Tag Archives: superman

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.

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Secret Identity

Secret Identity

Secret Identity is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but never quite got to.

It was sold to me in a variety of ways: a Superman book that’s not a Superman book, a metatextual examination of the legacy of the Big Blue Boy Scout and otherwise a fun comic.  It had a lovely pedigree and all but…

Well, I fixed that, anyway.

First off?  It’s guh-guh-guh-gorgeous.  But, then, it’s a Stuart Immonen joint and that’s par for the course; here he’s leaning a bit more realistic compared to the clean, angular stylization he used in Ultimate Spider-Man and refined in Nextwave.  It’s kind of odd to see the sharpness I’ve always admired in his style dialed back and for his figures to be rounder and less cartooned, but it works well, particularly with the relatively muted colour palate Immonen uses; the whole affair seeming to signal that, no, this is not a “real” Superman story but, instead, something a bit more related to our own normal world.

A bit, anyway.

Immonen’s art, always a high point in any book, really well compliments the writing duties by veteran superhero scribe Kurt Busiek, who’s worked on the big titles like Avengers but become best known for his work as the writer of Astro City, which has been the gold standard for humanizing the superhero genre.

And here he goes to humanize Superman.

So, taken as a whole, does Secret Identity work?

Almost.

Not really, but al­-bloody-most.

So, the story is about a poor, introverted schmuck in a world largely like our own who’s saddled with the name Clark Kent.  His family makes a bunch of bad Superman jokes at him and the other kids at his rural Kansas school make Superman references the cornerstone of their bullying campaign.

And then he wakes up with Superman’s powers.

What follows is a series of vignettes over the course of the four 48-page issues wherein our Clark comes to terms with his powers, debates becoming a public figure like his comic book namesake and while he doesn’t exactly do battle with the government, he absolutely has to come to terms with it and…

Well, the problem with Secret Identity is that for all it’s a good-hearted and on the short-list for “the only Superman story you really need” award, for all the super-feats and kindly perspectives about people even when they’re not on the side of Our Hero and for all the gorgeous moments of humanity throughout, it’s not a story about anything more than its high concept: “what if Superman was just a dude in a world like ours?”

And that’s all it is, start to finish.

And maybe that’s enough, you know?  Maybe it’s enough to be sweet with the superhero genre instead of violent, to have smiles over teeth-gritting grimaces and healthy relationships over dramatic ones.  Maybe it’s enough to follow Clark Kent through his journey from frightened kid to secret superhero to super-patriarch.

But by the end, for all I felt good that I’d read it and for all that I wish I could read another dozen things with that same heart, it wasn’t much of a superhero story.  No giant robots, no evil geniuses, no master plans, no space aliens; there’s only one guy in spandex and no one dies unnaturally.  No one makes speeches or clearly espouses their defining characteristics with tons of exclamation points.  There are no tears or big, loud betrayals.

That said, it’s one of the best super-man (as opposed to Superman) stories I’ve read and one of the few stories with superpowers (and, by the end, superhumans) in it that doesn’t at some point devolve into a lot of punches, kicks and explosions.  There are a couple, sure.  And a few super-feats to boot.  There are a few moments where our Clark is allowed to be frightening, sure, but true to the spirit of the work, he’s never the bully he could be.

It’s just this rambling story of a young man named Clark who meets a young woman named Lois who does all the good he can before retiring to a good life with his kids as the world passes him by.

As I’ve come to think of a superhero story, it’s a total failure.

Which speaks either to the limitations of the genre or the flaws in my understanding of it because there isn’t much I’ve ever read, aside from a couple issues of the new Astro City (also by Busiek, sadly without Immonen), that spoke so well to the human drama part of superhuman drama.

And, honestly, with the lack of massive character arc, it might not even be that great a drama.  But it’s one of the better ones to come out of the superhero genre.  That might be damning with faint praise, but it’s also a sign of hope that the genre can be more than the latest attempt of a crew of well-meaning and talented individuals to turn Disney or Warner Brothers’ marketing plans into worthwhile stories.

In the meanwhile, I’m gonna have to see about picking up some Astro City.

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Final Crisis

Final Crisis

NOTE:  So to be clear, I only read the Final Crisis hardcover.  There are supplementary collections which have a lot of stuff by people I like but… well, those aren’t the main story and even if they are, what the hell are they doing in some other book?  Crossover bloat is bad enough when it happens on the stands.

Final Crisis is the culmination of plot threads which start in Morrison’s Seven Soldiers (about which more later) and keep building through 52 (again; more later) right on up to here, the Summer Blockbuster Event Comic To End All Summer Blockbuster Event Comics.  The DC Universe faces its weirdest, most devastating conflict that rocks its core with the whole of Creations at stake with everything filtered through metanarratives and playing with the nature of the comic book and all those other things Morrison’s so fond of talking about.

So right up front, the ambition level’s high.  A sure way to win you points in my book.

But does it work?

As a hardcover, it works a lot better than it did in floppies, not only because I feel like the story benefits from a bit of immediacy but also because in its original run, three of the chapters—two of which are necessary for understanding the end of the story and one which drove home what the rest of the book had made explicit only to set up a narrative arc that never went anywhere—were offered as optional tie-ins, something which irked me to no end.

But does it work?

Well… mostly.

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