A few years ago, Grant Morrison gave comic lovers quite possibly the greatest modern Superman story with All-Star Superman, an insular, 12-issue series that drew from the breadth of the character’s history, boiled all of its concepts down to their most basic forms, and explained, elegantly, just who Superman is and why he is, and always will be, relevant.
In many ways, Morrison’s Action Comics run has been that story’s antithesis. It was just as high-concept (I challenge you to find a Morrison story that isn’t), but lacked the streamlined finesse of All-Star. Plots were convoluted, characters were being redefined left and right to fit them into the “New 52”—what All-Star had in earnest straightforwardness, Action often made up for with absurd complexity. Now, at the end of Morrison’s tale, it is plain to see that, while the journey may have been a little shaky, the end result is, more or less, the same.
This issue draws on elements from across Morrison’s time-spanning run, leading to a climax that will leave the poor guy who saunters into a comic shop this week and whimsically picks this issue up with a brain hemorrhage. The Legion of Super-Heroes appears, the “New 52” version of Mxysptlk (who was already weird enough before the reboot) is on hand, and the bizarre reimagined team of Wanderers also pop in to help turn the tide of battle. It’s quite a bit to take in, but amidst all the deafening chaos, Morrison finds plenty of moments to cast the sprawling issue’s focus on its primary protagonist, as Superman battles Vyndktvx, a 5th Dimension imp (which seems like a weak word to describe a character that looks like a hulking, Doomsday-esque beast).
In the end, it is only by unifying everyone on the planet that Superman is able to repel Vyndktvx. Here, he does this literally: his mind joined with everyone on Earth, Superman asks the people to say their names backwards (a play on an old trick for getting rid of imps from the 5th Dimension), and the people comply. This is exactly the sort of unifying spirit the character has always stood for, and likely always will.
The backup feature, by Sholly Fisch and Chris “needs to be drawing more monthly comics” Sprouse, also plays into this notion, albeit in a much more straightforward, typical way. At a museum in the year 2238 (the year that, in our world, will be Superman’s tricentennial), children beset by bullies find inspiration in an exhibit devoted to the Man of Steel. The nicest touch in this story isn’t the message, though, but the way the exhibit is depicted. Lines of dialogue and images from throughout Superman’s history (in comics and film) dance across the room, leaving all of the children entranced in wonder and inspiration. Ultimately, it’s a pleasant, if disposable, bit, but this depiction of the character says much about his adaptability and endurance throughout nearly 80 years of stories.
The Superman we are left with at the end of Morrison’s tale may not be the timeless icon of All-Star, but he is a hero who is relevant to the time in which he exists. He’s a snapshot of an ongoing character as he exists in present day. All-Star set out to tell a Superman story for the ages, blending the character’s history and suggesting the portrait seen in the Fisch/Sprouse backup story. Action just wanted to give this world the Superman it needs now. That’s one of the beautiful things about Superman, and comics in general: the constant ability to evolve and be recast to fit a changing world. Perhaps that’s why these characters endure. Lord knows, Superman will.