IV: Superman, All-Star: Part 1by Bobby Acosta on Jun. 22, 2011, under Comic Books, DC, Opinion, Reviews, Superman
It’s hard to say whether a hero like Superman is still as important as he was 60 years ago. Back then, to be considered a superhero, without trying to fall into lame stereotypes, one only needed to have a cape, be able to fly, secret identity, dashingly, good looking black hair, a strong chin….It seems the pre-requisites were numerous, but not high on quality.
So what makes a man super above the rest of the supermen?
Superman could be considered the first real superhero. “All-Star Superman” is the prime example of Superman storytelling from the master team of author Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely. As far as being easily accessible for anyone, be they interested in Superman or really just quality entertainment, this story stands above an enormous portion of it, and all it took for one of the greatest Superman stories to ever be told to happen—-was for Superman to face the end of his life.
For now, “All-Star Superman” is a very special Superman tale. It began publication in 2005 under the “All-Star” imprint of DC Comics. What this imprint was created for was for their top creators to tell the stories they wanted to about their most iconic creations, without having to worry about some 70 odd years of comics and history. It was the companies push to try to bring more attention to their characters and make them easily accessible to the general audience and fans not really willing to just yet spend their life savings to enjoy all things Superman. So, out of all the stories, why is this one so integral to the workings of Superman?
The toughest thing about Superman is that it’s hard to make him work in a realistic, grounded setting. So much of modern comic book storytelling comes from being able to make the characters easily related to real life situations and people. This is the reason why Marvel heroes and the recent resurgence of their movies have become so popular, because they tell stories that we here in the real world can acknowledge as possible, or realistic. This is also the reason that the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale “Batman Begins/Dark Knight” movies have succeeded where the flamboyantly awful Joel Schumacher “Batman Forever/Batman & Robin” movies failed. They impact you because you believe them to be set in the real world.
However, a muscle filled man flying through the air is much harder to sell. Taking a cue from the Christopher Reeve movies, however, helps you show what makes Superman matter. Why the world needs Superman, in a sense. Within this story, Grant Morrison reminds us why Superman deserves to be the greatest cultural icon of the planet.
But enough about the philosophies for now. That can come later.
Superman does not need to be solidly grounded in reality to work, and within All-Star Superman that’s how the stories truly shine.
The story begins with what could be the greatest and simplest introduction page ever. Following, we are shown an intense rescue mission on the surface of the sun. The reason why no more than one page is given to the origin of Superman is because this story is not about the beginning of Superman’s life, this is about the end. From millions of miles away, utilizing technology bestowed upon to him by the government in the hopes that he would do something good and completely the opposite of what he has just done, Lex Luthor has orchestrated the means of Superman’s death. While Superman was busy rescuing the crew aboard the manned space mission to map out the surface of the sun, Superman’s solar charged body absorbed too much solar radiation. This leads to apoptosis, or cell death. Superman is dying.
So, faced with his imminent demise, but supercharged because of the solar radiation (let us not forget that Superman receives his powers from the yellow sun), what would a man like Superman do? Thus we are given the the two volume series, “All-Star Superman”.
This story is delivered to us by my personal favorite of all comic writers, Grant Morrison. Scottish born and bred, Grant Morrison is credited with giving us multiple, mind charging hits and turning every franchise he works with on it’s head. In the mid-90s, he re-invigorated DC Comics Justice League franchise, turning it into DCs top selling book every month. Following that success, similarly, he transformed and reworked the X-Men series of books for a new generation, and years later, “killed” and sent Batman on a trip through time, leading everyone from the Associated Press to USA Today to pick up news of his demise.
In short, this gentleman is of a higher caliber writer than many of his peers.
Grant Morrison is known for his high concept ideas and his dealings with intense science fiction ideas. However, unlike many science fiction writers that only create stories that cater to the masses of SyFy channel watchers, Grant Morrison creates for those wishing to have their minds expanded and enlightened, but not overly confused. When given the chance to write the last Superman story, he does not disappoint. Just from volume 1, here are a few of the final tasks that Superman must undertake before he allows himself to go into that great beyond:
- Analyzing and recording his own DNA to create a serum so that Lois Lane can be him for a day.
- Creating mini suns for his baby sun eater to eat.
- Challenging Krull and his dino army, dinosaurs that lived under the planet’s surface to escape extinction, with the actual Samson and Atlas of legend.
- Chaining the time-stealing Chronovore with Supermen of different eras.
Just incredibly different, out there ideas, more that we can talk about later. This is a Superman tale unrestrained by confines of normal comic publishing. That was the true wonder of the All-Star line of comics and Grant Morrison did not take that for granted. This allows for him to tell the sort of tales that restore Superman to a sort of glory that he hasn’t witnessed in years. Superman is not a pacifist/Christ analogue, he’ll fight when necessary. He’ll challenge those that oppose justice. This is the Superman that the world needs, but more on that in a bit.
First, assisting on the artistic side is frequent collaborator for Morrison, Frank Quitely. Too a Scottish artist, Quitely’s work is a tough style to become accustomed too. Honestly, speaking for myself, I was not a large fan of his work when I was first exposed to it. It seems a little clumsier, less streamlined than other comic artists. Characters don’t have every muscle showing like gladiators with spray paint costumes.
No, the real draw of Quitely’s work is the strong attention to details within the scene and the character acting. In fact, it’s safe to say that Quitely has become the modern master of character acting. Tim Townsend, an inker of comics that once worked with Frank Quitely, said that Quitely was simple elegance. In a drawing of a portrait of X-Men characters that the two worked together on, Townsend noted that even though each character merely looked like they were sitting still in the photo, each person has their own character, their own manners and their own personalities. You could tell right away what each person was like. Subtle differences and strong attention to detail makes each panel unique.
So, what makes this the prime Superman tale for the ages? So much can be said about this story and its impact on modern comic book storytelling, that, honestly, trying to do in one look is not going to cover it all. This is the first of two looks into what I consider to be the greatest Superman story ever told. For now, we know the players and we know the game. Next time, we’ll see how it’s all played and whether Superman truly can come out on top when faced with certain death.
- In addition to writing for the column “Comic Matters” for the Tucson Citizen website, Rob Acosta is also a 5th Grade Elementary school teacher, frequenter of local comic book shop Heroes & Villains and explorer of the importance of comics. Contact him at email@example.com