"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)
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".
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!