All-Star Superman #8

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Nicholas Slayton

Nicholas SlaytonAll-Star Superman is a title that I have not been able to get into. I heard all the hype and the love for it, so I went out and bought the first two issues. Personally, I didn’t get it. For me, it was decompressed, boring, plain, and didn’t feel like Superman. Where are the heroism, the simple humanity, and the grounded interactions between characters? 

Don’t get me wrong, Morrison has had some good stories, but I just think he makes things weird for the sake of being weird rather than, say, telling a good, straightforward story. He’s kind of become caught up in his own reputation that he just continues to do wacky stuff.

Still, for all my apathy and dislike for All-Star Superman, I picked up this issue on the urging of a few friends. I figured, hey, it’s Bizarro, he’s always a fun character, so why not? Three dollars down the drain.

Picking up from the previous issue, Superman is stranded on the Bizarro world, sinking into the Underverse, and without his powers. He’s met up with Zibarro, a Bizarro gifted with a normal mindset and brilliant memory. Now he has to get out before all is lost. Well, sort of. 

The story should be a tense race against time to escape the backwards planet, with Superman as a desperate hero doing everything he can to get back to Earth. Instead, he just kind of walks around. Rather than a truly tense story, the issue comes across as an attempt at a joke, a failed joke at that.

Thom Young: I agree with you that the story isn’t the tense “race against the clock” that might have helped some readers feel more emotionally invested in the story. However, a race against the clock would have made Superman’s escape one of his “Herculean (or divine) labors.” Instead, his escape from the Underverse turns out to be one of Superman’s “mundane labors”—but that’s not as bad a thing as it sounds.

As I mentioned in my review of issue #6, the intersecting of the divine and the mundane has been evident throughout this series, and I continue to believe that Morrison is actually giving us these two sets of “twelve labors.” I’m still convinced that Morrison’s intent for this limited series is to have Kal-El perform twelve seemingly mundane feats that are profound examples of heroism and “simple humanity.”

And how can you not see Lois’s realization of Superman’s impending death (and thus the implications of his recent actions) as anything other than an example of the simple humanity in the story and of “grounded interactions between characters”?

Thus far, the twelve seemingly mundane labors—or “labors of simple humanity” (a term that I like even better, thanks, Nick)—include such things as Superman revealing his Clark Kent identity to Lois Lane; proclaiming to Lois his love for her; attempting to understand, forgive, and possibly reform Lex Luthor; and visiting his adoptive father on the day that he (Jonathan Kent) died.

I continue to believe that Morrison’s intent is to show that the truly remarkable feats in life are those that include such things as expressing love for another person, being honest and truthful with the person you love, helping your friends when asked, and letting a dying parent know that you’re proud of the way you were raised and that the parent can be proud of his or her child, et cetera.

Slayton: Funny you should mention the Lois scene, Thom. It was one of the main detractors of the issue for me. Rather than show concern or worry, Lois came across as simply apathetic to the whole issue. She came across as if she were investigating a story. True, she’s a reporter, but she just found out the man she loves is dying. Why doesn’t she show any emotion?

Young: I didn’t see Lois’s reaction as one of either apathy or distancing. I saw it as a combination of two conflicting reactions. First, she experiences shock as she struggles to process this disturbing information of Superman’s impending death. Second, she is trying not to give too much away to Quintum—such as the fact that she knows Superman’s secret identity.

In other words, Quintum’s revelation about Superman’s impending demise causes Lois to immediately reflect on this information in the whispered remark to herself on page 7, panel 3 while also trying to hide her personal interest in Superman’s plight. However, we actually do see the emotional reaction you were expecting, but it’s subtle. It’s in her furrowed brow on page 7, panel 1 and in her shocked expression on page 7, panel 2.

Getting back to one of your other complaints, I don’t believe Morrison’s concepts are ever just “weird for the sake of being weird”—and this story is no exception. However, if ever there was a time when Morrison could include a concept that’s bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, it’s in a bizarro story set on Bizarro-Earth.

I think the problem for a lot of readers who might believe that Morrison is often weird for the sake of being weird is that his stories so often deviate from their expectations of what superhero comic book stories are supposed to have in them. The conventional expectation of what superhero stories should be like is probably related to your own feeling that there should be a tense race against the clock in this story. 

I fully understand the conventional expectation, but it’s a limited way in which to approach a story. In my review of All-Star Superman #6, I wrote the following about the possibility that Morrison is giving us two separate sets of twelve labors that Superman must perform:

One set (the seemingly divine set) includes the obvious stereotypical super feats found in mythologies and comic books—including such things as answering the unanswerable question of the Ultra-Sphinx, escaping the Underverse, and chaining the Chronovore. (Other such “super labors” that have been mentioned in the series are Superman eventually creating life and overthrowing the Tyrant Sun).

However, with this latest issue, I need to amend that earlier view since it’s now been shown that “escaping the Underverse” is not one of the “divine” Herculean labors. Before this issue, I had pictured Superman’s escape from the Underverse as a mighty struggle in which he would use every iota of his super strength to break through the barrier separating the Underverse from the “Oververse.” Your “race against the clock” would fit into this expectation.

However, that scenario is based on what I came to expect as I grew up during the so-called “Bronze Age” of comics in which Neal Adams drew a memorable picture of Superman strapped in a colossal harness so he could tow the Earth (or maybe he was towing the moon away from the Earth—something like that anyway). Instead, Morrison has Superman passively escape from the Underverse. 

With his superpowers fading due to the sunlight slipping into the red part of the spectrum as Bizarro-Earth descends back into the Underverse, Superman has to convince the bizarros to help him escape. Using the bizarros’ so-called backwards language, Superman coerces them into building a small spacecraft modeled after the one that brought him to Earth from Krypton when he was an infant.

The infant-sized craft symbolizes that Kal-El is once again escaping a doomed world that has resulted in the death of his “father”—the bizarro Jor-El named Le-Roj who sacrifices himself on a funeral pyre so that Bizarro-Earth can fall into a state of entropy (an event that evoked Thomas Pynchon’s “Entropy” for me).

Then, when the fuse to the bottle rockets can’t be lit, Superman performs further coercion by convincing Bizarro #1 to hurl the craft and Superman into the Oververse. Obviously, that scenario is far from Superman performing a Herculean labor that required his super powers. In fact, it’s actually Bizarro #1 who performs an apparent Herculean task. 

In other words, Superman’s escape from the Underverse must actually be one of the “labors of simple humanity.” It’s Superman’s achievement in fostering cooperation between members of at least two (and possibly three) cultures whose social philosophies seem to be in direct opposition to each other. 

To put it in Postmodern terms, Superman was able to get the mainstream culture (in this case, the bizarros) to work for the benefit of “the Other” that was in their midst (in this case, Superman). Of course, there is another “Other” in the story as well—Zibarro, who is akin to Superman only in that he is a “flawed” bizarro, but he’s something other than Superman as well.

The problem I had with the idea of Superman fostering cooperation between the bizarros and himself (as “the Other”) is that it was achieved through coercion rather than through true cooperation. 

Instead of meeting the bizarros on their own terms and trying to understand their culture, Superman simply uses the bizarro “language” to motivate them into doing what he wants them to do (because bizarros are skilled at constructing things out of garbage). However, there’s no sense that either side actually has a true understanding of the other’s culture.

Slayton: While there is quite possibly a subtext with the Zibarro subplot and the idea of an “Other,” Zibarro really serves no purpose. While the idea of a normal being in a land of bizarros is unique, he does not really contribute much to the story aside from whine. 

Superman is trapped on a planet falling into the Underverse, sans powers, and dying slowly from the effects of the Underverse, and Zibarro does nothing to help. He demands everything from Superman, but gives nothing in return. 

Young: I’m glad you brought up Zibarro’s role in the story. Zibarro represents “the Other” more significantly than anyone else in the story. He is “Other” to the bizzaros as well as to Superman.

In light of his work that he wants Superman to read, Zibarro is a misunderstood artist who is seen as bizarre by the mainstream society and whose work is largely unappreciated. In this case, Zibarro is the bizarre member of the mainstream bizarro society. 

In all probability, Zibarro is essentially an analog for Morrison—especially after he reads reviews that claim his works are simply bizarre for the sake of being bizarre when he knows that he had a purpose for the so-called bizarre aspects. However, there is also evidence that Morrison is one step removed from Zibarro as his analog.

One of the things I noticed that Morrison hints at in the story is that both Zibarro and the mainstream bizarro society are able to appreciate the aesthetics of a sunset in their own way. For instance, on page 3, Zibarro laments, “Must only Zibarro see the beauty in a sunset?” (panel 2).

He believes himself to be unique among the bizarros as the only one who sees such beauty, but he is actually unable to understand that the bizarros have their own aesthetics that are rooted in their own symbolic concepts—as the bizarro woman in the next panel remarks about Zibarro, “Him no am think beautiful sunset am ugly like us!”

Given that the bizarro language is opposite, her statement “Him no am think beautiful sunset am ugly like us” translates to “he doesn’t think the ugly sunset is beautiful like we do.” What the woman is essentially saying is that she finds it incredulous that Zibarro believes the sunset is ugly instead of beautiful because she doesn’t understand his aesthetic anymore than he understands the bizarros’ aesthetic. 

Both sides fail to understand the other culture because both sides refuse to attempt to understand the symbolic logic of the other. I think it’s significant, though, that Quitely drew the image of a rosebud on page 21 as the Bizarro world collapses into the Underverse—which would imply that Bizarro-Earth was a beautiful rose in full bloom before it began its descent and subsequent collapse.

Slayton: Quite possibly the most aggravating scene of the whole book, though, was Zibarro asking Superman to read his work. I thought Superman was in a race against time to escape the planet, but instead he sits back and reads it over. It is yet another factor that detracts from what should have been a tense story. Rather than give our hero someone to play off, Morrison’s creation only whines and complains, dragging the issue down further.

Young: Zibarro said that Superman might not have time to look at his writing, but he had hoped he might find the time. In fact, it doesn’t appear as if the spacecraft is anywhere near being completed at that point—so why wouldn’t Superman have time? 

On page 18, Superman claims to have looked at Zibarro’s work, which means it occurred off panel. The only time he could have looked at the writing is if there is a time lapse between the events on the bottom of page 14 and the top of page 15—and there must have been such a time lapse since the bizarros only started building the spacecraft on page 11 (though there also appears to be a time lapse between pages 12 and 13).

If there was a time lapse between pages 14 and 15, then it’s understandable that Superman would look at Zibarro’s writing since there’s not much else for him to do except wait for the bizarros to finish building the craft he designed. (Meanwhile, Le-Roj was building his funeral pyre). 

Slayton: Morrison’s handling of some bizarro aspects fall flat. The bizarro-Justice League feels like it was thrown in as a gimmick, rather than contributing to the overall plot. The oddest part of the book involves the bizarros singing an opposite version of the Star Spangled Banner. Why? What for? They have no reason to, and it just comes across as page filler.

Young: I agree that the Bizarro-Justice League (“Bizarro-Green Lantern” and “No Bizarro-Flash,” actually) seemed to serve little purpose other than as an allusion to the Weisinger-era Superman stories in which there was a Bizarro-Justice League on Bizarro-Earth. However, I don’t really have a problem with them appearing. In fact, I was disappointed that we didn’t get the Bizarro-Lois Lane that would have also harkened back to those Silver Age stories.

As for the singing of a backwards “Star-Spangled Banner” as Le-Roj burns to death on his funeral pyre: It’s as Le-Roj said, “The ceremony is over! The all-night is coming to an end!” 

The song and his death are the ceremony that marks the beginning of the state of entropy that they call “the all-night.” Ceremonies (or rituals) are another form of symbolic expressions that cultures use to create meaning within their existence. 

What’s more, the bizarros’ constant use of the verb am as an auxiliary verb in statements that have an active verb indicates that the concept of “existence” is a central theme in their culture—such as, “Me am say hello to firework after whisper ancient bizarro anthem” (which seems to mean, “I exist to say goodbye to Superman and his spacecraft after we loudly sing our new anthem”).

Within the plot, the “ancient” (new) Bizarro-anthem is part of the ceremony celebrating (lamenting?) their world’s descent into the Underverse and the entropic all-night that awaits them. 

This celebratory ceremony is made evident in the opening lines of their anthem, “No say, am no see by am night’s early dark! / How shamefully quiet by am morning’s first fading.” Rather than a true reversal of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” those opening lines are about the entropic state of existence of the “all-night” into which their world is falling.

Bizarro-Earth is undergoing a death, and this song marks that event, “No say does am star-spangled shroud hang limply! / Under land of no free! Am us home cowardleeeee!” 

Rather than a star-spangled flag, they have a star-spangled funeral shroud that hangs limply (or lifelessly) under their land in which they are not free. The only thing I question is whether the last line means that they are facing their entropic existence “cowardly” or “bravely.”

In addition to that plot element, the Bizarro-anthem also has much to do with the theme of the story (a mainstream society and “the Other” that lives within it). As a twisted version of the national anthem of the United States, the Bizarro-anthem may be a comment on the current state of a country that was largely colonized and nationalized by “Others.”

The culture of the U.S. is largely based on the ideas of the Calvinists who settled in New England as they sought to escape religious persecution in England. Similarly, the American Revolution was mostly orchestrated by Deists (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, et cetera) who often kept their religious beliefs to themselves so as to not draw the ire of their theistic neighbors.

In this sense, the Bizarro-anthem may be viewed as a comment on the irony of attitudes towards anything that is different or that won’t be assimilated into the mainstream American culture. 

Finally, let’s not forget that the British have often thought it bizarre that the lyrics of the U.S. national anthem are sung to the tune of a 200-year-old English drinking song (“The Anacreontic Song”)—so there may be something there that you and I (as American readers) don’t fully appreciate. Perhaps our colleague Dave Wallace would be able to comment on that.

Slayton: Another problem I had with the book is the dialogue. It is stilted and forced, lacking any sort of natural flow. Granted, most lines come from the bizarros, but Superman’s conversations with Zibarro, or Lois’s meeting with Doctor Quintum feel unnatural.

Superman has always had a very human feel in speech, and the supporting cast normally sounds like everyday, friendly people. Here, they read like robots in a bad B-movie. Morrison destroyed a very integral part of Superman to give us concepts that don’t really matter. Shame.

Young: Well, I think the main motif in this story is language (and other symbolic systems)—specifically the use of symbolic systems as the foundation for cultural ideologies—so I think some of that may be what you’re reacting to. However, I didn’t find Lois’s dialog to be unnatural in any way—except, of course, that she is trying to hide her emotional reactions from Quintum. I found her stifled emotional reaction to be quite “natural” given the circumstances.

My only real problem with the issue (and the reason I didn’t give it five bullets) is that Morrison didn’t have Superman actually achieve the greater feat of understanding the bizarro culture while simultaneously getting the bizarros to understand how his own needs would benefit them. I initially viewed this lack of achievement as a flaw in Morrison’s story.

However, during our discussion here, I’ve come to the idea that Morrison may have been trying to present the content of the story as a projection of its form (a Postmodern approach) by creating a formally “flawed story” that gives greater meaning to the content of a story about cultures that believe that which is opposite of them (“the Other”) is flawed.

Of course, some of our readers will see my idea here as an attempt to defend Morrison’s writing by any means necessary—but I hasten to point out that I found Morrison’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel and Batman#658 to be very poorly written. 

In Arkham Asylum, he bludgeons his readers over their heads with symbolism that the characters in the story actually point out in their dialog so that the reader can’t miss it, and in Batman #658 the point of view of the narrative has several mechanical problems.

In the case of All-Star Superman #8, though, it shouldn’t be difficult to believe that Morrison may have decided to intentionally flaw some of the formal aspects of a story that is about seeing others as flawed. After all, he’s a writer who greatly considers the formal aspects of his stories in relation to their content.

The bizarros see Zibarro and Superman as flawed. Conversely, Zibarro and Superman see the bizarros as flawed. Thus, instead of giving us a story in which the characters realize their respective “Other” is not “flawed” but merely different, Morrison gives us a flawed story in which the best thing that can be achieved is that Superman uses the language of “the Other” in order to coerce that opposing culture to do what he wants.

Morrison’s formal flaws in the story seem to also extend to the bizarro language that Superman uses to his benefit. Morrison didn’t “perfect” the supposed imperfection of the language. For instance, sometimes the bizarros appear to use the correct noun for what they mean (such as using attention for attention), and sometimes they obviously use the opposite noun for what they mean (such as hello for goodbye or warm for cold).

Slayton: When it comes to the art, it also leaves much to be desired. Frank Quitely’s art feels rather plain. The anatomy for most characters is quirky, and the art is sketchy, never really feeling smooth at any point. Some facial expressions fall flat, such as Zibarro grinning while at the same time begging and whining in grief. The backgrounds in all the scenes are lacking, merely a single color without any sort of detail. The coloring is good, if overly bright and colorful, distracting the eyes at times.

Young: I think the sparse backgrounds are intentional. They’re indicative of the wasteland that is Bizarro-Earth—especially as it slips into its state of entropy. The anatomy of the bizarros is supposed to be quirky, and I don’t think Quitely has quirky anatomy for the three “normal” characters (Superman, Lois, and Quintum).

Slayton: I picked up this issue, as well as the previous one, in an attempt to get back into the series. I tried to understand the apparent genius of the series, and I guess I failed. On all counts, the issue failed for me. The dialogue was poor, the characterizations paper thin, and the art failed to appeal to me. 

As a Bizarro story, it was boring and lacking. As a Superman story (especially one claiming to be “All-Star”), it felt to me that it had destroyed the essential parts of what I love about Superman to make what felt like one big joke. A big joke that failed. Once again, I will drop this book, shake my head, and go read good Superman comics.

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