[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?)
Figs said- "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?)"
I remember Batman & Robin being a one of the new series to come directly behind Final Crisis. Never gave much thought to Final Crisis being in the background. I read Final Crisis as it came out and that was good enough for me. As not a long time reader of DC the story (Final Crisis) made no sense to me whatsoever. I got that it was pulling from all sorts of places from DC's history, at least that's what I grasped, along with the story structure and pacing I became increasingly confused each issue. My issues are long gone but I guess I should try to look at it again to see if I can make heads or tails of it again. Now Batman & Robin, that I liked!
Going back to the All-star Supes vs new Action Comics Supes- here's Cap's review of the first volume of Action Comics.
Robin, you have nothing to worry about. Cap is not a thin skinned individual by any means and has always been respectful of differing viewpoints. He gets it that 100% of his readers are not going to agree with 100% of his opinions. That's what makes horse races, after all!
Robin - DC One Million actually involved every single DCU comic produced in the month of September 1998 - almost 40 comics that dealt in some way with the far-future world created by Grant Morrison. The collection you read was the central story around which the others all hung. It was quite an original and unique project. I'm surprised it doesn't really get more love and respect mention. Watch this space for some discussion on it soon.
Before I move on to discussing the final story arcs of All-Star Superman, there is something I've been meaning to add to my comments on issue 6 - Funeral in Smallville.
Having let the sheep-dog out of the bag in relation to my own upbringing on a farm, I’m in a position to query the depiction of the symbolically weighty harvest in this issue. First of all, just what the hell is Jonathon actually bringing in?
As it is Kansas, we have to assume that the big open spaces we see are wheatfields, and we have to assume that the early scenes in the book show Clark and Jonathon surveying the crop before it is harvested. The wheat will be brought in during the issue, just as Pa Kent’s true life’s work will bear fruit during the issue, when Clark makes his decision to dedicate his talents and gifts to the wider world.
Have a look at these frames from P2 of issue 6. The low, tufty stuff growing in Pa Kent’s fields looks like acres of marsh grass rather than resembling ripe wheat at all! Even if we assume that the harvest is half-in when Clark is talking to his Pa in these scenes – which wouldn’t make sense thematically, nor would it explain why the scarecrows, which would get in the way of the machinery, are still up – fields of cut wheat have a distinctive look, that these frames don’t convey. There would be a plain of short, stiff upright stalks, all about the same few inches high, and all resembling little hollow tubes when viewed close-up in the foreground of Quitely’s panels, rather than the tapered ends that he draws everywhere.
So sadly, these city-raised Glaswegians seem to have got a hugely important element of this story wrong!
Also, we only see one 60’s era tractor, which doesn’t have a safety bar (or rollbar) which would have been compulsory for the last several decades. I guess Jonathan depended on his super-powered son nipping under the tractor if it ever rolled over while he was driving it! Also, there’s none of the heavy machinery that has been necessary for bringing in a harvest for the last 50 years or so. We don’t see the huge combine harvester, nor the small fleet of heavy-duty tractors and trailers necessary to truck the grain to the storehouse several tons at a time.
Come to that, the entire harvest in this book is a bloodless, entirely metaphorical affair. There are no dramas of the fanbelts in the combine harvester inevitably breaking, no curses and weeping as the damn thing stubbornly refuses to work properly again while the clock ticks towards the breaking of an all-too temporary good weather spell. There are no tea and sandwiches eaten while sitting on a bale of hay in the sunshine - the tastiest meal you’ll ever eat - and no feeling of pride and satisfaction driving home in the dark in a loud convoy of machinery totalling several thousand horse-power, while the fireflies do their complex ballet in the glare of the combine’s spotlights...*
Maybe that’s a bit too much to ask from two city boys who wouldn’t know one end of a baler from another?
The overall depiction of the harvest does highlight what Morrison and Quitely are doing in All-Star Superman. The farm machinery that would be specific to Clark Kent’s rural upbringing a few decades ago is all absent. The only one we see, the tractor, is a 60s model, with 60s safety specs, and the design of the tractor would have been very familiar to any farmer going back to the 30s. Beyond that this is an entirely mythic rural America. The three drifters who are accepted without question as temporary farmhands, are a detail out of a Great Depression Steinbeck novel. I’d also have to ask if any 40-year-old Americans reading this have teenage memories of hanging around malt shops like the one frequented by Clark, Lana and Pete?
But this line of thought (nostalgic thought for this writer) does bring us partly back to Jason’s earlier question regarding a comparison with Morrison’s Action Comics. There isn’t much in Morrison’s latest Superman project that would be too strikingly realistic to a modern farmer either, but clearly the world depicted in Action Comics is meant to have a modernity and specificity that the A*Sworld doesn’t strive for.
All-Star Superman is a mythic take on the Man of Steel, stressing his timeless, enduring quality, and being an almost forensic study of how Superman works as a folk myth, and how the elements of the mythos work in relation to each other. These aren’t just a series of ongoing stories featuring one version of the Man of Tomorrow, which is kind of what the Action Comicsissues are. Nor is All-Star Superman an attempt to set Superman in a recogniseably modern world, with up-to-the-minute, topically relevant plotlines. Instead we get Superman’s relationships to the other key facets of the myth - Lois, Jimmy, Lex and Clark’s adoptive parents, all boiled down to their basic elements in the stress-test of Superman’s high-stakes confrontation with his own mortality.
* My paragraph doesn't really do justice to what bringing in a harvest in recent decades is really like. Here's a you-tube video that celebrates the kind of thing I mean. Note especially the joy in machinery and sheer horse-power on display here. These days, bringing in the harvest is about skillfully handling really big tractors!
If for some strange reason you like that video, then the gold standard for 'tractor porn', that successfully gets across the pride in the work and love of machinery involved, seems to be this one, showing the silage being harvested back home in Ireland. This is what the internet is for, as far as some of the guys I grew up with are concerned!
But, while I'm here, really, did the Chronovore make sense to anyone? Not in a "that's a cool idea" sense, but actually understand the idea? "Lana Lang saves the universe" is the line from this series I get the least.
I'm guessing your essential problem with the chronovore is that if it is such a threat to the universe, then it would have destroyed everything by the time Lana's photo was spotted by the Superman Squad in Superman 1m's fortress in the 853rd century? The answer to that is that here, as elsewhere in Morrison's time-travel stories, Space-Time is a fixed solid, where everything is pre-determined and plays out the same way, no matter how time-travellers think they are manipulating or altering things. Thus the chronovore didn't destroy the universe before Superman 1m's time because the Superman Squad were always going to bring it in.
All time-travel stories work by these paradoxes, whether they hide them well or not. Morrison is pretty consistent with his use of this system of dealing with time-travel. It's his comicbook way of dealing with Space-Time as 'an egg-shaped solid', with the big bang on one end and the 'big crunch' on the other. It's also probably inspired by his belief that our known universe can be seen as a working whole from some mystical vantage point 'outside it', where past, present and future can be seen at once. If the future can be seen and looks much like the present or past, then it's a series of definite events rather than something that's capable of diverging into multiple possibilities.
None of these views on reality are really mainstream. When people say Morrison 'makes no sense', what they usually mean is that the ideas he bases his work on aren't of the consensual 'common-sense' conventional kind. I guess Morrison gets his license to present reality in these unconventional and thought-provoking ways from the fact that our consensually-agreed, common-sense beliefs about the universe have been shown to be mistaken again and again over the last few thousand years. The fun is in guessing which ideas we take for granted right now will be scoffed at in the future.
We are left to guess what was in Lana's photo that tipped the Superman Squad off to the Chronovore's presence. (That's how she saved the universe.) As with Hercules and Samson, Morrison has left their adventures chasing the Chronovore through 10 centuries up to our imaginations. It all makes this imaginary world more expansive, with not every storytelling element tied down.
For what it's worth, the Chronovore made its first appearance in Chronos 1,000,000 (Sep 1998), which would have been partially plotted by Morrison, though uncredited at the time.
As to how the Chronovore eats the moments of a person's life, well, ... "that's a cool idea".
Although, "there are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio", is also an answer...
And just as Figs can pick apart the farm scenes, the depiction of working at a newspaper is equally off-base. But I'm used to that.
I can see how some of the 'mistakes' I point to are deliberate - with the timeless myth aspect, and Superman's origins in the Great Depression, but Quitely could have tried harder with the wheatfields, as outstanding as his work here otherwise is....
Reading issue 6 again, the wonder of it is how intricately plotted, and how loaded philosophically and artistically it is, repeatedly referencing elements from earlier and later issues to servicing the overall themes, whilst having the surface of a simple Silver Age Superman comic. The Chronovore works very well in a story about lost opportunities and the bittersweet gifts bestowed by the passage of time. That it seems to be a mindless monster is just as well, with so many other key personalities needing room to shine.
Regarding how it is depicted, half-existing in our dimension, and half-not, there is a great 19th Century story called Flatland, which imagines life on planes of existence with only one, two and three dimensions. Alan Moore in one of his 1963 stories extrapolated that out to what 5th, 6th, 7th etc dimensional beings would look like to us. Morrison draws on that here to depict the Chronovore as a fifth dimensional being.
Not being privy to what they saw in the photo is a fair complaint. Perhaps it was something seen by the 5th dimensional super-descendant that wouldn't be perceptable to us lowly 4D types anyway?
Perhaps it was that aging guy walking past the window at the time? Or perhaps a blurry image of Superman 1m picking him up at high speed?
In any case, notwithstanding the fun of all this guessing, the spine of the story - the beating heart - is Clark and Pa's relationship, and the exact details of how the Super-squad knew to turn up in Smallville at that time is a bit removed from that.
As to the Chronovore stealing those minutes, I guess three minutes are a long time in Superman's life. It probably felt like 30 seconds fighting the Chronovore to him, but somehow he missed the crucial moment of his father's death. It worked well thematically, given the guilt people feel over the death of their parents. Did they do enough? Did they try hard enough to be with them and comfort them when the end beckoned?
It was this aspect that I meant when I said there was a lot of heavy stuff under the simple surface of this comic. It was his inability to save his father that Morrison is suggesting is the real driver of Clark's urge to be there for everyone from this point on.
I suppose it is a synthesis of the moment in the old Superman comic where Superboy's parents both die in bed in front of him, and the moment in Superman, The Movie where Glenn Ford has the heart attack.
But I do get that the story would possibly work just as well if Superman was just ordinarily occupied with the monster of the issue when his father had the heart attack. Morrison wanted to personify time as a monster that takes those we love away from us and steals the precious time we have with them too. I guess there is an onus on a superhero comic to do something like that.
(JMS comics are where more prosaic problems for superheroes bring you!)
All-Star Superman #7 - Being Bizarro
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.
Issues 7 & 8 might be the least popular of the whole series. In issue 7 there is far more 'show' than 'tell' which means that a lot of the action only starts to make sense when put beside other events and statements elsewhere in the series. That's off-putting to readers of a genre that are usually taken by the hand through each plot development. It's apparently the Sun-Eater that Superman is mysteriously releasing 'into the wild' in the early pages.
As readers we're also on the back foot regarding the Bizarros themselves. It's clear they are part of the fabric of the A*S world - Quintum has Bizarro technicians for instance - but the readers know less about them than most of the actors in the drama.
All of this is not uncommon in Morrison. The story is the thing with him, and entries in the A-Z of the DCU are something else. He's said elsewhere that he can't stand when the rhythm of a story has to slow to a dead stop for huge info-dumps.
The second half of the story has its moments, but is generally low-key as a powerless Superman tries to negotiate with the awesomely stupid Bizarros, and the whiney self-pitying Zibarro, to help him get back to Earth.
As for the first part of this story, Colin Smith has identified a single pretty innocuous panel as the key to the whole series. 'Stick together' Superman advises the endangered citizens as he tries to neutralise the Bizarro attack.
Although an utterly fantastic story on the surface set on a world where the marvelous happens frequently, All-Star Superman does have one aspect of realism to it that we can apply directly to our own reality. In showing us Superman and his world preparing for his demise, the series asks 'How can we live in a world without a Superman?' In a way, that's a question we in the real world have to live with every day. Maybe I'm overstating Superman’s place in our consciousness, but I did read often after 9/11 that many people's reaction was to wonder where Superman was when we needed him.
Sticking together, looking out for each other and taking responsibility for one another is the key to making our world a better one, according to that single panel. A little more of this Superman's humanity, empathy and refusal to turn to violence as a first resort would have saved huge swathes of the world from a lot of misery in the last decade or so.
Utopian thinking? Well, it’s a Superman comic. That's what they were invented for...
[Here's part 3 of Smith's typically finely argued and morally rigourous comparison between All-Star Superman (Yay!) and Superman: Earth One (Boo!) If you like long-form, closely argued pieces on comics like this, then the other 3 parts of the discussion comparing these two standalone interpretations of Superman, are worth seeking out.]