Grant Morrison on Action Comics: The PopMatters Exclusive

Just two issues in, and the reboot of Action already begins to read like an achievement. In an age of the superhero auteur who brings a dramatic new vision (and very often ground level-up redesign) of classic heroes, writer Grant Morrison bucked the trend by returning to the original vision of Superman.

Superman returns as the original Liberal Avenger enacting justice against the corrupt and the wealthy who abuse due process and exploit their fellow citizens. Reading Morrison’s Superman is a thrilling. It’s a reminder of the power and the immediacy of the comics medium. And a statement about the weighty decision DC has taken to reengage the broader society. But the rebooted Action is thrilling for a deeper reason as well. It connects to the far-reaching nature of events like Occupy Wall Street. Event which, as David Letterman reminds us in a moment of casual eloquence in his recent interview of President Clinton, has been the very dynamo of social change for issues like Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and Vietnam.

In Morrison’s hands Superman is as fresh and vibrant as what it was at the beginning. There’s a sense of melancholy that isn’t grounded in nostalgia. This is the Superman that might have been. The Superman that we’re getting back just now, just in time. Just two pages into Action’s first issue (the astutely titled “Superman Versus the City of Tomorrow”) and already cries about Superman’s relevance as a character begin to fade away. This is the core of the character that Morrison and his artistic collaborator Rags Morales, has tapped, and this core is timeless. Superman catapulted beyond being simply a character, but recast as a genre in its own right. A genre that connects with such powerful and recognizable mythologies as Robin Hood or King Arthur.

In high-level access exclusive interview to Grant Morrison (facilitated by publisher DC), PopMatters gained insight to the inner workings of the new Action Comics. What follows is Grant Morrison’s thoughts on Superman, in his own words.

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Act One: Grant Morrison’s versus the Doomsday Machine

Don’t for one moment believe that Siegel & Shuster’s original issue of Action fell into any traps of chauvinism. Our first glimpse of Superman, all those decades ago, saw him racing with a bound and gagged woman, towards an unknown location. It’s a mini-adventure in 21 panels, our first taste of the character that would become the genetic launchpad for the entirely new genre of the superhero.

As the story unfolds, readers discover a Superman who may be brusque, but is far from a villain. The woman he carries like a cement-bag is in fact a murderer. The location he speeds towards is the Governor’s mansion, since the Governor alone can stay the execution of an innocent woman. The real enemy here is social inertia. Will Superman be able to bypass the Governor’s executive assistant? Will he be able to wake the Governor asleep behind a steel door? And will the man himself be convinced by Superman’s evidence?

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s (Jerome Siegel actually, as Jerry is credited in the caption box appearing on page one) first comicbook adventure for Superman deliberately breaks 40s-era gender stereotypes. Not just with the story of the murderess, but with Lois Lane herself. It is immediately clear that Lois is a powerful character, more likely to set the terms of the social engagement than to be cowed under by them.

Does Morrison’s opening move then, to cast Lois Lane immediately into the thick of the action rather than use a dinner date with Clark as prelude to her entering the fray read more like a comment on the changed nature of society?

“It certainly wasn’t entirely conscious” Morrison confesses over a warm chuckle. An innocuous comment perhaps, but given the high caliber of Morrison’s writing, it is a comment that reads like a clear statement on how Morrison harnesses his unconscious in the service of his creativity. “But the portrayal of Lois is based on a friend of mine who is a journalist in Glasgow. And she’s constantly on the move and pursuing stories and looking for leads. And I wanted to basically, more than anything else, base the story on journalism as maybe a way to get into other stories”.

It’s certainly a creative decision that seems to work. We meet Superman in media res, attacking a corrupt businessman who thrives on the suffering of the impoverished. There’s an easy fluidness to Morrison’s storytelling, and a frenetic excitement in encountering Superman for the first time. Morrison’s artistic collaborator on Action, Rags Morales, is able to imbue our first glimpses of Superman (a flash of his cape, a motion-blur as he speeds past) with an honest velocity. There’s a sense of perpetuity here, Superman is moving, blazing through, he has always been moving.

It is the Superman we’ve never seen before. A Superman filled with the brio and the vim of youth. A devil-may-care Superman who takes matters into his own hands, righting wrongs as he encounters them. A far cry from the Superman we’ve come to know over the decades past. But a necessary Superman. Is Morrison enjoying this youthful vigor, or is this simply a character arc through which the hero must traverse?

“Oh very much enjoying writing this youthful energy”, Morrison laughs as he answers. He is immersed, completely comfortable in the role of writing this kind of Superman. “It’s very much part of the fun of it. I’ve written twelve issues of All Star Superman, that was my take on the adult Superman, the mature Superman. Having written that I really wanted to go back and write the young Superman. When he was kinda…”

There’s a break in Grant’s speech and the moment singularizes itself. It’s easy to animate these kind of moments, read comics long enough and you animate such moments with the doubts and passions that are uniquely your own. The process is called closure, not the psychological kind, but the kind where you complete the incomplete information with thoughts and hopes of your own.

For just the briefest moment then, I’m lost in animating this momentary pause. Is Grant lost in his own carefree boyhood? Is remembering his wild college days? Is he just taking in the wow of being able to write into a piece of history?

Whatever my expectations, I’m not ready for what Grant actually says. His words strike a far deeper, far more earnest cord. Superman, simply put, Grant’s response to the kind of hard times we’ve faced recently, the things we’ve just been through, and the events that still loom on our collective horizon.

“What would you be like if you were a liberal activist and you’ve just arrived in this very corrupt city from the very heartland of America, where you’ve been brought up with a very simple morality. And I love the idea of, ‘Can one change Superman’? Can you bring in a kind of wildness? I just felt that this was the right time for that kind of Superman. Time to take Superman and dust him off a little bit. Because I think he’s become almost fossilized into a symbol of the flag, with no personality. So I thought it was very important to give him back a little bit of personality”.

Writing this now, I’m watching CNN. Droves of people, after more than a month of protest, have returned to the Occupy Wall Street site. Fears of a renewed push by the owners clear the site of the live-in protest have sparked dozens of people to return. But a last minute petition seems to have worked its magic.

Morrison’s equation of relating “a kind of wildness” directed towards social change with “a little bit of personality” is beguiling.

This vision of personal expression related to liberal activism goes to the heart of Occupy Wall Street. Suddenly, there’s nothing but individual players left on the board, and only individual stories to overcome the grinding turns of what business writer Michael Lewis has term “The Doomsday Machine”. Are we on the cusp of being born in poverty as some doomsayers would have us believe? Not while we have a personal stake in things.

Occupy Wall Street clearly shows a generational shift from the 90s era of haphazard physical confrontation with symbols of state and corporate power. For all the anti-WTO bluster of the late 90s, the World Trade Organization has done more to benefit both corporations and individuals. The simple act of keeping silent during Occupy Wall Street however, seems to assuage the need for physical conflict.

And in a time of increased maturity, fictions become more reckless. In a world where generations-old icons have become immobile and static, Grant Morrison writes the perfect character. A Superman who simply shows up, occupies his own voice and will not leave. Morrison isn’t telling the story of something that has kept us in its thrall for generations. This is the story of how Superman came to matter in the first place.