FAIR WARNING, POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHOY.
Superman. The Man of Tomorrow. The Man of Steel. THE superhero.
He is a promise and a challenge — an example of all that humanity can be at its best who calls on us to join him. The shield on his chest represents the hope that part of dead Krypton might live on to help others stand where Krypton ultimately failed, and his own oath to build, champion, and protect a finer world.
This is the truth. But it is not the whole truth. As he has aged and his powers have begun to wane, Superman has come to a humbling realization. He’s failed. Utterly. Not in the immediate sense, mind you — he’s saved a lot of lives and stopped a lot of bad actors for certain. But by and large, his dealings with the world have been strictly superheroic. The world has continued on as he and his peers grappled with their grand crises and supreme dramas. He has not built the finer world he promised JFK and himself.
Superman cannot let that failure continue.
Manchester Black. Telepath. Telekinetic. The borderline sociopath who once played at being the most ruthless superhero in the world.
He despises most of the superheroic community for what he sees as their egomaniacal ineffectuality. But Black loathes Superman above all. No one that powerful could possibly be as warm or as kind as the Big Blue Boy Scout claims to be. It just is not possible. Superman must dream of being a tyrant, must long to oppress oh-so-puny humanity.
Black tried to upstage Superman with ruthless pragmatism. That failed. He tried to expose Superman’s had-to-be-there dark side to the world and the man himself. That failed. He tried to just kill Superman and be done with it. That didn’t work either. These days, Black spends his time wallowing in his vices and throwing himself wholeheartedly into being a rotten person. If the world’s going to fall apart, why bother doing anything about it? But Manchester Black is lying to himself. He’s a lousy person, not a rotten person. There’s a significant difference between the two.
Manchester Black is not quite the nihilist he’s trying to be.
So when Superman seeks out Manchester Black, a man who he has deeply disliked from the word go, because he sincerely believes that together they can put together a team to fulfill the promise of a finer world? Black, for all his caterwauling and posturing and constant grating playacting the bad boy of the caped world, listens.
Superman and the Authority was not written as Grant Morrison’s farewell to Big 2 superhero comics. Per Newsarama, this four-issue miniseries was written all the way back in 2018, but for various reasons was delayed until this year. In the meantime, artist Liam Sharp and Morrison completed the work that Morrison had intended to be their au revoir to big cape books—The Green Lantern. But scheduling issues are scheduling issues, and thus Superman and the Authority is arriving now and standing as the venerable Scottish comics scribe’s last word, crafted in collaboration with illustrator and inker Mikel Janín and colorist Jordie Bellaire.
And great googa mooga, Superman and the Authority is a terrific comic book.
On an immediate level, Janín, Bellaire, and Morrison have crafted a stylish-as-hell cape comic that skillfully weaves together compelling character work and intimate but impactful superheroic action. Superman and Manchester Black have terrific chemistry, a thorny alliance with echoes of the delightfully inverted dynamic duo from Morrison’s Batman and Robin — where Batman (Dick Grayson) was laid-back and friendly and Robin (Damian Wayne) was angry and brooding. Superman, gray at the temples and professionally warm, is introspective and thoughtful. Black, perpetually scuzzy and deliberately obnoxious, is doing everything in his power to avoid facing reality.
Janín and Morrison have a gosh-darn ball playing the two off each other. They do not like each other, but Superman’s professionalism and steadfast appeals to both Black’s better nature and his mercenary need for a break from being harangued by the goons of various capital-S States lead the younger man to step up, even if he needs to throw a private tantrum before following through with the course he’s committed himself to. It’s a terrific piece of character work.
The tantrum, by the way, is hilarious. Janín’s mastery of body language and Morrison’s stupendous conception of Manchester Black as someone clinging desperately to his own perceived bad boy status combine to create a sublime moment of comics as Black rants and raves and curses the world. To himself. In the middle of a blizzard. It’s great.
The action is similarly strong. The setpieces of Superman and the Authority‘s first issue are relatively small scale by superheroic standards — Black vs. a SWAT team, Superman vs. Phantom Zone robots, Superman and Black vs. Phantom Zone robots. Janín and Morrison use that scale to their advantage, showcasing not only their protagonists’ powers but developing a distinct language for both.
With his powers reduced, Superman cannot just bulldoze foes. To compensate, he’s become a methodical, precise brawler — someone who draws his opponent in before striking. And while he may not be hauling Earth back into orbit with a giant chain, Superman is still Superman. His punches have weight. Manchester Black, by contrast, is an explosion. His tremendous mental powers radiate outwards from him, a maelstrom of physical and mental force. Whether alone or together, Superman and Manchester Black are fun to watch in action.
In addition to its immediate pleasures, this first issue of Superman and the Authority is wonderfully dense. There’s a great deal going on in the book with regards to the failures of the Kennedy era/the so-called “New Frontier” and the way those failures have echoed to the present, the world spinning forward even amidst calamity, the simultaneous growth and stagnation of superhero comics as a medium, and the limits of image — especially as they relate to Superman and stories about Superman. It’s the last of these that I’d like to write specifically on.
There is a school of thought on Superman that argues that he should be written not only as humanity’s champion but as a shining ideal — Camelot given form — and that the best Superman stories are the ones that focus on this. Artist Frank Quitely and Morrison’s own All-Star Superman is often celebrated as the highest peak of such tales.
The trouble with emphasizing the ideal above all else is that it risks flattening. Within Superman and the Authority itself, Superman admits to Black that his generation of heroes got too caught up in themselves, in grand notions of capital letters SUPERHEROISM and CRISES, to do real, transformative good for folks living their lives. He’s world-weary, even melancholy — recognizably a Morrisonian Superman, but with a history and priorities distinct from their previous takes on the character.
Manchester Black, likewise, begrudgingly admits to himself that he has ridden his “sour, jaded, ruthless antihero who will do what others would not dare” shtick into the ground, and it’s left him damn near hollow.
Externally, the fixation on an idealized, unfailing Superman can result in the squishing of great Superman comics (say, All-Star, whose complexities and thorniness David Mann is delving into in a terrific series of ongoing essays) into something far less vibrant than they actually are. It loses sight of the work that goes into being good, of the angles and possibilities for stories that allow for failure or for new interpretations of established characters.
Superman and the Authority‘s Manchester Black, for instance, is both of a piece with previous takes on the character and something entirely new, something that has not been attempted with him before. There are so many stories that can be told about Superman. Heralding only one type of them is a mistake, one that runs the risk of missing great tales outside that range and misreading great tales that do.
Superman and the Authority‘s first issue is, put simply, a full-on no-nonsense great comic. To read it is a joy. To think about it is a pleasure. I eagerly await issue #2.
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