Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman is routinely cited as one of the greatest Superman stories ever told, and after reading about a Superman sequel where the director feels it’s important to make Batman the one founding the Justice League, I felt like it was worth going back to someone whose vision of the character is more appealing to me.
The story Morrison told with Superman is far more intricate than the 12 issues of All-Star: he’s been working with Superman in one way or another for the better part of 20 years, going back to his Justice League relaunch in the ‘90s that first brought together DC’s “big guns:” Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Flash, and Martian Manhunter. In that time, he told, out of order, a generational story about Superman: in Action Comics, the flagship Superman book after the New 52 relaunch, Morrison told “the first Superman story;” JLA and Final Crisis: Superman Beyond told of his middle years; and All-Star Superman was designed to be “the last Superman story ever.”
The Multiversity spun out of Final Crisis, the New 52 reboot, and an issue of Action Comics, and it was on its face an attempt to map the cosmology of the rebooted multiverse using analogues to current DC heroes (including a few Superman analogues) as a guide. Or at least that’s what I thought it was when I included it in my reread.
“Hatchet order” is a term that only recently snuck into common usage (if one defines common usage as “blogs that ceaselessly complain about how to show one’s children the Star Wars movies without having to watch Episode 1 again” which…you know…:points to self:), but I thought when I went back to Morrison’s Superman “I have all these books. Why don’t, reboots be damned, I try and read them in chronological order for the character?”
Doing that, The Multiversity came last: I had an eye towards writing this up as a suggested reading order for new Superman fans, and in an effort to be as new reader friendly as possible, I was trying to avoid jumping back and forth, one issue at a time, between multiple collected editions. But as I went along, it struck me: The Multiversity is essential to understanding what Morrison is trying to say with Superman, and a more cynical person might even see it as criticism of the way other divisions are handling the character. So I threw my “one trade at a time” idea out and chopped it up to try and see if I couldn’t help articulate that point.
This is the most convoluted middle finger to Man of Steel ever written, and it took 20 years to get there.
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Action Comics #9
We start super out of order with arguably the second best issue of any Superman comic Grant Morrison has written, because it is in large part a statement of purpose about Superman. So of course it uses not Kal-El/Clark Kent, the gentle Kansas farmboy, but Kalel/Calvin Ellis, President Superman of Earth-23.
This isn’t a bug of Morrison’s work: it’s the entire point of it. Throughout his story, especially read like this, he uses alternate Supermen to illuminate specific aspects of the character, and Action Comics #9 is about Superman the superhero and science hero.
It’s not an accident that Calvin Ellis appeared in this volume of Action Comics (and it’s not an accident that he’s black, either): Morrison made a point of talking about how the young Superman of the New 52 was a throwback to his earlier days, hearkening back to the Depression-era Superman who fought inequality and corruption more than he fought Lex Luthor. Ellis is the logical end result of that story: in a world where Superman was still allowed to be about those things, he almost has to become President, or some sort of political leader. Morrison all but acknowledges this later in Action Comics when Superman gives the rest of the Justice League a hard time about not helping him solve global problems.
President Superman finishes a fight with Lex Luthor and begins to inspect what Luthor had been protecting: a cube, red and green, that looks like the inside of a piano folding back in on itself. It activates, and through it jump three people: a one-eyed woman, and two men burned pretty much to death. The woman is Lois Lane from Earth 45, and with her are Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen, who together made a machine that lets them turn thoughts into matter. They invented the concept of Superman, and he was so beautiful they wept. So in order to share him with more people, they brought the idea to Overcorp.
Once they sold the idea, it was monetized and corrupted, with Superman branding slapped all over their entire world until the concept had been turned into a monster who pursued the three of them across the multiverse, trying to eliminate them. That monster is Superdoom, and he is an entirely not-subtle allusion to corporatization, contrasted with a Superman who has dedicated his life to improving the world around him through all means at his disposal. President Superman and Lex Luthor (with a little help from a memory of Superman’s father) manage to fight Superdoom back into the box he came out of and save the day.
Superdoom comes back at the end of Action Comics, but is referenced a few times through Multiversity. The boxes, the foldy colorful pianos, are a central plot point to The Multiversity, and this issue lays out the central thesis of Morrison’s Superman beautifully. “…he becomes anything you want…him…to be…our world…wanted…that,” says a dying Earth-45 Clark Kent.
Collected in Action Comics vol. 2: Bulletproof
Action Comics #1-8
The first volume of Action Comics is a lot of setup, but it’s also another great story about Superman’s will and determination. The world doesn’t know what to make of this new Superman, so the Army (aided by Lex Luthor, who develops as consistently over the course of these stories as Superman does) tries to take him out. They create Metallo and torture Superman, but he escapes in time to barely not save Metropolis from Brainiac, and on Brainiac’s ship, he’s given the choice between saving Metropolis or saving Kandor, both of which are miniaturized and about to be filed away by the cataloguing supercomputer.
There’s also a two issue interlude with the Legion of Super Heroes, and if I may be permitted a moment of self-indulgence, WHY :stomp: ISN’T :stomp: THERE :stomp: A :stomp: LEGION :stomp: COMIC :stomp: COMING :stomp: IN :stomp: REBIRTH :stomp:. Okay.
This is very much a story about Superman growing into his role, but it’s a solid foundation for everything to come.
Collected in Action Comics vol. 1: Superman the Men of Steel
The Multiversity #1
The first issue of the actual Multiversity crossover (and not an Action Comics prologue) starts with a moment of sheer horror for all New Yorkers: bedbugs. Then it shifts to Nix Uotan, SUPERJUDGE (Style Guide Note: that must always be written in all caps) as he prepares to dissect Ultra Comics, which we’ll get to.
Nix travels to Earth 7, an analogue to Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. All but one of the heroes have been killed by the new mysterious bad guys, The Gentry. Nix sends The Thunderer to the Hall of Heroes and decides to try and deal with the Gentry himself. The heroes at the Hall, including President Superman; a Savage Dragon analogue; Captain Carrot; Aquawoman from Earth 11; Bloodwynd (!); and Red Racer, a Flash analogue from Earth 36; team up and head to Earth 8, where they meet up with the Avengers and ultimately discover that Nix has been captured and corrupted by The Gentry.
I fully admit this is somewhat curious placement. Nix is first introduced (in the real, not-comic book world) in Final Crisis, which we’re still 90 issues from, so having SUPERJUDGE just there jumping from comic blogger to superhero is a little jarring. But here’s why I think it works: the Superman in this issue isn’t President Superman. It’s Nix himself. Nix is the all-powerful super-being driving the story here, and this issue sets the tone for the rest of The Multiversity: every issue is about the Superman concept, stripped of one key element. Here, it’s his supporting cast. Morrison is arguing that without Lois and Perry and Jimmy and Batman and the Justice League, that Superman doesn’t work.
Collected in The Multiversity
JLA #1-9, JLA Secret Files Origins #1
The first few issues of Morrison’s JLA spend a lot of time setting up the central premise of the rest of the series. In them, the League fights the Hyperclan, a group of mysterious “heroes” who start building a false utopia and turn out to be disguised White Martians; and then they battle an invading army of angels, The Key and Professor Ivo and T.O. Morrow at separate points. It’s probably the most straightforward superhero bit in the entire collection, and Superman isn’t a hugely relevant character in it, but there are a couple of key reasons why I think it works best here.
First, time is utterly meaningless in Action Comics. There is a time jump between the end of the first arc and the start of the second – we will eventually see a Superman who’s been in the League for a bit, and Batman and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern show up in that arc like it’s not a big deal. So the transitions aren’t incredibly jarring except for Electric Superman, which…ugh. But whatever, that was going to be silly no matter what.
Second, there is a moment of uncertainty in Superman where he and Flash are talking and he expresses reservations about his ability to live up to his own hype. That lack of self-confidence, even a momentary one, isn’t there in the rest of these stories.
Third, it’s a counterpoint to The Multiversity #1: this is ALL about his supporting cast. The moment with the Flash is followed up by Superman wrestling an angel from the Bull Host, shocking everyone on the team, but that conversation in the trophy room shows that they help define him as much as anything else. You also get a glimpse of the Superman who will do nice things for anyone he can, for no other reason than it’s a nice thing to do: Tomorrow Woman.
We also see the beginnings of the Batman and Superman super bestie relationship that is an essential undercurrent through the whole arc: the White Martians capture most of the league but they leave Batman for dead, and Superman starts laughing at them because he knows that Batman’s better than all of them. That’s a great moment.
Collected in JLA Deluxe vol. 1
Action Comics #10-12, Action Comics Annual #1, Action Comics #0
What’s left of the second arc isn’t a ton: it’s still largely setup for the closing act of Action Comics. But there are bits of it that are incredibly good, and meaningful takes on what’s at Superman’s core. The Clark Kent alter ego “dies” and Superman replaces it with another secret identity. But we get more of the Batman/Superman relationship here, as it turns out Batman is the one who convinces Kal-El to resume being Clark (by researching how many people Clark had helped in his role as an investigative journalist and presenting that to Supes). And we see more of Superman helping the little people in the 0 issue, when we see how his cape helps two abused children fight back against their father, and he stops a train from running them down.
Here feels like a good place to mention that Sholly Fisch should be writing a Superman comic, too: the trades collect his backup stories from Action Comics, and they were universally good, as was his story with Kryptonite Man in the Annual.
Collected in Action Comics vol. 2: Bulletproof
The Society of Super-Heroes #1
The first trip into the multiverse takes us to Earths 20 and 40, opposites on the map of the multiverse we’ll soon see. Earth 20 is a pulpy adventure serial Earth, inhabited by the Lady Blackhawks, Doc Fate, the Immortal Man, Abin Sur, and The Atom – Al Pratt, who is actually the Atom Smasher in regular continuity, but who here is more of an analogue to Flex Mentallo: Pratt is the only man alive to complete the Iron Munroe Bodypower Course but for the final form, a punch that kills instantly.
Earth 40 is the dark reflection of that world: instead of the Immortal Man, they have Vandal Savage; instead of Doc Fate, they have Doctor Faust; instead of Lady Blackhawk, they have Lady Shiva. The two go to war for five years, at which point Doc Fate discovers a Transmatter Symphonic Array; Pratt uses the Deadly Atom Punch to kill Blockbuster; Fate and Green Lantern open the Array and send Sur into it; and Immortal Man kills Savage, spilling his blood on the ground with a shard of the meteorite that created them and summoning a temple to Nix Uotan, corrupted god, on Earth 20.
What, you may be asking, the hell does this have to do with Superman? I didn’t get it either until the last time I read it: Fate almost calls Atom “Superman,” and that’s why this works well here. If Pratt is this world’s Superman analogue, he’s broken and beaten down and had his moral core chipped away over the course of a grueling five-year war until the only option he sees for himself to save the day is to kill Blockbuster.
The Society of Super-Heroes is about Superman violating his own stated principles in the spirit of plot expediency, and their world is severely damaged because of it. It sets up a great counterpoint from the next book on the list.
Collected in The Multiversity
Action Comics #13-18
The conclusion of Morrison’s Action Comics uses one issue to finish setting up the final conflict (and it is the best issue of the entire run: in #13, Superman saves Krypto from the Phantom Zone, and I swear to you I’m close to tears just thinking about “who’s the best dog in the whole universe”), and it serves as a counterpoint to The Society of Super-Heroes in how utterly impossible it is: all Pratt has to do is knock Blockbuster unconscious, not repel an attack from the fifth dimension at three separate points in your timeline.
It turns out the short guy who has been floating around the entire series to this point is Vyndktvx, a fifth-dimensional imp with a grudge against Mr. Mxyzptlk. In the course of that grudge, he tried to take out Earth (because of the playful relationship between Mxy and Superman), only someone fought back against his attempt to destroy it, so he lays a temporal Rube Goldberg machine out for Superman to stop him.
Superman fights off Superdoom and the Anti-Superman Army under a red sun, all while facing down simultaneous attacks at two other points in his own personal timeline. He does this, even though it’s incredibly difficult to wrap your mind around narratively (let alone if you were actually the one being attacked) because the thesis statement of Action Comics is “There’s always a way.”
He’s presented with an impossible choice in the first arc: save Kandor or save Metropolis. He found a way to save both. He tries to retire Clark Kent as a secret identity, but he realizes his mistake and hangs onto both identities. He saves Lois from certain death by teaching himself to be a doctor in 3 seconds, and then performing surgery by hand. He fights off simultaneous attacks throughout his timeline like he’s living “All Good Things…”
Pratt fails his world not because he wasn’t strong enough, but because he wasn’t creative enough, because he allowed himself to be boxed into thinking his only option was killing. Clark Kent (and Calvin Ellis) don’t accept that, and that’s why they win in these comics.
Collected in Action Comics vol. 3: At The End of Days
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