"Curse of the Replacement Supermen"
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant
Publisher: DC Comics
Superman returns from his jaunt to Bizarro-world to find that he has been replaced by two more Kryptonian survivors, and that they have taken over his guardianship of the planet. However, Bar-El and Lilo soon reveal their ugly side, and it's up to Superman to teach them that human culture might have something to offer the arrogant Kryptonians after all.
One of the greatest successes that Grant Morrison has achieved with All-Star Superman is to humanize his protagonist to the point that readers really sympathize with and care about him. Instead of de-powering Superman or writing him as ineffectual, Morrison has simply given him an intelligent, endlessly patient, benevolent and caring disposition, and he rarely has the character resort to violence to solve his problems. This issue is a good example of Morrison taking a fairly derivative story idea and applying his distinctive take on Superman to it, with surprisingly compelling results. The conflict between Superman and his Kryptonian cousins becomes an ideological one as much as it is a physical one (although Morrison makes sure to include a couple of exciting action sequences, too), and the writer gets a lot of mileage out of their differing worldviews before tying things up with a surprisingly touching final few pages, which almost brought a tear to my eye.
In amongst this story, there are all sorts of inventive details and plot wrinkles which enrich Superman's world and make the story more interesting and fun. Clark's ridiculous explanation for his extended absence, Jimmy Olsen's alien fashion sense, and the Kryptonians' destruction (and subsequent patching-up) of the moon all could have been pulled out of Silver Age issues of Superman, but they all feel like a comfortable fit in the All-Star world that Morrison has created. I also enjoyed the manner in which the writer threatens to reveal Clark's identity to the world (well, the staff of the Daily Planet) before instantly coming up with a traditional (and traditionally implausible) cover story for him. There are frequent subtle references to Superman's impending death here, too, which keep the larger plot of the series in mind. I also enjoyed the continuation of the idea that the "Twelve Labours of Superman" may be emotional in nature, as well as physical: Clark's final actions in this issue could certainly qualify as one of Superman's more grounded, human labours - along with the revelation of his identity to Lois, and his appearance at Pa Kent's side at the moment of his death, earlier in the series.
Frank Quitely does his usual fantastic job with the art, proving that this is a book that is worth waiting for, no matter how long it takes for a new issue to appear. Whilst I've grown to love his character models as definitive takes on the Superman cast, which mix modern influences with their more 'classic' looks, it's with his storytelling that Quitely really impresses. Moments such as the Superman-robot's arm falling off as Bar-El hands him the super-dense key to the Fortress of Solitude, or the scene in which Superman is beaten by Bar-El and thrown into the moon show the artist's talent for creating a sequence of images which flow so smoothly that the reader's brain naturally fills in the gaps, making it feel as though the images have really been brought to life. Colorist and inker Jamie Grant shows his awareness for such nuances, adding the tiniest of yellow glints in Clark's eye to subtly convey the idea that he's setting fire to Steve Lombard's hairpiece with his heat vision, showing a brief blue flare to indicate Superman's use of X-Ray vision, or giving the new Kryptonian structures in Metropolis an otherworldly glow. Whilst it's impossible to say (without looking at the script) how faithfully the art team is bringing Morrison's vision for the character to life, this is probably the best Superman storytelling that I've ever read, on all levels.
I also have to give some credit to a member of the creative team that rarely gets the credit for their work; the letterer. In this case, Travis Lanham does a wonderful job of conveying emotion and weakness through his judicious use of lower-case lettering. He also employs 'wobbly' speech balloons at suitable moments, to reinforce the severity of Superman's beating at the hands of his fellow Kryptonians, and again when Lilo and Bar-El realise that they themselves are weakening. Finally, during the scene in which Superman is communicating with Bar-El through the thoughtscreen, Lanham's speech bubbles effectively convey a new softness to Bar-El's demeanour, as well as the idea that the sound which is coming through the machine is different to normal speech. They're small touches that probably go unnoticed most of the time, but there was enough variation in this issue (although never for its own sake) that I particularly picked up on it here.
When I first read this issue, I enjoyed it a lot, but I thought that there were one or two flaws which prevented it from being as perfect as some of Morrison's previous issues. One of those complaints was that the manner in which Superman beats the Kryptonians was a little too convenient, and came out of nowhere. However, on reading the issue a second time, it became apparent that not only was Superman never trying to 'beat' the Kryptonians (in fact, he never attempts to fight them at all), but that Morrison also foreshadowed Bar-El and Lilo's Kryptonite-degeneration with some of their very first lines of dialogue. There are also a couple of strange Scottish idiosyncrasies which creep into Bar-El's speech which felt out of place. However, this was a minor distraction. The only other thing which prevents the issue from receiving full marks is that I feel that there aren't quite as many ideas packed into this issue as we've seen in the past - although it's still far more imaginative, efficient and pleasingly compressed than most superhero comics being written today. This is another great issue from a book that everyone who loves superhero comics should be reading, and I eagerly anticipate Morrison and Quitely's final three installments.
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