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All That They Are, All That They Will Be: Grant Morrison’s Supermen in Retrospect

For their first DC publication – Superman Official 1986 Annual – Grant Morrison wrote Osgood Peabody’s Big Green Dream Machine, a prose story with illustrations by Barry Kitson and Jeff Anderson, where a gang of criminals attempt to discern Superman’s vulnerabilities by peering into his dreams. Seeing fields of bones and assuming they represent a fear of death on the part of the invincible man, the crooks attempt to intimidate him, only to learn they had been tricked and were instead picking up the super-brainwaves of Krypto the Superdog. “And as Superman led Osgood and the others away, the air rang with the sound of his laughter.” The notion of Superman exposed to decay, to time, to failure? A punchline.

35 years later, the extended admission to the contrary that is Superman and The Authority was announced as Morrison’s final DC work.

(Commissioned illustration by Max Kay)

In between, Morrison became universally recognized as the Superman’s definitive modern writer for All-Star Superman, and they’ve tackled him or permutations of the archetype well over a dozen times. As far as they’re concerned, they even met Superman once outside SDCC 1998 in an experience that would inform much of how they’d characterize him. Under their pen, Superman has faced mortality and eternity, saved the universe and birthed one, begun bursting with hope and approached the finish line full of regrets. Nearly every aspect of his world, every major supporting cast member and villain, every piece of iconic shorthand, now bears the imprint of Morrison’s take on them. Lines Morrison wrote for these stories have migrated upwards to the billion-dollar film franchises. Their Superman is, incontestably, definitive.

But who is he? Morrison’s had plenty to say on Superman that’d seem to indicate a shared core vision: that their Superman represents a Renaissance ideal of perfection in mind, body, and intent; that he is the Everyman’s routines and struggles writ on a cosmic scale; the “righteous inner authority”; the “indomitable self.” “A forward-looking, intelligent, enthusiastic hero…an aspirational figure, a role model for 21st Century global humanity.” In practice, however? The lonely, well-meaning yet occasionally oblivious, self-doubting man-god of All-Star Superman often bears little resemblance to that ethos in spite of his best efforts, nor to his younger, cockier, fiery counterpart in Morrison’s relaunch of Action Comics. Neither in turn resembles the somewhat shocking number of times Morrison’s gone to the well of the notion of a destructive, ineffectual, or otherwise poisoned iteration of the archetype. Morrison’s Superman is not, cannot, be ‘a’ Superman.

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This reflects an essential truth of the character, especially in light of Morrison’s own extended work with Batman, predicated on the notion that Bruce Wayne’s entire publication history was fully capable of being reconciled as one man’s life. While the iconography of Superman’s world remains solidly in place, the figure inhabiting that iconography has morphed unrecognizably over the decades, from joyful outlaw to proud establishment figurehead, curious alien visitor to fully assimilated immigrant, and an entire spectrum in-between. Co-creator Jerry Siegel’s own Superman is representative of these radical shifts: the laughing champion of the oppressed he and Joe Shuster brought to life in Action Comics #1 simply isn’t the powerless, melancholy lead of Superman’s Return To Krypton! or the eponymous Super-Cop of Metropolis! It’s perhaps more useful to think of Superman not as a ‘character’ in the conventionally understood sense so much as a set of recurring reinterpreted notions and symbols, like the Power Rangers, who maintain a basic premise and visual shorthand across the years even as those in the suits change, or Doctor Who nominally adhering to a continuity of consciousness in its lead in spite of periodically ‘regenerating’ into different personas. And having written Superman across decades of shifting continuities and numerous permutations, that malleability is a trait Morrsion wholeheartedly embraced.

But what functions do these variations on a theme serve? What differentiates and binds them? What are they collectively reflecting? If Grant Morrison’s Supermen can be anything, what makes them Superman?

ARCHETYPAL

The simplest way to deal with these numerous iterations is perhaps to categorize them, and an obvious grouping appears in the form of Morrison really writing the ‘classic’, ‘iconic’ Superman with few frills or complications – the man they characterized in their JLA as “some combination of Jesus, Einstein and the American flag.” The friendly face popping in to wish the amateur well in Animal Man, the angelic dogged friend in his brief role in their Batman work, the savior at the end of everything in Final Crisis. This Superman is strong and clever and good, steadfast, with a dry wit in the face of inconceivable peril, predictably milquetoast as Clark but magnificent and unimpeachable and unbeatable in the cape. He’s our blurred, collective memory of every version we ever loved of him as a kid, as perfect as we always wanted him to be. He is what your dad would be, if your dad really did always know what to do and really could beat up anyone else’s dad, everything you would want to believe you could be in your best moments.

This Superman is crucially also not a solo act, always part of an ensemble or defined in relation to another protagonist. His closest thing to a solo story is Superman Beyond (not only a Final Crisis tie-in but also itself staffed with a cast of variant Supermen), Morrison’s operatic testament to the eternal power of the notion of a child sent from the sky who, raised among us, will now always save us. But the primal iteration of the Superman idea presented here – in the form of a titanic Super-Mecha at the outskirts of any recognizable reality – is only brought to life with the combination of Superman as we recognize him with his perverse, rapacious counterpart in Ultraman. And that ‘ultimate’ figure birthed of their combination, a union of synchronicities per one other heroes’ statement, has no code against killing. “The voice of Ultraman, ruthless, pragmatic…” is inescapably part of the purest realization of what Superman is. Superman, at that barest, is simply Power wielded against destruction. Superman as preserver of what must be, against the forces that would tear it all down.

To say Morrison wrote this Superman inauthentically would be a bridge too far – there’s a clear joy in these works, a belief that this figure means something. But Superman’s utility in these stories is limited: a signifier of himself, and ‘himself’ in the instance of his Final Crisis apotheosis encompasses something far from his supposed values.

BROKEN

Veering far from Superman as we know him, we come to the more toxic, freakish offshoots, from literal iterations such as the distortion-of-a-distortion Zibarro or the crazed Hyperman, to analogues in their non-DC material such as New X-Men’s existentially-pained mutant hunter Ultimaton or Annihilator’s Uber-Cop Jet Makro. Super-men who can leap between or shatter worlds, but out of malice or apathy or a broken foundation won’t be there to catch you when you fall. Even the ‘real’ Superman isn’t left immune: in the pages of Doom Patrol, utterly helpless in the face of a threat only the worlds’ strangest heroes are equipped to withstand; in Blackstars, warped into a resentful, inadequate, stubborn caricature of lesser writers’ timidly conservative takes on him.

Crucially however, there is a major distinction between Morrison’s assorted versions of a ‘wrong’ Superman and most other parodies: Morrison’s are no all-powerful despots or mass-murderers, at least not successfully. The ‘realistic’ parody Overman of Animal Man is catastrophically out of control and faced with his own unreality, while the Nazi Overman of Multiversity is incapable of redeeming the sins of his society or himself. The Filth’s Secret Original is left a self-loathing spiteful psychosexual mess when stripped of his powers. The assorted mirrors to Superman of All-Star are all shown as lacking in fundamental fashions, materially or morally or often both. The living mascot Superdoomsday slavishly executes the will of his corporate overlords. Earth 16’s Son of Superman Chris Kent possesses the power of Superman but has reverted into a sort of prolonged adolescence without any constructive way of exercising it. Ultraman dominates his world yet has his wife’s affair rubbed in his face by his teammates. Morrison’s failed Supermen are defined by their ineffectuality and helplessness. The inverse of the “divine everyman,” as conceived by Morrison, is not a ruler or destroyer but a lackey; power chained to petty, fruitless ends, hapless extensions or blunt instruments of the societies that birth them.

HISTORICAL

Bridging the divide between the four-color dream and the weight of failure are the handful of Supermen profoundly shaped by their surrounding real-world history and development, rather than as a platonic expression of or reaction to a base cultural idea. The most well-known example by far is from Morrison’s magnum opus All-Star Superman, built as a dreamlike reflection of the most well-known touchstones of Superman’s development from 65+ years up to that point – the old sci-fi fantasy accoutrements of the early comics, a supporting cast drawn from across decades, Pa Kent’s death from the original movie, the traditional love triangle with Lois Lane, a Lex Luthor who initially operates under a modern veneer of respectability but is in fact the classic mad scientist, Doomsday existing alongside the old-fashioned cube world of the Bizarros, etc. But while this life has enriched Superman, looking back when faced with a terminal diagnosis, this Kent is shaped by his regrets.

Drawing on the full scope of his past means dealing with the skeletons in his closet, and in spite of his outward veneer of serene beneficence in truth, he’s often driven by his insecurity, anger, and stubborn refusal to be open with others: his volatile emotional dance with Lois has led to the heartbreak it always would, his eternal rivalry with Luthor testifies to Superman’s inability to redeem him, the greatest labors of his never-ending battle are unfinished. He’s still Superman, he still unquestionably means well and does all in his power to fix as much as he can in the time remaining to him, making a true positive difference for those closest to him and to the world as a whole. But by his very existence as a Superman in reference to the whole scope of his history, he defines that history as one of historically unfulfilled promises.

(An interlude to note the Captain Marvel of Multiversity, whose chapter Thunderworld Adventures was frequently compared to All-Star by Morrison; there’s little denying this iteration of the soaring caped strongman-type is a true hero, saving his world from unbound evil with bravery, a quick wit, and the help of his friends. But at the same time his retro, ‘classic’ world is built on petty exploitation, rigid gender roles, and brutal violence, with our hero ending the story pointedly ignoring the horrors waiting outside the bubble of his setting and tone. When Multiversity ends with the formation of an ideal, cosmically diverse multiversal Justice League as an expression of hope for the superhero genre’s potential, it’s his sister Mary Marvel who finds a place there, not him. Good intent and charm or not, what he represents is not what the future belongs to.)

The final chapter of Morrison’s DC work in Superman and The Authority zeroes in further on Superman’s comic history specifically – this time importantly with the ‘real’ publication history of the character from 1938 onwards, rather than a slightly dreamlike amalgamation of high points – and in that light, Superman is cast not just as a failure, but a traitor to his values in his negligence. Beginning as a “firebrand” out to make the world a better place, Superman instead fell into the superheroic monotony of event crossovers, resurrections, and arch-grudges, ultimately believing he had done enough to set the world on the right path, only to find that with time he had done no such thing. Both within the narrative and in the real world as an icon, Superman had become just one more old leader contented with old victories and curdling into a lifeless establishment figurehead – when confronted by Manchester Black, a character presented in the past as a challenge to the notion of Superman’s enduring moral relevance, Morrison has the Man of Tomorrow tacitly concede that his enemy was in fact largely right about him. Unlike All-Star he doesn’t have the privilege of burning out bright in his prime and in a world made to highlight his most beloved attributes, largely redeeming his failures with a few final super-flourishes. Instead, he declines in power and public stature, forced to live with his mistakes.

Yet again however…he’s Superman. Once hit with this realization, he makes all the right moves – recruiting a diverse group of young heroes and fellow failed revolutionaries from across generations to make up for one another’s shortcomings, passing the world and neverending battle into the rightful hands of his son and the rest of his generation with a stake in the future, and moving on himself to make things better where he still can. Despite a more primal failing than his All-Star counterpart, he has little of his sorrow, remaining spirited, encouraging, and unquestioning in his determination to do right by others however he can. This attitude is not in denial of his background, but in defiance of it: in Superman’s own words, “We all make mistakes. Every moment’s a fresh opportunity to do something you can be proud of!” If Morrison’s archetypal Supermen represent a vision of perfect, trustworthy power, and the broken Supermen power stripped, surrendered, or abused, the Supermen of All-Star and Authority have come to realize, with the perspective of experience and the urgency of age, how they’ve lost sight of how they’ve used their personal power, but can, with a clear outlook and determination, still change course.

IDEAL

And at last we come to Supermen defined not by the weight of the past but the opportunity of a fresh slate, reinventions and new ideas drawing from what came before them but capable of anything.

Morrison’s initial attempt at such a thing was Calvin Ellis, the Superman of Earth 23 who secretly operates as President of the United States, introduced on the heels of Barack Obama’s election as a celebration of the end of the Bush era. A Superman capable of enacting systemic change to better his nation in-between punchups, placed at the head of the cosmic Justice Incarnate as the embodiment of what DC Comics should be, and described in-text as “Superman done right” – a utopian notion of having not simply a day-to-day savior, but the exact right person calling the shots of how the world works. Tellingly however, with distance from the high of the 2008 election, Morrison’s further efforts at ‘Superman done right’ would not be in the form of liberal reformers but radical warriors against the status quo. Harkening back to Morrison’s work with Marvel Boy (himself in the Super-tradition as a starchild of a dead super-people stranded on Earth, declaring war against the forces of corporatism and the American military), their reinvention of St. Nick himself in Klaus was not just a Superman-esque framing as an orphan boy who finds his mythic destiny in the north to aid those in need, but had him battling against tyranny, a living harbinger of the climate crisis, corporate co-option of his image, and the lingering scars of colonialism. Meanwhile, the Superman of Morrison’s Action Comics long after ascending to demigodhood is still standing up to big business and bullies, just on a different scale.

It’s Action that’s the most telling regarding this approach, advertised as a socialist Superman with a bold new look for his initial arc. He recapitulates the march of Superman’s real-world history in much the same way as the leads of All-Star and Authority, but a reworked, ideal model of it, cherry-picking the best elements of each era. He begins as the champion of the people but doesn’t lose sight of those responsibilities in favor of respectability, chastising the other members of the fledgling Justice League for only focusing on cosmic threats. He has a house in space and travels to the underworld to save his dog and protects frozen cities in bottles, but the prospect of toying emotionally with his friends to preserve his secrets is off the table. Even after this Superman is rebooted away by other creators, Morrison not only allows him a happily-ever-after as a resurrected defender of the multiverse in Sideways Annual #1, but also ‘purifies’ him even further by removing from his history his eventual donning of Jim Lee’s overdesigned “ceremonial Kryptonian armor”, allowing him to retain his iconography as a man of the people. Given the opportunity to begin Superman again, Morrison frees him from the failures of his predecessors. And the fire of Superman’s youth is the very thing that ensures he’ll stay on a better path, because he truly believes he can not only save the world, but take it on.

These heroes are just as cool, just as unflappable and brilliant and determined as the Supermen seen in the likes of Final Crisis, but politically embedded and up against (or out to change) the power structures highlighted in Morrison’s other works, as a matter of course, rather than after a painful grappling with failure. Given their father was a soldier turned anti-nuclear protester, it makes all the sense in the world that Morrison would reimagine Superman or those cast in his image – after a try at the idea of a truly just authority in President Superman – as brawling revolutionaries. They are the promise of the best of us turned towards the threats Morrison sees as truly demanding such heroes.

Something Morrison has mentioned a few times over the years is their hope for Superman to be “useful” when they write him, sometimes even turning him away from approaches that undermine that (they’ve frequently been ‘editorial’ over the years with Superman in ways they rarely are with other characters). To a certain extent, Morrison’s basic depiction of Superman’s demeanor does that job in portraying him as a role model, a loving and determined man always standing up against darkness, who’ll one day be our shining golden supergod back up in the sky. But when focusing on Superman to try and make those useful statements, variances of the given takes and their individual focuses and messages aside, their unifying focus seems to be first and foremost on what it means to exercise the power you have ethically in your given circumstances, or what it means to fail to do so.

Given your circumstances, young or old, empowered or underdog, disposed towards introspection or fury or gentleness, you’re going to be wrestling in your own ways – if a touch less grandiosely – with the same struggles and questions posed by these 35 years of stories, and the choices demanded by them. Will you buckle and be part of the problem, propping up systems of oppression and exploitation? Will you let those around you down? Will you look back and realize your mistakes, petty and grand, and put in the real work to rectify them if you can, or at least be better going forward? Or do you still have a chance to make all the right choices, fight what needs to be fought and help the people who need you, no matter what stands in your way? What would you do, Everyman, when the world turns on your choice?

What would Superman do?

David Mann: A lifelong fan of the medium, David profoundly believes in the endless possibilities of comics, yet also deep down wonders if they peaked with Superman and the whole thing's just sort of been downhill from there. You can reach him on Twitter or Tumblr at davidmann95.
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