The Action Reaction | October 2021 Analysis

David, Gab and Rook get into the best moments and thematic underpinnings of October’s Superman comics!

Rook: What are your favorite themes from this month’s books? Why? 

David: The old ways of doing things are dead and done (even if Clark says everybody’s still gotta respect Batman), and that’s good.

Rook: I’ve gotta agree. It’s so genuinely refreshing to see momentum pushing the status quo forward in a medium that can be pretty resistant to change. 

Gab: I think I agree with both of you. Even the, in my opinion, weakest issue of this month, Son of Kal-El #4, keeps giving me the feeling we’re experiencing a big change in the status quo, and one quite uncommon for comics, in the sense that it won’t just wash away with time. 

Rook: It’s easy to focus on the superheroes in superhero comics, but was there any favorite background scenery that really made a scene work for you?

David: Kandor being overgrown with weeds in Authority is an inevitable, perfect touch.

Rook: I appreciate that they didn’t call attention to it, but let it be this tragically beautiful aspect of the world, which I think reflects the last city of Krypton very well. 

Personally, I loved the concept of the Empire of Shadows, so getting to see more of that world was fascinating. The relief that Midnighter and Apollo stumble on made for a pretty great moment, as well.

Rook: Concerning Superman’s public removal from the JL: if/when Clark does come back from his voyage to Warworld, what potential is there for more stories that put him at odds with the Justice League?

David: Hard to say – he and Batman are still presented as being on good terms, with the “I failed with the Justice League” spirit not seeming to carry over to the other books even if Superman acknowledges there needs to be a different approach. Depending on how things go within the next year as the assorted next-gen characters like Jon, Jace, Yara, Jo, Jess, and Jackson either rise up or fall by the wayside, it’s possible the Justice League may be something entirely different by the time Clark gets back to Earth. Sidenote: didn’t realize until I wrote it out just now but wow, lotta Js in the burgeoning Justice League 2.0 huh.

Rook: You’re right – that is a lot of Js. But yeah, while it’s one thing if Jon is a junior member of the JL or out on his own, I don’t see a team composed of those fresh faces standing down if the guardians of the status quo tell them to hand over an eldritch super-nuke or something of the like. 

I’d like to raise another possibility as well, one that I think might be just as likely: we could see the creation of a second, separate superteam for the young blood, not unlike Marvel’s Champions or the Titans. 

Gab: It’s a really interesting jump point for a lot of stories. When Clark is not alone, everyone automatically imagines him as the leader, the beacon of hope that while not alone, guides the Justice League. So having him as a superhero while working outside the boundaries of the JL and the possible conflicts that can create could be deeply interesting. I don’t want evil Superman against the JL or anything personally, but I’d be eager to see a more nuanced conflict on the way both sides want to approach the problems of our world.

Rook: Across the board this month, what was your single favorite page of art?

David: Brainiac in a suit with Koko in tow! The almost exact opposite to Morrison and Rags Morales doing the most inhuman take on Brainiac as ‘the Collector’ in the New 52, Janin’s guy is polished and smug as hell, the universe’s intellectual shark, and making the final villain a bastard in a suit is sort of a perfect touch for the book.

Gab: Probably this page. There’s something about the framing of both Brainiac and Supes that I love. Brainiac is looking down on him both literally and figuratively. Clark is positioned lower in the page, I think symbolizing how his powers aren’t the same anymore, but also how he’s not trying to be at the same level or page than his enemy. It’s no longer the game he’s playing. 

Rook: I have to agree with Gab, that page is astounding. Really clever framing and subtext, but also just hard as hell to pull off in a way that makes sense. I’d love to see what the script for this page looked like, and/or see inside Janin’s process somehow. 

Rook: How about your favorite conversation?

David: Lois lovingly needling Clark about the salt-and-pepper hair, especially when I realized this issue came out 15 years after the issue of All-Star Superman where Lois wonders if Superman will look at her the same in 15 years when she’s getting older and he’s young forever.

Rook: Gotta love that metatextual commentary. Lois didn’t show up much, but goddamn, was her presence felt. 

For me, this is stretching the definition of conversation, but I think it has to be the evil monologue that the Ultra-Humanite opened the issue with. It says so much about him as a character that he tries to reframe the entire history of the DCU as a battle between himself and Superman. It’s hilariously pathetic and genuinely menacing at the same time.

Rook: What does the iconography of Superman mean to each of the stories here?

David: I’d say the most charged use of the iconography this month – other than the big s-shield on the rocket ship representing the realization of JFK’s starbound dreams – is Superman looking the President of a nation in the eye and casually declaring he knows he’s lying and he’s going to stop him. Whether or not it lives up to the abstract promise of that idea remains to be seen, but I did enjoy the contrast with Clark’s 80s-00s ‘I know you did it, but I can’t prove it, but ooooo I’mma getcha someday somehow, just you wait and see!’ impontent snarling at Lex with Jon not even pretending to humor or respect Bendix.

Gab: This is a tough one. I love the sequence in Action Comics #1036 when it’s revealed that Clark is getting by with the help of Manchester and Enchantress. In a world of horror like Warworld, a symbol of hope like Superman is barely a promise of what used to be, but he keeps fighting and trying to free all these people all the same. However, I think it is tied with Jon’s and Bendix encounter, and the changes that could come with that as David put it. 

David: In accordance with the ethos of the title, Morrison chose to leave a ton of the promises of Superman and The Authority on the table for future creators to do with or discard as they please (while noting in an interview they left behind a document with suggestions for the various editors and creative teams): the idea that Superman ‘lied’ about Jon in some way and about the true nature of Kryptonite; OMAC’s background; the mission to Warworld; Ultra-Humanite and Brainiac gunning for the new Superman; the Source Wall’s big reveal. How much of this do you think is really going to form a bedrock going forward, vs. how much do you imagine being dealt with matter-of-factly and moved on from? Personally I’d guess Johnson follows any suggestions pretty much to a T, while Taylor blows through any mandates as quickly as possible to get back to his own thing.

Rook: I’d guess Johnson follows about 85 percent of Morisson’s ideas, albeit with his own twist on them, while Taylor does something closer to 55 percent. While I’d like to think that Tom Taylor wouldn’t look a gift horse like these contributions in the mouth,  between the shackles of continuity editorial mandates, I can’t really blame anyone for wanting to get on with it and tell their own story. If anything, though, I think Taylor’s story will be tied up in introducing more Wildstorm/recent characters than integrating with Morrison’s overarching vision. Beyond that, I think that by now DC trusts Taylor enough that they will let him steer the ship for the most part. 

David: The inclusion of members of the Revolutionaries in Son of Kal-El #4 isn’t surprising given Taylor likes carrying over his pet characters, but it’s a notable counterpoint to his dad working with a crew going by The Authority. Does this strike anyone else as potentially leading to some more pointed contrast or showdown at some point?

Rook: Superman and the authority versus Superman and the Revolutionaries certainly sounds like one hell of a showdown -– but I don’t think Clark is really leading that kind of authority, and it would take some serious doing to get John to come to blows with his old man. Still, there’s a lot of thematic potential in there, and I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to the idea. I just think it’s going to take a lot of doing to make it remotely believable.

David: Jay’s note of having “a plan” to recruit Jon and only revealing the pieces of his background on an as-needed basis seem, if not smoking guns, vaguely suspicious. The big development with him and Jon is next month, but what’s your feeling on him as he stands?

Gab: I hope it’s not actually an evil plot or anything. It would be kind of lame to find out he’s an antagonist if we’re just getting to know this guy and he’s just starting out his relationship with Jon. 

Rook: Yeah, I’d be pretty disappointed if that was the direction they were heading. I think it’s a red herring, personally, because using a Gamorran activist as an antagonist would be a bad look. I think he’s definitely angling to get Jon on his side, but that’s pretty altruistic given his aims. 

David: The Batman/Superman Authority Special begins PKJ’s handling of the team; how much do you see his framing of Superman’s recruitment of them as being Clark trying to prove “if I can make THIS bunch into heroes, anyone can be” as in line or at odds with what Morrison was going for?

Rook: I completely think that was absolutely what Morrison was doing. Manchester Black is a profoundly difficult human being, but he was Clark’s first pick. The DC universe is a big place, and while there are only so many A-list telepaths around, he could’ve picked someone else. That said, I don’t think Superman is risking it all on this group just to prove a point. I think he sees the incredible potential of people like Manchester and Enchantress as one of the pressure points he can lean on to actually change the balance of power in the world, rather than maintaining the status quo with more punch-ups.

David: The Empire of Shadows seems to be set up as a future threat rather than a one-off, and given that’s Batman as an Authority unto itself with equivalences drawn between their methods, I imagine them coming back in a big way will be when PKJ goes more into the inevitable “is Superman going too far?” storyline. Does that hold potential to you as a potent cracked mirror for Superman’s new methodology, or does it come across as another regurgitation of overly familiar self-commentary/edgy multiverse baddies territory of recent years?

Rook: It absolutely holds potential to me, though I think the Empire of Shadows could easily fall into feeling like another retread of Dark Nights: Metal’s legion of evil Batmen. I find myself hoping that instead of trying to draw parallels between the Authority and an actual fascist hellscape, they really dig into the difficulties of trying to stop an entire reality that has been conquered and turned into a weapon. The JL’s old approach is going to have a hard time dealing with the Empire, so I think they’re a great way to illustrate what’s distinct about the Authority, but I don’t think interrogating the moral fiber of Superman’s team by comparing them to The Worst Fascist Timeline is something that really needs to be done.

David: With Superman and The Authority concluded, the team assembled and integrated into PKJ’s story, and Jon Kent’s big moment coming in November parallel to the beginning of the Warworld Saga, I think it’s fair to say the foundation of the new status quo is well and truly established. Given the circumstance I wanted to run a pet theory of mine about this moment for the Superman books by everyone: that the Future State titles at the beginning of the year were essentially a test run for continuing Bendis’s approach to the titles vs. pivoting to Morrison’s vision.

Many details of the aborted 5G all-in-one-go shift to a generation of successor heroes are either officially known or badly-kept secrets. Morrison initially pitched Superman and The Authority as part of the relaunch and it was kept in storage for some time, along with other scripts which either had ‘kill fees’ paid to the creators when they were canned, or were repurposed into Future State. At the same time Bendis was clearly spearheading the initiative as he and Mikel Janin looked to be the ones concluding the ‘Generations’ miniseries leading into the initiative. In effect, Morrison would have shaped Clark while presumably Bendis would have directly or indirectly held onto Jon (I’ve heard Matt Fraction – who was part of Bendis’ Superman braintrust with Greg Rucka – said on the Word Balloon podcast he was going to be writing Jon’s book, though I haven’t listened to the episode myself). In Future State though, we had traces of both creators across both creations: Superman of Metropolis showed a relatively underpowered Jonathan Kent, in line with Bendis initially giving him a scar to highlight his human vulnerability and showing him with a prosthetic arm and eyepatch in a vision of a possible future, struggling with his morality and limitations as he attempted to define his place in the Superman legacy, ultimately concluding with him committing to being (by Superman standards) a relatively street-level hero. In Superman vs. Imperius Lex Clark deals extensively with the United Planets as an extant force after Bendis established them. Meanwhile, Superman: Worlds of War stripped away Clark’s powers even as it made him a mythic figure of cosmic liberation, while an enormously powerful and hypercompetent Jonathan battled Morrison’s creation Solaris and reflected on his societal role in Superman/Wonder Woman.

Both visions got airtime, with the returning regular titles then switching largely to filler (first with The Golden Age, by PKJ’s own admission a buffer arc mandated by DC at the last minute, then Superman proper ending with a 3-issue standalone arc while Action began with setup for Warworld that didn’t immediately commit to Morrison’s proposed changes), and the formal announcement of the new direction with Authority and Son of Kal-El not arriving until a couple months afterwards rather than those leading Infinite Frontier. It seems if I’m right about how that went behind the scenes the powers that be decided to go with Morrison’s vision given both Clark and Jon’s directions, but to make this a question rather than a conspiracy theory: how do you think things would have gone if the course had been stayed with Bendis’s planned direction, with a down-to-Earth Son of Superman and the original presumably patrolling the stars? Or if it had been the split road for the franchise initially planned, whether as part of Infinite Frontier or if 5G had gone off as planned?

Rook: Man, we would’ve been worse off. As interested as I would be in Matt Fraction writing his book, defining Jon Kent as ultimately unable to measure up to the power of his father strikes me as a little depressing and fatalistic for the beginning of the Superman legacy. 

It would make sense to do a street-level Jon Kent book as more or less the exact midpoint between Fraction’s Jimmy Olsen and Hawkeye comics, but I think he’d rebel against that expectation and try an unexpected angle. Meanwhile, Bendis’s Superman moves off-planet to take a larger role in the United Planets, a full-time Superman for whole galaxies. I suspect we’d eventually see Warworld still, but in a much different capacity from PKJ’s Action Comics. The old Mongul would be making life hard for the United Planets as a follow-up to Bendis’s Unity saga, and it would be okay. There would be a lot more Synmar, though, and it would rule. 

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