Sunday, April 06, 2008

All Star Superman #10

This was a big week for Frank Quitely comics. Earlier in the week, I read The Authority: Earth Inferno, and yesterday I finally caught up on All Star Superman #10. Reading these books, it became clear that Frank is the best comics artist of all time, edging slightly ahead of JH Williams for me. His work has such a unique quality, going beyond realism to a kind of hyper-reality. And, he always seems to make creators kick up their game to compete. Grant Morrison always writes good comics, but you get the sense that his Batman is just a fun diversion, he wouldn’t deliver a Batman script to Quitely. If Quitely’s going to spend months working on an issue, it’s got to be worthy of his time, and this issue definitely is.

There’s a number of things that are striking about All Star Superman #10. But, what really jumped out to me is just how satisfying it is as a single issue. Much as I love the medium, I think there’s virtually no books on the market today that are satisfying to read on an issue to issue basis. There’s just not enough material there to make it worth your money or keep you sated for the long gaps between issues. If people are saying it’s too frustrating to wait a week between 45 minute TV episodes, how are you going to keep them occupied during month long gaps between 22 page stories? That’s why I read most of my books in trade.

But, if every single issue was like this, this dense and emotional, comics would be a lot more popular. So much happens in the issue, there’s so many ideas, and so much feeling, I want to read more, but I don’t need to, it’s a totally satisfying experience as a single part of a larger work. I always take longer to read Quitely comics because I love to get lost in the pages, to just study the artwork and linger in the moments. It took me probably double the time to read this book than it did the average single issue, and the longer I spend on a comic, usually the better it is.

The thing that Morrison does better than any other writer out there is combine his huge ideas with a very real emotional base. One of the many outstanding moments in the issue is Superman sending the Kandorians out to save the kids in the hospital. It’s a loopy sci-fi concept, the notion of these miniature people being injected into Superman to try and save him, but Morrison brings you into a headspace where you accept that, and roll with it. Then, the moment where Superman sends the Kandorians out to heal the kids becomes incredibly beautiful. It’s a single page that’s just totally invigorating. It’s like all the joy and possibility of humanity is contained in that one single panel.

There’s a lot of moments like that in the issue. We see what Superman means to the people in the world, the way he is able to save a whole city and a single girl, and each of them feels equally significant. The scenes on Mars are amazing, you can practically feel the wind blowing through Superman’s hair, Quitely is able to convey the tactile experience of the place simply through the visual.

The notion of freeing a city of small people feeling inferior next to someone so large is a perfect metaphorical encapsulation of humanity’s feelings towards Superman in the comic. For Luthor, it’s hard to deal with knowing he’ll never be able to be as good as Superman. Even if Superman dies, Luthor will still live in his shadow. However, for a lot of the humans, Superman functions as an ideal, something to aspire to and be inspired by.

This is captured perfectly in the scene where Superman saves Regan from committing suicide. In that single page, Morrison and Quitely capture everything amazing about the character. Other writers put Superman in more traditional villain battling stories, but that doesn’t work for the character. I love Morrison’s vision of him as this pacifist ideal, someone who does want to save everyone. The implicit message of a lot of hero stories is once we clear out the bad guys, we can make a better world, but they never make it past that beating the bad guys part. Here, Superman isn’t battling villains, he’s battling the very force of negativity itself. So, saving Regan is equally important as saving Kandor, it’s all part of the same push for something better.

So, does that make Superman the ultimate Morrison hero? In The Invisibles, we saw King Mob move away from guns and try to create some kind of zen war practice. Superman is above the game, he’s not battling people, he’s just trying to save lives. He is as enlightened a character as Morrison has ever written, and reading this issue, you can see why he is the top hero, why he’s such an enduring myth.

That’s what Morrison makes explicit in the wonderful meta elements of the infant universe Qwewq. It was awesome to see Qwewq back, the beloved character/concept from Seven Soldiers. It’s been present in much of Grant’s DCU work, and I hope to see it return in Final Crisis. Qwewq has always been the stand-in for our universe, a world without heroes. So, it turns out that Superman has invented our entire universe as a means of seeing what the world would be like without him. And, it turns out that we would have to invent him. Those final pages are exhilarating, as we zip across plot lines and stop briefly on the birth of Superman in our world. He is an idea so powerful, he will always be around in one form or another.

I always love the metatextual elements that Morrison uses in his work, and this book ties in wonderfully with Flex Mentallo. Flex was all about dealing with youth, with the feelings of inadequacy that come with adolescence. This book follows it up, as Morrison, and the character of Superman, come to terms with getting older, becoming more aware of imminent death. I need to reread Flex and compare it with this book, but what both books uniquely have is the sense of wonder about superheroes. There’s some inherently unknowable about this Superman, some piece of him that remains beyond us. Morrison told that classic story about meeting Superman before writing this, and finding it all from talking to the guy who said he was Superman. The character feels like something beyond Morrison’s imagining, like he’s writing this series to have an accurate record of who he is.

I don’t know that the universe of Qwewq stuff will factor in the rest of the series, but I love that Morrison got it in there. It’s part of what makes the issue so good, the onslaught of ideas and concepts, Morrison struggling to fit in all the ideas he had for the character with only three issues left. You stack Qwewq on top of Regan, on top of the bottle city, on top of the kids at the hospital and you’ve got a crescendo of emotion coming off the book.

I really love the scenes with Superman and Lois as well. Quitely draws her so beautifully, and as shown here, she is his rock, the one person who can keep him going when he gets down. And, of course, he can’t just stay with her, he can hear everyone, hear all their pain, and knows that he can save them if he tries hard enough.

I think this is without question the greatest Superman comic I’ve ever read, and I find it hard to believe anything out there could top it. In the character’s seventy years of existence, this is the best story that’s been told about him yet. The Superman we normally see, here on Earth-Q, is but a flawed reaction of the man himself. This is the platonic ideal, who Superman should always be. I think I dwell so much on Quitely’s art because it doesn’t feel like Morrison is writing the series. I can see much in common with his other work, but I almost don’t want to delve too deep, to deconstruct it. I want to let it linger as this series of perfect moments, of single pages that say more than years of stories can.

I’ll admit I was a bit lukewarm on the series after loving the first four or five issues, it dipped for a bit. But, this issue brings it fully back, it’s everything a comic should be. It is the greatest Superman story ever told.

5 comments:

RAB said...

One of the many great things about this issue is how Grant took the central image from the story in Superman #125 that originally inspired his approach to this series and transformed it from something utterly silly to something very charming and beautiful. I really don't know a better word to describe this kind of creative transformation than alchemy.

(There's a good summary of the original story here if you're curious.)

There's one thing I haven't seen anyone mention in discussing this issue, and I've been wondering if this is because it's so obvious no one else thinks it worth mentioning, or because people didn't notice. Namely...you realize who the ancestor of the l33t-speaking 24th century super-scientist Roo Macz must be, right? That just blew my mind when it hit me. And it definitely confirms one of the thematic points you make above.

Patrick said...

Are those Showcase Superman volumes worth checking out in general? The stories sound so crazy and fun, I feel like they'd have to be good. But, at the same time, the Silver Age frequently sounds better in concept than it does in practice.

As for the ancestor, do you mean that person is a descendant of Regan? That's how I read it, I think he said something about Superman saving his great great great...grandmother, but maybe I missed something in there.

RAB said...

The Silver Age stuff can be a pretty mixed bag. Some of it definitely is better in theory than in reality...but then you come across a masterpiece like "The Showdown Between Superman and Luthor" by Edmond Hamilton, which is emotionally the equal of anything Morrison could do. It's a bit like asking would I recommend the X-Men. Well, which X-Men?

With the 1960 vintage Superman, the comics are always at minimum fun, and often more than that. At worst, you'll become acquainted with the background Morrison is drawing on. But understand, I find a story like this absolutely charming and I enjoy the sheer affection Jerry Siegel displays for his characters; I could easily see another modern reader considering the same story utterly senseless and goofy.

That's exactly what I meant about Regan. The notion of the reverse time capsule being there before Superman rescues her raises a Schrodinger's Cat type question of predestination: if he hadn't rescued her, it would have contained a completely different message. More importantly, it may be that the information from Roo Macz will ultimately save Superman...in which case, he will ultimately have saved himself by saving someone else, which is not a bad moral to get from a Superman story.

Patrick said...

I suppose that was a pretty broad question. But, I'm sold on at least giving the vintage Superman a chance. Where would you recommend starting, with one of the Showcase volumes?

And, are you still going to the New York Comicon next week? What days will you be there? I'm planning on doing Friday and Saturday.

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