This is one half of a two-part examination of Superman. Read the flip side in The Tender Human Heart of Superman – “Superman for All Seasons.”
Superman is a character whose iconic nature, world-shaking powers, and religious symbolism place him amongst the pantheon of ancient heroes like Hercules and Samson. In essence, Superman is the modern era’s defining mythological figure, but his decades of monthly comic book stories, numerous films, and endless merchandising have made him into a figure that transcends cultural boundaries in ways that ancient characters never could. While that grandiose nature and nearly unchanging character dynamic may turn him into a monolithic and monotonous protagonist in the hands of less skilled writers, the best writers can turn it into something far more inspiring and deeply affecting.
Writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely’s 12-issue miniseries All-Star Superman, which ran from November 2005 through October 2008, is like someone took the heroic cycle which defined the ancient odysseys of old and injected it with hyperkinetic science fiction that strives ever toward the future. This is Morrison’s magnum opus on Superman, a tale that simultaneously seeks to do everything possible with The Man of Steel while also telling the classic story of good triumphing over evil against all odds.
Disconnected from all continuity except for his classic origins, All-Star Superman is a standalone tale that finds Superman, aka Clark Kent, aka Kal-El, slowly dying due to his body absorbing too much solar radiation during the rescue of a spaceship on the surface of the sun. Right at the start of issue 1, Superman is told that he has limited time before his superpowered cells die out. He’s also been given greater powers than ever, losing his vulnerability to Kryptonite and becoming far smarter than he ever was. From there, we trace Clark as he seeks to make the most of his remaining time on Earth, from saving lives to showing both individuals and the world as a whole as much love as he possibly can. This is a Superman whose gift to the world is not just heroic rescues, but a better and brighter tomorrow.
But don’t be mistaken by the death-centered impetus of the narrative, All-Star Superman is not a dark and grim story by any means. Rather, it is suffused with a hope, brightness, and optimism that emanates from every page. Even when Superman is faced with the worst creatures in the universe, there is a constant sense of fun, adventure, and sparkling creativity. Superman himself is no downer either. Rather, his limited time has empowered him to even further embrace the hope and light that is central to his character. Superman is at his most Christ-like here, embracing both his human and godly sides in full. There’s a beatific nature to his struggles, an enlightened nature to his actions that informs even his most human moments. In the end, it’s his wisdom that becomes his greatest strength. Death and sacrifice need not even be part of the conversation to see that the Kal-El of All-Star Superman is a benevolent god, one who smiles down upon the world with love and walks amongst its people with true compassion.
Superman’s struggles are just as mythic as he is, presenting various challenges in each of the 12 issues that echo the mythological labors of Hercules. Early on, time travelling adventurers Samson and Atlas tell Superman that history says he completed 12 Super-Challenges before his death – including the creation of life, escaping from The Underverse, overthrowing the Sun Tyrant, answering the unanswerable question, and more. While those challenges play out over the course of the series, they do not result in a rigid and predictable structure. Rather than having one play out in each issue, Morrison makes the layout of All-Star Superman far more unpredictable and far more satisfying. While some issues may feature bombastic battles and mind-blowing worlds, the true focus of each issue is actually on Superman’s relationship with someone. Lois Lane provides Superman with the closest human connection he has ever had. Jimmy Olsen is the everyman inspired by his hero and friend. Professor Leo Quintum is the genius who strives to make the world a better place alongside Superman. Lex Luthor is the genius whose pride has turned him against the hero and squandered his true potential. Even one-issue characters like Zibarro and the Kyptonians Bar-El and Lilo provide another reflection of the hero.
By centering on smaller stories that comprise the larger narrative, Morrison is able to balance the mythological with the man. The mind of a Superman who has had his intellect and capabilities heightened further than ever before is, to a degree, unknowable as a person. However, if Superman is a greater god than ever before, he remains an intimate one. That juxtaposition is most keenly seen within his relationship with Lois Lane. Shortly after learning of his fatal diagnosis, Superman decides to reveal the fact that Clark Kent is actually Superman. However, she refuses to believe this is true and instead sees it as an elaborate ruse. Not only that, but when he invites her over for dinner, she quickly begins to believe him to have ill intentions for her, mostly due to her infection with a paranoia-causing virus. When he crafts a supersuit for her and grants her with superpowers akin to his own for 24 hours, they grow closer than ever. However, she still does not believe his identity reveal and can only understand the worldview granted by his powers while she can experience them for herself. By the end, it’s clear that Superman intends on proposing to her, but never has the chance.
It’s not that Lois is ignorant or wrongheaded, it’s simply that Superman exists on another plane of existence that ultimately distances him from the people he loves so much. But that doesn’t stop him from fiercely and truly loving them. Only when she learns that he is dying does Lois fully understand Superman and is granted a greater wisdom concerning the hero and the world as a whole. While a romance between Superman and Lois is a given in most stories about the hero, Morrison makes sure to have it be the backbone to much of the more dizzying sci-fi elements of the series.
One of the greatest challenges for any writer creating a Superman story is to devise believable challenges for one of the most powerful superheroes in existence. Here, Morrison makes Superman far stronger than average, yet never loses the stakes of the story. That’s because the obstacles he must overcome more often come in the form of intellectual and emotional challenges. While the climax of the series sees Superman battling a physical threat, many of the issues prior to the finale focus on what he must do to improve the world or care for a loved one. It’s clear that Morrison has a love for the grounded Superman of the early days of the character, the iconic hero portrayed by Christopher Reeve in 1978’s Superman the Movie, and the trippy, kitschy science fiction stories that made up much of the ‘50s and ‘60s comics starring the character. Here, he blends them in a way that feels cohesive, much like his work involving Batman during the late 2000’s.
It’s all brought to life by Morrison’s frequent artistic collaborator Frank Quitely, who evidently has a deep understanding of the author’s storytelling sensibility here and in their many other works. Quitely works in a highly detailed manner that makes his often outlandishly designed character feel textured and human. Each character is composed of wrinkles, lines, and palpable clothing details that make them feel far more immediate. From panel to panel, each character moves in a human manner, often captured at moments that may seem awkward, but add a far greater sense of movement than the average comic book artist. Yet, Quitely still makes these panels feel iconic and emblematic of the heightened reality of a superhero story. It’s a balancing act that makes his work immediately identifiable and consistently helps bring narrative cohesion to a story that is jampacked with enough detail, locations, and characters as to be confusing in the hands of a lesser artist.
Beyond the wild adventures, Morrison makes sure to take time to focus on Superman himself. In issue #6, “Funeral in Smallville,” readers are suddenly thrust back into the past to see a young Clark Kent at a crossroads. Close to graduating college, Clark has returned to Smallville as he questions whether he should stay in his home town or move to Metropolis. Taking time to speak with childhood friends Lana Lang and Pete Ross as well as his adopted parents, this is the quietest issue of the series and the one that has the most in common with Jeph Loeb’s Superman for All Seasons. Of course, this quickly becomes far more complex as a team of Supermen from the future arrive to stop a rampaging time travelling monster. In the end, it’s the death of Jonathan Kent and Clark’s grief which inform the reasons behind the issue and give greater insight into Superman’s personality.
Not only that, but Morrison uses “Funeral in Smallville” to begin seeding elements of a larger narrative that is only briefly touched on throughout the course of All-Star Superman. Clark meets future generations of Supermen, all of whom come from his bloodline. But if Clark is destined to die, what is the origin of these heroes? And who is the Golden Superman who arrives to meet him by the issue’s end? To spell it all out would be to spoil the conclusion of All-Star Superman and take away the joy of re-reading the series to uncover the many layers crafted by Morrison. The richness and depth of the series is the result of intricate plotting and mostly self-contained issues that weave together and create a stronger whole. While these threads intertwine with Morrison’s DC One Million, readers do not need the extended reading to be powerfully impacted by the narrative here.
But if there is a magnum opus within the larger magnum opus of All-Star Superman, it is the astonishing “Neverending” – issue 10 of the 12-part series. Closing in on his death, the story tracks a single day in the life of Superman as he sets out to accomplish everything he possibly can. Told in a non-linear but narratively cohesive form, Morrison jumps between Superman and Professor Leo Quintum’s plan to give the bottle city of Kandor a new chance at life, Superman’s creation of a miniature universe to see what life on an Earth without him would be like, and the many small things he does to improve the lives of others. The result is a blend of heady meta-commentary on the real world’s creativity and countless shining examples of Superman’s good heart. Moments like a single page of Superman saving a suicidal teenager stand on their own as finely crafted miniature stories, but as a whole they are so much more powerful. Combined with Quitely’s evocative art, “Neverending” is the most emotional issue of the entire series, with Morrison wringing every single drop out of each page without ever feeling cheap or abrupt. It’s most certainly one of the greatest single issues of a Superman comic book ever produced.
By the conclusion of All-Star Superman, Morrison has crafted a monumental story that is truly worthy of its iconic hero. Powered by the mythological heart of Superman, Morrison and Quitely craft a story that is simultaneously grandiose and personal, touching on every aspect of the character without feeling overburdened by its scope. Like the intimate story of Jeph Loeb’s Superman for All Seasons, Morrison takes the strengths of his hero and pushes them as far as they can go. All-Star Superman is the modern myth at its purest form and the embodiment of what has made Superman into the modern era’s most iconic hero.