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Absolute All-Star Superman (Review/Retrospective)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. With All-Star Superman confirmed as the next animated DC feature, I thought I’d take a look at Grant Morrison’s original comic book story. In case you haven’t noticed, it seems the DCAU guys are big Morrison fans.

Doomed Planet.

Desperate Scientists.

Last Hope.

Kindly Couple.

Superman.

– Grant Morrison reduces perhaps the most iconic origin story down to fewer words than this synopsis, …Faster… (Chapter 1)

I have to admit, nothing quite psyches me like holding a Grant Morrison book in my hand – save maybe holding an Alan Moore book in my hand. Sure, I might not love what he’s writing and it might not necessarily be the most complete narrative experience that could have been provided, but I always want to read it again after I’m done – even if I hated it. As a writer, Morrison can crank out crazy-yet-clever concepts like nobody’s business, finding a way to put a new slant on an old piece of mythology or making a change seem like a logical extension of what came before. All-Star Superman is perhaps his most widely respected work, an attempt to boil the iconic Man of Steel down into twelve easy-to-disgest chunks, for new and old fans alike. It’s a stunning piece of comic book literature and perhaps the closest experience one could have to holding the quintessential elements of Superman in your hands.

Last sun of Krypton…

It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.

– Superman, Neverending (Chapter 10)

Morrison reunites with collaborator Frank Quitely on the book. Quitely has worked with Morrison before on projects as diverse as we3, New X-Men, Earth-2 and Batman & Robin, and the pair have a rare synergy. Quitely is notorious as a somewhat slow artist – so much so that he has never been able to commit to a long-term on-going title. Perhaps it’s because of the wonderful detail of his work, or perhaps he just isn’t an artist designed for monthly comics, but Quitely works best with Morrison on one-off projects like this. The twelve issues might have ended up being scheduled somewhat haphazardly, but there’s no denying that the end result – collected like this – feels worth it.

Quitely is the perfect artist for Superman. His artwork seems to call for strong and vibrant colours, with squiggly lines finding the soft edges to a harsh world. He can render both human characters and the variety of freaks that Morrison so often provides with equal aplomb, having a wonderful gift for making his characters “act” – whether through subtle facial expression, body language or posture. Never have I seen a Clark Kent who looks so different from Superman – as if Superman is making an active effort to hide – and yet he still looks like the iconic hero. Quitely can be divisive – some find his squiggly lines irritating, for example – but I think this book suits him down to the ground.

A flying visit…

The basic plot of the miniseries, in case you are wondering, is that the Man of Steel is dying. Poisoned by Lex Luthor while saving a manned expedition in the heart of the sun (on the appropriately-named spaceship the Ray Bradbury), Superman overdoses on solar radiation. As his death approaches, the series follows Superman as he attempts to get some form of closure. In fact, the vast majority of the chapters in this collection could be considered “one last” of a variety of archetypical Superman stories.

The Superman / Jimmy Olsen War is one last ridiculous Jimmy Olsen story. Curse of the Replacement Superman is one last story of Superman not being the last Kryptonian or exploration of Superman’s potential irrelevance. Superman’s Forbidden Room is one last wacky super-dickery-esque Lois/Superman romance.

Nothing's going to plan...

Nothing’s going to plan…

Indeed, in using Superman’s death as a plot device for the ultimate Superman story, Morrison echoes perhaps the definitive Batman story. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns depicts Batman as a monster living on Bruce Wayne’s back, one which can never be killed – even after years of peaceful retirement. Batman cannot be buried or destroyed, because he won’t let it happen (this is, incidentally, also a theme of Morrison’s Batman run – where Batman basically cheats death and claws his way back to the present).

I think it’s reasonable to compare Morrison’s work here to Miller’s on Batman (although only time will tell if All-Star Superman has the same longterm impact on the Man of Steel). Both serve as an epilogue to their respective characters, and an attempt to encapsulate the meaning of these superheroes in a wider context – both are about the heroes facing their inevitable demise, and reacting to it in their own way.

This looks like a job for…

It’s interesting to note how each book treats the other hero. In The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is a government puppet and a stooge, reflecting the cynicism Bruce feels. In All-Star Superman, Batman is a friend Superman was “blessed with.” In Superman’s world, even the Dark Knight is little bit more cheerful.

Morrison’s All-Star Superman suggests that although Superman may effectively die, we won’t let him go. The legacy he creates – the dynasty of Supermen – isn’t a biological one (“our biology is completely incompatible,” he explains to Lois, “we could never have children”), but one of hope and inspiration. In fact, it’s the very human Leo Quintum who ultimately figures out how to create Superman’s successor.

White knight?

White knight?

“A world with Superman,” he muses, “We all have to make sure it’s taken care of while he’s gone.” And we succeed. In his final conversation with his son, the spirit of Jor-El remarks that Superman has served as an example to us. “You have shown them the face of the man of tomorrow,” he explains, “You have given them an ideal to inspire them, to ennoble them, embodied their highest aspirations.”

Superman’s name lives on through generations to come, and – in my favourite moment of the series – Morrison suggests that a world without Superman would be compelled to create him. See, one of the things Superman does when he learns he’s dying is to create a miniature Earth, just to see how humans would live without him. He calls it “Earth Q.” Q, the first letter on the keyboard, perhaps the least-often occurring letter in the alphabet, the hypothetical source of the gospels, itself the image of a head on a neck, has special meaning to Morrison – it is the initial of Leo Quintum, perhaps the most major addition to the Superman mythos made here.

Superman plays it safe…

On Earth Q, we follow the evolution of a world without a version of Superman. It looks quite familiar. We even get a shot of Nietzsche articulating his principles about a “Superman”. Indeed, we depart the world on the shot of a cartoonist sketching a familiar looking figure, declaring, “this is going to change everything.” It’s perhaps my favourite moment of the book, one of infinite recursion. We create a micro-universe to look in on Superman, Superman creates a micro-universe us.

Along the way, Morrison finds a way to cram in an extraordinary volume of material into his twelve-chapter story. In offering us the story of Superman’s last days on Earth, Morrison manages to at once finish the eternally unfinished business (announcing his identity to Lois, resolving his difficulty with the bottled city of Kandor) and yet comment on the aspects of Superman that we all recognise. Bizarro world is featured, as is the death of Pa Kent, and as are any number of iconic and recognisable foes (as well as a few new characters who blend so seamlessly into the world that I had to double-check that Morrison had created them).

The heart of the tyrant sun…

What’s interesting is Morrison’s preference for very Silver Age ideas. Of course, the author does have a fondness for that period. The one of the defining aspects of his run on Batman was a desire to restore obscure Silver Age adventures to continuity. Batman & Robin is basically a better-written Silver Age comic book, albeit with a darker twist. So it’s now wonder that Morrison’s take on Superman gravitates towards the Silver Age.

Of course, he does reference more modern changes to the character – the first new power Superman demonstrates on overdosing on solar radiation is very similar to the power of the “Blue” Superman from the nineties and Doomsday from The Death of Superman makes an appearance. However, these more modern references are redefined so as to seem more classical – he spares Superman the ridiculous makeover that came with Blue Superman and Doomsday is one of Jimmy Olsen’s ridiculous Silver Age transformations who fights to save Superman, not to kill him.

And the stars look very different today...

And the stars look very different today…

Leo Quintum is perhaps the most fascinating addition to the cast that Morrison makes. Much has been discussed of Quintum, and his possible identity or role – I’ll perhaps dig a bit into that further down the page. However, at his most basic, Quintum conforms to the archetype of “that scientist who helps Superman” that was so common in the fifties (in fact, his name is Latin for “the fifth time”). Why Morrison didn’t use a minor supporting character who had previously appeared within Superman’s history (for example, Emil Hamilton) is something which merits a bit of consideration – and perhaps suggests that his identity is worth a bit of scrutiny (it could, just as easily, be a red herring).

I have to admit that I did feel a slight disconnect, for example, at the way that Morrison finds a way to involve his creation Solaris in the story (as Luthor’s “secret ally”). Solaris was introduced as the primary antagonist of Morrison’s much-loved nineties crossover DC #1,000,000 – an event that I’m surprised hasn’t been re-released lately, what with the release of Morrison’s Justice League run in a collection of deluxe hardcovers. It isn’t that the inclusion of Solaris doesn’t make sense – in fact, a “tyrant sun” as an adversary for Superman is ingenious – but just that it seems strange to slot the creature into the story with a minimum amount of foreshadowing and introduction.

How Bizarro…

I don’t doubt that Solaris should be a key part of the Superman mythos – it deserves to be – but it just seems strange to see it treated as a potential arch-nemesis (potentially eclipsing Luthor – if you’ll pardon the pun) after one single appearance. It’s nice to have yet another tie to Morrison’s “meta-narrative” concerning Superman, but the appearance of the “Superman dynasty” managed to do that in what felt like an organic manner. Speaking of which, am I the only one who thinks Kal Kent as depicted here resembles Quentin Quire from New X-Men?

Morrison has always been fascinated by the character of Lex Luthor. In his run on Justice League, for example, he eschewed the revisionist nineties portrayal of Lex Luthor as a cynical businessman (that was largely work of John Byrne in his Man of Steel relaunch). To Morrison, Lex isn’t a noble man with a demon on his back, as some writers have argued. Some authors have presented Luthor as an idealised human unable to deal with living in the shadow of an alien, tragically undermined by his own obsession. To Morrison, he’s an outright villain – a short little man who spends his time working out to look more like the superhero.

Spaced out…

Lex has no desire to make the world a better place. Superman, dying, retains the hope that Lex might be redeemed (“it’s not too late to put that brilliant mind to work”); Luthor responds by spitting in his foe’s face. When Luthor dares to suggest “I could have saved the world, if it wasn’t for you!”, Superman immediately calls him out. “You could have saved the world years ago if it mattered to you, Luthor,” the Man of Steel replies. It is a rare moment of hate articulated by Superman, who is very clearly the best in all of us – Luthor doesn’t annoy him through trying to kill Superman (or even by succeeding), but by refusing to use his potential to help others.

Doomsday approaches…

In truly optimistic fashion, Morrison suggests that Superman’s power comes from his goodness. In Sweet Dreams, Superwoman… we are introduced to Atlas and Sampson, two characters who share Superman’s physical strength but lack his maturity and integrity. In The Superman/Olson War, it is suggested that – when he is turned evil by (what else?) an experiment gone wrong – an evil Superman is physically weaker than a pure-hearted one (“the worse he acted,” Olsen observes, “the weaker he became”), which makes sense. Superman is, after all, a character powered by light – to make him dark is to weaken and undermine him.

So, about who Leo Quintum might be – the favourite guess is Luthor. Morrison once famously remarked that the best idea he ever had concerning Superman was the one he gave to Mark Millar for Red Son – the idea that Superman was sent backwards through time rather than across space, from the Earth of the distant future. It adds an element of predestination to proceedings – but it also neat ties Luthor and Superman together.

Lex appeal...

Lex appeal…

In Red Son, it’s revealed that Luthor founded the Superman dynasty that would eventually send the baby back in time. Here, if Lex is Leo (the crossed “x” becomes a round and complete “o”), he gives birth to the Superman dynasty. It’s similar to the way that Morrison ended his New X-Men run, and the notion of somebody reaching into their own past to help make it a better place is a motif that the author has returned to time and time again.

In case you’re interested, there’s all manner of evidence from all manner of sources which suggest why Lex makes a great fit as Leo. I just like the idea that Superman managed to reform his greatest adversary – perhaps the greatest gesture of what an inspiration he can be, and offering closure to his own worries about whether humanity can become its own guiding light in his absence. Also, I love the idea that, if Lex is Leo, he re-named himself after a monkey.

Lex is more…

All-Star Superman isn’t perfect. This is traditionally the part of the review where the commentator mentions how the two-part Bizarro story (Being Bizarro and Us Do Opposite) throw off the pacing of the twelve-issue run. I actually didn’t find that at all. However, I did find that the Curse of the Replacement Supermen was a tad defensive.

Much like Morrison’s first story arc on Justice League, the story is designed to justify why Superman hasn’t changed the world despite having the power to do so. “What right do I have to impose my values on anyone?” he asks the newest refugees from Krypton, as if explaining why he hasn’t ever turned the world into a utopia.

The weight of the world on his shoulders…

However, this argument has never convinced me. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Superman hasn’t turned the world into a paradise is a conceit required by the comic book – after all, what use would it be if Superman solved all crime in his first year? – and I think that most readers accept it. However, drawing attention to the fact by turning it into a plot point raises all sort of awkward questions.

For example, does Superman’s refusal to impose his own values mean that he doesn’t interfere in the political affairs of sovereign states, even when they are violating human rights? Was there a Rwandan Genocide in Superman’s world, or did he overthrow the Hutu government? Indeed, many of the changes that the new Kryptonian arrivals implement as they plan to construct “New Krypton” probably improve the quality of life for countless citizens. (“Everything in Metropolis has been repaired,” Superman observes, “but better.”)

This is gonna blow up in his face...

This is gonna blow up in his face…

Bar-El and Lilo are not nice people (they are racist and reckless – indeed, they put a hole in the moon), but they don’t make a convincing rebuttal of the argument that Superman couldn’t make the world a better place without becoming a fascist or a racist. Indeed, the entire resolution to the arc seems almost arbitrary and convenient (“as far as I can guess, you passed through a certain radioactive cloud in space,” Superman exposits at one point, “which caused the minerals in your bodies to turn to toxic Kryptonite”), which makes it all seem rather pointless. Still, it’s ultimately a rather minor complaint.

I have to admit, I do love the DC comics Absolute editions. The oversized hardcovers provide the perfect size to showcase Quitely’s fantastic artwork. While there isn’t a definite afterword from Morrison, nor an interview or too much supplementary material, we do get a variety of notes from the Scottish scribe which help provide a somewhat richer interpretation of the world he has created. Morrison knows better than to spill the beans with regards to anything that is the source of much discussion (for example, he stays quiet on the topic of Leo Quintum), but there are several smart little insights hidden in the collection.

The past never remains buried…

Just reading the notes, Morrison can’t help but come across as a really nice guy. He even spares some time to pay a completely unnecessary compliment to Frank Miller’s somewhat “controversial” All-Star Batman & Robin. Morrison describes it as “brilliant”, which is a hardly a word most critics would use, and seems at odds with how thoroughly his own Batman run is set up in contrast to Miller’s definitive Batman work.

It’s clear from reading these notes that Morrison knows his stuff and sounds almost like a child in a candy store as he discusses backstory for characters who one appeared for a panel or two (such as the Ultrasphinx or Dino-Czar). It’s a wonderful glimpse into an imagination which seems be firing on all cylinders at once.

Smoking…

All-Star Superman is perhaps the definitive Superman narrative. It does capture absolutely everything about the character. Superman, perhaps more than Batman, is a character suited to Morrison’s stylistic sensibilities. He’s bright and powerful and engaged with an infinite number of science-fiction high-concepts at the same time. While modern stories (like Red Son) define the character by what he isn’t, Morrison isn’t afraid to explore the character as what he is. It’s a retelling of a classic fairytale, an articulation of the best that mankind can be and an exploration of how timeless an icon Superman can be.

What prompts Luthor to launch his final attack on the Man of Steel is the realisation that “I’m getting older.. and he isn’t.” Superman is everlasting. Sure, he might not actually exist, or he might not be patrolling the skies of Metropolis, but – even if he’s resting forever at the heart of the sun, unattainable to us – he’ll always be around in some form or another.

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2 Responses

  1. My favorite take on Superman to date. Part of me wishes this is what Snyder will bring to the big screen.

    • Yep, it would almost be perfect – aside from the fact it’s so episodic. But if you can take the core ideas that Morrison outlines so well – Superman is the very best in us – and work them in, it would be great. As long as he doesn’t become an absentee father again.

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