Grant Morrison In The Thick Of The "Action Comics"

Thu, July 26th, 2012 at 2:15pm PDT

Comic Books
Kiel Phegley, News Editor
74

Sure, Grant Morrison revealed earlier this week that he's on the cusp of a swing back towards more creator-owned and original comics material in 2013, but that doesn't mean his superhero run is over just yet.

The writer still has six issues left with DC Comics' flagship "Action Comics" title to bring home a number of storylines including Clark Kent's integration into the world, the secret of the Anti-Superman Army, the untold story of Superman's cape and the mysterious little villain behind the entire run.

In part-two of our discussion with Morrison, he describes how everything from his work on "Multiversity" to "Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali" have impacted the run, returns on and off the page to the topic of the legacy of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and teases the details of his "flashback within a flashback" origin issue "Action Comics" #0.

Story continues below

CBR News: "Action Comics" continues to play with a lot of aspects of Superman's life -- past and future -- though the question I keep asking myself as I'm reading is, "Who is this little man?" Our mystery villain showed up on page one, issue #1 of "Action" and has been weirdly magical and evil in the background ever since. Is he the through line on which your run will hang?

Morrison isn't done with Superman just yet - "Action Comics" #0 hits in September

Grant Morrison: Oh yeah, absolutely. That's why he's right there in the first panel of "Action Comics" #1 making deals and establishing the thematic foundations for the story. The whole storyline eventually revolves around that character. And I should say right away that he's not Mr. Mxyzptlk as some readers have speculated! [Laughs] It isn't C. W. Saturn from [the Elliot S! Maggin Superman novel] "Miracle Monday," either. The Little Man is a new character, but certainly the whole thing revolves around him, and it all comes down to his plan to destroy Superman. I've been writing the last few issues simultaneously as it approaches the crescendo. It's a totally different approach to a Superman story, I think.

Superman has two kinds of villains: the big physical threats and the masterminds. This guy obviously falls into that latter camp. Was there something about those core tropes you wanted to do another riff on, or was it that after having written so many of the classic foes in "All-Star Superman" you were looking for a different in?

It's a little bit of that. I always loved putting characters up against the ultimate reflection of everything they represent in one way or another. This was trying to figure out a little bit of what that would be for Superman this time around. The Little Man's a kind of ultimate mastermind, but we've also got this 'Superdoom' creature from "Action Comics" #9 coming back into play. That's not gone forever. Our villain has a pretty formidable aspect in the physical dimension, too, so he's not just the mastermind. He's going to have access to all kinds of very powerful weapons against Superman, including his own Anti-Superman Army.

We remain in the past for the current arc, where Clark Kent is presumed dead, and that community of people you've built up around Superman in Metropolis has been thrown for a loop. Where does that personal, blue collar story link back up with the big sci-fi ideas we know are on the horizon?

I planned to synch up with the modern Superman after my first arc, but I realized there was a really interesting story in the middle where Superman was caught between two worlds. We've got this guy who set out to be a neighborhood strongman, a champion of the people hanging out in a t-shirt and jeans. But the whole world changes to catch up with him and now we've got this emerging sci-fi superhero in a miracle suit who's learned he comes from the planet Krypton and now spends a lot of his time with the gods of the Justice League. Exploring that moment in Superman's career, with his self-image literally split and undefined, felt like a story we hadn't really seen. For the first time ever, Superman kind of loses his shit a little, and he doesn't know who he's meant to be. Is he meant to be a giant, global, inspirational figure? Is he supposed to be on the streets helping people or in the sky fighting alien invasions? At the same time, the integrity of his Clark Kent identity has come under threat. What would happen if Superman decided he didn't need Clark and could just be Superman 24/7?

That became the interesting story -- this moment of doubt in Superman's career. I've been portraying him pretty much as a guy who doesn't have to think. He just acts. It's the "Action Comics" thing. He always instinctively acts for the good because it's his nature as Superman, but here he's trapped between what he was and what he's about to become. To stay with the character in that moment where he's given up being Clark Kent and disconnected from his social network -- what would that do to him? It gave him something new to overcome and made him a little more relatable.

Superman and Batman's meeting in "Action" #12 "puts a little bit of a cynical twist" on their friendship

And it synchs up with the idea of community that I think was inherent in your original "Bruce Springsteen song" pitch on the character. Is community in general via the supporting cast something you think is a cornerstone of the Superman mythos?

I think it's essential -- especially once you place Superman in a shared universe. I think the Justice League has to be acknowledged -- which then polarizes Superman into man of the people and superhero in tights. This story plays off the clash of those two elements, but it's also about how he gets to know Batman and we see the first stirrings of what will become the World's Finest team. Batman's like, "Why are you asking for my help?" Superman just says, "You always seem like the smartest guy in the room. I thought you might be useful." [Laughs] It's Superman asking Batman not to help with a crime or a physical problem, but an existential one! We're seeing these guys develop a friendship, although Batman puts a little bit of a cynical twist on that in issue 12. It seemed like this could showcase an interesting moment in Superman's life that's never really been dealt with. The story almost catches up to the present day in issue 13. Then issue 14 is set in the current DC continuity.

You mentioned "Action Comics" #9 earlier, and that was a real standout story starting right out with the character I'm not sure I can call anything but "Barack Obama Superman." You introduced him in "Final Crisis." What drew you back to that world that you thought would be worth knowing more intimately?

I was working on the "Multiversity" series, and this character plays quite a big role in the framing story. We've got this kind of Justice League from across the entire multiverse, and rather than use our Superman as its leader, I thought it would be cool if the leader of the multiversal Justice League was the Black Superman from "Final Crisis." I started to develop his character more for that, and then I had to do a fill-in issue to give Rags [Morales] time to catch up on "Action Comics," so it seemed like a good opportunity to re-introduce Calvin Ellis. It seemed like a fun way to connect all the parts of the storyline. I could set up not only "Multiversity" but also some more developments in "Action Comics" for further down the line.

There's a little bit of Obama in there because Obama did the whole "Planet Krypton" stuff before he was elected, but there's also a lot of influence from "Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali." I asked Gene Ha to take some inspiration from Neal Adams' work on that book and I thought he really captured it in a lot of the fight scenes -- things like the multiple images of punching and the final Bundini Brown surprise kick. [Laughs] So there's a lot of Adams in there -- also because he designed Vathlo Island, which in the '70s was DC's concession to Civil Rights and introduced the idea of Black Kryptonians. So because Adams had created the original visuals for Vathlo Island, we wanted to get a little bit of that flavor into it. So Gene Ha did this amazing blend of Ali and Obama for the character, which I think is genius.

The other big part of that issue was the thread of creator's rights that grew out of Lois and Jimmy's story. Last time you and I talked, we briefly spoke about those ideas as they relate to Superman and the history of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. I think a lot of people then were discouraged that you didn't take as strong a stand on the debate there as they thought you might have. I was wondering whether the discussion around this issue and your previous discussion of it has had an impact on the creation of this story?

Of course. I was aware of that stuff, and I felt that it was worth at least bringing up the debate in an actual Superman book. Occupy Action Comics! DC published the story without editing it or censoring anything in there. They were happy to publish it even though it critiqued hot-topic aspects of their own business -- we're all grown-ups.

Morrison prefers to explore the character of Superman on a metaphorical level rather than a legal one

I'm sorry that people were discouraged, but anyone who expects me to take any stronger "stand" on this issue are going to be disappointed. I'm not the leader of a political party. I'm a freelance commercial writer who sells stories to pay the bills. I'm not an employee of any company except for the one run by me and my wife. I'm not a role model or the figurehead for any movement. I don't doubt that corporations can be underhanded, and I feel sorry for anyone who genuinely gets caught out. We live in a world where every day involves multiple negotiations with corporate power in one way or another, and all I can say is, enlist a lawyer to go through any contract before you sign it. Or self-publish.

Otherwise, my own relationship with DC Comics is a pretty good one. I have a lot of friends at the company. I've always been treated fairly and with respect. I get to do what I want without heavy-handed editorial interference. The accounting department pays regularly, it pays on time, royalties are good, my back catalogue is kept in print in multiple editions and honestly, I couldn't say the same for some of the small press or alternative publishers I've worked for in the past. Most of them still owe me for work done in good faith. Under DC's umbrella, with access to their printing facilities and distribution, I've been able to put out pretty idiosyncratic personal stuff like "Kill Your Boyfriend," "The Invisibles," "The Filth," "We3," "Joe the Barbarian" and others to a wide audience. Me and my collaborators own those books. No one can do "Before We3" but me and Frank Quitely! No one can do "After Seaguy" except me and Cameron Stewart. I never signed a contract I regretted, and I never felt cheated by DC. My own experience proves they can be reasonable and honorable, if you deal with them in an adult fashion and I have to take that into account before I condemn anyone working there today over decisions made in the past. I've found that "issues" rarely seem to come in convenient black and white, and that's pretty much my last word on this.

The one thread I've picked out of your work, from "All-Star" to "Supergods," is that you seem to have been very strongly personally impacted by Siegel and Shuster's original work with Superman. In what ways as a creator do you feel responsible to or even emboldened to speak to their work and their influence in the strip in such a direct way? And is there a way for you to do that without automatically engaging the legal issues that continue with the families and Warner Bros.?

Everyone who's ever written a comic book superhero story owes a debt to Siegel & Shuster. I've already drawn fire for speculating on what might have been going through their minds in 1938, so all I'll say is that both men had lives beyond this "debate," and it seems a bit patronizing and reductive to always cast them as witless victims, or to remember them as nothing more than bitter, vengeful dupes of the "Man." It's as bad as reducing the idea of Superman to its value as a commodity.

I'm not qualified to engage with any legal issues, but I have the tools to engage with the nature of Superman metaphorically, which I'm doing to the best of my ability for the next few months. My brief and slender connection to any of this tendentious business ends with "Action Comics" issue #16, thank God.

Lastly, you've got a #0 issue coming up with art by Ben Oliver. Since you already started in the past and told Superman's origin, the premise of "Zero Month" seems to put you in a tricky spot. I get the impression that the story of Superman's cape is where you took this story. Why make that choice, and what does Ben's art do to pull off your script?

There had to be a story that fit in before issue #1, that was the concept for these zero issues so I decided on the story of Superman's very first day in Metropolis and how it affects a bunch of different people, including a kid who steals Superman's cape. It's quite simple -- like an urban folktale from a world before anyone knew what a superhero was. I've seen a few of Ben Oliver's pages and they're fantastic -- such great confident drawing -- so I'm looking forward to seeing it finished with those amazing ink washes he does. I asked for a kind of Norman Rockwell meets pulp sci-fi, and I can't wait to see how it comes out.

Stay tuned to CBR for one last look inside Grant Morrison's work -- his plans for the finale of "Batman Incorporated!"

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TAGS:  dc comics, superman, action comics, grant morrison, joe schuster, jerry siegel

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