All-Star Superman Vols. 1 & 2
Grant Morrison, writer
Frank Quitely, artist
DC, 2008-2010, believe it or not
160 pages each
Buy them from Amazon.com
The cheeky thing to say about the brand-new out-of-continuity world Grant Morrison constructed to house his idea of the ideal Superman story is that it’s very much like the DC Universe we already know, but without backgrounds. Like John Cassaday, another all-time great superhero artist currently working, Frank Quitely isn’t one for filling in what’s going on behind the action. One wonders what he’d do with a manga-style studio set-up, with a team of young, hungry Glaswegians diligently constructing a photo-ref Metropolis for his brawny, beady-eyed men and leggy, lippy women to inhabit.
But, y’know, whatever. So walls and skyscrapers tend to be flat, featureless rectangles. Why not give colorist/digital inker Jamie Grant big, wide-open canvases for his sullen sunset-reds and bubblegum neon-purples and beatific sky-blues? We’re not quite in Lynn Varley Dark Knight Strikes Again territory here, but the luminous, futuristic rainbow sheen Grant gives so much of the space of each page–not to mention the outfits of Superman, Leo Quintum, Lex Luthor, Samson & Atlas, Krull, the Kryptonians and Kandorians, Super-Lois, and so on–ends up being a huge part of the book’s visual appeal. And thematically resonant to boot! Morrison’s Superman all but radiates positivity and peace, from the covers’ Buddha smiles on down; a glance at the colors on any given page indicates that whatever else is in store, it’s gonna be bright.
Moreover, why not focus on bringing to life the physical business that carries so much of the weight of Morrison’s writing? The relative strengths and deficiencies of his various collaborators in this regard (or, if you prefer, of Morrison, in terms of accommodating said collaborators) has been much discussed, so we can probably take it as read. But when I think of this series, I think of those little physical beats first and foremost. Samson’s little hop-step as he tosses a killer dino-person into space while saying “Yo-ho, Superman!”…Jimmy Olsen’s girlfriend Lucy’s bent leg as she sits on the floor watching TV just before propositioning him…clumsy, oafish Clark Kent bumping into an angry dude just to get him out of the way of falling debris…the Black-K-corrupted Superman quietly crunching the corner of his desk with his bare hands…Doomsday-Jimmy literally lifting himself up off the ground to better pound Evil Superman’s head into the concrete…the way super-powered Lex Luthor shoulders up against a crunching truck as it crashes into him…the sidelong look on Leo Quintum’s face as he warns Superman he could be “the Devil himself”…that wonderful sequence where Superman takes a break to rescue a suicidal goth…Lois Lane’s hair at pretty much every instant…You could go whole runs, good runs, of other superhero comics and be sustained only by only one or two such magical moments. (In Superman terms, I’m a big fan of that climactic “I hate you” in the Johns/Busiek/Woods/Guedes Up, Up & Away!) This series has several per issue.
And the story is a fine one. Again, it’s common knowledge that rather than retelling Superman’s origin (a task it relegates to a single page) or frog-marching us through a souped-up celebration of the Man of Steel’s underrated rogues gallery (the weapon of choice for Geoff Johns’s equally underrated Action Comics run), All-Star Superman pits its title character, directly or indirectly, against an array of Superman manques. The key is that Superman alternately trounces the bad ones and betters the good ones not through his superior but morally neutral brains or brawn, though he has both in spades, but through his noblest qualities: Creativity, cooperation, kindness, selflessness, optimism, love for his family and friends. I suppose it’s no secret that for Morrison, the ultimate superpower of his superheroes is “awesomeness,” but Superman’s awesomeness here is much different than that of, say, Morrison’s Batman. Batman’s the guy you wanna be; Superman’s the guy you know you ought to be, if only you could. The decency fantasy writ large.
Meanwhile, bubbling along in the background are the usual Morrisonian mysteries. Pick this thing apart (mostly by focusing on, again, Quitely’s work with character design and body language) and you can maybe tease out the secret identity of Leo Quintum, the future of both Superman and Lex Luthor, assorted connections to Morrison’s other DC work, and so on. But the nice thing is that you don’t have to do any of that. Morrison’s work tends to reward repeat readings because it doesn’t beat you about the head and neck with everything it has to offer the first time around. You can tune in for the upbeat, exciting adventure comic–a clever, contemporary update on the old puzzle/game/make-believe ’60s mode of Superman storytelling in lieu of today’s ultraviolence, but with enough punching to keep it entertaining (sorry, Bryan Singer). But you can come back to peer at the meticulous construction of the thing, or Morrison’s deft pointillist scripting, or the clues, or any other single element, like the way that when I listen to “Once in a Lifetime” I’ll focus on just the rhythm guitar, or just the drums. Pretty much no matter what you choose to concentrate on, it’s just a wonderfully pleasurable comic to read.