All Star Superman Vol. 1 & 2
by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely (DC Comics, 2008)

I'm going to totally spoil this for you: Lex Luthor wins in the first issue.

Seems a bit blunt, doesn't it? OK, let's try this: in the first story of this collection, Lex Luthor finds a way to do what nobody has ever done before: destroy the Man of Steel. How Superman deals with it, and everything that happens as a result, is the province of the ensuing 11 chapters of All Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's astonishing tour de force miniseries. Along the way Superman and his supporting cast meet other super-beings, visit the past and talk to the future, Jimmy Olsen gets superpowers, Steve Lombard is a jerk to Clark Kent, Lois Lane's quest for the truth gets her into trouble, there are problems with Bizarro ... it's nothing you haven't seen before in a Superman comic book, especially if you're familiar with the classic Silver Age stories. And yet, in writer Morrison and artist Quitely's hands, it becomes completely new all over again, suffused with the joy and wonder that the best of those old tales used to generate. It all becomes something you have never, ever seen before.

For an example take a look at "Funeral in Smallville," which takes one of the key elements of the Superman mythos -- the death of Pa Kent -- and transforms it into something that veers wildly from the warm to the goofy to the heartbreakingly tragic, involving future Supermen, Krypto playing fetch with trees and a bizarre extradimensional monster, and yet never once feels off-tone or ill-conceived. And in fact this segment contains one of Morrison/Quitely's strongest images: A young Superman, in many ways still a Superboy, rushing away from battle, screaming in anguish as he understands his father is dying, flying so fast that his hair catches fire. It's a stunning, heartwrenching moment, and his scream -- "I can save EVERYBODY!" -- cuts right to the heart of what Supeman should be, and what he so often fails to be in the hands of lesser creators. Morrison and Quitely get it just exactly right.

An even more powerful example of this is their conception of Superman's origin. Rather than take two or four or six pages recapping a story that just about everyone knows by heart, they tell it in a single page, with four wide panels, each accompanied by a two word caption: "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." Turn the page, and you get a dramatic two-page splash of Superman flying underneath the sun, solar flares bursting into space behind him. It's the entirety of Superman's myth, boiled down to its most basic essence. Not only is the economy of the storytelling here a breath of fresh air -- especially in light of the "decompression" style of comic art that's come into vogue in the last decade, where every punch seems to have six panels devoted to it -- but Morrison/Quitely's understanding of the main character -- i.e., what makes Superman Superman -- never falters.

Never is that clearer than in the story "Curse of the Replacement Supermen," where two famous Kryptonian astronauts arrive on Earth after Superman has been away. Though the Kryptonians are arrogant and abusive and accuse Superman of betraying his heritage, he never fights them with his fists, but instead works to win over their hearts and minds with his Earth-learned generosity and kindness ... and eventually succeeds. The final page is as stirring an "oh HELL yeah" moment as you are likely to find in comics.

And really, these 12 issues are an embarrassment of such moments, each one more imaginative and superbly executed than the last. Whether it's a black-Kryptonite-addled Superman fighting a Doomsday-DNA-enhanced Jimmy Olsen, a tandem arm-wrestling match with Samson and Atlas, or a battle with a living sun, Morrison and Quitely never falter. There is some padding -- the Bizarro segment goes on a bit too long for its own good -- but never once did I feel the creators were trying to cheat the reader. If anything they load their stories with such visual and storytelling riches that one review isn't really enough to do All Star Superman justice. I haven't even touched upon their incisive characterizations of Superman's supporting cast, especially Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, or mentioned that their portrayal of Lex Luthor is one of the most diabolically brilliant ever to grace the comics page -- if "grace" is indeed the word. And that's not even mentioning their brilliant portrayal of Clark Kent -- it's the first time in my memory that I can remember believing that people would never suspect him of being the most powerful man on Earth.

Well, the most powerful until Luthor destroys him, anyway. But you'll have to read All Star Superman to fund out how that happens. I'm not about to give it away.

review by
Jay Whelan

23 April 2011

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