For my first official weekly recommendation, it feels only fitting to talk about the original comic book hero: Superman. There are so many common misconceptions when diving in to a character like the Man of Steel. Some people say, “He’s boring”, “He’s overpowered”, and generally, “Superman is lame”. Is Superman the obvious choice when starting a blog about comic books? Absolutely. However, this choice is obvious for a reason. Superman is not only the first real comic book hero, debuting all the way back in 1938, but he also has one of the broadest appeals, once you get to know the character. In a time of dark and gritty comic book representation such as Zack Snyder’s controversial Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it can be nice to remember a brighter, more optimistic rendition of the character. Somewhere in-between the goody two-shoes conception of Superman and the brooding alien interpretation lies the true essence of the character. This essence is best embodied in 2010’s All-Star Superman, by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely.
The first thing that makes this storyline so great is its sheer accessibility for new readers. All-Star is only twelve issues long, and fairly self-contained, as the story takes place outside of the main DC continuity. In this way, there isn’t any pressure to commit yourself to years of background information and required reading. In fact, each issue of the series is its own story, connected through one overarching narrative, yet speaking to a different aspect of Superman’s world in each individual issue. Don’t be fooled by the series’ accessibility, though. No time at all is wasted on the origin of Superman, with which most readers are quite familiar. Even if you do not know anything about Superman, the origin is very straightforward, covered succinctly within the first page of the entire series. This leaves much more room to jump straight into the exploration of Superman as a fully-formed character.
Speaking of character, Morrison captures all of the key ideas behind Superman, as both a man and a symbol. All of the hope, optimism, and heroism can be encapsulated in one line repeated throughout the story: “No matter how dark it seems. There’s always a way”. To put this line into a greater context, some elaboration upon the series’ premise is required. Superman is dying, but before he reaches the end, the Man of Steel has several feats to perform for not only his loved ones, but humanity at large. While there are certain impressive physical acts, such as simultaneously arm wrestling mythical figures Samson and Atlas, the truly stand-out moments come in small acts of kindness. For example, in one beautiful scene, Superman stops to prevent a teenager from committing suicide. This scene has been shared across the reaches of the internet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it seems familiar already. Ultimately, though, this scene exemplifies Superman as a character and as an idea: he’s a genuinely good person who does everything he can, from saving the planet to simply taking the time to help one person who needs it. It’s not the powers that make Superman, it’s the heart of a farmboy from Kansas.
As a writer, Grant Morrison knocks it out of the park. Within twelve issues, Morrison demonstrates pure love for Superman’s decades of history, incorporating all of the key aspects of the character from Krypton to the Daily Planet, all the way to Clark Kent’s teenage years in Smallville. Morrison even manages to integrate some of the stranger sci-fi aspects of the Man of Tomorrow’s lore into the series, such as the Fortress of Solitude, the Bottle City of Kandor, and Superman’s disturbed clone Bizarro. While Morrison does include some rather eccentric sci-fi concepts, he also keeps the story grounded by raising big questions about fundamental aspects in the world of Superman. For example, is Superman really making the world a better place, or is he simply enabling humanity’s complacency in the face of his power? What would the world look like without a Superman? These questions are woven into the fabric of the series, even as each issue manages to be fairly episodic in nature. In this way, a larger narrative strand can be seen through the smaller, character-focused stories.
Of course, All-Star Superman simply cannot be discussed without praising Frank Quitely’s gorgeous artwork. There is such a dynamic energy given by Quitely to each of the characters. The style is so exaggerated in a really fun way, which certainly helps when it comes time for the larger-than-life sci-fi portions of the story. Superman looks more heroic and confident than ever, while Quitely creates a nice distinction between the Man of Steel and his alter ego. Clark Kent is given a timid, slouching posture, along with considerably baggier clothes, as opposed to his upright, awe-inspiring persona in bright red and blue tights. The environments are treated with beautiful detail, through magnificent splash pages at the right moments. Some character moments are perfectly captured in Quitely’s unique sense of movement, such as the introduction of Clark Kent as he stumbles into the Daily Planet.
It is almost impossible to talk about Superman without his supporting cast, which Morrison captures just as well as the rest of the mythos. Just as each individual issue serves as its own story, each story showcases a different supporting character in the life of Superman. From longtime love interest Lois Lane to Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen, arch-nemesis Lex Luthor, all the way to adopted father Jonathan Kent, Morrison demonstrates not only what makes each of these characters compelling, but the impact that Superman has on those close to him. Even scientist Leo Quintum, created exclusively for this series, serves to highlight Superman’s impact. This impact is not only on those around him, but on science in general. As the head of a special think tank named P.R.O.J.E.C.T., Quintum is inspired by Superman to make the world a better place through the exploration of other worlds similar to Krypton and even attempts at creating more Supermen to replace the Man of Steel one day.
Naturally, I can’t spend the whole time praising everything in this series, as much as I would like to. Some areas of Superman are missing, such as his connection to the larger DC Universe. It would have been exciting to see Superman’s famous partnership with Batman in this setting, along with how Morrison would have played the two off of each other. Some of Superman’s rogues’ gallery are left out as well, such as Brainiac or General Zod. Of course, with twelve issues and such a tightly woven story, there can’t be room for every inch of the Superman mythology. Furthermore, this iteration of Superman does not really illustrate much of the struggle that comes with being an alien in human society, as is characteristic of most versions of the character. With that being said, it seems to be Morrison’s intent to convey a Superman who has fully reconciled his alien heritage with his time on Earth. Superman can at once embrace the Kryptonian relics within the Fortress of Solitude, while at the same time maintaining his identity as a mild-mannered reporter in Metropolis. Glimpses are even given into Superman’s coming of age in Smallville, alongside the lessons taught to him by his adopted father Jonathan. In this way, it is not as if Morrison entirely ignores Superman’s initial struggles integrating into human society.
Overall, All-Star Superman serves not only as a great introduction to Superman, but to comics in general. It’s not just because Superman was the first hero, or that he’s the most powerful. Superman represents something that is within all of us: the capacity for good. It’s as simple as that. Even without any superpowers, we can all choose to be good to each other every single day. Superman shows us this, not only from how he chooses to save the world, but in how he chooses to treat everyone. This can be seen in his friendship with Jimmy Olsen, his inspiration of Leo Quintum, and his enduring love for Lois Lane. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely deliver a Superman who is not simply an all-powerful, unrelatable god. Rather, these two authors give the reader a man who inspires and impacts all those around him through his good deeds and kind words. In exploring the essential components of the Man of Steel, Morrison and Quitely show time and time again how much of an impact one person can make on the world. This idea inspires, and it is this inspiration which makes comics such a wonderful medium.
If you happen to pick up All-Star Superman and you enjoy it, here’s a list of other Superman recommendations:
- Superman: For All Seasons
- Superman: Secret Origin
- Superman: Birthright
- Action Comics by Grant Morrison
- Superman by Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleason
That’s all for this week! Check back in next time for another of the Comic Book Column’s weekly recommendations, and be sure to follow the page for future posts!