guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

November 2006

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely,, All-Star Superman (DC Comics, 2005-). Bi-monthly. $2.99

By Alex Boney

The last few years have been good ones to be a fan—or even a casual reader or a serious scholar—of Superman comics. DC Comics’ first superhero has inspired several intelligent, well-written stories since 2004, including It’s a Bird, Red Son, and Secret Identity. But as successful as these books are, they all examine Superman (the character and the myth) peripherally—either through an “Elseworlds” lens or through the more realistic, mature lens of Vertigo. The recent books that have explored the Superman myth directly and in continuity (Birthright, Superman for All Seasons) generally have been good, but they seem to be retelling the same story over and over again. Superman’s origin has been updated and rebooted more than a half-dozen times since 1938, and trying to keep up with the latest changes to the character’s basic foundation can become frustrating after a while. But Grant Morrison’s and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, which debuted in late 2005, finds a middle ground between continuity and “imaginary stories” that allows Superman and his vast world to breathe in a way that seems entirely new and fresh.

In an interview conducted by Mark Millar in 1990, Grant Morrison said “I think the time is right for someone to do all that ’50s stuff. As long as it’s done well, you can make anything work. Everyone’s fed up with ‘realistic’ superheroes anyway. I know I am.” After years of work primarily for Vertigo and independent companies, Morrison turned to mainstream superhero comics when he helped re-launch a Justice League series for DC in 1997. Morrison honed his ability to write intelligent, engaging mainstream superheroes in JLA (and later in New X-Men for Marvel), but these books relied on the darker, harder-edged tone of 1990s superhero comics. They were more similar to books like The Authority and Planetary than they were to Silver Age superhero books. JLA and New X-Men weren’t exactly “realistic,” but they were a far cry from giant typewriters and flying caped horses. All-Star Superman marks a return to the type of storytelling that defined the superhero books Morrison was talking about fifteen years earlier.

All-Star Superman is more than simply a throwback book, though. The series has a retro feel to it, but doesn’t attempt to return to or recreate the 1950s and 1960s. Rather, Morrison and Quitely extrapolate the most imaginative and seemingly outlandish possibilities from contemporary science journals and use them as the background for a comic starring a superhero that seems just as imaginative and outlandish. Quantum physics and field theory manifest themselves in the form of  Leo Quintum, a philanthropist and leader of a moon-based genetic research group called P.R.O.J.E.C.T. Quintum has created a battalion of Superman clones (“Bizarro” clones) who are capable of transcending human limitations and breaking through familiar scientific barriers. The first issue opens with an exploratory unit conducting experiments on the surface of the sun, and issue #4 shows the group exploring “the world of superheavy gravity: a newly discovered basement level hidden beneath the known structure of the universe” (p. 7). All of this seems to push the book into the realm of the absurd, but this is actually part of the point.

During the past six decades, many of Superman’s writers (and many of his readers) have wrestled with the problem of Superman’s powers. During the 1950s and 1960s, Superman became powerful enough to blow out a distant galaxy’s sun when he sneezed. When a character becomes this superhuman, it becomes difficult to create narrative situations in which there is any dramatic tension. This is part of the reason why Kryptonite was created and elevated to the degree of danger that it now presents. The most common response to this problem has been a frequent reduction of Superman’s powers (first in the 1970s under Denny O’Neil, then in John Byrne’s 1986 revamp, and most recently in
Superman: The Animated Series). If Superman is less powerful, it is easier to create villains or situations that present a serious danger.

But in
All-Star Superman, Morrison goes in the opposite direction. Rather than reducing Superman’s powers, Morrison actually elevates them in the very first scene of the first issue by having Superman fly too close to the surface of the sun (the source of his powers). The scene results in an enhancement of Superman’s existing powers, the manifestation of at least one new ability, and a resistance to the mortal danger presented by green Kryptonite. But a side-effect of his intense exposure to solar rays is that Superman is now dying from radiation poisoning. Ironically, that which gives him life is leading him closer to death, and each issue features Superman trying to set things in order as he prepares for his impending demise. This opening situation provides all the dramatic tension the series will ever need while at the same time allowing Morrison and Quitely to fulfill the potential of Superman’s powers in ways that even the Silver Age creators didn’t explore. This is a Superman who feeds a pet sun-eater “miniature suns I create here on this cosmic anvil from New Olympus” (#2, p. 10). It’s a wide-eyed, wide-screened world Morrison is creating, and Quitely’s art is perfectly suited to translating this world visually. All-Star Superman is an epic book with cinematic scope, as its credits pages (which mimic the credits structure of movie posters) attest. Yet the cinematic nature of the book is also presented in a wryly ironic way. This is a book perfectly suited to its medium. Because the series is so unrealistic and effects-driven, it would be financially impossible to adapt this story to the screen. Rather, the story is most effective in comics because it is comprised of images and moments that resonate and linger in the panels of the comics page.

As interesting as the overall scope of
All-Star Superman is, a large part of the satisfaction of reading the book is in Morrison’s and Quitely’s precise attention to detail. It pays to read closely not just the narrative captions and word balloons, but also to look carefully at the panel backgrounds. In issue #4, Jimmy Olsen’s apartment is littered with nods to several actual Silver Age stories. Slight, subtle action also takes place off-panel. At the end of issue #1, during an emotionally tense discussion with Lois Lane (who has never looked more perfect than in this book), Clark Kent saves an inattentive man crossing the street from getting run over by a truck by blocking the man and stopping the truck almost simultaneously (p. 21). It’s so easy to get swept into Lex Luthor’s egomaniacal soliloquy in issue #5 that we almost don’t notice that the Parasite is feeding off the power of Clark Kent, who is visiting prison for an exclusive interview with a condemned Luthor. Every issue book is filled with references not only to classic science fiction (a spaceship called the “Ray Bradbury” in issue #1), but also to every era of Superman stories. In issue #3, Superman gives Lois powers that match his own as a birthday present. In that same issue, Lois is courted by Samson and Atlas, historical musclemen/demigods who made frequent appearances during the Silver Age. In issue #4, Jimmy Olsen has to inject himself with an experimental, unstable serum developed by P.R.O.J.E.C.T. that turns him into Doomsday, the rampaging, bone-encrusted monster that “killed” Superman in 1993. The first page of issue #1 tells Superman’s origin story in four panels and eight words—a deceptive minimalism that defines the book as a whole.

All-Star Superman is full of the chaos, anarchy, and genuine fun that marked not only most of the Silver Age of comics, but also most of Grant Morrison’s comics work as a whole (both in and out of the superhero genre). The book is an affirmation of the nearly infinite malleability of the Superman myth. For the past twenty years (and probably longer), it has been easy to respond to DC’s announcements of new Superman books with “Oh, just what we needed. Another Superman book that will tell us what we already know all. over. again.” All-Star Superman proves that there are ways to approach the Superman myth that allow us to see why these stories matter—not just in the confines of the comics store or internet chatrooms, and not only in the history of the superhero genre, but more importantly in the basic human gravitation toward imagination and inspiration. The book is vastly transcendent in a way that is relevant and important in the modern/postmodern world. All-Star Superman provides a contemporary (and probably much-needed) affirmation of the neoplatonic conclusion Percy Bysshe Shelley reached in 1816. At the end of “Mont Blanc,” when Shelley looks up to the snow-capped peak of the highest mountain in the Alps, he understands what Morrison and Quitely validate in every issue of their book: that humans possess an imaginative, transformative power that allows them to transcend the limitations of nature and science, even if they’re not supermen:

The secret strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy? (“Mont Blanc” 139-144)