Thursday, May 31, 2007

All Star Superman #1: 'Faster'

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have arguably the best partnership in the history of comics, perfectly complimenting each other and producing consistently brilliant comics. Coming off the amazing We3, they dove into All Star Superman. I have to say, I wasn’t thrilled to hear that Quitely would be spending two years drawing the adventures of Superman. I’m glad that he’s working with Morrison, but the amount of time it takes Quitely to draw means each project he does must be amazing to justify the time spent. He is a precious resource and should not be wasted.

After two issues, my initial reluctance to the project has largely dissipated. While I’d still prefer to see them doing something original, this is a fantastic book, fun, exciting and the only book I’ve read that really understands Superman and is able to make him work in stories. The very nature of the character makes it nigh impossible to do ordinary stories with him. You can deconstruct him, as in Miracleman, mythologize him, as in Supreme, but is it possible to just do straight up Superman stories? Here, Morrison proves that it is, managing to fuse massive stories and personal drama to create something really special.

Morrison has previously written Superman during his run on JLA, and there he treated the character as the idol of all the superheroes, the model they aspire to, a pure, goodhearted true hero. The entire series was about treating the heroes as gods, battling the largest foes on an intergalactic stage. That made for some great storylines, but only in the stories of the lower level heroes did we get any really meaningful character development. Here, Morrison manages to make Superman a viable character, and the end of the first issue sets him off on a potentially very interesting arc.

The issue begins with a page that almost has to be read as a big middle finger to the Brian Bendis style endless retreading of a hero’s origin story. We all know the Superman myth, do we need to spend seven months getting off Krypton? While I liked Bendis’s take on Ultimate Spider-Man, in fact, the extended origin is easily the best arc in the book’s run, I love the jump right into the action style that Morrison takes. The All Star label is perfect for him because it allows him to pick all the best elements of the mythology, what people know about the character, and leave behind the excessive complication that can come from long term continuity. I really do feel this is a book you could confidently show a new reader, certainly a better take on the mythos than the generally unsuccessful Superman Returns.

So, Superman’s origin’s wrapped up in a page and we’re introduced to the man himself in a glorious two page spread. A lot of what makes Quitely’s Superman work is the facial expressions, you get the sense this is a guy who’s just on an entirely different mental plane than everyone else, he just loves what he does, and that’s great to see. I’ve frequently said that one of the primary differences between Moore and Morrison is that when Moore sets out to make a tribute to Silver Age comics, he tries to literally replicate them in all their datedness, what Morrison tries to do is replicate the impact they had on him as a child, recapture that pure excitement of seeing heroes in action in crazy universes. Moore doesn’t have the same love for this material that Morrison does, and in every page of this book, you can see his glee at having the chance to write Superman.

I love the odd look of green haired lady who speaks about Superman’s progress. I’m not sure who she is, but it doesn’t matter. I think that’s one of the great things about this book, I’m not that familiar with the Superman mythos, but I can still appreciate the vast weirdness of everything that’s happening. We know about the man himself, and that’s enough.

Morrison plays with the repeat conventions of superhero stories, having Lois write the headlines before they happen. They have that much confidence in Superman. A similar concept occurs in Luthor’s operation of the machine, sending all his directions to the sun nine minutes ahead of time. Luthor’s mission is to kill Superman, and he realizes that you can’t do that in the present, what he does to Superman here is more subtle, overcharging him to take away his immortality.

Superman’s appearance in the ship, saying “Not if I can help it” is another great moment. Quitely renders him as a guy who’s totally confident, he knows he can beat the exploding man, he’s just that powerful. That power is what makes it nearly impossible to write compelling Superman stories. This opening sequence isn’t tense in the traditional sense because we know that Superman will win, Lois has already written the headline.

By bringing in Superman’s imminent death, we change the nature of the stories. He’s forced to reassess his role in the world, he’s no longer above humanity, he too will eventually join them in death. I’m guessing that much of this arc will be about Superman becoming more human as a result of his imminent mortality. This is all told to us in a visually dazzling manner, with the Technicolor dreamcoat wearing Doctor Quantam operating in a cool floating blood void. What Quantum makes clear is that Superman is as important as an idea as he is as a man. He inspired Quantum to work harder because he wants to prepare for what the world would have to be without Superman.

One of Morrison’s central thematic ideas is that superheroes are the blueprint for our future. As we evolve, they are the myth we will turn to to understand our new abilities, and Superman is the ultimate model for humanity, what we one day hope we can be. We saw this at the end of Morrison’s JLA run, in the World War III arc, and also in Flex Mentallo. The logical end of this series would be for Superman to die, but in having lived, create a world where everyone can be like him.

Morrison’s Clark Kent is a guy who’s having fun pulling one over on the world, presenting this jokey parody of what he thinks humans are. Reading this page, it is hard to believe that he’s Superman, and the intercutting of him saving the kid with Clark’s goofiness is great.

Things end with Clark telling Lois he’s Superman, a revelation that’s not that powerful because we didn’t know if she already knew this. But, it’s an essential moment of the Superman mythos, and allows Morrison to go in a more personal direction for the next issue. I think Morrison’s goal with the series is to do the greatest hits of the mythos, create a twelve issue series that tells you everything you need to know about Superman, and this moment is a big part of that.

So, I was very impressed by this first issue. It makes Superman work, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The character feels mythic, but still human and accessible. Quitely’s art is phenomenal, and together, the two of them become something so much more. I go back on who the best artist in comics is, Quitely or JH Williams. The most reliable answer is the one I’ve read most recently. JH has incredible versatility, but Quitely has a singular elegance and emotion. We shouldn’t have to choose, and luckily they both spend most of their time working with Morrison and Moore, so we get the best writers and best artists creating the best comics.


nicholas reed said...

This is my favorite current series coming out of the "Big Two", so I'm very interested to read your thoughts on the rest of the series (especially the Luthor-centric issue 5, my favorite single issue of last year.) I enjoy most everything you post here, in all honesty, so... kudos, or whatever.

Jacob said...

What All-Star Superman has done is really crystallized in my head what had previously been vague, hard-to-pin-down notions of what Superman should be and why it so rarely feels like his books do him justice. Morrison's big insight, which should have been utterly obvious all along, is simply that Superman is intelligent. I mean, Clark Kent is supposed to be a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter, but too many writers (even the ones on the otherwise superb Dini/Timm cartoons) turn Superman into some steroidal charge-in-first dope or a gullible government stooge. That never felt right to me and now I know why.

What I feel like Morrison's showing us is that while Batman's mission is to punish criminals, Superman is a seeker after truth - stopping muggers or catching falling airplanes or whatever is just his 'day job', as it were, and what he really lives for is the discovery and exploration, working on science projects in the Fortress and trying to help advance humanity in the long term. It seems so obvious now: if he's too powerful to tell traditional superhero stories with, the solution is to find new sorts of stories - not just bigger bad guys, but different concepts altogether.

And you're right about Quitely and about the pitch-perfect expressions he draws. To me, the whole series is summed up by that first cover: he's relaxed, not fighting anyone, and his smile isn't dopey or macho or arrogant but calm and knowing, inviting the reader to join him and share his unique perspective on the world.

RAB said...

"The logical end of this series would be for Superman to die, but in having lived, create a world where everyone can be like him."

Well, maybe going by the first issue alone but the very next issue and the one which follows make it clear this is not about Superman's death but how such a person responds when he thinks he's dying. Another take on the same theme here, one which almost certainly influenced Morrison.

I agree there's a lot of Flex Mentallo here...both series give us that pure and good comic book hero figure and show how he interacts with normal people in a kindly, compassionate way and how he inspires them, suggesting along the way that having this kind of character in the world is no bad thing! For Morrison, Superman and Flex aren't infantile fantasies of omnipotence and punishment of the weak...they're exemplars of how people could act if they were not beaten down by the suffering of life and their own petty weaknesses and insecurities. We're not meant to cower in fear from them, but be inspired.

And may I add, Jacob hits the nail on the head with his description and Nicholas is clearly a man of taste and discernment.

Patrick said...

We're not meant to cower in fear from them, but be inspired.

Exactly, that's what all of Morrison's superhero works are about, the idea that these people are what we could be if we just stopped being scared. I really wish Flex was back in print because it's pretty much the ultimate statement on why superheroes are important and relevant to our world.

One of the things I loved about Seven Soldiers was the way he explored how someone like Superman would be perceived by lower level superheroes. Even for them, he's an icon who they aspire to be. There's a lot of that in this book too, and I'd agree exactly with what Jacob said, that using Superman as an ultra chill icon of what we could be is the best way to tell new stories with the character. This is the only time I've actually believed that you can tell interesting stories with the character.

David Golding said...

I absolutely can't agree that Morrison's Kent is an intentional parody. Kent's actions aren't him having fun, everything he does has a reason.

Also, you've absolutely got to read Jim Roeg's post on ASS #1, the best thing anyone's written about it.