Grant Morrison’s Superman Stories: A Reconfigured Reading Order

Grant Morrison's Superman story has taken 20 years to tell, but it was elegant, beautiful, and out of order. We fixed that.

Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman is routinely cited as one of the greatest Superman stories ever told, and after reading about a Superman sequel where the director feels it’s important to make Batman the one founding the Justice League, I felt like it was worth going back to someone whose vision of the character is more appealing to me.

The story Morrison told with Superman is far more intricate than the 12 issues of All-Star: he’s been working with Superman in one way or another for the better part of 20 years, going back to his Justice League relaunch in the ‘90s that first brought together DC’s “big guns:” Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Flash, and Martian Manhunter. In that time, he told, out of order, a generational story about Superman: in Action Comics, the flagship Superman book after the New 52 relaunch, Morrison told “the first Superman story;” JLA and Final Crisis: Superman Beyond told of his middle years; and All-Star Superman was designed to be “the last Superman story ever.”

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The Multiversity spun out of Final Crisis, the New 52 reboot, and an issue of Action Comics, and it was on its face an attempt to map the cosmology of the rebooted multiverse using analogues to current DC heroes (including a few Superman analogues) as a guide. Or at least that’s what I thought it was when I included it in my reread.

“Hatchet order” is a term that only recently snuck into common usage (if one defines common usage as “blogs that ceaselessly complain about how to show one’s children the Star Wars movies without having to watch Episode 1 again” which…you know…:points to self:), but I thought when I went back to Morrison’s Superman “I have all these books. Why don’t, reboots be damned, I try and read them in chronological order for the character?”

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Doing that, The Multiversity came last: I had an eye towards writing this up as a suggested reading order for new Superman fans, and in an effort to be as new reader friendly as possible, I was trying to avoid jumping back and forth, one issue at a time, between multiple collected editions. But as I went along, it struck me: The Multiversity is essential to understanding what Morrison is trying to say with Superman, and a more cynical person might even see it as criticism of the way other divisions are handling the character. So I threw my “one trade at a time” idea out and chopped it up to try and see if I couldn’t help articulate that point.

This is the most convoluted middle finger to Man of Steel ever written, and it took 20 years to get there.

Click the orange links to buy the books on Amazon.

The Beginning

Action Comics #9

We start super out of order with arguably the second best issue of any Superman comic Grant Morrison has written, because it is in large part a statement of purpose about Superman. So of course it uses not Kal-El/Clark Kent, the gentle Kansas farmboy, but Kalel/Calvin Ellis, President Superman of Earth-23.

This isn’t a bug of Morrison’s work: it’s the entire point of it. Throughout his story, especially read like this, he uses alternate Supermen to illuminate specific aspects of the character, and Action Comics #9 is about Superman the superhero and science hero.

It’s not an accident that Calvin Ellis appeared in this volume of Action Comics (and it’s not an accident that he’s black, either): Morrison made a point of talking about how the young Superman of the New 52 was a throwback to his earlier days, hearkening back to the Depression-era Superman who fought inequality and corruption more than he fought Lex Luthor. Ellis is the logical end result of that story: in a world where Superman was still allowed to be about those things, he almost has to become President, or some sort of political leader. Morrison all but acknowledges this later in Action Comics when Superman gives the rest of the Justice League a hard time about not helping him solve global problems.

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President Superman finishes a fight with Lex Luthor and begins to inspect what Luthor had been protecting: a cube, red and green, that looks like the inside of a piano folding back in on itself. It activates, and through it jump three people: a one-eyed woman, and two men burned pretty much to death. The woman is Lois Lane from Earth 45, and with her are Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen, who together made a machine that lets them turn thoughts into matter. They invented the concept of Superman, and he was so beautiful they wept. So in order to share him with more people, they brought the idea to Overcorp.

Once they sold the idea, it was monetized and corrupted, with Superman branding slapped all over their entire world until the concept had been turned into a monster who pursued the three of them across the multiverse, trying to eliminate them. That monster is Superdoom, and he is an entirely not-subtle allusion to corporatization, contrasted with a Superman who has dedicated his life to improving the world around him through all means at his disposal. President Superman and Lex Luthor (with a little help from a memory of Superman’s father) manage to fight Superdoom back into the box he came out of and save the day.

Superdoom comes back at the end of Action Comics, but is referenced a few times through Multiversity. The boxes, the foldy colorful pianos, are a central plot point to The Multiversity,  and this issue lays out the central thesis of Morrison’s Superman beautifully. “…he becomes anything you want…him…to be…our world…wanted…that,” says a dying Earth-45 Clark Kent. 

Collected in Action Comics vol. 2: Bulletproof

Action Comics #1-8 

The first volume of Action Comics is a lot of setup, but it’s also another great story about Superman’s will and determination. The world doesn’t know what to make of this new Superman, so the Army (aided by Lex Luthor, who develops as consistently over the course of these stories as Superman does) tries to take him out. They create Metallo and torture Superman, but he escapes in time to barely not save Metropolis from Brainiac, and on Brainiac’s ship, he’s given the choice between saving Metropolis or saving Kandor, both of which are miniaturized and about to be filed away by the cataloguing supercomputer.

There’s also a two issue interlude with the Legion of Super Heroes, and if I may be permitted a moment of self-indulgence, WHY ISN’T THERE A LEGION COMIC COMING IN REBIRTH. Okay

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This is very much a story about Superman growing into his role, but it’s a solid foundation for everything to come.

Collected in Action Comics vol. 1: Superman & the Men of Steel

The Multiversity #1

The first issue of the actual Multiversity crossover (and not an Action Comics prologue) starts with a moment of sheer horror for all New Yorkers: bedbugs. Then it shifts to Nix Uotan, SUPERJUDGE (Style Guide Note: that must always be written in all caps) as he prepares to dissect Ultra Comics, which we’ll get to.

Nix travels to Earth 7, an analogue to Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. All but one of the heroes have been killed by the new mysterious bad guys, The Gentry. Nix sends The Thunderer to the Hall of Heroes and decides to try and deal with the Gentry himself. The heroes at the Hall, including President Superman; a Savage Dragon analogue; Captain Carrot; Aquawoman from Earth 11; Bloodwynd (!); and Red Racer, a Flash analogue from Earth 36; team up and head to Earth 8, where they meet up with the Avengers and ultimately discover that Nix has been captured and corrupted by The Gentry.

I fully admit this is somewhat curious placement. Nix is first introduced (in the real, not-comic book world) in Final Crisis, which we’re still 90 issues from, so having SUPERJUDGE just there jumping from comic blogger to superhero is a little jarring. But here’s why I think it works: the Superman in this issue isn’t President Superman. It’s Nix himself. Nix is the all-powerful super-being driving the story here, and this issue sets the tone for the rest of The Multiversity: every issue is about the Superman concept, stripped of one key element. Here, it’s his supporting cast. Morrison is arguing that without Lois and Perry and Jimmy and Batman and the Justice League, that Superman doesn’t work.

Collected in The Multiversity

JLA #1-9, JLA Secret Files & Origins #1

The first few issues of Morrison’s JLA spend a lot of time setting up the central premise of the rest of the series. In them, the League fights the Hyperclan, a group of mysterious “heroes” who start building a false utopia and turn out to be disguised White Martians; and then they battle an invading army of angels, The Key and Professor Ivo and T.O. Morrow at separate points. It’s probably the most straightforward superhero bit in the entire collection, and Superman isn’t a hugely relevant character in it, but there are a couple of key reasons why I think it works best here.

First, time is utterly meaningless in Action Comics. There is a time jump between the end of the first arc and the start of the second – we will eventually see a Superman who’s been in the League for a bit, and Batman and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern show up in that arc like it’s not a big deal. So the transitions aren’t incredibly jarring except for Electric Superman, which…ugh. But whatever, that was going to be silly no matter what.

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Second, there is a moment of uncertainty in Superman where he and Flash are talking and he expresses reservations about his ability to live up to his own hype. That lack of self-confidence, even a momentary one, isn’t there in the rest of these stories.

Third, it’s a counterpoint to The Multiversity #1: this is ALL about his supporting cast. The moment with the Flash is followed up by Superman wrestling an angel from the Bull Host, shocking everyone on the team, but that conversation in the trophy room shows that they help define him as much as anything else. You also get a glimpse of the Superman who will do nice things for anyone he can, for no other reason than it’s a nice thing to do: Tomorrow Woman.

We also see the beginnings of the Batman and Superman super bestie relationship that is an essential undercurrent through the whole arc: the White Martians capture most of the league but they leave Batman for dead, and Superman starts laughing at them because he knows that Batman’s better than all of them. That’s a great moment.

Collected in JLA Deluxe vol. 1

Action Comics #10-12, Action Comics Annual #1, Action Comics #0

What’s left of the second arc isn’t a ton: it’s still largely setup for the closing act of Action Comics. But there are bits of it that are incredibly good, and meaningful takes on what’s at Superman’s core. The Clark Kent alter ego “dies” and Superman replaces it with another secret identity. But we get more of the Batman/Superman relationship here, as it turns out Batman is the one who convinces Kal-El to resume being Clark (by researching how many people Clark had helped in his role as an investigative journalist and presenting that to Supes). And we see more of Superman helping the little people in the 0 issue, when we see how his cape helps two abused children fight back against their father, and he stops a train from running them down.

Here feels like a good place to mention that Sholly Fisch should be writing a Superman comic, too: the trades collect his backup stories from Action Comics, and they were universally good, as was his story with Kryptonite Man in the Annual.

Collected in Action Comics vol. 2: Bulletproof

The Society of Super-Heroes #1 

The first trip into the multiverse takes us to Earths 20 and 40, opposites on the map of the multiverse we’ll soon see. Earth 20 is a pulpy adventure serial Earth, inhabited by the Lady Blackhawks, Doc Fate, the Immortal Man, Abin Sur, and The Atom – Al Pratt, who is actually the Atom Smasher in regular continuity, but who here is more of an analogue to Flex Mentallo: Pratt is the only man alive to complete the Iron Munroe Bodypower Course but for the final form, a punch that kills instantly.

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Earth 40 is the dark reflection of that world: instead of the Immortal Man, they have Vandal Savage; instead of Doc Fate, they have Doctor Faust; instead of Lady Blackhawk, they have Lady Shiva. The two go to war for five years, at which point Doc Fate discovers a Transmatter Symphonic Array; Pratt uses the Deadly Atom Punch to kill Blockbuster; Fate and Green Lantern open the Array and send Sur into it; and Immortal Man kills Savage, spilling his blood on the ground with a shard of the meteorite that created them and summoning a temple to Nix Uotan, corrupted god, on Earth 20.

What, you may be asking, the hell does this have to do with Superman? I didn’t get it either until the last time I read it: Fate almost calls Atom “Superman,” and that’s why this works well here. If Pratt is this world’s Superman analogue, he’s broken and beaten down and had his moral core chipped away over the course of a grueling five-year war until the only option he sees for himself to save the day is to kill Blockbuster.

The Society of Super-Heroes is about Superman violating his own stated principles in the spirit of plot expediency, and their world is severely damaged because of it. It sets up a great counterpoint from the next book on the list.

Collected in The Multiversity

Action Comics #13-18 

The conclusion of Morrison’s Action Comics uses one issue to finish setting up the final conflict (and it is the best issue of the entire run: in #13, Superman saves Krypto from the Phantom Zone, and I swear to you I’m close to tears just thinking about “who’s the best dog in the whole universe”), and it serves as a counterpoint to The Society of Super-Heroes in how utterly impossible it is: all Pratt has to do is knock Blockbuster unconscious, not repel an attack from the fifth dimension at three separate points in your timeline.

It turns out the short guy who has been floating around the entire series to this point is Vyndktvx, a fifth-dimensional imp with a grudge against Mr. Mxyzptlk. In the course of that grudge, he tried to take out Earth (because of the playful relationship between Mxy and Superman), only someone fought back against his attempt to destroy it, so he lays a temporal Rube Goldberg machine out for Superman to stop him.

Superman fights off Superdoom and the Anti-Superman Army under a red sun, all while facing down simultaneous attacks at two other points in his own personal timeline. He does this, even though it’s incredibly difficult to wrap your mind around narratively (let alone if you were actually the one being attacked) because the thesis statement of Action Comics is “There’s always a way.”

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He’s presented with an impossible choice in the first arc: save Kandor or save Metropolis. He found a way to save both. He tries to retire Clark Kent as a secret identity, but he realizes his mistake and hangs onto both identities. He saves Lois from certain death by teaching himself to be a doctor in 3 seconds, and then performing surgery by hand. He fights off simultaneous attacks throughout his timeline like he’s living “All Good Things…

Pratt fails his world not because he wasn’t strong enough, but because he wasn’t creative enough, because he allowed himself to be boxed into thinking his only option was killing. Clark Kent (and Calvin Ellis) don’t accept that, and that’s why they win in these comics.

Collected in Action Comics vol. 3: At The End of Days

Keep going! We’re just getting started…

The Great Justice League Stories

JLA #10-15, JLA Secret Files #2, New Year’s Evil: Prometheus #1, JLA #16-17, JLA/WildC.A.T.S. #1 

Next we move onto the second volume of JLA, a story that doesn’t have a ton of bearing on Superman himself, but is still awesome. In fact, Superman doesn’t do a ton in these issues: JLA #10-15 cover an alternate timeline story where the Philosopher’s Stone is inadvertently destroyed, and Flash, Aquaman and Green Lantern end up on an alternate Earth where Darkseid rules.

You can see in that story the pebbles dropping into the pond that would eventually create Final Crisis, but with a lot more Batman and The Atom being incredibly badass. And you get more Batman hotness with the introduction of Prometheus, the son of two criminals killed in front of him in a police shootout who dedicates his life from that point forward to crime (so inverse Batman). He invades the Watchtower, but the League eventually fights him off.

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These are great, uncomplicated Morrison cape comics and an issue of Secret Files from Christopher Priest that is absolutely one of the highlights of the series.

Collected in JLA Deluxe vol. 2

The Just #1 

The second unique world we visit is Earth 16, the legacy Earth, home to descendants or heirs to all of “our” Earth’s heroes: Green Lantern is Kyle Rayner; Connor Hawke is Green Arrow; Chris Kent is Superman; Damian Wayne is Batman; Lex Luthor is Alexandra (his daughter). The world of the Super Sons is sterile and boring: Kal-El Superman is dead, but he programmed his Superman Robots to be meticulous and diligent in how they guarded the world, so all of these second generation heroes are bored to tears and have actually taken to reenacting famous Justice League fights.

Metamorpho’s daughter commits suicide while on the phone with Sister Miracle (Shiloh Norman’s daughter) to open the story. Alex Luthor and Damian are in a relationship, but she’s furious about not being invited to Sister Miracle’s party, so she decides to end her ennui by going full supervillain and tricking Jakeem Thunder into using the genie to give her control of the army of Superman robots. The issue closes with the world being destroyed by the very same Superman robots that Kal-el used to eliminate all strife in his absence.

This world sucks for everyone involved because of Superman. All of the heroes on the planet are bored and disinterested because Superman programmed his robots to be overbearing and unrelenting. That’s the key to this issue: it’s about a Superman with no limits, one who is so powerful that even death can’t prevent him from “helping,” and in that overbearingness, he becomes uninteresting.

Collected in The Multiversity

JLA: Earth 2 

Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison’s collaboration on what’s maybe my favorite story of the entire run was released after JLA was finished, but fits best between volumes 2 and 3 of JLA because the team composition works best here, and it works best after The Just because Earth 2’s resolution is more or less the opposite of the former’s.

It was one of the first post-Crisis on Infinite Earths attempts at sneaking a multiverse in through the back door: the Crime Syndicate of Amerika is an unbearable, evil group persecuting their Antimatter Earth, so its only hero, Alexander Luthor, travels to Earth 1 to recruit heroes from that world. He does, and Batman, Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern are somewhat successful in their efforts to pacify the alternate world, until “the natural order” shunts their counterparts to their home Earth, where they are taken down with surprising ease by Aquaman and Martian Manhunter, while on Earth 2, the League’s fixes fall apart.

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Superman discovers that Earth 2 Brainiac is organic and has been manipulating the entire team through Alexander Luthor, and that he can’t win on the antimatter world without violating his code and killing Brainiac. So instead, he has Flash bring them back to Earth 1, which switches the Crime Syndicate villains back to Earth 2, and Ultraman (Superman’s evil counterpart whom we’ll be seeing a lot more of soon) lobotomizes Brainiac.

If Superman is so overbearing as to make the world disinteresting in The Just, here he throws the game and deliberately loses to win. Knowing the only way he can stop Brainiac’s plan to destroy both worlds is to get Ultraman back on his Earth, where one of the underlying rules of that universe is “only bad can win,” Superman stops fighting and goes home. It’s an almost hair-splitting way to get around the “Superman doesn’t kill” rule, but it is illustrative of one aspect that’s frequently overlooked (and occasionally distorted): Superman exists to make the human race want to be better. On a planet that is cosmologically precluded from wanting that, he will certainly fail, but he’s not on Earth to physically do everything for its residents. Just to show them how to be better.

A note on collected editions here: JLA: Earth 2 has been reprinted in ONLY the hardcover editions of JLA Deluxe vol. 4, no others. If you buy the softcover version, you will have to buy this book separately.

Collected only in the hardcover version of JLA Deluxe vol. 4

JLA #18-23 

Much of the first half of volume 3 of JLA Deluxe is vignettes, and mostly written by Mark Waid. They’re great stories about a probability villain and Adam Strange, and they are essential to a reading of JLA, but not to a reading of Morrison’s Superman. The last story here is a little heartbreaking, but also very sweet and Superman-centric.

Starro the Conqueror is back on Earth trying to…well…conquer…by making everyone fall asleep and taking over their minds. A group of the JLA, led by Superman, travels into the Dreaming (yes, the same Dreaming from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as referenced by Damian Wayne in The Just), where his powers function much like Tinkerbell’s: if someone believes he can do something, he can. So naturally he’s saved from certain doom by a little boy’s belief that Superman can save everything. Which he does. Also, it turns out that the little boy in the Dreaming is actually a homeless veteran in the real world, which is a maybe-cheap way of tugging at the heartstrings a little, but also an effective way of making the point that Superman isn’t strictly for kids, but it helps to look at him with the innocence and capacity for awe of one.

Much of my placement of Multiversity issues throughout this hatchet order involves setting them up as counterpoints to other stories Morrison told with Superman. Here, however, Morrison’s Superman story is complemented very nicely by one issue of Multiversity in particular: in a dream world where Superman is saved by innocence, faith and a little magic, really the only way to follow it up is the only issue of Multiversity where Superman actually wins.

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Collected in JLA Deluxe vol. 3

Thunderworld Adventures #1 

Thunderworld Adventures takes us to Earth 5, home to Fawcett City and the Marvel family, and to the Rock of Eternity, home to the wizard Shazam, who discovers there is an extra day on the calendar immediately before the Rock, a focal point for all magic in the multiverse, is attacked by an enormous Borg-cube-imitation of the Rock, piloted by a coalition of Dr. Sivanas from throughout the multiverse. On Earth, Billy Batson, kid reporter, is talking to his viewers about a series of devastating “timequakes” when he’s attacked by the Sivana family, granted superhuman powers from their father’s rock. Billy changes into Captain Marvel, and aided by Captain Marvel, Jr. and Mary Marvel, defeats the Sivanas and heads off to the Rock to try and save the wizard.

This is the only issue of Multiversity where Superman isn’t presented as missing an element of his core character, and the only issue where the heroes win even a small victory, but it has a point beyond that: this Superman wins because he’s fun and earnest, and what he’s battling is rigidity and a lack of joy. Sivana is trying to mine the Rock of Eternity for all its magic, and he’s filling it up with a cube farm. Captain Marvel actually isn’t the one who beats him: it’s the other Sivanas, who cheated him out of the Suspendium (the magic) he used to create the extra day and only gave him enough to make an 8 hour one. Billy notices this, sends an echo back to himself (setting up a callback for Ultra Comics) and eventually defeats Sivana because he’s more flexible and more creative.

Even the layouts of the book and structure of the story are deceptively rigid, but at the end of the issue, Captain Marvel looks at a copy of The Society of Super-Heroes and laments the death of happy endings, before flying off to join the rest of the team in the Hall of Heroes. Cam Stewart’s art is phenomenal, and this book is a joy to read through at any point in this story, but works especially well on the heels of the Starro story in JLA.

Collected in The Multiversity

DC One Million #1-2, JLA #1,000,000, DC One Million #3-4 

I’m not entirely certain why the JLA Deluxe collections don’t include DC One Million, as they’re relatively important to the rest of JLA: Montevideo is destroyed in a nuclear explosion and becomes a plot point moving forward in the comic, and the Flash from the 853rd Century mysteriously shows up in JLA for a few issues. So at least a summary might have been cool.

It’s also pretty relevant to the story we’re looking at: in the 853rd Century, Justice Legion Alpha is preparing for Superman’s return from the Sun (so yes, Superman is still alive 85,000 years in the future. We’ll see why later). To celebrate, Justice Legion Alpha travels back in time to retrieve all of Superman’s old pals from the 20th Century Justice League to greet him. It turns out this is a trap, and the League gets stuck in the future battling Solaris the Tyrant Sun, while Justice Legion Alpha, trapped in the past, has to find a cure for a computer virus released into the air by Hourman (corrupted by Solaris) and save the future.

It’s a little hurried, but it sets a lot of things in motion that don’t pay off in our time for a decade: Solaris, Superman One Million and the Gold Superman from the center of the sun all play a large role in the conclusion of All-Star Superman.

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Another note on collections: the only places I can find this gathered into one volume are in the DC One Million omnibus (which is huge and expensive and contains a whole bunch of crap you don’t need to read) or JLA One Million, which is out of print and also has some crap you don’t need to read. Helpfully, in JLA One Million, they’re pretty selective about what’s included, but if you can’t find that and don’t want to spend the obscene amount of money on a brick that makes your legs fall asleep while you’re reading it, I’d suggest picking up these five issues off of Comixology.

Collected in JLA One Million

JLA #24-31 

Two big fights and a fill in issue conclude the third volume of JLA Deluxe. In the first, the League fights a new group of heroes, the Ultramarine Corps, and General Eiling, who placed his mind in the Shaggy Man’s body. Here you see the first ripples of Seven Soldiers of Victory (which is awesome and you should totally read it), but it’s mostly straightforward superhero stuff: Superman does good, Batman is clever and outsmarts the giant instantly healing villain, Huntress is a super badass.

The second arc, “Crisis Times Five,” features a bunch of stuff we’ve seen before in service of a soft Justice Society relaunch that eventually became fantastic. It features the modern JSA that, in the hands of James Robinson, David Goyer, and Geoff Johns, developed an intense fan following, and was a big team up between the two groups in the spirit of the old Gardner Fox Crises that united them. It also had two fifth dimensional imps fighting at the behest of a third; a trip into the fifth dimension by Captain Marvel and Green Lantern; and callbacks to earlier incarnations of the Justice League.

Collected in JLA Deluxe vol. 3

JLA #32-41 

Another reminder: if you are hunting for these in print and you have the opportunity, get the hardcover. The softcover does not include JLA: Earth 2 or JLA Classified (soon), and it does include Mark Waid’s “Tower of Babel” arc, which was good enough for me to recommend without reservation on that list of Batman comics to read after seeing that awful movie, but it’s super anticlimactic following the events of Morrison’s last arc.

The first two issues of this collection are mostly throwaways that don’t move the plot at all. The action really starts with issue 34, where the League is dropped into a prison break where they have to fight everyone with light or color based powers (Crazy Quilt is there and it is awesome). This sets off the events of “World War 3,” where Morrison does an admirable job of tying together threads that have been developed through much of the 40 issues he was on JLA for.

We discover that an ancient evil is heading to Earth to destroy it, and the whole purpose behind bringing the strongest, fastest, most creative heroes in the world was to try and stop Maggeddon – he’s basically Ego the Living Planet, only he drives everyone crazy with rage and when he explodes, he rips a hole in the fabric of reality. The world descends into chaos – Steel and Plastic Man fight Queen Bee, Zauriel and the rest of the angels from Heaven stop a nuclear war from breaking out, Aquaman’s armies take to land to try and pacify riots – while Flash, Wonder Woman, Batman, J’onn and Superman try and figure out a way of stopping the giant evil planet.

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This is an incredible ending to this story. Everything from the first 35 isssues of JLA builds to a frantic crescendo in these closing issues, but Morrison still finds time for subtle character development: Flash finds someone he first encountered on Wonderworld 30 issues previous and uses Purple Ray technology, Animal Man and the heads on Easter Island to give everyone on Earth super powers. Superman and Orion fly into Maggeddon to try and fight him from the inside, but Clark is overcome with despair. So Batman patches directly into his brain (through J’onn) and becomes a shield for that despair because of the hurt he’s had to deal with through his whole life, giving Superman the power to keep fighting. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman inspires the now-powered ENTIRE HUMAN RACE and leads them skyward to help buy Superman some more time, while Superman absorbs Maggeddon’s anti-sun core and saves the universe.

This story is such an incredible definition of The Trinity. Wonder Woman is the ultimate inspirational figure, the person who can order the entire Earth into battle and have 6 billion people follow her enthusiastically. Batman is still wounded and damaged, but he’s stronger, more compassionate, and even at times playful in JLA. Rereading it, I was amazed at how important Superman and Batman’s friendship is to later Superman stories Morrison tells, as well as just how much of the stories he had yet to tell with both Superman and Batman were seeded here.

And Superman continues his “there’s always a way” ethos, but it’s in JLA where we see his connection to the world that is what lets him succeed. Wonder Woman may have led humanity into battle, but they were there fighting for Superman. The world was saved because everyone was a hero, because in the ultimate fulfillment of Superman’s role, humanity was inspired to be great because of Superman’s lead.

Collected in JLA Deluxe vol. 4

Pax Americana #1 

On the other hand, Pax Americana is a world where everyone was kind of a dickhead.

Earth 4’s premier superteam was Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s riff on Watchmen. “Riff” probably isn’t the right word, especially in this context: “elaborate, densely patterned slam” might be better. It used the old Charlton Comics characters (The Question, Peacemaker, Nightshade, Blue Beetle, and Captain Atom) to take the Superman concept and atomize it, divorce it from its humanity and pick it apart until the concept collapses in on itself.

This is one of the best single issues of comics I’ve ever read, and it really must be experienced to be fully appreciated, but to boil a 30-something page narrative that folds in on itself several times down to a few sentences…

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Vince Harley, the street-level vigilante Yellowjacket, is accidentally killed by his son coming back into his house. The younger Harley is tormented by this knowledge for years until he discovers an algorithm that allows him to predict future events. He sees darkness in the future for mankind, but not if he can pull off his master plan: to be elected President, assassinated, and then resurrected by the all-powerful Superman of our story, Captain Atom. Only Captain Atom, who experiences time and sequence like we experience reading a comic book (static panels on a page we can turn to at our leisure), allows himself to be destroyed by a conspiracy that doesn’t want Harley resurrected. So when Harley is assassinated by Peacemaker (at Harley’s request), he stays dead, and the government is controlled by a corrupt band of assassins, while Captain Atom resurrects himself decades in the past and gives Harley the algorithm Harley would use to predict the future.

The whole story is a loop, and Captain Atom’s motivation in it is largely “to see what happens.” There’s no care for consequences and no accountability for him, just what is possible and what he is incapable of doing. Unlike Superman in the DCU, there’s no connection to humanity to make him want to understand those consequences of his power. Even Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen had Silk Spectre to tether him to mankind, but Captain Atom wouldn’t find that connection until a bit later in our story.

Collected in The Multiversity

JLA Classified #1-3 

While this arc of JLA Classified is not strictly necessary for the story we’re looking at here, there’s a better than average chance that it’s included in a collected edition you’re purchasing, and let’s be honest: it’s a story that has Batman tell Alfred he’s “going to the sci-fi closet” in the first issue.

This follows up on the Ultramarines from earlier in JLA, and sets up all of the villains for Seven Soldiers of Victory. Superman is actually in it for a very limited amount of time: most of the story is Batman and Squire saving the world.

only collected in the hardcover version of JLA Deluxe vol. 4

And now this is where things get weird…

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Final Crisis

Final Crisis #1-3; Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1-2; Final Crisis: Submit; Final Crisis #4-6 

It’s often criticized as being tough to follow, but Final Crisis is one of my favorites, in large part because of how incredible Final Crisis: Superman Beyond is. It’s an unambitious story about the last battle between good and evil and how Superman fights vampiric stories across the entire multiverse.

There are three sections to the story. The first, consisting of the first 3 issues of Final Crisis proper, covers the downfall of the planet. The war between New Genesis and Apokalips is over, and the New Gods lost, killed by Darkseid, who with his minions, has infected Earth. Operating out of Bludhaven, Darkseid is gunning for Superman hard: his agent, Libra, kills the Martian Manhunter and in an effort to impress the Society of Super-Villains, manages to put Lois Lane on her death bed. The first part of Final Crisis ends with Wonder Woman infected by a mind control virus (delivered by the claws of a corrupt, perverted Mary Marvel) and Oracle realizing that the entire internet has been rigged to deliver the Anti-Life Equation across the world.

The second part is told through Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. Superman, at Lois’s death bed, is made an offer by Zillo Valla, a Monitor trying to save the multiverse. Superman joins her on her ship and travels between worlds through the Bleed (which we saw in The Multiversity #1), joining Captain Marvel (from Thunderworld), Captain Atom (this is where he went when he was “killed” in Pax Americana, and I don’t think that’s a hatchet order invention: I think that was Morrison’s intention), Ultraman (from JLA: Earth 2), and Overman (who we will meet again in Mastermen) to stop the ship, the Ultima Thule, from crashing into various Earths: the home of the Revengers; Doc Fate’s Earth 20; and Earth 17, home of the Atomic Knights.

The ship eventually crashes in Limbo, a concept from Morrison’s time writing Animal Man: the place where comic characters go when they’re not being used, and the various Supermen discover a book that has every story ever written in it. They learn the history of the multiverse, and in that history, Ultraman finds god: Mandrakk, the evil vampire Monitor feeding off of the stories produced by the multiverse. Eventually, Ultraman is unwantedly fused with Superman to ascend to Monitor-space and they fight off Mandrakk and his armies, and save the Orrery of Worlds, letting Superman return to “our” Earth with a sample of the Bleed (the substance that exists between universes, the ultimate healing liquid) that he gives to Lois and saves her.

If that sounds insane, it’s because it is. It was originally printed in 3D and came with those ridiculous red and blue glasses, to simulate Superman’s new power, “4D vision.” It’s densely packed with almost every ridiculous idea Morrison had about the character. Captain Atom actually comes out quite nicely here, going from the disconnected sociopath in Pax Americana to figuring out his role in the multiverse and being the catalyst behind the fight that eventually saves everything, and Morrison’s midpoint in his Superman saga ends with Superman revealing what to put on his tombstone: “To Be Continued.”

Bear with me for a second: I’m going to try and zip through the rest of this and focus on big points and what’s relevant to Superman.

We then jump back to the remains of Earth: Final Crisis: Submit is about how the Tattooed Man goes from bouncer at the Darkseid Club to a hero in the Justice League’s last Earthbound outpost, which we see fall to the Anti-Lifed up vast majority of the world in Final Crisis #4. In issue 5, the final battle in Bludhaven begins and we see the birth of Nix Uotan, SUPERJUDGE, as he had been banished to Earth by his colleagues, but he rediscovers his power when Metron’s ghost solves a Rubiks Cube in 17 moves (the fastest ever). In issue 6, the world ends: the heroes win in Bludhaven, but lose on the Watchtower as a black hole at the center of creation starts to collapse all of reality. Batman escapes captivity at Darkseid’s hand and uses a radion bullet to shoot Darkseid just before he’s struck by the Omega Sanction. Superman comes back from the future (he was hanging out with the various Legions of Super Heroes from a handful of timelines in the no-bullshit all-time classic Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds) finds Batman’s corpse, and gets super pissed.

If you are buying the collected version of these, don’t be surprised when you get two Batman stories (from Batman #682-683) dropped in after Final Crisis #5. They belong there, but aren’t relevant to the outcome of either our Morrison hatchet order or the conclusion to Final Crisis, they just add some really intense background to the story Batman goes through.

Collected in Final Crisis

Ultra Comics #1 

The comic that was spreading the infection through the multiverse in Multiversity is one of the toughest to understand in this entire arc, but if you look at it as a Superman story, it works very well.

Ultra Comics is a new hero created on Earth 33. He’s powered by imagination, by the collective power of being read and reread simultaneously, and he’s let loose on a decimated world. He runs into a broad analogue of the Newsboy Legion transporting a giant Rubiks Cube through the streets of a broken, deserted Manhattan under attack from giant insects. He’s captured by a group of Ultras from various other stories and nearly killed by Intellectron of the Gentry, before he heals himself and beats back the Gentry attack by unleashing snarky Tumblr comments.

This fits between the last two issues of Final Crisis really well for a lot of reasons, but the aesthetic ones are really strong: after Final Crisis #6, it’s easy to imagine the busted up New York City existing simultaneously to the battle in Bludhaven, made even easier by the fact that Doug Mahnke draws Ultra Comics and both of the final issues of Final Crisis.

Thematically, I think it fits there incredibly well, too. Ultra is the Superman stand in here, and he represents Superman without an audience. He’s a living comic book, one who reflects the times (there’s a sequence where he goes through ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s adventures in 4 panels) but at his core, he’s still just four colors of ink, pulp and a gem that represents imagination. But with no one there to read his stories, he fades to nothing – this is super meta, but his death comes when you close the comic.

Collected in The Multiversity

Final Crisis #7 

Which brings us to the end of Final Crisis, framed in large part as a bedtime story about Superman told by Supergirl to the last remaining humans after the collapse of the multiverse. Renee Montoya, at this point the Question, is travelling the multiverse gathering Supermen for a final battle as Supergirl tells the collected people what happened as the world fell: Darkseid was ripped out of Dan Turpin’s body by the Black Racer and the best (Wally West) and third best (the recently returned Barry Allen) Flashes; the villains, led by Lex Luthor, held back Darkseid’s armies; and Wonder Woman was healed of the mind control virus and freed the world from Anti-Life with her lasso.

Then Superman shrinks and freezes the remaining humans, builds the Miracle Machine (a magical wish granting machine), but before he can activate it, he’s attacked by Mandrakk and his vampiric servant, Ultraman. But Nix shows up with Captain Carrot, the Forever People, the Supermen of the multiverse and the Green Lantern Corps, and they successfully destroy Mandrakk. Superman puts the multiverse right with the Miracle Machine by wishing for a happy ending for everyone.

Scattering Multiversity throughout the rest of the Superman stories sets up contrasts with points Morrison’s been making his whole career, but it rearranges the narrative of Final Crisis at the same time. Final Crisis is now Nix’s origin story, showing how he got to the point of being SUPERJUDGE from just being a junior Monitor, and it’s easier to keep your eye on the end of FC, that the story is as much about Mandrakk as it is about Darkseid, with the story of the Monitors weaving in and out of the whole narrative.

Collected in Final Crisis

The Multiversity Guidebook #1 

The only issue of The Multiversity that isn’t a Superman story is a fun Batman one. The Multiversity Guidebook only describes part of what the comic does: it is an illustrated guide to the 52 universes of the known multiverse and a map of the cosmological composition of that multiverse (with the Hall of Heroes at the center, the Source Wall -on the edge, and the various realms of deities ringing the 52 Earths). But it also uses Kamandi and Omac (not the cool one from the Dan Didio/Keith Giffen New 52 story. A different one) to tell the history of the DC Universe, from the formation of the multiverse by the Monitors, through “The Flash of 2 Worlds” and the various Crises and Zero Hour and right up through Flashpoint.

But it also tells how the Transmatter Arrays work, and how the comics that are repeatedly showing up across the series are influencing other stories within the books, and it tells a pretty entertaining Batman story: the Lil’ League of Earth 42 is under attack by the Legion of Sivanas, and Atomic Knight Batman finds himself trapped in that world. Chibi Batman finds a copy of The Multiversity Guidebook on the ground and figures out that the Arrays are pathways to other worlds, and discovers that the other members of the Lil’ League are robots with perhaps a sinister purpose. He figures out how to turn the array on as Atomic Knight Batman is holding off the Sivanas, and Lil’ Batman ends up on Atomic Knight’s Earth (Earth 17) while Atomic Knight Batman shows up in the Hall of Heroes just before it falls under attack by the Gentry.

Collected in The Multiversity

And now, for the final act…

All-Star Superman and The End

All-Star Superman #1-5 

Structurally, All-Star Superman isn’t the geometrical Tool album that much of Morrison’s other work is. It’s a combination of one-offs, mini-arcs, or two-parters that all link together to tell one broader story, about Superman finding out that he’s dying, then performing his twelve great feats before he passes. But there is a point after issue 5 that feels like the story starts rolling downhill towards a grand conclusion.

Arguably the pair’s greatest work that doesn’t involve cyborg pets that make me cry a lot and really hard and then I get a little embarrassed, All-Star Superman is Morrison and Frank Quitely’s masterpiece, widely regarded as one of the best Superman stories ever told. In it, Lex Luthor sets Superman up to die by sabotaging a mission to the Sun: when Superman saves the astronauts, the solar radiation from being in its corona supercharges his cells, causing them to start to die.

Accepting his own mortality, Superman then sets out to settle his affairs, and by that I mean “fix the whole world.” (Please note: this is the exact point in writing when I had a flash of panic on Twitter about the end of New 52 Superman. I started writing this to react to terrible, terrible movie Superman, but it kinda turned into a dirge for the Superman who started in Action Comics).

The first five issues have more or less definitive moments between Superman and Lois, Superman and Jimmy and Superman and Lex: it’s Clark coming to terms with the Earthbound side of his life. He tells Lois, then makes her a serum that gives her the same powers he has for 24 hours; he gets dosed with black kryptonite while saving Jimmy at P.R.O.J.E.C.T. (the final evolution of Cadmus, into good guys inspired by Superman’s legacy instead of trying to design a weapon to kill him), so Jimmy shoots himself full of Doomsday formula to stop the Superdickery; and Clark interviews Lex on death row, challenging him to be greater while appearing to bumble his way through a prison riot.

Collected in All-Star Superman

Mastermen #1 

Morrison has been fascinated with the idea of Kal-el’s ship crashing in Nazi Germany for years, and here he gets to expand on the idea. Mastermen is fundamentally a tragedy: baby Kal-el is found by the Nazis in occupied Sudetenland in 1938 and raised in the reich to be their ultimate weapon. He wins the war for Germany, eventually leading the Nazis through Washington D.C. and creating a world where German is the baseline language.

Then he has to live with himself: we discover that he was unaware of the atrocities of the Nazis until after the war, and he’s wracked with guilt for helping them win. At a memorial service for Overgirl (whose death was a plot point in Final Crisis) when the New Reichsmen (think Nazi Justice League: Underwaterman/Aquaman, Brunnhilde/Wonder Woman, Leatherwing/Batman) come under attack from Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, they capture the Human Bomb and take him to the Eagle’s Nest (the Justice League watchtower).

It takes about half the issue to see the Overman from Final Crisis, the one who helped the heroes fight off Mandrakk’s armies and sacrificed his own blood so Zillo Valla could live. Jurgen Olsen, in a tv interview, calls Overman on sympathizing with the Freedom Fighters and expressing remorse for the atrocities committed by the Nazis to create the “utopia” they were living in, but doesn’t press the issue. Then, during the annual performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the Human Bomb goes off in the Eagle’s Nest, sending it crashing down to destroy Metropolis, despite Overman’s best efforts. Olsen narrates the entire issue, and he closes it by pointing out that he believes Overman knew what was going to happen, that he was party to the terrorist attack that killed millions when the Eagle’s Nest crashed into a city full of people.

None of this is Supermannish (Supermanly? Maybe just Super? Yeah, let’s just go with Super). Clark Kent Superman (or Calvin Ellis Superman, or Captain Marvel, or any of the good versions of Superman we’ve seen to this point) would have never been party to the atrocities of Nazi Germany, and if he inadvertently was, he would have figured out a way to solve the problem that didn’t include killing millions.

The point of Mastermen was to show a Superman without the nurturing component that the Kents provided. Jonathan and Martha provided his moral compass: take that away, Godwin’s Law it, and you get a Superman who still finds his way to a similar moral compass, but not before doing horrible things. You see points of comparison on both sides of this issue: with how Superman reacts to being turned into an asshole by the black kryptonite in All-Star Superman #4, and again in the following issue.

Collected in The Multiversity

All-Star Superman #6-12 

The back half of All-Star deals with Superman settling his Kryptonian accounts: he saves the world from a Bizarro invasion, then saves himself from Bizarro Earth; stops two Kryptonian explorers from taking over the planet before saving their lives by parking them in the Phantom Zone; and he defeats Solaris the Tyrant Sun (which you might remember from DC One Million) before inspiring Lex to be a better man. But before that, the entire story hinges on where it flips from his Earth heritage to his Kryptonian.

The sixth issue of All-Star Superman goes back in time to when Clark is still a teenager learning to use his powers. Three mysterious men show up to “help with the harvest,” but are actually Supermen from varying points in the future who travelled to Clark’s teenage years to stop an escaped Chronovore, a monster that eats time. Before they can stop it, it eats three minutes of his life. Three minutes he needed to save Pa from a heart attack, preventing young Superman from saving him. Here’s what he says at the funeral:

“Jonathan Kent taught me that the strong have to stand up for the weak and that bullies don’t like being bullied back. He taught me that a good heart is worth more than all the money in the bank. He taught me about life and death. He taught me that the measure of a man lies not in what he says but what he does. And he showed me by example how to be tough, and how to be kind and how to dream of a better world. Thanks, Pa. Those are lessons I’ll never forget.”

Moreso than the often-cited panel where he saves Regan from suicide in issue 10, I think this is the crux of All-Star Superman: that he’s the sum of his parts, that these varying components – Jimmy, Lois, the Planet, his Kryptonian heritage, his status as an adoptee and immigrant, both sets of parents, even Lex – all combined to make the hero that saves the sun. Issue 10 is usually called one of the best Superman comics of all time, but I think 6 is stronger, and I think the whole story is worth every bit of praise piled on it.

Collected in All-Star Superman

The Multiversity #2 

There is one thing noticeably absent from Morrison’s summary of everything that’s great about Superman from All-Star Superman, and that’s the Justice League. But! The conclusion of The Multiversity is all about the League.

It jumps around the multiverse to begin, but very quickly picks up where both issue 1 and the Guidebook left off, with the Hall of Heroes under attack from Hellmachine and the fake Rock of Eternity built by the Sivanas, and Nix Uotan as DARK SUPERJUDGE and our Superman stand in, battled by the combined might of a multiversal Justice League and a group of Avengers analogues.

The League battles Nix as he tries to solve a Rubiks Cube in 17 moves and open all the doors of reality to the Gentry, who plan to then destroy the multiverse. But he’s defeated by Red Racer, who summons every Flash from 52 worlds for an infinite mass punch, then immediately references the scene in JLA where Flash punches the Hyperclan speedster into space. With all the doors to reality open, heroes come pouring in from every world, and the Gentry are defeated. After that, a team of Justice League analogues – Captain Carrot (Martian Manhunter), Atomic Knight Batman, Aquawoman, President Superman, the Thunderer (Wonder Woman), Abin Sur (the Green Lantern of Earth 20) and Red Racer lead a group back to the Thunderer’s world, where they’re greeted by a giant that looks like Trigon but all in shadows, with Ultra Comics’ logo on his forehead, who calls himself The Empty Hand.

We could talk about the craft that went into this, like the panel layouts once the Rubiks Cube is solved shifting into an infinite grid; or we could talk about how the Empty Hand represents DC Editorial, and how by fighting off the Gentry, Operation Justice Incarnate proved the value of a multiverse as an editorial tool; or we could talk about the Gentry being plagues that affect comics specifically (ennui, overanalysis, a flooded market, inanity, etc). But this is a Superman story, and that’s the point too: Nix planned for the attack, and ultimately won because he trusted that the heroes of the multiverse would be up to the task. Comics are saved because Superman has faith in them.

Collected in The Multiversity