Before going into Action Comics #1, which was one of the big launch titles of the DC New 52, I’d like to preface things by saying that this is the first article in a nineteen part series looking at the themes, characters, and general storytelling of Grant Morrison’s both beloved and maligned run on Action Comics. I’m pushing for a weekly release schedule, but that probably won’t happen. Without further ado, here is my review of one of the most valuable and influential comics of all time.
Action Comics #1 truly lives up to its name. Both Superman and his reporter alias Clark Kent are proactive people who do what is right and fight for justice no matter what. The opening page shows Superman shaking down corrupt businessman Glenmorgan and forcing him to confess to using illegal labor, bribing politicians, and ignoring safety standards to make a profit. From this scene onward, Grant Morrison writes Superman as an updated version of the Depression Era people’s hero, who wasn’t afraid to give a slum lord a physical lesson with his fists. In fact, later in the comic, Clark mentions some stories about Superman saving a woman from spousal abuse and dropping Neo-Nazis in a sewage plant that were actual stories during Siegel and Shuster’s initial Action Comics run. Morrison and artist Rags Morales use the stories as the foundation of their younger, brash Superman, who doesn’t even have a proper costume yet.
Something is always moving or happening in Action Comics #1, and there is little room to breathe or reflect with the exception of a touching two page scene where Clark’s landlady Mrs. Nyxly reveals that his writing inspires her and “everybody”. Morrison spends a lot of this extra-sized first issue showing the general public’s reaction to and relationship with Superman. The police (who are under the thumb of Glenmorgan, Lex Luthor, or some other corporate overlord) are instructed to hunt him down. However, they are mostly afraid of him. Rags Morales has a gift for facial acting in his artwork and in the only two page splash of the issue, he shows the Metropolis PD cowering in fear as Superman stands like a red-eyed god before them.
The ordinary people of Metropolis see him as a hero, and he goes out of his way to stop a wrecking ball from destroying a building with people in it. In return, the people help Superman to his feet after getting hit by a tank missile. Colorist Brad Anderson uses a variety of skin tones and other colors to show the people that Superman helps in contrast with the red of the missiles and electrified net that Lex Luthor and the police try to capture him with. This big shift in colors helps humanize Superman and also shows his inspirational nature as they literally stand in front of a tank to shield him.
Glenmorgan acts as the baddie in the “cold open” style beginning of Action Comics #1, but Morrison sets up Lex Luthor and General Sam Lane as the de-facto “Big Bads” for now. (There is subtle foreshadowing of the real foes in a couple early pages for re-readers.) They spend most of their time talking and squabbling in a lab while Superman punches and leaps his way through obstacles Luthor puts in his path. Rags Morales draws Lex Luthor as pudgy and all too condescending with Lane having a furrowed brow worthy of a military man. Morrison makes both character’s sympathetic as General Lane breaks down when he sees Lois on the train that Luthor basically used as a death trap for Superman. (The “death” part doesn’t work for him though.) Even if he comes across as pompous and conceited, Luthor’s motive for taking out Superman is actually rational. Through dehumanizing dialogue like “it” and “thing”, Morrison shows that Luthor thinks Superman is an alien species who will threaten the human race and lead to its extinction. The big pages of fiery collateral damage illustrated by Morales, Bryant, and Anderson help prove his point.
In spite of his recklessness and weaknesses, Superman is a real hero in Action Comics #1. His slip ups don’t come from moral reasons, but by miscalculating his strength, like the climactic train lifting scene at the end. A younger Superman allows Morrison and Morales to show him struggling in his journey to grow into the iconic hero he later becomes. Action Comics #1 has a good balance of victories and defeats, which is reflected in the art. When Superman is triumphant, he takes up most of the page, like the two page splash where he is lifting Glenmorgan. But when he stumbles, the wreckage and fearful faces of people around him take center stage.
In Action Comics #1, Grant Morrison and Rag Morales craft a thrilling first chapter of Superman’s adventures which refreshingly begins in the middle of his early career as a crime fighter. There is fisticuffs, populism, and villainy galore, and Morrison excels at writing a cockier Superman giving him some dryly humorous lines, including a brilliant crack at Smallville early in the comic. Action Comics gets much weirder, but its first installment is an exciting look at the nascent Man of Steel as well as his ethos, villains, and supporting cast.