Eschatology & Escapology 2: Desperate Scientists, Last Hope

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

“Doomed planet
Desperate scientists
Last hope
Kindly couple”
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:

You Grew Up Beautiful, Kara

From Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?

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:

Cover of Crisis On Infinite Earths 7, by George Perez

Cover of Crisis On Infinite Earths 7, by George Perez

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:

Panel from All-Star Superman #1, pencils by Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours by Jamie Grant

Panel from All-Star Superman #1, pencils by Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours by Jamie Grant

(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:

Detail from above panel

Detail from above panel

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!
Luthor Nasthalthia!
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…

Panel from All-Star Superman 12, written by Grant Morrison, pencils Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours Jamie Grant

Panel from All-Star Superman 12, written by Grant Morrison, pencils Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours Jamie Grant

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8 Responses to Eschatology & Escapology 2: Desperate Scientists, Last Hope

  1. Pingback: Linkblogging For 09/01/10 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  2. Jim says:

    Absolutely lovely bit of writing – thank you for sharing it with us. I only got round to reading All-Star Superman late last year, and it actually lived up to all the hype. I definitely agree with your point about how everyone in the story gets their own “grace note” or moment of goodness. It’s Morrison other concern that elevates the book above most other cape comics – Superman doesn’t win just by punching the other guy harder; he wins by relying on his friends and through his compassion and belief in humanity. That’s what makes it such an inspiring story, in my opinion.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks!
      And you’re right – it’s Morrison’s humanism, and sense of compassion for everyone (or at least belief that a sense of compassion for all would be a good thing) that really makes the story.

  3. Seb Patrick says:

    Very good piece, although I knew there was something slightly familiar about it, and then I realised – it was that I read this the other day:

    http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/01/07/ask-chris-39-superman-continuity-and-you/

    … in which Chris makes almost *exactly* the same point, using exactly the same panels, about how the Supergirl moment in WHTTMOT? is powerful if you know she’d recently died in Crisis, but less so if you weren’t versed in continuity; although he actually then goes on to say that All-Star is more rooted in existing continuity than most people would say.

    I agree with you, though – while All-Star draws on previous elements, it never throws in anything that you would *need* to know in order to make a story more powerful. The only things it relies on the reader knowing are the things that *anyone* even contemplating picking up a Superman story would already know. Everything else, while it enriches the experience for the Superman fan who knows where he’s cherry-picked it from, is not reliant on that knowledge for its pure enjoyment.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Gah! That’s really annoying – as you can see from the date on this, I started writing it more than a week ago (and started planning it a month back), though I finished it last night, and I hadn’t read Sims’ article yet (though I do read his stuff, and it’s sat in my RSS reader ready for me) but that is scarily similar to my post. Suppose it must just be steam-engine time :-/

  4. FrF says:

    A remark on the criticism of Frank Quitely “not drawing backgrounds”: I, on the other hand, think that a lot of artists would profit to take a lesson from Quitely’s aesthetic choice of “decorating” panels more sparsely. Time constraints are always an issue in mainstream comics and therefore a lot of backgrounds are uninspired and perfunctory. That’s why Quitely and Fabio Moon/Gabriel Ba on “Casanova” are so appealing to me. Compared to rote comic book naturalism their background work is more abstract and sparse which also has a lot of pragmatic advantages from an artist’s point of view — only in the case of Frank Quitely it hasn’t because his flavour of reductionism is obviously time-consuming!

  5. Pingback: Top Posts Of The Year « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

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