Written by: Danny Lewis, Special to CC2K
It seems like everyone everywhere in Comic-dom is talking about Grant Morrison these days. Sure, he’s one of the biggest writers in comics and is tackling some of the industry’s most beloved icons. But no matter how much I love his work, I really hate him and Frank Quietly right now. Why, you ask? Because last week marked the end of their phenomenal 12-issue run on All-Star Superman.
READER BEWARE: ARTICLE INCLUDES SPOILERS!!
As a comic star, Superman had never really struck me as incredibly interesting. He was just too damn powerful, too damn unbelievable. What was the point of reading comics if no one could really give him trouble? Then, two years ago I heard that the New X-Men team of Morrison and Quietly would be tackling Superman. “Okay,” I thought. “Not a big Superman fan, but it’s worth a shot.” So I bought the first issue. Two pages in and I knew that I was in for the whole ride.
Drawing inspiration from the Silver Age Superman, there seem to be no limits to this glimpse of what Superman’s world might have been had there been no Crisis on Infinite Earths (although don’t take that literally – I don’t want to see any arguing about whether this is Earth-37 or Earth-42, or any of that jazz). This Superman is super-charged with solar energy, operating as a transcendent being looking out for our little planet. Even his language, the way he speaks about seeing radio waves and even creating life in an infant universe (Qeweq, one of Morrison’s pet ideas) denotes a higher existence than any mere human could grasp. Even Lex Luthor under the influence of a temporary superpower serum has no words for his experience. Morrison has stated that he sees this version of Superman as a direct continuation of the Silver-Age stories he grew up on, where there was less of a focus on making Superman “more realistic” and, in his eyes, more of a sheer enjoyment of what a man like Superman could do. Superman, unrealistic? Gosh, how could that be? At the very least, All-Star Superman was a relief from the realism that is in vogue in superhero comics these days, and Morrison and Quietly were willing to sidestep that entire world. Everything in this comic seems new and beautiful, even the garbage-covered surface of the Bizarro-World. There’s a wonder and joy to life in this series that I have yet to find in any other comic. No angst-ridden Superman stripped of his powers, no “grim and gritty” darkness covering the world (can we get rid of that phrase yet?), just the sheer joy of this amazing universe. Yet, while most people tend to fixate on the “Twelve Labors of Superman” that he is prophesied to complete before his death, All-Star Superman is at its heart an examination of how Superman spends his last days on Earth. It’s about revisiting concepts and characters who throughout the years have defined and been defined by the Man of Steel. Each issue is an exploration of some aspect of the Superman mythos and how it helps to define the titular hero. These go from grand ideas on the cosmic scale like the Bizzaro-World, Htrae, to the Clark Kent/Superman duality.
That’s not to sidestep the dimension that Frank Quitely brings to the book. His drawing style is very much a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing, and was one of the reasons I was initially skeptical of All-Star Supes, but I have to give him credit. The man draws an awesome Superman. He even manages to make Superman awe-inspiring and astonishingly powerful without wrapping him in biceps-upon-biceps. His Superman looks more like a really buff guy, not covered in those freakish bulges that so many superheroes call “arms.” Quitely manages to endow the rest of the cast with great acting: Zibarro’s desperation, for example, Lois’ paranoia another, Jimmy Olsen’s bravado yet a third. Also, anyone who can manage to give form to the crazy stuff that Morrison continues to churn out book after book and make it look great gets a gold star in my book any day.
The series opens with what is maybe the most beautiful and awe-inspiring retelling of Superman’s origin story, and it’s a whole three pages long. This goes to show that you don’t need to devote pages and pages to Superman’s origin, or even to lay the most complicated details onto the character. He’s Superman. It’s just that simple. In the first issue alone we see Superman rescue a spaceship from falling into the sun, defeat a humanoid bomb bio-engineered by Lex Luthor, and develop new powers just in time to discover that his close encounter with the source of his superpowers has overloaded his system and fatally poisoned him. Superman is dying and there’s no cure. Luthor, triumphant, is taken to prison. And Clark Kent reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane.
The series touches base on significant parts of Superman’s life, such as the death of Pa Kent (here shown to be an indirect result of the impetuousness of the young Superman), a day in the life of Jimmy Olsen (who, in this continued Silver Age has become something of an adventurer himself), and a one-on-one meeting between Clark Kent and the imprisoned Luthor. The Luthor-Superman dynamic is an important theme in this series, and a fascinating analysis of their enmity. Throughout the issue, Luthor refuses to stop whining about how “if only Superman was out of the picture, I could make the world a better place!” “Superman is preventing us from achieving our full potential!” You get the gist of it. While Luthor is undoubtedly brilliant, he is also shown to be incredibly short sighted in his arrogance. Clark Kent uses his powers to save Luthor’s life several times over the course of their interview in the midst of a prison riot, and not once does the so-called genius pick up on it. Even though I, personally, tend to like the interpretation of Luthor as seeing Superman as a stopping block to human ingenuity, here this philosophical bent is shown to be nothing more than an excuse. Luthor can’t abide Superman, and for all of his talk of being able to save the world but for Superman, he has nothing to back it up. Even his superpower serum was a stolen copy of the serum Superman made for Lois in the beginning of the series. Luthor may be brilliant, but he wins the prize for Most Arrogant Man alive. If he really wanted to, he could’ve saved the world years ago, as Superman rightly points out in dealing the final blow to the super villain. In the end, once Superman has saved the Earth and become a pacemaker for the sun, there is nothing left for Luthor. Like Frank Miller’s interpretation of the Joker in The Dark Knight Returns, Luthor defines himself so entirely in opposition to Superman that once he has achieved his goal, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. His life ends, quietly and sadly, while Superman’s legacy lives on.
Sure, the crazy concepts about the DNA P.R.O.J.E.C.T. and Superman’s seemingly unlimited powers are pretty awesome, but the real beauty of this series is how the Morrison/Quietly team handles the small moments. In what was simultaneously one of the funniest and the most heart-breaking gags I have seen in any medium, Lois refuses to believe that Clark Kent is actually Superman for no other reason than he’s disguised himself so well. Even the way in which Superman’s entire posture changes in the Clark Kent disguise lends itself to Lois’ disbelief. There’s a scene in the second issue where Superman stands in front of a mirror of truth that stands in his Fortress of Solitude and puts on the Kent glasses, assuming his disguise. While the mirror shows Superman gazing out confidently, Clark Kent stands in Superman’s uniform, afraid of telling Lois that he is about to die. Quitely pays remarkable attention to each detail of the two, making them as visually distinct as Perry White is from Bizarro. That, juxtaposed with Lois’ confusion over Superman’s identity and their relationship is poignant. Lois’ greatest fear as shown alongside of Superman’s is that Superman is telling the truth about his identity, that “there really was some part of him that was bumbling, oafish Clark Kent.” Even though Superman is never off duty (take a look at some of the amazing rescues he makes while disguised as Clark), this issue seriously questions his alter ego. Superman can never really doubt himself or anyone: he’s a symbol of the hope that can make any rough patch just a little bit easier to bear. But perhaps Clark Kent, the human, is the outlet for the insecurity that even Superman must sometimes feel. Yet even in the face of his death at the hands of a super-powered Lex Luthor, Superman never lets down his confidence. Holed away in his Antarctic Fortress, maybe. But never where he can be seen. He is aware of his role in the world, and not even his final transformation to a higher state of existence at the end of the series can prevent him from doing his job to the best of his abilities, forgoing transcendence to fight evil one last time.
I think this is the key to Morrison and Quietly’s interpretation of one of the most recognizable icons of the past century: Superman is at heart a model of what we could and should be if we were to give ourselves entirely to compassionate thought and act. That is this Superman’s defining characteristic that I believe is demonstrated the best in issue #10, which is arguably the best of the bunch. This issue’s framework is built around Superman’s final thoughts and the transcription of his will onto the wall of the Fortress of Solitude. Interspersed throughout his final will are scenes from his last day on Earth, snippets of the acts that Superman has accomplished in the face of his coming death, including giving a busload of terminally ill children a flying world tour, providing the shrunken citizens of the Bottle City of Kandor with a final solution to their predicament, creating a world without Superman to see how his might fare without his protection, and appealing to Luthor’s good one last time. That these are his final acts on Earth are telling: rather than seeking to round up all of his super villains and send them to jail or forcibly enact change in society, Superman makes sure to make his weekly visit to sick children and to make sure they have the time of their lives (and, through a great little twist, ensures that these lives won’t be confined to their hospital beds, either). Faced with the one problem he could never solve, the restoration of the shrunken Kandorians, he and Leo Quintum convince the city’s inhabitants to relocate to the surface of Mars, where they retain their small stature, but gain Superman’s abilities as well as the chance to rebuild Krypton and interact with humanity in a new way. In his desire to see how a world without a Superman might be, Superman actually creates our own world, complete with a Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and a Superman of their own. Even in a world where Superman didn’t personally exist, he appears in some form, still able to inspire humanity to their best. And even to Luthor, his murderer, who has caused destruction and death over and over, Superman offers one last chance to prove that he can change the world for the better. He asks Luthor to use his last three weeks before he is sent to the electric chair for good, and Luthor spits in Superman’s face. Luthor’s fatal flaw is his arrogance, and his unwillingness to take any altruistic action is really what places him in eternal enmity with Superman, who asks for help from a group of Kandorians just so he would be able to complete the day’s tasks.
This compassion is perhaps the most poignant in a scene where Superman prevents a young girl from committing suicide. Throughout the issue he hears several people talking to her on the phone, begging her not to kill herself, and he cuts short a conversation with Lois Lane, the love of his life so that he can help this girl he has never met. And he doesn’t help her by catching her as she jumps, or lecturing her, or punching anything; he hugs her. He hugs her and tells her that she is stronger than she thinks she is. I gotta admit, every time I read this issue, I tear up a little. Can you imagine being at your worst, at the end of your rope, feeling alone and at the lowest point in your life, and suddenly Superman appears to give you a hug. That is why Luthor will always lose, and why Superman is the icon that he is. Just as Luthor is nothing without a focus for his arrogance, Superman is nothing without his compassion. When he is stripped of his compassion and temporarily turned evil by a sample of black kryptonite in issue #4, he is just a shadow of his normal self: even Jimmy Olsen could beat him (nevermind the Doomsday power up)! At the end of the day, Superman is not really about being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and vaulting tall buildings in a single bound: he is a symbol for humanity’s potential, if we were to give up our selfishness and arrogance and grow up just a little bit. To give someone your open arms, or a smile, or an ear to listen with regardless of if they want it or deserve it because it’s the right thing to do.
Morrison and Quitely have written and drawn a Superman that I may not be able to identify with, but I sure as hell can look up to him. While the series isn’t a perfect one and there are a couple of clunkers (the Bizzaro issues and the last two of the series are a bit rough, in my opinion), I will bet money that down the line, this series will take its place in the next generation of comics defining comics, alongside Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The Morrison/Quitely team has had some great successes in their time, but this takes the cake. They took me on a great ride, and now I don’t want to get off. All good things may come to an end, but in this case…can’t I stay for just one more ride?
Writer: Grant Morrison
Pencils/Covers: Frank Quitely
Inker/Colorist: Jamie Grant
Letters: Travis Lanham