The Action Reaction | July Superman Analysis

The Action Reaction analysis discussions are the place to get the most complete picture of what’s happening in the world of Superman and what it all means.

Superman’s powers are waning. His son, Jon Kent, has stepped up to take on his mantle. A ship fleeing Warworld has caused an international crisis, and alerted the man of steel to horrors happening among distant stars. And, realizing that years of fighting superpowered threats have taken his attention away from the business of making a better world, Clark Kent has begun forming a team to step up and fight the status quo.

In short, the Superman titles are all moving into bold new territory together. If you’re wondering whether or not the books are good, well, we covered that in our first installment of reviews. 

We’re here to discuss the rest of it: the implications of these stories, their connection to each other and commentary on other comics, the high-minded ideas and the technical execution. The Action Reaction analysis discussions are the place to get the most complete picture of what’s happening in the world of Superman and what it all means, because we’ve got some incredible writers bringing all sorts of different perspectives and histories to the table. 

So enough preamble from me. Let’s get into it.

Rook: So I’m going to open up our first analysis article with this question: after reading the current three “main” Superman books, what do they add to each other? What’s the bigger picture?

David: One interesting way of framing this is in a question I was asked recently – why this isn’t going the more obvious route, established back in DC One Million and All-Star, of ‘Clark in space, his son on Earth’ having the former take his first steps towards shiny golden godhood while Jon has to fight to fill the boots. Instead it’s the big, iconic take struggling to measure up to his own history, while the new kid is possibly more powerful than his father ever was and while Earthbound for now is attendantly looking at the big issues the original never quite felt up to tackle for one reason or another over the years. The strength for me is in that role reversal: the venerated ‘why-mess-with-success?’ icon losing his potency as all his failures crash in on him but finding new ways to fight, while Superman the Second while he’s still figuring things out doesn’t just have the weight of his dad on his shoulders but a power that he knows by Legion of Superheroes times will lead to him being called “The One True Superman”, and having to decide what responsibilities that strength and his birthright as a son of Earth rather than Krypton are going to mean for him. That the setup grants each of them a degree of legitimacy as ‘the real deal’ in a way the alternative wouldn’t doesn’t hurt.

Rook: I’m inclined to agree, yeah, particularly with the last point. As much as I love the territory of a young gun Superman coming into his powers while bucking the system, that arc was largely tackled by Morrison’s Action Comics run. Going back to that same well, without a suitable twist on it, would result in diminishing returns.

There’s a lot to be said for elevating Jon’s power level, because it lets his conflicts and decisions play out on a scale that only Superman and the other heroes of the Justice League can affect. That’s largely unexplored territory for a young man just entering college, and the entire planet is going to know and have opinions on Jon’s actions going forward, without the luxury of a secret identity to insulate him. 

We’ve seen a million riffs on the Spider-Man archetype of teen hero (many of them icons in their own right, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been done), so I think it’s really in the story’s best interest to do things only the Superman name can do. That definitely includes being a major power player in the DC Universe.

Meanwhile, Clark’s own diminishing powers put the ultimate icon in the position of the underdog, trying to reckon with his legacy and all the people that the status quo trampled while he was out fighting Intergang and Doomsday. This is a Superman that has recognized that his incredible powers have limits, and those limits are starting to shrink. This setup is both weightier and more impactful than if Clark classic went out into space to take on Warworld solo, because it feels like it’s turned all of his triumphs into reminders that his best wasn’t good enough. That’s an almost fatalistic notion, one that would be very morose in the wrong hands — but this is Superman. Telling him he can’t save the world is just going to make him try harder.

Gabrielle: I think comics have been demonstrating that Superman can, in fact, exist, representing what he represents and fighting for what he fights. But now we’re passing onto a new era that instead of asking if he can exist, asks how he should do it. In Action Comics we see him engage with the politics of an unstable world, decide who he wants to help first, what situation is more urgent in his eyes, and how. 

Son of Kal-El positions us with the opportunity to see that question through the lens of a new, inexperienced Superman. He not only can potentially be more powerful than his father, but also explore and handle things in his own way. It’s an exciting journey that can ask great questions. In superhero comics there’s always an entity that represents an authority above all, and at least for now, seeing the new Superman question that, in this case being the American government, is a great change of pace. It’s going back to the roots of the character, to the very same stories that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster wrote when the Man of Tomorrow fought exploitative bosses, abusive husbands, etc. something that was getting lost thanks to the ever-growing influence from the system over art. Of course, it’s too early to tell how it’s gonna handle all these themes, but I’ll at least be paying attention to it.

Meanwhile, Superman and the Authority presents us with a premise that, on paper, in my eyes, is retreading ground that doesn’t feel too Superman. A dystopian future where even Superman got lost and wasn’t able to help it. Society is holding on with its last bit of strength, and he’s losing power. But then, we see him try. Even though he can’t fly so well, even though he’s no longer as powerful as he was, he keeps trying to fulfill those promises he once made. To improve the world, and leave it a better place than when he crashed on it. It’s also worth noting the focus on being united, with Clark forming a new team of heroes that one wouldn’t really consider heroes as they were. Grant Morrison hasn’t disappointed me yet, and this is no exception.

Rook: In the last year, we’ve seen a lot of morally questionable Supermen in other media: Invincible, Jupiter’s Legacy, The Boys, etcetera. That’s not even mentioning Injustice, which is becoming a new animated film. This new direction for Superman feels like a response to these alternate takes on him, in some ways, refocusing the concept on new kinds of good he can do even as the world around us can feel like it’s falling apart. What do you think about how this played out in this month’s comics?

David: When Morrison talked about DC wanting Superman to be more ‘authoritarian’ when they initially pitched their book in 2018, Taylor describing Son of Kal-El as a brighter mirror to Injustice, and Johnson having Superman on the brink of expulsion from both the Justice League and Earth over intervening in international affairs, it’s unavoidable.

The main comparison to me is what Tynion’s been doing in the Batman books, actively confronting common criticisms and attempting to de-problematize the setup by downgrading Bruce to ‘well-to-do’ rather than ‘one-man global financial power player’ (while still keeping enough to do classic Batman stuff) and Gordon leading a book in the context of no longer being a cop. Here – maybe unsurprisingly given the biggest books across the aisle are about utopian nation-building and an avatar of fury smashing corporations and the military – it’s tackling ‘why doesn’t Superman fix things?’ beyond the stock “Well, that’d be overreach” that doesn’t much fly anymore. Except instead of deciding to run the show themselves, it’s coming in the form of Jon apparently setting on the road towards Super-Activism, while Clark builds bridges with folks previously too radical for him to become, paraphrasing Morrison, Earth’s dad who’s there for when humanity gets too drunk and needs a drive home. When ‘Injustice’ and ‘Authority’ are central texts being referenced there’s no way there won’t still be concerns raised, but the line seems to be approaching the idea of Superman doing the real work of making a finer world with a good faith that hasn’t really been seen – outside of Morrison’s own Action Comics – since virtually his earliest days.

Rook: In many ways, the 2010s was the decade of abortive attempts to modernize Superman. This direction is the first time it really feels like DC has gotten past that hurdle. I don’t know if it was Superman Smashes the Klan or what, but it seems there’s more of an understanding that Superman was never broken, just held back by the kinds of stories they were willing to tell with him. 

Now that they’re being true to Superman’s origins as someone who crusades against the injustices of the real world, and not just a hand-wringing defender of the status quo, we’ve started getting new developments like Jon and the Authority that feel like genuine evolutions of the concept. Which, in some ways, is kind of finally catching up to a comic WildStorm published two decades ago, but nonetheless the earnest attempt at a synthesis of their very different approaches to how a superhero world works really sets this new direction apart. 

Rook: Jon Kent’s backstory, up to this point, is convoluted as hell. Even recent developments, like aging several years on Earth-3 or spending time in the 31st century, are pretty wild for non-comic readers. Do you think they can keep neatly sidestepping and retconning problems, like we’ve seen in Son of Kal-El so far, or are they going to have to tackle his past head-on eventually? 

Gabrielle: As a new reader who is not familiar with Jon (yet), I can fortunately say that I understand this new series perfectly, at least in its beginning. I can’t say for sure what they’re gonna do, but I think the answer is looking at the bigger picture. Retconning or including everything might not be the answer, but picking what works and what doesn’t. I love when people are able to transform something that, in their minds, didn’t really work, and turn it into something else that holds value fn its own, and that’s what I’d like to see here. 

David: Stuff like ‘unusual birth’, ‘adolescent journey into mystery and horror’ and ‘magic school with other folks like them’ are pretty standard hero’s journey stuff so I don’t see a need to remove them, but I don’t think they HAVE to be regularly delved into any more than the steps of Bruce Wayne’s training. He’s Superman’s kid, we get the point A to point B.

Rook: I feel like those steps could stand to be fleshed out a little more, if only so that more people can grok his story as those relatively simple steps, and not have to worry the twisted snarl of continuity that got us here. It’s not a tall order for most people willing to read floppy issues, but I think more material for Jon Kent that solidifies his journey and draws on it is really going to go a long way.

Rook: What are the most successful aspects of the Superman books in 2021? How do you think they’ll capitalize on this moving forward?

Gabrielle: Most people feel like shit. Our whole society isn’t having a great time due to a number of factors, and I think things like Superman work even better in those times. It’s the same reason why Ted Lasso couldn’t have aired at a better time, for example. Believing someone can fly it’s great, but believing someone can be good, be our friend and a beacon of hope in dark times, it’s even better. If they keep going in that direction, I know that at least I’m gonna be happy with it. 

David: I think investing in shaking up and in theory progressing the formula in the same way as Batman and a lot of Marvel mainstays are currently getting – if without the same sort of fanfare thus far – is done right a smart move, especially leaning into the cultural understanding of the character as ‘your dad and grandad’s guy’ and making the story about that in an intelligent way rather than regressively embracing it or trying to pretend that’s not a weight the brand carries.

Doing that alongside fragmenting the iconography (just as the movies and TV shows look to be doing the same with Coates’ and MBJ’s takes, or doing a young Superman cartoon alongside a father-of-teens Superman live action show) so that everyone can in theory have ‘their’ Superman, as opposed to one guy trying to be all things to all people and warping enormously over the decades in the process? COULD in the long run be the big moment of rejuvenation everyone’s been waiting for, especially since it’s been decades since there’s been a truly broadly-embraced cultural baseline for the character.

Rook: I really appreciate that DC is leaning into multiple interpretations of its characters, because one of the great strengths they have is that they’re almost too iconic to have any one definitive interpretation. Most versions of Matt Murdock have way more in common with each other than iterations of Clark Kent, for example. (Not a bad thing, just different strengths.) To my mind, this is because Marvel characters are first and foremost built around specific flaws and internal conflicts, while DC characters are more about reflecting the ideals they stand for — ideals that are malleable enough to change with the times. A particularly stark example is the difference between the ‘66 Batman TV show’s definition of justice, which involved an official partnership with police, and later versions that acknowledged Gotham’s police force is full of corruption.

So the fact that each decade’s Superman is a similar but substantially different dude, put together with the increasing number of outright reinterpretations in elseworlds, games, and movies, means to me that chasing a single “definitive” version of the character is a fool’s errand. The guys in the comics right now come pretty close for me, but the myriad Supermen all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and letting each of them play to their unique strengths strikes me as the smartest move. 

That said, it’s not smart from a storytelling or business perspective to go so far afield that an interpretation ends up having more in common with Omni-Man or other variants on the archetype. Thankfully, I think the creators involved have the right idea that what unifies (most of) these various takes on Superman should be his devotion to kindness. Maybe that’s just in fashion right now because of the circumstances of the world, but particularly in the comics right now I see a drive to highlight different facets of his compassion and how he uses that to fight for a better world. That’s something pretty unique to Superman, and leaning into it is good for all of us.

Rook: Okay, time for the other side of that question. What are the least successful parts of the Superman line right now? Are the books getting in their own way, or undercutting themselves in places?

Gabrielle: I don’t think they’re very new reader friendly. For someone who’s just starting to read comics, and doesn’t have a grasp yet on how they function and their internal logic, I imagine they would have a hard time with it. There’s a new Superman preparing to take over another Superman who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Let’s not even talk about all the differences between the current timeline and Superman and the Authority. And that affects the story too, does the passing of the mantle hits the same if the same old Superman is still at it? It’s not something that ruins it for me, or even that bothers me, but I can see how they could potentially benefit from going another route. 

David: As I see it the big issue threatening to kneecap it is fairly or unfairly the talent attached. PKJ and Sampere are killing it on Action, but the former’s a relatively fresh name laboring in the shadow of giants before and alongside him and for that matter retreading surface-level familiar ground until things line up to take Clark off-planet, and the latter’s already leaving the book. On SOK Timms isn’t a big name yet, whereas Taylor is HUGE but also divisive and prone to wild swings that could easily blow up in DC’s face. Morrison and Janin are Morrison and Janin, but the scot’s only there for four issues and most of the chatter around Authority is gonna be asking how it fits into continuity until the book wraps up and they’re gone, and if and when Janin’s going to continue to be a part of the line afterward remains up in the air. There’s also Supergirl, Superman vs. Lobo, Superman ‘78, the about-to-end Batman/Superman, and Clark’s involvement in team and Elseworld-type books, but those are essentially off in their own little worlds. The long-term stability of this prospect rests in the hands of creators who don’t have the Hickman or Tynion or Ewing-scale starpower that’d normally be mandatory to force these kinds of changes through. Maybe everyone will decide they like sexy dad Superman while Taylor does his thing and produces a bunch of panels that’ll take over Twitter for the next 5 years and it’ll all work out and be embraced in the end, but the danger is it’ll fizzle out without a line being very visibly drawn under the idea of this as for-real how things are now.

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