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All-Star Superman #4

Posted: Monday, June 26, 2006
By: David Wallace



“The Olsen / Superman War”

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Frank Quitely (p), Jamie Grant (i & colours)

Publisher: DC Comics


DC’s All-Star books haven’t exactly been the overwhelming successes that everyone predicted. Frank Miller’s Batman title is a compelling oddity with flashes of greatness (and huge chunks of nonsense), and Morrison’s Superman went somewhat off the rails last issue after a couple of strong opening episodes. Still, I’m actually quite happy with the kind of distinctive approach that both creators have taken with these iconic characters, as there’s nothing worse than a comic which trots out the same old story with the same old characters and makes no effort to keep things fresh. At the very least, the All-Star books look like they’re going to be fertile ground for established creators to try new things with iconic characters that all too often threaten to become stale, and I think there’s definitely a place in the market for that kind of experimentation.

Grant Morrison’s angle on Superman seems to be to take the kind of wacky story concepts that were so prevalent in Silver Age comics, to play them straight(ish) and write them as solidly as possible, without compromising their basic premise. So far we’ve had a super-powered Lois Lane, a paranoid visit to the Fortress of Solitude, and a thrilling rescue of a doomed spaceship which boosted Supes’ powers to new levels – the storylines of all of which could have been plucked from any number of old-school Superman comics, but which have been written so as to feel accessible for a modern audience without losing their timeless quality. This issue has Jimmy Olsen taking over the moon-based P.R.O.J.E.C.T. for a day, and the intrepid reporter soon gets into a scrape so serious that he’s forced to call in Superman for help, but when a mysterious new black Kryptonite is discovered, the Bizarro-style effect that it has on our hero soon makes Olsen wish that he’d never asked for Clark’s assistance in the first place. Frank Quitely captures the tone of the story well with his clear, deceptively simplistic artwork with its stylish compositions and crisp clarity – although it’s Jamie Grant that really deserves praise for how the book feels. His digital inking over Quitely’s pencils ensures that the lines never feel heavy or abrasive enough to make the images anything less than beautifully balanced and attractive, and his delicate colouring frequently uses unnatural hues like purple or green which are toned down enough that the book is never difficult to look at, without losing the fantastical, classic-feeling quality of Quitely’s take on Morrison’s Silver Age story. This nostalgic quality also extends to the excellent retro stylings of the issue’s cover, which features an attractive image of Superman about to throw a car at Olsen, actual speech balloons (!) and the great caption of “Superman’s turned EVIL!” in order to entice readers to pick the book up off the shelf. Yes, Supes goes bad this issue, as he finally starts living up to the acronym of this book’s title.

Morrison’s text is lively and packed with ideas, and the characterisation of Superman’s classic supporting cast really shines – although this issue sees Morrison cramming so many ideas into the book that the actual story takes something of a backseat to the exuberantly imaginative indulgences of the writer. It’s one thing to flesh out the basic story of the issue with faux-scientific detail and sci-fi concepts, but it’s quite another to adopt the kind of everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach that seems to be becoming the norm for Morrison’s Superman. It’s as though the writer can’t help but throw as many ideas as possible into his book – and in some ways, it makes for inspiring, thrilling food for the brain – but when the story gets lost behind yet another throwaway new concept or cameo from Superman’s history, you know the book isn’t quite doing its job. Maybe it’s the fact that these Silver Age story concepts are so thin and simplistic that the onslaught of ideas is the only way to keep them interesting, but the truth of the matter is that many of the bigger ideas that are thrown around this issue would do to be explored in far greater detail and deserve more than the mere casual remark or brief appearance that they merit here. Doomsday, Bizarro, and the anti-Superman weapons all feel like their roles in the story could be expanded and examined far more fully, instead of being crammed into a few pages each in order to accommodate references to a tungsten-based alien race that communicates in sign-language or an explanation of how time can cool to a solid.

That said, I don’t want to sound completely down on the book, as it’s a solid comic and a very enjoyable read. It’s not often that I bemoan that a book has too many ideas in it, and I’d much rather have it be this way than see the story stretched out to six issues and constantly delayed for no other reason than to give Frank Quitely a chance to draw a six-page fold-out panel of the Fortress of Solitude (yes All-Star Batman, I’m looking at you). Morrison’s book is just so much shameless fun that I think it would be impossible to truly dislike. The running gag about Jimmy Olsen’s Gypsy curse, the scenes with Perry White at the Daily Planet, and the scenes which has Olsen take on the role of P.R.O.J.E.C.T. director with a goofy, wacky abandon are all light moments which could come off as cheesy or derivative if handled wrongly, but are crafted into genuinely funny and charming scenes under Morrison’s pen (although I really don’t think I needed to see Olsen in a bra and heels on the issue’s opening page). For the title as a whole, I’m starting to wonder where this is all going, and whether Morrison really does have a plan for threading his one-shot stories together into something more coherent (Lois Lane is completely absent this issue, and Lex Luthor hasn’t been seen since issue #1), but for the moment I’m enjoying the ride. Morrison has pulled off the rare feat of making me enjoy a Superman book, and even if there doesn’t seem to be much depth behind each of the stories we’ve been presented with so far, when a comic looks this good, I’m not going to pass up the chance to enjoy it for what it is.



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