"Funeral In Smallville"
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Frank Quitely (p), Jamie Grant (i & colours)
Publisher: DC Comics
The sixth issue of this occasional series deals with our hero's return to the low-key environs of his Smallville home, only to face a chaotic attack from a time-travelling monster and the death of his adopted father (and that shouldn't be a spoiler for anyone who's seen the book's downbeat cover). However, whereas other writers might take this as a reason to overburden the character with ill-fitting and morose scenes of brooding and despair, Grant Morrison sees it as an excuse to craft yet another effortlessly thrilling romp - albeit one with a bittersweet ending - in which three mysterious strangers arrive at the Kent farm with a secret which ties them more closely to the Man of Steel than any of the Kent family suspect.
One of the great strengths of All-Star Superman is that it doesn't try to shock readers into submission by fundamentally reinterpreting the character or introducing sledgehammer revelations in an effort to hold the interest of its audience. In an age where the death of every minor or supporting character is hyped to the point that you could almost believe its impact was capable of rending the information superhighway in twain, Morrison's book makes for a pleasantly modest and understated antidote. People have talked about the writer's approach to the title as evocative of the Silver Age of comics, but Morrison's canvas is wider than that: whilst the colourful, vibrant visuals and classic-feeling characterisation definitely suggest a certain nostalgia for the 1970s heyday of the superhero genre, the sci-fi concepts and technology mark it out as modern, whereas the speech patterns and vocabulary (and, in this issue, the look and feel of Smallville) are so old-fashioned that they feel firmly rooted in the 1950s. The result is that the book's story exists in a timeless bubble - and that's a perfect way to present the enduring icon that is Superman.
What Morrison on All-Star Superman certainly does have in common with the industry pioneers of the '70s, however, is that his storytelling has always been more about the journey than the destination. No single event in this issue is built up as more important than the telling of the story itself: take the revelation of the identities of Jonathan Kent's three volunteer farmhands, the climactic death of Kent, or his subsequent funeral. In any other book they would be marked out as significant by big splash pages or final-page cliffhangers; here, they are handled with less showy rhythms which don't draw attention to themselves as important "moments" but instead serve the larger concerns of the story. Just as much care and attention has clearly been given to the more minor scenes such as Supes' carefree game of catch with Krypto the superdog, or the obvious parental love and care that exudes from Jonathan and Martha Kent, and it makes for a far more complete reading experience than many superhero comics can offer.
This more relaxed, yet defiantly compressed style of storytelling would be difficult to accomplish without the talents of Morrison's artistic collaborator, Frank Quitely. Quitely has a gift for elegant, deceptively simple illustrations which are so clear that they could convey the majority of the information in the story even if all of the text was removed from the panels. If Morrison is to accomplish everything he needs to in order to tell a story in the space of a single issue, an efficient artist like Quitely is a necessity. Whilst most of the text in All-Star Superman's done-in-one stories is necessarily concerned with exposition, the small passages which do deal with characterisation are reinforced tremendously by the artist's contribution. In the same way that Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh were lauded for their performances as both Clark Kent and Superman in the character's most recent cinematic incarnations, Quitely makes the dual personality aspect of the character work through his visual characterisation: we the readers can see that Clark is clearly Superman, but the mannerisms, baggy clothing and timid body language that Quitely applies to his hero when incognito work so well to distinguish him from the Big Blue Boy Scout that it actually seems plausible that the inhabitants of the DC universe could be fooled into buying the deception.
The artist also excels with his action sequences, doing justice to abstract concepts such as Morrison's time-devouring Chronovore monster and imbuing this issue's multiple superheroes with the kind of ego-free grandeur and presence which befits their character. However, my praise for Quitely is only half the story as far as the book's visuals are concerned, as All-Star Superman has a secret weapon up its sleeve in the form of Jamie Grant. Grant digitally "inks" and colours Quitely's pencils, and it's difficult to overstate his contribution to the book. The inking process allows for a certain delicacy to remain in the fine linework, but the figures never feel ill-defined or weightless thanks to Grant's careful lighting and graded shades of bright colour. Certain panels really allow the colourist to cut loose, such as the beautiful sunrise over the Kent farm or the appearance of a shimmering gold Superman at the end of the issue. The overall approach to colour in the book encapsulates the vibe of the old-school superhero stories to which Morrison is obviously paying homage, and it even allows an issue which deals with death and loss to retain a sense of optimism, hope and warmth.
All-Star Superman already seems destined to go down as a classic, and it has joined the very slim ranks of those constantly-late titles that are actually worth the long wait between issues. It's a book which revels in its mysteries but doesn't rely on them to make itself interesting, and manages to tell a complete story each issue whilst adding to the overall picture via some sly references and links to events in previous instalments. It's a book in which the ideas are so involving that they're even more of a draw than the spectacle, and which is so rampantly imaginative that you hardly have time to appreciate one high concept before another one gets thrown at you. It's a book in which the script and artwork are each operating at such a high level that it's almost as though the creators are constantly challenging each other to go one better, and that's the kind of competition that can only be a good thing for the book's readership. The only reason that this issue doesn't warrant a review is that I have a feeling that Morrison, Quitely and Grant are building up to something even bigger and better with their concluding six issues, and I don't want to be left with nowhere to go when they surpass themselves, as they surely will. If you haven't got into this book yet, the first six issues are due to be collected in a hardcover volume shortly - readers who bemoan the lack of fun and enjoyment in modern superhero comics could do a lot worse than to check it out, as I can't think of another series being published at the moment which captures the appeal of the genre so completely.
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