Stacey Pavlick is a pop culture critic looking to expand her knowledge of comics. So she allowed herself to be submitted to an experiment at the hands of Comics Bulletin’s Co-Managing Editors Danny Djeljosevic and Nick Hanover, wherein they’ve created a list of graphic novels for her to read and report back on, offering her unique perspective as a newcomer to the medium eager to receive a Panel Education.
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant
So, Superman is a pretty big deal. That I want to say, “Superman is the Superman of superheroes,” is proof positive of how essential and ingrained his iconography is to the collective consciousness. As a child of the ‘80s, my Superman is and always will be Christopher Reeve, and the Super Friends cartoon ruled my Saturday mornings, a favoritism reflected in the scope of my Underoos collection. Since then there have been a number of other Hollywood treatments– Lois and Clark’s Dean Cain, Smallville’s Tom Welling, what’s-his-butt (oh right, Brandon Routh) from the big screen’s Superman Returns— not to mention extensive character development and world-building in the DC Comics universe– and so the mythology of the Man of Steel has been constantly retooled and redoubled. But somehow the idea of Superman doesn’t seem as, I don’t know, sexy as some of the other comic book heroes. Wolverine has adamantium claws and a whole lot of anger. Batman is just so dark. And then there’s Superman, who is indestructible, wholesome, indestructibly wholesome (zzzzzzz)– and he fights for truth, justice and the American way. I think we used to know what that meant. This was when we liked our good guys good and our bad guys stupid.
The concept behind All-Star Superman was to craft a series that reintroduced Superman without senselessly contemporizing him, leaving cape and curl intact. Considering the fact that Superman’s been around since my pop-pop was a boy, 12 issues is a very small space in which to lay out a grand, integrative narrative of this elemental character. And yet writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely do just that, in a work that supports, honors and, quite literally, eulogizes the qualities of Superman that make him both super and heroic. Because as it turns out, Superman can die, and it’s this mortal sadness that frames the story.
Perhaps the ultimate PSA for sun damage awareness, Superman’s terminal illness is caused by overexposure to solar radiation. Dr. Quintum’s P.R.O.J.E.C.T. explorer ship is under attack by a terrifyingly bulbous and vertebraed Lex Luthor monster-clone. Knowing that Superman’s cells are receptors for solar energy, Luthor lures Superman as close to it as possible and the extreme saturation has his body working overtime. This metabolic quickening results in new and enhanced powers (cool!) and… the inevitable and deadly explosion of cells (uh oh). After examining Superman, Dr. Quintum and his amazing Technicolor dreamcoat delivers the death knell: time is running out.
And that means getting serious as far as one Miss Lois Lane is concerned. Accompanying her back to her apartment– schlepping her bags and binders like a hulking, lovelorn schoolboy– Clark Kent puts aside his meekness in desperation, essentially telling Lois to shut up for a second as he unbuttons his white oxford shirt and pulls aside his tie, revealing the Superman shield (and thus his secret identity) underneath. It’s Lois’s birthday, so Superman flies her out to the Fortress of Solitude where he gives her what can truly be described as a grand tour, capping it off with an authentic meal on board the Titanic (note to self: do better than Red Lobster for the boyfriend’s upcoming birthday dinner). Lois, understandably, isn’t sure what to make of all of this. Disbelief, confusion, mistrust, deception– Quitely and colorist Jamie Grant emphasize the point by rendering panels from Lois’s point of view in washed-out black and white. Drained of color, she is literally blanking out on what to believe is the truth. Furthermore, Lois doesn’t like the looks of the machines in the Forbidden Room. At a quick glance, it appears to be a dissection lab and, preferring not to be vivisected next, she attacks Superman with a green kryptonite gun, which, fortunately, he has developed an immunity to. But the Forbidden Room is, in fact, a scientific sewing room– Superman has been at work designing a jumpsuit and concocting a serum that enables Lois to share in his superpowers for 24 hours. So… happy birthday! Good thing you didn’t blast the bejeezus out of him for real! Someone owes someone an apology, doesn’t someone?
It’s during this superpower birthday bonanza that we meet Atlas and Samson, a couple of smooth-talking Lotharios who gift Lois with a hot-off-the-truck necklace taken from the Ultrasphinx. Samson, a time-traveler, excuses his flirtations with Lois by confirming that it won’t be long before he, Superman, perishes. But there’s more: before his dying day, he will complete 12 challenges, calling to mind the 12 labors of Hercules. Following Superman as he executes these tasks is the conceit of All-Star Superman. But when a character is omnipotent and righteous by definition, how interesting can this be? The equation is easy enough and never varies: good vs. evil, good wins. Villains start to look more compelling than the hero himself. While there are plenty of them– from a Jimmy Olsen-as-Doomsday creature to a pack of wayward Bizarros to Krypton criminals Bar-El and Lilo to Solaris, some kind of star/sun/computer monstrosity– it’s not the whammo blammos that tell the story, though Superman doesn’t hesitate to knock the shit out of the bad guys. What registers time and time again amidst (and in spite of) the mayhem is Superman’s kindness, his humility, his radiant heart.
In fact the endpaper of my 2011 DC Comics reprint of All-Star Superman is a close-up of Superman’s chiseled face in profile, eyes closed, mouth relaxed as if he’s just let out a long exhale, with the superimposed words, “…the measure of a man lies not in what he says but what he does,” a sentiment echoed again by Clark during the eulogy at Pa Kent’s funeral. This is how we learn about Superman, by catching him in repose, by watching what he’s doing in his private moments, by swallowing his grief and bearing witness to his empathy.
Just as in life, some of these moments are explicitly pointed and others are subsumed by overarching drama. The most emotional of stories, “Episode 6: Funeral in Smallville” takes place on the Kents’ farm, where a trio of new farmhands arrives to hel
p the family with the upcoming harvest. Sensing the similarities, Clark discovers the three are Supermen of the future, come to chase down the Chronovore, a hungry cloud of claws and eyes and jaws that ages everything in its path. Meanwhile, Pa Kent has suffered a heart attack and is lying face down in his field at the foot of a scarecrow, Ma running to get to him, praying it’s in time. Superman, noticing he can’t hear his father’s heartbeat, leaves the squad in the midst of battle to attend to Pa, fighting against his own knowledge that it’s too late. “I can save him!” he screams, “I can save everybody!”
That last panel of the page– the futility of “I can save everybody!”– conveys such overpowering anguish in a (purposely) confined space. The foreground is all hands: outstretched, close, reaching and reaching again, ever more desperate. Superman panics, Superman grieves. He ends of his hair are on fire, maybe to illustrate how fast he’s flying, and maybe because his body can show what ours only feel like at our most overcome. For Superman, saving Pa is saving everybody, as Pa represents the goodness and kindness of the world, the very values that redeem an otherwise troubled, disaster-stricken place. After the funeral, another future Superman, this one golden and beaming, presents him with a flower from New Krypton for Pa’s grave, affirming the eternal nature of love and the compassionate bonds of brotherhood.
In other issues, the acts of generosity are less cosmic: comforting and bringing to safety a suicidal girl, escorting a dying Bar-El and Lilo into the Phantom Zone (even after a deep space beating) until resuscitation is possible, rescuing a boy and his dog who are just about to get flattened by a semi. Even as Clark Kent, Superman saves the day. Spotting a piece of a monorail’s undercarriage that’s about to break off, Clark walks headlong into another pedestrian, hampering his progress so that the falling chunk of metal narrowly misses the man (and his dog). This rescue comes not only with no reward but in fact abuse, as the man shakes his fist at Clark, letting loose with insults. So selfless is Superman, and so effortless is his grace, that after the collision, the man’s newspaper is not seen blowing away down the avenue but rather folded crisply with hat and pipe placed neatly on top, ready for retrieval and resumption of the day.
It is very much like reading about God (in the Christian sense), or Jesus, or both. And by that I mean the concept of God that is gentle and loving (typified in my mind by this piece of art I remember from a friend’s old apartment, a woodblock painting on an old door hung sideways of a haloed Jesus figure leading a flock of multi-colored sheep) as opposed to the one that is exacting and judging (typified in my mind by the sadistic nuns who tore up a valentine my dyslexic boyfriend made in second grade, rapping his knuckles because he’d folded the construction paper down instead of over). This is the God– or Superman– of the little things, exhibiting strength by tending to the weakest, preserving the world by caring for its tiniest inhabitants, whether they even realize it or not.
It’s an interpretation of strength that, regrettably, is largely absent in our public and private discourses about what it means to possess power, and what responsibility it brings. Too often heroism is a flexed muscle, a vigilante entitlement, a boot on a throat. Other times it’s an intellectual strut, a detached dismissal. A different kind of hero named Morrissey (maybe not a Superman but an Übermensch for sure, even if only by his own reckoning) said it this way: “It’s so easy to laugh/ It’s so easy to hate/ It takes guts to be gentle and kind.” This, it seems to me, is the homily transmitted through this All-Star conception of Superman. In a final act of biblically proportioned sacrifice, Superman flies into the sun and fuses with it, acting as its “artificial heart.” A full page illustration at the end of the last issue depicts this solar Superman in all golden hues, working a celestial lever with all of his might. It is DaVinci-like illustration, glowing with sanctity and perfection. Superman, in our last viewing of him, has dignified death.
The art of All-Star Superman honors the vintage quality of Superman’s iconic features while at the same time orienting him very much in the present. I was particularly, oddly struck by how beautifully women’s hair is drawn. Lois’s hair seems sentient, her emotions can almost be read by the way in which strands of her hair are behaving. In the full page frame in which she and Superman are kissing on the moon, her hair is writhing and weightless, electrified by the thrill of the moment. Grant’s colors, too, are striking and emphatic, especially the ombre saturation effects depicted in the deep green background of Quintum’s laboratory, the volcanic purples of the rocky soil of Htrae, the puckishly orange hues of Jimmy Olsen’s hair. In keeping with the concept, the art modernizes the past without devaluing it.
Not long after I finished my first reading of All-Star Superman, I had a dream in which he held my hand. I only remember that snippet of the dream, and then only the sensation. I didn’t see myself doing it, but the hand was so big that to hold it was like trying to stuff tennis balls between my fingers. He eventually maneuvered to stop me from trying to interlace my fingers with his, instead just clasping my whole hand inside of his own, settling it, calming the strain. That’s all there was to it. But it’s hard to describe what a beatific feeling it left me with. Maybe it was God, maybe it was Superman. My hope, after having gotten to know the latter, is that they’re one and the same.
Next Month: Stacey gets historical with Chester Brown’s Louis Riel…
Stacey Pavlick’s day job has zero to do with her undergrad degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. A newcomer to comics, more of her writing can be found on Spectrum Culture, where she expounds on music and books and wields her influence as Managing Editor. She lives in a Philadelphia rowhouse with her longtime boyfriend, a handful of comedically spirited cats and a pit bull rescue, whom she frequently plays as if his body is a furry keyboard.