Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"There's Always A Way"

Cross-posted from the Spectrum Culture blog:

Musings by me, on one of my favorite series, All-Star Superman


There’s nary a person alive that doesn’t know Superman. In both the fictional universe he exists and in our realm, he’s easily the most famous man on the planet, maybe even the entire solar system. He’s achieved all the feats that a man can achieve in his time or any time at that. But have you considered the opposite? Though Superman’s name is commonplace, he most assuredly does not know everyone alive. How could he? Even with his stellar powers, what mind could process that type of information?

Humans are an inherently self- preservational: although we maintain our illusions of the greater good and of being kind to one another, most people truly look out for their own best interests. There is not anything wrong with that mentality, but it is not unheard of to be an insular type, unconcerned with any of the world’s problems but one’s own. But who isn’t, you ask? Who is the one person in the world who can put the needs of everyone above his own?


Superman has been presented as a savior, as a Christic figure, as mankind’s last hope. But religious ascribements aside, he’s really just a super man, and Grant Morrison sees this. Longtime comic book fans tire of the character- they see him as a boy scout, as an outdated, overpowered relic of Golden Age fantasy. Lest we forget his original incantation was as a villain, Superman has always been the Superhero Gold Standard. People the world over debate every aspect of his powers: can he outrun the Flash? Is he stronger than the Hulk? Would he and Captain Marvel have a chin-off if they met in real life?

In All-Star Superman, Morrison and artist Frank Quitely take a refreshingly new perspective on The Man of Steel- they write him the most human he’s ever been. They cast the fan boy arguments aside and treat the man like a normal person, who just happens to be able to fly. Bear in mind that Superman draws his powers from Earth’s yellow sun, and that he is, for all intents and purposes, an alien. Were he back on Krypton, he would not stick out- he’d have some fame, being the son of that planet’s greatest scientist, but ultimately he would not be as recognized or revered as he is on our planet. On Earth he has to disguise himself as Clark Kent, and Morrison writes this version as the costume, contrary to other writers who prefer to focus on strictly his abilities. While the man’s powers do make for some cool reading and events, ultimately what kind of a story could be told with a one-dimensional character who does the same thing every time? I, for one, would (and did) get tired of just reading stories where Superman got his ass kicked around space or Metropolis for 20 pages, only to kick back in the last two. Other writers have tried to “spice” him up with radical redesigns and extreme new powers, but Morrison and Quitely realize that a character as iconic as Superman is more compelling when they investigate what truly makes him tick.

The most important part of writing Superman as a human is his giving him humanity and the creators of All-Star Superman manage to make him accessible like none before- they make him confront his mortality. While saving a scientific expedition to the sun that has been led astray by Lex Luthor, Superman’s cells are irradiated by sun rays, overloading them with more than he can bear. He is literally dying for the first time in his life. (“Death and Return of Superman” doesn’t count, because he was straight-up killed, and it sucked.) While green Kryptonite used to be the one thing to bring him to his knees, Morrison and Quitely present a Superman who has experienced a lifetime’s worth of living. As he’s aged he’s gotten stronger, even growing resilient to his former poison. However when his cells are dying, he begins to slowly lose even the powers that make him Superman.

Confronted with the knowledge that he’s coming undone, Superman finds himself making his peace with his former friends and lovers. At the end of issue one, he reveals himself to Lois Lane, who endlessly doubts him, and contradicts her own theorems about Clark Kent’s strange behavior. In the most memorable story in the series, “Sweet Dreams, Super Woman,” Superman presents his beloved with his greatest gift of all: his powers. He synthesizes a formula that will allow her to be as he is for exactly 24 hours. They spend the day flying together, fighting crime, and just experiencing the world through his eyes, until the time traveling troublemakers Samson and Atlas show up. They try to woo Lois, and one of their gifts is a necklace stolen from a pharaoh, who shows up and promises to end her life if Superman cannot answer The Unanswerable Question, which is one of the 12 Feats of Legend that he is to complete before his death.

After freeing her and dispatching of her would-be suitors, her powers wear off and he lays her down to sleep tenderly, planting a gentle kiss on her forehead. Although we know he’s falling apart on the inside, Superman has never had a more vulnerable moment in his life.

“Funeral in Smallville,” about the passing of Jonathan Kent, takes place in the past, and has Superman at his most na├»ve. As he fights with other future Supermen to defeat a creature called the Chronovore, he suddenly realize he can’t pick up Jonathan Kent’s heartbeat. As he flies away so fast his hair catches fire, tears well up in his eyes as he exclaims, “I can save him! I can save everybody.” Such simple dialogue masterfully understates one of the defining moments in the development of the Superman character: the day he realized that the world wouldn’t always be kind.

Volume 2 features the more exploratory stories including issue 10, “Neverending,” which might reasonably be the most important story since Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything.” The issue deals with Superman’s life legacy in the diegetic world, but also doubles as a commentary of the longevity of the character in comics form. A near-death Superman spends the day settling his affairs, and in perhaps the most touching moment in the series, he comforts a teenager contemplating suicide. He embraces her and he utters, “You’re much stronger than you think you are.” With this little girl on the ledge of a building, Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton, is unequivocally the most connected he’s ever been with humanity- he’s on the ledge of his own life, looking over, but with no one to hold him in their arms. He’s not going to be okay, but the girl is, and he knows- but he comforts her anyway.

The ending of the series is much too important and touching to be summed in a few sentences, but what Morrison and Quitely achieve is monumental- with their book, they’ve turned the Man of Steel into a more than a Boy Scout in tights- they’ve made him a man. As writer Mark Waid postulates in his intro to Volume Two, “Superman achieves his power by believing in us.” In his youth and in his twilight, he always was the same kid from Smallville, who thought he could save everybody. The beauty of All-Star Superman is that even though he is Superman, and Clark Kent, and the savior of humanity, he’s always been Kal-El: the boy of two worlds who lost the center of both. Morrison and Quitely hit home the idea that he may be an alien, and he may be more able than us, but he’s ours. There’s always a way. He’s failing himself, but he’d never fail us.


Things have been going- let's just leave it at that.

1 comment:

Ryan Thomas Riddle said...

Awesome post on an awesome comic. Perhaps the Greatest Superman Story Ever Told?