September 29th, 2012
Okay so I’m four issues late to say it, but it’s still worth noting that somehow, in the middle of a run of spectacularly unspectacular comics, THIS happened:
THIS being, for what it’s worth, the 2012 superhero comic most acutely tuned in to the concerns of its moment. Oh, sure, there are a few other enjoyable superhero comics out there right – Hawkeye, Batman Incorporated, uh… Journey Into Mystery, if that counts?  - but none of them feel like an inescapable product of their moment in the way that Action Comics #9 does. 
You might well ask yourself how worthwhile this is, and if you told me that you preferred the focus on individual action beats that you get with Matt Fraction and David Aja’s work on Hawkeye…
…then I’d have to concede that you might well have a point. What’s particularly interesting here is that the other twelve issues of Morrison’s Action Comics run can be seen as a generally unsuccessful attempt to transition Morrison’s recent hall-of-mirrors scripting style into something more rhythmic and less meaning-intensive . Something a bit more like what Fraction and Aja’s are attempting in Hawkeye, in other words, only done less well, almost a year earlier.
ART PARAGRAPH: UNFORTUNATELY, A LACK OF TRUE ARTISTIC SYNTHESIS HAS ENSURED THAT THIS PARTICULAR MACHINE (ACTION! COMICS!) HAS RARELY LOOKED LIKE IT WAS READY FOR THE COMICS MARKETPLACE. THIS PARTICULAR ISSUE WAS DRAWN BY GENE HA, WHO PREVIOUSLY GRACED THE SERIES WITH GUEST ART FOR AN APOCALYPTIC SCENE SET ON KRYPTON IN ISSUE #3. HIS RIGID, RETRO-FUTURISTIC ARTWORK MAKES FOR A PURPOSEFUL CONTRAST TO THE RUGGED MALLEABILITY OF REGULAR ARTIST RAGS MORALES’ LINE, AND WHILE HIS DEPICTION OF SUPERMAN LACKS THE EASYGOING GRACE OF FRANK QUITELY’S VERSION, THE RELATIVE STRENGTH AND CLARITY OF HIS HAND IS STILL VERY MUCH APPRECIATED HERE.
As flagged by the inclusion of the Obama-riffic Superman from Final Crisis, issue #9 of Action Comics is an unashamed example of Morrison’s recent obsession with viewing the whole universe through the lens of superheroic fiction, a throwback to an era that’s not quite ended.
“So far, so tedious,” you might well think.
You might also notice that everything I’ve mentioned about the comic up to this point places it squarely out of its time, that’s only because I’ve so far focused on form to the exclusion of content.
ART PARAGRAPH: TO BE FAIR TO RAGS MORALES, HIS ARTWORK HAS BEEN A REASONABLE MATCH FOR THE STORIES HE’S BEEN ASKED TO ILLUSTRATE – ITS ROUGHNESS IS APPROPRIATE FOR A COMIC ABOUT THE SCRAPPIER SIDE OF METROPOLIS/ITS MOST FAMOUS HERO, AND THE UNSPECTACULAR NATURE OF HIS WORK HAS PROVIDED THE VISUAL EQUIVALENT TO THE DULL DAZZLE OF MORRISON’S SCRIPTS THROUGHOUT. GENE HA’s WORK ON THIS ISSUE IS SIMILARLY WELL-CALIBRATED: SOLID AND MINIMAL, IT GETS THE JOB DONE AND MAKE SURE YOU THAT KNOW THE JOB IS GETTING DONE WHILE IT’S AT IT.
In 2012 it has become pretty much impossible to talk about superhero comics without also discussing the means of their production. While it’s sometimes been difficult not to giggle at the spectacle of blathering boy aesthetes suddenly discovering the existence of the outside world, this development is still very firmly a good thing, and in my more optimistic (i.e. gleefully self-deluding) moments I like to imagine that contemplation of this microcosm might lead to some sort of broader structural thinking. It won’t, but hey – winter is coming, and I need nice thoughts to keep me warm, so please don’t go too hard on my FULL COMMUNISM daydreams, they’re essential to my continued well-being!
ART PARAGRAPH: IF THERE’S ONE LEVEL ON WHICH BOTH MORRISON AND MORALES HAVE CONSISTENTLY FAILED TO DELIVER, IT’S IN PROVIDING THE READERS WITH THE “SOCIALIST SUPERMAN” THAT WAS MENTIONED IN THE PRE-MATCH HYPE. MORRISON HAS GENERALLY SEEMED MOST CONFIDENT IN THE MORE POETIC AND FAR-FETCHED MOMENTS OF THESE STORIES, WHILE MORALES HAS LARGELY FAILED TO MAKE A WORKING CLASS ICON OUT OF CLARK KENT. THIS IS ONE AREA IN WHICH GENE HA’s ART MAKES A VAST IMPROVEMENT OVER WHAT’s COME BEFORE: IN A STORY THAT OPERATES ON THE LEVEL OF PURE ICONOGRAPHY, HE MAKES SURE THAT EVERY DETAIL FEELS LIKE PART OF THE GRAND DESIGN.
Anyway, the fact that Marvel have made approximately seventy trillion dollars off of a bunch of characters created by Jack Kirby and pals while DC have been trying to sell cold chicken nuggets by claiming that they came fresh from The Beard’s own steakhouse has put creators’ rights issues squarely at the centre of the superhero conversation, and one of the many people who has caught the sharp end of this conversation has been Grant Morrison, whose comments on the Siegel and Shuster lawsuit both in and around his book Supergods brought him directly into the verbal firing line.
Action Comics #9 is clearly intended to be Morrison’s in-text response to these concerns. In this story a battered Lois Lane, a deep-friend Jimmy Olsen, and a freshly crisped Clark Kent escape from a parallel dimension in which their invention (Superman) has been co-opted by a major corporation and turned into a malevolent, world-eating brand that is out to get them.
ART PARAGRAPH: THE INVERTED COLOUR SCHEME ON CALVIN ELLIS’ CHEST IS ONE OF THE MOST SUBTLY EFFECTIVE PARTS OF THIS ISSUE, SUGGESTING, AS IT DOES, AN INVERSION OF THE RULES OF OUR UNIVERSE THAT RECALLS THE FLIPPED MORAL POLARITIES OF THE TWO ALTERNATE EARTHS IN MORRISON AND QUITELY’S JLA: EARTH 2. PERHAPS WHAT WE ARE SEEING HERE IS A VERSION OF SUPERMAN FREE OF THE ORIGINAL SIN THAT IS BUILT IN TO HIS EXISTENCE IN OUR REALITY, WHICH IS TO SAY, A VERSION OF SUPERMAN THAT IS EVEN MORE IMPOSSIBLE IN OUR WORLD THAN THE ONE WE’RE USED TO.
This isn’t exactly a subtle set-up, but that’s okay. One of the reasons I value comics that reflect their time is that I like to talk about The World almost as much as I like to talk about comics. It follow that I like my comics twice as much when they feel like part of a bigger conversation, so the fact that this comic often reads like a response to, or maybe even an amplification of, the issues raised in Paul Gravett’s review of Supergods is just fine by me.
If Action Comics #9 paints a portrait of its own publisher that even DC’s harsher critics would recognize, its status as a product of that company lends that portrait a strange, fearsome weightlessness – it’s startling to see such an unflattering allegory in the pages of a corporate comic, but surprise quickly turns to a sort of queasy resignation as the obviousness of who’s really benefiting from this issue sinks in. 
Within the story, we witness the triumph of “Superman done right”, President Calvin Ellis; outside of the story, the conversation gets more interesting, but nothing changes - everybody keeps on talking about it, nobody’s getting it done…
This brings us to the implicit resonances of this issue, which is also inescapably about The Idea of Obama vs. The Reality of Obama.
Probably best to kick this off by recapping what Marc Singer said about the introduction of Calvin Ellis in Final Crisis #7 back at the time:
Final Crisis #7 opens with a genius move, cutting away from last issue’s cliffhangers to a brief interlude in an alternate universe where most if not all of DC’s prominent heroes are black and Superman just happens to be the President of the United States. It’s a great scene, one that captures the current mood of optimism and renewed hope in the face of great adversity. It also implies a longstanding (if previously nonexistent) publication history for these characters, through the simple detail of a reversed color scheme. 
Fast-forward to 2012, and Ellis is still every bit as triumphant as he was back then, but I would take a guess that there might be a reasonable level of overlap between people who are still able to think of Obama as an unambiguously heroic figure and those who can take Grant Morrison’s transcendental superhero rhetoric straight. I wouldn’t bother worrying about artistic intent here, if that’s your thing: the lines on the page tell the story of a wish-fulfillment Obama stand-in beating down a sinister parallel universe version of himself who has been molded by the expectations of the people and worlds it encounters into something dangerously toxic.
If this seems needlessly melodramatic to you then fair enough. Personally, I can’t imagine getting huffy with people who were asking me about my killer sky robots without wondering if I was actually a baddie, but maybe you feel otherwise, or maybe you can’t get over how much worse the immediate alternative is, or maybe you think this sort of horror comes built in to the role of President of the United States, I don’t know.
What I do know is that Action Comics #9 is a perfect inaction comic, both the product and cause of frustrated dreams. It’s immaculately constructed, with two levels of symbolism wrapping around each other until they start to look like different points on a Möbius strip, but the fact that this strip eventually trails off to a resolutely Morrisonian climax is notable for how little this ending reflects the reality of the world outside of the comic.
Back at the start of the year, I said I was “sick of living in reflexive fear, sick of giving money to horrible bastards in exchange for shiny toys, and sick of feeling hopelessly overwhelmed, always.”
I’m still sick of all these things, but I’ve not done anything about it, and Action Comics #9 is an all-too-fitting punishment/reward…
ART PARAGRAPH: IN THE END ALL THAT’S LEFT OF THE EVIL SUPERMAN, OUR SUPERMAN, IS HIS BROKEN CHEST ICON, A SYMBOL OF MULTIVERSAL DECAY, A REMINDER OF WHAT LIFE IF REALLY LIKE OUTSIDE OF THE PAGES OF THE COMIC ITSELF, OF A WORLD – OUR WORLD – IN WHICH REAL CHANGE HAS TO BE MADE AGAINST HISTORY, IN WHICH IT TAKES MORE THAN THE MOVEMENT FROM ONE PAGE TO THE NEXT.
 I wasn’t too impressed by the first issue of Faction and Aja’s Hawkeye – it felt like a slightly too efficient pastiche of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s work on Batman: Year One for my tastes – but the second issue was a stealthy demonstration of the fact that someone was been paying attention to everything that was worked about the Waid/Rivera/Martin run on Daredevil. With any luck Fraction will be able to keep his tendency for hip whimsy under control and let the focus on what’s happening and how.
Grant Morrison’s other ongoing superhero comic, Batman Incorporated, is still drawing all kinds of unhealthy energy from illustrator Chris Burnham’s rapid artistic growth, and Frazer Irving’s art on the recent #0 issue was every bit as theatrical as you could’ve hoped, with every panel looking like it was being projected up at you from the page:
Someone on my twitter feed recently opined that Batman Incorporated and Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus are the only two worthwhile comics that DC are putting out right now, and while that’s true enough from my experience (Edit – oops, except for Dial H, sorry China!), I don’t read enough of that shit to be authoritative here – maybe one of the Sponsorship Boys could tell you otherwise.
Still, this tweet got me thinking about how both Batminge and Punk Rock Jesus are both overtly concerned with one big topic (SUPERMONEY and JESUS respectively), when they’re really all about expressing pent up mummy and daddy issues in a series of increasingly cool ways. Not that I’m complaining, mind – I enjoy the fact that they go to so much effort into being something other than what they are.
I’ve not read nearly enough of Gillen and co’s Journey Into Mystery to talk about it in detail, but I like what I have read enough to want to read more. Here’s an interesting Tom Ewing article, for those of you who have read the series. Pay attention to the title: The House Always Wins.
 The one genuinely startling superhero comic of the year, The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred, isn’t so much an inevitable reaction to the times as it is a side-product of Mindless bitching. Or at least so the book’s creators, Shaky Kane and David Hine, claim in the tenth edition of Kieron Gillen’s Decompressed podcast.
Mindless Ones: making comics less intelligible, one grump at a time.
Given that this post is gratuitously concerned with the symbolic potential of superhero comics, it’s probably fair to take a slight detour here to note the fact that BPC: Disinterred is a brilliant, six-part experiment in seeing how much symbolic weight these fractured fantasies can hold.
The series deserves a post of its own though, so for now I’ll just throw out a link to Jog’s analysis of the sneaky deconstruction of “play” in the third issue in the hope that this chum draws out one of my fellow Mindless Ones to write something about how this played out across the other five issues. What can I say, I’m nothing if not lazy!
 This is all true enough, but as Jog recently pointed out, Action Comics #0 was also “an odd effort at capturing the faintly art movie-ish tone of Zack Snyder’s teaser to the upcoming Man of Steel“ so it’s not like Morrison has completely abandoned his ongoing attempt to wring meaning out of marketing.
 Readers who find themselves thrown by Morrison’s current position might want to look at back at The Invisibles, in it is stated that, contra Joe McCulloch Guy Debord, there is “no recuperation, only feedback”.
Personally I never found this aspect of Morrison’s schtick very convincing, and I would argue that The Society of the Spectacle is still annoyingly pertinent today:
Spectacular consumption which preserves congealed past culture, including the recuperated repetition of its negative manifestations, openly becomes in the cultural sector what it is implicitly in its totality: the communication of the incommunicable. The flagrant destruction of language is flatly acknowledged as an officially positive value because the point is to advertise reconciliation with the dominant state of affairs–and here all communication is joyously proclaimed absent. The critical truth of this destruction the real life of modern poetry and art is obviously hidden, since the spectacle, whose function is to make history forgotten within culture, applies, in the pseudo-novelty of its modernist means, the very strategy which constitutes its core. Thus a school of neo-literature, which simply admits that it contemplates the written word for its own sake, can present itself as something new. Furthermore, next to the simple proclamation of the sufficient beauty of the decay of the communicable, the most modern tendency of spectacular culture–and the one most closely linked to the repressive practice of the general organization of society–seeks to remake, by means of “team projects,” a complex neo-artistic environment made up of decomposed elements: notably in urbanism’s attempts to integrate artistic debris or esthetico- technical hybrids. This is an expression, on the level of spectacular pseudo-culture, of developed capitalism’s general project, which aims to recapture the fragmented worker as a “personality well integrated in the group,” a tendency described by American sociologists (Riesman, Whyte, etc.). It is the same project everywhere: a restructuring without community.
 You’ll notice that I’ve stolen the observation about the inverted colour scheme on Ellis’ chest symbol from Marc, but what can I say – in a post that’s at least partly about benefiting from the labour of others, it felt like an appropriate move.