Tuesday, April 1, 2008

All Star Superman #10

All Star Superman #10
by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant.
DC Comics, 2008.

Hillary Brown: Okay, so first let me say that it's difficult generally for me just to pick up one issue of a comic. I don't like just getting a piece of the story and I read too fast, which is why I buy trades. Coming in at issue #10 makes it even more difficult. That said, Morrison does a good job giving you pieces of the background without seeming excessively expository (like, for example, J.K. Rowling, who never quite figured out how to do it perfectly for both readers of every book and readers of a particular book; it always came off a little clunky). It's clear that Superman is dying of something and has decided he needs to perform a list of great feats. That's most of what you need to know. And, luckily, I do know a bit of the Superman backstory, due at least partially to most of the seasons of Smallville but also to reading individual arcs and issues here and there (like in D.C. Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore), so I know about those Kryptonians in a bottle and a couple of other things. On to the story itself. I love Morrison's view of Superman as, essentially, God, a view that's clear from the cover of this issue, but a god that's involved in people's lives in a very personal and individual way. He might be busy saving the whole planet, but he also spends a lot of time on much smaller issues, such as helping a group of terminally ill children or stopping a suicide. There's something about that commitment to the small by a hyperpowerful being that's quite touching. Morrison doesn't think Superman is lame. He thinks he's wonderful. And there's no question that comes through. I will, however, quibble with the need for a time stamp in some panels and the fussy, mixed-up nature of the narrative in general. I'm not opposed to creative structuring, but it just feels a little unnecessarily complicated, a statement that Morrison can't do anything simple, and it comes off a little bit like the location and time jumping of a Bruckheimer film. Too harsh?

Garrett Martin: Hey, feel free to be as harsh as you need. That wasn't too harsh at all, though. But anyway, the All-Star Superman series has always been dressed up like a film - hence the movie-style credits that appear near the end of every issue - and since they're going for the largest audience possible, it would make sense to rip off Bruckheimer. Although, I don't think that's what they're doing. If you're going to compare the screwy chronology to a recent director (or producer, or whatever), I'd think Tarentino makes the most sense. There's nothing wrong with jumbling the timeline if it maximizes the drama without making the story incoherent, and All-Star Superman #10 succeeds at both points. And, really, this particular story wouldn't have much suspense or that satisfying of a climax if everything was shown chronologically.

But the structure isn't what makes this issue so great. What it comes down to is one of Morrison's defining strengths, and that is imparting the essential qualities of these ridiculous comic book characters more immediately and concisely than any other current writer. Morrison's Superman has infinite empathy and patience for mankind, and remains focused on bettering life for all of "us" even up to his deathbed. Morrison perfectly summarizes not just that but also Superman's relationships with Lois Lane and Lex Luthor in about a page each, while still finding space for both various references to past stories and crazy new ideas that fit in perfectly with the old.

When I typed "us" above, I was obviously referencing the climax of this issue, when it's revealed that Superman invented our world in order to see how humanity would get along without him. Turns out since Superman didn't exist, we had to invent him. Some critics have complained about Morrison returning again to the metafictional games that permeate his work; I don't see this as repetition, but instead the continuing refinement of one of his defining themes. Myths have power if we let them, and superhero comics can inspire us as much as any myth.

HB: Yeah. I guess I didn't mean the mixed-up chronology was Bruckheimer so much as the callouts to time and place. Bruckheimer movies only move forward. But wait. Is it absolutely certain it's our world Superman created? I guess I assumed that it was merely a parallel Earth. Did I miss something huge? Or is it that Morrison's so excited about what he gets to do that he's not always as clear as he could be. I'm not opposed to the elliptical, but when you're also dealing with back and forth in time, you have to be a little more careful, no? (Sidebar: Tom Spurgeon has a nice review of the same issue here.)

GM: I immediately recognized it as our Earth. I think we're definitely supposed to infer that, considering the Shuster-style Superman drawing at the end. If that's not Morrison's intention, then the issue loses a good bit of its resonance and impact. And honestly, I didn't have any problem with the timeline, but I guess I can see how that'd be confusing.

I'm glad you pick up on Morrison's excitement, even if you turn it into sort of a back-handed compliment. Morrison obviously loves this medium, and the superhero genre in particular, which is why his attempts to write more intellectually and emotionally mature comics don't resort to the same sordid, grim'n'gritty shock tactics as other writers.

And by the way, Frank Quitely's art is as great as ever, even if he seems to have some irrational fear of detailed backgrounds. His figures are always surprisingly emotive, both through body language and facial expressions. You can tell how greatly Superman cares for man and the Kryptonians trapped in Kandor simply by looking at him.

HB: I definitely didn't mean it to be a back-handed compliment. I guess I'm just trying to say that reading this issue in isolation without either having read the ones leading up to it or having the best knowledge of the Superman backstory (e.g., it's clear to me that that panel is a comic book artist coming up with Superman but not necessarily that it's the folks who came up with Superman in our world, and this is probably because I haven't read any early Superman) may lead to some slight disappointment. And, while I want the story to be graceful and transcendent, and it definitely leans in that direction, I find the jumping around detracts from that goal.

Quitely's art is a teeny bit blocky for me, and I think it contrasts a touch with Morrison's gentleness as a story writer, but I do like it on the whole. He does great things with that Superman curl, and I like the older-style costume. His lines could be less sketchy though. Also, is this computer colored?

GM: Yep, the coloring is digital, hence that slightly unnatural sheen. I used to dislike computer coloring, but I've gotten used to it, and Jamie Grant uses it to fine effect on All Star Superman.

Anyway, I finally read the Morrison chapter in Douglas Wolk's book Reading Comics over the weekend, and although it doesn't deal specifically with All Star Superman, Wolk does make some good points about Morrison's career and overriding themes that sort of feed into this discussion here. It's worth checking out, and maybe one day I'll click on that link above and actually buy myself a copy.


hillary said...

I think I may not like computer coloring that much, but maybe it depends on the context. It didn't bother me in The Order, but that's a flashy new comic book with a flashy new ethos, whereas All-Star Superman seems pretty enamored of tradition.

garrett said...

Yeah, it's big on tradition, but Quitely isn't much of a traditional superhero artist. If this were simple homage or pastiche than I'd agree about the coloring, and add that they should've gotten somebody to ape Curt Swan's style. But since they're using the past to create something new, or looking at tradition in a different way, or however you want to put it, both Quitely's atypical pencils and Grant's digital colors are fine.

hillary said...

They just look so hard and perfect (the colors, not the lines). Can't they soften 'em up a little?

Jerkwater Johnson said...

i love the digital colors. i normally hate that type of thing, but ASS is gorgeous. absolutely gorgeous art all the way around. quite frankly is by far far far my favorite artist. to me, no one comes anywhere close.

and for writers, i think my favorite is morrison, but perhaps i feel like the best is moore.

ASS is my favorite thing morrison has done, and one of my favorite comics ever. this issue was one of the best, maybe 2nd only to the smallville issue.

smoggo said...

all star superman is the best superhero comic being produced right now...
haven't read this issue (does this thing get published regularly?) but i will.
Quitely suprised me when i first saw his work on The Authority. it seem like bad fanzine art ( a byrne/miller homage) on first glance.
yet, i have now am enthralled by his mobieuseque backgrounds and bulky, fleshy figures. one of the most original comic artists i have ever seen.
the computer coloring of ASS is perfectly used as this version of supes is emphasizing the fantastic as opposed to the john byrne post-crisis reboot that (absurdly enough) went with a slightly more realistic approach. the colors look more european to me. i agree with dark.

garrett said...

it's regularly published whenever the hell they get around to finishing an issue.

and yeah, the coloring does look European. the entire product looks European, actually, which definitely helps set it apart from the other Superman comics being made today.

hillary said...

I don't think it's so much that the coloring needs to be more realistic. If anything, it's that I really liked the look of Kingdom Come, which has a similar outlook in terms of the importance of both traditionalism in general and Superman specifically, and I think these colors could be toned down a bit. I'm nit-picking, but that's something we can do on here.

hillary said...

Oh, hey. I know what I meant to ask about. What's up with that box from the future or whatever? I think that's what made me think the world Superman had created was not the same as ours, because I assumed that was where the box was from and its language is obviously similar to English but has followed a different evolutionary path.

garrett said...

hmm... are you talking about the infant universe of Qwewq? The giant cube that Superman stares at in a couple of scenes? That's an entire universe, a young one, in cube form. Morrison made that up back in his JLA run, and which also appears in the prologue to Seven Soldiers that ran in JLA Confidential. It's the universe within which Superman created the Earth. So I guess it's our real universe, square and boxed-in in comparison to the limitless fictional universe in which Superman exists.

hillary said...

I don't think that's what I'm talking about, but I don't have the comic with me to look. It's a message that could be a message from the future or from another universe.