All Star Superman
Art by Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant
Is Superman Marxist? Why is he pulling a lever in the heart of the Sun? And how best can we escape our reality? The London Graphic Novel goes up, up and away with everyone’s favourite superhero (Batwho?) and wrestles with such weighty concepts as corporate comics, fictional constructs and T-Shirt design…
“You look at the people who created those characters, and they’re all dead. But the characters will still be around in 50 years probably – at least the best of them will. So I try not to concern myself with that. These are deals made in times before I was even born. I can say from experience that young creative people tend to sell rights to things because they want to get noticed. They want to sell their work and to be commercial. Then when they grow up and get a bit smarter, they suddenly realize it maybe wasn’t so good and that the adults have it real nice. [Laughs] But still, it’s kind of the world. I wouldn’t want to comment on that because it was something I wasn’t around for. I can’t tell why they decided to do what they did. Obviously Bob Kane came in at the same age and got a very different deal and profited hugely from Batman’s success. So who knows? They were boys of the same age, but maybe some of them were more keen to sell the rights than others. It all just takes a different business head.”
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Seeing as we’re starting with Morrison’s opinion on comicbookmen as businessmen first, artists second, I’m gonna start by levelling both barrels at him.
Several thoughts here:
– Grant Morrison is the exact definition of “sell-out fuck”. A man who preened his image as the enfant terrible of comics, who wrote joke stories on his website of “Blair raped by junkie, gets AIDS”, and generally portrayed himself as the rebel without a cause. And then went and accepted an OBE from the Queen…
– Mark Miller, his former protege and now rival, is far better at the money-making and self-promotion thing than Morrison is. Which makes his (very unfair and unsympathetic) slight against Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster all the more ironic. Miller is canny enough to write spec scripts for comics than will never run beyond issue 1, because he knows a film studio will buy up the rights straight away. He’s also had several stories converted into major Hollywood films; and when that hasn’t worked (as with Kick-Ass), its been produced independently and sold back to the very studios who first spurned it. Morrison has never got a single film project off the ground. Even The Invisibles (optioned by BBC Scotland, as a competitor to BBC Wales’ Dr Who), never got off the ground (which is a real shame to be honest, the first few scripts were posted on Morrison’s website and looked good). So I find the defence of his employer’s ruthlessness a bit feeble really.
– All-Star Superman is a beautiful comic. It looks wonderful, it reads brilliantly. All the reveals (Clark shows his secret identity), the beats (Lois & Clark kissing on the moon), the action (rescues on the surface of the sun; prison riots), the characterisation (Luther: “what’s this secret code? You’ll never stop me. I’ll crack it in 5 mins” Clark: “Its shorthand”) are spot-on. It is the quintessential and timeless portrayal of Superman.
(1) In corporate comic, everyone is a scab because there is no union.(2) In corporate comics, no one can be a scab because there is no union.(3) Join the union.
It’s the one that comic fans really like. They like that, you know, that architecture… It’s literary, it’s not like a live performance. Like, you read The Invisibles a hundred times and it’s different a hundred times. If you read All Star Superman a hundred times you just understand it more.
In other words, as I think he’s said elsewhere, it’s his Alan Moore comic: twelve issues, immaculately constructed as a hall of mirrors instead of Watchmen’s inkblot test, with Superman wrestling with other versions himself issue after issue as he works hard to deal with the aftermath of his own murder.
In issue #3, Sampson introduces the idea of Superman completing “12 super challenges” before his death, and while trying to work out what these challenges are provides the reader with a hook this comment is more telling for its focus on the level of effort involved both within the story and in its creation. This is the book, after all, that starts with a three-panel origin story, then launches straight into a double page spread in which Superman flies into the sun to save the day. In other words, this version of Superman is no sooner born into this world than he is put to work to save it.
The remainder of the story follows suit, with our hero working at least two jobs as Superman and Clark Kent, maybe even more if you count looking after the museum/zoo that is The Fortress of Solitude, and working as a scientist – these latter two duties fill his time when he takes Lois Lane back to his gaff for a post-death sentence date.
This is where Frank Quitely and Jaimie Grant come in, because for all that this version of Superman spends the whole story in motion, the effort rarely shows. Here’s an exemplary All Star Superman panel:
This is what makes the trip to the “underverse” in issue #8 so disturbing. For the space of a whole issue, we are presented with a version of Superman whose efforts seem futile, whose companions reflect his own blatant absurdity, and whose physical form seems to be coming apart in front of our eyes. Quitely’s line work takes on an itchy, ragged quality; there seem to be more lines in Superman’s face here than there were before, and none of them are so clean and certain as we might have come to expect. In episode 8, US DO OPPOSITE, the reality of death is suddenly inescapable:
At the same time, if this one comic isn’t quite beautiful enough to bring about a world in which our products are only so many mirrors in which we see our essential nature reflected and reflecting, it nevertheless succeeds in suggesting the possibility of such a world.
It’s an ambiguous image, in which Quitely’s Superman is frozen in the heigh of his power and confidence, servicing human need both inside the story and outside of it, but yet also unnaturally suspended, a #brand that just can’t won’t die. Faced with this, how can I do anything else but vote Superman Yay! as well? What can I say, I’ve got a Superman t-shirt and sometimes I wear it to both ask myself why we do so little with the capabilities we have, and to remind myself – as if I truly need reminding – of the ignoble nature or so much of our work.
Maybe we’ll finally get it right this time, or maybe it’ll just be another day in the office, but either way I’ll see you all later…IN THE NEXT EPISODE!
I’m supposed to be on holiday (climbing mountains in Scotland for some godforsaken reason) but after reading David’s email (thanks David!): I couldn’t resist writing a quick thing so:
I think the question of whether Superman could be a Marxist hero is complicated twice over. Firstly, by the conditions in which he’s published, which allow Superman to be anything (including a communist, complete with a furry-hatted Batman to butt heads with) but only in a way that doesn’t damage the long term appeal of the franchise. 
I was going to leave this for someone else: but seeing how no one else has picked up on it yet: does anyone want to talk about the Leo Quintum is Lex Luthor theory? (The first time I heard it – it ticked me so much that I was giggling for days).
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Here are some thoughts. Sorry for spelling mistakes, rambling, and general nonsense.
Here are my quick thoughts on Superman:
I love Superman.
He was a boy who grew up on a farm, with friends and family. Like any fairly normal kid. He was raised with good moral values, like we all are, and had a stable positive relationships to support him, like most people do.
Coming from a background like that would generally create a fairly well put together individual.
Most people have some sort of insecurity that fuels their ‘dark side’ and negative thoughts. Having good upbringing and stable relationships helps to steer you away from that darkness.
Clark was raised with a level of heightened awareness and super perception that allowed him to literally see how humans work. He spent his childhood believing he was human, and doing everything he could to blend in with them.
He is an expert at human behaviour, the limitations of the human form, and understands why people do what they do.
Due to al of this, the types of things that would make humans feel insecure, Clark is largely immune to. Negative actions people do are usually born from some sort of deeper insecurity they have that isn’t prevented from developing with the aid of positive relationships in their lives.
Superman grew up as a human, living a human life, had human relationships, and is an overall expert of humanity. Like all human, he helps out whenever he can when it wouldn’t be detrimental to himself. It’s just a natural thing we all do. Not because we’re all great people. It’s just a normal thing to do. At the very least, you would feel guilty for not helping in a situation where you could but don’t.
The fact that he probably cannot be harmed by anything on earth, means that he probably feels like he has no excuse but to help out more often in situations where it would be dangerous for mere mortals to do so.
So at this point, we establish Superman has put himself in a position where he is essentially a peace keeping helper of sorts. He’s similar to a police officer, fireman, teacher, or even librarian. He’s made it his job to help out people within his jurisdiction using he specialised skills.
Anyone in this position also makes it their responsibility to present an image that the people within their domain should look up to. A children’s librarian would put on a persona of positive authority for the children to look up to. They would present themselves as a good guy, and try to make sure the children follow their example. Teachers do the same. Police to do same too. Superman is no different.
He’s not an overly goody boy scout. He’s just a good guy who is acting as a hero for the public, so presents himself in a good light.
Now Superman’s only insecurity is the fact that he’s afraid he can’t save everyone. Neil Gaiman wrote a green lantern issue where Superman was in hell briefly, and his experience was the fact that he could hear a countless number of people crying to for help. More people than he could imagine. And he couldn’t help any of them.
Here are my quick thoughts on Lex Luthor:
I love Lex Luthor.
I’m sure if Lex had a favourite superhero, it would be Superman.
Which is why he hates him so much. Because he loves the idea of Suerman as much as I do. But Lex’s insecurities got the better of him, meaning that he hates Superman because he’s an alien.
If Superman could do everything he could already do, yet was human, Lex wouldn’t have a problem with him.
Lex obviously didn’t have stable home life or any positive relationships. He’s too smart for his own good and grew up thinking he was alone in the universe. He had nobody to fall back on but himself.
So Lex just went through life believing he was better than everybody else and nobody could help him. Like anyone, he also wants to make a difference and do something significant with his life for himself and the world if possible.
Him being so smart meant he could help the world easier than the average person could. But because he’s not a good person at heart, he schemes and uses people to move himself forward.
He thinks of the future of the world as a whole, but he doesn’t care about the people.
Superman wants to save the people, but has no interest in improving the world as a whole himself. He believes the people should have the opportunity to save create a better future for themselves. Superman will just help them along the way.
Lex will do whatever it takes to create a better world, no matter who gets in his way. And he believes that Superman is detrimental to the advancement of the human race due to being unrealistic and overpowered. He believes people can’t strive to be superman because he’s a fantasy.
But Lex doesn’t understand Superman, which is why he is wrong. Lex doesn’t understand that Superman is Clark Kent. Clark is the perfect representation of what a human could be, but because Lex doesn’t know that Superman is Clark Kent, he cannot see why the same logic applies to Superman. In fact, he’s blinded by his hatred for Superman that he can’t even put together this very simple puzzle.
off the top of my head, at the end of All-Star Superman when Lex briefly gets Superman’s powers and see’s the world as Clark does, he reaches enlightenment and see’s the truth behind it all. He see’s connections between everything that he couldn’t notice before and realizes why Superman does what he does. He see’s that Superman isn’t a egotistical fantasy. He see’s that he is a guy who see’s the bigger picture and does his part to help how he can. So briefly Lex did understand the point of Superman, without having to find out about Clark Kent origin, but perhaps he also realized the Superman was Clark after that. We dunno.
I’m not really sure if i should keep going and I dunno what I’m saying anymore so I’ll stop. Next time i’ll review the actual book.
But briefly on Batman:
Kinda want Joel to give me a number on the “natural” life-expectancy of stories. By my rough calculations the Jesus myth has been going strong for around 1,700 years. Yesterday I went to see a play written 400 years ago. Both “unnatural”? Granted, these aren’t examples of a single narrative continuity (superheroes are a bit like soap operas in this respect), but I would argue the urge to retell stories predates the current mode of production and gets at something deeper about ourselves than the profit motive.
Also: this is partly what All-Star Supes is about, no? Not sure if Morrison uses the analogy himself, but superheroes have been described as modern myths. Just realised while writing this that the Roger Lancelyn Green retellings of Robin Hood, King Arthur etc I read as a child rather nicely highlight the proto-superheroic nature of the source material – the same cast of characters in the same setting going off to have adventures and coming together in world-historical crossovers. My sense is that Morrison is in that myths and legends headspace. For example the second issue feels to me like a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy-tale (albeit with a benevolent twist). Likewise issue 5 seems to have a Dante’s Inferno flex – Kent being shown around hell by a demented Virgil before being carted off by an scary S&M Beatrice (or maybe that’s just me seeing things that aren’t there).
The point of that simulation in issue 10 was to show that if Superman didn’t exist we would have to invent him, and in fact have been inventing different versions of him (e.g. that panel of Nietzsche’s Superman) throughout history. The premise being that people create their gods as symbols of what they themselves aspire to be (some more German philosophy about that here). My sense is that there’s a religion to science move in the final issue – Lois believes that one day Superman willreturn, while Leo Quintum goes off to try and solve the problems of the universe on his own. Maybe Quintum isn’t just Luthor (first time I’ve seen that theory and like it a lot!), but the Superman of the future. That is to say: the representation of our collective 21st century aspirations.
If Ilia is incorrect to say that I will be waiting a long time for such a comic, that is only because it will never exist. As I wrote elsewhere: “To expect a Batman comic to end or vastly improve capitalism would be to sprint way past optimism and off into the land of make-believe. To expect it to cast strange shadows on the world it exists in is to dwell on the further edges of the optimistic: it’s not necessarily a sensible expectation, but there are plenty of comics out there that prove that it’s not entirely absurd.”
“The second half of the series highlights Superman’s capacity to inspire people, even (especially) as a purely fictional character. It’s the only power he has in our benighted world, and Morrison believes it’s the most important one he’s got. In fact, he says that if Superman did not exist, we would have to invent him (simply returning a favor, since Superman thoughtfully created us back in issue #10, March 2008; mark your calendars). That’s why the finale pits him against an antagonist who disputes the very idea that fictions and abstractions can hold real power, as seen in this exchange from issue #12:WHITE: The truth sent you to the chair, Luthor!LUTHOR: Is that right, Mister White? Funny, I don’t see the truth anywhere around, do you? I mean, what color is it? Can I touch it?Luthor mocks White’s dedication to abstract principle, confronting him with the truth’s immateriality, because he’s a materialist to the extreme. He says the priest at his execution “stinks of the irrational” and his niece proclaims “This is Science Year Zero!”–next I suppose they’ll be rewriting the calendar. This scorn for idealism confirms Luthor’s stature as the series archvillain, especially since a hallucinatory Jor-El (himself part of “the field of living, fluid consciousness”) has just told his son he has given us humans “an ideal to aspire to, embodied [our] highest aspirations.””
Tam – I know quite a few people who have that response to All Star Superman, actually. As you’ll have gathered from my attempts to wax rhapsodic on the subject, that’s not my take, but I think I can understand it. It feels a lot cleaner than my favourite comics tend to, not so much in the absence of quality swearing as in the seemingly simple, fable like construction of the individual episodes and the careful arrangement of the mega-plot.
I love that Paul Chadwick strip too, mind. As you say, it explores some of the same themes in a very different manner. It’s more grounded, to the extent that a comic with Superman in it can be. Still broad brush stuff in the scale of things, but it manages to achieve some finer details along the way.
A few more thoughts on science and idealism in All Star Superman
As sneering, Kryptonian hard cases Lila and Bar-El note in issue #9, Superman is a scientist’s son. What to make, then, of Quintum as a replacement Superman? What’s his purpose? What does he have that Superman doesn’t?
Think back to Lex Luthor complaining about the fact that Superman doesn’t age at in issue #1. More specifically, to his comment about the lines that have started to appear in his mirror image.
If, as I’ve suggested – and as Marc Singer argues in greater detail at that link I shared in my last email – All Star Superman presents Superman with a series of reflections of himself, it’s worth noting that Lex sets him off on this journey by making him mortal.
I don’t want to make too much of this point, but I keep coming back to those moments where Quietly and Grant give us a Superman who shows the wear of the world on him. I’m thinking of the Underverse story again, of course, but also of the Superman in issue #11 (I think?) who slumps in his chair recording his final thoughts.
Luthor might lose in the end – worse, might actually get a chance to see things from Superman’s perspective – but he manages to put some lines on Superman’s face along the way. With a little bit of help from Frank Quitely, he briefly forces Superman to confront what he might look like if he was truly of this world.
This is all getting a bit Jesus again, especially given that Superman ends the story by becoming more otherworldly and miraculous than before. What role did Lex Luthor play in the bible again? It’s been a while since I read it, and anyway I only really liked some of those early issues, where they had the good inker.
So, given that I was supposed to be talking about Leo Quintum, where does he fit into this scheme? Unlike Lex, he’s able to see Superman as something to aspire to, rather than as something to bring down. Unlike Superman, he doesn’t need to be brought low to face the prospect of such crushing defeat, as is not yet at risk of sublimation. Grant Morrison is perhaps a bit too fond of William Blake-derived, “without contraries is no progression” style rhetoric, but it might be applied here as something other than an excuse for ineffectual confusion.
What does Quintum has that Superman doesn’t? Well, he’s one of us, and as we’re told at the climax of the Luthor/Superman battle, we’re all we’ve got.
Has anyone monetised that t-shirt idea yet?
Tari – I really liked what you wrote. It kinda made me realise that yeah when you’re a kid Batman is basically the be-all-and-end-all of all things cool and Superman is all – urg – Superlame: but that part of growing up and maturing (well – hopefully) is maybe realising that the whole DARKNESS NO PARENTS routine is well like you said: kinda crazy while Superman’s relaxed happy no insecurities dude routine is yeah – well – something to aspire to. (Like I’m tempted to quote a large part of what you wrote Tari about the “Superman grew up as a human, living a human life, had human relationships, and is an overall expert of humanity” but – yeah – it’s up above: you can all just read it for yourselves….
Re: my little “natural” lifespan of stories idea: well – the point would be that the difference between Jesus and – ha – Romeo and Juliet (“If this was on tv – nobody would watch it“) is that both of those are contained stories. You know – they’re complete (I almost wrote they have a beginning, a middle and an end – but then was like oh yeah – THE MYTH OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE): but whatever – you get what I mean right?
While superheroes and Marvel and DC and etc (as others have pointed out before me): never have an end point and so – are never really complete. It’s be like if new parts of The Bible were still being written today (actually maybe that could work?) or – you know: if Romeo and Juliet didn’t really die but were replaced by 4 new Romeo and Juilets or whatever. Point being: there’s a difference between a story being a really good story that you can retell again and again (which – well – I guess is most Superhero origin stories which is one of the reasons why most superhero films tend to opt for that option) and a story that is forever “TO BE CONTINUED.” Because yeah – that’s the reason why most superhero comic fans get so upset by their superhero comic consumption – because they have these two conflicting impulses between everything staying exactly the same (the comfort of nostalgia blah blah blah) and also having a story that moves forwards (because that’s what a story is – change). Which is why you have to have all these reboots every so often where a wizard undoes your marriage and sends you back in time or whatever: because otherwises – well: isn’t Superman like over 75 years old now or something?
I mean – I’m pretty sure that’s not what the inside of the sun looks like. I mean – well (am I just saying this because David mentioned it above?) but it looks like the sort of thing William Blake used to draw (is that intentional?)
Maybe I would have preferred it if he was just punching the sun instead? Because – you know: punching things makes them better right?
Yeah, Tari’s comments were great and I really didn’t make enough of them when talking about Luthor vs. Superman. Off the back of your respective observations about Superman vs. Batman, here’s Neil Degrasse Tyson talking about what puts those characters in conflict:
…though it’s Blake doing propaganda for the worker’s revolution…
…or perhaps it’s Blake doing Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times?
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Like the book isn’t about his death, it’s about him transcending into a great super being of pure energy.
The one way Superman differs from all other Gods is that he is without Original Sin. Hercules does his tasks or ordeals to make up for killing his wife and family, Superman does what he does because, as Jesus of the Christ family is supposed to be, he loves us. Indeed, attempts to graft on some bad behaviour on his part (hello Geoff Johns and Zak Snyder) tend to fall dramatically flat, even before you turn to the legions of fanboys who guard his identity with a fervour that would make even the Pope go “Blimey guys, perhaps you should relax a bit?”.
I bet Zibarro’s voice sounds just like Morrissey.
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