"Superman in Excelsis"
Matthew J. Brady:
Matthew J. Brady
A caption on the cover of this issue trumpets the fact that the series is an Eisner award winner for "Best Continuing Series." Unfortunately, that's not really accurate, since this is the final issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's excellent take on comics' most venerated character. The series has been consistently great, and the creators definitely go out with a bang here, delivering a great answer to the question of whether Superman is going to die (it seems like a ridiculous conflict, since death never seems like a real possibility for the character, but over the course of the series, they have made it seem like it could actually happen), along with a slam-bang showdown with a super-powered Lex Luthor.
It's a pretty incredible finale, with a poignant opening scene in which Superman enters a sort of Kryptonian afterlife, but chooses to remain on Earth and save the world. The resulting battle with Luthor is as exciting as any of the action in the series so far, and Morrison adds some wonderful moments, like Luthor realizing that Superman is constantly aware of the basic fundamental forces of reality. Or a bit in which Clark Kent reveals himself to be Superman, and the staff of the Daily Planet simply assumes that Superman was disguising himself. Quitely rises to the occasion as well, delivering eye-popping views of afterlife scenery, massive destruction, and heroic acts. The characters all "act" wonderfully, with Luthor sneering at the helpless populace, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and Lois Lane ineffectually trying to stop him, and Superman heroically doing everything he can to prevail. It's beautiful stuff, and the final moments are incredibly poignant, with Superman performing impossible feats of heroism to save the world. And the climactic images are heart-stoppingly beautiful, with one full-page splash in particular ranking among the best Superman comics pages ever.
Is this overpraising the book? Maybe so, but it's definitely something to make Superman seem so amazingly heroic, self-sacrificing, and, well, human. To make a seventy-year-old character seem fresh and new is not an easy task, but Morrison and Quitely seem to be able to do anything they wish. It's a treat to watch them work, and it's sad that this is their final outing. Of course, the final page all but promises a sequel, but who knows when or if that will ever happen. Still, it's something to hope for; in the meantime, poring over the details of Quitely's art and pondering all the wild concepts Morrison comes up with will make for some excellent re-reading. Long live All-Star Superman!
Plot: Superman and Lex battle it out in final culmination of all the contempt Luthor has been expressing throughout the series. As ever, Lex pontificates pointlessly while Clark keeps his eyes on the prize.
Comments: I haven't loved every issue of this series, but I have loved this series. I particularly saw little of interest in the Superwoman issue, where Lois gets powers but then gets distracted by those total dweebs Atlas and Samson.
But maybe I should read it again, because that seems to be the key to getting the most out of this series. 2nd time is definitely the charm for most issues of this series, loaded as they are with layers of reference. Each one has evoked classic stories from Superman's past, as well as revealed direct ties to Morrison's (by this point) not inconsiderable own legacy of stories within the DC canon.
My first thought with this issue was: what, not a real ending but a set-up for the sequel? That was the last thing I expected, but then I remembered where the sequel takes place: DC One Million, an earlier project already written and collected and available. On one of this series' many levels, it's the story of where Superman will end up in the centuries to come, and what his legacy will be for humanity.
His fate I suppose makes completely lucid sense to Morrison himself: Kal-El is an avatar of Apollo, the sun god, so what better, more natural home for him than the sun itself? It's interesting that Lois describes his endless project as "building an artificial heart to keep the sun alive." Seeing as how, in other continuity, he's using his powers to artificially keep her heart alive after her injuries in Final Crisis. There he's fighting the minions of Apokolips. Here he's repairing the damage that Lex's pal Solaris has wrought.
In both cases, he's like a surgeon trying to keep his patients (all of us) alive. He's willing to make any sacrifice for the people he loves, and he loves all of us. So his fate is also an epic, even messianic one in scale. He leaves his love behind so we don't have to.
This brings me to my favorite sequence in the issue, one which is poignantly down to earth. I love the moment when Clark wakes up and distracts Lex during his attack. With just a few lines of dialogue and only two panels, Morrison and Quitely effortlessly channel Christopher Reeve, whose indelible performance has become the favored mode for Clark over the years.
"Umm … there's me, Lex … I … ah … think maybe you should stop threatening my friends." Simply brilliant, and I can't think of a better multi-purpose homage. Like Reeve, Morrison and Quitely in this arc have truly embodied the best that Superman can be.
I have always maintained that when Grant Morrison took over the writing reins of the Justice League, he spun tales that were far outside of current continuity. Until recently, Morrison was an auteur, uncomfortable in the creative constraints of the DC universe.
Before Morrison, DC editorial wouldn't allow certain heroes to be in the League. It took a big, critically respected name like Grant Morrison to reestablish what everybody who watched The Super-Friendsknew. The Justice League consisted of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and the Green Lantern. His nod to pure comic book lore came in the form of the Martian Manhunter. These were the seven heroes who comprised the JLA, and they had a history together.
Morrison's deviations began almost immediately. Wonder Woman at this point in time was essentially the new kid on the block--reintroduced in Legends rarely interacting with the DCU in general. Morrison gave her deeper roots with Superman and Batman, and these roots contradicted the Trinity's actual brief meetings; with Superman in Action Comics and Batman in the blink-and-you-could-have-missed-it Millennium.
Later Morrison would add Steel, Plastic Man, the second Green Arrow, the post-Crisis Huntress and even at one point Catwoman. During this stage, Morrison's disregard for post-Crisis continuity would become more obvious. The Batman of Morrison's League actually liked the Huntress, and their camaraderie echoed the relationship shared by the Earth-One Batman and the Earth-Two Huntress. This treatment of the Batman/Huntress dynamic contradicted almost everything that had been written. Outside of JLA, Batman loathed the Huntress, and that feeling was mutual.
Arguably the only series that's "canonical" to Grant Morrison's JLA is DC One Million. It is in these pages that we discover the fate of the Justice League, far into the future. It is in these pages we discover that Superman now lives in the yellow sun and has been waiting all this time for the moment when Lois Lane--the woman he has loved for an eternity--would be reborn in a form that is compatible to his own evolved incarnation.
Very cunningly, with All Star Superman Morrison has created a prequel to DC One Million. The sun is threatened. The dying Superman, after defeating his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, rockets to the sun where he takes up residence in order fix the problem. This leaves Lois stating: "He'll be back when he's done, Jimmy. And when he's done...He knows where to find me."
Lois' remarks gain greater impact when you factor in the JLA-DC One Million connection. Her words are prescient. Superman will find her in the future. I must assume that the ties to Morrison's previous work slipped right under DC's collective editorial noses. Else they would have taken advantage of Morrison's latest actually being the second part of a trilogy and released the conclusion in trade paperback.
I'm not usually one for spoilers, but in this case, revealing the plot of All Star Superman does not divulge its extraordinary depth. Within this plot, you will see the never-ending battle symbolized not by Superman's duel with Lex Luthor. That ends. Instead, it is Superman's fight against forces that would disrupt nature, and it's more than just an approaching tsunami that he must contend against. He must heal the sun. This really is a job for Superman.
With the addition of the gorgeous golds of Jamie Grant, Frank Quitely represents Superman's fight as a splash page. He depicts the Man of Steel as beyond human, almost as a piece of living artwork, yet forever toiling like a mortal to save the people he has sworn to protect. The piece captures the duality of Superman's nature: born on the planet Krypton but raised as a human; gifted with the powers of a god, yet still must he work like a man to win.
If there's one theme that's apparent in All Star Superman it's that the knee-jerk reactions to the concept have all been wrong. It's customary to look at Superman and be somewhat unimpressed. We are conditioned to think a certain way. He cannot be hurt like Batman. He cannot be killed like Batman. Hit him with a surface to air missile, and he just shrugs. He's not as smart as Batman. He's not as dark as Batman, and quite frankly, he's boring.
In All Star Superman Morrison has shown that it takes a special person to be Superman. It's not easy to be Kal-El or Clark Kent. It's not easy having these powers and using them for the good of all sentients. In this series we have seen Lois Lane given powers for a day which she only used primarily for amusement. Would she have been able to be another super-being? I would argue no.
Morrison's point is that Superman is as he is because he has lived this way. He is comfortable in his own skin, and that's why when he hugs a troubled, suicidal teen, it works. This is a being that can do that because he knows what it's like to be an outsider. He knows how difficult it is to be an outsider, and how others will judge. Superman is not a judge. He is not blind. He sees everything. Sometimes all you really need to see is how "it's all just us, in here. Together, and we're all we've got."
Other Kryptonians have come down to the earth and claimed it as a fiefdom. While they matched Superman in power, they possessed no humanity. This didn't make them evil. They instead felt they were superior and had almost divine right to take over.
The key to Superman is that he doesn't feel superior. He feels lucky. He's lucky that his parents cared enough about him to build his rocket. He's lucky that he escaped Krypton's demise. He's lucky that the Kents found him and raised him to be humble, and it's that humanity, instilled by the Kents, that allows him to see the wondrous nature of his abilities. He is both a human looking through the eyes of an alien and an alien looking through the eyes of a human. These facets work in harmony to be Superman.
In this issue a hyper Luthor cannot find the balance between human and god. Worst of all for Luthor, he realizes that he's been wrong all along. He senses what Superman senses, and he becomes overwhelmed. Superman can taste the unified forces that drive the cosmos. Rather than use that power for ill will, the Man of Steel uses the knowledge to better serve humanity. That's what makes Superman unique, and in this way Morrison re-energized Superman.
Morrison has done the phenomenal. Rather than cheapen Superman by nullifying his power. He has instead created a super man in both mind and body. He has given Superman senses beyond ours and the intelligence to comprehend practically everything, even the wonderfully chaotic humans that he defends. He has made Superman an alien raised human and therefore gifted with humility. For the sake of drama, Morrison crafted menaces that often dwarfed Superman in power. By doing that, Morrison reminded comic book readers that before there were all these copies of Superman flitting about, there was only one Superman, and often he was the only one who could save us all.
There's a bittersweet quality to this twelfth issue of All-Star Superman, for a number of reasons. I felt ambivalent about the book before I even opened the first page, as this is the final issue of what has been my favourite new superhero book of recent years, and although I was looking forward to a new issue, I was conscious of the fact it would be my last. Then, there's the story itself: we've known from the start of the book that Superman was living on borrowed time, poisoned by an excess of yellow sunlight - but somehow I'd always expected Morrison to have Superman escape his inevitable fate (which he does, to an extent, although not quite as completely as many readers may have anticipated). Finally, there's the smidgen of disappointment that comes with the ultimate realisation the book hasn't gone out on an absolute high (the honour of "best issue" still belongs to issue #10) - which might seem like an unreasonable complaint given that even a mediocre issue of this title is better than the majority of other books out there, but which robs the series of a truly defining finale.
The issue's plot provides a showdown between a juiced-up Lex Luthor and Superman in the streets of Metropolis, allowing Morrison the opportunity to say everything that he wants to about the eternal conflict between the two characters, but also allowing him to give the book's supporting cast a curtain call of sorts, too. The writer's portrayal of a Lex Luthor who has finally got everything that he wants paints the character as a little less intelligent than I expected, especially given the kind of smartness and forward thinking that we've seen from him in previous chapters. However, it's perfectly in-character for Luthor to be ultimately undone by his own hubris, and it certainly doesn't take anything away from Superman's satisfying defeat of his archenemy. I also love the way in which Morrison handles the staff of the Daily Planet, strongly hinting that many of them secretly suspect the truth about Clark, but never spelling it out to such an extent that he loses the satisfying ambiguity that enables the device of Superman's secret identity to remain dramatically interesting. The story is perhaps a little too simplistic and straightforward to be as intellectually engaging as the likes of issue #10, but it provides a suitable climax for the book nonetheless.
A lot of people have praised Morrison for his ability to craft satisfying "done in one" single-issue stories with this book, but I think that many readers have overlooked the cleverness with which the series as a whole has been constructed. After reading this final issue, it's now more apparent than ever that these twelve issues form a single satisfying and complete story - albeit one that can also be enjoyed one chapter at a time. With the series complete, it's finally possible to see how all of the various characters and plot strands interweave, whether it's the oblique hints to possible connections (could Jor-El's claim to Superman this issue that "the best of us, the gold in us will survive in you" be an allusion to the golden Superman of the future that appeared in issue #6?) or the now-obvious seeds for future plot points that were sown in earlier issues (such the malfunctioning robot from issue #2 that helped to manufacture the super-power formula used in issue #3, which enabled Luthor's escape from prison in issue #11). There might be one or two plot strands that I would have preferred to see given a mention again in this final issue (there's no reference to Lois and Clark's planned offspring here, bar the final page - and even then, it's ambiguous), but I'd much rather that Morrison leave things open-ended than artificially tie up every plot point from each of his dozen issues just because it's the end of the series.
Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant's visuals are as impressive as ever, and I'm really going to miss their work on this book now that their run is over. Quitely's designs (for the characters, the city of Metropolis, and the many and varied concepts that Morrison has come up with over the course of these twelve issues) have quickly becoming accepted as the definitive take on the world of Superman, and he yet again breaks new ground with this issue, giving the opening "afterlife" sequence an effective dreamlike quality that leaves it pleasingly open to interpretation as a result. Every one of Quitely's lines infuses his characters with personality, whether it's the sneering curled lip of a Lex Luthor who thinks that he's already won, or the posture and facial expressions that convey the indefatigable spirit of Superman, holding Lex off to the bitter end.
The issue's fight sequence is well-paced and dynamically drawn, with a variation of perspectives that helps to keep things visually interesting and underscores the rhythm of the scene. In a rare instance for this series, several super-powered punches are thrown, and every one feels as though it connects with a real sense of weight and power. Smaller touches are equally well-executed, such as the shot of Luthor employing his x-ray vision to hunt for Superman (in which Quitely meticulously renders a network of three-dimensional sewer pipes and laddering under the street). There's an occasional lack of detail in the backgrounds of panels - many of which are left blank, and filled with an expanse of a single colour - but I can't decide whether that's an omission on Quitely's part or a conscious attempt to encourage the reader to focus on the central characters rather than any outside factors.
Whilst I'm tempted to give this issue 4.5 or even 5 bullets to reflect my feelings about the series as a whole, I can't overlook the few minor flaws that make the issue fall just short of perfection. In addition to the criticisms outlined above, I found the manner in which Superman drains Luthor's powers to be a little too vaguely-described for such a major plot point. It's reminiscent of the arbitrary way in which the Kryptonians of issue #9 were defeated, and I'm surprised that Morrison would allow such a key moment to be rooted in such a flimsy faux-scientific premise. Then again, perhaps Morrison doesn't want us to think about these details, and would prefer us to suspend our disbelief when faced with the kind of wacky Silver Age concepts that the series has employed so often, to such enjoyable effect.
Despite this final issue not quite reaching the heights of some previous installments, I have no doubt that this 12-issue run is going to be remembered as one of the defining takes on the character. All-Star Superman has been an imaginative, unique, and unexpectedly emotional interpretation of the Superman legend, and a milestone achievement in the superhero genre altogether. I'm already starting to feel sad that we haven't got another issue to look forward to in future, and I can only hope that the two creators decided to collaborate again in the near future, because I've grown very fond of my regular fix of Morrison and Quitely.
What did you think of this book?
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