All-Star Superman

All-Star Superman

This is not the best song in the world, no/This is just a tribute”  -Tenacious D

It’s weird trying to be critical in a real proper sense where you try to at least make an effort at divorcing yourself from your relationship to the material.  But that’s what you have to do when it comes to picking apart things you’ve loved.  I bought All-Star Superman in its twelve individual issues over the course of nearly three years (artist Frank Quitely is rather notorious for his deliberate pace) and adored it.  I later purchased it in the two volumes of trade paperback that came out and later still, I finally managed to pick up one of DC’s “Absolute” editions—oversized, printed on lovely paper with some bonus material (sketches and the like) in lovingly-designed hardcovers with sturdy slipcases.  I love this book from its first page (a four-panel, eight word origin of Superman) to the last.  It was what it set out to be: a celebration of the most well-known elements of the Superman character all tied together with the creators’ ultimate expression of Superman as working-class sun god.  I love how it brings in all these weird fragmented concepts together to do a kind of weird, rambling greatest hits collection, incorporating the best parts of a handful of iterations of the character across various continuities and wrapping it all up with Morrisonian high concepts and Frank Quitely’s amazing quasi-European superhero art.

But now, trying to figure out how it works, my opinion’s changed some and I realize that a lot of that change—as is a recurring theme when I go back and examine works by Grant Morrison—is due in large part to examining what’s literally there as opposed to what I was projecting onto the work.

Now, before we begin I want to say that where my opinion has changed, it’s nothing to do with Frank Quitely.  Quitely’s art takes some getting used to, sure.  The first few times I saw his bulky, bricky forms and his bizarrely squished faces back when he was working with Mark Millar on The Authority, I was repulsed.  But then, over years of seeing his work crossing my eye in the books I was reading, I started to become more and more of a fan, particularly since despite the borderline ugliness of his figures is complimented by a gorgeous sense of dynamism, flow and life in each image and the flow of the storytelling is nearly unmatched in American cape comics.  Again, the guy is deliberate in the pace of his output but there is, to my thinking, no arguing with the results.

Special credit, also, must be given to Jamie Grant’s colours.  This is a fun, poppy book that overcomes my usual preference for flat colours in my cape comics; there’s something in the almost-embossed quality the colours often give to Quitely’s lines that just make everything seem to jump off the page, as if you could hang out in the world if only you were in the middle of some glorious fever dream or on the borderlands of some technicolour nirvana.  The boldness, the glorious use of high-saturation primary colours come together to make what is easily one of the most glorious and joyful-to-behold books to hit the stands in ages.

Beyond the beauty of the book (and it is, again, beautiful), I have to come at All-Star Superman from three different levels, if only to keep the part of my brain which held… and, in spite of everything, still holds All-Star Superman in high regard somewhat satisfied.  It’s strange to love a thing and be aware that, for the most part, it’s actually a very mediocre work.  There’s some weird mental gymnastics that go on and I evaluate the whole thing first as a fan—not only of Superman but of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely—then as a critic, then as someone who wants to tell stories himself, trying to figure out how it could have worked better.

And since those are the people I was when I re-read this, those are the three people who are going to discuss the book.

Many of Morrison’s runs on superhero comics have a lot to offer long-time fans of whatever it is he’s working on; he brings in elements from different eras and applies modern sensibilities to them to make them seem less absurd or more sublime and while those are great for those long-time fans, he often stumbles when trying to make this thing which he clearly loves so very much accessible to people who don’t already share his opinion.  Certainly, the situations he conjures up will support the fan and remind them of reasons they loved a thing or, sometimes, give them new perspectives on the thing but he’s not great at being new-reader friendly.  All-Star Superman is no different in this respect.  Indeed, there’s almost nothing really new in All-Star Superman.  Sure, some new takes, some weird sidelong looks at things but nothing really original.  The only things even arguably so would be late-coming villain Solaris, the Tyrant Sun (who originally appeared in another Morrison-written series, DC One Million—The Morrison Papers go on and on…) and Leo Quintum, an enigmatic scientist with impeccably bizarre style.  Quintum functions as every incarnation of “the good scientist” Superman ever encountered in his travels, separated from later characters who would fill the same role, perhaps by Morrison’s own desire to return to the character later (a habit of his) or by some arcane editorial mandate.  And while there’s very little new in the book, it’s nonetheless a lot of fun to see Silver Age titles like Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olson and Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane referenced in with all  the weird science adventures, the bizarre transformations and the constant back-and-forth between Superman and his supporting cast about their unwillingness to believe the protagonist when he claims that a change of posture, mussed hair and a pair of glasses could make anyone think that Superman, paragon of humanity and clumsy, oafish farmboy Clark Kent were the same person, even as Superman shows them time and time again.

If you know the moments and ideas being referenced, it’s hard not to smile a little to see them re-imagined in so glorious a style and with such a deft, human touch.  It’s hard, by the end of it, to not take a moment to reflect on how little many current incarnations of the Superman character reflect the humanist sun-god in All-Star Superman’s pages.

Again, on this level, the tribute album level, All-Star Superman succeeds wildly.  It’s every classic Superman story you ever thought of brought together into a poetic whole with a graceful, sweet-natured ending that reads like pure Morrison and his kindest, sealing this ur-Superman into a pleasantly mythic cycle of great deeds and heroism echoing through the ages.

But if this level has a weakness—a weakness it shares with every way of reading the series—it’s that it leans a bit too heavily on the reader knowing at least the basics of the Superman mythos: Superman is an alien raised here on Earth to become a paragon not just of body but also of virtue; he is opposed by Lex Luthor, a titan of human intellect who hates him; his best friend is Jimmy Olson, a quirky cub reporter/photographer; his girlfriend his Lois Lane, the greatest reporter on Earth.  It’ll help if you know the deeper cut cast like Lana Lang, Pete Ross, Steve Lombard and Cat Grant but they don’t get the attention the rest of the cast does.  This isn’t really a problem through most of the series but it does become a bit frustrating when some of the stranger plot points are just handwaved away with a couple lines of dialog referencing recurring menaces we never see or other heroes we’ve never met.  Introducing a Bizarro Justice League, for instance, doesn’t make a lot of sense when we’ve never seen the non-Bizarro Justice League nor ever received any explanation as to what a Bizarro is or why a predator-planet from an underverse might mimic them.

It may be unfair to point out this weakness as the work is not made for the new reader; judging a work on the audience it isn’t for is not meeting a work on its own terms but it’s also a way to at least attempt to describe the work as it is instead of on its own terms.  Indeed, any reader with sufficient imagination or a superhero comic fan’s necessary habit of filling in the blanks could figure it out but there’s a certain break in a narrative flow that comes when you have to wonder if you’re understanding things correctly or have to actively build a kind of narrative detour around a line of dialogue because it doesn’t make much sense in context.

And on that thought, we come to the first level at which All-Star Superman doesn’t work: strictly as a story.

The story is simple: pop-culture mainstay Superman’s powers are supercharged to the point that he’s burning out; he’s dying.   In his last days, he sets about to take his enhanced powers and do some lasting good in the world while, at the same time, his greatest enemy Lex Luthor dives headfirst into a death sentence, as part of his master plan to finally—finally!—get revenge on a world that loved Superman better than him.

As plots go, you could do worse.

But while we are introduced to the cast and shown their personalities in a variety of quick and clever ways, the plot is shackled to the aforementioned tribute structure, creating unevenly-paced chapters which make the series of events which unfold throughout seem almost random—which might be an accurate representation of the era of cape comics All-Star means to emulate but which does very little to move the story along, slowing things down to explain or slowing the reader down as they try to fill in the holes the story will never return to.  An astute reader may have noticed that this is a common complaint for me when it comes to Morrison’s writing, where he tries to do things which are largely incompatible.  His ambition toward that goal (to create a book which is both a tribute to the Silver Age Superman and the story of the fantastic last days of that ur-superhero) is, as ever, to be praised but in this instance, as is becoming a theme on this blog, he fails in execution.

And, again, let me be clear that it can only be the writing at fault here:  Quitely and Grant are on top form from beginning to end.  It’s Morrison’s uneven pacing and dropped plot threads that make the work so frustrating, even as I continue to adore it; more, I realize, because of the emotional associations I have to it than the work itself.  Not to discount the value of those kinds of emotional attachments but that’s what the fan-level of reading it is about.

Speaking of dropped plot threads, we come to the third level, in which an idea from outside the work comes in and fixes it.

Now, this is mostly for people who’ve already read the book and probably has no place in a review but as I’d heard of this idea and its presence in my head shaped a lot of the love I have for the work, I wouldn’t feel right not including it as it’s part of what made me really love the book—especially when I thought that it might have been intentional.  It also constitutes a bit of a spoiler so call this a warning.

See, at some point, a reader far more clever than I noted a similarity in design between the way Good Scientist Leo Quintum and Evil Scientist Lex Luthor were drawn, particularly as of Luthor’s last appearances in the book where the cut of his clothes strongly resembles the cuts of Quintum’s.

The theory goes that when Lex, at the end of the series, sees the world as Superman does and has a revelation “It’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.”  This gives him a drive to take his intellect and do some good in the world, this time alongside his former enemy only in the past under a different name, changing the “them” X in his name to a more “us” O and fooling the world into thinking he was someone else exactly as Superman would: with a change of hair, of wardrobe and—naturally—a pair of glasses, futuristic though they may be.

Let us take a moment to point out, though, that this is an idea which works only because of Quitely’s involvement in the book.  Morrison’s writing supports it, but it’s based almost entirely on Quitely’s character designs and his skill as an artist.

Layering this idea—an idea Morrison has claimed not to have intended and which I’ve never heard Quitely deny—over the already-existing levels of uneven story and eager tribute not only plugs a kind of narrative hole:  namely to ask why a new character would appear in a tribute book amidst a sea of old familiar faces and take so central a role in the series.  It also goes a step further in differentiating the super-labours Superman undertakes throughout the series from the mere super-feats performed regularly in the non-All-Star books because this version of events allows one thing to happen that a regular continuity comic could never allow: the redemption of Lex Luthor through a moment of empathy with Superman.

This allows for the series to not only allow Superman to transcend mere super-mortality through death to become a kind of proletariat sun-god but also allows for Lex Luthor (who goes through the motions of a death sentence as well, a sacrifice of himself to himself) to transform from a bitter bald man into a kindly, quirky science-wizard whose creations at all turns ensure that Superman will complete his labours and that his legacy of heroism—we are assured that such is Superman’s legacy, right on through the 853rd century—will endure.

It will surprise precious few of you to know that ever since I heard this counternarrative (or complimentary narrative?  What would you call it?), this version is the version I read whenever I open the book because it takes some strange and sometimes sloppy storytelling and folds it into something that’s actually kind of beautiful and illustrative of the point the main story never quite gets around to selling:

That Superman is SOOO good, you guys.  Like, it’ll make you cry when you think about how full-on, honestly and unselfconsciously good Superman is.  And if you could see the world like he does, you’d be that kind of good, too.

And while its remix/tribute album nature make it unsuitable as an introduction to Superman and his world*, it makes it a decent enough cap to any set of Superman stories because, for all the tribute parts make it uneven, running this filter over it makes what is already one of the better endings Morrison’s written into one of the most beautiful statements about the power of empathy to change the world.

*:  I tentatively recommend (because I haven’t reviewed it here) Leinil Yu/Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright for that; possibly Gary Frank/Geoff Johns’ Superman: Secret Origins (not to be confused with Immonen/Busiek’s Secret Identity).

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