Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over seventeen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today: It’s time for another Grant Morrison masterpiece! This post was originally published on 24 January 2016. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
All-Star Superman by Grant “Solaris is so cool, you guys” Morrison (writer), Frank Quitely (penciller), Jamie Grant (inker/colorist), Phil Balsman (letterer, issues #1-8), and Travis Lanham (letterer, issues #9-12).
Published by DC, 12 issues (#1-12), cover dated January 2006 – October 2008.
Some SPOILERS below, but not too many!
The mythological aspect of Superman is always fairly overt, as it’s such an easy metaphor, but Grant Morrison’s first crack at writing a solo Superman book brings it more to the fore than most Superman stories, not only with regard to the title character but in conjunction with many other characters, as well. The very first scene in the book, after all, shows us Dr. Leo Quintum stealing fire from the heavens, and the Prometheus metaphor extends into the series as a whole, even as Quintum also fulfills a Joseph role, right down to his coat of many colors. Morrison mixes myths skillfully, bringing in the Greek templates, Biblical templates, Norse templates, and a Viking funeral at the end (where it mixes with Greek philosophy, not myth). Superman lends himself to myth, but Morrison understands that his entire world can, as well, simply by his living in it. Superman’s world isn’t “realistic” in many senses of the word, because Superman’s presence makes others strive for excellence. We see this in Quintum and Lex Luthor, two sides of a coin, as one tries to match Superman’s example by making the world a better place while the other can’t overcome his jealousy and uses his vast intellect to bring Superman down. Luthor is a tragic figure, of course, and while Morrison doesn’t turn him sympathetic, he’s still sad to consider, especially in the climax of the book, when Superman uses words to bring him down rather than his fists.
Superman is the most mythic of superheroes, but Morrison manages to keep him this way while humanizing him, which makes his struggles more relatable and tragic. This balance is what drives the story, as Superman is given a death sentence in issue #1 when he saves Dr. Quintum from dying in the sun (thanks to one of Luthor’s creations) and receives too much solar radiation for his cells to process. It gives him new superpowers but also kills his cells, so the rest of the series is about him trying to wrap up his affairs before his death. The threat of mortality is often a good narrative choice, because it adds importance to the way a life is lived, and while Morrison can’t exactly kill off Superman (the “All Star” line isn’t “Elseworlds,” and it’s clear that Morrison is writing the “real” Superman far more than, say, Frank Miller did in All Star Batman), they come as close as they possibly can. Morrison makes us pay more attention to their main character because we know the specter of death is bearing down on him, so all his choices have an added poignancy. His revelation of his secret identity to Lois at the end of issue #1, for instance, should be a major life change for both of them, but Morrison subverts that expectation when Lois simply refuses to believe that Clark Kent could be Superman. It becomes a funny moment, but it’s still tragic underneath, because not only can Superman and Lois not be together as romantic partners, but she doesn’t even believe he’s telling her the truth … and, of course, he’s not completely honest with her, as she finds out from Quintum that he’s dying. Superman’s impending death not only colors his relationship with Lois, it affects his entire life. He becomes obsessed with finding a way to enlarge Kandor. He travels through time to say goodbye to his father, which he didn’t get to do the first time around. He tries to rescue the citizens of Bizarro World (which he would always do, of course, but there’s some added desperation to his actions this time). He’s oddly naïve about the new Kryptonians who arrive on Earth even after they give him reasons to suspect them. Finally, he tries throughout the comic to get through to Lex, interviewing him as Clark Kent in issue #5 and battling him in issue #12 as Superman. Yes, Superman is always optimistic, but Morrison’s death sentence on him makes his pleas to Lex a bit more plaintive, as if he knows he won’t be heeded but for the first time, it’s cutting him to the core that he won’t be. By killing him, Morrison can examine what a truly motivated Superman might do – he trusts Lois, he takes some more risks than he might otherwise (his rescue of Jimmy in issue #4, while a standard rescue, seems unnecessarily risky given that he has no idea what effect the underverse might have on him, and indeed, Black Kryptonite is very bad for him), and he tries harder than ever to solve the world’s problems. The bittersweet aspect of the book stems from that – he’s more powerful and more motivated than ever, but it can’t last.
If we get back to the mythic element of the comic, it’s fascinating to consider the way Morrison extends the mythic beyond Superman. Superman has always been the most Christ-like of superheroes, and Morrison dips into that a bit here, but the themes run throughout. As I noted, the Promethean myth is paramount on the first few pages, and it never really goes away. Both Quintum and Luthor can be seen as Prometheus, as they bring glory to the human race even though Lex does it with an ulterior motive. Quintum’s multi-colored jacket evokes the Biblical Joseph, and Quintum’s generosity and cleverness are Josephite qualities. Lex is more like Loki than Satan – he isn’t completely evil, and he enjoys sowing lethal mischief – and he’s able to find the “mistletoe” that kills Baldir/Superman. Lex’s problem is that he wants to be worshipped, but on his terms. Superman doesn’t want to be worshipped, and this seems unbelievable to Lex. Morrison digs into Roman myths a bit with the Sol Invictus cult, imagining a benevolent sun deity – Superman – battling a malevolent one – Solaris – in issue #11. Morrison gives us Hephaestus-Superman in issue #2, we get lesser demi-gods in Samson and Atlas, who appear in issue #3 (an issue in which Superman faces a riddling Sphinx, as well), and Clark Kent gets ferried by Nasthalthia (a distinctly Greek-sounding name, even though Morrison didn’t invent the character) across a hellishly red river to escape Lex’s prison riot in issue #4. All of these bits and pieces of myths build up a world in which Superman is, basically, a god – he performs plenty of miracles in this comic, after all – and presents him with labors to perform that prove his godliness. Morrison makes the connection between this comic and Heracles’s 12 Labors overt in issue #3, when Samson mentions that he completes 12 “super-challenges” before he dies (Samson also spoils the rest of the comic, but Superman’s feats of strength aren’t really the point). Myth is ever-present in Superman comics (and DC, in general, traffics in myth-making more than Marvel does), but Morrison has no interest in cloaking it in anything but what it is.
The best Morrison comics, however, don’t focus solely on the epic. Whenever Morrison gets too crazy without remembering that they’re writing about “real” people, their imagination tends to get away from them. The mythic aspects of All Star Superman are important and give the book its scope, but Morrison doesn’t forget the humanity of the characters, and this helps temper the epic parts of it so it’s far more relatable. The most famous example in this series of Superman’s humanity is probably when he convinces the young girl to refrain from killing herself, but they’re all over the series. Issue #10 – in which Regan appears – is the most obvious, as Superman not only saves her life, but figures out what do with Kandor and even convinces the Kandorians to cure some tough diseases (he also creates life in that issue, but that’s not really humanizing, is it?). It’s not just in issue #10, however. In issue #3, Superman goes out of his way to rescue Krull when Samson throws him into orbit, and it’s not because he knows Krull was goaded into the attack by Samson, just that he doesn’t want to see Krull die. As Clark Kent, he saves Luthor’s life in issue #5 (Lex believes it’s dumb luck that Kent saves him, but of course it’s not). In issue #6, a young Superman fights the Chronovore and misses his father’s death, but present-day Superman goes back in time to have one final conversation with Jonathan Kent. He inspires Zibarro in issue #8. He saves Bar-El’s and Lilo’s lives in issue #9 even though they loathe what he represents. What makes this such a good Superman story is that Morrison finds the balance all Superman stories should have. Some writers try for epic, but they end up coming up with a villain that can just punch hard, and Superman has to punch harder. Morrison certainly does that – Solaris is a good villain, and Lex Luthor with Superman’s powers is another one – but in most of the cases in this series, Superman is confronted with a problem that requires his brains as well as his brawn (and in some cases, only his brains and not his brawn). Morrison gives us a Superman who, if he’s not the smartest guy around, can think faster than anyone, so solutions present themselves more quickly. He can figure out variables much faster than others, so he can “see” the future better – as in issue #8, when he calculates exactly when Bizarro-Flash will reach his rocket ship. Morrison tends to write their superheroes as super-competent – their obsession with making Batman into a god-like being is proof of that – but with Superman, it’s just that his consciousness is so much more expansive than humans’ that he doesn’t have to be the smartest guy, because he just sees things completely differently than humans do. Lex actually comes to this realization in issue #12, but of course, it’s too late for him. The other things writers do is humanize Superman to the point where he feels less powerful and alien. Morrison never forgets that he’s not human, and they constantly remind us of that fact, but they find the right balance with the human side of him. They do this very well when Clark Kent is around, but it’s not the only time. Their Superman is “human,” too, and that makes the book richer.
Morrison’s sense of humor is pretty strong in this comic, too, and in that sense, they’re ably aided by Frank Quitely, whose art on the book is wonderful. Quitely’s precise line work and his quirky style makes everything look almost hyper-real, which makes him fairly ideal for comedy – it’s unusual that he hasn’t done more work that’s purely comedic. Morrison gives him instructions, but Quitely makes the humor work. This is especially true when Clark Kent is doing things that heighten his buffoonery but occasionally show him doing “Superman” things without giving away his secret identity. We first see this in issue #1, when Clark walks Lois home (and right before he reveals his secret identity to her) – Clark walks into a man crossing the street and knocks him down, but it’s only to stop him from getting crushed by a muffler that falls out of the overhead elevated train. I noted up above that Clark saves Lex’s life in issue #5 when he disconnects his electrical cord before it shorts out and catches fire, and he does it in as goofy a manner possible, which Quitely sells perfectly (Clark saves Lex’s life twice, in fact, but the other time, while he’s still pretending to be clumsy, isn’t quite as humorous). Quitely’s depiction of Clark/Superman is excellent, too – Clark slouches and is slightly pigeon-toed, and his ragged hair falls over his forehead, while Superman stands straight and has the classic spit-curl (one of Superman’s powers must be “super-styling,” because he can make his hair do that really quickly). It’s enough to make you believe that Clark and Superman are two different people, as Lois does even though Clark reveals that he’s Superman. Quitely’s thin-line, oddball style is perfect for the Jimmy Olsen-in-drag panel in issue #4, as Jimmy is just androgynous enough to make the drawing work without being offensive. There’s another wonderful comedic moment in issue #9, when Steve Lombard – who is just as big as Clark but looks more macho simply because of the way Quitely draws his and Clark’s movements – tries to set Clark’s jacket on fire. Quitely does wonderfully with the scene, showing Clark, again, as a bit of a buffoon, but then he surreptitiously uses his power to set Lombard’s toupée on fire to get revenge, and Quitely’s drawing of balding Lombard instantly ages him, showing him diminished even compared to Clark. The final panel of the sequence is tremendous, too, as Clark looks worriedly over at Jimmy and Lois, who seem to think something strange has just happened but they can’t quite figure out what it is. It’s a superb scene due to the way Quitely shifts the way we view the two men in it. Quitely doesn’t have a fluid style, so his action scenes are much more discrete scenes than other artists, but his attention to detail makes them wondrous to behold. We only see the Chronovore in a few panels, but it’s terrifying partly because it’s so cleanly delineated. Superman’s battle with Solaris is also amazing because of the precise line work. Quitely draws every piece of wreckage in the fights, so the damage hits harder, as we see everything that has been destroyed. Jamie Grant’s shiny digital coloring might not work with every artist or book, but with Quitely’s fine line and with Morrison’s “bright” script – despite some dark corners in the book, it’s a comic about how Superman saves everyone because he’s, well, super – it assists greatly. Grant’s sheen on Quintum’s Technicolor dream coat, the lava that Bar-El and Lilo frolic in, and on Solaris’s malevolent surface, for instance, makes them stand out wonderfully against the “flatter” colors of the main participants (none of the colors are traditionally “flat,” but Grant makes some of the more basic than others). This kind of digital coloring has become the standard in the decade since All Star Superman, and it doesn’t work on every book, but it works very well here.
All Star Superman is a brilliant Superman story partly because Morrison doesn’t need to continue it. There’s a finality to it, which makes it work a bit better (I know that, if this were the “real” Superman, a new writer would figure out a way to undo Morrison’s ending, which wouldn’t lessen the impact of what Morrison does, but the fact that there’s no issue #13 helps make this feel more important). More than that, though, is that Morrison is able to “sum up” Superman, which writers of a continuing serial can do, but then they can’t really go anywhere with it. Morrison is able to do a “greatest hits” version of Superman, one that distills everything great about the character into several short stories, without worrying about the long-term impact they will have. All Star Superman still relies a bit too much on our prior knowledge of the characters – Lois, for instance, is a decent character in the book, but there’s not much in the series that would make us really understand why she cares about Superman other than he’s dreamy – but not as much as some comics. Morrison’s penchant for “wow” moments occasionally overwhelms their ability to make the characters “real,” but their best comics find a way to balance those perfectly, and that’s what we get in All Star Superman. It’s probably not a Comic You Should Own, because it’s more likely a Comic You Already Own, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to revisit it. Re-read it today!
As always, you can check out the archives! They’re almost complete!
[There’s an Absolute Edition of this, which I would love to get, but I linked to the Deluxe Edition, which is cheaper. Anyway, there’s not much else to say about this, is there? I changed Morrison’s pronouns in this, but if you happen to spot any I missed, please let me know. I would appreciate it!
I’m almost done reposting all my old essays – then I have to get to work on new stuff! I’m up to the challenge!]