Action Comics 0

Alternating Currents: Action Comics 0, Peter and Shelby

Today, Peter and Shelby are discussing Action Comics 0, originally released September 5, 2012. Action Comics 0 is part of the line-wide Zero Month.

Peter: I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Grant Morrison. Sometimes he has very crisp writing that really delves to the point of the story and the characters. Sometimes it’s full of meta references and allusions that overwhelm the story he is trying to tell. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it isn’t. Really it boils down to how well does Grant Morrison fit into the work he is writing. I mean the man can write just about anything, but does it actually work? The fundamental question is of pairing a writer with a specific character or book; what makes a good match?

I want to preface the rest of this with the statement that I have not read ANY of Grant Morrison’s run of Action Comics until now. That being said, lets get going!

This zero issue plays out in a series of short events that connect together, and take place early in Clark’s time in Metropolis. Context clues suggest this is about 4 months into his move. Clark is out to make a uniform, and by make a uniform, I mean order 200 shirts with his Superman ‘S’ on it. Clark then accepts a job at the Daily Star. He then has to break it to his friend, and current roommate, Jimmy Olsen that he is moving out into his own place. Trouble is afoot! Kal, in his new identity as ‘Superman’, complete with blue t-shirt emblazoned with the ‘S’, jeans, boots, and iconic red cape leaps into action. After taking a few bullets, Kal is knocked off the building by a rocket propelled grenade, crashing to the ground in an alley. While groggy, a child makes off with the cape.

Using the cape for support, the child stands up to an abusive bully (step parent?). The cape protects him from a knife, and seemingly allows him to punch a whole lot harder. He then takes his friend and flees the bully, who is still writhing on the floor. They run to a train yard and end up directly in the path of a train, only to be saved at the last minute by Clark. The kid gives the cape back and makes a new friend, just as Lois and Jimmy arrive on the scene. The child asks Kal what the ‘S’ stands for, receiving a simple answer…‘Superman.’

By Morrison’s standards, this is an incredibly tame issue, and it while it simple, it really works for him and Action Comics. Yes, the obvious joke is that there for a comic called ‘Action Comics’, there really isn’t a lot of action going on here. But I still like it quite a bit. If anything this books does something that I have seen in recent Superman media; it makes Kal seem human, without trying too hard. That is the inherent problem with writing a Superman book. It’s too easy to keep Superman above everyone else, because he’s, well, you know, Superman.

Morrison used this issue to show how easy it is to craft a compelling Clark Kent — one who is both human and relatable yet also powerful and noble. Clark enjoys a definitive Superman moment in this issue that pays homage to his Golden Age, “man of the people” roots. But Jimmy Olsen also has a strong showing in this issue. Morrison sheds a great deal of light on what drives the character in the New 52 universe. The result is a more down-to-earth and independent-minded take on Jimmy than the flamboyant globetrotter Morrison wrote in All-Star Superman.

While I do find this issue compelling there is something that keeps bugging me about it. I don’t think it has anything to do with the writing or the art or the story, but with the entire concept of this book in the greater scheme of the New 52. The New 52 characterization of Superman seems to me — at least the one I am reading in Action Comics and Justice League — hard to categorize neatly, given that the time lines have been all over the place. However, the words that come to mind for me have been a little along the lines of cocky and arrogant. This is, quite literally, not the Superman whom we grew up with, which is really interesting because clearly DC was trying to do something “new” with the character since Superman was very easily criticized for being an “overgrown boy scout.”

I, for one, wanted a few years of Superman in jeans and blanket/cape. I wanted him to find Superman, to find his new identity as a hero, to understand the responsibilities bestowed upon him. Morrison has done a great job so far with this zero issue. I may start looking through the back issues of Action Comics. However, with both Action Comics, Superman, and Justice League running around the shelves, I am confused as to who Superman really is. Define the character DC!

Shelby: I don’t like Superman. I think he’s boring. Clark Kent is intentionally boring, as an aid to his disguise, and Superman is boring because he’s just too powerful; how do you write a conflict to challenge a character as powerful as Superman? You end up with either super-powered villains who have the same problems as Superman, or a situation to unpower Superman, which just defeats the character. So, that was the shiningly positive outlook I had going into reading this book. My final opinion on the title itself was merely “meh.”

One thing I really didn’t think I’d like about this title was the Superman uniform. Come on, a t-shirt? That’s dumb! But the second time I read through this, I realized it actually really works. This is maybe the only time time we’ve seen a realistic execution of a superhero costume. Clark is some 20-something moving to his first apartment in the big city; it is not unrealistic to assume he has neither the means nor the skills to create the classic spandex (?) suit we all know. I do have a problem with him just going to some crappy t-shirt company to get his shirts printed; you think that kid is just going to forget those shirts once he starts seeing Superman flying around the skies of Metropolis?

I guess, minor costume quibbles aside, I was ultimately kind of bored by this issue. It was a nice little story, I guess: Superman saved some kids from their abusive, Ace Ventura-lookalike dad. That’s nice.

This was just a feel-good story, good for introducing the players in this story. Really, that’s exactly what this title needs to be. Fine enough, I suppose, but since I don’t have any stake in these characters, I find I don’t really care. I guess a story that’s good enough but I don’t care about is better than something that’s just plain bad.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

19 comments on “Action Comics 0

  1. I dropped Action after issue 7 or 8 but based on your thoughts I think I’ll pick up this issue. It reminds me of the Superman: Grounded storyline (which has its own faults) where Supes is walking through Millennium Park in Chicago and hears a child call for help from his abusive (step?)parent in the suburbs. Kal promptly shows up and sets the guy straight. It is not the most original story but I think it is one of those small character moments we always talk about. Writers take note: it can be way more effective to show Superman making such a huge difference in one child’s life than to always have him battling to save the whole world. That is a direction I’d like to see this title take.

    • I assume Clark took the opportunity to take a picture of his reflection in Cloud Gate (the bean) – because that’s what everyone from out of town does (provided they can’t just fly over Millennium Park).

  2. I’ve heard the “Superman is boring because he’s just too powerful” argument many times before (and I’ve probably made it a few times myself), but the more I read comics, the less I buy it. Sure, if the only thing that adds tension to a comic is the fear that the hero might fail, then Superman would be less interesting than all other heroes. The thing is, fear of failure is rarely the source of tension for any comic. It’s unfortunate that creators buy into the idea that a villain needs to pose a physical threat to Superman in order to tell a compelling story. I honestly think Superman would be a much more compelling character if he never faced a supervillain.

    Imagine Supes focused his attention on saving problems around the world, stopping firefights, catching hapless office workers who fall out of windows, and rescuing the occasional cat caught in a tree on a GLOBAL SCALE. Superman Returns, for all of its issues, got at this idea a bit, and I think it’s a fascinating one. If Superman is pushed to the limit — not by a bad guy, but just by his own desire to do as much good as possible — he would feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. Superman does have limits, and seeing him feel those limits in every person he fails to save would be fascinating. I think watching a man attempt to take on so much responsibility, and how he might try to balance that with his own desires to live and love (and sleep) could be really compelling.

    Point is, I don’t think it’s his power levels that make him boring — it’s that we never actually see him pushed to the limits of those levels. He’s a demigod, but he’s not omniscient or omnipresent. Zooming the scope out a bit from individual bad guys or even Metropolis seems like the best way to take him to those limits.

    • On the supervillian bit, I think that’s one of the reasons the Lex Luthor works so well (when he’s not in a giant kryptonite robot). Even if there is an action sequence, the conflict in a fight like that is all internal. You know that Kal could lobotomize Luthor with a heat vision blast in about 0.5 seconds, but its the fact that he is holding back that makes things interesting. Even more than he wants to save humanity, he wants to believe in our goodness, which is why when a ‘normal person’ becomes a villian, it is a bit of a personal defeat to Superman’s beliefs.

    • I like this a lot. I hate that whole “Superman is boring” spiel. I think Superman can be hard to write good stories for, but he’s not boring in and of himself (“Superman: The Animated Series” and the “Justice League” and “Justice League: Unlimited” animated series did a great job with him for example). I think challenging Superman physically can make a good story, but the best stories with Supes come from putting his mental capacities to the test, and that doesn’t seem to get done enough.

    • Shelbs and I were talking about this the other day when she was getting worked up about how she didn’t find Action Comics engaging. And I said something like “I like Superman as a phenomenon.” Basically meaning that I like the idea that there is a world wherein there is one superhero who clearly has the edge on every other super and villain – a force of super-nature that makes everyone re-evaluate their own morality and their own utility. But leaning on this very Dr.-Manhattan-esque reading makes it hard to put Supes front and center as the protagonist. The oh-so-reliable Hero’s Journey doesn’t work if the hero is invincible (the penultimate step is PHYSICAL DEATH, after all). Which means that for a Superman story to work on any satisfying level, the structure of the narrative as to defy the framework that’s been drilled into our storytelling culture for centuries. Extrapolating that further, Superman stories should actually be the MOST interesting because they can’t rely on antiquated notions of vulnerability.

      • Oh, that’s really interesting — I love the idea that Superman could eschew narrative cliches (and specific comic book ones) because they simply don’t make sense for someone so powerful. We can all make jokes about how supervillains all make long speeches while the hero is slowly lowered into a vat of acid, but Supes simply can’t be put in that situation. The fact that he often is anyway is the fault of uncreative writers, not some flaw of his character concept. He’s above a lot of bullshit, and is meant to be a symbol of hope that we can be above the bullshit, too. Wouldn’t it be cool if that were applied on a meta-textual level, and a more creative take on Superman could lead the industry to a new era of originality?

        • You are on to something, I think. Supes is notoriously hard to write for. Focussing on his growth as a person, adjusting to life in Metropolis after Smallville, learning who to trust, who to care about, all would make him much more interesting and would play to Clarks’s vulnerabilities. I would love to see an extended mentoring of Kara/Supergirl, where he has to deal with teaching a kryptonian how to be human, how to care, what is moral and immoral when you are a demigod among mortals.

          Clark has always been meant to call out the best in us. He does that by having to make hard moral choices and live with consequences and himself when he fails, not by beating up the monster-of-the-week. The latter is Batman’s wheelhouse.

  3. Shelby, they actually addressed the issue of the t-shirt shop that sold Superman his shirts in a back-up story earlier in the series. Turns out that every single t-shirt printer in Metropolis claims that Superman got his shirts from them (mainly to drum up business), so whatever claims the guy who actually sold Superman his shirts is making are getting drowned out in all the false stories.

  4. Ben Oliver and Brian Reber’s dusty-ass art wasn’t doing it for me in this issue. The only other exposure I’ve had to this style is in the early go of Batwing, which actually did a lot to trick me into thinking that Batwing was “about” the DRC (using the art to reflect the bleak, but natural surroundings). Seems oddly applied to the city of tomorrow…

  5. Shelby, I normally find myself in agreement with your assessments but I have to totally disagree here. Clark Kent isn’t a phoney personality that is being underplayed in an attempt to hide the “real” identity that is Superman – Clark Kent is the actual personality of the boy that was raised by the kind Kents on a farm in Kansas. With poth of his parents deceased Superman has no practical reason to perpetuate the Clark Kent identity except for the fact that he considers the work he does as Clark Kent the reporter equally as important as his work as a super-hero. He fully believes that the world needs to improve its morals and ethics to heal itself and that as Clark he has an opportunity to fight for honesty and justice in a way that could potentially effect more people than his other job of saving people from physical harm. A recent arc in Action Comics by Morrison explores this concept when he briefly allows the Clark Kent identity to be thought deceased while contemplating such things.

    Also, I am EXTREMELY jazzed that the Mrs. Nyxly character introduced in Action #1 has been seeding an inevitable Mr. Mxyzptlk story… I can’t wait to see what Morrison does with this since he is such an important character that was virtually untouched-upon in All-Star Superman

    • Especially in Morrison’s hands, I kinda feel like the personalities of “Superman” and “Clark Kent” are pretty similar. They’re both confident when they know they have the upper hand (Clark in writing, Supes in all matters) and they’re both patient and kind – polite to a fault. It is interesting to consider that (somehow) the writer Clark Kent could achieve more good than the superhero Superman – but I feel like there’s less of an interior driving force to make the change as a superhero than someone like Batman. Arguably, Bruce’s time could be better spent using his money and influence for good, but he’s compelled to don the cowl and beat up dudes every night.

      • I have often thought the same thing, though it does make sense in away… Batman’s driven by a childhood trauma and definitely seems to suffer from serious obsession. Maybe he could do a more thorough job of cleaning up the city through politics and business – we know he has the intelligence for it – but would he be able to revisit his fear and force it back upon the criminals? He seems to have unhealthy ulterior motive

  6. Hey, everyone come back and let’s talk about that back-up. The fuck was happening in that thing? I don’t know who any of these characters are. Also (and again, this may be an extension of not know thing anything about the characters), but it was super clumsily written: simultaneously over-expository and totally lacking in information. This Adam isn’t the same Adam from StormWatch right? They seem remarkably similar, but also just different enough to make me doubt the connection. How wants to help out poor dumb Patrick? (I trust our editors also didn’t know what to make of it because y’all didn’t even mention the story.)

    • No, the story refers to “The Lost Superman” from Action Comics #12 and is an epilogue to that storyline… Honestly, it wasn’t the height of Morrison’s run IMO, but this did add nicely to it. Action #4 (the introductions of STEEL and Metallo) is pretty Amazing and Action #9 is a really awesome parallel-Earth one-off from Earth-23 drawn by Gene Ha that I would recommend as well. Issues 4, 7 8, and maybe #10 are an awesome Braniac storyline. 5 & 6 are an origin flashback and #9 is the Earth-23 story, and these stories break up the main arc which makes the run confusing to read if you don’t understand that you need to essentially remove them from the reading order for the main story to make sense. Rags Morales was not meeting art schedule and Morrison was essentially “writing for the trade” by mandating that the main story be completed by ONE artist with no fill-ins

  7. Pingback: Action Comics Annual | Retcon Punch

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