[Another thread in our Morrison Reading Project.]
The over-arching plot of All-Star Superman truly kicks off when Superman goes to the rescue of a spaceship on a mission to capture some of the Sun's molten substance and bring it back to Earth. Morrison names the ship the Ray Bradbury, in honour of the author of the classic Golden Age sci-fi story "The Golden Apples of the Sun" which describes a similar mission. This story is a key reference point for All-Star Superman and sheds some light on its mythic content.
On the one hand Golden Apples of the Sun is typical of classic sci-fi in that it describes what such a futuristic mission might be like "in all reality" and the challenges which the physics of it would entail. On the other, it is a beautifully poetic meditation on the Sun's place in our imagination and stories, its benevolence and its fierce power. Bradbury is a fantastic writer, and it's a must-read.
Here's a taster:
Their rocket was the Copa de Oro, also named the Prometheus and the Icarus, and their destination in all reality was the blazing noonday sun. In high good spirits they had packed along two thousand sour lemonades and a thousand white-capped beers for this journey to the wide Sahara. And now as the sun boiled up at them they remembered a score of verses and quotations:
"‘The gold apples of the sun’?"
"‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’?"
"Shakespeare, of course!"
"‘Cup of Gold’? Steinbeck. ‘The Crock of Gold’? Stephens. And what about the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end? There’s a name for our trajectory, by God,. Rainbow!"
"One thousand degrees Fahrenheit!"
I originally posted this Bradbury connection because of a reading of Golden Apples on a digital radio station, but now that that's not available, hmmmm, let's just say, someone should inform the Bradbury estate that it's very easy to google the story these days...
(Incidently, the second Bradbury story on that program, The One Who Waits was adapted, knowingly or not, into a Youngblood story by Alan Moore. Perhaps it was an homage rather than a steal?)
Issue 4 – The Superman / Olsen War.
Someone upthread stated that the first 6 issues are more focussed than the final 6. In some way, a as we shall see, a lot of the themes foreshadowed in the first 5 issues are wrapped up in issue 6. Also, each of the first 6 issues focus on a particular core aspect of the Superman mythos. The final 6 issues are possibly more diffuse as all the elements are brought together towards a climax.
Issue 4 focuses on Jimmy Olsen and it looks like Morrison has found a very clever and entertaining way of presenting the Jimmy we know from the Silver Age with a very modern spin. Jimmy as celebrity columnist whose job description entails throwing himself into a variety of outlandish roles.
I’d like to go back and reread the first 8 issues of Morrison’s current Action Comics Superman, to see how it measures against All-Star. I can’t help but think that Morrison is providing the type of stories there that suit the readers that DC seem to be targeting with their DCnU. There is a lot of sexism and homophobia in the comments sections of the likes of Newsarama and CBG. I’d imagine our knuckle-dragging brothers on those boards would go apes*** if the regular Jimmy Olsen in the comics was portrayed as a cross-dressing hipster who’s twenty times cooler than they are.
The DCnU seems to be focussed on keeping those guys on board, so a lot of Morrison’s approach in All-Star Superman might be, shall we say, pearls before swine?
Anyway, the readers that DC are currently targeting seem to want some kind of prosaic ‘realism’ in their comics, whereas this series focuses on the life-affirming mythology of superhero stories. All-Star Superman is able to do its thing without strip clubs and meaningless sex and the villains getting their eyes stabbed out.
Issue 5 – The Gospel According to Lex Luthor
It’s easy to see why All-Star Superman seemed unfocussed and meandering when it was originally being released. Each of the adventures would seem quite isolated as a standalone. Read in a single sitting, it becomes clear that a driving motivation behind each issue is Superman’s awareness of his impending death. We’ve already seen how he tries to settle things between himself and Lois, and how his fear of death was partly what drove the evil Black Kryptonite Superman of issue 4. In issue 5 there is a desperation to Superman’s attempts to make Luthor see the light and genuinely focus on redeeming himself. Clark feels this is his last chance to have this out with Luthor.
It’s another sign of how evolved this version of Superman is, that he can still only see the potential for good in Luthor. In Luthor’s case, he knows how much a scientific genius like Lex could contribute to the benefit of humanity, but we get the impression that Superman would see anyone’s death as a waste of a chance to do good and contribute to others. He’s a big-hearted, positively atuned fellow.
Superman actually doesn’t appear in this issue at all. It’s all Clark Kent, one of two core aspects of the Superman mythos, along with Lex, that get a spotlight here.
Both Clark and Lex could be seen as people whose full potential Superman gets in the way of. Anyone with all Superman’s powers normally wouldn’t go to the lengths Clark goes to become such a successful and acclaimed journalist. Clark’s career shows that the man is just as important as the Super, and that Clark has worked as hard as any ordinary person to make a success of himself. Luthor, of course, can’t see this. He blames Superman for all his misdeeds, thinking that he would have been someone powerful and respected if Superman hadn’t arrived on the scene.
This concentrated two-hander does a good job of showing Luthor’s vanity and pride, and how it keeps blinding him to what’s in front of his nose.
Issue 6 – Funeral in Smallville
The title and the cover of this issue concentrate on the death of Pa Kent, but there is a bit more going on than just endings.
Morrison has given this series a Silver Age feel and, like the comics of that era, the surface of it is clearly illustrated and beautifully easy to follow. I won’t say it is too easy to follow in places, but Morrison has layered a lot of symbolism and cultural references into the fabric of it, that in no way stand between the reader and a direct enjoyment of the story. We’ve already looked at how the simple sci-fi mission of the spaceflight to the Sun in issue 1 references Bradbury’s evocative and thought-provoking short story.
It would be unfair to expect all 12 issues of All-Star Superman to be of the same high standard, and I have to say that issue 6 stands out as one of the two or three high points of the series. The words, images and concepts in it work in harmony and it manages to further develop and even resolve some of the themes that have arisen in the first 5 issues.
Apparently just a simple setting of the scene, the gentle and lyrical opening section alone is crammed with references and poetic meaning.
The very first frame is of a Harvest Moon, glowing yellow on a late-summer evening. As well as being another variation on the light from the Sun, it immediately signals the theme of this issue. A harvest is when all the work and nurturing up to now shows results and we can finally profit from our work and provide benefits to the world. A stage is ended: the reaping is a kind of death for the crops, but it is a necessary and natural part of the cycle.
As his harvest is about to be brought in, Pa Kent is full of gratitude at what his life has provided him with. Most of all he is proud and happy that he has been privileged to be father to Clark.
As stated above, All-Star Superman presents the Superman story as a modern myth more openly than Morrison’s current Action work does. Pa actually verbalises how impossible it all seems.
“A childless couple, blessed from above with a miracle boy from another world. How does that happen? And not just any boy, but the finest young fella I ever met. Look at you!”
Myths are the stories we tell to make sense of the big issues: life and death, responsibility and punishment, time and fate. Morrison is being open that this is one of those universal kind of stories.
We get the foreshadowing of Pa’s heart attack and death, even as he discusses with Ma Kent how his son is about to start an incredible life: “He doesn’t belong on a farm.”
Finally the three ‘drifters’ arrive and ask if Jonathan needs help “for the harvest.”
So the themes of the whole issue are laid out in miniature in the first few pages. To everything there is a season and all that. A time to live and a time to die. The great circle of life, even!
As the issue goes on, it becomes clear that Jonathan has accepted that his time is up, and that he’s done all he could have in his role as Clark’s father. His humble acceptance of his place in a larger story is one of the moving aspects of this emotional tale.
The story emphasises how death is just a part of a great cycle of growth and development, and eternal renewal. The harvest symbolises this. The harvest is both joyful, and also where we get the expression ‘the grim reaper’.
Even the title is evocative and telling: Funeral in Smallville. Normally Smallville stories are about Superboy and his pals, where they are always young, with their whole life in front of them. There’s an innocence to their adventures, each of which end with them going home to their parents. Smallville in the Superman mythos is a sort of prelapsarian paradise.
To this youthful, innocent playground, Death is about to pay a visit, after which, the youthful phase of Superman’s career will come to an end, and his adult life and responsibilities will begin.
Funeral in Smallville actually echoes the meaning of ‘Et in Arcadia ego’: the words supposedly spoken by Death himself, which mean: ‘Even in the gardens of paradise, I am there.’
The rest of the issue just develops these themes. The monster the heroes fight in this issue is a Chronovore, a 5 dimensional creature that eats up the moments of our lives: time itself. Because of this time monster, Clark isn’t there when his father dies, and it’s only at the very end that we see that the modern Superman we have been following in the rest of the series has been given the chance to be with him one last time. He's been disguised as the Unknown Superman of the 46th Century, who in turn has been disguised as a drifter.
It was easy to keep forgetting when the series was first published, but in each issue Superman is acting out of the knowledge of his own impending demise. So this story is compacting the death of the father with the death of the son, increasing its universality. (The previous issue had ended with Superman being ferried on a boat on a dark underground river as if he was already dead and on Charon’s boat. That was a very natural lead-in to this issue, thematically.)
Superman must be asking himself if he can die as fulfilled as his father did, knowing that he’d brought his work to the beneficial harvest. Much of the rest of the series shows Clark trying to achieve that.
The end of issue 6 shows us young Clark preparing to leave Smallville and go on to become who he is fated to be. I found the 6th issue to bring full circle some of the imagery in the very first page of issue 1. Just as Krypton had to die to allow Clark to be sent to Earth, so too does Jonathan have to die to allow Clark to achieve his full potential. The tired and spent Red Giant sun in the very first panel takes on even more significance viewed in this light. In Jonathan’s sad death, we’ve seen part of the cycle of life enacted, but the lesson applies even at the levels of suns and stars. They too nurture while they live and in dying contribute more to the great ongoing story.
This time around, I found Clark’s funeral eulogy to be very moving. Perhaps I know more now than I did when I first read it, but it affected me on several levels. Of course it was the emotional climax of a great story about Clark’s father, but I couldn’t help reading into it what must have been Morrison’s heartfelt appreciation of what his own recently-deceased father had done for him.
Walter Morrison was an amazing man. He was a peace activist and community campaigner, who devoted as much of his life to opposing bullies and defending the weak as any superhero. Grant thought very highly of him, and Walter’s obituary makes it clear why.
“He taught me that the strong have to stand up for the weak, and that bullies don’t like being bullied back.”
But the lump in my throat probably had as much to do with how closely the words would apply to my own Daddy. A farmer all his life, who taught me much about hard work and honesty, he actually has much the same build as Quitely’s strong and burly Pa Kent, and shares with Morrison’s Jonathan Kent the philosophical outlook on life that working so closely with nature and the cycles of life and death tends to bring. (My own father probably communes better with God in the fields than in a church, just like Jonathan admits in the first scene!) He’s even given us to understand that he shares Jonathan’s satisfaction and contentment in how his offspring turned out (or at least how the rest of them turned out – hah hah!). Clark’s words would easily apply to my own Dad:
“He taught me that a good heart is worth more than all the money in the bank. He taught me about life and death. He taught me that the measure of a man lies not in what he says, but in what he does. And he showed me by example how to be tough, how to be kind, and how to dream of a better world.”
Thanks Pa, indeed!
I'm going to read Allstar Superman volume 2 this weekend and hopefully post thoughts either Sunday or Monday. Get ready, it's happening!
I finished All-Star Superman vol 2 this morning. While I think I preferred the first volume, this one ended the story strong.This volume is the end game for Superman. He still has a lot he wants to accomplish before he goes but is running out of time.
The first half of the volume is the weakest, to me, of the entire series. While I find the Bizarro concept interesting, I didn't think the this Bizarro story was all that great. It had some moments but to me it distracted from the whole focus of the overall All-star Superman story. I do like that once again we see Superman using his brain since he is powerless on the cube planet. I think his use of the bizarro language was the high point and very fun.
The replacement Superman story was to me too face paced but even slowed down I don't know if I would even like it more. It didn't hold my interest. With that said it slightly redeemed itself with the ending. We see another side of Superman, his kindness. For being all powerful, deep down Supes is a good guy. That's one of the things that I always liked about him, he does good thing because he can but also because we wants to. When he helps out the replacement Superman after the way they treated him, it was a good moment. The final page with them floating above phantom zone with authority, it was a great ending in.
The last three chapters were absolutley solid. This is Superman finishing what he started long ago. Chapter 10 was best by far. We see a day in the life of Superman. Also with the help of Professor Quantum we see him finally figure out the Kandor solution. This issue we see Superman's brain, strength, and goodness in action. The final page of chapter 10 with Superman releasing the tiny Kandorians onto the sick kids may have been my favorite part of the whole series.
The last two chapters is one big story. Lex Luthor is one bad and heartless dude. We already knew that. Morrison has made a character that is past reason and and emotion. Luthor is operating on his own plain of existence now. Once what he thought he could accomplish with power is no more. He just wants power now after years of defeat and bitterness.
Superman vs the evil sun was cool especially with the release of the Sun Eater. And Superman out smarting Luthor was just awesome. There's not much else to say about final chapters other than has probably already been said.
A big theme I picked up on from reading is that of nostalgia. A lot of times being nostaligic comes across as cheesy or an attempt to look at the past and not ahead. Here it's shown more as a reverence for what's happened before and a respect that it'll never happen again. It's established that Superman has had many, many adventures before. The threats and challenges he's facing now, he's already faced. This time he's approaching it more with the thought that he'll never face it again. He approaches with a reverence he hasn't had before. He sees the sense of greatness he has and knows that it's his duty to defend humanity as he has before and wonders at the sametime, what will happen now when I'm gone. The same goes for the reast of the characters. Typically in comics the supporting cast looks at threats as a new thing. Not here, the Daily Planet has seen all these things before and have become comfortably familiar with them. They have relied on Superman saving the day. That's what ups the ante here. Superman won't always be around, the world just doesn't know it yet.
So the final verdict. I have not read a lot of Superman stories. I don't have a lot to compare this one to. However, this may be the best take on the character. It's also not just a good Superman tale. It's a good Superhero tale. It's a full package. There's big moments with colorful villains and monsters. There's a hero that not is only powerful but is a good person. There's the admiring public. There's the since of duty. There's deep character moments. There's the respect of the past and the uncertainty of what will come. There's hope. It's a rollercoaster of emotions beautifully illustrated for us to admire.
I thought it was a pretty decent ending but I agree it left it open if Morrison would ever want to revist that world.
Robin Olsen said:
I liked All Star Superman, but did the ending really have to leave us hanging the way it did? I'm one of those old school people who believes a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I don't mean an ending to a series/character altogether, just the story being told at the moment. Of course it could be worse, I remember Spawn and Savage Dragon starting out pretty much in the middle. And Hellboy just took almost twenty years to finish the FIRST PHASE of his story. I hope Mignola's at least got a good outline wrote down somewhere, because he's probably not gonna live long enough to get to Phase Three. Geez, the Cubs might even win the World Series in the meantime (or not). Of couse, it could just be that Morrison wants to leave the door open for a sequel, but who the hell knows what he's thinking? For that matter, what the hell am I thinking? Now I'm leaving myself hanging!
Is it too soon to discuss and compare All-star Superman with Morrison's current Action Comics run?Morrison hasn't finished that run yet but it's about 12 or so issues in. I dropped it after issue 11 or 12. I know, it's so close to the finish line. It had high points here and there but it wasn't as engaging as I had hoped. I may revist once it's collected in a thick trade paperback or hardcover.
One stark difference is the portrayal of Superman in the books. The All-star Superman is your typical version of Superman except with some focus on his brain over his might. He's a do good but only gets involved when he has to. The Action Comics Supes is more of a social activist. He wants to change the world, now. He doesn't wait for a problem to blow up, he cuts it off before it can. He's also more of a loner as well. While All-star Clark Kent seems to have blended well his his colleagues, this Clark hasn't so much. But then again this Action Comics is early in his career.
Nothing wrong with taking your time to get to the good stuff. I'm known to be a bit partial to Morrison, but I only got around to reading his X-Men a few months ago. (That's quite a hold-off on Sandman though!) If you like a bit of Morrison yourself, you might want to check the link to the Morrison Reading Project at the top of the page.
Sound like you and I are simiar with our interest in Morrisson, Robin. I also love New X-men and it was how I discovered Grant Morrisson.
Figs, How's your reading going on All-star Supes? I'm looking forward to you input on the last half of the series. Also you're opinion on the comparison between All-star Superman and DCnU's Action Comics Superman. We might as well through in Morrisson's take on Superman in his JLA run.
Great work, thanks Jason! Looks like you have a good handle on what Morrison was tryinjg to do.
I'm afraid I haven't had much time to read comics or write posts in the past week or two. Some sad events to deal with in the family. But I will get stuck into the last few A*S comics over the next few days and come back with some verbiage!
There is probably some mileage in comparing A*S to the current run of Action Comics, and it'll give me an excuse to have a closer look at the Action comics too. I've only read each issue once, mostly just on the bus!
DC One Million, for what it's worth, was based around the JLA, but the central Morrison-penned spine of it is really a Superman story, that ties into A*S in a weird way. Hopefully I'm on track to at least begin discussing it come September.
You might be interested in the JLA:One Million collection, mentioned by Robin above, which collects that spine, Jason. Morrison at his most far-out and also a damn fine JLA story.
Jason, by all means have a look at Batman and Robin. Its another series I've only read 'as it came out'. Final Crisis is part of the background to it, but I don't know if you've ever tried to get your head around that. The despair and gloom got to poor Philip before he got even halfway through! (Are you going to return to that fretful territory any time soon Philip?)
The Return of Bruce Wayne, time-travelling series runs parallel to B&R, but the two only dovetail at the end. To get the best out of what Morrison did, I'd recommend reading it too, but there's plenty to enjoy in B&R without it.
For now, can you send your snail-mail address to my inbox so I can send you your hard-earned loot!
If it is what I think it is, Figs, you have my prayers.
Once more you must shame me into action! The problems were, indeed, that I was going through a "phase" and couldn't handle the Final Crisis bleekness, I read FC: Superman Beyond and couldn't make heads or tails of it, the Century/ Harry Potter debate (no hard feelings, I hope!), losing my computer for a month and the joy of being online again led me to other creative inspirations though it's still BATMAN!
I promise to return to Final Crisis *shudder* as soon as I can.