Action #6's "When Superman Learned to Fly" reminds us poignantly that the superhero's struggle is never against their inner demons, but a never-ending battle to overcome the siren's call of mediocrity.
Action #6Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Grant Morrison, Andy Kubert
Publication Date: 2012-04
Think back far enough and you'll remember Heroes. Before Twitter, before FaceBook, the breakout NBC drama was its own kind of phenomenon. The story of a small group of people unknowingly cobbling together a future that ostensibly gifts them with strange genetic powers, Heroes was simply magical. But more than just the lionizing of that handful of humans taking its first steps, into a bigger simpler, world, Heroes is a technical achievement. The show's mastery lay in the numerous ways its writers found that deep emotional core in the individual stories of the entire ensemble cast.
Claire mattered, not because of "save the cheerleader, save the world", but because she was just at the beginning of something. Hiro mattered because against the dark realities of a war on two fronts and an increasingly fractured political reality at home, we desperately needed to believe in the idea of a single human being struggling to save everyone. Peter Petrelli mattered, because through him we began to realize that things were never easy, and we were only now just beginning to understand that.
Heroes was one story, but it was also seventeen stories, and told across three generations. And just for a single, golden moment every Thursday evening, we once again involved ourselves in the drama of a climbing towards something. The perfect war story; not RHCP's "remind me if you will, exactly what we're fighting for", but KLF's "stand by the jams". Heroes was the perfect reminder that we were once, and might yet again be, capable of the aspirational.
It was after the mid-season break, with the episode "Godsend" that the pulling together of the various story threads really kicked into high gear. "These aren't only paintings about the past", Malcolm McDowell says in ".07%" with the kind of glee that is at once ecclesiastical and sinister, "put together they form a map of the future. A map for where these artists could take their world". But it was in "Five Years Gone" that everything really came crashing in.
All through that first season, the Heroes seemed to gather around finding the super-powered serial killer, Sylar, who had the ability to steal super-powers after killing their original possessors. But somewhere along the way, a second, far more urgent goal of preventing the explosion of a nuclear bomb in downtown Manhattan came into view.
In "Five Years Gone" Hiro Nakamura finally got his timetravel powers working again. He'd found the original Rare Talent/Godsend katana in the basement of the New York Met, he'd grabbed Ando, his intrepid sidekick, and simply vanished into the future. When they reappeared it was five years on, and the Heroes had failed to stop Sylar's killing spree, and failed to stop Sylar from exploding with his newly-stolen nuclear power. Everything had grown darker. Hiro himself had fallen into a spiral of domestic terrorism in a quest to rescue as many Heroes as he could. US citizens were being held in concentration camps, on US soil, on nothing more than suspicion of having powers. It was the darkest of all possible, kinds of day.
But technically, "Five Years Gone" was the perfect counterbalance. Finally the Heroes were presented with real risk. All their reaching towards was no longer simply self-indulgent self-improvement. The world now hung in the balance. And slowly, we began to remember the world as we grasped it as children, the world of superheroes. And we began to grasp that that world of superheroes wasn't anywhere near as idle or inconsequential as we'd later grown up (ground down by daily life), to believe.
When Superman first appears in "When Superman Learned to Fly", (issue #6 in the current series of Action) he is the Superman of five years gone. "Weird", he intones meditatively, "At this point in my career I'd just faced the Terminaut invasion--before everything changed so dramatically. This was my original Fortress of Solitude, where I came to be alone in those early days". Our view shifts from Superman, to Superman watching the unmoving Earth below him. "Down there, right now, the word 'superhero' has just come into existence… And yet here you are. The Legion of Super-Heroes. From a future with intergalactic travel and time machines".
This Superman is just moments ahead of his younger self. That jeans- and t-shirt-clad, Middle America farmer's son who we last saw deal out rough justice to the corrupt in issue #4's "Superman and the Men of Steel". In just a handful of minutes that Superman will appear on this satellite, searching desperately for the means to confront the Collector A.I. and, without intending to, kickstart the idea of the superhero. But by that time, this Superman of five years on will already be gone. He and the Legion of Super-Heroes he's teamed up with would already have found the Anti-Superman Army hiding in the memory of the very first time the young Clark Kent met the Legion. He and the Legion would by then, already have defeated the Anti-Superman Army.
In "When Superman Learned to Fly" we encounter a Superman reaching towards and physically touching the objects that helped shape him into the man he is today, these last five years gone. We see him afforded a different vantage on those very first steps he took into a very different kind of future. Not only for himself, but for the entire planet. And we see him, needing to go even further back to standing on the cusp of an ever more fundamental change in outlook. The impact the Legion had on the young Clark that very first day, is how the seed of Superman's future, their future was sown.
Heroes' time-jumps and prophecies and painters who could see tomorrow turned out to be pure poetry. And "Five Years Gone" were perhaps the darkest cantos, a Baudelaire or more accurately, a Rimbaud. The idea of risk in not evolving could be more clear. "When Superman Learned to Fly", presents a wholly other kind of superhero story--the high drama of devotion. Because of what Superman had become, there was a Legion in the future. The kind of future that could come back in time and save the young Clark not from the melodramatic path of villainy, but from the pure inertia of mediocrity. Because the fight is never against inner demons, but for the assumption of greatness.
Go out and buy this book. Not because you'll get Grant and Andy (Kubert, who vividly realizes the inner zany of a Superman story) to sign it. Not because you'll store it away. Not because it will be worth more and more as the years go by. But because it will go with you forever. Because after just one reading, you'll see the world through its prism, and you'll be more, do more, whoever you are. And because, you'll read it and reread it into the ground. And you'll be wanting another copy for after.