Monday, April 04, 2011

Grant Morrison et al, All-Star Superman (2005-2008)

There's a[n] [All-]Star [Super]man, waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds;
There's a[n] [All-]star [Super]man, waiting in the sky,
He's told us not to blow it, 'cause he knows it's all worthwhile...

...and that's enough of that nonsense.

The first thing to be said about All-Star Superman: it is absolutely gorgeous. The contrast with the barely-adequate Dark Knight Returns is really quite shocking. I know, I know--different tools are more appropriate for different kinds of stories. And DKR probably wouldn't have worked with Frank Quitely's artwork and Jamie Grant's coloring. But it doesn't work anyway, as far as I'm concerned, so now we're right back where we started. So yeah: beautiful, restrained, evocative, sophisticated, and it provides an emotional heft that something cruder would not have done. Major kudos to that.

The second thing to be said about All-Star Superman: it is goofy as hell. Given that the overarching premise of the series is "Superman learns he's dying--now what?"--and given the rather sober art--I was sort of lulled into thinking it would not be goofy as hell, but goofy as hell it is. So, f'rinstance, in one chapter Superman gives Lois Lane a magic potion that lets her have superpowers for one day, and they're going to use them to fight lizardmen from the Earth's core, but then two random mythological superhero dudes, Atlas and Samson, show up and take out the lizards, and the two of them vie for Lois's affections. Then, a time-traveling sphinx appears 'cause they've stolen its magic artifact thing, and Superman has to answer a dopey riddle. Even the serious-ish chapter featuring the death of Kent's foster-father features goofy Supermen from the Future. Also, Krypto the Superdog*, 'cause why not?

*Wikipediain' around, I find that "Krypto had the distinction of belonging to not one but two organizations of super-animals: the 30th-century Legion of Super-Pets and the Space Canine Patrol Agents." As if that weren't delightful enough, the latter of these groups, I learn, has a "battle cry and sacred oath," which goes:

Big dog, big dog, bow, wow, wow!
We'll stop evil, now, now, now!

Don't get me wrong, though; once I got over the goofiness, I kind of enjoyed these shenanigans. My implicit assumption that this was all going to be some sort of austere, Nordic meditation on mortality was in retrospect kind of preposterous, and if it's this or Frank-Miller-ish "grittiness," I'm not going to have to think too hard about the choice. I understand that this is meant to evoke the goofier sort of silver-age heroics with a contemporary sensibility, and in that respect, All-Star Superman definitely succeeds. And, you know, I don't want to suggest that it's purely goofy. The story sometimes captures genuine Wonder, and there are parts--even amidst the goofiness (such as the one intelligent guy among the mindless creatures of the Bizzaro World where one segment takes place)--that really have emotional resonance. Also, the stone-cold viciousness of Lex Luthor is, for want of a better word, Cool. The book is not what I feel like my platonic ideal of a satisfying superhero story would look like (the jury's still out as to whether there IS anything resembling such a thing in the real world), but I can't deny its artistry.

However, I do think there's a fairly substantial problem with this work as a story qua story, which is also why I think recommending it to newcomers, as people so often do, is somewhat wrong-headed. All-Star Superman is fairly explicitly meant as a tribute to Superman: to the idea of the character and to the ethos behind him and his storied history. Which is fine--but what it means is that the story more often seems to just be gesturing in the direction of the characters and their adventures--paying tribute to their existence--than it is actually embodying these things. The signifier is overwhelming the signified, you might say. So you have the aforementioned Atlas and Samson, 'cause hey, look at the kind of silliness that superheroes got up to back in the day! There's no effort to really integrate them into the narrative in any organic way. Likewise, Krypto the Superdog; the various Supermen from the Future; a villain called "The Parasite;" Luthor's psychopathic niece*--I could go on. As a result, there's a somewhat superficial, greatest-hits-ish feel to the whole thing. Don't get me wrong--if you're a long-time Superman fan, I can easily see how this could be absolutely delightful; pure manna from heaven. But the fact remains, by the very nature of the project, there isn't any sort of deep, cohesive narrative to suck anyone in who hasn't already been indoctrinated. I don't think it's impossible that someone could write a story that simultaneously pays tribute to the character and is also deep and compelling in its own right. But it wouldn't be easy, and 'tain't no sin that Morrison didn't quite get there (I would humbly suggest that there are a few duck stories that manage this sort of thing, though I'll freely admit that my perspective is totally skewed).

*Mainly because I haven't got the first clue what context there is for this very specific over-the-top gothiness (none in the story itself, that's for sure), this to me is the funniest thing in the book:

Fact remains, though, while All-Star Superman certainly went down smoothly enough, I ultimately only found it entertaining in an incomplete, not-entirely-satisfying way.


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

I disagree on several with your contrast between The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) and the almost unrelated All Star Superman (or ASS, if you will). The decision to compare the two seems arbitrary given distance of time, matter, and import in the history of comics both as art and business.

When DKR was published its 'prestige format' (perfect bound glossy stock, with a thicker stock cover, at 1.5 times the page count) was experimental, and expected to do poorly. Instead, it buoyed the direct market; proved the potential for paberback style printing, more expensive packaging, and greater detail to overall quality; extended comics' readership amongst adults in a way the above-ground and (post-underground) black-and-white publishers had not; and purchased sometimes positive critical attention.

At the time, Varley's colours were a revelation, both in possibility and skill. Janson's inks remain the work of a pro's pro, and exhibit a boldness rarely seen even in today's mainstream. Miller's use of television as a persistent narrative device was completely new--both the general idea and his specific method are copied to this day. Miller's layouts and pacing are superb: readable for the novice, and exciting to creators. John Costanza's lettering is of similar quality. There is also a unity of vision in these disparate aspects, often lacking in assembly-line comics.

ASS is loved by fans as an ode to their knowledge of its character's history. It is not considered an achievement or sign-post of the medium. The work is not at all unified. ASS's flashy, early '80s colouring is ill matched to its often timid, neo-clean-line inking and retro story-telling. Considered by themselves (i.e. imagined as black and white, without story) Quitely's character designs are too weird to be as realistic as they are, and too realistic to be as weird as they are.

I will agree, however, that ASS is goofy.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Oh, also, I'm put off by your seeming to think you must for some reason choose between these two styles...or what? Have no pulp-inspired adventure comics? No super-hero comics? You must know there's a lot more out there: variations not just in title, but in approach, too.

6:05 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Ha. Wow. You missed my post on The Dark Knight Returns, didn't you? I only infer this because it's obvious that you would disagree with my assessment so hard that you might actually explode. While some of this is a matter of opinion, I will say that my case provides at least anecdotal evidence against the "readable for the novice" assertion.

ASS (huh huh--ass) may not be considered "an achievement or signpost of the medium," but Chris Sims characterized it as "darn near perfect," which seems to indicate some sort of more general recommendation. As I tried to make clear, I pretty much agree with you that the book would work better as "an ode to [fans'] knowledge of its character's history." I'm less trying to condemn it as fundamentally flawed than I am evaluating it from the point of view of one of them there novices.

As for the quality of the art, we will have to either agree to disagree or repeatedly hit each other until one of us dies.

Anyway, I can see how it would seem bizarre to compare DKR and ASS , but I did it for one simple reason: not counting Watchmen, these are the only two Superhero comics I've read in my adult life. When you only have two data points, the comparison is pretty hard to avoid. At any rate, the goal--not a particularly intensely sought-after goal, but the goal nonetheless--is to determine what the deal is with superheroes, and in that sense, it's not completely nonsensical to think of them in tandem; they do, after all, represent two fundamentally different approaches to the genre, and that's what interests me. I mean, to the extent that it interests me.

I probably did go a bit overboard in creating the impression that there's some sort of Manichean contrast here.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

I don't think ASS would work better as a gratifying paean to Superman's history made for his fans. Rather, I think that's what it is. At the least, that seems both its inspiration and primary function.

This is no scathing critique. The character and his history are broadly known (if typically in generalities) and widely loved. It simply means those without great affection for the character may not take too much interest in the story--assuming most who like ridiculous or silly stories involving feats of strength would already be inclined toward the man of steel.

I suppose the same may be said of any comic featuring Batman or Superman, but DKR strikes me as less centrally about Bats than ASS is about Supes. The former is at least as concerned with what it felt like to live in Manhattan during the later stages of the Cold War as it is with super-heroics.

4:39 PM  

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