Thursday, June 14, 2007

All Star Superman #5: 'The Gospel According to Lex Luthor'

Morrison continues his journey through the Superman mythos with a stop at Lex Luthor, who lectures Clark Kent on the nature of Superman. This issue is notable for not featuring Superman at all, which turns him into more of an idea than an individual. Much of the series’ thematic focus has been on exploring that concept, Superman as an icon, but by focusing things through Lex’s point of view, we get an entirely different notion of the man of steel.

One of the most fun things about this issue is watching Clark Kent struggle to solve problems without revealing he’s Superman. As I’ve said before, Morrison and Quitely have created such a brilliant dichotomy between Superman and the front he puts on as Clark Kent that you can legitimately believe that Luthor wouldn’t know that the man standing right in front of him is actually Superman. A lot of it is Quitely’s art, which gives Clark this awkward slump, a big contrast to Superman’s shoulder back, chest out pride.

In a lot of circles, the Kill Bill Volume II speech about how Superman is the real person and Clark Kent is the disguise has become taken as fact, and you could certainly see things that way in the series. Watching Clark go about, you can feel he’s uncomfortable in his own skin, but as Superman, he’s totally in control. But, I think it’s more than simply him really being Superman and playing this role of the goofy human. I think Morrison’s understanding of the character is informed by the idea that both sides of the personality are equally valid. He is the last son of Krypton, sent to save Earth, but he’s also a Kansas farmboy who finds himself out of place in the big city.

Now, one could argue that that lack of confidence is part of the persona, but I think it reveals the underlying uncertainty that Clark/Superman has about his place in the world. As Superman, he’s in his element, saving people and not having to worry about individual interaction. But, in Clark, we can see all his insecurities made manifest. The iconic image of the first cover shows Superman calmly observing the world from above, when he’s down in the mess, things aren’t so serene.

Luthor raises the question of what the world would be like without Superman. As a reader in a world without Superman, we have to think of our own world, one where people are pretty much content to accept that this is all there is. We’ve already seen how Superman has inspired people like Leo Quintum to invent new things and try to bring all humanity to the level of Superman. For him, Superman is a model to aspire to.

In Luthor, we see the reverse of that, what would happen if a man could work all his life to be his best, both physically and mentally, but still be unable to match up to Superman. That would be incredibly frustrating, and this issue does a good job of conveying that frustration. There’s some irony in Luthor telling Clark that he could never have Lois as long as Superman’s around, but it also hits home in some ways. This is coming after Lois was completely unable to believe that Superman was also Clark. She doesn’t want to acknowledge that the all powerful model human could have the weakness of a Clark Kent in him. He can’t even compete with himself, so how are others expected to match him?

Luthor talks about turning the prison into an alternative society, one where Superman is absent. The notion of building a society in miniature is something Morrison has done a lot, in the Petri dish world and Libertania in The Filth, as well as the robot dome in Manhattan Guardian #2. It’s not really developed here, but I’m assuming we’ll return to the prison at some point later in the series, and see how Luthor’s plans pay off. This issue, more than any of the previous ones, feels like it’s setting up elements in a larger arc. There’s a payoff on the threat, but I really hope we return to what Luthor is working on down the line.

Using The Parasite as a foe here is great because it puts Clark in legitimate danger. How can he stop The Parasite without revealing himself as Superman. We again see Clark use his goofiness as a weapon, as well as Luthor’s calculating skill as a warrior.

I’m not sure if the baboon in the Superman suit has a larger significance, or is just a goofy, funny image. There could be some connection to evolution, the idea that this baboon is to humanity what humanity is to Superman. It also works as a way of Luthor showing how control he is, even in prison, he can do anything he wants.

Luthor’s ending speech is fantastic, largely because of the drawn on eyebrow. This such a goofy, funny touch, and yet it also gives him some menace in that final panel. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the eyebrow gives him the look of Quimper. It’s interesting to see Clark first try to reach out to Luthor, then get angry when he refuses. This is the human part of Superman, the bafflement at dealing with a foe who just might be one step ahead of him. And, down here, Clark is unable to reveal his real power to Luthor. Luthor tells Clark that Superman is dying, a message to bring to the world. Will Clark reveal this?

Luthor says if Superman wasn’t around, he’d be ruling the planet. It’s tough to be second best, that seems to be Luthor’s primary motivation in battling Superman. He can’t handle the competition. It’s a distinctly human motivation, this inability to accept that someone better than you is out there.

Luthor hands Clark off to his apprentice, who one day hopes to rule the world. It’s great that she’s dressed as a dominatrix, rowing through a river of what’s apparently lava in a cave to bring Luthor stuff. What can I say, it works for me.

So, this issue really sets up the stakes for the rest of the series. Luthor may be one step ahead of Superman, and as Clark Kent, he’s powerless to do anything about it. Of course, now he knows more about Luthor, and can likely use this knowledge to eventually defeat him. But, for now, the future looks uncertain.

I still miss Lois, but this issue was great. Quitely and Morrison create such a demanding, visual comic. It’s great to read a work that really uses the medium of comics, this isn’t experimental in the way that an Alan Moore work is, but it’s as profound a redefinition of what the medium can do. I feel like Morrison and Quitely just raise the bar for what a comic can be, and I’m glad to follow along as they do this.


Jacob said...

One of the things I really liked about this issue is how it shows us that Lex's real worst enemy isn't Superman, but his own intellectual vanity: trying to show off by "cracking" Clark's "code" which turns out to be simple shorthand, nearly being brained or shot by the rioting prisoners he imagines himself in control of, and finally, not recognizing his mortal foe even when Clark is shouting at him from inches away with glasses off.

(That last is, I think, a bit of a nod or acknowledgement to a story John Byrne did in the Man of Steel reboot back in the 80s, that said the reason a supposed supergenius like Lex never figures out Clark's identity is because he can't accept the idea that someone with Superman's power would ever want to pretend to be normal. I always thought that was a nice bit of characterization, and Morrison seems to concur.)

The Kill Bill speech was cribbed from Jules Feiffer's essay "The Comic Book Heroes", and while an interesting point of view, I've never quite agreed with it. If Kent is Superman's "critique" of humanity it's not a very scathing one: the worst thing anyone can say about him is that he's shy and clumsy. I think Clark's importance is often overlooked in analyses of the mythos: to me, it's telling that he's a journalist - a job that lets him do good in the world as a normal person, without recourse to his powers - especially when Superman's pulp contemporaries like Batman, the Shadow, Tarzan and Doc Savage had fantasy wish-fulfillment jobs like idle playboy or industrialist or aristocrat.

David Golding said...

Personally, I doubt we'll see a return to prison. Lex can't build anything, because his fight with Superman always gets in the way.

I don't think Lex is foolish for not seeing Superman when Clark shouts at him with his glasses off. Could Clark be any less like Morrison's Superman at this point? This is the human part of our hero, struggling for expression, the frustration that no matter how powerful he is, not everyone can be saved; his love for Lex.

He even gives Lex his eyeliner back in a small act of compassion (having pocketed it earlier for just such a possibility) and Lex throws it back in his face.

(BTW, I'm not surprised we haven't seen much of Lois. She's really a minor part of Superman's history that the films and television series blow out of proportion.)

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