Here is Donny with his first comic book review.
All-Star Superman #1-12
Grant Morrison (writer)
Frank Quitely (artist)
I want to talk about All-Star Superman, but I also want to talk about getting Superman right – which Morrison did for the first time in twenty years (since Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? brought an end to the Weisinger-style Superman of the Silver and Bronze Age).
Okay, now, one could fairly point out that there isn’t a “right” Superman because there have been different Superman’s through the years. I’ll label them as five phases of Superman:
• Phase 1: Siegel and Shuster’s Depression-era Superman was a populist New Deal warrior fighting fat-cat slum lords and corrupt pols – “FDR in a cape” (said Michael Chabon)
• Phase 2: Superman spent WWII patriotically smashing evil “Japanazis” in battle after battle.
• Phase 3: In the postwar years he was a comic figure contesting with zany foes like the Puzzler and the Toyman.
• Phase 4: Mort Weisinger’s Silver Age Superman was a sci-fi adventure with godlike powers and cosmic resources.
• Phase 5: In 1986, John Byrne re-booted Superman with fewer powers, made him more human, more relatable, and more of a conventional super-crime-fighter.
After twenty years of the Byrne-style Superman, DC gave writer and chaos magician Grant Morison the green light to do a tribute to the Weisinger Superman as a self-contained “imaginary tale” (outside of the “real” DC continuity). (It was Weisinger himself who invented these imaginary tales of Superman.)
It started with a cover. Morison described his initial inspiration for the book as coming from a cosplayer he saw dressed-up as Superman. “He was perched with one knee drawn up, chin resting on his arms. He looked totally relaxed… and I suddenly realized this was how Superman would sit. He wouldn’t puff out his chest or posture heroically, he would be totally chilled. If nothing can hurt you, you can afford to be cool. A man like Superman would never have to tense against the cold; never have to flinch in the face of a blow. He would be completely laid back, un-tense. With this image of Superman relaxing on a cloud looking out for us all in my head, I rushed back to my hotel room and filled dozens of pages of my notebook with notes and drawings.”
Visually, this was more like Silver Age Curt Swan’s classical rendering than the John Byrne steroid Superman of the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s with those tense, bulging muscles. He’s big and strong, but he makes me think of Gene Kelly with his natural grace and poise. Morison was given carte blanche to choose any artist he wanted and he wisely picked Frank Quitely. His Superman looks great, but Quitely’s is by far my favorite Clark. Few artists emphasized the physical differences between Superman and Clark. Quitely’s Clark has unkempt hair and wrinkled, baggy cloths. He slouches and is pigeon-toed. Rather than the cowardly milquetoast of tradition (or the cool, confident Clark of John Byrne and TV’s Lois and Clark), Morrison and Quitely re-envision Clark as a big, clumsy ox. A giant Kansas farm boy who doesn’t fit in the crowded city, he’s always tripping, bumping into people, and knocking things over.
By getting Superman right, I largely mean going back to Mort Weisinger and the Silver Age, of which this 12-part arc is kind of like a “greatest hits” parade. The connective story is really only a string to hang pearls on. Lex Luther finally comes up with a way to kill Superman by poisoning him with an overdose of yellow sun radiation which amplifies his powers but starts breaking-down his cells. With 12 months to live, Superman completes (as prophesized by a time traveler from the future) “12 super challenges” (like the labors of Hercules). He escapes from the Underverse, he overthrows the tyrant sun, he answers the unanswerable question, heals the sick, creates life, and he rises himself from the dead. The episodes then become a condensed revisiting of the coolest stuff dreamed up by editor Mort Weisinger and (usually) writer Otto Binder: the Fortress of Solitude (with its army of super-robots, its cosmic zoo, its super weapons room, the time telescope…), dinosaur men from the center of the earth, a Jimmy Olsen adventure, black Kryptonite that turns Superman evil, a “red sun” adventure in which Superman is robed of his powers and stranded on an alien world, Bizarro World (where am nothing being opposite and backwards), Kryptonian conquerors come to Earth, the Phantom Zone, the Bottled City of Kandor, and a Superboy adventure in Smallville featuring – be still my heart – Krypto the Superdog!
As Glen Weldon, author of The Unauthorized Biography of Superman, correctly asserted: “One thing that is objectively good beyond the dispute of reasonable people is a dog in a cape.” Getting Superman right means embracing the light, wacky, imaginative, heartwarming, sci-fi zaniness of the character. Like all intelligent people, I hate the 2013 Zach Snyder Man of Steel film – but my primary complaint about it is that it totally missed the tone, the essence, the feel, the whole damn point of the character! You can’t do Superman like Batman: grim and realistic… and Batman (done right) can’t exist in the same universe as a flying dog in a cape, a bottled city, or a cube-shaped Bizarro planet. (And doing a Superman vs. Batman movie is likely even more of a tonal miss-match than Indiana Jones meets space aliens.)
Personally, I generally prefer the Weisinger Superman to the less-powerful John Byrne Superman, and I’ve never been too crazy about attempts to make Superman relatable (I wasn’t a fan of TV’s Lois and Clark, for that reason). I like the approach that he really is this alien sun-god with vast powers, intelligence, wisdom, and resources and Clark Kent is only a front – an act. Mark Waid, in his introduction to All-Star Superman, wrote, “Gods achieve their power by encouraging us to believe in them. Superman achieves his power by believing in us.” What makes him great is that he’s a god who loves us and believes in us – he has faith in us… and that’s kind of beautiful.
Morrison does better than just pull-out the best of Weisinger’s creations. He also gets Superman right by understanding the character’s central metaphor. Grant Morrison described Superman as an “American Christ.” Superman was a messiah-figure from the start, since when Siegel and Shuster originally dreamed him up. “Messiah” means “anointed” in Hebrew and refers to those Biblical heroes like King David who were specially chosen or sent by God, the way Kal-El is sent to Earth by his “heavenly father” Jor-El to “show them the light.” El is Hebrew for God, and Superman is of the family of El. He is raised by the Kents, an old couple who have always wanted a child but never been able to have one (like Abraham and Sarah). In part 6 of All-Star Jonathon Kent, standing under the night sky, recalls: “I’ve never been much of a one for sitting in church, but what else could I do? I came right out here and I prayed.” He prayed to the stars, and the stars answered. Originally, in 1939, they were named Mary and Jonathon Joseph Kent (her name later changed to Martha). Clark is Old English for “priest,” and Kal-El is Hebrew for “Vessel of God.” Clark is raised in rural obscurity and then wandered the Earth for years before discovering his heavenly origins and starting his mission at age 30 in the big, “capital” city.
It’s been said that Batman is the ultimate cop where Superman is the ultimate fireman. It’s true… but he’s also the ultimate moral exemplar. He’s Christ-as-a-fireman. In Alex Ross’s Superman: Peace on Earth (1998), it’s pointed out that, of course, Superman could fix all of the world’s problems by fiat – he could, for example, make us share the wealth and end starvation in Africa – but he won’t. “It’s not my place to dictate policy for humankind. But perhaps the sight of me fighting hunger on a global scale would inspire others to take action in their own way.” Isn’t that what Jesus did? Batman is an authoritarian who believes that human beings are inherently bestial and order must be imposed by iron-fisted force. Superman sees the inherent good in us and thinks we all have the potential for good. Morrison gets this absolutely right! Thus, his Superman is as interesting in what he chooses not to do as in what he does. “I am a scientist’s son,” he says in part 9, “It’s in my nature to observe and to learn… and not to interfere too much.”
Superman’s primary function is (to paraphrase Jor-El) to ‘give us an ideal to aspire to.’ In episode 8, the sun god from Smallville meets Zibarro, a “freak” of Bizarro World who is intelligent and clear-headed (in contrast to everyone else there). Zibarro is lonely and miserable, but Superman comforts him. “I know you think of yourself as a flaw, an imperfection, but you’re something more, Zibarro. You’re proof that Bizarro-home is getting smarter.” (Immediately after this pep talk, the Bizarros sing their version of the Nation Anthem, and it’s one of the funniest moments you can ask for.) Part 10 contains the finest moment in the story. In a brief, one-page aside, a girl is about to kill herself. Suddenly Superman appears behind her and tells her, “It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.” That could be his message to us all.
Superman comforts us, and he makes us feel good about ourselves and about our own potential for kindness. Also in part 10 of All-Star, a dying Superman visits Lex Luther. “It’s not too late,” he says, “to put that brilliant mind to work. Lex, I know there’s good in you.” Superman believes in everyone; he believes we all can be saved. Repeatedly through the story, Superman redeems his foes: Super-Bizzaro, the two would-be conquerors from Krypton, the Sun-eater, and Solaris the Tyrant Sun. What’s great about Superman is that even when he’s fighting against someone, he’s still really fighting for them.
Seeing Superman as God turns Lex into Captain Ahab (he’s even shown reading Moby-Dick in prison): hating and hunting God, more afraid and offended that there is a God out there (How terrifying a thought!!!) than that there isn’t. In part 5 (titled “The Gospel According to Lex Luther”) Lex honestly asks Clark Kent: “You don’t feel in any way diminished by his very presence on this planet?”
Since the “Christ arc” is so familiar, it’s not a spoiler to say that Lex succeeds in killing Kal-El. In part 12, “In Excelsis” (“in the highest place”), Superman dies… only to come back to life. His earthly body burns away and is replaced by a being of pure solar energy – he literally becomes all-star. Morison breaks out the Gnostic-alchemy references explaining to Superman, “The gold in us will survive in you! All that is impure will be burned to ash.” In his new form, Superman ascends to the heavens (the cover of the collected book with the sun-burst halo is a clear reference to numerous paintings of the Ascension of Christ), but some (like Lois) believe that he will return to Earth one day.
Morison’s story is told in a very compressed, short-hand style which is, to be honest, initially rather off-putting. It jumps ahead and important events are glossed over… but that was Weisinger and Binder’s style back in the Silver Age. Weisinger, whose background was in prose short stories, believed every panel should advance the plot and always preferred story advancement over just “cinematic” action. The story becomes told in a compressed, elliptical way that leaves room for the readers to fill in the gaps.
All-Star is also full of more-or-less isolated episodes that do tend to make it look a bit like an odd “best hits” parade. This approach works better in an episodic comic series than in a movie – however, in 2011, it was adapted into a direct-to-DVD animated movie. The compressed-format of the movie comes across like it’s full of rabbit-trails, introducing little sub-plots that never go anywhere. There is, however, one important aspect in which the movie is better than the comic. The comic ends with Lex, having finally defeated Superman, left, like Judas, depressed, regretful, without purpose, and wanting to die… but stops short of telling us if Lex is really redeemed. The movie makes it clearer: in the end, Superman even saved Lex’s soul. The movie wonderfully ends with Lex providing scientist Leo Quintum with Superman’s DNA map and a formula to combine it with human DNA. “They always wanted to have a child,” muses Quintum, thus tying Lois and Clark back to Jonathon and Martha/Mary. Imagine: a “virgin” Lois giving birth to the sun-god’s child with none other than a reformed Lex Luther as the surrogate “father.” Grant Morison’s ending is still good (I won’t spoil it), but it feels like a missed opportunity compared to the movie’s ending.