Review: Superman: Action Comics Vol. 3: At the End of Days hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Grant Morrison's Action Comics run has been a pleasant mix of modern and throwback sensibilities -- modern, of course, in the New 52 costume and origins, and retro in the 1940s industrial settings (a callback to Action Comics's beginnings) with 1950s Elvis swagger and a heavy dose of 1960s-1970s Silver Age weirdness. But though Morrison's Action has sometimes felt a little metatextual around the edges, the series really hasn't offered full-blown Grant Morrison wobbliness ... until now.

Superman: Action Comics Vol. 3: At the End of Days is a fantastic conclusion to Morrison's Action run, exciting and moving but also a thorough head-trip as only Grant Morrison can deliver. As with Morrison's Batman, the big ideas in Action have started small, but by this third volume they're nearly ballooning off the page and out of this dimension.

[Review contains spoilers]

Volume one of Action Comics was a Brainiac/Luthor/Metallo story; in volume two, Morrison reimagined Captain Comet as a sort of post-human prophet. The quick concept of volume three is that Morrison writes a Mxyzptlk story, but surely, surely this book is more than that, especially since Mxy is central to the story but appears almost not at all. I'd even venture that At the End of Days goes down as one of the all-time classic Mxyzptlk stories, even despite that Superman largely fights Vyndktvk and his minions most of the way through.

Many of the themes that have made Morrison's Seven Soldiers, Batman, and Final Crisis so interesting are also blended in to Action. We have a multi-dimensional attack, a spear thrust from another universe that becomes marauding angels in ours (see also Final Crisis's bullet shot through time). Superman's adventures are ultimately a story being told by a jester for others' amusement (again, Final Crisis, the Monitors, and limbo; also that we are, by implication, a dimension looking in on the comics dimension). We learn that Vyndktvk has been taking revenge on Clark Kent for something done in the future by attacking Clark throughout his past (Batman's hole in everything and again the selfsame magic bullet). Vyndktvk is defeated ultimately by a kind of worldwide collective consciousness, hearkening here all the way back to Morrison's JLA. And it certainly seemed for a while that Vyndktvk was the Devil (and maybe he was), not unlike Batman's Dr. Hurt.

I don't begrudge Morrison revisiting these themes at all. Quite to the contrary, I'm glad to revisit these themes through the guise of Superman (at times I think DC ought just give both Superman and Batman to Morrison and let him go wild). I am less immediately familiar with Morrison's All-Star Superman, but undoubtedly there's some overlap between that and Action Comics, too; certainly anyone who was concerned at the outset of the New 52 that the new Superman would be more ornery than heroic need only look at Superman's constant concern for the people around him to find some kinship with All-Star.

Indeed what always impresses me about Morrison is that despite how ultra-cerebral his stories are, he's equally able to write character and emotion within his works. The book starts with a rather charming story that introduces Krypto into the New 52 (and Sholly Fisch's Krypto backup story is equally delightful). Morrison also recasts the classic Silver Age Superman story of the Kents' death to include Vyndktvk and the result is distinctly heartbreaking (here again, Fisch's backup is a fine complement).

Action also continues a Morrison tradition where the reader finds themselves in the middle of a puzzle they didn't know they were trying to solve (see also Seven Soldiers). Sure, I took note of Mrs. Nyxly mentioning that Superman's three friends had shown up looking for him, but I'd long-since forgotten that clue by the time I realized Morrison's Action to be a non-linear, time-spanning adventure, a conspiracy from start to finish. I also thought one of the strongest aspects of Morrison's story was his use of Erik Drekken, whose actual battles with Superman are never shown but whose character we come to understand by piecing him together through a variety of time-displaced details.

Early on in Action Comics I felt there were some mildly distracting art shifts between Rags Morales and Brad Walker. By this volume, however, the changes are much cleaner, and indeed often the artists' work appears side-by-side on the same page, reflecting Superman's past, present, and future. Whether this was originally intended or a patch due to artist schedules, it's an effect that works quite well in these pages.

Morrison hits one key continuity note in this conclusion, heavily referencing Doomsday and the death of Superman. There's an interesting twist in that the characters refer to red skies on the day Superman died (and indeed it's never said directly that "Doomsday killed Superman," so much as they reference Superman dying with a Doomsday-like Vyndktvk avatar on the page); there's a moment in the third chapter where Mrs. Nyxly looks directly at the camera and seems to be referencing Crisis on Infinite Earths just the same as she could be talking about present events (or even Final Crisis?).

"Doomed" is currently ongoing in the Super-titles, and I'll be curious if that story builds on what Morrison has set up here, or if Morrison's story was intentionally vague precisely because how and by whose hand Superman died in the New 52 is still up in the air.

I haven't generally felt that Grant Morrison's New 52 Action Comics run has received as much acclaim as Scott Snyder's Batman or Brian Azzarello's Wonder Woman, but I think it's equally worthy. Action Comics Vol. 3: At the End of Days especially, solidifies Morrison's Action run as firmly a part of the Morrison canon. To be sure, all of this is plenty to whet my appetite for Morrison's Multiversity.

[Includes original and variant covers, character and cover sketches. Also the Phantom Stranger. Also Vartox!]
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11 comments:

  1. It's obvious that you liked it a lot, but this review makes it sound really unappealing to me. I'm really tired of Morison's meta-ideas and this sounds like it's just rehashing some that he's previously covered. I enjoy his single-issue character stories, but his long arcs tend to be simultaneously ponderous and not long enough to explore the subject.

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  2. Fair enough. This is definitely one of those "if you liked that, you'll like this" kind of things, but obviously the opposite adage also applies. And I understand some might nick Morrison for dealing with some of the same topics as in Batman and Final Crisis, but for me that's interesting stuff. I can no more fault Morrison for having specific ideas that he looks at in his works than I can some other author whose full canon explores identity or issues of self, etc. Certainly Morrison isn't for everyone, and it took me a while to get to this place of appreciation for his works, too.

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  3. Raise your hand if you also said your name backwards druing the mind-bending finale. I don't know how Morrison does it, but his stories at times make me feel like an active participant in them, and I'm dying to see what he's cooking up for Multiversity, which promises to be even more immersive.

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    1. Shag, after the threat was over and Lois was trying to call Clark, she was still saying his name backward. What did you make of that?

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    2. She heard Superman saying "Le Lak Tnek Kralc" when everyone was saying their name backwards, which made her suspect he and Clark were the same person. When she called him, she was expecting him not to answer, thus proving her right, but Superman came back to Earth in time to answer the phone as Clark.

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    3. Ah ... I'll have to go back and look at that; thanks. So do I understand that it's after the events of all of this that Mrs. Nyxly dies in childbirth and Mxy raises their daughter? Can he not look at his sons because of Ferlin? Was all of this somehow a trick of Mxy's, and is Mxy the real villain?

      (See folks, even when you "get it," there's still some stuff that leaves you guessing!)

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    4. My understanding is that Mxy/King Brpxz couldn't face his children because their mother died giving birth to them, but he made an exception for his daughter because she reminded him of Queen Gsptlsnz, whom she was named after.

      Mxy's trick was making sure that the cyclical (and surprisingly incestuous) drama involving himself, Gsptlsnz and Vyndktvx would keep playing out forever in the 5th dimension, keeping his rival/brother/son trapped in it without ever winning.

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    5. oh wow, thank you very much @shagamu, I didnt get that one when I was reading the volume, again THANK YOU!!!

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    6. Fascinating and, not surprisingly, a little weird. Reminds me of the central mysteries in Seven Soldiers, frankly.

      Are you tuned in to the Morrison vibe, shag, or is there a forum out there about all this I'm overlooking?

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    7. I guess I am tuned to his vibe, especially because he heeps coming back to his metafiction pet themes. I haven't found a good forum to discuss his works ever since the official DC message boards closed, but Rikdad, who was responsible for some of the best posts over there, still has a blog where he occasionally reviews Morrison's comics:

      http://rikdad.blogspot.com.br/

      Other than that, there's MindlessOnes.com and the occasional good CBR thread.

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  4. Just another little note that I haven't seen anyone point out in any review of this book, but during the battle against Xa-Du in the chapter titled "The Second Death of Superman", in the monthtly single, Superman says "... But no one ever taught you to box, Doctor!"

    But in the collected edition this line is changed to "but the world heavyweight champion taught me to box!" A wonderful little nod to Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.

    Just thought I'd share that piece. Great review.

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