Superman – Action Comics, Volume 2: Bulletproof Review – Grant Morrison

  

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Grant Morrison is one of the greatest writers Superman has ever had – if not the greatest. His book All Star Superman remains the high water-mark of quality for all Superman books and his understanding of the character is so profound that his stories have qualities to them that few other stories possess. So it’s always cause for celebration when a new Superman book comes out with Morrison’s name on the cover – and Bulletproof is no exception.

While the first Action Comics book was a patchy affair in terms of quality, I think the second book is far better – the stories are more ambitious and sophisticated and they all contain many great Superman moments. But given the New 52 label and that this is only the second book in this reboot, I feel Morrison’s advanced storytelling approach and use of pre-New 52 continuity could throw and alienate the new readership who might not know much about Superman.

On the surface, there’s little story in this book – Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent “dies” so he must create a new identity, and Lois’ niece is revealed as a star child with superpowers who is nearly abducted by Captain Comet. But right away the book starts off with an issue that’s bound to confuse new readers – issue #9 is about Calvin Ellis, the Superman of Earth-23, whose alter-ego is President of the United States, which might seem like Morrison is writing an issue about President Obama as Superman. Except Calvin Ellis made his first appearance in Final Crisis, a series that began publication in the summer of 2008, pre-Obama’s election, and whose character was a tribute to the alternate universe superheroes who’re all black, seen in “Crisis on Infinite Earths” back in the 80s.

In this issue, an alternate Clark, Lois, and Jimmy have created Superman with their minds and technology and sold it to a major corporation who go on to turn Superman from a positive, inspiring creation into an evil marketing icon who’s become an out-of-control killer. They escape to Earth-23 and Ellis fights this evil Superman-manifestation.

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This is a fascinating issue because it’s basically a retelling of what happened between Siegel and Shuster, Superman’s creators, and Detective Comics (later renamed DC Comics) – they sold Superman to DC for hardly anything and then Superman went on to become the global icon he is today, with Siegel and Shuster’s families (both have now passed on) receiving a pittance compared to the vast income Superman merchandise brings in for DC each year. It’s amazing that DC published what is essentially a harsh critique of their business practice and gives an insight into Morrison’s own views on the matter.

Like issue #5 in Batman Incorporated, this issue might seem like Morrison is getting sidetracked by taking the series in a bizarre direction before returning back to the main Superman story, but I think at this point in his career he’s earned the benefit of the doubt from readers and I’m certain what happens in the issue will play a part in the story arc later on.

I like issue #10 where Clark Kent “dies” and Superman faces a watered-down DC version of Kraven, though I feel it’s the weakest part of the book and it raises a strange question about Superman’s outfit: why does he wear the New 52 armour outfit when he’s around the Justice League and then revert back to the jeans ‘n’ t-shirt outfit when he’s away from them? It’s a strange contrast and never answered. It’s also the first time in this series Superman’s worn the armour and we’re never told where or how he got it – he just has it. Nor do we know where in the timeline this takes place – sometime in that murky period within the 5 years the Justice League had met and were working together, it seems. But I like that Morrison has the JL assemble without having to fight a world-threatening monster – they just gather because, why not? Well, that and Superman needs to find a home for some hamsters.

The main villain of this book is former good guy Captain Comet, presented in this book as an early version of Superman before there was a Superman. Comet is a character from 20 years ago, created by comics legend James Robinson for the “JSA: Golden Age” series, and in this book uses his psychic powers to defeat Superman and attempt to abduct Lois’ niece Sue in an abstract and complicated plan of saving the Earth in the future. Fans of Comet might dislike seeing the former hero portrayed as the bad guy but Morrison expertly has the character walk the line between good and bad, never presenting him solidly as being on either side and remaining enigmatic to the end.

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This is also the first time we’re introduced to firefighter Johnny Clark, Superman’s new civilian identity. Though we get a couple of issues with Superman as Johnny, this identity is quickly discarded and Clark Kent once more becomes Superman’s alter-ego, raising the question of why Morrison even made a point of killing Clark off in the first place. I think the reason behind this is because we get to see the impact Clark made, not just upon his colleagues, but upon the world with his work as a reporter, through eulogies and reminiscences. Morrison wants us to understand that Clark Kent made a positive impact on the world and that Superman, in every aspect of his life whether as a superhero or as a reporter, is always doing good. In a Superman book it’s easy to focus simply on Superman as he’s the reason we’re all reading these books in the first place – but in this story Morrison wants to shine the spotlight on Clark Kent to remind us of the importance of Clark and not just think of Superman as the sole identity changing the world for the better.

The final Morrison contribution in this book, issue #0, is my favourite. It’s entitled “The Boy Who Stole Superman’s Cape” and is the kind of story that wouldn’t have been amiss in All Star Superman. Set in the early days of Superman’s arrival in Metropolis, he’s momentarily felled by a grenade launcher (his powers are still developing remember) and a troubled young boy takes his cape. The issue is about the boy and his brother’s attempts at escaping their abusive stepfather, using the cape to help them avoid his violence. It’s a beautiful story with a great Superman moment at the end where he gives the kid this little smile and a wink after he saves him from imminent death.

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And that’s what makes this a great Superman book – all the great Superman moments it has within it. When Lois is dying and surgeons tell Superman that there’s nothing they can do, he immediately learns everything about surgery from a library in 5 minutes, heads back to the operating room and saves Lois’ life, operating on her with his eyes! Why not? He’s Superman after all. Hell, he’s such a good person, he refuses to even kill people in computer games! He and Jimmy are playing a game and he flat out tells Jimmy he’ll only drive and fly the chopper – he won’t take lives, even pixelated ones! We know this because he’s Superman and he values life too much. It might seem sentimental but it’s a core belief of the character that Morrison once more underscores and helps us understand him all the more. And we love him for it! It’s sentimental but it’s an acceptable kind of sentimentality.

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Unfortunately Morrison’s issues take up only half of this book. Sholly Fisch’s backups are included and fill in some extra detail to Morrison’s issues, as well as the extra-long Action Comics Annual #1 also written by Fisch. Fisch’s work is fine but compared to Morrison’s work, I found myself wishing the entire book had been written by Morrison instead. They’re still fun though, especially “Clothes Encounters”, a short about the place Superman got his t-shirts made up when he first moved to Metropolis. They’re also very straightforward in a way that Morrison’s issues aren’t. Some might prefer this but I think Morrison’s approach to Superman is deliberately nuanced and makes his work far more interesting as a result.

Like the first book, Rags Morales continues to be a disappointing artist for Morrison, producing some of his weakest art in this book. The art just feels like Morales isn’t trying – everything from the pencils to the layouts feel lazy and dull. Despite being on the cover, Morales provides very little art for this book. There are a number of fill-in artists who upstage him like Gene Ha who draws issue #9 and Cully Hamner who draws a number of backups and the annual. Ben Oliver, the artist on issue #0, gives the book its best art in a style reminiscent of Adi Granov with its painted, photo-realistic style.

While the series hasn’t been as flawless as Batman Incorporated, Morrison’s jeans ‘n’ t-shirt Superman is well worth reading for any Man of Steel fan. That said, it doesn’t feel like a comic for new readers – the obtuse storytelling that critics of Morrison don’t like is present in this book so it’s a book that might divide fans of Superman, though I thoroughly enjoyed it – at least the Morrison issues. For a character as difficult to write as Superman, Morrison has once more written a fine addition to the superhero’s canon and done it in an original and captivating way. While it’s an uneven book from the number of contributors, there are more than enough moments within it that makes Action Comics, Volume 2: Bulletproof the best Superman book of the year – don’t miss out!

Action Comics, Volume 2: Bulletproof by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales collects issues #9-12, 0 and Action Comics Annual 1, and is out now in hardback at your local comics shop

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