle. Superman Beyond reminded us that Superman's epitaph is "To Be Continued." Action #18 observes that all of Superman's victories are just one victory, and if he has to do the impossible to accomplish them, then the impossible is what has to happen.

The last point repeats a meta observation made in 1987's "The Greatest Hero of Them All", in which that story's Superboy performs a feat that's seemingly impossible, and notes in his death scene that maybe he always could do anything he needed to. Perhaps the most meaningful reference to earlier stories is that the villain here was styled after Doomsday, the villain who killed Superman in 1992, but this time, despite the title of Action #16's story, "The Second Death of Superman", cannot finish the hero off. In an alternate timeline seen in Joe Kelly's 2005 story "This Is Your Life", Superman simply refuses to die in the Doomsday battle, and reflects that for Superman to die points his universe in the wrong direction. Morrison's epic emphatically agrees, and this Superman never dies. Perhaps the choice of Doomsday here is to inoculate the post-Flashpoint Superman from ever having that death story re-told by future writers. As with Morrison's desire to liberate Superman from a commercial, faceless shell (as Vyndktvx says here, with "$" in place of "S"), his power to control the future is limited, but he does make a heroic bid to do right by the Man of Steel with these creative moves in a run that will inevitably be remembered.

In Morrison's Batman run, it was asserted that all of Batman's past eras, as diverse as they were, existed as part of one timeline, and he created a belabored explanation within the story for the many sharp changes in tone between those different eras. In Action, he has an easier time of accomplishing much the same result because Superman's science fiction underpinning makes alternate timelines a straightforward consequence of fifth-dimensional villainy. Morrison has included characters and scenes from 1938, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Byrne era, and a plunge from the sky oddly reminiscent of 2006's Superman Returns. Mrs. Nyxly, speaking with a Red-and-Blue Superman from the Nineties (which was itself an echo of an earlier era's "imaginary story") tells this timeline's Superman that he'll never know what he was giving up. Being fifth-dimensional, she knew as we do that the adult Kents have been virtually killed by this reboot. This and other nods to other Superman continuities make it appropriate that fifth-dimensional character were in the forefront in this run, because, as Morrison's Bat-Mite told us, "Imagination is the fifth dimension." Morrison has essentially written a 32-story Superman epic that began in the All Star Superman continuity, continued in the post-Byrne/post-Infinite Crisis continuity, and ended in this post-Flashpoint continuity, but folds all of them together in a way that we, and fifth dimensional characters can see as one. And now we shall see where the next generation of writers take the rebuilt Man of Steel.


  1. I read issues 1-14 monthly but decided to hold onto the issues till 18 and read the remainder in one sitting and I think I'm glad I did, this will read very well as the 3 trades, where as with Batman Inc. I can't even imagine trade waiting. The greatness of this all is that Vyndktvx shows up on the first panel of Action 1 with Glenmorgan.

  2. Unknown,

    I think of Vyndktvx showing up in the first panel as a lot like "Zur En Arrh" appearing in Morrison's first issue of Batman. The significance of those first indications of the major villain is absolutely impossible to perceive on first reading, but shows the solidity of Morrison's plans. Will we ever see another such run by Morrison in superhero comics? Perhaps not...

  3. Rikdad your first paragraph says whole instead of hole. So it is confusing and makes you look not as smart as I know you are. I want to share this page with my friends.

    Green Lantern in JLA made the green power stuff I ever saw. Kyle Rayner is my generation's Green Lantern, and Green Lantern's imagination and power is what make him my favorite.

    I would love it if Grant Morrison ever wrote a Green Lantern graphic novel or something. I can imagine it would be psychedelic.

  4. There are Easter eggs all over this run. A really subtle one appears in #18 on the lion's head Superman page. It shows Vyndktvx holding the devil's harp wielded by musician Ferlin Nyxly all the way back in the Superman sand-creature saga written by Denny O'Neill in 1971. Only Grant Morrison would even remember that (very good) story.

  5. Rikdad, Good Point to the Zur-En-Arrh reference. It will probably never happen but I wonder if Morrsion ever thought about other plans for Dr. Hurt after B&R 16 being buried and all but I digress. Also, if you have time I hope you will do some posts on Multiversity in the fall hopefully. I know Cameron Stewart is already working on it from twitter.

    --Unknown, @kukheart on twitter

  6. ManWithTenEyes, I think the Multitude's appearance also borrows from a chapter in the Sandman Saga. I haven't tried to identify all of the little references the way I did with his Batman run; the fact that RIP was a mystery made that a little more compelling, although it would be nice to look at which choices Morrison made. I know he borrowed things from every decade in Superman's past. I'd be curious to know which Superman stories Morrison has read: There are too many (I think) for him to have read them all. So I'd like to know how he navigated the massive Superman canon.

  7. kukheart, at least in one small sense, Morrison has used Hurt again, in the vision seen in Inc vol 2, #5. Although that future will not happen, it indicates that Hurt is still around.

    I was disappointed in the extent to which Morrison dismantled Hurt at the end of B&R. The ranting, raving, and delusion, though seen earlier, took some gravitas away from a villain who'd earlier been built up magnificently. I think Hurt might have had the potential to move into the top echelon of esteemed Batman foes, but he works better as a smug, calculating mastermind bent on sheer evil, which is how he appeared again whispering in the President's ear in Inc #5.

  8. Rikdad, the multitude may have been based on "angels" who turned out to be villains in Superman #236, one issue after the devil's harp and Nyxly appearance. The angels issue was in the midst of the sand creature saga but not part of it, an interlude that today might have been because of production problems but that back then featured the regular writer and artists.

    Alas, I never read Superman #236 because my parents were put off by the image of hell on the cover. Someday maybe I'll buy it online and make up for a small gap in my childhood comics reading.

  9. Since this is a Superman post, I'll start by saying that I loved this run and wish you had been as detailed in play by play as in the 2010 Morrison Bat-fest over 3 different titles!

    Onto Dr. Hurt.

    While I can understand that you're upset over how Hurt turned into nothing but a long-in-the-tooth buffoon to end B&R (essentially), I think that it all follows Morrison's "tragedy then farce" motto for that section of the run. It makes a lot of sense to me, in a way.

    I think that section of B&R does a few switcheroos to illustrate that point. Hurt becomes out of control (as opposed to being in total control), the Joker is a hero (ish), Joker gets crowbar-ed by a Robin, the Dollotrons take down Pyg, Gordon is wired to turn on Batman, etc.

  10. Rikdad,
    I will simply say that I don't want anyone but Morrison writing Dr. Hurt, yes he has the potential to be the greatest villain ever aside from the Joker in the batman mythos but I only trust Grant to write him, or he will turn into another Hush. If that ever happens I'll be first in line.

  11. Kukheart,

    Hurt has appeared in the RIP crossover in Outsiders, a story which was roundly contradicted by Morrison's later chapters (701-702) of the story. As Morrison's run in DC superhero comics nears an end, it becomes increasingly unlikely that he will be returning to Dr. Hurt, although the end of Inc may do so as it did in #5.

    It is interesting to contemplate how the DCnU reboot may or may not leave old characters buried. I think, as I posted here, Morrison made the best bid he could to bury Doomsday for once and for all. But in the next 20 years, how can we discount any character from coming back as creative teams come and go?

  12. Matt, I would have liked to have stepped through the Action run in more detail, but time did not permit. And, as I mentioned, this didn't have the compelling mystery behind it. The Action run was rich and wonderful in its detail, but aside from the small matter of the nature of the Little Man, it was not long on mystery.

    You're quite right about the B&R intention of farce following tragedy. I've been thinking about Morrison's long Batman stories looking for patterns relevant to Inc, and B&R stands out as the weakest of the three that have completed in terms of its overall payoff, in contrast to the artistry of the individual issues and arcs, which in my opinion were probably better than those of Morrison's "Batman" and "Return of Bruce Wayne" stories. The three things I regret about B&R are:

    1) Dick Grayson starred the whole series, then was upstaged by Bruce's return at the end. Perhaps that delivers an implied message, but if so, it was not spelled out very clearly. The Joker says that if Dick can't be as good as Bruce was, everyone will die. We never got to see that put to the test one way or another, but it seemed that Bruce and Damian could have very well saved the day without Dick. We could have gotten that as a pointed message: Dick is not as good as Bruce and no one can be. But instead the drama on that point simply ended.

    2) Hurt's use in the final farce went, I think, too far. It was effective (and funny) to see the Joker making him look foolish. I was particularly fond of his panicked "Joker!" and asking who supplied the popcorn, and the banana peel was a bit obvious but fine. But in Bruce's grasp, he seemed to simply disintegrate psychologically (and perhaps physically) to no particular gain. It made it hard to view him as a Luthor-level villain. For all of the thousands of disposable villains Batman has faced over the years, Morrison had actually built one up as great, a feat we hadn't seen perhaps since R'as al-Ghul was introduced, and that rant did a good deal, in my mind, to make him trivial.

    3) The use of three jarringly different artists on the final issue was very disappointing.

    1. I agree that the discombobulation of Dr. Hurt was a disappointment after a few years of remarkable buildup of the character. I think Morrison was trying to show that the Thomas Wayne character's interaction with the Hyper-Adapter in the 1700s had created a crazed, flawed being. But that didn't mesh with the relentlessly effective, relentlessly evil Dr. Hurt we'd been following all along -- a villain so great that the very description of him way back in Batman #674 was chilling.

      I chalk this up to the challenge facing all writers: It's much easier to create a great scenario in popular entertainment than to resolve it. That's true with a lot of Hollywood summer blockbusters, and it's true with many comics stories we followed with great intensity over the years (Hush and Contagion come to mind in the Bat-verse).

      My favorite ending to a Bat saga was No Man's Land. The final three-issue arc and the coda issue to follow were action-packed, beautifully written by Greg Rucka and full of the tragedy and heroism that were apt and necessary at the end of such a grand story. My hope is that the last several issues of Batman Inc. can accomplish the same.

  13. A quick comment on Action #19: With the writer Andy Diggle's speedy departure announced even before his first issue came out, it's hard to say what #19 will indicate about the future direction. Tony Daniel's work is a real joy to behold. His style once again seems to have evolved; there's little resemblance between this Superman and the one he drew in Batman #701. It's a beautiful result.