Superman & The Authority: The Case for a More Compassionate Man of Steel

Legendary comics writer Grant Morrison takes us inside the creation of a thoroughly modern Man of Steel who is "unlikely to ever become an authoritarian monster."

Superman & The Authority
Photo: DC Comics

This article contains spoilers for Superman & The Authority.

The Man of Steel of Superman & The Authority looks a little different than you might be used to. Graying at the temples, a hint of smile lines around his eyes, and a capeless outfit that looks equally ready for some serious work in a laboratory or a super-powered street fight. It’s an older, wiser, Superman, sporting a look befitting a man with a teenage son and years of experience under his belt, and he brings all the patience and wisdom that you’d expect him to have as he reaches superheroic middle age.

And while this look is a holdover from the old 5G publishing initiative (the fixed timeline continuity shuffle which would have seen established characters age and legacy characters take over, abandoned when DC co-publisher Dan DiDio left the company), it’s about the only thing from DiDio’s Superman pitch that stuck around.

“We went to this restaurant and Dan proposed this notion,” Superman & The Authority writer Grant Morrison tells us by phone. “He said, ‘We want to do a Superman who’s older, and his son has taken over…but as Superman gets older, he becomes more fascistic and authoritarian.’”

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For the writer behind arguably the definitive Superman story of our century in All-Star Superman, a tale full of hope and idealism even as it dealt with reflective meditations on mortality, the concept of an authoritarian Man of Steel didn’t sit right. 

“I knew that Dan was just doing this to wind me up, because that’s the kind of story I just can’t abide,” Morrison says. “My version of Superman has always been this idea of what’s the best humanity can be. He’s got super strength, and he’s got super resolve, but he also has super compassion and super understanding. My version of Superman is unlikely to ever become an authoritarian monster.” 

A Unifying Theory of Superman Continuity?

But Superman & The Authority (which features art by Mikel Janin, Jordie Bellaire, Travel Foreman, and more!) doesn’t open on that older Superman. It begins with the Man of Steel in his prime…hanging out with President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It’s a seemingly incongruous moment, and in true Morrison style, it’s explained away in a brief line of dialogue later in the book, but in their head, there’s more to the story. It’s similar in concept to a key piece of Morrison’s Batman epic, where the Dark Knight was briefly presumed dead but had simply become displaced in time, before we see him arriving in different eras and piecing his “self,” and ultimately the very idea of Batman, back together.

“I had this notion that Superman actually went through something similar,” Morrison says. “Maybe Darkseid zapped him with the Omega Beams, but a Superman who’s tumbling through time.” 

And if you look closely at the background in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, you’ll spot evidence of this mysterious, untold, time-tossed adventure, from King Arthur’s actual roundtable to a famed ship from Greek mythology to what appears to be H.G. Wells’ time machine to a TARDIS and more.

“He was part of the court of King Arthur,” Morrison says. “He’s got the Argo in his Fortress of Solitude, so you think maybe this guy hung out with Hercules and Achilles. Maybe he had all these adventures in time. And part of that was to be in 1963 and work with Kennedy.”

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Morrison famously made eight decades worth of Batman history fit together, but it’s not something that works as easily with Superman. Despite the fact that Morrison has penned tales of a brash, young Superman learning the ropes (during the New 52 Action Comics era from 2011-2012) as well as one at the very end of his career (the aforementioned All-Star Superman), continuity scholars might want to adjust their expectations slightly.

“I kind of make a point of not allowing it to fit together perfectly,” Morrison says. “But I do have my own Superman who begins as the t-shirt and jeans kid from Action Comics and who maybe goes through this moment in Superman & The Authority then winds up some years later with All-Star Superman but it doesn’t quite fit. In my own head there is a unified version, [but] there have been so many big changes and radical overhauls in Superman that I don’t think you can do that without running into quite a few contradictions. It works with Batman in a way that it just doesn’t since Superman has been really overhauled a few times.”

As the main story of Superman & The Authority unfolds, we see that Superman has aged, and his power levels are a little lower than what is normally associated with the character. The reasoning for this has been explored in the pages of Action Comics by Philip Kennedy Johnson and Daniel Sampere, where after fighting off an alien threat, Superman finds his powers fading, even as a larger cosmic menace looms. After finding himself on the outs with the Justice League, Superman needs to put a team together, which is where the Authority comes in.

To put Superman in charge of the Authority, a team that was the product of some very- of-their-time early 21st Century comics, Morrison looked much further back for inspiration, not to the stories that spawned the Authority, but to one of the key influences of Superman himself: Doc Savage. First appearing in pulp adventure novels in 1933, Doc Savage was billed as “a superman” in his early appearances, was superhumanly strong and tough, a scientific genius with an arctic “fortress of solitude” who was known as “the Man of Bronze” and who had a team of adventurers at his disposal. 

“If we have a Superman with these power levels then let’s do Doc Savage,” Morrison says. “Because that’s what it struck me as. The concept of Superman in his Arctic fortress and he has a team of experts who he can go to. I thought there was mileage in taking him back to those pulp roots and do a kind of Doc Savage version of Superman.”

Morrison then took that one step further, teasing elements of Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse’s own Doc Savage tribute, Tom Strong, in how Superman & The Authority uses another legacy hero… 

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Steel

“In issue two, we position Steel as our new Tom Strong in relation to Doc Savage,” Morrison says. “Steel becomes that kind of figure who’s the second generation version of that concept. It was very much thinking from the pulp roots onwards and the iterations of that and trying to work them back into DC continuity.”

Steel is a key figure in both Superman history and in this book in particular. John Henry Irons is a genius who created a suit of armor to honor his hero after Superman saved his life, and his daughter, Natasha Irons, now has taken up the superheroic mantle of Steel, as well. The second chapter of Superman & The Authority sees Natasha, a young Black woman, dealing with literal manifestations of the worst elements of the internet, some spouting frighteningly accurate dialogue. It’s an amusing detail considering how averse to social media Morrison remains.

“The truth is, I kind of read everything. I check everything, I just don’t participate,” Morrison says. “[It comes back to] the idea of an older Superman trying to deal with that kind of modernity. [When] we have Steel up against literal bots and literal trolls…but at the end Natasha Irons recognizes that this is just some kind of weird, crunchy, literal attempt to do the internet. So I also had to be a bit self aware about it as well because I’m just an old person looking at that. I’m not a native of that world.”

Manchester Black

With these interpretations of the internet running through the book, it’s fitting that the first person Superman recruits for his new Authority is someone who’d feel right at home as an internet edgelord: Manchester Black. Using Black here is itself self-referential, as the character and his team, the Elite, was first created in 2001 by Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke as a Superman antagonist meant to represent the kind of cynicism that had been popularized in comics by books like The Authority.

“I think people have thought Manchester Black is some kind of millennial caricature, because all the Authority members are Gen X, Gen Z, or millennial,” Morrison says. “But he’s a sociopath. People should always remember that. He’s really charismatic and he’s funny and he’s smart, but he’s a sociopath. He’s a monster. He has potential hidden agendas. He’s a master of using the language of anti-oppression to justify oppression and to also protect himself from criticism…He’s way worse than a millennial caricature. He’s a sociopathic monster who’s really sexy and charismatic.”

Building the New Authority

While many of the notions that rocketed comics like The Authority to success in the early part of the 21st Century have fallen out of fashion, Morrison still has a certain fondness for the concept, even as Superman & The Authority deliberately avoids many of them.

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“I was very excited when The Authority came out by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch,” Morrison says. “It seemed to take the notion of the JLA which I’d been doing at DC and advance it a little bit. It was kind of, what if the bastards were on our side? What if the left had these monstrous characters who would actually impose their will on the world? It seemed kind of exciting and interesting, but obviously as time went by, those type of characters seem to share some kind of DNA with terrorism, with authoritarianism, with all the things that became unpleasant.”

It’s part of the reason that the Authority introduced in this book only includes two members of that original team, Midnighter and Apollo (alongside Manchester Black, the full roster includes Steel, Enchantress, and new versions of Jack Kirby’s Lightray and OMAC).

“[The Authority] was great at the time, it was punk superheroes,” Morrison says. “But really it kind of trivialized world problems that then became bigger and bigger. So this was something different. This was, could we make an analog team that was like the Authority but wasn’t the original Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, Frank Quitely Authority but took some of that attitude. It’s trying to capture that feeling but at the same time to interrogate it because it didn’t really work. A lot of what we hoped for, a lot of what the radical utopian left and the creative community hoped for didn’t really turn out the way we hoped or turned out in a way that yeah, that’s what we wanted but it was the bad guys who got it right.”

The Villains

There are multiple villains in Superman & The Authority , from Superman rogues’ gallery mainstay Brainiac to noted DC hero corrupter Eclipso, to the Ultra-Humanite. The first true supervillain the Man of Steel ever faced (before this, Superman was mostly taking on crooks, corrupt politicians, and the like), the Ultra-Humanite pre-dates Lex Luthor as the ultimate exploration of villainous mind over superhuman muscle. An evil scientist with a penchant for swapping his brain into other bodies, a favorite being an enormous albino gorilla, Morrison found a decidedly modern spin for the baddie.

“He was Superman’s earliest superhuman foe and I love the idea of updating the whole thing so that it becomes this collective intelligence,” Morrison says. “In the old stories he would transplant his brain and sometimes he was a beautiful young actress and other times a monster ape. There was just something brilliant about, at what point do you lose your identity? At what point do you become something else if you can transplant your brain? If he’s got multiple bodies, what if he now has multiple brains? You can clone the brain and the brain just resets so there’s all these Ultra-Humanites who can assume different bodies and attack the world as a kind of viral or distributed threat.”

But ultimately, the conflict between Superman and Ultra-Humanite as envisioned here comes down to something much more simple and timeless.

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“Superman represents the singular, the hero of the 20th century, the sovereign human,” Morrison says. “Ultra-Humanite is something much more than that in the sense that he’s a network, a distributed intelligence. To have that against the notion of the individual in the singular man seemed interesting.”

Brainiac is famed for trying to “preserve” civilizations from across the cosmos by capturing them, although Morrison took a slightly different approach with the character here.

“We’ve come to a point where you can almost sympathize with [Brainiac],” Morrison says. “I was watching a thing [about] a scientist creating a genetic library of endangered animals, and it seemed so almost tragic. These animals are still here! The tigers are still here. You can’t save them in the real world, but you’re trying to preserve them as cell cultures in the hope that in the future…In the future? What? We’ve already got them and you can’t fucking deal with it! Where’s the place for the Siberian tiger in the future?”

What’s Next for Grant Morrison and Superman?

It all wraps up in a way that’s very unlike Morrison’s previous Superman work. Unlike All-Star or Action Comics or even JLA, which ended with an undeniable summation of those versions of the character, Morrison opted to leave doors open for more stories.

“I wanted everything to be ambiguous,” Morrison says. “I wanted to break down in that fourth issue the basic structures of the superhero story. Who’s the villain? Who’s the good guy? What is the argument here? Superman actually just walking out of it at the end was my ultimate deconstruction. It’s kind of shocking. Even Brainiac, a machine, is shocked. I did want it to be like maybe Brainiac’s got a point and maybe there’s some way going forward where the Jon Kent Superman might find a way to deal with Brainiac. Are there other ways of dealing with these challenges posed by alleged villains?”

The final pages of Superman & The Authority certainly open the door to more adventures with the team, but Morrison doesn’t have any plans to return any time soon. Instead, the story will continue in the pages of Action Comics as the team heads into space to take on the resurgent threat of Warworld.

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“I just came in to do the team lining up and meeting and going out to do whatever the next mission would have been,” Morrison says. “And it now dovetails with what Philip Kennedy Johnson’s doing in Action Comics. I really enjoyed the characters but that’s it for me. As this is kind of the final DC book I’m doing for a long time probably, leaving it as open ended, ‘to be continued,’ and being part of just a big story, I think is appropriate.”

Superman & The Authority is now available in hardcover, wherever comics are sold.