I know that there are mixed feelings about the brash and ill-tempered Superman featured in Action Comics, but I’m enjoying Grant Morrison’s version of an inexperienced Man of Steel. We’ve gotten used to a Superman who stoically soars above us with infinite compassion, but this is a Superman that is neither patient nor beatific. This is a Superman that looks at our world and sees that it’s practically made out of paper mache for him, and he gets a kick out of being able to effortlessly tear our feeble weapons and buildings apart like so much tissue paper. The Superman of the old DCU seemed to take no pleasure in his miraculous feats of strength and endurance because he was so experienced with his abilities. The Superman of the DCnU looks like he is relishing his indestructibility and super-strength, just like anyone would if they suddenly found themselves endowed with incredible superpowers. It’s refreshing to see Superman thrilled to test the limits of his powers for the first time and find that there doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t do.
This issue opens on Superman strapped into an electric chair, which is a pretty cool image that’s also illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver on the cover. The issue is titled In Chains, which is probably a reference to the Titan Prometheus who was chained to a rock and tortured by an eagle that continuously ripped out his innards. Superman, like Prometheus, is chained and tortured, but instead of suffering at the hands of the gods, he’s being tormented by Dr. Lex Luthor and his team of military scientists. Last issue, Superman was incapacitated after single-handedly stopping a runaway train, and he was captured by the military. The fact that a train crash was enough to stun him suggests that this Superman is considerably less powerful than he was in the old DCU.
This underpowered and inexperienced Superman is shocked with lethal levels of electricity by Luthor and his underlings, and again, we see that he’s actually harmed by the energy levels that he used to shrug off with a corny quip in the old DCU. It’s interesting to see a Man of Steel that feels pain. They went a similar route in Bruce Timm’s Superman cartoon, and it adds an extra level of excitement to the narrative when Superman’s not completely untouchable.
Of course, Luthor’s sadistic attempts to test the limitations of Superman’s abilities upsets his military employers, who aren’t quite as sociopathic. Dr. Irons (who I would love to see become Steel in this continuity) chews Luthor out for what he calls “torturing a man on US soil”. Morrison has his sociopathic, energy drink swilling Luthor refuse to acknowledge Superman as a man; to Luthor, Superman isn’t a person, he’s not a human being, he’s not even a he, it’s an extraterrestrial with none of the rights of an American citizen. It’s a clever conceit that Luthor justifies his barbaric treatment of Superman with the rationalization that the Man of Steel is a dangerous alien that deserves no human kindness.
Luthor and his team go to pretty elaborate lengths to try to hurt the dazed and restrained Superman, but nothing seems to work. Electricity, sarin gas and lethal injection all fail to do anything more than temporarily stun Superman. Through Luthor and the scientists reactions to their seemingly indestructible prisoner, Morrison gives us some interesting pseudo-scientific explanations of Superman’s powers. I won’t spoil his explanations here, but I’ll just say that I thought they were clever and fun (although judging by the title of my blog, I might be a little biased when it comes to pseudoscience).
Morrison also goes back to a Silver Age conceit by depicting Superman’s red cape as completely impervious, and we see that the military can’t even scratch it with machine gun fire or flamethrowers. I’ve always liked the idea that all material from Krypton is indestructible (the scientists mention that “the rocket” is invulnerable as well), and it’s kind of cool that Superman’s cape is both a sentimental reminder of where he came from and his comforting Linus blanket. I do have one minor quibble about the depiction of Superman’s cape in the DCnU: there’s no yellow S on the back. There’s an outline of the S-shield, but it’s transparent instead of yellow. Call me a detail-obsessed fanboy if you want, but for some reason I think that yellow S on superman’s cape is a key component of his costume.
Luthor has an interesting conversation with the heavily shocked and gassed Superman. He asks him what he knows about Krypton, and we learn that this inexperienced Superman has no knowledge of his home world. Morrison also has Luthor present a cynical and dark theory to explain Superman’s presence on Earth. He calls Superman’s rocket “a bullet aimed at this planet…aimed and fired from an alien gun”. This idea of Superman as an extraterrestrial infiltrator who threatens the safety of Earth is intriguing to me. It makes sense to characterize Luthor as an overly logical and sociopathic scientist who sees this indestructible alien as an unnatural invader of Earth’s ecosystem. Instead of being jealous of Superman’s status as savior of the world (“If only Superman wasn’t in my way, I could cure cancer and establish world peace!”), Luthor has a scientific justification for his rivalry with Superman.
Rags Morales really shines when Superman finally breaks free of the electric chair. This was the action scene that I had been itching for, and Morales doesn’t fail to deliver. Morales’ Superman really captures the physicality of an indestructible and unstoppable person. He portrays this inexperienced and sloppy Superman with the right amount of brute force and destructive power. His drawings of Superman gleefully leaping through machine gun fire, tearing apart concrete walls, and kicking through thick steel doors are really quite awesome. His dynamic illustrations of Superman’s sheer power compliment Morrison’s writing to great effect.
I don’t want to give away too many specific details of the plot, but Morrison gives us an interesting moment during Superman’s escape in which we see that the government somehow possesses his rocket. This version of the spaceship that carried Superman to Earth is less “birthing matrix” and more of a Silver Age style rocket. We get a glimpse of the origin of Metallo, albeit sans Kryptonite, and Morrison teases us with the coming of Braniac.