When the original Action Comics #1 debuted in 1938, Superman was a blue collar man-of-the-people who used his above-average strength, speed, and agility to defend the fair citizens of Metropolis against corrupt politicians, violent mobsters, abusive husbands, and the like. In short order a change came to the Superman comics, and wave upon wave of familiar evil aliens, super scientists, and costumed cronies became the constant antagonists for the Man of Steel.
When rebooting Action Comics for DC's New 52 initiative last year, famed Scottish comic author Grant Morrison took a look back at those earliest Superman stories. He reasoned that there ought to be a period between Clark Kent's youth in Middle America and his role as the iconic hero Superman where he wasn't quite sure who he was or was going to be. What results, at least in part, is this first volume of the new Action Comics, featuring a Superman that might surprise you.
As the book opens, Kal-El—who's only been active for six months—is on a quest as both rugged hero Superman and Daily Star reporter Clark Kent to bring down Glen Glenmorgan, a corrupt businessman whose questionable ethics keep Metropolis and its people mired in filth. Along the way, he takes his time to rescue cats from trees, save impoverished citizens from collapsing buildings, and break up abusive relationships by any means necessary—the kinds of things a regular Joe with special (though not fully developed) powers might do.
But then things begin to change. Distrustful of this powerhouse among them, the US military consults with science genius Lex Luthor to concoct a way to put Superman down. At the same time, a massive vessel approaches Earth from outer space bringing with it artifacts from Superman's home world, a home he knows nothing about. What does this collector of worlds want with Kal-El's new stomping ground?
Action Comics vol. 1 is the story of a young Clark Kent being thrown into an increasingly strange and super world. At the beginning of the book, Superman is angsty, brash, and even a little snotty—he doesn't take any guff from anybody, especially people in positions of authority like the police. He's tired of the little guy getting pushed around, and he's going to try to put an end to it however he can. It should be noted that his "costume" at this point in his career is a t-shirt, jeans, and a red cape bearing the famous "S" symbol, the only relic (he knows about) from his home planet. As the chapters of this book progress, though, Clark's powers begin to develop, and his world begins to expand. The public's not going to take to the presence of "superheroes"—a brand-new word—easily, and the threats the world's going to face may not be so everyday for very much longer.
For people who feel that Superman's too powerful or unrelatable, this may be just the book you're looking for. Morrison has taken care to make a compelling 21st century Clark Kent brimming with convictions and righteous anger. This no doubt reflects his Midwest upbringing but is also likely Morrison's commentary on the current political landscape. For much of the book, in fact, this is a very lo-fi, working-class version of Superman. His powers haven't totally developed yet—for instance, he can only leap instead of fly, and he can still be hurt by projectile weapons—which produces a lot of visceral, slam-bang action sequences pretty far removed from the typical grand spectacle we're used to seeing from the character. This gets its best expression in chapter four, where an army of invading alien robots cobbles together soldiers from random pieces of metal they find on Earth, leading to a very messy, blunt battle.
As the book carries on, visions of the more familiar Superman character begin to show themselves. Since this is only the first half or so of Morrison's plans for the story, the transformation's far from complete, but the fifth and sixth chapters of the book bring Superman face-to-face with his alien heritage and ask him to make a choice between living as a Kryptonian and living as a human. It's here, when Clark gets his first sense of just how large his world is, that the iconic Superman we know and love begins to shine through.
For people already in love with that iconic Superman, some of the parts in Action Comics may be difficult to swallow. For instance, in the second chapter, Superman threatens to snap Lex Luthor's neck; granted, this may be a bluff, but it's not what we'd imagine Superman would do. Additionally, Morrison's plotting sometimes takes a few read-throughs to really comprehend; though the overall plot here's really great, it can sometimes get lost in little throwaway details that don't appear to have significance; this is especially true in the last two chapters of the book, which divert their energy into telling a story from the perspective of the rocket ship that brought baby Kal-El to Earth. Okay.
Art-wise, regular penciler Rags Morales brings a nice down-to-Earth urgency to these pages; everything he does here feels very fleshed-out and natural, which is helpful for this grounded take on Superman. The art's only really a problem the few times that fill-in artists have to jump in mid-chapter to cover pages Morales couldn't get done on time; in a couple places these really detract from the flow of the story, but at least Morales makes his return quickly enough.
Action Comics vol. 1 seems like the kind of book that will appeal more to non-Superman fans than die-hard followers of the character. That said, anyone who wants to read some good comics will enjoy its exciting plots, sharp art, and visceral action sequences, and lots of readers will probably appreciate the boldness of putting this spin on the Superman character. Though in many ways the Superman legend epitomizes a character who exists "above us," Grant Morrison and Rags Morales want to show that this wasn't always the case. Mostly, they succeed. B