When superstar writer Grant Morrison was announced as the writer of DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch of Action Comics it was made clear that this was not going to be the Superman we were used to seeing. Taking his cue from the early work of Siegel and Schuster, Morrison’s Superman would return to his roots as a social crusader fighting for the little guy, the underrepresented masses who had been disenfranchised by the ever-increasing power of monied interests in Metropolis politics.
The first few issues gave us just that. Clark Kent spent his days writing gritty exposés on the city’s power players, like the grizzled Glenmorgan, while evading the bought and paid for police who want to curtail his crusade. There were references to the plight of those who have their low-rent housing destroyed in battles manufactured by the military to bring down the alien intruder. For the first time in almost thirty years, Superman seemed to have a real conscience.
So what happened?
As new issues came out, the stories focused less and less on the plight of the little people and more on the plight of, well, Little People. After updating Metallo for the twenty-first century (METAL-0, anyone?) Morrison dove into the classic Braniac/Kandor story, featuring a plethora of bottled cities in the clutches of the artificial intelligence. Clark ditched the jeans, t-shirt, and work boots in favor of a color-changing Kryptonian nano-suit that is reminiscent of the Spiderman symbiote stories of the 1980s.
Back at the Daily Planet, Clark is admonished by his editor to write less about housing crises and budget shortfalls and to focus on Superman. The mysterious inside source of Clark’s information about Glenmorgan turns out to be an old nemesis using the naive reporter as a catspaw against his chief rival.
So the intrepid reporter finds himself bound to write sensational stories about his own alter ego, and that alter ego finds himself so caught up in fending off giant robots and alien invasions that he can’t focus on righting the very real wrongs at street level in his adopted home town.
Knowing Morrison’s penchant for meta-fiction, I can’t help but see some intent here. Politics’ place in comics is an incredibly divisive issue, with fans on both sides making strong cases for its inclusion or exclusion. Morrison’s street-level Superman challenged a decades-long precedent of the Man of Tomorrow being relatively unconcerned with the issues of today, and was met with a significant amount of criticism from those who saw the writer simply projecting his own “socialist” viewpoints onto one of the most revered characters in American pop culture.
The frustrated writer, Kent, who wants to write stories of import, is forced to write about Braniac and METAL-0, when he’d much prefer to write about the homeless and corrupt businessmen. Is his metafictional equivalent (Morrison) showing his frustration at being forced to write standard super-hero smash-up fare as opposed to stories exposing the nefarious machinations of the corporate world?
With the first arc now complete, it will be interesting to see if Morrison’s Superman lives up to his original promise of restoring the character focus on social justice or if it continues to move down the path of generic superhero fare.