…Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman - a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous trembling and halting. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
What If…Peter Parker was Superman?
That’s essentially what Grant Morrison & Rags Morales give us in the rebooted Action Comics #1, our first full look at the new version of the Man of Steel, albeit set early on in his career. Given that Morrison already gave us a near-definitive take of the Last Son of Krypton with All-Star Superman, he had a hard task ahead of him convincing potential readers that he had anything left to say with the character. His whipping the media into a frenzy of hype over his blue-collar, Springsteen-esque take on the Man of Tomorrow didn’t help matters either, but did Morrison deliver?
Understand, this is not a bad comic. Were it an Elseworld or an alternate reality, it’d be perfectly adequate. By dialing back Superman’s decades of fictional evolution right back to Siegel & Shuster’s embryonic take on the character, we see that the essence of Superman is still intact (truth, justice, sense of fair play and righteousness). However, having it filtered by modern sensibilities is where this initial chapter comes slightly unstuck; it’s jarring to have this Superman run at breakneck speed across Metropolis while being filmed on somone’s Blackberry.
Our first glimpse of Clark Kent is also unsatisfying, as we see he’s a nice guy (aw, he pays his rent on time), but the nervy, unsure twentysomething we see contrasts far too sharply with the bombastic, overconfident Superman we witness in action (ho, ho) earlier on. And while subsequent issues seem poised to knock Superman down a peg or two - perhaps deservedly so, as he comes across as a self-important bully - that we can see this coming leaves something of a sour taste in the mouth; the stakes aren’t raised high enough for us as readers to take it seriously (what Brian Hibbs often referred to as ‘false jeopardy’).
The truth is, though, I liked this story better when Lee & Ditko did it in Amazing Fantasy #15 back in 1962 (or, if you prefer, the Bendis/Bagley reinvention in Ulitimate Spider-Man a decade ago): the use & abuse of power without a complete grasp of the responsibility it entails. We assume as readers that Superman will eventually become the character we know and respect (we hope), but the faux-retro stylings does character and readership both a disservice (with one glaring example I won’t spoil). Morales’ art, too, is a throwback: rushed, almost energetically sloppy, but you do get caught up by it.
I am intrigued enough, despite myself, to come back for the second instalment, as I’ve a feeling that the next issue is where a lot of the blanks will start to be filled in. I just hope it’s enough for me to see out the rest of the arc, ‘cos I never thought I’d say this: I’m not particularly sure I even like this version of Superman.
Damn you, Morrison. On both counts.