By Alice W. Castle
Our first image of Superman in DC’s New 52 universe was from the final page of Justice League #1, where a cocksure, young Man Of Steel blasts his way past both Batman and Green Lantern in a red and blue blur and says, with eyes glowing red and hands balled into fists ready for action: “So… what can you do?”
It’s a hell of an entrance, to be sure, and marked this new iteration of Superman as one completely different to what had come before. Prior to Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert’s Flashpoint event, DC had firmly established Superman as their superhero patriarch, having recently been brought back down to Earth in J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Roberson and Eddy Barrows’ “Grounded” story arc where he walked across America to reconnect with the common people. This was a Superman who was open, friendly and, to many people, boring and dull.
Now, I’m not here to tell you why Superman isn’t boring or anything like that, but that perception certainly made it seem like it was time for a sea change at DC as Geoff Johns and Jim Lee ushered in the New 52’s iteration of Superman. Clad in Kryptonian armour covered in lined detail with a high collar and conspicuously without any red underwear outside of his tights, this new Superman was everything the old Superman wasn’t: brash, cocksure and ready to pick a fight at a moment’s notice.
And I hated him.
The reason I started reading comics in single issues was because I found out Grant Morrison, writer of such classic Superman stories as All-Star Superman and DC One Million, was writing Action Comics as part of the New 52 reboot. To put it lightly, I loved All-Star Superman. At the time, it was the story that convinced me of the potential of the character. To prep myself for the new series, I picked up Johns and Lee’s Justice League #1 and thought to myself: “Wait, that isn’t Superman. Where’s his classic costume? Where’s the spitcurl? Why is he so goddamn angry at the world?”
This continued as I saw the cover image to Superman #1 where Superman carries the Daily Planet globe through fire with glowing red eyes and glowering snarl… and into Action Comics #1 where Clark hurls a (albeit corrupt) businessman off a building to teach him a lesson. This was a Superman who was a raw nerve in his youth, ready to lash out at any injustice with the full brunt of his powers.
It took me a while to come to peace with the New 52’s portrayal of Superman and a lot of that I’ll admit came down to Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s run on Action Comics prior to the character’s demise in the lead up to DC Rebirth. But recently looking back on Grant Morrison, Rags Morales and Brad Walker’s 18 issue run on Action Comics, introducing this new Superman in his earliest days, helped me to appreciate the textual qualities to this character’s new origin story that purposefully set him apart from other incarnations of Superman.
Action Comics #15 kicks off the finale arc of Morrison, Morales and Walker’s tenure on the title and brings Superman’s conflict with the 5th dimensional demon, Lord Vyndktvx, to a head in many ways. The issue is, primarily, the story of Vyndktvx’s jealousy over being usurped as King-Thing Brpzx of Zrrrf’s court jester (I know, I know, but work with me here) by Mister Mxyzptlk and his subsequent failed attempt to kill Mxyzptlk, which resulted in Brpzx’s death instead.
It’s a story of how hubris and jealousy being turned into malice through envy results in universally unforseen consequences as Mrs. Nyxly (Clark’s landlady and, by coincidence, the hidden Princess of the 5th dimension and Mxyzptlk’s wife) reveals that the shockwave created by the fractal, million-pointed spear that killed Brpzx also killed hundreds of worlds throughout time and space in a single instant.
All save for two.
In this three dimensional universe, at two completely different points in time, Jor-El and his son Kal-El repelled what was called the Multitude; the impression of the five dimensional spear interacting with a three dimensional universal manifesting as a wave of ravenous angels. This act of repelling the Multitude reverberated back into the fifth dimension and, even thought the two instances were decades and lightyears apart, simultaneously affected and hurt Vyndktvx, who then turned his evil attentions to the House of El.
And it’s here that things get very interesting for the origins of Superman in the New 52. The small man, the teetotaller, who had been seen in various moments throughout the series since Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’s Action Comics #1 is revealed to be a form of Vyndktvx interacting with Superman’s three dimensional world, shaping events of his life to maximise Superman’s suffering before his final death at the hands of Superdoom, a franchise killer from another dimension who consumes Supermen from various worlds to become a bigger, better Superman.
There’s a moment in Action Comics #15 where Clark ponders on his prom night, the same night where the small man influenced Pa Kent’s kerchief with his isometric magic to cause the car crash that killed Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Clark wonders if things could have been different. It’s Mrs. Nyxly who suggests that they might have been, once. She tells Clark that Vyndktvx “changed the way it was supposed to be.”
To me, this tells me that maybe the Superman of the New 52 and of the pre-Flashpoint world weren’t so different at their core. That, without the influence of Vyndktvx, we would’ve had a much more, for the lack of a better word, classical Superman. And yet, the finale arc of Morrison, Morales and Walker’s run kicked off in Action Comics #15 explores, at once, the key moments of destruction Vyndtktvx wrought upon Clark’s life, from the disruption of his prom night with the death of his parents to watching Mrs. Nyxly get shot right in front of him to, eventually, being chased through the streets of Metropolis, weakened by a red sun, by Vyndktvx’s Anti-Superman army, in order to explore just how lonely and isolating an existence this Superman has had.
This revelation – that Clark had been haunted every single moment of his life, from before he was even conceived, by a villain that could potentially strike at every single moment of his existence at once – finally made me appreciate the brash, cocksure Superman that appeared in Justice League #1. No, he wasn’t the warm patriarchal figure bringing together the League to fight the battles that they alone never could. He was there to pick a fight.
And wouldn’t you? If everything you had ever known and loved, from your birth planet and your biological parents to your adoptive home and adopted parents to the very identity that you had created for yourself to live a normal life, had been targeted by a being from beyond your very dimension?
The origin story of New 52 Superman isn’t one of a boy realising his destiny as the sole (sometimes) inheritor of the legacy of a long dead planet and using his powers for good. It’s the story of a young man with awesome power having everything taken from him and being left with nothing but raw strength and a promise to his dying father to become a champion of the downtrodden.
He has no support, no guidance and no wise mentor to fall back on. This isn’t some god-like patriarch coming down from the heavens to fix Metropolis, but a superhuman activist in blue jeans, work boots and a cape throwing corrupt businessmen off rooftops and rebuilding affordable housing with his bare hands.
Once upon a time, I didn’t appreciate the New 52’s Superman because it eschewed the traditionalism of a character who, I came to realise, had been mired in the same character trappings since at least the mid 80s, if not before. But looking back on the isolationist tragedy of the character, there’s something far more relevant to today’s youth, or at least the youth of 2012, in the work of Grant Morrison, Rags Morales and Brad Walker and multi-dimensional and time-spanning story told in Action Comics #15.
An activist who’s faster than a speeding bullet. Who can leap the skyscrapers of the corrupt in single bound who’s more powerful than the construction vehicles poised to bulldoze affordable housing to make way for another strip mall. And who was, maybe, just a little ahead of his time.
Action Comics #15
Writer: Grant Morrison
Pencillers: Brad Walker & Rags Morales
Inkers: Andrew Hennessy & Mark Propst
Colourist: Brad Anderson
Letterer: Steve Wands
Alice W. Castle is a writer and critic often seen writing for websites like Multiversity, as well as for her Patreon subscribers – you can pledge here! You can also find her on Twitter here!
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