• 08.29.11

Grant Morrison Reinvents Superman, Can He Rescue DC Comics?

An exclusive page from the DC Comics reboot of Action Comics shows a more human Superman as envisioned by veteran auteur Grant Morrison.

Grant Morrison Reinvents Superman, Can He Rescue DC Comics?
Grant Morrison

It’s the most iconic title in the DC Comics canon. When the original Action Comics #1 debuted in 1938, it featured the first appearance of Superman and is regarded as the first superhero comic. It’s also the most expensive–last year, #1 commanded $1 million on the auction block.


On Sept. 7, DC Comics will launch the revamped Action Comics, written by veteran comics auteur Grant Morrison–hot off his lauded new book, Supergods. Morrison has the superhuman task of reinventing one of the comic world’s–and popular culture’s–biggest characters for the 21st century, and, in the process, trying to write a new chapter for the struggling comic book publishing industry.

“I felt the weight of history with this one,” says Morrison in his soft-spoken Glaswegian lilt. “I wanted to do something that was as much a part of these times as when (Action Comics) first came out. Superman has always been the champion of the oppressed. I wanted to move away from the standard superhero tales and in the direction of folk tales in the vein of a Paul Bunyan.”


In the revised version, featuring art by Rags Morales (penciling), Rick Bryant (inking), Brad Anderson (color) and Patrick Brosseau (lettering), Morrison pares down the convoluted narrative that began overshadowing the Superman myth. “It had become a pro-wrestling contest between characters– who was stronger, faster, bigger,” he says. “I wanted to evoke a more universal human Superman, who was less of a costumed figure representing patriotic authority, and more about struggles on the street.”

The exclusive page 18 panel shown above is the first major shot of the Man of Steel transitioning to alter ego Clark Kent–sans his trademark horn-rimmed glasses–after thwarting trouble in Metropolis. Superman’s fighting crime, of course, but the authorities are suspicious of his powers. He’s misunderstood. He’s different.

The Action Comics overhaul is part of DC’s 52-title, issue 1, day-and-date publishing reboot that kicks off Aug. 31 with Justice League by writer/DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and artist/DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee. The remaining titles will be released throughout September as a way to combat an overall trend in waning comic book sales and attract a new generation of readers through modernized characters and storylines.


The first six issues of the new Action Comics delve into the origin and evolution of Superman’s costume from a makeshift blue jeans and “S-emblem” T-shirt to the blue bodysuit, redesigned by Jim Lee and the source of much fanboy hand-wringing.
The one constant is the red cape: “It came with him from his home planet and is indestructible,” says Morrison. “No one’s depicted it as a security blanket before, protecting him from all harm. It gives it a fairytale feel, before his powers fully develop.”

For all of his current enthusiasm, Morrison was initially apprehensive about taking on the assignment when DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio called at the beginning of this year.

“I wasn’t too sure about it,” he says. “I was already doing Batman. But I had some ideas about Superman’s early years that I’d never had a chance to use. He’s initially more of a blue collar, rough-and-ready character who has to grapple with developing superpowers and what it means to be Superman. He’s the son of brilliant scientists from this other planet, but he grew up baling hay and working in a convenience store, which is where he gets his morals.”

Just as the first Action Comics premiered against the backdrop of the Great Depression, imminent technological advancements like television, and the rise of Nazi Germany, Morrison wanted to tap the zeitgeist of current economic and global turbulence, as well as infuse his foreigner’s perspective of America to into Clark Kent’s alien acclimation to humans.

“I’m definitely aware of the current atmosphere, and have addressed that, not in drawing from the headlines, but symbolically dealing with combating a sense of existential terror,” says Morrison. “Sometimes a perspective from the outside enables you to see the best of what America has to offer.”

Serendipitously, Morrison’s work on his memoir/cultural history of superheroes, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human (Spiegel & Grau), helped codify Morrison’s thoughts on Superman.

“The original Action Comics is a piece of art in its own right and way ahead of its time,” says Morrison. “It helped me to use the concept of superhero to change the idea about self and culture from doom and pessimism to hope and possibility.”


[Photo by Flickr user Lori Matsumoto]

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.