Grant Morrison’s seminal run on Action has been the subject of many debates between fans who are passionate not only about Superman, but about the New 52 universe in general. His stories tend to take on a life of their own, even after completion, and many of Morrison’s creations and/or plot twists have persisted to this day. When he took over New X-Men in 2001, he almost immediately wrote the total annihilation of Genosha (along with it’s millions of citizens), made Emma Frost a hero for the first time, introduced the rebelliously uncouth telepath Quentin Quire, and crafted a grand narrative that saw Magneto take a spiritual journey that left a trail of understanding and revelation in its wake. So it came as no surprise to me when Morrison began to unravel the idea of Superman as a way to understand who Clark Kent truly is in this new universe.
But it’s not as simple as understanding the concept of “Superman”—the Man of Steel’s harsh juxtaposition against humanity has been well chronicled for decades. Only in the past five years or so have Superman’s stories reached a point where his psychological struggles are often far more meaningful and interesting than another attack by Brainiac or Metallo. That being said, part of the fun of reading a good Superman comicbook is getting to see him punch his enemy through a wall or into the stratosphere. With Action #17, Morrison shows that Vyndktvx’s plan is the best of both worlds: a near perfect combination of intangible threats and overwhelming physical domination that strikes through higher dimensions and time to reign sorrow and misery over Clark’s entire life. Hey-Oh!
Creating a villain such as Lord Vyndktvx was a smart move on Morrison’s end—it allows him to play around with the time-space continuum in a way that he can control at every turn. Vyndktvx—and really, Morrison’s whole concept of a race of 5th dimensional super beings—stemmed from the classic Superman adversary, Mr. Mxyzptlk, a character whose powers and motives were always hazy at best. In the New 52, Mxy and his world were fair game, so Morrison seized the opportunity. By the very nature of the character, Mxy was always a sort-of metafictional villain who had some understanding that the events of the story were perceived as narrative to our dimension of existence, but was reality to the universe depicted in the comic. I was pleasantly surprised to become Vyndktvx’s audience as he prattled on about his plans while living through them—he can talk to the reader while also reminding Glenmorgan that he’s a teetotaler, a fact we learned all the ways back in Action #1. And this is the big idea Morrison is trying to achieve with Vyndktvx—that he exists on a plane of reality that allows him to see time, touch reality, and affect all of it at the drop of a hat, and that “he’s always attacking—this is just where you really start to feel it.”
What brings everything together are Morrison’s grasp of the multiverse, how it can be manipulated, and what it means for the idea of ‘Superman’. All of this is happening because Clark is able to best Vyndktvx during events that happen in the future, as we learned in Action #15. In fact, Morrison’s entire 18-issue run is based on happenings that have yet to transpire, a rather hefty side note that has yet to be broached. That being said, does it really matter how Superman wronged Vyndktvx? If we look at Morrison’s run on Action as an examination of the superhero complex through the lens of the most widely known and powerful character in DC’s lineup, the cause is far less important than the effect. The attack on Superman isn’t meaningful because of Vyndktvx’s motives; it’s important because it reveals the extent of the Man of Steel’s vulnerabilities, not only physically, but also philosophically. The tyrannical, alternate ‘Super-Man’ is “an unstoppable killer franchise from a parallel reality! A thought that gets bigger and bigger the more you think it. The thought of a Superman better than you!” Is it sly social observation about the Krypton’s Last Son as a character? Or is it just another melodramatic villain waxing poetic about his evil ways? In this case, both. Both sides of Superman are important to the character—the pulp comic action and the sociological ramifications of a living demigod.
Action #17 is the penultimate chapter of Grant Morrison’s sprawling tale that chronicles Superman’s early days. It’s a simple premise that has turned out to be one of the most insightful and pragmatic visions of the Man of Steel since All-Star Superman, which also happened to be written by Morrison. In a way many other writers can only dream of coming close to achieving, Morrison is able to break open characters and find truth under the mask, both narratively and philosophically. For Clark Kent, that truth lies in Superman being the cause of his life’s tragedies—his own actions caused the tragedies that shape him into the hero he becomes.