All-Star Superman. A particular scientist, Leo Quintum, tries to take fire from the sun (veritably the Prometheus of the story taking flame from Olympus), setting in motion the fall of the old god, Superman, and the rise of the new. Morrison presents all of this within the tropes of Silver Age wackiness, and the collection that emerges is a feat of storytelling if not necessarily a model for Superman stories to come.
[Review contains spoilers]
For a book that serves as a love letter to the Superman mythos, All-Star Superman is largely a story about how mankind must inevitably outgrow Superman. At the outset of the book, Grant Morrison has Lois Lane and Lex Luthor each considering how they're growing older, while the always-youthful (and somewhat oblivious) Superman still plans corny gags for Lois's birthday. Humanity itself has caught up with Superman -- Professor Quintum's experiments are now so advanced that one of them results in Superman himself being mortally wounded.
Morrison's funniest but most pointed example is when the Daily Planet's Steve Lombard is able to withstand a mutating Bizarro attack as well as Superman. The antidote? Lombard's, ahem, "performance enhancing" pills. Man, in this instance, has become superman indeed.
Moreover, with a little push from Superman, humanity now has the ability to create their own Superman. Quintum surpasses Superman most directly in the end when he confirms he's now able to create his own human/Kryptonian hybrid, "Superman 2."
In true Morrison-ian fashion, the writer presents an infinite loop. In the universe of All-Star Superman, Superman is dying at the same time humanity has realized their potential to make their own Superman -- to take on his role as protector for themselves. On the world of Earth Q that Superman creates ("our" Earth), Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel imagine the comic book Golden Age Superman; even on a world with no Superman, humanity still "creates" Superman.
Humanity's ability to create Superman, therefore, is meant here both literally and philosophically. Morrison and artist Frank Quitely also depict the Earth Q Nietzche, declaring "God is dead." The Superman, an ever-present benevolent force, or "god," dies, and humanity succeeds him and embraces peaceful living for themselves. Even on Earth Q, without a "real" Superman, Morrison posits optimistically that the direction for mankind is always to realize its potential by achieving Superman's ideals.
Morrison's tale is one of humanity, and the Superman mythos, at its best. Quintum's PROJECT seems modeled after Jack Kirby's Project Cadmus, but there's no "mad" to this scientist; he is above board to an almost unbelievable degree. Morrison's Jimmy Olsen gets a little picked on by Lucy Lane, but he's generally the coolest cat in the room; Morrison's Perry White is all professionalism, never haranguing his staff or shouting at Olsen for coffee. Even Morrison's Clark Kent is the ultimate Clark, never depicted more convincingly as not Superman than here under Quitely's pen. There's also nary an enemy that Superman defeats in the book, even Lex Luthor, who doesn't in some way come around to the side of good in their defeat.
It is the best of us -- and certainly, an optimistic comic in a grim and gritty world is not to be ignored -- but it all rings just slightly false. Morrison spins All-Star Superman with a healthy dose of Silver Age irreverence, and like the Silver Age, it breaks down under modern scrutiny. Superman seems not at all alarmed that the PROJECT has long planned to clone him; indeed he seems to agree. He discusses on a number of occasions how he can't die and leave Earth unprotected -- despite the presence of other heroes, Superman seems an overwhelming force in this universe, to an extent modern sensibilities might find extreme.
This culminates in Superman's otherwise-insane plan -- but here, presented as perfectly rational -- that Superman takes Lois's DNA without her knowledge for the purpose of letting Quintum create a super-baby. Superman in Morrison's story is the quintessential hero, but also the epitome of alpha-male; he professes his love for Lois but can't understand (in the book's only narration boxes that aren't Superman's) why Lois finds the dishonesty that underlies their relationship so disturbing. Superman later puts off a relationship with Lois because they can never have children, embracing the Silver Age-y thinking that this might be the only reason to marry, and breaking distinctly from the modern-age Superman and Lois who chose to marry despite incompatible biologies.
This is far from irreverence or misogyny on Morrison's part; rather he seems to revel in the absurdity and inconsistencies of the Silver Age tropes, as he did in Batman RIP. (At the height of the book's insanity, as Superman struggles to leave Bizarro World, the anti-Bizarro Zibarro softly, meekly, asks if Superman will read his crazed writing -- Morrison is so in on the joke he's even lampooning himself.) All-Star's storytelling itself is "off," adding to the modern reader's sense of partial disengagement -- as when Lois is held by the Ultrasphinx in the third chapter, her eyes are closed one panel, open the next, with no "flutter," or in the conclusion when Lex's niece Nasthalthia is about to blow up a taxi in one panel, and has already blown it up in the next. Time is skewed in All-Star, presenting just the before and after, not the during. It emphasizes All-Star's aesthetic that in the Silver Age, the details just don't matter.
This is not to suggest that the chapters of All-Star Superman are offered lightly. Each one includes a wealth of detail, not just shout-outs to the Superman mythos old and new, but also how each story uses the world built in the issue before (see the constantly recurring Fortress key). All-Star must have been a wonder to read in monthly form, with Superman's death unfolding over "real time" in a year. Highlights include chapter ten, which Chip Kidd calls, in his introduction to the Absolute edition, worth a "doctoral Lit thesis on narrative construction and causal connectivity in fiction," and also chapter nine, "Curse of the Replacement Supermen," which presents succinctly in one issue the kind of story that "nowadays" would take six or seven issues to tell.
All-Star Superman therefore emerges as a tribute to Superman's Silver Age adventures and to the Superman ideal -- to humanity's struggle to do good and to create legends that influence us to do so. It is not, however, a "workable" Superman, the kind of Superman like John Byrne's or Geoff Johns's that could host his own series -- Morrison's All-Star-universe Superman is a hero but not necessarily a leading man. This makes Morrison's work on the DC New 52 Action Comics all the more interesting -- if All-Star is Morrison's loftiest image of Superman, how will that differ from his Superman who needs to function in a series month in and month out?
[Absolute All-Star Superman includes an introduction by Chip Kidd, original covers and one variant, commentary and sketches by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely on the covers, character, and villains of All-Star, script sample, detail on the Twelve Labors of Superman]
Coming up this week, then, the Collected Editions review of Grant Morrison's DC New 52 Action Comics debut, Superman: Action Comics - Superman and the Men of Steel. See you then!
(By the way: this floored me. Don't read unless you want major All-Star Superman spoilers. You won't read All-Star the same after this.)