Friday, June 01, 2007

All Star Superman #2: 'Superman's Forbidden Room'

After reading three issues, what strikes me most about the series is the way Grant simultaneously manages to make it goofy fun and smart and emotional, all at the same time. It’s largely because he’s never condescending or giving a wink to the audience, he loves this material in all its ridiculousness and that makes it infectious. We get just as caught up in the world and totally believe in it.

One of the funniest running gags in the series is the fact that Lois just won’t believe that Superman is Clark Kent. It was always hard to buy that people wouldn’t recognize the similarity between the two characters, and you’d think playing off that would make it more believable. So, it’s ironic that her total disbelief actually makes you believe people could buy them as separate people. His acting as Clark so thoroughly sells people on this persona that it seems like there’s no way they could be the same.

I love Quitely’s Lois, you usually don’t think of Quitely’s people as being pretty, but she is, in a really modern way. I think there’s a tendency to stick to classic designs for these characters, but the update on Lois works great. I also really like the way he dresses her, very stylish clothes. Morrison and Quitely always place great emphasis on style and glamour, we saw it in New X-Men and we see it again here. There’s not much you can do with Superman’s outfit, but Quitely runs with it on the characters he can design.

I like how Superman walks into the Fortress with the greeting “Afternoon, robots.” Throughout the issue, we get the sense that Superman really enjoys showing Lois all his stuff, he’s proud of what he’s done and is happy to share it with someone. I particularly like the moment where he brings her the flowers from Alpha Centauri.

Superman describes the Fortress as a time capsule, capturing “how it felt to live at the dawn of the age of superheroes.” Morrison’s best superhero work taps into our own feelings about the future. In X-Men or Flex Mentallo, superheroes are presented as the next step in human evolution, a guide to move humanity forward. That concept is made literal here, with Superman offering this place as a guide and memorial of what humanity is and could be. It’s notable that so far in the series, Superman hasn’t done any violence, he’s just helped people.

I love the gritty deconstructionist superhero work Alan Moore did, and I’ve always been annoyed when he said stuff like all superhero books since are based on one bad mood he had twenty years ago. But, reading this book shows that you can do mature, smart superhero books without resorting to violence and deconstruction. This is just a straight ahead embrace of the Superman myth, that this is a guy who offers humanity a vision of what they could be, and our goal is to try to live up to that, to reach his level.

I had read that the series consisted entirely of standalones, and that’s true to some extent, but the overarching Superman is dying thread provides a great structural backbone and urgency to the tales. In this case, the entire tension of the issues comes from the fact that Superman can’t tell Lois what’s going on with him, leading to her paranoia. Why doesn’t he just come out and say it? I feel like it’s largely because he doesn’t want to admit it, that he has flaws, that he is, on some level human. Lois says she doesn’t want to believe that a part of him could be Clark Kent. So, one of the central questions of the series seems to be, if Superman is everything humanity could ever hope to be, what does it mean that he too is flawed?

The issue ends with Superman giving Lois the super serum, setting up the next issue. I like the way the issues flow into each other, so that even if they are essentially standalone tales, things seem to build and flow into each other. This issue also sets up some interesting future stories, during Lois’s encounter with the Unknown Superman. Some of the future Superman stuff seems like a retread of what Morrison did during JLA, but it was great then, so it’s ok to bring it back.

So, this issue works as a great fusion of crazy silver age fun with some real emotional stuff. The sequence where Lois’s typing is intercut with Superman looking at himself in the mirror reaches a real emotional place, and the ending is great. I just love spending time with Morrison’s Superman, he’s the coolest guy around, and I guess that’s the point.

3 comments:

Jacob said...

Thought you would enjoy this post I found on the penny-arcade forum - if true, it definitely reinforces your take on the book:

I seem to remember a story about Morrison's inspirations for his take on Superman. Morrison's at a convention and some guy dressed as Superman walks up. He sits and talks to Grant in character for a while, and Morrison realises that this guy has absolutely nailed Superman in a way he's never seen before. He's utterly relaxed, calm, and the most self-possessed man in the world: because he's Superman. Absolute self-assurance without a trace of arrogance.

RAB said...

Grant's description of that encounter can be found here and more details here.

Patrick said...

That story's a classic, and a great example of what makes Grant's work special. Be it The Invisibles or his superhero work, it's always about blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and redefining what each means. The first time I heard Grant talk about how Superman was more real than his creators because he's lived longer than them and continues to flourish, it made me rethink the way I view fiction.