Sunday, June 17, 2007

All Star Superman #6: 'Funeral in Smallville'

The first TPB comes to a close with an issue that’s fairly schizophrenic, bouncing between the emotion of Pa Kent’s death and the bizarreness of the Superman Squad. Much of the series has been about that balance, simultaneously embracing the Silver Age wackiness and more grounded, realistic emotion. But, this issue doesn’t quite pull it together as well the others. There’s moments here that are as strong as anything in the series, but it doesn’t quite cohere into a cohesive whole.

The opening few pages of the issue are probably the most unqualified success. You simultaneously experience the Superman and Clark parts of his personality. He’s still reverent towards his father, embarrassed when he tells the story about how he crash landed on Earth. But, once he gets to use his powers, he’s having fun again, chasing Krypto up into space.

The best thing about the space stuff is how much fun Clark is clearly having. While I do love the angsty superhero soap opera of something like X-Men or Buffy, all that worrying frequently obscures the basic joy of being able to do something that other people can’t. Superman doesn’t go to the park to play fetch with hi dog, he goes to the stars and rests on the moon.

Superman has that classic hero’s journey arc. Much like Luke Skywalker, he has to leave the family farm and go off into the big city. Unlike Luke Skywalker, his home wasn’t destroyed, so he can return back and imagine what could have been. Did he make the right choice in going to Metropolis and becoming a hero, or would it have been better to just say home and work on the farm. One of the strong things about the issue is that it makes it feel like a legitimate conundrum. Sitting in the diner with Lana, it seems like he would gladly stay there forever.

However, adventure calls and in a funny panel, Lana claims that he must be Superman. This is the opposite of what Lois Lane says, she is unable to believe that Clark could be Superman even after he says he is. Lana knows that Clark is. I’m not that familiar with Lana’s place in the Superman mythos, but just judging from this issue, she’d have known him growing up and would be more aware of how he felt developing the powers. So, she’d notice when Clark started acting weird, acting like Superman.

Superman then meets the Superman Squad. This is a concept that cropped up in Morrison’s JLA: One Million, which, if I recall correctly, also featured the Unknown Superman and Kal Kent. The Superman Squad is a cool concept for JLA, since that was a universe full of superpowered characters. However, here in All Star, I always got the impression that Superman was the only superhero. He does mention Batman, but we never see anyone else, and I feel like it undermines his specialness to have three other Supermen around.

The Chronovore is a cool concept, right in line with a lot of Morrison ideas. The idea that he turns “Farmer Stone’s cows into the hamburgers they were destined to become” is great, very Invisibles. But, the 5-D Superman is just annoying. So, it’s not all good.

What I like about the issue is the way it shows how far Superman has to go. He recklessly rushes in to show up Kal Kent and in the process misses his father’s final moments. One of the best panels is Superman rushing across the grass, screaming “I can save him! I can save everybody!” That sounds a bit like Anakin Skywalker, the hubris of the young hero with near unlimited power.

I suppose the thematic reason for combining the story of the Unknown Supermen with the death of Pa Kent was to force Superman to confront forces larger than him, and to grow up in the process. At the beginning of the issue, he’s happily bounding through the sky and meeting with childhood friends. By the end, he’s been shown up by the Superman Squad and also been rocked by death for the first time. He can’t save everyone and he recognizes that in the funeral scene.

I love the speech that Clark gives there, it’s exactly the sort of thing that Superman would say. However, this again positions Clark as a young man, I felt like he was older in the first issues of the series. The Superman who was faced with mortality in issue one felt more middle aged than this guy who seems barely into his twenties. I suppose he puts on a more mature approach as Superman, but reverts to a younger mentality when he’s back home.

The issue ends on a curious note, as we find out that the Unknown Superman is actually Clark himself. It’s interesting that the 5-D Superman says it took Jonathan Kent’s death to ensure that Superman left Smallville and moved out to the big city. He flirted with staying a child, but realized that he does have to grow up, and become something new.

The issue is quite ambitious, mixing a lot of elements. I think I see better now what Grant was trying to do, but it’s still tough to fit all these things together into a cohesive whole. I would have toned down the oddness of the Superman Squad a bit, but I think it works as a glimpse into Superman’s future. This is his legacy, but it’s also Jonathan Kent’s legacy, and Jonathan wouldn’t have wanted Clark to stay home. That’s why he hired help on the farm, he knew Clark was destined for something bigger and needed a little push out into the bigger world.

When the series first started, there was a strict division between Clark and Superman. It was represented in their physical appearance and characterization. I felt like Superman was the real guy and Clark was just a disguise. But, as the series has gone on, the line has blurred to the point that they’ve become one interdependent entity. The first issues presented a really iconic, chill Superman, but as they’ve gone on, we’ve gotten a bit more character development. I think he’s still true to the Superman that Morrison met, but his possible death has forced him to reassess things a bit.

I’m probably going to start following the series in singles, since the individual issues are essentially self contained and satisfying enough to bridge the gap between publication. So, I’ll be getting issue seven next time I’m at the comic store, then it’s time to wait for things to get rolling. In the meantime, I’ve been reading the first trade of 52, a review’s coming soon, but the quick summation is surprisingly good, and inexplicably addictive. It’s like the methadone to Seven Soldiers’ heroin.


nicholas reed said...

I was under the impression while reading the issue that the bulk of this issue takes place in the "past", as it were, like it was Clark's first visit home after moving to the big city. The reveal of the Unknown Superman is that it is actually the one we've been following through the rest of the series thus far, and that this was him going into his own past in order to spend a few more moments with his "father" while confronting his own mortality at the time he first experienced it as a youth.

I'm unsure whether Pa Kent was aware of who exactly the Unknown Superman was (it seems somewhat ambiguous as to how much he knows/has been told), but I do like the hints of the identity of the Golden Superman. And that cover... beautiful.

Patrick said...

That makes things make a lot more sense. So, do you think that current Superman went back in time after going to Luthor's in issue five, or did he travel back in time at some unknown point in the future? I'll have to read on to see if this is addressed more.

nicholas reed said...

I assumed it was after the Luthor confrontation. Like, he knew of his "impending doom", but the conversation with Luthor confirmed it in his mind. I could be completely wrong here, of course.

Issue 8 (and onward) cannot come fast enough for me.

Patrick said...

I just bought issue 7, haven't read it yet, but yeah, that wait's going to be touch. What has it typically been, about three months between issues? That's almost Seven Soldiers #1 bad.

Patrick said...

But, at least with Morrison and Quitely, you know it'll be worth it.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the "present-day" All Star Superman only shows up in the issue during the reveal.

I think that if it wasn't for the legal entanglements, Morrison would've been able to use the name Superboy to refer to the brash, younger Superman (in an interview, Morrison indicated that it was the day of Pa Kent's death that turned Superboy into Superman.

David Golding said...

I don't see how this series is "Silver Age". To me, Silver Age Superman is wacky, zany, like Lucille Ball with a cape. This comic is fun and has lots of whimsical SF concepts, but it isn't wacky.

I don't think the other Superpeople diminishes Superman's specialness. In fact, the series is packed with versions of Superman, good and bad and just different, the better to examine our hero; and also with signs that Superman will live on, that his specialness can and has been transmitted, in various ways: the Superpeople in this issue are both.

Initially I thought the ending of this issue was a bit rushed, but your "Anakin Skywalker" comment really made it click for me. That panel references Superman 2 and Revenge of the Sith, making them do all the work.

Patrick said...

One of the things I love about Morrison's Superman, and all his superhero work in general, is the way it takes the zany silver age concepts and makes them relevant and emotionally engaging. That's one of his great strengths, the humanity always shines through, even in the craziest moments.

My favorite Morrison work is the end of the Kissing Mister Quimper TPB and Zatanna because both works have both a deep emotional impact that goes to an almost subconscious level and are so full of intellectual content, you could analyze them for years. The panel where Zatanna reaches out to you, the reader, is a perfect example, there's so many layers, but in the moment, all you can do is reach out and take her hand and try to save her.