All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant
One of my favourite comics of all time is Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and Curt Swan. Its opening is still one of the most powerful bits of writing Moore has done, in a career with thousands of them, and it as much as anything else inspired this series of essays:
This is an IMAGINARY STORY
(which may never happen, but then again may)
about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.
It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the
great miracles long since performed;
of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in
the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights;
of the women he loved and of the choice he made between them;
of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things
he had were taken from him save one.
It ends with a wink.
It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one
summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future.
Away from the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from
the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a
bird, only a plane — Superman died ten years ago.
This is an IMAGINARY STORY…
Aren’t they all?
But strangely, despite this attempt to turn the Superman story into a universal myth, the story then turns into one that is very, very specifically based in then-current DC continuity. This made perfect sense at the time – it was a ‘goodbye’ to thirty-plus years of stories, characters and situations. But it meant that it was rooted in the specific, rather than the universal.
This had benefits, for example this sequence:
The first time I read that, I don’t mind admitting I broke down in tears. It’s an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing, and its force is made more powerful by being drawn by Curt Swan (inked by the great George Perez) – this still looks exactly like the simplistic stories of the 1960s, even though there is a lot more going on. These simple children’s characters are being asked to carry a weight they were never designed to carry, and are only doing so precisely because they remain the characters of our collective childhoods.
But it’s only powerful if you have background knowledge. Depending on your familiarity with the Superman ‘mythos’ of the time, this could be anything from near-incomprehensible (though I think Moore gives enough information to give you some context, because he’s a wonderful craftsman) through to heart-stoppingly beautiful. But ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ only comes if you know that, for Superman, this had already happened:
Supergirl had, in the comics, recently sacrificed herself to help save the universe (and this story was so powerful she stayed dead for twenty years – almost unheard of in superhero comics). But this had only happened in the comics – it had obviously not happened in any of the films, TV series, cartoons or other interpretations of the Superman story.
So while Moore is obviously trying for the mythic and universal, in a myriad ways (I think I’m the only one to have noticed, for example, that he has Superman die ten years to the day after Elvis, so when Superman turns out at the end not to be dead, but just living a normal life without his powers, he ties it to the ‘Elvis working in a Burger King in Des Moines’ tabloid stories of the time, as well as to one of the most potent of what can only be called the 20th century’s ‘real-life myths’), to make this the capstone of ‘the Superman story’, what we have is, by necessity, only the end of a Superman story. There’d be another one along in a minute.
[FOOTNOTE the one that came along in a minute was John Byrne’s Man Of Steel reboot. This originally looked more exciting and ‘modern’, but has badly dated – and Byrne’s changes can sometimes look pretty unpleasant in retrospect. The original Siegel and Shuster had Superman sent to Earth as a baby. Byrne had a ‘birthing matrix’ sent, landing on Earth before Superman was born, thus ensuring that someone who had previously represented the Jewish immigrant experience to the US was now born in the USA – a reflection of Reaganite anti-immigration ideas that is very odd coming from a writer/artist who was himself doubly an immigrant (born in the UK, Byrne moved first to Canada before becoming a US citizen).]
Moore’s story is rooted in specifics of place and time – it takes place in a flashback to 16 August 1987, with a framing sequence on 16 August 1997. Even its future is now fourteen years in the past. That doesn’t remove its power for now – I first read the Crisis issue where Supergirl died when I was eleven, so Moore & Swan’s work still has the power to affect me. But Crisis is ephemera – at best it will last in the same way Sexton Blake or Billy Bunter stories from the turn of the last century have. If it’s read in a hundred years at all, it will be as a footnote to Man Of Tomorrow [FOOTNOTE – or maybe Animal Man], and Man Of Tomorrow will only be read by scholars of Alan Moore’s work.
By contrast, I think Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant’s All Star Superman will (possibly along with the first two Christopher Reeve films, and maybe Siegel & Shuster’s original origin story ) be the Superman story that lasts as long as the human race are interested in stories of superheroes.
Partly, this is because it’s simply a better work. I don’t think Morrison’s quite the writer that Moore is (though I don’t want to get into a Moore-vs-Morrison argument, quite possibly the most tedious discussion it’s possible to have about comics. Both men are superlative writers, and I would rather read even a minor work by either above almost anything by almost anyone else in the medium), but Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? doesn’t play to Moore’s strengths. Moore is Apollonian – he’s a formalist by nature, whose greatest strengths come from rigorous plotting, structural innovation and intellectual bravado. The best example of Moore as writer of a single-issue comic book is probably Promethea #12, which (with the help of J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Todd Klein, Jose Villarubia and Jeromy Cox) uses the comic page the way Bach used the keys of the harpsichord, to create stunning contrapuntal effects that no-one else could ever create. Having Moore write a two-issue Superman story to be drawn by Curt Swan and edited by Julie Schwartz is a bit like asking Bach to write a twelve-bar blues. You’d probably get something pretty great, but it would still be a waste of his talents.
By contrast Morrison, while he’s also interested in formal experimentation, is more Dionysiac (for all that All-Star Superman is an Apollonian myth). He works in a more improvisatory way, leaving far more to his collaborators, and seems to be far more interested in emotional effect than in process. If Moore is Bach then Morrison is John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, improvising wild ideas around the core of a pop song and playing off his collaborators’ work.
And luckily, in All-Star Superman Morrison had the pefect collaborator in penciller Frank Quitely. While I would never hear a word said against Curt Swan’s work, his greatest strength was (as Calamity Jon Morris described later Superman artist Dan Jurgens) “The things he drew sure do look like the things they’re meant to look like”. That’s not quite the damning with faint praise it sounds like – in the comics industry that bespeaks a level of professionalism and craftsmanship that would probably put an artist in the top five percent, sadly. But it’s not a quality that is necessarily suited to making lasting art.
Frank Quitely, on the other hand, is one of the most intelligent, sensitive artists working in ‘mainstream’ comics. While he’s not as innovative as some would have it (many of his innovations come from European or indie comics that many of his readers haven’t read), he is able to use the comics page in a way that few others would be able to. Just consider this panel, for example:
(That image can be clicked through to if it isn’t displayed at full size on your screen)
The interesting thing about this is not just the multiple-images-in-one-frame thing to indicate motion – this had been done before, and was probably invented by Carmine Infantino in Flash stories in the 1950s, though it’s rarely been done so skillfully and gracefully, but the thought that’s been put into it. It’s a cliche to say ‘there’s not a line out of place’ but in Quitely’s case it’s simply true. Quitely uses fewer lines per page than most comic artists will use in a small panel, and as a result philistines accuse him of ‘laziness’ and ‘not drawing backgrounds’. But every line in every Quitely panel is placed to illustrate one of plot, character or environment. And there’s far more detail there than appears at first glance. Take this, for example:
That’s Cat Grant’s shoe, poking out under her desk. And precisely the kind of shoe the character would wear. Most readers will never notice that, but tiny details like that add to the impression that this is a real, living world, where things happen ‘offstage’ and characters have lives away from the protagonist. In fact a huge amount of this story only takes place by implication, in the gutters and what is left unsaid.
And this is the reason why All-Star Superman will be read long after Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? is forgotten. Because whereas the latter depends for its (incredible) power on being part of a specific continuity, All-Star Superman only depends on you knowing the outline of the Superman myth – “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple” and we’re into the story. It doesn’t matter what shape the rocket he landed in was, or whether there was an Eradicator in it, or whether Super-Horses live on Krypton, or whether he was born Kal-El or Kal-L. All that matters is that he’s Superman.
And it takes aspects from every version of the Superman story to have been published – ranging from an updated version of Jack Kirby’s version of Jimmy Olsen, to Steve Lombard from the 70s stories, to Cat Grant from the 90s soap-operatic comics, to Qwewq The Infant Universe and Solaris The Tyrant Sun from Morrison’s own JLA stories. The Kent/Superman distinction is pure Christopher Reeve – you can hear Reeve saying the Clark Kent lines – but he’s drawn in pure Wayne Boring style. These are incorporated to precisely the extent that they serve the larger story being told, and no more, but all are given their own remarkable stories (Steve Lombard goes from being a blustering bully early in the story to an almost heroic figure by the end).
The story itself is possibly the most audacious ever told in a superhero comic, and probably only escaped right-wing outrage by being so ludicrously good – Morrison doesn’t just turn Superman into a Jesus-figure, like the awful Superman Returns, but actually makes him the personal God that created humanity on the Earth on which we live, pretty much in passing as part of an even larger story.
And in the end, almost everyone is redeemed. Even Lex Luthor, the only person presented as actually evil, has a moment of enlightenment:
Luthor Einstein failed to unify the gravitational force with the other three but he… he had no experience of this…it’s so obvious. I can actually see and hear and feel and taste it and… the fundamental forces are yoked by a single thought.
Nasthalthia Lexie? How do I get this hat to work?
Luthor It’s thought-controlled! Hmm? Sorry… sorry, these new senses…I can actually see the machinery and wire connecting and separating everything since it all began… this is how he sees all the time, every day. Like it’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.
Nasthalthia Uncle Lex! You’re literally embarrassing me beyond all therapy with this behavior!
Superman No, he’s just trying to articulate how gravity warps time and how I forced his metabolism to accelerate to compensate.
How gravity warps time? I think I might just have something to say about that, and so might Grant Morrison…
I’m putting the Beatles post off til Friday, to address a point that came up more than any other in the (shockingly positive) comments to my last post. I said:
a highlight of the first half of this first year will be the redemption of Lex Luthor – in a forty-page story, set in one room, with just the two of them talking, and Superman using logic to convince Luthor to turn his talents towards good (Luthor then joins Superman’s little research team).
Now, everyone said some variant of “Luthor’s problems are emotional, not logical”. So let me explain how I see this issue playing out (in very broad strokes).
First, the background – the idea for this came from some stuff I’ve read on game theory. Fundamentally, if you assume that human beings are finite, then any interaction between two people who have conflicting goals, can be modelled as a game, in much the same way as chess, in which either there is a strategy by which one person *has* to win, or it can only possibly end in a draw. (I’m skipping a lot of stuff here, but you get the idea).
Now, looking at Superman vs Luthor as a chess game is an interesting way to look at it. Superman *HAS* to win, of course – if we’re doing a cap to ‘the Superman story’, Superman has to beat Luthor.
So we have a situation. Superman and Luthor, together in a room, having a conversation. (It would actually be good to have it over a game of chess, but that’s been so overused it would be silly. I can still picture all the story beats done that way, though, and were it not so cliched it would be powerful. Superman is trying to persuade Luthor to reform, while Luthor is essentially trying to persuade Superman to commit suicide.
Now, the important part here is that Luthor *thinks* he’s the epitome of rational humanity – in fact, of course, he’s a vicious sociopath – and so Superman is entirely logical, calm, and serene. Luthor gets steadily angrier, and actively tries to kill Superman at least three times during the story – at first with a complex, subtle plan involving hidden kryptonite lasers, but by the end just lunging at him and attacking him with his bare hands.
But after each of these attacks fails, Luthor becomes somewhat embarrassed, and reverts to talking (apparently) calmly with Superman. Superman *NEVER* mentions these attacks, and only moves minimally to block them, before continuing with the conversation as if nothing happened.
And then suddenly, towards the end, Luthor breaks down weeping, essentially saying “What have I been doing with my life?!” and joins up with Superman. The impression given by the comic – and one which would be at least partly true – is that Luthor has realised that Superman actually *is* the rational man he merely wishes to be, and he has been trying to kill someone who really does have all the best characteristics he’d like to think he possesses himself. He’s shamed by the contrast between Superman’s calmness and his own viciousness.
For the most part, Superman is using absolutely logical arguments – he might talk about the proof that game-theoretically, altruism is an optimal strategy, or stuff like that – it would be very dry reading just Superman’s side, but the conflict would come from Luthor trying – and failing – to control his anger and resentment.
But there’s another level. Superman hasn’t wanted to tell anyone his plans, of course, til they’re close to completion, but he’s telling Luthor. The information is drip-fed, in such a way that to the reader it seems like part of the natural conversation. Only very small bits of information are given Luthor – but enough that he’s figured out Superman’s plan. It comes in sentences like:
“There are an infinite number of universes out there, Lex. In many of them, we’re friends rather than enemies. Can you imagine how much easier both our lives would be?”
“If you would just work with me instead of fighting me… my job would be over by now. Do you understand me? My job would be over.”
And so on. Just a few things, but Luthor’s breakdown comes at least in part because he realises that if he just works with Superman – does the hardest thing he can imagine doing – not only will the universe be infinitely better off, but Superman will leave it. Luthor can win the thing he wants more than anything – a universe without Superman – simply by co-operating.
Superman beats Luthor because by doing it Superman’s way, they can *both* win.
I really am returning to proper bloggery now. The last month or six weeks have been some of the hardest in recent years for me – not because of anything especially bad happening for the most part, but I’ve just been overwhelmed with work (in the last four weeks I’ve been given new responsibilities at work, co-authored a paper, and completed two projects for my course, while also trying to help my wife through an illness and work on PEP!). But that’s mostly settled down now (though I have about a million personal emails to get through). So I’m going to go back to my old ways with posting.
I’ve not written much about comics recently, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because comics analysis takes a lot more mental energy than any other kind of writing I do. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and how to deal with him in my pop-drama series.
Superman, you see, is actually one character where the setup is more or less right – but everyone still gets it wrong. With the exception of All Star Superman, and a few of Kurt Busiek’s issues (before his plans were repeatedly altered by editorial), nobody’s done a decent comic about the character in decades – you get one good Superman story every ten years or so on average (last decade, All-Star, the nineties – the issue of Hitman he features in, the eighties Moore’s work and arguably Crisis On Infinite Earths).
There are three problems, really, with Superman. The first is that there’s not, yet, a good ending for the Superman ‘myth’ – both Grant Morrison and Alan Moore tried, but neither story is considered the ‘canonical’ end to the story even in the way that Dark Knight Returns is for Batman. One could have argued that the original Crisis On Infinite Earths functioned that way for the real, Siegel and Shuster, Superman, but of course Geoff Johns had to go and write Infinite Crisis…
The problem with all endings to the Superman story that have been thought of are that they involve Superman giving up and retiring. This makes no sense with the character as he’s appeared for more than seventy years, but it’s the only way people have been able to come up with an ending that doesn’t involve him being utterly defeated. Neither of these seems like a fitting end for the character.
The second problem is that writers who can’t get a handle on the character – who think he’s too powerful or whatever – try to make the comic not about Superman, but about the supporting characters. There were whole months at a time in the nineties where the comic wasn’t about Superman and his adventures but about the blind daughter of a right-wing columnist for the Daily Planet. We’re seeing something similar at the moment – of the four current Super-titles, Superman only appears in one.
This makes a certain amount of sense – the Daily Planet in itself could be a good ‘story engine’, much in the same way as Grant Morrison’s Manhattan Guardian (link goes to Justin’s blog) could. But all the characters in it are ‘secondary characters’ rather than the star of the story, and they all have ended up with their own huge, baroque back-stories that no-one can possibly follow (remember how Perry White and his wife had a son, who died, who was really the illegitimate son of Lex Luthor, who is himself posing as his own son after faking his own death? Neither does anyone else…)
And finally, there’s the fact that in a continuing serial – whether part of a shared universe or otherwise – Superman can’t really change anything. The character is, of necessity, ineffectual, and spurious reasons have to be made up for him not to, for example, remove dictators (“humanity must run its own affairs, I would be corrupted by the power” – simply not a good reason for refusing to rectify obvious evils).
So we need to solve these problems.
I’m going to assume here that we can ignore the ‘DC Universe’ and only look at two comics, Superman and Action Comics, but that these two comics will continue to be published indefinitely. So this is what I’d do were I to be given the writer/editorship of those two titles, and allowed to do what I wanted with them with no thought as to how they’d interact with the wider ‘DC Universe’:
Firstly, I’d announce, very publicly, that we were splitting the two books. Superman would be about the adventures of Superman, while Action Comics would become like the old Superman Family comics – all about the adventures of Lois Lane, girl reporter, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, and so on. I would announce that to make the point about the separation of these two, Superman would not be appearing in Action for a year, and his supporting cast would not be appearing in his title. After that year, *Clark Kent* but not Superman would appear in Action, and while the Daily Planet characters could have whatever adventures they wanted in Action, they would only appear in Superman as supporting characters, firmly in the background.
I realise that this sounds a bit like the stuff I’m complaining about, but it wouldn’t be…
My first issue of Superman would have Clark Kent asking for a leave of absence from the Planet for a few months, to write a book. But really, it would be to start changing things around. He’s got tired of ignoring systemic abuses, and he’s going to change things.
And while he was gone, Action would be totally reinvented. Superman would literally not be mentioned once, even in passing. Nor do we mention *ANY* previous story, or any Superman villains – no Brainiac or Luthor or anything. This title stands on its own. There would be a year-long story about a conspiracy within government, being investigated by Lois Lane, which would be the backup feature throughout the year, while Jimmy Olsen would quickly become the star of the story (each of Jimmy’s adventures would turn up clues to the big picture Lois was working on).
Over the twelve issues, he would be kidnapped by aliens who want to learn more about Earth’s rock and roll music, discover he was the precise double of an obscure European dictator and thus be targeted by assassins, get infected with a mutated virus, spread by sneezing, which causes everyone who catches the disease to turn into another Jimmy Olsen, get caught in a time distortion field which makes him experience events in the opposite order to everyone else (this issue would be told in such a way that you could read it page one top left panel to page 24 bottom right panel, and read it as Jimmy experiences it, or read it backwards and read it as everyone around him experiences events, and have both stories make sense), pass through into our universe (this one would be a photocomic), accidentally enter into a pact with the devil by not reading the small print on a car rental agreement, get made ‘editor for the day’ by Perry White to show him that Perry’s job is harder than he thinks, meet J’mi Ulzen, time travelling cub reporter from the 35th century, go undercover in a criminal gang that turns out to be made up entirely of undercover reporters, obtain an enchanted camera that takes photos of how things will be half an hour in the future, nearly become the cause of an intergalactic war, as Space Queens Bheti and V’ron’ka, of two different galaxies, both want him as their consort, and in the last issue…
But we’re meant to be talking about Superman, aren’t we?
So in the Superman title, we will, to an extent, mirror the history of the character. He starts off as a social crusader, terrorising slum landlords, usurious credit card companies and so on. He starts getting involved in politics – an endorsement from Superman will win elections for people, worldwide.
He cures cancer. He removes dictators from power. He does, in short, all the things that we would do, had we Superman’s powers. He also engages in some pure physics research (with that beardy professor, Emil Hamilton, from the 90s? No reason not to use old characters so long as we don’t have to explain them), who infodumps various bits about quantum physics.
But he doesn’t just do this, of course – there’s also the standard supervillain stuff to contend with, and a highlight of the first half of this first year will be the redemption of Lex Luthor – in a forty-page story, set in one room, with just the two of them talking, and Superman using logic to convince Luthor to turn his talents towards good (Luthor then joins Superman’s little research team).
After much talk about ‘the device’, Superman then sets off on his ultimate adventure – he flies literally to the other side of the universe, carrying a small gadget whose purpose is unexplained with him. It’s implied that this takes a *long* time, and on the way we have adventures involving Mongul and Warworld, Darkseid, Adam Strange and the whole host of DC cosmic characters – in each one Superman ends the story having made a *huge* difference to something.
And then he gets to the farthest point possible – the antipodal point of the universe, the literal opposite end of the universe from Earth, and he turns his gadget on. And we see Lex and Emil, back in Metropolis, doing the same (Superman can see them using a superluminal communicator of some kind). And a light suffuses the universe…
They’ve built a universal resonator. A machine which literally turns the universe into heaven. There will be no more death, no more pain, no suffering. Every living thing in the universe will live forever in a state of infinite bliss.
And then Superman pulls out another gadget.
“Emil, you told me about the infinite number of other universes out there. I’m going to visit.”
“But… but we’ve got heaven now! Perfection! Why do you want to leave that?”
“So why are you going?”
“Because some of those other universes don’t have a Superman to save them. Someone’s got to do it…”
“Surely you’ve done enough!”
“I can’t let anyone suffer any more. There’s been too much suffering already”
“But… there’s an infinite number of them!”
“Yes. It might take a little while”. And giving a confident smile (like the one I picture in my head, drawn by George Perez but I can’t think from which story), he steps through a doorway, through which is coming a blazing light.
And the last issue of the twelve-issue run of Action features Jimmy Olsen investigating rumours of a flying man in Metropolis, and at the end of the story, Jimmy and Lois are introduced to a new reporter, from out of town, who’s just starting work at the Planet. His name is Clark Kent. And we end with a Curt Swan wink to the reader.
(Tomorrow – White Album Post 1)