by Jack Meldrum
A little while back, the final volume of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics dropped. I bought it, instantly. I'd had it pre-ordered for months. I'd read every issue digitally at least a dozen times each. I'd cried during it more than I did even for All-Star.
Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run is my favourite thing in comics, ever, so far. I think it's wonderful. And magical. Mythical. Mind-bending, transcendent wizardry.
And now that you can have it all, I'm going to try to sell you on it.
Volume One: The Men of Steel
Morrison’s run doesn't begin with a hackneyed origin story. It doesn't even have his previous take, that glorious one-page, four-panel recap from All-Star Superman. It begins with police storming the mansion of new character Glen Glenmorgan, ready to stop... Superman? Superman clad in jeans and a t-shirt, grinning like a kid.
From the word go, Morrison steeps the story in Superman history. But not in a slavish or detrimental manner. Morrison takes the germ of that first Action Comics issue, way back in '38, and reinvents it. Here's a rougher, leaner, cruder Superman, a Superman who throws abusive husbands into the river and jumps of rooftops to shake information from oozing, corrupt businessmen. He's just a kid, but one helluva kid – a kid with all the morals and decency Superman has always had. You can see, in this dangerous, intelligent, wild young boy, the makings of that shining paragon.
And Morrison just goes on shooting. We have Lex Luthor as a slimy soda-chugging brain-for-hire, playing every party against each other with his 'Gemini' alias. We have the recurring figure of the Little Man, a bizarre dwarf who seems to be playing parties we can't even see. We get Brainiac, Metallo, the Legion of Superheroes, and it's all completely wild. Huge, comics-perfect action ensues. Morrison and Rags Morales slam Krypton-sized metaphors into single panels, like when Superman is KO'd by a speeding bullet-train. Or when he stands, god-sized before a shrunken Metropolis, and they hold their candles to him. Or when the Legion of Superheroes – involved in a curious time-travel plot that is the secret story behind this run – extract Kryptonite from the Anti-Superman Army, in their fortress in Superman's brain.
There's a profound rejection of anything 'easy' here. Nobody is a writ-large archetype or a cutout. Glenmorgan, wicked as he may be, is also a man of faith, led astray by the devil in the form of the Little Man (who, we'll learn, is very much a Faustian figure). And so on. And so forth. But always coming out in this first volume is how powerful Superman is as not just a mere superhuman, but as a beacon of hope, and an ideal made manifest. He fights super-metaphors in his super-foes.
And as the run goes on, we'll learn just how crucial those super-metaphors are. Because Morrison’s run, at the core, is not about Superman as a character – even though he handles him very, very well. It's about Superman as an idea. And about how powerful those ideas are.
Jack Meldrum knew how powerful Superman was as an idea, but he didn't know why kids love Cinnamon Toast Crunch