Saturday, 21 June 2014

Rescuing Strays – Grant Morrison’s Action Comics Vol Two

by Jack Meldrum

Volume Two: Bulletproof

Having spent Volume One redefining the myth of Superman, Morrison then proceeds to reinvent the myth of Clark Kent. On top of that, he recreates a long-forgotten character and starts to stack the cards for his grand finale.

Bulletproof is probably the weaker of the three volumes. As second acts so often are, there's a bit of a sense of wheel-spinning – even when the final instalment reveals just how much this one mattered, there's still an odd, wandering feel in places. But it is still very good, especially in the places where it escapes the three-part Forgotten Superman story and focuses on what are, essentially, massive metatextual middle-fingers to DC corporate/heartwarming and ingenious dissections of what Superman is.

In the opening salvo of these surreal trips into Morrison’s meta-myth, we meet Calvin Ellis, President of America in Earth-23. This charming, charismatic man of colour (and blatant Barack Obama parallel) is also the Superman of Earth-23, and his story is a brief interlude in the narrative of these volumes as much as it is a high point in the themes. Ellis fights a paranoid, drug-addled Lex Luthor and then encounters a musical meta-machine that summons the awesome Superdoom, a monstrous Superman dreamed up in a universe where Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane created a Tulpa-device to teach children.

It is very hard to talk about Superdoom without becoming a little sketchy – Morrison's work is dense and florid – but he's a Superman perverted by malignant businessmen, a tool of a fascistic society created by the still-present, still-enigmatic Little Man and employed to hunt down dissidents. He's been modified incessantly by a committee to be as marketable and effective as possible. He's a murderous psychopath, hopping from universe to universe in these bizarre cross-dimensional cubes that, somehow, every Lex Luthor dreams up.

He's the most effective parody/satire/commentary on DC's approach to Superman in particular that it's a miracle they let the run continue.

The following series of stories involves a three-part story with three distinct ideas. We see Clark Kent die, replaced by 'Johnny Clark', as our protagonist wrestles with the reality of being a living ideal. We meet Captain Comet, or Adam, the 'Forgotten Superman' who enlisted with an alien army to fight... something. Something ominous. And we have further development of the Anti-Superman Army, the nefarious team run by the Little Man. This story is a little too ponderous, and and perhaps a little too fast – nothing quite hits the mark in the story itself. But it's still so bursting with smart, potent ideas that it deserves reading.

Much better are the 'backup' stories. We have more exploration of Superman-as-concept and myth, more consequences to his presence. And there's the wonderful The Boy Who Stole Superman's Cape, from DC's Zero Month, which features all of the themes in the volume explored in perfect harmony with a sweet, charming little tale.

And at the very end, we meet Ms. Nyxly – Clark's landlady – properly. Which means we meet Nyxlygsptlnz, Princess of the Fifth Dimension... and the whole story kicks into high gear.

Jack Meldrum was President on Earth-10, once. He quit when he found how the hours worked out.

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