In a time when the novelty of DC’s company-wide reboot seems to push writers in the direction of a ground-up redesign of their characters, Grant Morrison does the unexpected with the original superhero. In Action Comics, Morrison returns Superman to the character’s original core; that of a Liberal Avenger. Prescient of the kind of politics seen recently during the Occupy movement, Morrison helms the retelling of why it is that Superman became iconic in the first place. This is a radical shifting of the narrative of Superman away from the sombre, meditative, near-powerless characterization that dominated the Kryptonian in recent decades could not have come at a better time.
After high-level access to the writer, PopMatters presents Grant Morrison, and his thoughts on Action.
Act Two: Grant Morrison versus Marty McFly and the Pushbike
Where do you begin with a movie like Back to the Future? It’s the heartwarming movie about teenage Marty McFly diving back 30 years to save his family from the paucity they face if his parents make the wrong life decisions. The entire family is at risk, and if Marty saves them, they won’t even remember the threat they faced.
Back to the Future is the high drama of epigenetics, writ large with 80s-era materialism. It’s that coda that really hits home. When Marty returns to 1985 after toughening up his dad and pushing George McFly to stand up to local knuckle-dragger Biff, he encounters the strange tango between materialism and self-confidence. Did George of 1985 (this new, self-assured George, not the pushover George we glimpsed at in the movie’s first 20 minutes) gain all this material wealth (the bright, new home, the three cars) because of his confidence? Or did the material wealth secure his confidence sufficiently for him to publish his first book? Everything is just better.
A truly heartwarming movie, in no small part due to those Sacred Moments when we see the magic of 80s values enacted for the first time. Marty’s trip to 1955 was as much about re-inscribing those values in Back Then as it was about toughening up his dad. And those Moments truly are Sacred. Think back to Marty playing Rock n Roll for the first time at the high school prom. Think of Marty kicking off the tomato-box handlebars and turning the pushbike into a skateboard.
But think a little harder and those moments begin to unravel. Marty plays Rock for the first time and bandleader Marvin makes a call to his cousin Chuck Berry. Does it ring true that Chuck Berry was little more than a lip-sync sensation? Is it ok to simply disavow Berry’s primal creativity?
Or even worse, there’s that moment with the pushbike.
Back at the malt shop, Marty pushed Biff just that little too far. He bolts from the malt shop, fearing what may happen if Biff actually catches him. Marty ducks into the main concourse around Town Square, but Biff is one step ahead—he and his goons hop in their car. Marty’s about to get run down. When, just in time, two kids head by on homemade pushbikes. “Sorry kid”, Marty grabs a pushbike. But he’s stymied for the moment. What is a tomato-box doing doubling for handlebars and a down-pipe? Why would you even need handlebars? Then, in the sudden legerdemain of cinema, Marty kicks off the the tomato-box. He kicks down hard on the back-end of the riding-plank and there he has it—a skateboard. We’ve already seen Marty Bart-Simpson his way across town on a skateboard, back in 1985. Marty is magic on a skateboard. Biff doesn’t stand a chance.
And with one kick of a tomato crate, the purity of the Z-Boys’ late 70s cultural revolution is just deleted from the popular imagination. Whatever magic of cinematic storytelling Robert Zemeckis weaves around these moments, there’s something secretly monstrous about
them. The values of freedom, individualism, material care for the self are somehow not innate, these moments seem to argue. They didn’t spring forth in a time long ago, but need to be seeded in that ancient time, so that one day they would become inevitable. At a conceptual level then, if you like freedom and Rock n Roll, you’re every bit the bully Biff is. At least, that’s what these scenes seem to imply.
This is the dirty work of nostalgia. The past is never as good as when we’re looking at it, when we’re hoping to reenact it in the here and now. The past is a trap, and it’s one that Grant Morrison is deeply aware of in writing Action. When asked the classic question on why must there be a Superman, Grant responds, “Our idea was to present a Metropolis that was ‘the City of Tomorrow’ from the 1930s onwards. But the way we [Grant and artist Rags Morales] wanted to show it was that it needed Superman.
“Most portrayals of Metropolis show a perfect world. One that you could hardly imagine would need the presence of Superman. So even looking at things like 70s New York, and, y’know, before Giuliani cleaned up the streets… think of the kind of New York from Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy, and those kinds of influences for Metropolis. And I like the idea of a city that had super-fast bullet-trains but nothing works properly and everything’s falling apart. And nobody cares about all these wonders and this fantastic city. So that was the idea, to show this Utopian vision in decline and then Superman entering, and by his presence start to transform it into a genuine ‘City of Tomorrow’”.
It’s a radical rethink of the character in relation to his environment. A Metropolis that needs a Superman. But what about the character would shine through in this kind of story? The trap of nostalgia that Back to the Future presents, hinges on the resources of highly individuated characters. What Marty actually does, is get George to marshal his own inner resources. But in a symbiosis between Superman and Metropolis, aren’t we staring down an abstraction that would effectively delete Superman himself?
And to make matters worse, Superman is being written at two speeds. There’s the Superman of sister-title Superman, a book set in the present of DC’s New 52. This is an older, more restrained Superman. The Superman we recognize from decades past. But Grant writes a youthful, vibrant Superman of five years ago. A Superman still growing into the Superman we recognize.
In some sense, we already know the future, we read it every month and it’s penned by George Pérez. Between being positioned in Metropolis, and being positioned by the imminent future, is there room for a Superman as individuated and as captivating as Marty McFly?
“I see it as a quite organic story of Superman,” says Grant. “The things that seem like, this is the past of Superman, but as I’m writing it, it’s really the present of Superman in the five dimensional matrix of the story. I seeing a larger overall picture of of the entire man, as he lives, and as he does the things he does, so I think that’s what gives it the immediacy. And also looking at what’s happening in a different way. I wanted to write the confidence and the idealism but also put Superman off world problems now and again. What happens when you use your imagination in that way? How would Superman solve a problem? How would we use our own resources in a way that Superman might do it? There’s a lot of different things in here about Superman that will hopefully come together”.
The hesitancy in Grant’s voice is strangely redemptive. He’s not sure how the Superman in the future of Action will sync up with the Superman currently being penned in Superman. And it’s that uncertainty that is deeply rewarding. Certainty about how the two visions fit together would be the equivalent of watching a football game being rehearsed rather than being played. But Grant’s response does table the inevitable. How, if in any way, will he negotiate the pure mythic stature of the the character?
We’ve seen Grant wrestle down the mythic in the flawless Mystery Play. In a small Medieval Revival festival in a nowheresville town in England, the actor playing God is dead, chief suspect the actor playing the Devil. But what of Superman? Is he Dylan? The Stones?
There’s a warm chuckle on the other side of the line. Then he begins, “Well certainly, I love to think that Superman can be on the same level with Keith and Mick. In that sense, that would be lovely. Obviously what I wanted to do is, is tell a complete story of Superman. Again, I see this version having more in common with folktales, with American folktales, with Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. But think of these as playing out in a twenty-first century fashion. Ultimately what I wanted to do is tell a story in a large scale fashion”.
And a “large scale fashion” is exactly what kicks off in today’s release of Action #4. If you’re reading both title’s as Andrew has been for his remarkable “Missing Persons”, you’ll know that it is in this issue that Superman will thwart an alien invasion. And if you’ve regularly been reading Action itself, then you’ll make the savvy guess that the alien invader is Brainiac. And perhaps you’ll make the even savvier guess that some background on the destruction of the Kryptonian city of Kandor will be revealed.
At the very start of winter, things are getting going with Superman. And that’s all the Holiday Cheer you can ask for.