This post was originally published on my now defunct site, New to Comics.
New to Comics is a segment where I look at various comic-books, explaining their background, reviewing them, and breaking them down for readers unfamiliar to the medium. The title is a reference to a former university project that I carried on as its own site for several years before laying it to rest.
Having looked at Watchmen last week, we’re moving on to our first theme of this new New to Comics era; ‘Super-heroes’. And so, the obvious place to start is with the first proper superhero himself… Superman!
There are lots of different Superman stories out there, what with the character having been around since 1938, but for now, I’ve opted to look at Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.
Published by: DC Comics
Written by: Grant Morrison
Art by: Frank Quietly
Real Name: Kal-El
Affiliation: The Justice League
First Appearance: Action Comics #1 (April 1938)
Born on the planet Krypton, ‘Clark Kent’ was sent to the planet Earth by his father, Jor-El, who feared their home planet’s destruction, but in their hubris, his peers would not listen to his warnings. Crash-landing on Earth, Clark was found by farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent, who instilled in Clark strong beliefs in ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’. Under the Earth’s yellow sun, Clark developed miraculous powers (strength, speed, invulnerability, flight, enhanced senses, ‘heat-vision’) which he used to combat injustice from the likes of vile businessman Lex Luthor and other criminals around the globe. Wanting to stay close to the action, in his civilian identity, Clark took a job at the Daily Planet, where he used his knack for writing to report on his adventures as Superman, and met his wife and the mother of his child, Lois Lane.
WHAT’s THE STORY?
All-Star Superman is a twelve issue series published between 2005 and 2008, with the intention of taking the face of superhero comics, Superman and stripping him down to his basic elements to tell a self-contained tale.
In fact, the book was meant to be part of a specialised imprint put out by DC (the All-Star line) which would narrow in on the essential elements of the characters it looked at without the constraints of the DC Universe’s extensive continuity.
Unfortunately, the imprint was short-lived, as out of the two books put out (this and All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder) only one of them was any good. Fortunately for us, today we’re looking at the good one.
When approaching writing the series, Morrison claimed that, rather than wanting to write one great Superman series, he instead wanted to write a collection of timeless Superman issues. Whether or not he succeeded in that goal is something we’ll get to later.
WHAT’s THE PLOT?
The plot see’s Superman foil yet another Lex Luthor’s mad schemes, as Luthor plots to sabotage the first manned mission to the sun. Saving the astronauts from one of Luthor’s home-grown suicide bombers, Superman absorbs more sunlight than ever before. With his powers, intellect and creativity increased a thousandfold, Superman sets out to be a better hero than ever.
However, his greater capacity for super-heroics comes at a cost – the very energies that have made him more powerful are also killing him. With time running out for the Man of Tomorrow, Superman faces off against foes like Parasite, Bizarro, Doomsday and of course, Luthor, in new and interesting ways; as he learns that it has been prophesied before his death, he will complete twelve great challenges that prove why Superman is the greatest superhero of them all.
IS IT ACCESSIBLE?
Like Watchmen, All-Star Superman also benefits from the fact that it’s its own, self-contained story. As is Morrison’s intent, the story doesn’t stick to the continuity of the ongoing Superman comics, meaning that it can have a definitive beginning, middle and end (in fact, it even starts with a brief, one-page summary of Superman’s origin, just in case you, somehow, don’t know what it is).
On top of that, it also chooses a very accessible time in Superman’s life. One where his status quo is almost as simple as can be. Yes, he has faced threats like Doomsday, Luthor and Parasite before, but in his everyday life, everything’s taken back to basics – Clark Kent works at the Daily Planet, he has feelings for Lois Lane, but, thanks to his secret identity still being intact, she doesn’t yet know he’s Superman.
In fact, pretty much anything you need to know about is explained in some line of dialogue or some cleverly referential piece of art.
‘Pretty much’ being the optimal words there, because although everything is fairly self-explanatory in terms of background and context, it does feel like the sort of read where it wouldn’t hurt to have, at very least, a basic understanding of Superman’s history.
WHAT’s THE VERDICT?
As far as just jumping into the Superman mythos goes, All-Star Superman is a great read.
The writing is fun and heart-warming, and the art is vibrant and playful. Every issue really hammers down the goodness and strength of Superman as a character, whether it be in demonstrating his heroic acts, or contrasting his perfection with the bumbling awkwardness of his Clark Kent persona.
For fans who may only ever have experienced Superman through film, this is definitely a more classic Superman; your Christopher Reeve as opposed to your Henry Cavill. It’s a Superman who cares about the common man and will take a minute out of his hectic, world-saving schedule to stop and comfort someone in their time of need.
For elements like that alone (as evidenced in the above picture) this is a comic book I would highly recommend.
However, when we look at this story in comparison to things like Watchmen, this is a very comic-book-y comic-book. Some elements contained inside could be seen as pretty extreme for your average comic-book fan, tackling some pretty zany super-science, which serves as the basis for pretty much every issue.
Sometimes it can get a bit out-of-hand, pushing the boundaries of how ridiculous both the dialogue and the situations can go. As a result, some of the issues falter, meaning that despite Morrison’s best intentions, not every issue can be considered as a timeless Superman story.
For instance, the first few issues start off strong. The final few issues are equally good. However, some of the stories in the middle are things you need to dredge through to get back to the real meat of the story, as although they can be fun and are sprinkled with touching moments, they just simply aren’t of as high a quality as the first and last few.
A saving grace of those issues is Frank Quietly’s art. While the quality of the story wavers, the art is constantly flawless. It’s an unenviable task in this modern day, pulling off Superman in his bright red trunks without making him look silly, but Quietly manages it page-after-page. Furthermore, the colours by Jamie Grant make you long for a whole different take on the film adaptations of DC’s classic superheroes, rather than the dour colour palate that floods Zach Snyder’s films.
In fact, everything about this comic would make you long for better DC movies. In these pages, Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly prove that they get Superman. They understand why he’s special. They understand the importance and the flair his supporting cast brings to his life. They understand what drives his antagonists. They understand Superman in a way that many people don’t seem to, and so, for that very reason, it’s worth stumbling through the lows (and they’re not very low lows at that) so you can witness the beauty of the highs.