Sunday, October 11, 2009

Review - All Star Superman

All Star Superman
Written by Grant Morrison; Art by Frank Quitely
2006 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
2009 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series

I'm a bit fuzzy on the categorization of All Star Superman. It was planned as a twelve issue limited series and ran for twelve issues to tell one story but was awarded "Best Continuing Series" rather than "Best Limited Series". Irregardless of what category it should have won for this series deserves accolades. It is the distilled essence of Superman; arguably the most iconic character of the twentieth century filtered down to one story that puts it all into perspective.

Superman is dying. A trap by his arch enemy Lex Luthor has left him poisoned and with only weeks to live. As he tries to come to grips with his own mortality he seeks to make peace with the woman he loves, tries to find a cure for his affliction, and seeks to leave a worthy legacy behind.

One of the problems with the monthly format for comic books is that there has to be a next issue. When it comes to corporate owned characters they have to keep making comics and as time goes on they become cyclical as creator after creator churn up the past to put forward their preferred version of things. All Star Superman doesn't have that problem because right from the outset it is clear that this is a story intended to stand apart from the ongoing comics. Morrison effectively throws out everything except a handful of concepts that he wanted to play with. That makes this a story where anything can happen.

For much the same reason when it comes to superhero comics I generally apply a caveat that if you don't like superheroes then a story probably won't be for you. The reason for that is while I enjoy superhero comics I also recognize the inherent absurdity of them and the fact that readers have to accept many genre conventions that exist for no good reason in order to enjoy them. I'm not going to say that about All Star Superman. Superman is an iconic figure and for all the talk about superheroes being "modern mythology" All Star Superman is one of the few times that I can feel that at work.

Morrison captures the messianic influences in Superman as a character beautifully. This is a Superman who fits the übermench form. He's a being that has transcended humanity to provide benevolence to the world. And instead of showing that in having him punch a lot of villains until they fall over or putting out forest fires with his breath All Star Superman presents him as a seeker of knowledge capable of unending compassion. This is an aspect to the character that would be impossible to star in the roughly two thousand monthly comics that have featured him but for a story with such a tight, laser like focus it works. For the sake of this story it doesn't matter that Superman is perfect since it's about the world interacting with him instead of the other way around.

The story is very episodic in nature as each issue of the comic comprises almost one complete tale. So you get the story of Lois Lane having dinner with Superman and once it's over they move on to deal with a story about how disturbed Lex Luthor is or one about a pair of replacement heroes or the worst day of Superman's life. The key is that even though there are twelve separate stories they're all tied into the original theme and just look at it from a different angle.

I'm giving Quitely the short shrift here since as terrific as Morrison's story is Quitely's art isn't quite perfect. That is not to say that I didn't like it but I'm aware that it is an acquired taste. Quitely draws his figures in a way that's best described as "lumpy" as opposed to the ultra-sleek styling of most superhero artists. I find that I appreciate it for being so distinctive and I think that it helps All Star Superman because it showcases the imperfections in people. This gets a real showcase in the second volume where one of the stories deals with a planet that is all about imperfection.

Before All Star Superman came along there was exactly one story that I could point to for what makes Superman great. Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? had a similar theme but with less space available to it Moore couldn't manage the tableau that Morrison creates in All Star Superman. I am prepared to say that this is it for the foreseeable future; there is no need for another Superman story after All Star Superman. It's good enough to stand in for all of Superman's history.