As much as I can’t believe it, 2021 marks the ten year anniversary of the DC Comics publishing initiative known as The New 52. For a variety of reasons, DC made a clean break from the previous continuity by blowing it up and starting it all over from scratch — except when they didn’t. Over the course of a year, I’m going to go back and re-read every single debut issue from The New 52 line-up to see how much is changes things from the way the were before, how much of this new status quo stuck around and just how well the comic holds up ten years later.
To kick off this series, there was no other title I could have chosen than Action Comics #1 which was as bold a reinvention of Superman as it was a back-to-basics approach to the character, taking the hero all the way back to his late-30s roots. Morrison had already completed his grand statement on Superman with All-Star Superman which concluded three years prior, but that was a story of the final days of the hero. Action Comics allowed Morrison to bookend their Superman story with a new take on his early days and establish a new identity for Superman that everything else would take their cues from.
Superman vs The City of Tomorrow
(Grant Morrison, Rags Morales, Rick Bryant, Brad Anderson & Patrick Brosseau)
When I think about 2011’s Action Comics #1, I think about the ways it pays homage to 1938’s Action Comics #1. There’s a description of Superman in his first appearance that always stuck with me and I think anyone that writes Superman should cut this panel out and stick it somewhere they can see it while looking at their computer. Superman has had a lot of nicknames “The Man of Steel”, “The Man of Tomorrow”, “The Last Son” but the nickname he gets in Action Comics #1 serves to describe the character better than any others.
Champion of the oppressed! The physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need!
This description was clearly Morrison and Morales’ jumping off point for their new take on Superman in Action Comics #1 because everything he does in this issue is to either protect or get justice for the ordinary people of Metropolis. Whether it’s taking on corrupt media moguls or putting his body on the line to protect the housing of displaced families, Superman is the Champion of the Oppressed and driven by a passionate desire to do everything he can to give people an even playing field.
One of the key things that Action Comics #1 accomplishes is that it doesn’t spend the entire issue with Superman, it briefly shows us his life as Clark Kent and we see him as an orphaned farm kid living in the city just trying to do his best. He lives in Suicide Slum, the cops are on his ass because he’s writing articles about the wrong people and he’s behind on his rent. He could sell out and take a job at The Daily Planet but he’s making less money to do important work for The Daily Star. Superman has first hand experience of how the system grinds people down, but the system doesn’t know that he has the power to fight back. When it learns about him, it’s no coincidence that it’s the combination of the US military and a billionaire that finally stop him in his tracks.
Morales, Bryant and Anderson’s art is key to this depiction of Superman and they present a younger, cockier hero whose body language lets you know he’s not only in control; he’s having fun. Morales’ new design for Superman with the jeans, t-shirts and boots goes a long way to cement the superhero of the people feel the creative team was going for; Action Comics’ Superman doesn’t soar above the people of Metropolis, he lives among them and he looks like he’s just stepped off the docks. I’m especially a fan of the way Brad Anderson colours Superman in pretty much everything he does — he coloured Doomsday Clock and Superman: Up, Up and Away — and his specific reds and blues just hit me in a primal, almost childlike place and triggers something in my brain that says “Hey, that’s Superman! He’s your favourite!”
I remember interviews at the time when Morrison was talking about Action Comics #1 and they described the comic as leaning heavily into the title. If you buy Detective Comics you want to see some detective work, so if you buy Action Comics then you’re going to want to see the best action sequences you’ll read anywhere that month. Morrison described Superman in Action Comics #1 as someone who does not stop moving over the course of the issue which is true, once he starts moving he does not stop for the rest of the issue until Luthor stops him at the end of the issue. That kineticism is often lacking in superhero comics, especially in the late-2000s/early-2010s when so much of the genre was dominated by talking heads and Superman’s continued movement reminds you why you loved superheroes as a kid. He’s someone who gets something done.
Morrison and Morales’ run on Action Comics went for eighteen issues plus #0 issue and over the course of the story, Superman goes from the rough-and-tumble hands-on hero of this first issue to something more traditionally modern Superman, but he never loses that confidence and cockiness established in this first issue. This specific version of Superman would later be killed off and replaced by a version that melded this version with his pre-New 52 incarnation, but at least for a bit the t-shirt-and-jeans origin of Superman remained canon to the character’s larger story. I don’t know whether that’s still the case but this will always be one of my absolute favourite incarnations of Superman and one of the best debut issues of The New 52.