Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Stick Together!: What Straczynski & Davis's "Superman: Earth One" Tells Us About Morrison & Quitely's "All-Star Superman" & Vice-Versa (part 3 of 4)

7.

I.


"All of you, back into the library!" shouts Kal-El to the people of Metropolis as the Bizarros attack in the seventh chapter of "All-Star Superman", before adding the key admonition; "Stick together!" (7:11.2)

For me, it's the single most representative panel of the meaning of "All-Star Superman" in all of the twelve chapters of Morrison and Quitely's tale. In one frame, we have Kal-El coming to the aid of women and men who he doesn't personally know while facing down antagonists capable of killing even himself. And "Stick together!" is this Superman's doctrine, the principle that he believes always offers the best hope for every one of his fellow citizens, and for himself as much as everyone else. He fights for the community and never for himself, and to inspire those around him through his selfless example. And it's that respect for individuals, reverence for the wider society, and deference to the concept of service that so tellingly marks Clark's eulogy at his step-father's funeral;

"... Jonathan Kent taught me that the strong have to stand up for the weak and that bullies don't like being bullied back. He taught me that a good heart is worth more than all the money in the bank. He taught me about life and death. He taught me that the measure of a man lies in what he says but he does. And he showed me by example how to be tough, and how to be kind and how to dream of a better world. Thanks pa. Those are lessons I'll never forget." (6:19-20)


Of course, these are values encoded in many of humankind's oldest and most moving legends and myths. To learn that the individual must eventually accept their mortality and seek meaning in their duty as a protector of the community is what Campbell of course referred to as the "heroes journey", and it's a concept of social meaning and individual sacrifice that Grant Morrison explores quite deliberately and explicitly throughout "All-Star Superman". Indeed, as we can see from the funeral oration above, Morrison's Clark Kent comes to terms poignantly early with a great deal of what he needs to learn about his duty. "But what's the point of all my powers? What's the point of anything? (6:20:2)" he weeps in despair beside his step-mother, but Martha Kent already knows where Clark will find his purpose, and she's told him so; "You belong to the world now." (6:20.1)


II.

When reflecting upon his soon-to-be-ended life to a Superman robot in chapter 11 of "All-Star Superman", Kal-El skims over his glorious feats and his intergalactic fame. Instead, it's the personal friendships that he identifies as having had the greatest value to him;

"I've travelled across time and space. I've seen and done things beyond imagination. Blessed with friends like Pete and Lana and Jimmy ... What amazing people I've known." (11:5:3-4)

And yet it's telling that he doesn't spent his final hours in the company of his friends and loved ones. Instead, it's his duties to the wider community that he continues to pursue. As he visibly declines, Superman marks the last breaths of his existence by trying to help those less fortunate than he perceives himself to. When thanked by a nurse for visiting sick children, for example, the perceivably denuded Superman merely answers that "It's the least I can do." (10:1:3) And having found a new home for the city of Kandor, he berates himself for not doing so earlier rather than fuelling his ego with self-congratulations. (10.19.1) Mr Morrison's Superman marks his life less by his own astonishing achievements and more by all that never managed to do.


It's telling that the only truly angry-sounding statement Kal-El makes in "All-Star" is at the tales end;

Luthor: "I could have saved the world if it wasn't for you!" (12:16:3)

Superman: "You could have saved the world years ago if it mattered to you, Luthor." (12:16:5)

For Kal-El isn't upset that Luthor has effectively murdered him. Death is a fact he's accepted. Rather, he's incredibly frustrated by the fact that Luthor hasn't used his gifts to help his fellow citizens, and such is Lex's hatred and egoism that he'll never realise the incredible regard that Superman holds him in. For Clark is all-too keenly aware that he hasn't managed to "save the world", and that he's indeed only just been able to complete a list of twelve labours before passing on. Yet, Superman clearly believes that his arch-protagonist could have achieved all that Clark feels he failed to. To him, Luthor could indeed have "saved the world", which means that Clark believes Lex is in truth a more able person than he is, despite all of Kal-El's super-powers.


But Luthor couldn't ever recognise that he's been given the most fundamental and absolute compliment that a man could ever receive, even if he'd not just been punched into unconsciousness before it were given to him. Because Luthor would've had to be capable of recognising Clark's modesty and his respect for him, and he would've needed to be able to grasp Superman's fidelity to his duty to the human race too. But empathy and unselfishness have always been alien to this Lex Luthor, though perhaps the experience of perceiving how "it's all just us, in here, together" imposed on him by Kal-El in their final fight, might eventually inspire a fundamental change of heart, and even the existence of Mr Quintum. (12:15:3)

The community is everything in "All-Star Superman".


III.

When the Superman of "All-Star" finally disappears so appropriately into the sun, there's no mention of his heroic deeds accomplished in the public eye. It's telling, for example, that we only ever see the statue raised in his memory from behind. Like all great heroes, it's not the facts of his achievement so much as the meaning of them that creates a lasting legacy. And Superman has nothing but a legacy to leave behind. There's no Superman dynasty to protect the Earth in his absence. As he's told Lois;

"Our biology is completely incompatible. We could never have children." (10:11:3)

But he has, as Mr Quintum says, ennobled "the lives around" him (10.18.2), and even in his passing, he's given what little was left of his life to build that "artificial heart to keep the sun alive" (12:19:3), creating a specific moral meaning from what was before a gloriously general, unspecific symbol of life and hope. And his example has been so profound that Lois, for example, can't believe anything other than "He'll be back when he's done." (12.19.4), the world-changing inspiration that follows the death in fact or fiction of so many legendary and mythical heroes.


And it's no accident that the final page of "All-Star Superman" shows Mr Quintum standing before the P.R.O.J.E.C.T. vaults containing Kal-El's DNA. It's a "library", if you like, in which the human race will have to learn to "stick together", containing the knowledge upon which a new generation of superhumans might be created. As Quintum says;

"A world without Superman. We all have to make sure it gets taken care of while he's gone." (12:22)

Or, as Jor-El's shade has already explained to his dying son;

"You have shown them the face of the man of tomorrow. You have given them an ideal to inspire them, to ennoble them, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and crawl ... and curse ... and finally ... " (12:6:3-5)


IV.

The concept of community that's presented in "All-Star Superman" is one which educational thinkers might refer to as "inclusive". Everybody belongs to the society that Superman represents and protects, even if they've chosen to reject it and attempted to destroy it. The inmates of the Stryker's Island prison, for example, haven't ceased to be members of civil society despite having willfully chosen to exile themselves from it. (5:3) The prison is "my world" (5:14:2), boasts Luthor to Clark Kent, and so it is, of a sorts. It's a vile, bleak and dangerous kingdom in which a war of all against all is constantly being played out, and yet for all of that, its citizens choose to be there. Regardless, Superman never once abandons his faith that Luthor, and by extension his prison-mates, might reform. "I know there's good in you." (10.15.3), he declares to Luthor, having already said that "It's not too late" for Lex to "put that brilliant mind to work" helping people. (11.15.1)


Even the brutal and arrogant Kryptonian imperialists Bar-El and Lilo are offered Superman's unconditional trust and assistance when they fall ill after having beaten Kal-El and effectively conquered the planet Earth. "If I can, if I still have time, I promise I'll find a way to restore you both." (9.21.1)

No-one is the enemy in "All-Star", no-one gets left behind, no-one is an island, and that's certainly a fact where Superman is concerned. He's constantly in need of the assistance of friends and allies, and never begrudges the fact. He's glad to rely upon Zibarro to escape Bizarro-World, for example (7:18:2), and it's Jimmy Olsen who rescues Superman from the effects of Black Kryptonite (4:21:1). Without their assistance, he'd have been dead long before his twelve labours were fulfilled.


8.

I.


The Clark Kent of "Superman: Earth One" can't, of course, be expected to be as comfortable with the role of hero as the Kal-El of "All-Star Superman" is at the end of his career. Mr Straczynski's Clark is, for example, a very young man indeed, having just "graduated from Smallville Junior College" (3:3). He can't be expected to be anything other than a heroic figure just starting out on his journey, replete with innocence, ignorance, arrogance and a need to learn some very hard lessons. And the world that Mr Straczynski places his new take on Clark Kent into might conceivably be a fascinating stage for such lesson-learning to occur. For the Metropolis of "Earth One" is a grim place, where pretty much everyone appears to be either entirely out for themselves or, at best, rather too fond of their own presumed wisdom and rather too quick to pass on their deathless insight in homilies and with blowhardisms. It's a city that appears to be socially constructed by an exclusive series of never-overlapping communities, the membership of which seems based solely on the commercial advantage that each individual can bring to those around them. The football team welcomes Clark because he can knock everyone else around without breathing hard. Big business welcomes Clark because of the incredible profits his strange scientific genius can help create. The Daily Planet welcomes him on board because his falsified interview with Superman will sell thousands upon thousands of extra copies. But at no time does Clark encounter a single person who might welcome him or even respect him without a commercial motive at stake. Upon his arrival, for example, the unknown boy with no market value finds all doors shut to the man with the hoodie and the glowing eyes who walks alone, who stares in longingly at beautiful young women in bars, and who never seems to think of joining a society, or visiting a club, or even, daringly, trying to simply talk to someone. It's tough to do, I know from my own adolescence, but it would've been inspiring to see him trying and succeeding to make some human connections based on something more than the power his abilities grant him in economic environments.


And we're never shown Clark abandoning one group for another because he's seeking a more kind and ethical life. There's no moral learning going on during Clark's time on-stage in "Earth-One" that might indicate that, for example, he's grasped that it's wrong to be abusing the game of football and putting its players at risk all in the name of his own personal glory and financial gain. Clark doesn't give up football because he's hurt somebody, or because he himself has been in some way wounded and forced to step towards maturity. He's not been shown through experience or reflection that it's meaningless to win acclaim at a game where every other player lacks super-powers. Instead, he simply moves on from one success to another earned solely through his own innate abilities. He's driven by nothing more profound than a desire to have more fun, and he shifts around in search of a place that fulfils his desires rather than one which helps diminish anyone else's suffering. In truth, he gets whatever he wants without having to frame his own existence in any moral terms because, well, he's Superman, isn't he?

There is no pain involved in the achievements of Mr Straczynski's Clark, but there is a great deal of effortless gain, and where Grant Morrison's Kal-El belonged "to the world" from the death of his father, the JMS Superman simply owns "the world" without having to really try. The world is there for him, although he may not grasp the fact in his ethical ignorance and self-pity, and he's certainly not in the world for the good of anybody else.

This is not in any way a heroic journey. It's not even a tale of a young man starting out on a heroic journey, regardless of how the text makes it plain that we should feel that that's so. This is a story of a Superman who's sacrificed nothing and won everything, who's suffered little but a few nights of teenage angst before wealth, sporting success and finally career satisfaction came his way.

He's learned nothing by the end of "Earth One" except that he can get anything he wants, which isn't a heroic journey, but, rather daringly, the exact opposite.


II.

The death of Jonathan Kent in "Earth-One" has a profoundly different effect upon the JMS Superman than was seen in "All-Star". Mr Straczynski's Jonathan Kent is always shown encouraging, in that vague and cliche-saturated manner which marks benign authority figures in the comic book scripts of JMS, to serve "something bigger than ourselves". (63.3) What that "something" is remains remarkably vague, though Clark is told that he'll know what to fight against when he's been picked on and finds a voice in himself saying "I won't take this anymore". (90.6) It's exactly the kind of wonderfully vague nonsense that an impressionable young man might well be inspired by, for it's a principle to right action that argues that if someone else really annoys you, it virtuous to have a go back. How Clark might tell the difference between an irritating policeman telling him to drive slower and a charming patrolman cleverly breaking the law in his own advantage is never explained; the emotion, the passion, is what counts in Jonathan's account of moral awakening, and if someone doesn't annoy you, then they're obviously not offending your principles. And because there's no moral context given in old man Kent's advice, beyond the fact that Clark's step-father had reached his "I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore" moment when head-butted by a fellow soldier, we end up with the following apparently laudable guide to ethical action that quite short-circuits any understanding beyond pity for the idiot saying it;

"When we say I won't take this anymore, that's when we know who are and what we'll tolerate."


It's a profoundly unChristian principle for a character who was born out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It seems to presume that deep in every individual's heart lies a moral code based on absolute truth that doesn't need to be studied and considered so much as just left there for the time when someone else will cause it to be forcibly revealed through behaving in an unpleasant fashion. It's moral truth revealed through irritation and expressed through force, which is, I will say, a new spin on the lodestone of Superman's ethics. In truth, it's a justification for the maintanance of deeply held and never-confronted prejudice. And that in itself is fine in that an anti-intellectual Superman with reactionary principles would be an interesting character, and I've no problem with any radical change to Clark Kent's ethics if they're carefully thought through by the creators involved and presented coherently for what they are. But this statement of Pa Kent's, which is presented as a deeply moving moral lesson, in fact justifies any resistance on Clark's part to anybody and anything that irritates him enough. It's a daft piece of snakeoil hokum drawled out by a Jonathan Kent who's obviously a profoundly stupid man who loves his own voice and thinks the world of his own opinions while lacking the intellectual firepower to know he's talking rubbish.

And Clark Kent, as we'll soon discuss, is very much his step-father's son.


III.

Constantly bouncing from one indulgence to another, and presumably always seeking that moment when he'll be so annoyed that he realises what he stands for, the Clark Kent of "Earth One" finally settles on a job with "The Daily Planet" not because it allows him to stay informed of who needs help, or because he'll be able to pursue a moral agenda through the practise of crusading journalism, but because he's excited and inspired by the supposed bravery shown by Lois and Jimmy on the city's streets during Tyrell's assault. We've already discussed how that bravery was no bravery at all, but it's worth also noting that Clark is no more able to see through that piffle about "truth" than Olsen and Lane were. This Superman may possess the capacity to be able to solve impossible equations without any kind of forethought, or indeed any knowledge of the workings behind them, but simple words like "bravery" and, yes, once again, "truth", quite baffle him. He explains, for example, that he wanted to work at The Daily Planet because Lois and Jimmy had shown themselves determined to "stay and fight for the truth", though, as we mentioned, they did no such thing at all. (112.6) They were staying and fighting for themselves and their odd expectations of how the world should treat them.


In addition to that business of "truth", Clark also seems to be in awe of the steps Jimmy and Lois took to help the trapped Superman on the field of combat, declaring that their actions ensured that a "lot of people are alive right now who might not be otherwise". (111:6) This sounds a worthy example for Clark to aspire to, but then, Clark hasn't noticed that helping people survive on a battlefield has nothing to do with being a journalist. If saving folks from being killed in a direct and immediate sense is what Clark wants to emulate, then he ought to be seeking a job in the emergency services, or the armed forces. He's a hyper-genius, so passing his medical exams and helping in Somalia or Afghanistan ought to be well within his grasp. Indeed, and this reflects a rather more traditional take on the character, he could even just fly out to dangerous situations and quietly help people.

But, of course, Clark's decision to become a newpaperman has nothing to do with morality, any more than his decision to no longer play ball reflects a developing conscience on his part. Instead, he's just stumbled by chance upon a gaggle of young professionals that he'd like to hang around with and get excited by. He wasn't deeply interested in the business of journalism when he first strolled in the Planet offices to apply for a job, and perhaps he's not so fascinated by the news and the reporting of it now. He's certainly not a very good writer, as we'll discuss in a moment.

And he has no more concept of "community" at the end of "Earth-One", beyond the awareness that Lois and Jimmy seem like a fun little gang that he'd like to belong to, than he did on its very first page.


IV.

But it's not surprising that Clark has no concept of a wider society that he can relate his actions and intentions to. For not only did his step-father fill him up with speeches that in effect justified any self-centred behaviour he'd like to indulge in at all, but his Mother has, in the wake of her husband's death, quite pulled up the drawbridge of her social existence and makes no bones of the fact that she now defines her life solely in terms of those things immediately surrounding her;

"I've got this place, this retirement, my memories of Jonathan ... and I've got you. That's a whole galaxy there, Clark. What more do I need?" (13.3)

Readers used to a less-inwardly obsessed take on Clark's step-mother might be disappointed by this philsophy, and wish that Martha was using her experience and wisdom to help others in some fashion. But the point of this piece isn't to suggest that the choice to make Martha so socially uncaring and willfully isolated is of itself wrong-headed, but rather to empathise that Mr Straczynski doesn't seem to have thought through these changes he's made to the principles his versions of these characters now espouse. For Martha's wishes for her own life and for Clark's are all based on entirely selfish principles, and yet they're presented to the reader as undeniably ethical choices, as in the following dialogue, where Martha advises Clark on how he ought to be guided in his life-choices;

Martha: "But what I really want to hear is "This is what I want. For me to live the live the life and dream the dreams I've always longed for."

Clark: "But isn't that being selfish?"

Martha: "Oh, Clark, that's not selfish. That's how futures get built."


And, though we'll return to the point later, that's essentially the "selfish" principle that Clark's behaviour is grounded upon in "Earth One". It's an adventure story in which its protagonist never approaches even stumbling upon a sense of duty and a faith in the human race. Rather, he finds a gang of similarly confused and self-seeking late teens to hang out with, and that is how the success of the character is measured. He doesn't discover through sacrifice and miscalculation how important society is. Instead he stumbles effortlessly from one success to another without the slightest mishap beyond a tiny frission of adolescent alienation before arriving at his place in the cosmos because, quite frankly, it seems like an exciting place to be.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with Martha and her son being concerned fundamentally with their own affairs and welfare rather than everyone else's. An essentially Libertarian Superman is as valid an interpretation of the character as any other. No, what's fascinating in "Superman: Earth One" is that individual desire and satisfaction lie at the heart of everything that Clark does, but the text just takes it for granted that serving oneself is the same as being heroic. Even Superman's battle with Tyrell isn't one that he seeks out in order to do good; he has no choice but to fight, though he delays as long as possible even while the citizens of Metropolis are being bombarded through no fault of their own because of his presence. But from the sense of Mr Straczynski's script, you'd think that this Superman was as nobly civic-minded a superhero as his counterpart from "All-Star Superman" undeniably is.

And so the matter of being a hero, let alone a superhero, in "Earth One" is a very different business from any other take on the character of Superman that's ever been seen. And since Mr Straczynski's text makes it plain that the reader is supposed to regard his Clark Kent as a brave and admirable character, this can only be regarded as a graphic novel with an immensely unconventional and daring political message.


V.

Given that "Earth One" contains such a profoundly different take on who Superman is and what his role might be, both in and out of costume, it will come as no surprise to the reader that the people of Metropolis in it aren't a very heart-warming bunch at all. If Clark doesn't engage with any accepted notions of service to society, well, the society he exists in hardly seems to deserve his endeavour and loyalty anyway. We've already discussed the fact that the emergency services and indeed everyone in the city ran away from Tyrell's onslaught without helping each other; this is a city where even the fire-fighters can't be trusted. But it's not just the folks who are actually paid to help their fellow citizens who are so cowardly and self-concerned. In general, everyone in Metropolis walks past each other consumed entirely by their affairs, and conversations seem to focus, as we've said, on financial advantage or the virtues of making decisions that emphasise the individual's personal interest. "Well, you gotta decide what you want to do with your life. Other people can't do it for you" advises Clark's new landlady quite out of the blue within two panels of knowing him, and from then onwards, Superman's future is solely a question of whatever Clark wants. (3:3) In the absence of any role models encouraging him to think of others before himself, perhaps it's understandable that he should end up such a thoroughly self-regarding individual. Why, even Perry White never mentions the public interest in the whole of the four page discussion he has with Clark about a possible career in journalism. There's simply not an atom of moral engagement in anything that White waffles on about. Journalism is a job, White should be respected, and the Daily Planet has fallen on hard times and should be more respected; those are the issues that White is concerned with. (18-20) He doesn't even have a non-sensical and self-aggrandising allegiance to some mystical notion of "truth" to guide him, or to motivate Clark.


The very idea of a public interest appears verboten in "Earth One", but that's made less obvious by, as mentioned above, the people of Metropolis being painted as such an unappealing bunch. For what reason would anyone ask why Superman is so unconcerned with helping others when those who share the city with him are so dull, stupid or immoral? Of 12 talking heads that we're shown on TV screens responding to Superman's first public appearance, for example, only two express a reasoned, welcoming response to Superman's appearance. (118) The other ten of Clark's fellows are either facile or hostile. The sense is given of a distrustful, unpleasant, rather shallow culture that Clark would do well to stay away from. Better, the text seems to say, to worry about yourself than those folks, and, of course, that's exactly what Clark does.


After all, even the TV news stations in Metropolis are rather unpleasant in the way they conduct their business. Whatever channel the reader is being exposed to while those dozen heads are having their say seems to be one with little concept of either gender or racial equality. Only one of the dozen faces on show represents without any possible confusion a person of Colour, and only a third of the screens are focused on female faces, including two rather fetching and giggling teenagers. If this is a Metropolis station, then it seems that the city's broadcast companies are as unwelcoming to minorities as its streets are to lonesome, superpowered strangers from the deep country fresh from the railway station and looking for friends.


To be concluded;




To come, the one concluding section on All-Star Superman and Superman;Earth-One. And then this week's look at 2000ad, and then a piece on Gail Simone's always-well-worth-reading Secret Six. I hope to see you there for perhaps one or so of those, and, yes, I really do wish you a splendid day, and of course, stick together!


.

24 comments:

  1. This isn't emo Superman. This is douche bag Superman. Whatever happened to heroism as an ideal? Morrison still has it down. Heck, so do a number of writers. But that this is a flagship book is really depressing.

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  2. "And his example has been so profound that Lois, for example, can't believe anything other than 'He'll be back when he's done.' (12.19.4)"

    And, when the penny drops at the end, we realise he will return, like King Arthur - when he is needed most. So even in "death" there is hope.

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  3. I have just realized today who JMS is really writing about, courtesy of io9's article on 'superheroes who are their jobs' -
    http://io9.com/5691744/10-ridiculous-superheroes-who-are-their-jobs

    NFL Superpro! From the article: 'Phil Grayfield was a college football player, sports reporter, and scientist who donned an experimental football suit and became NFL SuperPro...'

    Now doesn't that sound like Earth One's Clark? Sportsman, scientist, roving reporter, construction worker - all things to all men.

    Whereas the bumbling Clark of All-Star is closer to the original vision of a nobody, the most insignificant man who happens to have the capacity to save the world - but only in secret.

    Funnily enough the article also has a quick profile of another Jerry Siegel character, a Mr Muscles, who prefers positive reinforcement to imprisonment as a method of rehabilitation.

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  4. Hello mathematicscore!- it's always good to hear from you, as I'm sure you know. And of course I quite agree with you that this isn't an Emo Superman at all. It IS a Superman who can get whatever he wants without loss or application; he seems far closer to a wish-fantasy from the "Me" decades of the last century, though every decade, of course, is complete with folks who want heroes who just win, and then win, and then win some more.

    I love the sheer ethical bravery of ASS. I've got the last section of this piece finished and just needing checking and one of the things I never realised was how much Mr Morrison has run against the current of some very hot political and social trends in All-Star Superman. Good for him. It's not that I'm saying that I agree or disagree with those ethics. It's just a joy to read work that's as well thought-through and consistent as ASS is.

    I hope you're well. Stick together!

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  5. Hello Emperor:- and it's a pleasure to hear from thee this morning too, as it always is. You make a key point, as always. Perhaps I might book-end by mentioning that (a) we of course know when he returns, because we've seen it in DC One Million, and (b) it doesn't matter whether he returns or not in that the evidence is clearly there that he's left a moral legacy to inspire others. Oh, that All-Star Superman is a bloody fine thing.

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  6. Hello Emmet, and isn't that example perfect? And doesn't it just explain why the legendary NFL Superpro was never going to get called back to series because of public demand? There's nothing to cheer if a hero can do anything!

    Mind you, that's just my opinion. I do know that lots of folks find, for example, SEO a thrilling experience. And that's cool. In the end, I guess all I can say is that I prefer Superheroes who inspire me rather than those which require me to sit back and applaud them for their AWESOME WONDERFULNESS.

    I shall be following through your links, of course. Mr Muscles sounds a fascinating proposition ...

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  7. Colin, a note of thanks for your work on these pieces. ASS is in many ways my Platonic ideal for superheroes and Superman in particular (though the other corners of that ideal would probably include Steve Gerber and perhaps Jack Kirby). I've avoided the JMS Superman for a number of reasons, so I can't comment directly as to your assessments there (but I don't see that you'd be that far off, given my reading of his other work). However, your reading of ASS squares with mine quite completely, and eloquently at that.

    Now, if only we could get a Wonder-Woman done on the same level by Mr. Morrison, so he might leave lasting fingerprints on DC's central trinity (if there is such a thing.)

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  8. Hello Maxwell, and thank you very much for your kind words. I've not discussed ASS before, for the reasons I mentioned in the blog & also because I was somewhat intimidated by all the good work that's been written about it too. I'm tremendously relieved that it didn't seem redundant. It's good to hear that our opinions seem to square with each other, as they do on the wonders of Mr Gerber, Mr Kirby and the prospect of a Grant Morrison "Wonder Woman" too!

    Ah, Steve Gerber. I've been collecting notes for a piece on his Defenders for ages now. But somewhat like All-Star Superman, I'm so much in awe of the work that I'm rather lost as to where to begin ...

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  9. I don't know if I'd say this was Libertarian Superman so much as Objectist Superman - libertarianism is meant to be based on the idea that individual people and small groups can do a lot better managing themselves than authority dictating what they do. A libertarian Superman story would, I'd have thought, show the people of Metropolis to be good people in the face of a crisis without having to be told to by Superman (so basically the flipside of Superman yelling "Stick together!"). Here, everyone seems to be a jerk but Superman's Special.

    Odd thing about the Talking Heads: the guy asking "would they have bothered us" is entirely right! So's the policeman, if you think about it - Earth might've been ready for someone like Tyrell with warning. And the four people mentioning they're worried about this powerful a guy with no name besides Superman all have points too - presumably, though, I'm not meant to think that in the scene. (The whole "look at all these ungrateful normal people!" trope in superhero fiction does get a bit morally dodgy at times)

    - Charles RB

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  10. Hello Charles:- as always, those are thought-provoking points. There certainly are a host of different readings of what the politics of this piece might be. The Libertarian diagnosis I made was intended to be applied to the scene at hand rather than SEO as a whole, and though it actually does hold up across much of the book, if not all of it. I shan't be arguing that in the conclusion, though, because the book seems so imprecisely framed that it's hard to nail down what it means, and I don't mean that in the complimentary sense that the author is deliberately generating a series of readings. Instead, it's just a mess. Having said that, Libertarianism does often pronouce on the value of good examples to produce and indeed reinforce particular social norms. But since Clark says in the article at the book's end that he doesn't want to change society at all, in the slightest way, I guess we'll never be able to nail him down to anything more specific than "incredibly self-involved and rather dense".

    Of course, I agree with you about the talking heads. My objection, as yours, is that the text marks them out as unpleasant, only giving their gripes without any context, whereas Clark, who as you say deserves much of what they say, is treated as a heroic, blameless figure. It's just one example of the text being either carelessly constructed or "fixed" so that common-sense seems wrong-headed, wrong-headed thinking seems admirable, and unheroic superheroes can be called Superman.

    Ah, as always, thanks for making me think!

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  11. I love that issue of All Star Superman so much - it was the first time in years that I'd felt a comic book was actually trying to elicit emotion through a character's passing, and I genuinely love how Morrison has Superman cheat (his father's) death and rectify his one lasting regret. I also like the theory that Leopold Quintum is actually Lex Luthor returned from a future without Superman to act as a balance against his younger self. It has an appeal in backing up the idea that Superman's respect for (and faith in) Lex is not misplaced.

    On the lot of the cowering masses in these stories, John Byrne/Jerry Ordway's Adventures of Superman #437 is probably worth a gander, dealing as it does not with Superman's current crises but with how Metropoolis citizens cope with a supervillain rampage when Superman is off having a crossover (Millenium, I think).

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  12. Hello Mr Brigonos:- it's funny, but I almost feel as if I'm reading All-Star Superman for the first time. Something about this compare and contrast malarky has really brought both books to life for me. And my single favourite/most emotional panel in the whole book is the one of Clark weeping inconsolably after his father's death. Grief is nearly always overplayed in comics. Clark's grief there is completely to-scale. He has nothing but a form of cliche to say because there really is nothing but cliches to add; his Dad has gone and he's powerless. It's the Gilmagesh you-can't-have-your-mate moment, and it's devastating effective. Seeing that panel again and in context made me love Superman as a character, and no less inspirational books can take that away, oh no!

    It was Al Ewing who first convinced me, in a comment he was good enough to leave here, that Lex Luthor was a character who ought to contain a possibility of redemption within him. Mr Quintum is a splendid conceit if he is Luthor because it gives us the monster and the monster's redemption without either having to cancel out the other.

    AOS 437 shall be added to the list of books to be hunted down. You still haven't led me wrong, Mr B, though everytime we discuss books to read, I remember about The Loners. Right! Off to E-Bay!

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  13. Excellent as always.

    I have long thought that the crux of the Superman myth lies in two relationships. The is first is his refusal to submit to their mutual happiness unless Lois Lane learns to love Clark Kent. The second is Superman's unshakable belief in the prospect of Lex Luthor being redeemed.

    The first speaks to humility. Our hero knows that Lois will go to bed with Superman and wake up with Clark. I think that every husband in the world can attest to that fact of human nature.

    The second speaks to a kind of humanist faith. Superman has a Rogues Gallery, but no enemies. He is neither Spider-Man beset on all sides by responsibilities, nor Batman looking for revenge on the warped face of human vice. Lex Luthor can try to murder him a hundred times and Superman will still say "I think that you can do better."

    One of the most brilliant aspects of ALL-STAR SUPERMAN is that even when Lex succeeds, Superman still believes. There is even evidence that he is ultimately right. It is an utterly amazing piece of work.

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  14. Hello Dean:- I hope the evening finds you well, and I do appreciate your kind words.

    There's so much that I find inspiring in what you've written. I think you know that I speak as I find, and that I wouldn't say so if I didn't mean it; "Superman has a rogues gallery, but no enemies." That's perfect! And it's a point I only really grasped for myself when writing this piece. In some ways, I've never worked so hard on a blog: I hope it doesn't show in worthiness, I tried to edit out just about every teacherly-term I'd added. But both books deal in their different ways with such fundamental issues, and focusing on them to this degree was .... illuminating. It soon became obvious how much I'd missed in both books, and the point that Superman wasn't angered by Luthor killing him, but by Luthor not helping others .... well, it never hit home so much before. I have no doubt there's so much more I've missed. It is indeed "an utterly amazing piece of work".

    There are still a few things to say in the concluding piece, or rather, a few things to print, but I've a paragraph on that humanism that I'm humming over putting in. It's reassuring that you too pick up that strange paradox of a secular philosphy being adhered to by a culture hero based in part by his creators back in the '30s on Jesus. But it's that paradox - among so many others - that makes him such a powerful, non-toxic text, isn't it?

    Mind you, the Splendid Wife goes to bed with Clark Kent and wakes up with him too. I have no Superman in me, though I wear my glasses with pride.

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  15. Really excellent posting. I think your point about community (and community being all of us) were particularly resonant. I'd always thought of Superman as being an all-American kind of hero, but Morrison was the first to make me realize that...well, he belongs to the world, and that the ideals he stands for are human ideals, not just American ones.

    The only thing I will disagree with you on is the most emotional moment. Superman's weeping over his father was powerful, but the moment from A-SS that really gets me every time is just the page where he comforts the girl who was going to commit suicide.

    Whenever I think of that panel, I always wonder about people who think that Superman is a character who's "out of touch". He clearly understands in that moment that sometimes people just need others to remind them of the strength that they have. Hell, I tear up whenever I even think about it.

    -Ben

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  16. Hello Ben:- thanks for your kind words.

    I think, as you say, that it's one of Morrison's many virtues in ASS that he presents us with a Superman who is both distinctly American and profoundly of the world too.

    I'm typing this having just woken up to a rather grey English morning, and I'm absolutely torn over the business of agreeing or not with you about the scene you mention. I know exactly what you mean, and I certainly think that it's a more important scene in many ways to telling us about Superman is rather than how he becamme that. I very much wanted to discuss it in the above piece in the context of his approaching death, but the lines about the hospital had already done that. But it is a wonderful moment, and you're right, it would be hard not to choose it as the most heart-moving sequence in the book in many ways.

    But then, what can we say that might praise ASS more than to realise that we can even HAVE a debate about two such moments? Most books never manage one, and that's not an insult to them so much as a tip of the mythical hat to Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely.

    Your last point is one I've already juggled a touch with in the last part of this piece, to go up in about 48 hours. I write that not to suggest that anyone should suddenly red-line their diary to catch it, and I hope it doesn't seem that way, I really do, but rather to show how I really do agree with you. The idea that compassion is weak, or even indulgent, and old-fashioned is quite baffling. Superman is every bit the example the shade of Jor-El proclaimed him to be, and for all that I'm distrustful of authority, I'm very welcoming of such an example in the fiction I read. If that's out of touch, the world is even madder than I thought. And if we're not being shown a Superman with that degree of kindness, well, why ever not?

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  17. I should have made it more obvious that I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek when I was disagreeing with you about favorite A-SS moments. Not that the page I mentioned isn't my favorite, rather that there's no way that you can be wrong about the emotional response that you got from the scene of Clark's grief. Honestly, every single panel was written and drawn with such care that I wouldn't be surprised if any of them was someone's favorite or most emotionally impacting moment in the series. They even manage to get some really nice emotional notes out of Zibarro, a character who would probably just be a joke to other creators.

    I can't remember where I read it, but when asked if he had expected the response to A-SS, he just frankly said the he wasn't surprised at all. His explanation was that he'd spent a lot of time figuring out the essence of the character, and that he knew a lot of people would respond to that. I always liked that as an answer, because it shows that at a fundamental level Morrison respects both comics readers and the character of Superman.

    And while I don't actually have a physical calender to mark on, I am eagerly awaiting part 4.

    -Ben

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  18. Hello Ben:- I think that attitude of Morrison's is absolutely appropriate; he's done his research, undertaken the work, and achieved what he set out to do. I can only admire that, and admire, as you say, the belief he has in the source material and its readers.

    Good for him! The more I read All-Star Superman, the finer a book it seems to be.

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  19. Thank you for a wonderful series of posts. They were very timely to me, as just this week I picked up the first volume of All-Star Superman from the library. It really is an excellent piece of work - I agree completely with what you said about the sense of motion and forward momentum, courtesy of both Morrison's writing and Quitely's art. And more importantly - it's fun! Superman doesn't need to be "dark" or "edgy" - he's a fundamentally upbeat character. While I have to confess I wasn't a big Superman fan before, I've been entirely won over by Morrison's skill at telling stories with thematic depth and emotional resonance that are also hugely entertaining.

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  20. Hello Jim:- I do appreciate your kind words, and one of things that's made writing about AAS so enjoyable has been the feedback that's shown once again, as if even more proof was needed, just how many folks have been so moved by Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely's work.

    I do understand something of what you mean about not being a "big Superman fan". Re-reading AAS has returned to me a fondness for the character that I've not felt to such a degree in a long, long time. That doesn't mean of course that I've not enjoyed to varying degree how Superman has been written so much as I've not been swept away by the character. But here, you're right, he's upbeat even as he's tragic, and the fusion of the two has always marked my favourite Superman tales.

    Thank you for your comment. I hope the day has treated you well.

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  21. Col,

    When I was away at university I wrote a rambling, ambitious, first year english paper. All things were possible and I will readily admit I was wildly and perhaps dangerously (from an intellectual perspective) naive.

    I argued at some length that until humanity learned to ignore - outright - our superficial differences and embrace our shared heritage we would be playing out different variations of nationalist and race war games till we sent ourselves back to the stone age.

    I was butchered - the paper massacred - and sent to the dean's office to justify my hatred of diversity.

    I tried to explain I was not against any individual. Rather, I was for all individuals. What makes people less HUMAN are definitions. The text we write separates us. You are English. I am American. She is Haitian. Already we are more different and "other" than we were as simply three people.

    I muddled through, bruised and somewhat wiser as to those involved, their perspective, and the lens through which they viewed the world. Their willingness to be scared and small in their tribe, alone really - separate and different from everyone else for something as petty as being acknowledged as 'apart' - it ruined my day I'll tell you.

    I just saw it as patently ridiculous. How could we do ANYTHING lasting without recognizing our commonality and our common potential? Our common heritage? What if the people working on the Apollo program suddenly said, "I'll not work with that sonofabitch! Have you seen that flattop haircut?"

    That's the difference for me. Morrison's All Star Superman SHOWS that the path to greatness is not individual - isolated - alone.

    So often you read interviews about people doing heroic things or performing well under pressure and the single common factor that most people cite when asked how and why they did it the answer tends to be a very slight variation on the following:

    "You do it for the person next to you."
    "You do it for the person to your left and to your right."

    That's where greatness is born - that aspiration to do BETTER for your brother / sister.

    What Morrison's Superman is trying to show us is that when you look down the line to your left and your right you're not supposed to see someone with the same color skin all the way down or the same accent. You're supposed to see every single person on the planet. You may not be able to help that person or understand that person easily or without cost to yourself but you've GOT to know that we're all in here alone and that you're supposed to STICK TOGETHER.

    I've got the following painted up on one of my shop walls. It's the Ephebic / Athenian oath of citizenship:

    I will not disgrace my sacred arms
    Nor desert my comrade, wherever
    I am stationed.
    I will fight for things sacred
    And things profane.
    And both alone and with all to help me.
    I will transmit my land not diminished
    But greater and better than before.
    I will obey the ruling magistrates
    Who rule reasonably
    And I will observe the established laws
    And whatever laws in the future
    May be reasonably established.
    If any person seek to overturn the laws,
    Both alone and with all to help me,
    I will oppose him.
    I will honor the religion of my fathers.
    I call to witness the Gods …
    The borders of my land,
    The wheat, the barley, the vines,
    And the trees.

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  22. Hello Smitty:- it's a pleasure to hear from you again.

    I think your comment illustrates so well how comics, as indeed any any form of art, can make impossible things worth thinking about. There's an undeniable sense in which All-Star Superman liberates those who enjoy it to see their ideals expressed therein. I think it's remarkable that this comic book can liberate folks to express optimistic ideas that they might otherwise feel feel they can't or don't want to express. I suspect that speaks to us of the fact that society is full of role models we're supposed to relate to, and who, for one reason or another, it's actually hard to have faith in. You see this process in politics every once in a while, where a single figure becomes seen as a great hope for the future, because folks just depserately want to believe. It's a dangerous thing in real life, and it always ends in tears, but on the page it can be inspiring to read of a good man being good. And the Superman of A-SS has such an air of goodness that he does make it hard not to be inspired by him.

    One of things I enjoy about Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely's Superman is that being good gets him killed. I don't mean by that, of course, that I'm pleased to see such a fate approaching, but rather that the text makes it clear that being good will probably be bad for you. It was one of the things which I wrote about for this piece and then had to put it to one side, because it didn't quite fit. There was so much to discuss and in the end I cut so much because otherwise there'd have been a book.

    I'd love to write a book about All-Star Superman.

    But Clark Kent does get killed in A-SS. Being good isn't an easy business, and it gets you killed, but it's still a good idea, is a fantastic moral!

    I'm sorry to hear of the problems you had expressing your ideals to the folks you were studying with. If only Superman were there, the child in me thinks, he could have pointed out how he retained all of his Kryptonian culture, Rao & Kandor & so on, and yet still stood as a brother to his fellow citizens. And that's the strength of a figure such as Kal-El, and of course the beguiling weakness; it's hard enough to get a civil conversation up at a bus stop some days. I'm sure folks realised you were kind-minded idealist, just as I'm sure the strength they drew from their own sense of identity was informing to you.

    I'm not sure that I can share your optimism, Smitty, but I'm bloody glad to experience it. My very best to you.

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  23. "But Clark Kent does get killed in A-SS. Being good isn't an easy business, and it gets you killed, but it's still a good idea, is a fantastic moral!"

    I reread the series with that in mind, and I do notice that although Superman does die and transcends to become a gold being, there were a lot of cases where he could've died earlier (or worse) but his being good saved him from that--being a good friend of Jimmy's prevented him from ending up in the Phantom Zone, being willing to work with the Bizarros--in spite of fighting them prior--helped him avoid dying on the Bizarro World. Saving the suicidal girl allowed her future descendant to send a message back in time to Superman, allowing him to survive the confrontation with Solaris.

    It should be noted that the fates of Zibarro, Robot 7, and the baby Sun-Eater fit your theory, too.

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  24. It's a very brave thing that A-SS does, and that you note, namely arguing that death can be delayed by doing the right thing, but in the end it does, and often should, arrive. Yet as Superman progresses, he does through his example,as you say, create a broader and better society just through his decent example, drawing in folks who'd not be connected otherwise and even inspiring the creation of life-forms which otherwise wouldn't have existed. That kindness makes his own life better, as you so rightly say, as well as that of those he helps, so that everyone's common life is strengthened even as, eventually, there's a price to pay for serving this broad community.

    A shorter but better life is often a heroes fate, traditionally, and yet of course the hero often too wins eternal life through their good deeds and their fame. As does Superman here, who'll survive to emerge at the end of DC 1 000 000 as the gold being you quite rightly refer too.

    Thank you for your comment. I'd not considered the wider context of that point in the piece, and I'm grateful you did here.

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