The best Grant Morrison stories are journeys. We travel with the characters to new places or to new levels of understanding. The Invisibles was a race to the end of the world. New X-Men moved through the lives of the X-Men, transforming them along the way from superheroes to people. His Batman run has torn the character down and then rebuilt him as a god over and over again. In All Star Superman, Morrison showed us the final days of Superman as he was dying, refusing to not be the man and hero that he always was. With the New 52, Morrison had the opportunity in the relaunched Action Comics to once again redefine Superman, to make him into a new, refreshed Superman for the 21st century. After the glory and magic of All Star Superman, it seemed like we could be dazzled by a hero again with Morrison leading the way.
Morrison opened Action Comics #1 showing us someone who could be a hero of the people. With the event series Flashpoint, Geoff Johns rebooted the whole DC Universe, and in this new universe, the first images we saw of our new Superman was of an idealistic young man in a blue t-shirt and red cape lifting a corrupt businessman named Glenmorgan over his head. He tells the officers on the scene that he’ll put him down, “… just as soon as he makes a full confession. To someone who still believes the law works the same for the rich and poor alike.” How exciting would it have been to see Superman as a social crusader after the past years where we had to deal with corruption and greed nearly destroying everything? Businessmen like the corrupt Glenmorgan are more scary than Lex Luthor and Brainiac could ever be.
A crusading avenger fighting for the people who couldn’t fight for themselves; that’s the journey that it looked like we would be taking with Morrison and Superman. The earthy and rugged artwork of Rags Morales seemed like the perfect fit as a counterbalance to the divinity-infused artwork of Frank Quitely. Drawing a boy that was barely a man, Morales’ Superman is full of a righteous anger that only truly idealistic young adults can pull off. Those opening pages of Action Comics #1 looked like a true new start for the DC universe as it may be giving us heroes that truly matched our times rather than the stuffy old heroes and villains that were still products of the Golden and Silver Ages.
Morrison never successfully reimagines Superman for this new continuity. His All Star Superman was a celebration of everything fun about the character. With Frank Quitely’s grand artwork, All Star Superman was a lovely ode to those corny Silver Age stories that defined the character for decades. In Action Comics, Morrison tried to cherry pick what parts of the old continuity to keep and which to kick out. As Morrison attempts to carefully navigate the waters of this new continuity, he never manages to conjure the wonder that he could in Seven Soldiers, the many Batman series, or All Star Superman.
By the end of his run of 18 issues, Morrison falls back to his old bag of tricks with broken time, battles with all of existence at stake, and looping back in everything he’s done to show off how clever he has been in his storytelling. On its own, it can be fun and exciting. Rags Morales and Brad Walker take these esoteric Morrisonian ideas and make them feel down to earth. But ultimately, Action Comics is probably the most pedestrian of Morrison’s apocalypses. All of reality is threatened, but Action Comics never achieves the glorious madness of Final Crisis or the personal tragedies of New X-Men. It’s closest to his final JLA story, where everyone on Earth becomes a hero in the final battle just one of his bag of tricks that he revisits here. It’s an apocalypse where all of reality is in danger, but Morrison, Morales ,and Walker never raise the stakes above any other Superman fight for any generic tale of the last 10-20 years.
Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #1-18 was never going to be All Star Superman 2.0 no matter how much we wanted it to be. Even so, it’s still disappointing that it doesn’t even get to be JLA 2.0 as just a solid, crazy superhero story. For whatever reasons, Morrison reigns in his normal all-over-the-board narrative structure as his total story never delivers on the promise of those first few pages in Action Comics #1. For a brief moment, Superman was going to be fighting for us, for the little man in a world of millionaires and bureaucrats. He was going to fight for truth and justice but then he just ends up fighting his reimagined rogues gallery. The New 52 Action Comics wasn’t so much a new Superman as much as it was a newish take on an old, possibly worn out character who only has so much narrative potential and Morrison may have used up all of his own potential already with all of his other Superman stories.