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Action Comics Volume Two: Bulletproof
posted April 25, 2013

imageCreators: Grant Morrison, Sholly Fisch, Max Landis, Rags Morales, Gene Ha, Cully Hamner, Ben Oliver, Bradley Walker, Ryan Sook, I assume several more.
Publishing Information: DC Comics, hardcover, 224 pages, May 2013, $24.99.
Ordering Numbers: 1401241018 (ISBN10), 9781401241018 (ISBN13)

This comic hardcover collecting a run of the Grant Morrison-written Superman-starrer Action Comics was near-baffling to me, and not in the good way that Grant Morrison's comics can sometimes challenge one's reading skills. I was sort of fundamentally confused about the flow of the series, the connections between the comics I was reading. That's not uncommon with Morrison's work, so it may have been the changing art teams or that I was less than engaged with individual components in a way that would assist me in keeping up.

In the issues collected, a chunk of comics from the series' second half-year, readers get both a more modern-dress Superman and the younger one in his t-shirt and jeans in what seem like intertwined episodes, or at least I think that's how they were working. There are bits of genre play, an element of tugging at the iconic character's component tropes like his secret identity and his cape, but also a number of straight-forward feats of strength and daring. (At one point, Superman is described admiringly as a brawler.) There's also a broad road-not-taken character introduced as a villain, and some playing-against-history with some of the supporting characters, particularly Jimmy Olsen. All in all, it's a pretty standard gumbo of modern superhero approaches and plot devices. We are assured at all times throughout, as DC Comics has been doing in our direction for 20 years now, that Clark Kent and Superman and Lois Lane are awesome people, wholly admirable in the exact way some string of words another character puts together has it. I'm not certain I have a single reason to believe them, at least not one that springs to mind five minutes after I shut the volume.

I don't know what the hell happened here; I've enjoyed Grant Morrison's take on Superman at various points throughout his career. This just seems tedious beyond imagining, as dull as Kansas dirt. I would happily trade the whole lot of them for one more cracking 1950s story with Jimmy Olsen dressed in drag of Lois Lane plotting to find out Superman's secret identity. There's not even much in the way of pleasing physicality here: the stories are way more stand-around Lyle Waggoner than they are jump-over-things Douglas Fairbanks, if you get my drift. I wrote a few lines up that I don't recall any specifically admirable deed by one of the protagonists; I also don't remember a single moment of action. If the physical encounters aren't going to be choreographed in a thrilling way, or played against, they need to be executed in top-notch fashion with physical verve. The artists on hand do a journeyman job when only a master craftsman could have pulled off what these comics needed pulled off.

Timothy Callahan suggests in an essay found here that the problem with this latest Action Comics run is that because of editorial fiat this Superman has to run counter to Morrison's natural take on the character, a take engaging the rise away from physical action into spiritual godhood that fits in well with Morrison's concerns about transcending humanity more generally. I wonder if it's not even more simple than that, that the editorial relaunch of these books was put together so quickly that some bad, hasty choices were made. I never got the sense that t-shirt-and-jeans Superman thrilled anyone as much as it did DC and the original creative team; using that as a fulcrum around which to operate a fractured, time-hopping story seems to me asking way too much. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that Superman in t-shirt and jeans was a fine enough single-image but not a hook on which one can place any number of stories and still serve the general DC storyline requirements. Absent the occasional visual, which even when we get it it's from a variety of different artists, these comics strike me as stories that could have taken place at any point in the last 25 years. What a disappointment.