Sunday Slugfest - All Star Superman #2

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Bailey, Kevin T. Brown, Kelvin Green, John Hays, Jason Sacks, Dave Wallace
“Superman’s Forbidden Room”

Michael Bailey

Plot: Superman takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude for her upcoming birthday. Lois is skeptical at the revelation Superman has made regarding him and Clark Kent, and a growing paranoia causes her to take drastic steps to protect herself.

Commentary: Perfect. Two issues into this series, and I am already frustrated with it.

See, when I sat down and read this issue, I had that same knee-jerk reaction I have when I read this type of Superman story. Since it doesn’t fit into the vision of the character that I have stuck in my head, so I immediately start picking it apart. This is unfair to the writer, and it is a horrible way to review a book. Still, personal perception is about eighty-five percent of what makes a person like a particular comic, so it is hard to know when I’ve gone too far and when I haven’t gone far enough. The trick is to try and find a balance between the two.

And if all else fails, go for a cheap laugh. That usually works for me.

“Superman’s Forbidden Room” reminded me a lot of Alan Moore’s work on Supreme, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as I enjoyed the bulk of that series. The difference is that Morrison isn’t telling Silver Age-type stories against a contemporary backdrop. What Grant did was take a plot that would have been right at home in the fifties or sixties and put a modern-day spin on it. I really don’t feel that Grant isn’t hopping into the Way Back Machine and trying to write the Superman he read as a kid.

I mean he had Superman reveal his “true identity” to Lois, something that would have been anathema in the old days.

There was a lot to like about this issue. Lois’s reaction to Superman’s revelation was amusing, and I think it makes perfect sense. Given her feelings towards Superman and the number of years she has tried to prove that he was Clark Kent, it is only natural that Lois, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, would be leery. Even though her paranoia was explained as a result of her exposure to the alien chemicals, Morrison played it well. I knew something strange was going on, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what that something was, which, as a reader, is a nice feeling to have

The human element also impressed me. The conversation between Lois and Superman at dinner was enjoyable, and the panels where Lois saw Superman in terms of black and white had a nice bit of subtext to it. Lois calling Superman out on the fact that, despite his words to the contrary, he has been lying to her for years was another highlight. It raises the question I’ve always have had about Superman and Clark Kent; Superman swears that he never lies and then proceeds to do so on a daily basis. Morrison dealt with that particular elephant in the room and did it well.

The story had a number of those little details that I complained about last issue. This time, though, there was more inconsistency in my feelings on the matter, and it didn’t bother me as much. I love the Fortress of Solitude, but I really don’t care for many of the other trappings that go along with it. Still with Quitely and Grant’s art it was rather impressive. The bit with the giant key being replaced with a small one gave me a quick laugh until it was revealed that the key was made with super-dense dwarf star material. It was cute, but when things get too fantastical I tend to check out of the story. The accoutrements that Morrison is using are slowly growing on me, and he makes it very easy to accept by mixing them with some very real, very heartfelt moments.

Frank Quitely’s artwork (with assistance from Jamie Grant) continues to provide its own sense of frustration. It is very lavish art, and the first few pages were just awesome. Quitely showed great storytelling in his work, and he excelled at the science-fiction aspects of the story. The problem comes with Superman, or rather the length of Superman’s cape. I realize that I made a similar comment last time, but the cape is too short. This may seem like a fanboyish quibble, but one of the great things about Superman’s costume is the long, flowing cape. I realize that this is a relatively new way to draw the cape and there is such a thing as too much cape (and to answer your question I am referring to Ian Churchill here) but Quitely’s Superman has a cape that ends up looking like table cloth slung over his shoulders.

Then again he could have been going for that look. You never know.

In The End: Despite that seemingly small problem and the fact that I still prefer a more human Superman who doesn’t seem so aloof and above us all, this series is starting to grow on me. I don’t think I would like to see this version of the character be the main rendering in the DC Universe proper but telling the story in the context of the All-Star line is providing a different perspective on the Man of Steel. Morrison’s writing is classy and hits all of the beats it should but still has an element of fun. While Quitely’s Superman isn’t exactly to my liking there is more enough good in his art to make up for this. This was a solid little comic and showed me that the Silver Age trappings can still resonate somewhat today.

Besides, how can you not like a comic that has a future Superman ask about J-LO? I understand his confusion. Heck, I’m from the present and I'm still not sure what a J-Lo is.

Kevin T. Brown

Pardon me, but this is the ride for the tour, correct?

It is? Good.

Is this your first time on this tour? Mine, too.

Yeah, this Fortress of Solitude tour is great, isn't it?

No? Why not?

I'll tell you why…. It's boring as hell!!!

Okay. Deep breath.

All right, as good as issue #1 was, this issue just falls flat on its face. All the energy that Grant Morrison was building in the first issue just dissipated with issue #2. Matter of fact, if any artist other than Frank Quitely drew this issue, I’d seriously consider not even rating it. So what is this story about? You get to see Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. I have to admit it is rather impressive in how Quitely draws it, but the end result is sheer boredom because the story drags. Horribly.

This issue picks up essentially right after the last issue ended: Superman flies Lois (in her car no less) towards the Fortress. The entire time she’s telling Superman that she doesn’t believe that he’s really Clark Kent. Upon arriving at the Fortress, we’re now “treated” to the tour. While this tour is more than likely intended to illicit awe in the reader, that wasn’t quite the feeling I was getting, as you noticed.

So while the majority of the story is Superman’s tour, you are treated to a few nice bits concerning Lois’ internal dialogue about what’s going on around her. The doubts that she’s having, wondering if he’s being truthful, still wondering if he’s Clark or not, wondering what the overexposure to the sun did to him, etc. Of course, her paranoia isn’t helped much because of an accidental exposure to some alien chemical that eventually leads to a potentially deadly result.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, I was slightly unimpressed with the story. Okay, more than slightly. Which is odd considering the heavy Silver Age feel to it all. This is the kind of story I would expect to like, but for some reason I didn’t. Morrison did his level best to add about every conceivable Silver Age-like aspect into this story. It just didn’t succeed. However, despite all of that, I must admit the dinner scene between Superman and Lois was the lone highlight. The two pages of dialogue between them felt very real and very human. It turns out to be the lone ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak story.

As for the artwork, definitely no complaints as Quitely rarely does a bad job as far as I’m concerned. He definitely captured the grand scale and starkness of the Fortress. I just wish he had more to do in this story.

Overall, this was a huge disappointment, especially after the first issue. I don’t know what Morrison was attempting to do with this story, but I don’t think he was trying to bore the reader. Unfortunately, he did.

Kelvin Green

I was a tad disappointed in the first issue of this title; it seemed to lack a narrative focus, introducing the key elements of the series at a breakneck pace, but without tying them together into a truly satisfying opening episode. The characters were well written and the various plot elements were interesting, but it lacked some sort of vital spark.

That flaw is fixed here as Morrison and Quitely deliver a story that reads like some sort of demented sitcom; Lois has been taken to the Fortress of Solitude where she sees something she shouldn’t and misunderstands Superman’s intentions towards her, with hilarious results. Most sitcoms don’t include death rays and robot bouncers, more’s the pity, but this is nonetheless a fun bit of farcical storytelling. Moreover, that basic plot is all Morrison needed to give some structure and context to all the great ideas and insightful characterisations he’s known for, and as such this issue is a great deal more enjoyable than the first.

Although the comic is full of fun Silver Agey concepts like everyone’s favourite domestic appliance, the telescope to the future, it’s the characters that impressed me the most. Morrison’s Lois is energetic, cynical and inquisitive without being irritating and unpleasant, and his Superman is a wonderful bundle of personality traits; he clearly has a warm heart, but there’s also a little arrogance to him and a wicked sense of humour. He also shows a slight bumbling aspect, implying that the Clark Kent persona is less of an act, and more of an exaggeration of an inherent trait, a nice little detail which makes the character all the more human and likable as a result. It’s not the most ground-breaking or original approach to the characters, but it’s a realistic and genuine one.

Frank Quitely’s artwork continues to impress, and it even seems as if he’s improving in places, particularly in regards to Superman himself, who has a more consistent look this issue. We also get some gratuitous female nudity, something that’s fast becoming a hallmark of the All Star line, so the upcoming All Star Wonder Woman may find itself banned in some civilised nations.

I’m still not getting any particular “Greatest Superman Story Ever” vibes from this book, but it is proving to be a wonderfully entertaining romp and a welcome revitalisation of a lagging character.

John Hays

Grant Morrison is the king of the massive, awe-inspiring setup, but often is unable to follow all of his plot strings to the end, whether due to limited issues, editorial changes, A.D.D., I’m not sure. I bring this up because a large chunk of the first issue makes no showing this time around, specifically Lex Luthor and the space scientists with their amazing creations. While I really enjoy reading the wild imaginings that come out of Grant’s head, especially with regard to my favorite superhero, I just hope that he’s planned ahead well enough this time around to fully deliver on all the teasers he’s providing us with.

Quitely’s art is excellent once again. It’s not the definitive representation of Superman or his supporting cast by any means, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s great how Morrison and Quitely subtly acknowledge the fact that Quitely has been drawing Lois as a Hispanic character, similar to Jennifer Lopez. I also like seeing the Unknown Superman, although his profile goes from powerful superhero to out of shape, overweight bum in four panels. The coloring is also great, with real attention to detail on the highlights.

Overall, I’m really enjoying the storyline; I just hope we get to see the payoffs for everything Grant is setting up here.

Jason Sacks

Sorry, Mark Waid. Too bad, Mark Millar. It was fun, Frank Miller. Nice try, Warren Ellis. But it’s true. You’re all in second place. Because there’s nobody in comics today who writes comics like Grant Morrison.

I know it’s not news that Morrison is good, really good, really goddam great in fact, but he is. There’s just something magical about the way that Morrison thinks about his stories, the way he creates his plots, his nice character bits, the wonderful details he throws in to his stories. Morrison’s stories have a tremendous sense of energy and thoughtfulness, where the unexpected seems both fresh and ordinary at the same time. In this comic, Morrison brings readers miniature dwarf suns, dinner aboard the Titanic, Supermen of the future, and other cool touches, and it all seems interesting and cool and clever and true to the character all at the same time.

Frank Quitely is a wonderful artistic partner to Morrison, bringing freshness to the familiar while being true to the underlying concepts. The desolation of his Arctic landscape on pages two and three is gorgeous, while his Lois Lane is wonderfully human.

This has all the makings of something really classic.

Dave Wallace

Superman has never been one of my favourite superheroes. In my experience, he’s always seemed bland, unimaginative and simply too powerful a character to inspire any sense of genuine jeopardy or dramatic conflict. Maybe that’s because I’ve read too many of his appearances as a guest-star in Batman books, which always highlight the flaws of being a big blue boy scout in the grim and gritty world of Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City. Or maybe it’s because I’ve grown up in the post-DKR superhero age, where it too often seems that for a hero to be significant or to matter, they have to maintain a resolutely grim outlook on life and have their existence peppered with tragedy. Whatever the reason, Superman’s character has never appealed to me in the same way as so many other classic and iconic characters have. However, with this All-Star incarnation it looks as though I might be hooked for the first time, as all aspects of the creative team appear to be firing on all cylinders to provide a knockout book on all levels.

For the most part, this issue takes the form of a guided tour of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but still manages to tell a very personal, character-driven and compelling story. It has a different feel to Grant Morrison’s first issue, which concentrated more on setting up the conflict between Superman and Lex Luthor, establishing Superman’s larger world, and foreshadowing the consequences of his over-exposure to the sun’s rays – all of which looks like it’s going to be the catalyst for the events of these first 12 instalments, but isn’t going to overly dominate each individual issue. Thankfully, Morrison’s take on Superman doesn’t cast the character as the wide-eyed, naïve youngster of Smallville or the holier-than-thou flawless demi-god that he can appear in some of his stories; his Superman has a cheekier, livelier edge which is never nasty-natured or rude, but seems to enjoy the lighter side of his banter with Lois as much as the readers do. Although it’s pleasing to get this insight into the character’s humanity and his more fun side, we also see Superman from Lois Lane’s point of view here, and he’s exciting, confusing and frustrating in equal measure. Morrison cannily plays against type in having his Lois refuse to accept the truth of Clark’s true identity, and it only adds to the dynamic of the relationship, growing into even greater mistrust as she learns that Superman is keeping a further secret from her even as he reveals the hidden wonders of his icy fortress.

With this issue, Morrison is able to cut loose with all manner of wacky and far-out ideas, throwing out new and imaginative concepts on every page, never milking them to a point where the reader becomes tired or jaded, and pulling them away whilst we still want to see more. Tiny touches like the singing flowers that Superman picks for Lois, the army of Superman-robots, or the string of convoluted explanations as to how Supes and Clark have been seen in the same place at the same time on previous occasions all show an appreciation of the classic, more fun Silver Age approach to superheroes as well as displaying the skills that Morrison employs to make all of this work for a modern-day readership. I’m reminded of Mark Millar’s current run on Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four, as Morrison is equally as careful as Millar not to let his many ideas run away with him, and tethers his wild imagination to a solid narrative revolving around Lois and Clark’s blossoming relationship, and Superman’s titular Forbidden Room. Dropping misleading hints and red herrings into his script (as well as a few lines which are dead giveaways of the payoff when you look at them in retrospect), Morrison creates a palpable sense of paranoia in Lois which builds to an inspired and unexpected final page, which itself sets up a great third issue with a huge amount of storytelling potential. However, there’s more to this book than simple, unabashed Silver Age fun – a lot of Morrison’s themes are subtly adult in nature, often using metaphor to deal with issues as diverse as trust in relationships, the inevitability of ageing and death, fear of the future and the unknnown, and the mechanisms which the mind uses to cope with the more unexpected or unsettling elements of our lives. It’s a lot of food for thought if you choose to interpret it in that way, but if you prefer to read it at face value – as an entertaining, colourful old-fashioned yarn – the more adult elements don’t get in the way at all.

This book also has something else going for it besides Grant Morrsion’s superior writing: it’s incredibly pretty. Artist Frank Quitely’s work is new to me, but he’s already won me over with his pencilling here. He creates a very clean, classic feel which is timeless and resolutely fantastical, yet somehow captures something of the real world too. The opening sequence is a great example of how to give real-life concepts a larger-than-life fantasy spin, as how can one not love the manner in which Lois travels to the fortress, or the grand splash page of Superman’s “Batcave” which features myriad trophies from his many adventures. Quitely also nails the subtler moments of the story too, as a standout few panels which present Superman looking into a mirror of truth captures the tone of Morrison’s script perfectly. Occasional moments of paranoia and fear are punctuated with suitably uneasy visuals (I particularly enjoyed the Unknown Superman of the future and its silly payoff), and the artist’s interpretation of Lois Lane effortlessly captures all of her character traits in one suitably attractive package. Jamie Grant’s colours are restrained, whilst also echoing the simple primary colours of Superman’s historic early appearances, and his inks give a fine, faithful finish to the original pencils. I’ve seen some people complain that his digital techniques don’t flatter Quitely’s linework, but to me, they couldn’t be a cleaner fit.

This book radiates an easy, effortless charm which can’t help but win you over, both in the writing and the artwork. However, it’s biggest success is in its portrayal of the title character: Superman isn’t godlike, majestic or removed from humanity in a way which distances him from the reader, and he isn’t a moping weak-minded simpleton whose powers are the only thing he’s got going for him. He’s that rare thing: the clean-cut good guy that you actually root for. There’s a sense of fun and wonder inherent in every page which makes you remember why you fell in love with the medium in the first place, and it manages to do so without being cliché or overtly nostalgic. I’m not even going to compare this book with DC’s other All-Star title, because the two couldn’t be more different: this is an all-ages, accessible take on the original iconic superhero which has finally enabled me to enjoy a character that has never before held any interest for me. I can’t wait for the next issue.

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