Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Superman & The Authority #3

Superman & The Authority #3 begins with a cinematic opening. Six tall, slender panels neatly enclose June Moone and no one else, and then the camera pulls back, ending with a wide panel bringing her into company. When this ends with a caption – not the first and not the last time that the story has said this – “FORT SUPERMAN” it’s time to notice that there’s a reason why Grant Morrison has rejected the conventional name for this place, because it’s a place for community, almost a home, the headquarters of a team, and in sum, not in any way a fortress of solitude. In fact, the story’s first word performs a similar change in perspective, naming the location of the fortress not “the Arctic” but “Alaska” – not a place defined by barrenness and being uninhabited but a real place with a real name and a population to boot (although it’s a fair bet that Superman’s fortress is more remote than just sitting at the end of a cul-de-sac outside Anchorage). In the meantime, we see June subtly – easy to miss – dress herself by making her clothing levitate and float to her, contradicting the sense from earlier than June is powerless and the Enchantress side of her alone has power (which is subject to wickedness). Along the way, there’s a nod to The Wizard of Oz when June’s recollection of her Hell-dream includes “and you were there.”

Personally, I found the story of June’s peril and subsequent rescue powerful. In a genre where internal conflict is often the struggle between a character and some factor that we can’t relate to, because it doesn’t actually exist (a hex, mind control, a Black Lantern ring), June’s despair stems from guilt. To be sure, her predicament begins with something mystical, but at heart, she is trapped by the feeling that she’s “too weak” and has “done everything wrong.” D’z’amor takes glee in her frailty. Superman’s message? We all make mistakes. Every moment is a fresh opportunity. And Manchester Black’s advice – use your strength, have it be on your side. In a miniseries where the enemies lash out with abusive language as much as with fists and ray-beams, where elements in the story keep mapping onto elements in the real world, I wondered if Morrison had some situations close to home in mind with this scene; either way, as unreal as June’s situation was in the details, the emotions rang true. This scene was interestingly divergent from the famous scene in All-Star Superman #10 when Morrison shows Superman rescuing a girl from suicide not with the powers he gets from Earth’s yellow sun but with caring and understanding and a message of hope. Here, Manchester Black makes the connection to the situation and a “Suicide Hotline” call, but takes a different tack, and Morrison is showing us that Black’s style of pep talk can work, too. In the meantime, Superman dissolves D’z’amor with an argument about good and evil a bit reminiscent of the way Superman defeated Emperor Joker; the Joker could not imagine a world without Batman and, evil as he wants to be, D’z’amor can not truly operate without imagining something good.

When Enchantress has been saved and redeemed, the issue takes off on three new adventures, each of which is unresolved and going badly by the final page. We see that Lightray, moments before she would have been recruited by Apollo and Enchantress, is herself suicidal and is teleported off by Eclipso. The team of Manchester Black, Midnighter, and Steel is blindsided by a quartet of Ultra-Humanite’s team, and is suddenly outnumbered four to two even while a rain of missile-men bombard Dubai. Then, Superman is subdued by the Ultra-Humanite himself, in the form of Ultra’s superior brain in the body of Solomon Grundy – a bit reminiscent of the “Doomsday Wars” story, in which Brainiac’s brain took control of Doomsday’s body. Somehow, the situation in an issue that began with the characters in Hell managed to get much worse – or so it seems.

Thematically, the inclusion of Eclipso interplays interestingly with Apollo and Midnighter – all combinations on dark vs. light – Lightray, and Enchantress who is, like Eclipso, the pairing of a light and dark personality. And, as noted in my commentary of earlier issues, this theme was already evident in the contrasting styles of Superman and Manchester Black and Morrison’s project in this work is one of rehabilitating and redeeming the dark, making Manchester Black a force we can root for, as Apollo and Midnighter are, in their origin, weapons of a villain who have been redeemed. The details of Eclipso’s background have been retconned over the years, and his post-Infinite Frontier nature might be up for grabs; it would not be surprising if Eclipso is defeated not with punches but by some sort of incantation or even argument that nullifies his evil and lets the good / light side take over.

But before Eclipso shows up (such as he does, always cloaked in shadow), Lightray – Lia Nelson – has a gun aimed at her head and we don’t know whether her depression is a consequence of her natural mental state or the influence of Eclipso; her comment that she is “so sad all the time” hints that this may be unrelated to the doings of supervillains. Once again, as with the Nat Irons subplot, the darkness of social media in our real world (our real online world) may be the subject that Morrison is really addressing, not fictional people in tights involved with super science and magic; Lia’s "world that’s falling apart” may be ours.

Overarching the horrifying situation with Ultra-Humanite ready to put his brain into Superman’s body is a single, pregnant detail – before the team split up, Superman told the team that he himself would serve as bait, a hint that being attacked by Ultra is not really a surprise and not really contrary to Superman’s expectations, and his defeat might not be a real defeat. What he says to the team after calling himself “bait,” we don’t see, but we see him subsequently walk through the teleportation portal with the team before being back in the Fortress for Ultra’s attack, indicating that we’ve missed at least two phases of preparation that were almost certainly not irrelevant. This recalls the quick interaction during Apollo and Midnighter’s mission in issue #2, wherein Midnighter announced that he had already determined the certainty of his and Apollo’s victory, but then expressed alarm that their foe was outthinking him, but then it turned out that his confidence was well-founded in the first place. That may foreshadow what is happening here, where Ultra’s belief that he has launched an unbeatable surprise attack seems to be less informed than Superman’s confidence that his seeming vulnerability is merely “bait.”

Whatever happens in the battle, it seems sure that the good guys will win – but what are good guys? This is perhaps the most important question in the miniseries and answering that seems to be the statement that Morrison wants to make as they exit from DC superhero comics. Is Manchester Black a good guy? Obviously, he’s now on Superman’s team and we’re rooting for him. Similarly, Enchantress has suddenly come around from being a wicked nightmare plaguing June Moone but is now, also, on the team. But this series does not simply whitewash the wicked, giving them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It also owns up to the imperfections of the good, accepts their faults, and redeems them. Superman’s secret identity was all along, as Ultra-Humanite opines (and as others have throughout the decades) a “lie” from a man who claims never to lie. Superman is, Ultra also observes, no longer required to pose as a paragon of virtue now that his son is taking greater importance. Superman owns up to the weaknesses and faults of his allies in issue #1 – their overconfidence, their underperformance, their failures.

Superman is a character whose history is much bigger than the portion of it in Morrison’s hands, and even Enchantress is a character with considerable definition in the past, so perhaps we learn the most about the miniseries’ message by looking at Lia Nelson, who seems to be all shining beauty goodness and optimism, but aims a gun at her head, proclaiming existential despair hidden from the world. Her birth was celebrated as one of the most special and wonderful ever, but in truth, her parents raged at one another and we learned of their infidelities. These are details fully in Morrison’s control and they’re chosen to package what Morrison is saying about Superman and all the DC “heroes” in this send-off: They’re not perfect and perfection is always just an illusion. What these fictional heroes have to teach us is not that being perfect and spotless is the way to live but that surviving one’s own imperfections is something we can do – as June Moone did in this issue, as Superman is doing in this miniseries, and as Lia Nelson has to do – if she can – in the next issue. Superman’s final message to us, with Morrison penning the words, is not that sunlight can make a man incredibly mighty but that every moment is a fresh opportunity to do something worthwhile.


  1. The strangest detail here is still how little we know about Superman's plan in this story. It is a 4 issue series where the team doesn't show up till issue 2 and is still incomplete by issue 3, and the hero's plan (something usually plainly stated) has so far been kept hidden. This is something usually reserved for villains in Morrison books, while Batman did have a secret plan in The Return of Bruce Wayne his main goal was always clear. We also have little information about what happened to this world's Superhero population; another detail usually front loaded as world building in elseworld type tales. All we know is that Superman wants to solve some great issue which the Justice League failed to solve, and that something has happened to them which forces Superman to turn to supposed anti-heroes (Natasha and Lightray being execptions).

    1. It is kept vague, and could be interpreted as an elseworld when the league is unavailable. But the league members could be unavailable for their own reasons in their own series. It could just as likely be that the league has already tried "being more proactive" in other series. Superman already explained that he and his usual team had been so preoccupied with villain plots (think of how many storylines are about villains attacking heroes themselves, its life threatening but not directly about saving the world) they overlooked problems. Think of all the threats they faced so far in these short issues, they are completely off of other superheroes radar, overlooked but important. Also consider maybe the POINT is to bring out the potential of antiheroes and underutilized heroes, if the League really became neutralized or undependable for any reason.

      I also read A LOT of the dialogue as metanarrative, more than Rikdad has noted so far. I even think the real reason Superman is fading and the League cant be there, is meta. But that might require explanation, and I'm unsure if Rikdad wants me to lay it all out in comments.

      Instead just ask this: if Superman told Black straight what he wanted him to aim for, would he do it?

    2. Unknown, it is curious structurally, and consider RIP as a counterpoint. A big reveal there was that Batman was always more aware of Hurt's plan than we knew until the end, and his allies were also in the dark, to the point that they considered that Bruce might be delusional. In S&TA, the tempo is outrageously quicker, with none of the prologue, 2/3 of the length, but still, we see a similar ramshackle nature to the proceedings, and once again, the hero grouses that he wishes that he'd had more time to get ready.

      I am unsure of the context in which Morrison wrote, given that this has been "in the can" for months going on years. What did Morrison know, when this was written, about precisely what is going on in the other titles now? Did the scripts change at all, even a sentence or two, since 2020? A lot has happened in the real world, and a lot has happened in the world of comics, and with so much meta commentary evident, it's hard to say if Morrison is being meta about the worlds (real and otherwise) of 2018, 2020, or 2021. But I'm certainly curious.

    3. Doc, that's a good answer, and don't hold back on anything else you'd like to add!

      I feel like there's one line of meta message in this story that runs from the optimism of Final Crisis to the insecurity voiced in Multiversity and the head-shaking that had Batman, in "The Green Lantern"'s Blackstars mini saying, "I give up." I think that one of the things S&TA is doing is to give a fourth installment of Morrison's commentary on where things are going for DC comics, and I'm waiting to see how #4 will close that message out. Meanwhile, #2 and #3 have said a lot about the online life and how someone with a public image can withstand it. Morrison ended All Star Superman, his Action run, and Superman Beyond with memorable full-page images, and I can't predict how this one will conclude, but I expect it to be very thoughtful.

    4. Its harder for me to lay it all out because I don't actually LIKE all that I noticed, its not all fun. But this is just what I noticed.

      Rikdad is right that its hard to identify metacommentary about the real world because the world changes so fast, but some things are consistent. The most obvious things being the way Steel dealt with internet trolls with unparalleled grace, and when Hal Jordan left at the end of TGL clearly representing Grant's au revoir.

      Instead it is more commentary like from the metafiction examples Rikdad listed, regarding fellow comics creators and certain kinds of audience.

    5. (Continued)
      I think it even connects a LITTLE BIT with patterns observed BY comics gate. Obviously I'm not saying Grant's perspective fits in any box. I just noticed when the Guardians communicated they wanted Hal to deal with 1 more problem they knew they couldn't handle but if they had it their way they would replace him with new Lanterns that don't question them as much... it showed an image of "token" characters. I personally think those are actually great characters and the Green Lantern cast has always been refreshingly unaffected by divisive commentary unless Green Arrow is there. Grant may or may not agree, but Grant seemed to be saying that is how people in charge think of those characters, and maybe what they think of Hal. Do people in DC think of Grant as a problematic non-diverse man? Hopefully not. But Grant definitely doesn't seem to fall in to corporate agenda. Admittedly the Scott has definitely been successful enough and couldn't get that far being as obstinate as Oliver Queen.

      Now Grant has come out as nonbinary and writing a Superman that has also changed in the public eye. But Superman also seems to the reader to be aging and no longer at his peak. The Justice League seem to be all but through. New DC staff are not the same as Chuck Dixon, Kurt Busiek, Frank Miller or Mark Wolfman. In fact not all staff are welcome for anniversary issues. Their feedback and response is more visible and unfiltered than it was in the days of letters pages. They appear meaner and smaller than readers might have imagined the old greats to be. The Authority are Manchester Black a classic satire that is normally opposed to Truth, Justice and the American Way, but Grant shows Superman trusting him to bring together a team and aim to make a positive difference in his own way. Rikdad already pointed out how other team members seem to be weaker but choose to be greater in their own way. Lightray is famous in public but was lonely and broken in private, does Grant think that way about some of current DC Staff based on twitter? Natasha is a younger feminine version of Steel, who is already a side character for Superman. Multiversity and Blackstars were mostly pessimistic about dark forces corrupting the DCU, and as Rikdad has pointed out those forces mirrored real life market forces and cultural changes. Comics Gate commentary is also often pessimistic about the future of the DCU. I even recognized real life in the digitized lines of the Phantom Zone criminals, Grant doesn't have to imagine what hateful ghosts would say through a screen. I'm not saying the Zoners represented any particular side, except obviously the bad side.

      But Grant Morrison is showing Superman more optimistic about what he can do at the possible end of his career, and optimistic about the untapped potential of his replacements. Black said it "feels great to get even" and Superman replies "I like to do things differently". Manchester Black has always been a satire but Grant depicts him as someone who seems to really think he's been wronged by the world, but this version of Superman can actually empathize and still encourage a different approach. "Never take anyone for granted" it goes both ways for Superman changing his approach as well as almost everyone on the team (except Natasha already seems to get it, the astoundingly graceful way she handled that A.I., so she just needed to be invited).

      Grant Morrison might be wanting to leave the career on as high a note as possible and leave an inspiration for whoever comes next, instead of just leaving big shoes.

      In The Green Lantern, Hal Jordan SUCCEEDS in his impossible mission and takes a well earned vacation. I hope Grant Morrison also feels successful and that the DCU they have done so much for is in good hands.

      Of course its all pretend and its for a paycheck, and Grant can't be said to take anything seriously. But that doesn't mean it isn't meaningful to Grant.

  2. All good observations, Doc. I had not been listening on any channels where Comicsgate was part of the discussion and essentially learned about it today. I've also seen confirmation that Morrison wrote this in 2018, which would definitely make any comments on more recent events accidental/coincidental. I particularly wanted to check on this, in light of events and revelations concerning certain comics creators in 2020 that might inescapably be part of the metatextual commentary if this script had been written or revised since then. Even knowing when in 2018 the script had its final edits might be useful to ascertain which real world events were or weren't possible subjects of the metacommentary.

    That said, I think that this series probably isn't taking such focused aim at (or on behalf of) any particular individuals but is rather a response to more general trends. And, apparently, that means the general trends of (and prior to) 2018, which is already seeming in some ways like a long time ago.

    1. I'm both surprised and relieved for you Rikdad, that you weren't aware of the trends I mentioned. Part of why I hesitated to bring it up, is because yours is my favorite commentary that DOESN'T focus on it ever, its refreshing.

      Concerning timing. Even if Grant wrote this in 2018, comics gate has been a thing since 2017 and topics include ongoing trends that some think go back since before 2014. It might even be a feature of the current Age of comics. Its not so unlikely Grant would have been aware of it since 2017 or before. Even more likely that Grant noticed similar patterns before that, independent from any commentary. Then its almost certain Grant would have entirely unique own thoughts about it.

      You are right, the series probably isn't taking aim at particular individuals like the Monitors seemed to be in Final Crisis. Except for large persistent camps, like Manchester Black has always been a satire of Superman critics.

      If you are CURIOUS but don't want to be emotionally drained by a plethora of unscripted opinions (not all polite), I recommend the most balanced takes I am AWARE of on the channel "Comics by Perch". "The Fourth Age" is more passionate but more likely to find interesting than most. Then "Casually Comics" is not associated with comicsgate by any means, but has a talent for explaining different audience reactions certain comics moments in an objective way, as a side note in her non-divisive videos focusing on the comics themselves.

      I don't think Grant would write something that would be dated by current events and attacking specific people. But the Scott has chosen to react to trends of comics ages even since JLA #1 depicted the Hyperclan executing blurry 90s Marvel anti-heroes Wolverine and Doom2099 (and maybe Bishop?).

      Anyways I'm just guessing, reading into it whatever I will, and might change my mind if I see different in the future. It doesn't change that this miniseries is a lot of fun to read.

    2. I was aware of the various sentiments regarding diversity and change in superhero rosters, and also aware of the Gamergate phenomenon in earlier years, but hadn't spent much time… very, very little… engaging with this as a movement, though with my own feelings about specific instances; e.g., that they really made a mess of Wally West over the years. To the extent that diversity is an issue, the roster of this Authority makes Morrison's stance pretty clear; maybe we'll get some interesting messaging out of Coldcast in issue #4, but he hasn't even spoken yet. Maybe that is a message.

      Re: timing, I was more curious if #MeToo issues were part of the message, and some very specific instances related to comics executives and creators occurred before 2018 and some later. This may be completely off-topic for the meta messages of S&TA in 2021, but if so, that seems to be only because it was written in 2018. It might be best to look at this after issue #4 is out rather than parsing a few speech balloons in #1-3.

  3. I don't think that world is changing that fast. Things like social media have been a problem for years now, only difference in last couple of years is that the problems became mainstream and everyone now notices it, while previously it was obviously only to those who followed it closely.

    Same for industry commentary really, I'd assume that Morrison understands the industry better than most of us so it's likely that to Morrison these recent industry trends have been obvious for a long time now.

    1. Two years ago, one of the creators of The Authority was busy working in comics and now is indefinitely sidelined. (And I wonder if an Authority project would have been greenlit if it were new now.) So is one of Morrison's artist collaborators, and in both cases, their behavior with fans was the reason. For on-the-job behavior, one of the recent editors of Superman has left while one of the editors on Morrison's Batman work has also left the industry for more or less opposite reasons. And I don't think the bulk sum of the above was on the radar when Supergods, at least, was written, though that's now a decade back. Maybe all of this is entirely unrelated to the metacommentary in S&TA, but it makes 2021 look a lot different from 2018 to me.

  4. A minor spoiler from today's issue of Action #1035… we see Superman with The Authority ready to go into battle, obviously following the events of S&TA #4; also obviously not matching the tiny details of S&TA, but the differences (e.g., Superman's gray hair and costume, and level of power) are easy to overlook and understandable given the three-year interval between when they were written.