By Adam X. Smith
After Joe Colewood and I did a piece discussing the merits of Grant Morrison's Multiversity #1, it dawned on me that I was nowhere near as qualified to critique Grant Morrison's work as I had initially thought. As a result, I've decided it's high time I give some works of his that I've not yet read – and some that I have – a reappraisal. This week, I take a look at All-Star Superman.
**Moderate spoilers ahoy.
Let the record show that I'm not completely incapable of changing my mind when it comes to comics. I didn't take to All-Star Superman at all from the outset – my initial reaction to the first two or three issues was a resounding meh, my reading of the first six issues in trade paperback form later on didn't much improve on my initial feelings, and the recent animated adaptation of it, whilst admittedly a stripped-back and more disciplined version of the story, did nothing whatsoever to dispel from me the impression that this wasn't for me.
For years I resisted the urge to revisit it. The appeals of colleagues and friends went on deaf ears. As far as I was concerned it was a closed case. Certainly it wasn't the worst thing I'd ever read* or even the worst comic to bear the name All-Star, but I was resigned to being in the minority of just not caring for All-Star Superman.
Those days, ladies and gentlemen, are over. I'm not saying I love it, but I certainly hate it a damn sight less, and I suspect that looking at it as a complete, discreet work is what has finally made all the difference in my attitude towards its merits.
That's not to say that there aren't parts of it that still bug me. Yes, I get that Superman's rivalry with the time-travelling Samson and Atlas is meant to be symbolic of his status as the modern age's Hercules, Jesus and Moses all rolled into one. Yes, the fact that there's a Bizarro home-world that exists in the Underverse (don't ask) which contains an imperfect Bizarro called Zibarro (again, don't ask) who is the only one who understands and can be understood by Superman acts as an interesting parallel to the role filled by regular Bizarro**. And yes, Grant – I know that Jimmy Olsen used to dress in drag from time to time for reasons that are too complicated to explain adequately – because you already explained that joke to death in your own overlong memoir Supergods. Knowing what you're referring to doesn't stop it from being annoying, and as the Joker would say…
So, what did I actually like about All-Star Superman this time around that I didn't pick up on before? Well, I liked how the representation of Superman as a combination of the great archetypes of the heroic ideal comes together here, obviously, but one of the things you get with the benefit of looking at the entire series as a whole rather than a collection of chapters, or even an abridged adaptation, is that the series pulls elements from across Superman's vivid and deep mythology and presents them in ways we've never really seen them used before.
Morrison often attributes his inspiration for this series, along with the dearth of Silver Age Superman books he must have read as a kid, to an incident outside San Diego Comic-Con when he saw a cosplayer dressed as Superman sitting casually on a bench, much as he appears on the cover of the first issue, that struck him with the lightning bolt of inspiration:
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.
Part of me wonders if, given his history, Grant wasn't slightly under the influence at the time – I'm sure even in the Nineties it wasn't entirely uncommon to see a guy dressed as Superman mooching around in front of that particular building on that particular weekend. Having said that, as a Taoist, I do not believe in coincidences and it's not for me to question or discredit the veracity of Morrison's story. The point is that in Grant's eyes, his encounter with that particular Superman set off a chain reaction of inspiration that led to the creation of All-Star Superman in the first place: the notion that a man of Superman's immeasurable strength, durability, intelligence and resolve would, by his very nature, be completely at ease in any situation, wouldn't pose or bluster but simply be. In this sense, intentionally or not, Grant Morrison had reinvented Superman as a Taoist figure. Imagine that.
Saying that, of course, I think that every character can be reinterpreted as Taoist, so that has little bearing on anything. However, there's also clear philosophical links between Morrison's presentation of Superman Luthor, and Rousseau's belief in man's natural capacity for good. Whilst the Christ-like Superman, who – knowing that he is not long for this mortal plane – chooses not to focus on finding a cure but on doing the very best he can to leave a lasting legacy, is compelled to do good because of his upbringing, Lex Luthor is shown to immediately repent when he briefly gains access to powers comparable to Superman's able to see and hear at levels far beyond normal human consciousness; in spite of all his egotistical bluster and Nietzschean ambition, Luthor's will is broken by the brief realisation of what Superman is able to see, hear and experience every single day.
Not your typical supervillain beatdown. Well played, Grant, well played.
And let's take a moment, once again, to say Thank God for Frank Quitely.
Quitely's contribution to All-Star Superman cannot be overstated. Even in the sequences I was less impressed with on a script level, as with his work on Flex Mentallo, Quitely's artwork is consistently detailed and evocative throughout and consistently provides beauty and wonder to Metropolis, Smallville and beyond. He also does the best job yet of convincingly portraying Clark Kent and Superman as distinct characters through his posture, clothing and gait, something that many artists, even the best ones, often fail to do.
So in summation, yes, I was wrong – sorta, kinda, partially. All-Star Superman does indeed combine diverse elements of the existing canon to create a Superman story that shows him transcending his Kryptonian heritage, his adopted humanity and ultimately physical matter, becoming , to quote Johnny from Mike Leigh's Naked, "[a being] of pure thought. […] Into something that's, like, well beyond our comprehension. Into a universal consciousness. Into God, who is, by the same principle that time is."
*The dubious honour I speak of is held by Robin: Unmasked by Bill Willingham. It was the first objectively bad comic I ever read, and it is the reason that to this day I've never quite been able to give Willingham's work a fair trial. And before people start clamouring for me to read Fables' soon to be 150 issue back catalogue, I remind you all that I'm only one man, not some sort of mechanical comic-reading-and-reviewing machine – that would be ridiculous. Beep-boop click-click resistance is futile etcetera.
**Come to think of it, even without Zibarro to contend with, the Bizarro clones here don't really make a fat lot of sense whichever previous version of the character you're familiar with: they show up a lot as docile menial workers at P.R.O.J.E.C.T. and Professor Quintum states that any attempt to clone Superman results in the creation of a Bizarro clone, and yet they have a home-world (and presumably the Underverse is their home-dimension) with Bizzaro counterparts for Jor-El and the Justice League. Also, if one touches you it transforms you into a Bizarro as well, which – come on, really?
Adam X. Smith is a paranoid android from the Planet X. For the last 27 years he has been living amongst the people of Birmingham, England (and more recently the University of Lincoln) ostensibly as a student of the school of hard knocks (also BA Hons Drama), but secretly on a mission to scout out the planet for invasion by alien forces; his weekly communiques on his various blogs are actually highly coded messages to his extra-terrestrial masters. He enjoys the musical stylings of local chiptune-metal band Elmo Sexwhistle, the fiction of Kim Newman, Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk, and his hobbies and interests include film-making, drama, occasional Youtubing, journalism and plotting the subjugation of humanity. He can be found on Youtube, Tumblr, Twitter or by jamming an ice-pick through the optic chiasm.