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Sunday Slugfest: All Star Superman #10

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Grant Morrison
Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant
DC Comics

Paul Brian McCoy: 4.5 Bullets
Ray Tate: 5 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 5 Bullets
Thom Young: 4.5 Bullets

Paul Brian McCoy: 4.5 Bullets

I've never cared a whit for Superman. It was only when I was so young, and comics were such a scarce commodity that I ever even had my parents buy me any Superman comics. I think I own three actual issues (if I still have them, which I probably don't, now that I think about it). I also had some of those paperback novel-sized anthologies of classic Superman stories, but they were never my favorites. Those were the days before comic shops and before I got an allowance, so comics were found and purchased by stumbling across them while my parents shopped in other parts of whichever store happened to have a books and magazines section.

And then there was usually some begging involved, accompanied by the sound logic that although this book was a dollar (or whatever) it had many, many stories in it, so it was worth it, right?

Anyway, my only real memories of Superman as a character are pretty limited to some lame excuse as to why people don't recognize Clark Kent when just a pair of glasses are his disguise (they were made from Kryptonian glass from his ship and magically hypnotized everyone he looked at through them?), one time when he fought some sort of super villain cowboy, and then this other time when he fought Muhammed Ali.

Outside of my personal memories, of course, there's a lot more information about the guy. There was the black and white TV show, the toys, the Superfriends, the clothing, eventually the films (and I never believed a man could fly -- the first, third, and fourth films were not good, but I loved the superhero battles in Superman II). By the time Lois and Clark started, I was past it. Superman was an empty property. I don't even care for the Smallville, even though people keep telling me I should.

So, what's the point of all this? To make it perfectly clear that I really don't care about, or even like, the character of Superman. Never have.

But I like Grant Morrison.

I think he's written some of the most impressive, intelligent, experimental comics around. His Vertigo work is beyond compare. The Invisibles and The Filth are subversive masterpieces. I don't care much for his Batman, but I am confident that when it's all said and done, it will make a fantastic read.

And Grant Morrison is writing Superman. In fact, he's writing the living hell out of Superman. This latest issue, "Neverending," is number ten of twelve, chronicling the coming death of Superman. And it is brilliant. This series is gloriously inventive, with enough science fantasy to make a reader's head spin; it is outrageously sneaky, usually pulling wonderful moments out of seeming non-sequiturs; it is intricately crafted, with each issue sown with seedlike moments, growing and spreading, sometimes blooming by issue's end, sometimes waiting and developing even more impressive narrative flowers a few issues on. His skills are creating a wonderfully textured reading experience unlike anything else on the stands.

And the story is illustrated by Quitely and Grant. Together, they are a huge reason this comic won the Eisner for Best Continuing Series (even when its arrival in the shops is so sporadic that it can barely be called "continuing"). Quitely is able to design fantastic machinery, awe-inspiring cityscapes, and some of the most expressive faces in comics. Grant's inking and colors raise the art to a whole new level, creating depth, mood, and emphasizing detail in a way that makes the pages come to life. They drip creativity and practically burn with narrative energy.

This creative team has done something I really never expected to see, ever. They've crafted a wonderfully complex, touching, inspiring, and addictive Superman story. This issue is one of the best yet. I'm not going to bother with the details, since I'm sure the other reviewers will provide far more insight and history to this book than I could ever hope to. Superman is outside of my field of experience and interest, but this is a book I could never pass up.

Ray Tate: 5 Bullets

Superman is dying. Lex Luthor has poisoned him with sunlight, and the wear and tear on the Big Red S is starting to show. Morrison introduces an avenue of hope that makes sense, but by the end of the book, he closes it. Superman, however, will not bow or break. He will live his life to the end as he has always done.

With a little help from his friends, Superman performs his daily tasks. These include flying a stranded busload of tourists to their destination, visiting some very sick children and rescuing Lois Lane from a nutty professor in a mechanical suit.

At the same time, the recognition of his mortality creates in him a sense of the long game. Superman challenges Lex Luthor to show his true colors, and he does. The Man of Steel does not always win. He confronts what he considers his greatest failure, Kandor, and to see whether or not the Earth can survive without him, he conducts an experiment in godhood. He facilitates the possibility of a legacy, and he gives his best friend a story to remember.

Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant's gorgeous artwork spreads across widescreen panels. They certainly make All-Star Superman worth the wait. Grant Morrison writes finely whetted dialogue that's tempered in wit--especially with regard to Lois Lane. His narration for Kal-El rings true, and Superman in his own words reveals the reason behind the glasses.

As good as all of these elements are--and they are very good--they're not what really makes All-Star Superman perfection. You see, Superman is many things. He's the guardian of Metropolis. He's the savior of the world. He's a pacifist at heart. He's an optimist. He's Kal-El. He's Clark Kent, and many an author, as well as hack, has touched upon these aspects, but Morrison, Quitely and Grant spotlight the facet of Superman most miss. Superman is an inspiration for hope.

Superman saves a life during his daily patrol. He does not catch this life out of the sky. He does not snatch that life from the certain doom of a death ray. He saves this life with his presence, his words and his honesty. He saves the life by simply being Superman. The scene is perfectly executed, and it is why All-Star Superman isn't merely a good book but a great book.

Dave Wallace: 5 Bullets

On the surface, issue #10 of All-Star Superman is a charming tale which sees Superman resolve to spend his last days doing as much good as he can in the world. It's a story which takes the essential attributes of the character and expresses them elegantly, showing Superman saving lives, lending strength to those in need, and gently inspiring hope in the lives of the people he interacts with. Under the surface, however, it's so much more than that.

One of the most satisfying qualities of All-Star Superman is all of the little connections and interlinking story elements that you don't notice the first time around. It often takes me until my second or third read to fully understand an issue of the book, and this story is no exception. The initially slightly confusing structure sees the story flit between various moments in a 24-hour period of Superman's life, and it's only once you've absorbed the entire issue that all of the smaller connections start to fall into place. Scenes which feel slightly disjointed the first time around are given meaning by later developments: a good example is the implied connection between Regan (a girl that Superman prevents from committing suicide) and a cryptic message that Superman later receives from the 24th century. It's a connection which ties together several seemingly disparate story elements, and reinforces the idea that even the smallest kindnesses can make a huge difference to the world.

Morrison refers back to the stories of previous issues several times in this one, creating a greater sense of overall plot cohesion as he approaches the end of his 12-issue run on the book. At the same time, he subtly foreshadows future developments, whether it's the vials of DNA that Superman gives to Leo Quintum (eagle-eyed readers will spot a visual clue as to how Superman has solved the incompatibility between Kryptonian and human biology, which hearkens back to the story of issue #3), or the bizarre yet almost-comprehensible message from the future which hints at the coming of Solaris. These elements are important in terms of understanding and anticipating the larger story of All-Star Superman, but Morrison and Quitely trust their readership enough to pick up on these significant details that they don't feel the need to beat us over the head with them.

One of the major successes of this book has been the way in which Morrison has cast Superman as a science fiction hero in the pulp tradition, as well as a superhero in the classic mould. In All-Star Superman any concept is viable, no matter how outlandish, and Morrison makes them all work. This issue sees the writer reinvent pre-existing concepts like Kandor and the Superman Emergency Squad, and make sly references to old stories (such as "Superman's New Power," from Superman #125) without turning the issue into a meaningless exercise in nostalgia, or a story which doesn't hold any meaning beyond being a love-letter to the Gold and Silver Ages. If anything, Morrison's writing makes these concepts seem fresh and new again, updating these old-school ideas for present-day readers and adding his own more modern elements to the mix (I loved the scene in which Superman reads and catalogues his own DNA sequence).

In some ways, this incorporation of old concepts in a new manner is very similar to what Morrison is doing in his Batman run. However, whereas Morrison's Batman is restricted by established continuity to a certain extent, the freedom of the All-Star imprint allows him to combine the story elements however he sees fit, allowing him to execute some unexpected twists and lending a genuine feeling of unpredictability to the book. To cap it all, there's a final charming twist which springs out of yet another classily underplayed story idea (that Superman has created a model earth without a Superman, in order to see how the human race will cope after his death). It's impossible not to have a smile on your face as you read the penultimate page, as it's a development which again trades on Superman's rich history but presents it in a wholly original and unexpected way.

Frank Quitely's visuals again remind us why this book is worth waiting for, with an attention to detail which is second to none. Sometimes, it's the literal detail in the drawings which is impressive: the first page alone contains numerous examples of Quitely's eye for the minutiae of drawing, with the painstakingly rendered school bus and pyramids of the very first panel providing a highly impressive example of the artist's technical skill without being self-consciously showy or self-satisfied. Sometimes, it's the smaller elements in the drawings which are most impressive, and show just how much Quitely has thought about the story that he's illustrating: I loved the children's drawings in the hospital which show the many places that Superman has taken them to, or the way in which Leo Quintum's walking cane bends under the heavy gravity of Kandor. Sometimes, it's the manner in which Quitely (and colourist Jamie Grant) reinforce the connections which are apparent in Morrison's writing: Regan and the messenger from the 24th century are both linked visually by the colour purple, and the aforementioned visual clue on the vials of Kryptonian and human DNA hints at Superman's solution to Lois Lane's seemingly impossible desire to have children. Finally, the issue's cover encapsulates the tone of the story perfectly, with Quitely's quietly benevolent Superman protecting (or creating?) the Earth, a model of gentle power topped off by a perfect S-shield and swirl of hair.

In All-Star Superman #10, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have put together a deceptively simple issue which disguises its layered denseness with an elegance of storytelling that makes it a very enjoyable read on the surface, and an even more satisfying experience once you start to examine it more closely. Any one of the many story threads here could be the basis of an entire issue (or more) for other Superman writers, and any complaints about the book's erratic shipping schedule are meaningless when you realize that there are more stimulating concepts and ideas in one issue of this book than in an entire year's worth of some other comics.

There are very few comic books which make you feel in awe of their creators for the sheer skill and craftsmanship with which they have been put together, but All-Star Superman is one of them. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Thom Young: 4.5 Bullets

Okay, I’ll admit it right up front. I was wrong.

I thought this issue of All-Star Superman was going to continue the story from the previous issue--and that Kal-El’s relatives, Bar-El and Lilo, would set themselves up as despotic wardens in the Phantom Zone.

I expected Superman to have to enter the Zone to perform one Herculean labor as well as one mundane labor (or “labor of simple humanity”). He would have to overcome the collective force of the Phantom Zone criminals (the Herculean) while then teaching Bar-El and Lilo that even the most odious members of society should be treated with compassion (the mundane).

I expected the labor of simple humanity to be the lesson-by-example that society must not punish its murderous and inhumane members with execution and torture lest society become guilty of the same crimes as those whom it seeks to punish.

In the end, I expected to see Bar-El and Lilo introduce genuine methods for reforming criminals so that the Phantom Zone inhabitants might be re-introduced into Kryptonian (Kandorian) society.

Dave Wallace thought I was wrong--and recently said as much on the Comics Bulletin message boards. As is often the case, Dave Wallace was right. I was wrong.

As much as I would have enjoyed the issue that I had in my head (and, since it was in my head, I’ve enjoyed all of it anyway save for Morrison's dialog and Quitely's pencils), I must admit that I also enjoyed the issue that was actually produced--but not quite enough to give it the five bullet-rating that I gave (in my head) the story that I had expected.

My half-bullet reduction is due to the sense that Morrison suddenly looked at the issue number (10) and thought (in his head, of course), "Oh shit! I have only two more issues to go after this one, and Superman's no where near completing his twelve labours."

Indeed, Superman's thoughts in the last two panels on page three might very well have been a reflection of Morrison's own thoughts, "Each challenge [labor] . . . brings me closer to my death. And by my reckoning I've accomplished seven so far. No time to lose."

Yes, I think Morrison also realized he had no time to lose if he was actually going to have Superman complete twelve labors by the end of the twelfth issue. The initial idea was probably for Superman to complete one labor per issue.

However, a jazz musician can lose track of time when he's improvising his chorus phrase variation. Suddenly, he looks up at the clock (or someone nudges him), and he realizes he's gone on for 20 minutes without returning to the theme phrase. Unfortunately, a 1950s LP only has room for about 22 or 23 minutes on one side.

Time to wrap it up. No time to lose.

And that's what Morrison suddenly seems to have realized, and that's a shame--that Morrison is starting to wrap things up. Even his decision to have the events in this issue slip back and forth in non-chronological order might have something to do with the sense of time is running out while simultaneously conveying the notion of not always knowing what time it is.

Because of this combination of deliberate intent and spontaneity, this series continues to be the title I look forward to the most each month (or every six months). Like when I listen to Charlie Parker performing a 22-minute version of "Klactoveedsedstene," I wish this series would never end. I don't care if the theme phrase of "The Twelve Herculean Labors of Superman" is never concluded.

My hope would be that after 120 issues, Morrison would show himself in the final panel and tell the reader, "I am not a demigod,/I cannot make it cohere." In fact, that would be the perfect ending for this series.

Instead, this series will conclude in two more issues.

Superman increased his labor count in this issue to at least eight (the eighth labor being the placing of Kandor on Mars where miniature super-powered Kryptonians can live their lives free of human interference. Perhaps there were other labors in this issue as well. I can't always tell what constitutes a Herculean labor and what doesn't.

Some of the "Herculean Labors" often seem to be the types of things that we routinely expect of Superman anyway--which is why I've been more interested in what I've considered "the mundane labors of simple humanity" that I've identified in this series.

At one time, I was sure that Morrison was going to reveal that there have actually been those two sets of labors--the Herculean and the mundane. However, I'm no longer so certain. Nevertheless, I enjoy what I consider to be Superman's life-affirming labors of simple humanity. It doesn't matter if Morrison planned it that way or not.

One of the prophesied labors in the series is that Superman would "create life."

I expected the fulfillment of that prophecy to be the point at which we would learn that the mundane labors are the truly transcendent tasks.

I expected Superman and Lois Lane to consummate their relationship, and for Lois to become pregnant--to be expecting. After all, that's the mundane way that we humans have been creating life for millions of years. With this issue, though, all my expectations seem to have been proven wrong.

Superman creates life on a parallel Earth within the cubed microuniverse of Qwewq—"Earth Q," as he calls it. His goal is to see how Earth would fare if it didn't have a Superman to protect it (more on that in a minute).

Then, a few pages later (but either 16 hours and 35 minutes later or 7 hours and 25 minutes earlier in the story, based on the confusing chronology) Superman says to Lois, "Our biology is completely incompatible. We could never have children."

However, Lois is quick to point out, "There’s always a way. That's what you always say."

Okay, so Superman created life on a parallel Earth in a cubed microuniverse--and time on that Earth passes at a different rate than it does on All-Star Superman’s Earth. Millions of years of evolution on Earth Q transpire within no more than two minutes for Superman--and thousands of years of human history pass within a few nanoseconds.

Within those nanoseconds we see:
Australian Aborigine’s (circa 40,000 BCE) painting rock art that depicts what might be a white-skinned visitor who will drop in on their descendants at some point in the future to bestow either gifts or suffering--which might be either a dreamtime revelation of Captain Cook’s 1770 exploration of Australia or a dreamtime revelation of Kal-El as their creator, or both (page 14, panel 2);

The rise of Hindu sculpture in India as a worker chisels a statue of Krishna--(the avatar of Vishnu, the Supreme Deity in Hinduism who is "the All-Pervading essence of all beings" (page 14, panel 4);

A seemingly historical scene that I can't identify in which a man (or woman?) is preaching that divine beings (God and His Angelic Hierarchy) should be imitated rather than worshipped and yielded to (page 16, panel 1);

Friedrich Nietzsche writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the book in which he sought to teach us about der Übermensch, but which is mistranslated here as "the Superman" (pages 18/19, panel 4); and

Joe Shuster in his Cleveland, Ohio apartment in 1934 putting the finishing touches on the costume of his and Jerry Siegel's third version of Superman (page 21, panels 2-3).
In Animal Man, Morrison revealed himself to be the Supreme Being of Buddy Baker’s world.

In Seven Soldiers, Morrison revealed himself to be one of the seven Supreme Beings (albeit ever-changing) of the DC Universe.

In this latest issue of All-Star Superman, Morrison reveals Kal-El as the Supreme Being of our Earth--that's right, the one that you and I live on (for that's what Earth Q is).

The human compulsion on Earth Q that Morrison reveals (or that Superman observes) is a reflection of Voltaire's statement from his "Epistle on 'The Three Imposters'": "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him" (which Voltaire wrote in 1770--the same year that Captain Cook explored Australia and might have fulfilled a dreamtime experience of the Aborigines).

In this case, the human history of Earth Q seems intent on inventing Superman--first in Aboriginal mythology as a white visitor, then as the avatar of Vishnu, then as an idea to be imitated but not necessarily worshipped that is then expanded on with Nietzsche's concept of the Overman, and finally as Siegel and Shuster's comic book character from the 1930s.

I'm a little surprised that DC allowed this issue to be published without demanding that the world Superman created be drastically revised to make it clear that it's not the Earth on which we live.

After all, under Paul Levitz's tenure, DC wouldn't publish Rick Veitch's story in Swamp Thing #88 in which Swamp Thing was to be revealed as the wooden cross on which Jesus was crucified. Supposedly, DC/Levitz feared a backlash and controversy from Christians who might have been offended (the issue would have been published less than a year after conservative Christians had publicly demonstrated against Martin Scorsese's film version of The Last Temptation of Christ.

So . . . how on Earth Q can Paul Levitz now allow Morrison to claim that Superman is our Creator--the Supreme Being from which all human religions flow forth? Aren't DC's offices now likely to be picketed by irate religious people everywhere for presenting such sacrilege in one of their books?

Perhaps Morrison was able to sneak it by the Thought Police by having Superman refer to the world he made as "Earth Q." That certainly can't be our world because, as we know from prior to Crisis on Infinite Earths, our world had been known as Earth Prime before it was obliterated by a wave of anti-matter.

Anyway . . . I love this series. I love it because it is continually intersecting the divine with the mundane--regardless of whether Morrison is actually giving us two sets of labors or not (the Herculean and the mundane).

Superman is analogous to the gods of various mythologies, and his last name is El--the Hebrew word for God that is etymologically related to the Aramaic word for God, Eli, as well as the Arabic forms for God (al, Ali, and Allah).

Yet for all his godlike power, Superman is dying--and the efforts of microscopic Kandorian physicians failed to save him in this issue. However, after they failed to cure him, Superman did bring the physicians of the Kandorian Emergency Corps to a children's cancer ward where they apparently eliminated all traces of cancer from the bodies of the children in the ward (which might actually qualify as another of Superman's "Labors").

So perhaps Superman won't create life in the mundane manner of copulating with Lois Lane.

Perhaps his creation of life is purely through the Divine Labor of being the Creator of Earth Q.

Yet he did take time in this latest issue to copy "the entire eight billion letter sequence [of his genome] into a book. Along with instructions on how to combine human and Kryptonian strands"--so perhaps Kal-El and Lois will have a child after all (albeit through in vitro fertilization). After all, he handed two test tubes to Dr. Quintum--one bearing Superman's logo and the other bearing the S logo that Lois used in issue #3.

It would be a shame, though, if Superman and Lois end up "doing it" in a test tube. I mean, after all, is Superman blind to Frank Quitely's illustrations of Lois Lane on pages 10 and 11?

Biologically incompatible through normal copulation? As Lois pointed out, "There's always a way. That's what you always say."

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