Saturday, 20 November 2010

"Brain Beats Brawn!": What Straczynski & Davis's "Superman: Earth One" Tells Us About Morrison & Quitely's "All-Star Superman" & Vice-Versa (4 of 4)

Concluding Tuesday's piece;


But Metropolis isn't the only unfriendly environment in Mr Straczynski's "Superman: Earth-One". We're shown nothing good of Smallville, beyond some folksy conversations with the Kents, that might indicate that Clark's life there was anything other than utterly miserable. At least the folks in Metropolis mostly just walk unheedingly past poor desolate Clark, or sit having fun in bars while he gazes longingly in at their happiness. In Smallville, things were apparently far worse, and we're shown Clark being beaten by fat bullies and mocked for being a "chicken" and a "coward" (30:5/3). And this intensely unfavourable impression of his hometown is strongly reinforced by the fact that the only place in Smallville we're actually shown any detail of is the church and graveyard where Jonathan Kent is buried (31.1). Smallville, it seems, is little but football fields controlled by obese bullies and the dead. Certainly, when Clark is lonesome in Metropolis, and when the reader is supposed to empathise with his isolation, there seems to be no-one from his hometown to call up and chat to. Perhaps there was no Pete Ross or Lana Lang in the world of "Earth-One", and perhaps poor Clark actually made no friends at all for the first 18 years or so of his life.

It's a cold, excluding world that Mr Straczynski's Clark is forced at first to wander through, from his violently oppressed childhood in his hometown to his isolation from the unwelcoming masses of Metropolis. And it's made absolutely plain to us that this wistfully isolated Clark is an unhappy, rootless boy who deserves our concern and support, so that we want him to do well. Yet, at the same time, Clark's counter-intuitively shown succeeding in everything he does, because, it must be presumed, Mr Straczynski doesn't want us to think he's anything of a loser. And so, "Superman: Earth One" does seem to be a comic designed to make the reader feel tremendously sorry for a character who, after just five pages of alienation and self-pity, becomes without the slightest breaking of sweat a football star, a commercial scientist and a master of the building trades (15). And by constantly showing the reader shots of poor sad Clark brooding and hunched in his jacket, and by never showing a single panel displaying the benefits young Kent undoubtedly earns from his various careers, Mr Straczynski provides us with a hero who has the powers of a god, the achievements of a contemporary Alexander, and the right to our perpetual sympathy as the underdog of this tale.

Certainly, whatever it is that drives world-class athlete and brilliant commercial scientist Clark Kent to apply for a job at the down-at-the-dumps Daily Planet is simply never coherently explained. Suddenly, Clark is a tremendous success story in a variety of fields, and then he's talking to Perry White; the reader can assume what they want about why Clark should be there, but there's not the slightest shred of evidence that's he's driven by anything of any particular moral or intellectual depth to investigate the world of journalism. Perhaps wealth disappointed Clark, but we can't know that. He mentions his money once, to Martha, and with some pride too, so it doesn't seem as if he's morally troubled by the substantial economic benefits that his Kryptonian powers have secured him (12.2) . And if he were seeking a sense of mission or the warmth of belonging at The Daily Planet, you'd've expected him to tell Perry White just that, just as you'd expect, surely, that somebody at the Planet would have recognised this amazing young man who's so new and so massively successful in town. But, no, there's only the insubstantial clue to Clark's motivation in visiting the Planet provided by a silent page of five panels, in which Clark looks at a cover of the Planet with a headline of "City Hall Scandal" and buys the paper. (16). My guess is that we're supposed to see this as the rise of a social conscience on Clark's part, but there's nothing in the text or sub-text to suggest it. He just sees a newspaper, reads a newspaper, and then goes for a job, and that's all we know.

In essence, that first visit to the Daily Planet is just one more of a whole host of scenes which can be read in a sense favourable to Kent if the reader assumes, despite the mass of evidence elsewhere in "Superman: Earth One", that this Clark is pretty much the clever and decent young man they've met in other comics and films and so on. But the comic itself tells us nothing, or rather, it tells us something other than that which Mr Sraczynski wants it to convey. All the silent shots of Clark looking thin and handsome and thoughtful can't obscure the fact that there's nothing of depth going on in this story at all.

And so, it must be said, it's a most undeniably brave move to make the Clark of "Earth-One" as shallow and socially uncaring as the rest of his fellow citizens apparently are. A less adventurous writer might have shown Clark having different values from the big city and its people, and then presented the young Superman coming to terms with an anomic, atomised environment while holding onto his principles and good-heartedness. But Mr Straczynski's Clark is a most radical departure, being neither community-minded nor morally-motivated. Indeed, we follow him through the pages of "Earth-One" not because of what he does or because of what he represents, and certainly not because of what he learns, but simply because he's the point-of-view character in the story. And rather than there being any ironic distance in the text that might show us JMS is presenting us with a world so perverse that even Superman is corrupt and ethically ignorant, it's clear that we're supposed to empathise with his sense of rootlessness rather than shudder at his lack of purpose and direction. Ultimately, we're expected to cheer for Clark getting what Clark wants because he's called "Superman", and therefore he must be "Superman".


Mr Straczynski has his take on "Clark Kent" express some fascinating if ill-considered beliefs about the responsibilities of being a superhero at the end of "Superman: Earth One". These are expressed in some considerable detail in the "interview" that young Mr Kent fabricates with "Superman" in order to get a job as a reporter with The Daily Planet (125);

"Clark": Why did you wait so long before revealing yourself?

"Superman": Wasn't any reason to do so earlier. What I can do wasn't needed then.

It's a fascinating insight into Kent's mind, and into Mr Straczynski's as well. For even if we credit that there was no reason for Clark to become a public figure before Tyrell's invasion, we surely have to concede that there was no shortage of people that greatly needed his help either. The world is full to bursting with people who need the assistance of a Superman, even if that super man is a hero who acts in secret and seeks neither fame nor reward. Yet Clark had clearly never thought to help others before he helped save himself in the fight with Tyrell. If he had, he'd've declared that he'd been working secretly before to help his fellow women and men. But he didn't, because he hadn't been. And in truth, this Clark Kent seems incapable of grasping that he might have used his secret super powers without trying to occupy the limelight. This will explain why we're never shown a single example of Clark helping a single person in the slightest way before he belatedly joins the punch-up against Tyrell. For there's not a panel of evidence in the whole of "Earth One" that this Clark had ever so much as saved a kitten from behind a cupboard before the alien invasion inspired such compassionate ideals as "actually helping folks" to become reality. Although it seems beyond imagining that anybody could be so dense, or stupid, or callous, the simple idea of helping others never occurred to Clark, or showing him doing so never occurred to Mr Straczynski. In truth, the only times we ever see Clark using his super-powers prior to the second when he pulls his costume on are those moments when he's fooling folks into giving him money.

And so, where the Clark Kent of "All-Star Superman" learns from his step-father's death to look after others, the Clark Kent of "Earth-One" learns instead to apply his unearned gifts to winning big in the marketplace. It's a choice that Mr Straczynski has his Clark justify at Jonathan Kent's graveside, where the tearful Kent jr explains his selfishness by saying that he just wants to "fit in ... be one of the guys". If he should expose his alien origin to others, Clark argues, he'll "always be on the outside". (32.4/5)

Well, this reader wanted to shout, help people in secret, you idiot, and get on with your private life as everyone else does. But such is a possibility that Mr Straczynski's script never raises, and the reader is dissuaded from thinking Clark ever should have been assisting his fellows by the depiction of Smallville and Metropolis as such unendearing places full of distant if not actively unpleasant people. Everything that's cruel and selfish in that world is, the text shouts, everybody else's fault, but not Clark's.

And so, "Superman: Earth One" seems designed to make it easy for the reader to sympathise with Clark, regardless of what Clark does or doesn't do. In such a way are we expected to applaud the manner in which Clark solves the problem of respecting the divergent wishes of Jonathan and Martha Kent as regards how he'll use his powers in his adult life. For Clark's step-mother, as we've seen, essentially advises him to follow his own bliss, while his step-father swamps him with vague encouragements to serve a greater cause "when the time comes" (90.1). Clark's solution is as elegant as is it unique where the role of "Superman" is concerned; he'll serve as a man of steel when he wants to under his own conditions while living his personal life and using his super-powers to satisfy his private desires. He'll be, in essence, a Superman who sacrifices little of what he wants while making sure he enjoys himself at no great cost to himself in all other circumstances.

A hero for the 21st century!


At times it's hard to know whether Mr Straczynski is playing an exceptionally clever political joke in "Superman: Earth One". Is it possible, perhaps, that Mr Straczynski has created a text which only seems to present an utterly callow and rather dense Clark Kent as a heroic figure, while in truth leaving clue after clue scattered around as ideological snares to show how he's mocking modern ideas of heroism and self-interest?

This suspicion becomes even more pronounced when the "interview" which Superman supposedly grants to Clark Kent, after the battle with Tyrell, is read. (It's presented at the back of "Earth-One" in the form of a unconvincing sham mock-up of The Daily Planet.) In this "interview", which Clark Kent claims occurred straight after the showdown with Tyrell, "Superman" explains how he sees his role as a superhero, declaring that he'll only deal with events which "average men and women" can't "rise to the occasion" to stop. He also makes his evident that he'll do nothing which involves "politics or policy" either, while stating that his aim is to "help create the peace by doing what's right for people without trying to change them". It's a typically confused statement where the pages of "Earth One" are concerned, and unless Mr Straczynski meant it to show how shallow and daft Kent's thinking is, it merely reveals how confused both author and character are. For if Clark wants to preserve the peace in people's lives without changing them, then he's abandoned the moral purpose of all the previous takes on Superman. The Kal-El of "All-Star", as we've discussed, has as his central purpose the mission of inspiring individuals to be more community-minded, to be kinder and braver and less selfish. But Mr Straczynski has his Superman declaring himself to be nothing more than a passing presence of a crime-fighter, an invisible helper, a jolly nice superhero who doesn't want to rock the boat even through the process of setting a noble and self-sacrificing example. He wants everything to stay as it is, not even wanting to inspire change through others observing his actions.

Of course, the correct response to this intention would be to, again, advise the JMS Superman to take the costume off and work in secret. In such a way, he could act covertly without influencing anyone, because they'd never need see him.

But then, the lack of intellectual and emotional intelligence on the part of Mr Straczynski's Clark Kent is so total that his job-earning interview contains the following toe-curlingly stupid section, where Clark describes and then quotes "Superman" (126);

"He looks out the window. It's getting dark. "I should head out, there's still a lot of work to be done clearing the streets and digging people out from under the mess."

How well that must have been received by even the jaded and selfish masses of Metropolis, to read of how Superman supposedly stopped for a detailed interview with a young man, an unqualified teenager without a position on even a local paper, to discuss his philosophy and intentions while he knew that "people" needed "digging ... out from under the mess".

It's important that we're clear about what we're being told at this point. Mr Straczynski is having his Clark Kent write that Superman placed his media profile, an interview with a young and unaccredited amateur journalist, above saving lives which were put at such great risk and harm by Kal-El's very presence on Earth in the first place! And part of that "mess" that Superman so belatedly says he'll help with will be the debris from the skyscraper-tall alien mothership that Clark destroyed directly above Metropolis, no doubt! Let's ignore the shock-wave caused by the reactor-breech and the impact of the ship as it hit Metropolis, as we will the environmental disaster that would inevitably follow such a catastrophe, and let's just instead consider the simple fact of the victims buried alive. Any other take on Clark Kent that's designed to be seen as heroic that I can think of would be frantically rescuing victims and then rebuilding the city. But not the Superman of Mr Straczynski. He's either putting together fake interviews or, at best, so thick that he doesn't realise he's just written a front-page article which states Superman would rather give good media chat than save lives.

Now, I think it's conceivable that the JMS Superman could write something so stupid without noticing how offensive and reputation-shattering it is. Indeed, I've come to believe that Mr Straczynski's Clark would be unlikely to write anything other than such a daft article. But how are we to imagine that the supposed and self-declared Lord of all Journalists Perry White failed to spot this confession of unconcern for the many buried victims of Metropolis? Perhaps White's professional incompetence in not fastening onto the material before him and immediately posting a headline declaring what a selfish monster this "Superman" is might help explain something at least of The Daily Planet's decline on Earth-Straczynski?

And how did Mr Straczynski ever write this and not notice it for what it was, unless, of course, he really is cunningly presenting us with an ironic sub-text under the smug, selfish-minded and stupid surface of "Superman: Earth One".



We readers are informed in "Earth One" that Clark Kent is an impossibly intelligent young man. He's shown solving equations he's never seen before, whose values are unexplained to him, the symbols of which aren't defined, and the workings for which aren't apparently displayed in any detail. (It's an understanding of the cognitive processes involved in solving equations which rivals the grasp of human intelligence and the process of being a genius shown in "Good Will Hunting".) "The gaps are noted on the big screen in the other room." (12.3) conveniently declares the suit at "Neodyne Industries", who's inexplicably agreed to see the qualification-less Clark for a job interview even though his business only hires "the top five PHD graduates every year from Harvard, Yale and Princeton" (11.2). (By this statement, the reader is surely being invited to think of the many, many ways in which this executive at Neodyne Industries knows nothing of what he's talking about, of course.) Clark, as we might wearily expect, solves the problems immediately, causing the various "top five PHD graduates" to jump for joy while Clark claims their bonuses and probably their jobs too. (12.5)

How we reconcile this hyper-genius intellect with the idiocy of the Clark Kent who supposedly wrote the poppycock that is the Daily Planet article is impossible to work out. I suppose we're supposed to think that Clark has super-genius powers when it comes to equations but little or no grasp of basic political science and sociology, let alone any common sense. Perhaps that's so. If we can believe a man can fly, we can also surely believe that he's almost a hyper-autistic savant too. But another sad truth of "Superman: Earth One" is that intelligence plays very little part in how the JMS Superman operates. He's incredibly slow on the uptake, as we've discussed, during Tyrell's invasion, or at least that's the kind presumption of his behaviour then; perhaps he was just too indecisive or even cowardly to try to fight the alien forces that he was watching strafe the city. And Mr Straczynski's Superman wins his climatic battle with Tyrell through nothing else but violence and blind luck. There's not a stroke of wisdom or knowledge in how Mr Straczynski has Clark defeat his alien nemesis. Instead, his young Superman simply punches Tyrell alot before the Kryptonian spaceship that brought him to Earth arrives by chance rather than design and proves rather fortunately to be capable of flying right through the supervillain's previously-thought invulnerable defences (101/2). (It's certainly fortunate for Clark that Tyrell himself has already explained that his defences are "nearly as impervious as Kryptonian metal": well, who knew there was such material on the Earth and that it'd just turn up at the right time? (101/7)) In truth, Clark doesn't win out because he's moral, or wise, or self-sacrificing. He doesn't even win through his own physical exertions. Instead, he wins because he's Superman. When he needs a previously unknown piece of alien technology of his own to arrive at exactly the right moment to save him, it arrives. When that alien technology takes him right into his enemies spaceship, Superman's super-vision powers immediately find and destroy the machinery that empowers Tyrell, who is then left to die without the slightest effort on Clark's part being made to save him. Why any time at all was ever invested in establishing the scientific genius of this Superman quite escapes me.

Certainly, Clark never seems to grasp that there's a cities-worth of spacecraft about to crash on Metropolis, and that he might try to avoid that happening. It never seems to cross his mind, and Metropolis fortunately never seems too damaged either. (104.6)

But then the very first incarnation of Superman was perfectly happy to let bad guys go down with their own ships too. And yet, the very first Superman did also very much want to change the world, did want the powerless to be protected against the powerful in more than just a passing fashion. He was violent, yes, but he had a social agenda. This Superman just wants everything to stay as it is, or, he does if the journalism of one Clark Kent is to be trusted, and his victories are achieved through powers he's been born with and luck he never wins the right to deserve.


I began these pieces wondering why I was so deeply moved by "All-Star Superman", and, of course, why I found it impossible not to be so profoundly annoyed by "Superman: Earth One". And in all honesty, I really had found it so hard to make sense of either text because of my intense emotional responses to them. To my surprise, for this has been something of a step into the unknown for me, the old teacher's trick of"compare and contrast" has proven remarkably useful. I hope, if anybody has found a reason to persevere with these pieces up until this point, that the process has been of some small worth, some passing entertainment, to you too.

But for the first time, I think I have a glimmer of the detail of why I feel so strongly about both graphic novels, and, given that I've explained myself in some detail above, I shan't exhaust whatever patience is left to you, dear reader, by summarising the points already made. That really would be teacherly, and you deserve better.

But I would highly recommend this process if you're ever extremely angry or deliriously happy about a comic book and those dictatorial emotions just get in the way of understanding why you're feeling them in the first place. Because I'm not angry at "Superman: Earth One" in the slightest any more. I'm not even irritated. The poison's well and truly drawn, for I've managed to gain a glimpse or two of why the book was affecting me so. It's been named, if you liked, and so there's no power there any more.

Which is all to the good, because "Superman: Earth One" was, after all, no less and no more than a graphic novel produced by two talented and able professionals who simply wanted to express their gifts and earn a fair return on them. And having helped them in the second purpose, by spending a fair percentage of this month's disposable income on "Superman: Earth One", I'm glad to say that I can now put away how they've expressed themselves and never give it a second thought again.

But "All-Star Superman" seems so much more remarkable a text than it did just a week ago, when I began these posts, and my liking and respect for it then was already substantial. I had no idea that my respect would increase so considerably when I started to take notes on the two graphic novels, but it's surely a mark of how wonderful a book "All-Star Superman" is that I admire it all the more after having interrogated it so. In fact, as you've no doubt long since noticed, I lack the language to express how much I respect the achievement of Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely where "All-Star Superman" is concerned. I wish I had the words, but I don't. But I do hope that I've been able to express something of why I feel the way I do, some small measure of why "All-Star Superman" seems to me to be such an outstanding piece of work. And yet, in the end, just as it was when I began writing this, attempting to explain why "All-Star Superman" is so fine is to try to catch the sense of something of an awed expression, of a tearful little sniffy sound caught in the throat, and of a straight-forward, sincere, and rather traditionally-restrained declaration of "It's good, isn't it?"

Because it is, isn't it? Inspiringly good.

If anyone has been kind enough to reach this far after all these pieces on "All-Star Superman" and "Superman: Earth One", then I can only express my sincerest thanks to you. It's been a pleasure to have you drop in here, and I wish you the most splendid of days!



  1. Small quibble. In the States, Jonathan and Martha would just be called his father and mother, not step-father and step-mother. If there was a need for more context, they would be called his adoptive father and mother to differentiate them from his biological parents. "Step" is reserved for adults who marry into the parenthood. Even then, step is dropped often enough from casual conversation if the relationship is deep enough, although like adoptive and biological, it will surface easily enough in deeper examinations.

    Pure editing note: section 10 calls it "Superman: Earth Two" in the first sentence. Which is certainly what it feels like, isn't it?

    I'm sure I'll get a chance to read Superman: Earth One eventually, but I haven't yet, so this is pretty much the limit to what I can contribute right now.

  2. Thank you, Patrick:- Wilde's comment about two nations separated by the same language still seems to apply, doesn't it? I'm grateful for the information. My best to you.

  3. This is probably the best thing I've read by you so far, but then It is near and dear to my heart. I was trying to think of other things in recent comics that have made me as happy as All Star Superman did. Batman and Robin punching out Dr. Hurt with the "duo punch" springs to mind, as does Superman singing Darkseid to oblivion. Both written by Grant Morrison. Coincidence? I think not. Gail Simone, Peter Tomasi, and Geoff Johns also are strong. Oh, and Fabian Nicieza's ending to the most recent Red Robin issue was just wonderful, although largely in payoff of Morrison's pitch.

    Just...well said sir.

  4. Hello mathematicscore:- writing about the very best creators is always somewhat nerve-wracking, and it’s much appreciated that you found something of worth in what appeared on this blog. It’s strange that the better the work, the more difficult it is to discuss; I’d have imagined that the opposite was so, but there you go. I too could identify a string of Grant Morrison moments; Zenith Book 3 from beginning to end, the Atom & Green Arrow killing Darkseid in Justice League ….

    I’m intrigued by your mention of Peter Tomasi’s work. I don’t know enough of it and I think I’ll set off to rectify that. I do believe that I can trust your judgement!

    1. If your looking for a good Tomasi story I'd have to reccomend his Batman and Robin: Born to Kill arc which spans from issues 1-8 post-reboot. I think Tomasi is the one writer who understands how to write Bruce and Damian almost as well as Grant-Almighty.

    2. Hello there:- Thank you for the nudge. I'll keep a look out for it :)

  5. The point of the Earth One ogn's is that they reboot the characters from scratch, to appeal to new readers. But SEO seems to be relying on our knowledge and feelings of Superman to fill in the blanks: it doesn't need to show us things like Superman being a good bloke pre-cape, it seems to be going, because we already know that, we'll fill in the blanks for ourselves and not realise the story had those blanks.

    - Charles RB

  6. All Star Superman is truely an inspiring peice of art, in all senses of the word. The scene where he stops to save the suicidal girl always plucks at my heartstrings. That, I think, sums up why he's a heroic figure, it's not his ability to punch things into the sun, in fact it's not his powers at all. It's that he cares. I mean you can imagine Batman stopping a suicide, but he'd stop the person jumping. Where as Morrison has Supes stopping her and telling her "You're much stronger than you think you are", inspiring her to better things.

    Bizarrely, given his general view on superheroes, the other writer who, I think, successfully deals with Superman as an inspiration is Garth Ennis in his work on Hitman. In that case it's Superman as a metaphor for the American Dream but it's still quite effective.

  7. Hello Charles;- it IS odd, isn't it, that confusion of purpose in Superman: Earth One. I wonder where it came from? At times I felt I was reading an illustrated proposal for a movie. At others there was a sense of a project that had been so long-anticipated by JMS that he lost track of first principles because he'd thought them through in such detail for so long. Strangely, there was also a sense that the script itself was written without a great deal of opportunity for re-writes. All and none of these things might be true; but that's not the point. The point is that Superman Earth-One reads as if it's both long-anticipated and under-worked. It's a confusing book.

  8. Hello Axolotl:- I think you're absolutely right to use that much-feared word "art" there. It is a work of art, and more than that, it's a profoundly successful work of art. And it's nothing to do with punching super-villains, as you say. There was so much I might have discussed about A-SS, but I didn't because this was a piece about two books rather than one. In future I'd very much like at some time to discuss so many other matters about A-SS, and one of them would be the idea that it's about the fact that heroism lies in how folks respond to losing, to being defeated. Superman is a dead man walking from the second page of the story, but he discovers that he too is much stronger than he thinks, as he began to discover found after Jonathan died.

    It's a very good point you make about Mr Ennis's take on Superman in "Hitman". It's worth adding to the list of folks from this side of the pond who've produced exceptionally good takes on Superman the work by Mark Millar in "Superman Adventures". There are some lovely and respectful stories collected in the digests for that title. They mark for me the point at which Mr Millar had served his apprenticeship and created his graduating masterpiece, showing he had the skills to excell at his trade. And of course the kindness and decency shown in Alan Moore's tales of Superman too show how being American isn't a necessary qualification for writing this American icon.

  9. Very compelling read throughout all four posts. I am utterly convinced that Superman: Earth One isn't worth my time nor money, especially when you consider that it's delivering nothing new in terms of plot, character, etc. It almost seems as though JMS had this story conceived as an unpurchased Superman movie script that he figured he could recycle into comic form: the lines and scenes you highlight are certainly banal enough.

    All-Star Superman, on the other hand, is so phenomenally well-crafted and endearingly executed that I can't imagine anyone with any level of taste rejecting it as a fine superhero story, or any kind of story. The way that it draws upon the past incarnations of both the characters and general "Mythology" is nothing short of masterful.

  10. Hello stealthwise:- thank you for the kind words. I do have a sense that Earth One was a movie pitch, or originally conceived as such. Whether it was or not is irrelevant, of course; what matters is that it feels as if it was framed for another medium.

    I do agree with you that All-Star functions as a work of art which might be appreciated by anyone, regardless of whether they're comic fans or not. Regardless of their tastes and prejudices, I'd hope they could recognise a fine book even if they couldn't find a way to engage with it and enjoy it.

  11. Thank you for these-- these were a lot of fun to read.

  12. Hello Abhay:- Thank you for your kind words. They are much appreciated.

  13. Just read through all four posts in one go.

    Thanks for taking the time to talk serious about Superman comics in a very real way.

    Sometimes I also have difficulty putting into words why a comic makes me happy or angry, so it's good to see someone else put a book's worth of feelings into words.

  14. That "I love you, Superman!" panel is one of my absolute favorites, and I was hoping it'd make an appearance in one of these posts. I could probably write a whole blog post on that one line and what it means and why it works, but it still wouldn't capture why it affects me so much. Maybe it's just that *I* love Superman too, y'know?

  15. Hello benitocereno:- I do appreciate you saying so. Trying to find a way to talk about "why a comic makes me happy or angry", as you say, is actually far more of a challenge than it might at first appear, isn't it? And it remains a considerable challenge too, of course.

  16. Hello Justin:- it IS a fantastic panel, and I'd certainly read that blog if you should choose to write it. I very much respect how Mr Morrison and Mr Quietly managed to give us a declaration of love that ended a terribly sad scene in some ways on a positive but not false note. It very much ennobled Lois by allowing her to express herself with restraint or sentiment; she speaks right from the heart and, of course, a great many of those who read those words and see that art will perhaps understand a little more clearly that they too feel that about the man of steel.

    Well, we did!

  17. Hello, Colin--it's been a while! I have nothing to add about the "Earth One" OGN except a fear that it, like the horrific X-Men story your next post covers, is somehow meant to appeal to some cynical abstraction of what a modern reader would want to see in a superhero story. =Brrrr!= Wrong in so many ways.

    But let me join you in praising the continually rewarding All-Star Superman. As you note, one of the many things it does is provide an appropriately mythic end to the Superman story. As Alan Moore points out in his intro to The Dark Knight Returns, heroes in ongoing monthly publications are usually denied the equivalent of dying Robin Hood's shooting his last arrow, to mark where he will be buried. As does Miller's DKR, All-Star Superman provides that satisfying closure, and similarly ends on a hopeful note (even for those who don't know to read the DC One Million series). Likewise with Moore's own "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" I think I'll now go reread all three for a bit of compare-and-contrast.


  18. Hello Mike! It's lovely to hear from you again, and what a good point you make. If the audience does only want the type of "cynical abstraction" you mention, how is that stories which run against that trend often do so well? I know you know me well enough to realise that I'm not wishing for a return to one-dimensional characters, boy and girl scouts fighting cardboard-cutout bad folks. But the JMS Superman, and indeed the X-Men referred to in the next piece on in this blog, have gone so far in the other direction that they're not heroes at all. That, of course, would be fine if they weren't still presented in narrative terms which demand they're regarded as heroes. But they are.

    I was actually rather suspicious of the end of A-SS for quite a long time. But I was wrong. It makes such sense and inspires such warmhearted thoughts and feelings that I'm amazed it took me so long to get it. It is indeed "an appropriately mythic end". I'm SO glad I had a chance to really re-read it over several days last weeks; I can only smile at the thought of your own compare and contrast exercise!

  19. Funny, how Morrison hits the right emotional buttons in the story without resorting to schmaltz. That's a real feat. No overheated declarations of love, just individual sentences that hit the right spot.

    Morrison is not writer I think of when I consider who works well with emotion in mainstream comics. Gerber could wring a story out of pure feeling, provided he coated some of it with snark. DeMatteis can't keep his thoughts and feelings to himself. Busiek can get to the heart of the matter when writing about feelings and super-heroes and their iconography. Matt Fraction burned through clever ideas and hip dialogue in Casanova* until he sucker-punched the reader into near -tears. Claremont could overdo it, but certain scenes and interactions made the reader really care about the X-Men. Paul Jenkins on his better days, Garth Ennis when writing about a subject he was passionately for (rather than against), and a few others could weave pure emotion into a tale without making it awkward. Morrison? While I haven't read all of his comics (couldn't get into Invisibles, still need to read a lot of Doom Patrol), the only books I remember him writing that tugged at the heartstrings were Animal Man and We3. He seemed more concerned with structure, spectacle, and mad ideas than making the reader get emotionally involved. After reading your pieces on A-SS, I'm somewhat stunned by how well he blended kick-ass moments with human drama.

    I'm going to have to dig through the longboxes to read it again.

    - Mike Loughlin

    * I'm going to keep recommending Casanova. It can be difficult, but it's quite rewarding.

  20. Thanks for the series Colin, I had already made up my mind to skip SEO but conversely it has inspired me to re-read ASS. Seriously if anyone hasn't read ASS and they read these 4 entries there'd have to be something wrong with them if they didn't want to run out and read the books.

    Anyway it has been an interesting exercise - it can be easy for reviewers when they have to cover something they don't like as they can load up on vitriol and list all the things that are wrong with a comic, but they rarely get at the heart of the problem: why is it so bad? Equally, it can be very difficult for someone to properly review a work they like without coming across as an obsessive fanboy "No seriously this is fantastic, just don't bother reading 5 or 6 paragraphs of me gushing and go and buy this!" By comparing and contrasting, you've managed to actually get a handle on them both and while you haven't forced any answers on people its clear from the comments that it has helped other people approach something like an answer.

    Good work sir.

  21. Cheers for that Colin, great series of articles. I love this passage in particular:

    "This will explain why we're never shown a single example of Clark helping a single person in the slightest way before he belatedly joins the punch-up against Tyrell. For there's not a panel of evidence in the whole of "Earth One" that this Clark had ever so much as saved a kitten from behind a cupboard before the alien invasion inspired such compassionate ideals as "actually helping folks" to become reality."

    It sums up this book's conception of Superman. Here he is not an 'adoptive son', of Earth, but the adolescent Outsider. His perfection is due not only to his being better than everyone else, but because he is Other as well - and this Superman revels in his otherness.

    Why would he help others before Tyrell? They were beneath him. It is only when he learns there are more like him - alien warlords and the like - that he emerges.

    My concern is that JMS has pitched his Superman as acting not out of a need to seek to protect his 'fellow man', but to finally be able to compete on another level. Super-powered aliens are more to his liking than hairless apes.

  22. Hello Mike:- you're so right, but then the heroes journey is actually a rejection of schmaltz rather than an embracing of it. Clark is dead from the first double-page spread of the book, and that's a profoundly sobering and unsentimental business if it's treated with any respect. A-SS is about how to live given that you're going to die, and the problem with the traditional Disney-era version of heroism is that it's about how to win at living.

    I agree with you about emotion in Grant Morrison's work, and yet his best work is characterised by just that. Zenith Book 3 is a terribly tender and loving book, masked by the caustic comments, but not always selfish behaviour, of the title star. His JLA run was marked by emotion, by compassion and respect; that often-ignored Secret Origins tale of the JLA HQ is again about short lives and extracting meaning from them and it can always make me sniffle. And of course Animal Man, which I almost wish I hadn't already written about so I could write about it again! Where I loose my love for his work is when he plays out the recurrent theme of his work, namely that we're all super-heroes, or at least super-powered, and that the universe/planet wants to make us so in order to defend itself. But he does those things by choice, I realise after reading your comment; he's in control and when he wants to write from the heart, he does so.

    Your comment is full of good things; you're so right about Garth Ennis; his work can be somewhat wearisome when he's laying into someone or something that represents an issue he's contemptuous of, but when he writes from the heart he can produce remarkable work; one of my 10 favourite stories is the war tale about a Hurricane pilot protecting a convoy to Russia. It's just so SPECIAL!

    I will buy a Casanova trade next month. Of course I will. I absolutely trust your judgement, and I'm sure that even if it isn't to my taste, I'll learn from it. Thank you for the recommendation.

  23. Hello Emperor:- and thank you very much. I knew that writing about comics was going to be difficult when I started my blogs, but I didn't know how hard, and some of the reasons why are exactly as you mention. It's so easy to just attack a book, and it can feel very satisfying to do so. But it's not for me, though I have loved reading such pieces elsewhere and often felt that, yes, the writer is absolutely justified in doing so. And, as you again say, just saying "huzzah" isn't always very helpful either. And so I'm pleased and somewhat shocked that there was any small virtue in the method used above, and having stumbled upon it by chance and not cleverness, I'll put it in my back pocket and gratefully reserve it for later use.

    And the strange thing is that I still have an urge to sit down and read A-SS again, perhaps in that Absolute format. To do so at the end of a long day, with my critical brain snoozing a touch; something to save up for Christmas, I suspect.

  24. Hello Emett:- and well put. Your use of the "hairless apes" phrase, with its echoes of Dr Who and the Hitchhikers Guide, really helped me see how I feel the very tone of SEO was wrong. It has none of that sense of fond distance, of humour as well as rage against this daft business of getting up every day and trying to make sense of things while trying not to do harm.

    And you're also right, SEO is about entitlement and not responsibility, rights and not responsibilities, and it feels ugly. How is it possible that no-one in the book beyond the vague and rather dense Jonathan Kent speaks of any kind of public duty at all? There's a terrible absence of an awareness of the fact that that's a given in any heroic tale not written by anyone who isn't following in the footsteps of The Fountainhead.

  25. Dear Colin. I love your blog. It seems your appreciation for All-Star Superman is almost as great as mine! I remember in 1 of your old write-ups you stated that the old silver-age Imaginary Story of the death of Superman (The 1 where Luthor befriends him and ultimately betrays him) was in your opinion the best Superman story ever told. I just wondered what your reasons behind this were and why it is better than Morrison and Quitely's story. I remember reading that death of Superman story as a kid and found it depressing. Was there greater meaning to it?

  26. That's a really good question! It's actually - and this makes me smile - one which I've been thinking about since writing about A-SS in more detail. Good question indeed.

    I think you're right to call me on this. I've just sat and stared out of the window at the English rain and realised that I have indeed changed my mind. It's not that I think that All-Star Superman is "better" than The Death Of Superman, but I'd no longer feel happy ranking them in any order at all. They're both remarkable stories and even on grounds of sentiment, I'd hesitate to put one before the other.

    I think that The Death Of Luthor is a terribly brave comic book. It's not simply that Superman dies, a relatively rare incident for the time, but not unknown. It's that it's dealt with in such a tragic manner; his death is so explicit, so final. It's this daring that I know most respond to, as if the Superman office had decided to smuggle aspects of adult fiction into an early-sixties children's comic. The sequence where Luthor thinks he's bribed the Kandorians to allow him to go free is without peer. It really is. "The puny ants!" thinks Luthor to himself, and it represents the arrogance of the psychopathic mind perfectly.

    In a strange way, there lies the relationship in my mind between the two pieces. The Death Of Superman is an early example of a modern-day sensibility appearing in superhero comics. In many ways, it's light years even beyond the Marvel material which was soon to appear in the marketplace. It's rather bleak, it's unstinting; it's not brutal but it offers no easy answers at all. And perhaps A-SS reflects something of an opposite process, the placing back into the modern-day sensibility of the sense of community and wonder that the Silver Age books offered. The death and grief that’s so radical and shocking in TDOS has now become commonplace and threadbare. A-SS faces up to the fact of death, but finds comfort in the meaning left behind by a life well lived. TDOS did so too, but only really in passing. The characters left behind by Superman are utterly grief-striken. As Supergirl says at the stories end; "All the time I was Superman's secret emergency weapon, I eagerly looked forward to the day I could operate openly! Now that it's happened, I -- I feel no happiness at the "glory" that's now -- mine ...CHOKE....All I feel is a great sorrow at the passing of the strongest, kindest, m-most powerful human being I've known...SOB...M-my cousin Superman...."

    No wonder you felt sad! It IS sad. In a marketplace where this kind of bleakness was almost utterly absent, TDOS was a massively important comic. And in a world where that bleakness is all too prevelant, A-SS offers a sense of Silver Age wonder and purpose back into the mix.

  27. Thank you for all of these, I read them all with interest. I found them right after reading SEO and you really put your finger on what I found so disturbing and alienating about it. The fact that we're told Clark has "truly found himself" and see him smile for the first time is when he can finally, FINALLY beat the crap out of some jackass who deserves it and leave him to die...I hope that JMS is just writing lazily and assumes we'll all "know" Clark Kent is a good man, like you say. Because if I didn't know that I'd be really worried about him.

    I went back and re-read ASS today. They're really a remarkable contrast. Thank you so much of for the intellectual (and emotional!) exercise (but I for one am still angry at SEO. :P Maybe I need to find my own catharsis...)

  28. Hello Jennifer:- I’m sorry I couldn’t help with that catharsis. If it’s of the slightest help, I’m still having trouble coming to terms with the sexism and stupidity of the JMS Thor. I really ought to find some way to get that out of my system!

    And I know exactly what you mean about hoping that JMS is just being lazy. Because the alternative is that SEO was fully intended to be what appeared on the page. I really don’t want to believe that’s so …

  29. Wow. Thanks for replying mate. You sold me on that explanation. I'm surprised I remember that old Death of Superman comic but it's no doubt because those reasons you mention being that it was such a bold statement and the finality of it.

    I agree with you about ranking them. Are the greatest books really The Lord of the Rings or the Bible? I don't think art literature should all exists on some varying heights podium, rather some cultural pool of equality where everything can be appreciated for it's own merits.

    If someone were to read 1 Superman story I would have to recommend All-Star though. If for Quitely's art craftmanship alone! But all the great moments. Luthor's moment of realisation, unknowingly solving the haiku from Jimmy's elevator conversation. Superman converting to pure information, an idea, mirroring his relationship with us here in reality. Giving life to the sun, which gives life to all. Us looking down on Superman while he looks down on us in Earth Q. The beautiful twist at the end of the Smallville issue. Him being clearly contrasted with his opposite Zibarro who is negative and ineffectual in escaping his planet, whereas Superman is in and out in no time despite being powerless. Proving that the 'S' does not signify power, rather effectiveness and attitude "There's always a way", and hope "You're proof that Bizarro-Home is getting smarter." How the dense material of the final issue could have made it wordy, but in keeping with the format of the preceding issues it is kept simple and spatial, whilst not losing any of its weight. The format should be a benchmark for future superhero comics. The Jimmy Olsen issue for example is so crammed with ideas there is full-scale conflict being presented in some cases only 1 panel, but the story moves freely and does not feel rushed.

    Everything is explored and explained. Why Superman won't push Kryptonian culture and philosophy on Earth (which is shown to disastrous effect in the Bar-El and Lilo chapter). Why he won't solve our overseas conflict or cure our diseases (but will provide Kandorian super doctors as a roundabout way to prevent unnecessary deaths while scientists further discover the secrets of DNA and stem cells). What benefit would it be to humanity if Superman solved all our problems?

    "They will race, and stumble, and crawl ... and curse ... and finally ... ". In Morrison's JLA Superman described the mission of superheroes as not to carry humanity but to "Catch them if they fall". I would add that they also exists to aspire humanity to reach their heights. Superman leaving the key under the welcome mat at his fortress for "future men and women". The optimistic idea that when humanity is responsible enough that we will transcend our physical and gravitational bounds be it scientifically and/or spiritually and be supermen. Who knows what the 31st century will look like, but if its unrecognisable, lets hope we are as mature, honest and deliberate as Superman showed us. "... They will join you in the Sun, Kal-El".

    JMS trying to inject angst into Superman by having him mope around in a pretentious hoodie seems to demonstrate that he misses the point and innocence of the character. He's an honest worker who grew up laboring on a farm, harvesting and fixing the tractor. Pining for the pretty, hard-working girl.

    I believe All-Star Superman exists above the continuity decided by DC Editorial. It simply IS what happens to Superman. A progression to the classic origin. A true end to the mythology. I can't wait to pass the Absolute edition on to my father. It will all come full circle. He introduced me to comics with a Silver Age Suberboy comic. Fitting that the Smallville issue in All-Star is about father and son.

    Keep up the great stuff Colin!

    - Johnathan

  30. Hello Johnathan:- I'm glad it made sense as an explanation for the importance of TDOS, in addition to it being such a good story in its own right. I'm going to try to track down what the experts on Superman, such as Mark Waid, might have written about it.

    I thoroughly enjoyed what you've said about A-SS above. In many ways, you've reinforced one of my rare sensible decisions, which was not to write about A-SS on its own terms. You raised good points I'd've missed, for example, and I think that doing justice to A-SS on its own might be an impossible task in the context of a blog; there's so much there and so much that's personal to each individual. There ought to be a web-page where folks write about what A-SS means to them. Or maybe that's actually a book that ought to be written. Seriously.

    I love the idea of All-Star Superman as existing as a Platonic ideal, especially since Mr Morrison was so inspired to create a Superman that acknowleged all eras and respected pretty much all interpretations, to a greater or lesser degree. And I think that Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely would be quite rightly touched by your passing the Absolute on to your Dad. There certainly is a circle closing there, and given the themes of All-Star, it's a particularly appropriate business too, isn't it?

  31. Wow. Thank you so much for these write-ups. As a long time comic reader, it is my firm belief that All-Star Superman is not only the greatest Superman story ever, but it's also the greatest SUPERHERO story ever written and the 10th issue ranks as one of the greatest single COMICS ever written.

    You're absolutely right when you say that Grant Morrison has written the PLATONIC Superman. What differentiates All-Star Superman from the many iterations of the character is ASSM's unwavering, inherent faith in the basic goodness of humanity- hero, villain, and average person alike. Superman has always been written as a symbol of hope, but it's ASSM's faith that transcends the character beyond mythological comparison's into, dare i say it, unprecedented spiritual heights.

    My deep love for this comic prevents me from writing anything mildly objective or resembling a complete, coherent thought, so I'll just have to post a review that sums up my feelings perfectly:

  32. Hello there, and thank you for your kind words. One of the things that makes me glad I wrote this piece is how it's allowed me the privilage of experiencing folk's absolute love of All-Star Superman, and for the optimistic and humanistic values it's woven from. Discussing as I have been recently less ethically coherent and joyous books has helped bring this point home; I'll pop over from writing a rather piece concerned piece about worrying aspects of some modern comics and if I'm lucky, I'll come across a comment such as yours, showing how inspiring some other modern comic books can be.

    That doesn't mean I object to comics which take different stances to that in A-SS, or that I mind books which have different values to mind encoded in them per se. In fact, I'd love to see a thousand flowers bloom, and not as CM wanted either. But I do feel a touch worn down by books which appear to think they're presenting harmless entertainment and morally neutral fare when in fact they're doing anything but.

    Hurrah for All-Star Superman!

  33. Hi. Thanks again for the reply Colin. I'd like to think so too, regarding giving the book to my dad.

    You're absolutely right about trying to give it justice in a blog. I tried to take a stab at summing up why it's so great above, but ended up rambling and just listing off what happens in it.

    I think when I go home for Xmas I'm going to have to dig up that old Silver Age Death of Superman comic and give it another read. Like I said, I read it once when I was younger and was so upset by it I never touched it again. Ha. (Odd too that the Doomsday storyline didn't affect me at all.) It would be interesting to read what the experts have to say about it.

    You're probably trying to move on from Superman now and focus on your next write-up so sorry to keep bringing you back here!

    - Johnathan

  34. No problem at all, Johnathan, it's always a pleasure to throw ideas around with good folks in these comments.

    I hope your Christmas is a splendid one, and do feel free to leave a few words here when and if you re-read The Death Of Superman. I'd be fascinated to know how it reads to you now.

  35. fantastic analysis. Really helped crystalize my thoughts on ASS, flesh out why I love it so much.

    The essay does really bring to light the...strange fact of Earth One's existence. how does such a book come into being? does no one read these things before they go to print?

  36. Hello Lou:- thank you for speaking so kindly. The experience of writing these pieces was designed as you'll have read to help me crystalise my own thoughts. I'm glad it's had some virtue in doing so for you too.

    Does no one read these things? Well, I presume so. I presume they read them so much that they might at times loose sight of what they're seeing. I'm not being sarcastic there. I wonder if even more discussion at an editorial level might not end up being fairer for all concerned.

  37. Very well done take down of JMS' story. It's either endorsing incredibly self-serving behaviors, or lazy in execution, as you say. No other options appear valid. If I may, it seems to me that the difference in maturity of the characters in ASS and SEO is reflected in the telling of their stories. The mature, dying Superman in ASS is provided a mature, thoughtful, and compassionate narrative to illustrate his greatness as an ideal for us all. The petty, self-involved, young Superman of SEO is provided a correspondingly immature, black/white narrative of all conflict, all feeling. As one might expect from a teenaged writer concerned only with telling an "important" story without having really experienced anything of such magnitude in life. Is it fair to then extrapolate in noting that Morrison hails from Europe, and a culture with much history, whereas JMS' words seem to embody the relative adolescence of European-Americans, who have themselves been given much with little effort expended?

    In any event, I enjoyed your line about SEO's "hero" as a fitting representattion of the 21st century hero, at least as portrayed thus far. It certainly seems to be that the vacuous and self-involved, such as those who populate most "reality" shows, and many sports teams, have an audience and following that also defies logic. True heroism, or inspiration, simply doesn't "sell". And I sit, an atheist American sportsfan, hoping that ASS does indeed inspire other stories from other creators to make similarly beautiful things for the world that needs them.

    I believe this collection of blogposts qualifies as such, as they inspired thought, and concern, and led to me realizing a bit about myself in relation. Thanks for that!

  38. Hello Brian:- thank you for your kind words. I think you’re right in saying that the relative maturities of the characters is reflected in both books. If only Mr Straczynski hadn’t in Earth One assumed that the simple business of being young and stupid was heroic in itself, while forgetting to add any heroic dimension to the tale as a whole. I’d’ve had no problem with a story of a story in which a modern Clark was too self-obsessed and inexperienced to assume the traditional role of Superman, but I did have a problem with being expected to respond as if he HAD been a hero when the opposite was true.

    There’s a blog in your hypothesis about how culture might be used to make sense of these two stories! Speaking as a man who often rather admires America’s culture and is then told by Americans that he’s imagining the presence of virtues there which aren’t so common there, might I suggest that a great many Britons seem ignorant of and uninterested in their history/culture too? I suspect that the 21st creature of entitlement, of the me-ME! generation, is as much a beast of this side of the pond as yours. We’re all going down that plughole, I fear.

    I find it deeply worrying, although also very interesting, to read your comment that stories about heroism don’t sell. I wonder whether that might be because they’re not produced either very often or very well? Whether it’s comics such as A-SS or TV programmes such as Dr Who, well-produced and intelligent stories of heroism do seem to do well when they actually reach the market. But there’s an army of folks, it seems, who seem to feel that heroes are old hat, just as they imagine virtue is a precious affectation and intelligence a sign of pretension. Sadly, they’re often gatekeepers in the media. I’ve met a few of their number. It was not a heartening business.

    Yet I love the way you so correctly identify our need for “beautiful” things. “Beautiful” doesn’t need to be fragile or merely decorative or a passing fancy, but it's a word which can be used to describe exactly the kind of inspirational work you mention, Brian. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.

  39. And thank you for the reply, as is your custom. Fun to read such a thoughtful as well as interactive blog!
    Given the enjoyment I've received from British writers of comics, I may have overestimated the intelligence and maturity of all Britons. But of course, now that I think of it, your culture should be relatively similar to US attitudes. Maybe worse, when I think of the host of Weakest Link along with Simon Cowell, who both upped the level of bitterness on our televisions. So thanks UK, thanks a lot!
    I know that well done shows and well told stories about inspirational people can sell, but they seem to be drowned out by the multitude of other shows that champion mediocrity or worse. Quality is trampled under the weight of those, probably because its so much easier to make a brainless show than a smart one, and why be smart if the money can be made with less effort? For art's sake, of course. Which leads to the desire for the "beautiful." I'm glad you also see the meaning of that word as something beyond "pretty."
    Continue the good work, and I expect to become a regular reader. This series of posts was great, and I look forward to reading more.

  40. Hello Brian:- thank you for your opening comments. I hope that the blog at its best carries something of those qualities you mention.

    I may be suggesting something that's plainly not so, but many British comic book and indeed science fiction/fantasy creators aren't typically British at all. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong in the slightest with being a Brit! I am! But the very fact of being such a thing as a creator of imaginative fantasy is out-of-step with the mainstream and indeed norms of British culture. Paul Cornell has a theory that a great many of those interested and involved with what we might call fan culture were bullied in one way or another; they create alternative worlds and societies in response to their own experiences. He's not saying that's true for everyone, and I'm certainly not saying any particular creators suffered in such a way. I'm just suggesting that, yes, the various Brits who create comics are of course undeniably British, the fact that they're doing what they are isn't very British at all. I think a case-by-case study would be necessary to prove this hypothesis, and if anyone's got a substantial research grant, I'd loved to do the job!

    Oh, but British culture is undoubtedly one which contains some quite vile components where the mass media is concerned. Still, Russell T Davies swore blind by Big Brother, which I always thought was the manifestation of the devil, so maybe "undoubtedly" is the wrong word there. It just seems that a great deal of TV is concerned with sticking noses into people's private lives or being even more directly cruel to them.

    Ah, well, all eras have their forms of bear-baiting, including, not so long ago, bear baiting ....

    You're very welcome to pop in if you're ever over this part of the net again. Thanks for commenting.