“The Gospel According to Lex Luthor”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Frank Quitely (p), Jamie Grant (i & c)
Publisher: DC Comics
It’s always good for a comic to defy your expectations, and after a few issues of out-there ideas and Silver Age silliness, Grant Morrison reins things back a little for his fifth instalment of All-Star Superman. The writer presents an elegantly simple story this issue, which sees Clark Kent despatched to write a profile of a death-row Lex Luthor – with nary a glimpse of Superman in sight.
Except that’s not quite true, as Morrison peppers his prison-set story with glimpses of the superhero as he shines through his bumbling Kent persona to prevent prison riots, stop marauding super-villains and generally keep Luthor out of trouble. The fact that he has to do so in secret makes for a strong story concept, and it’s entertaining to see how Clark can come up with yet another clumsy cover-up for each of his heroic deeds. Since much of the fun of the issue comes from the way “Superman” gets the job done whilst remaining Clark Kent, it’s testament to Frank Quitely’s art that it’s hard to see the join. His Kent is a plausible, chubby, cowardly klutz who you could easily believe could never be mistaken for Superman despite the facial similarity, but equally, in the moments at which Supes makes use of his powers, he couldn’t be anyone else; despite Morrison’s canny writing playing a part, the balance between the two personalities is maintained for the most part thanks to Quitely’s solid grasp of body language and the subtleties of characterisation.
Alongside the consistent and high-quality traditional-feeling visuals that we’ve come to expect from this title, there are also some less predictable moments of visual innovation to be found in Quitely’s panel structuring this issue. A double-page splash of Clark and Lex descending a prison staircase is made interesting thanks to a deceptively simple page layout which on closer inspection reveals a well-planned, meticulously constructed series of small panels laid out over a larger image to create a real sense of movement and narrative flow. There are other nice touches - like the way the panel walls and ceilings collapse during a battle with the Parasite - which really help to elevate the visuals above the ordinary. The book’s sight gags hit home thanks to Quitely’s flair for making the ludicrous and extreme sit easily alongside the realistic and the mundane (Lex’s baboon in a superman costume is a particular highlight – check out the gloves on his feet!) and the colourful trappings of Silver Age comics are flawlessly integrated with Morrison’s retro-modern storytelling.
Although this issue centres around the strong characterisation of Lex which almost pits him as Superman’s equal (albeit with a traditionally heavy dose of ego and over-confidence), it’s also nice to see the writer deliver on some of the longer-running plot points that have been hanging around since issue #1. Superman’s impending demise hasn’t dominated the series as much as I expected, and now that Morrison has cemented his core cast with what have been essentially a few one-shot character-focussed issues, I’m hoping that Clark’s revelation at the end of this issue will propel this series onwards with a greater focus on the overarching story.
On its own terms, though, this chapter of All-Star Superman has a charming elegance which hasn’t been seen since issue #2, where none of Morrison’s ideas exist simply as throwaway indulgences as with previous issues but all work in service of the story. Of course, the imaginative sci-fi concepts are still present, but they’re the icing on the cake: sure, icing on its own is tasty enough (and the last couple of issues are evidence of that) but issue #5 provides the best of both worlds with Morrison’s stimulating ideas serving a solid, satisfying and only semi-serious done-in-one tale. Simply put, to make a Superman comic this consistently entertaining, fun and involving is no mean feat, and I’m interested to see where the book takes us next.
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