1. Superman is my favorite superhero. I have been smitten since watching the old Fleischer Technicolor Superman cartoons my dad bought me on VHS when I was five years old, but the big oaf became a life-long love in 1994 when Lois & Clark premiered on TV. Each iteration I’ve seen since has only made me love the character more (excepting Man of Steel and its sequel, which do not represent anything that I love about the character, which in fact actively takes what I love and rolls it in the mud). I had his shield on my retainer after I got my braces off in the 7th grade. Superman Returns is genuinely one of my favorite movies, and I will not hear a word against it. For grad school, I wrote a twenty-five page paper examining the history of Superman and his identity in relation to American mythology and the Marxist theory of alienation. I’m into it, is what I’m saying.
He’s my favorite because of what he represents and how he acts. He’s an alien, but he’s kind and generous and does the right thing at cost to himself. He’s almost universally beloved, and yet he’s incredibly lonely. I don’t find that boring; I find it noble and inspirational and sad. Superman is like Captain America, but instead of being the perfect human, he’s more. That whole one of us/not one of us, being the example of everything we should be and yet not being actually human himself dichotomy he’s got going on fascinates me. Plus he has the best girlfriend, hands down, no competition. Lois Lane is a badass.
2. I have never read a Superman comic that I liked. I’ve tried a bunch, and none have captured the magic for me. The comics always seem to be more focused on the fighting and the aliens and weirdness, and shoving more bad guys in, more lost Kryptonians, more cities in jars, more colors of Kryptonite that do weird things to Superman . . . and it is all very much not what I’m interested in.
3. Every time I have mentioned this in a review, either here or on Goodreads, Malin has suggested/prodded/demanded that I read this book. She was very adamant about it. It gave me very high expectations.
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Sooooo . . . did I like it? I don’t know! Because it came to me so highly recommended, I’m fighting against my natural urge to say no, because the answer is complicated. Yes, I liked it. Also no, I didn’t like it. Yes, it’s beautiful and so well made and obviously made with love. No, it doesn’t feel like a Superman story to me. It doesn’t give me that good old buzz from loving the big blue boy scout. I admire it. And I also think some of what it does is gross. In short: I am conflicted. How’s that for a thesis statement, all my past English teachers! And I didn’t even use a question mark but an exclamation point and you know what IT FELT GOOD.
Okay, so take a look at the panel on the right there. That’s the entire first page of the book. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. It’s evocative. The colors are gorgeous. And it tells Superman’s origin story with such economy it almost takes your breath away. And yet . . . this is also a problem for me. I LIKE his origin story. I like seeing small moments on the page, those in between, how-did-we-get-here moments. I have this theory that you can tell everything you need to know about a particular iteration of Superman by how his origin story is told. This panel does not disprove that theory. This panel, like the rest of this book, is beautiful, artful, deliberate, and reveres the source material. It’s also very short and takes great pains to tell the story in the least amount of panels possible. It’s a series of images and moments, and you have to supply the connective tissue yourself.
It also feels removed from the story and its characters. Morrison and Quitely’s Superman is one that feels not just alienated from the people that surround him, but also from me as a reader. I could never tell what he was thinking, or what the emotional reasons for his actions were. I couldn’t empathize with him, only watch from a distance.
So let’s talk specifics. All-Star Superman was created originally to be a part of a set of “All-Star” comics, but only two were ever published, this one and another one I do not plan to read. Morrison and Quitely, as they detail in the notes at the end, chose to make the title literal. The whole book is centered around the sun, and Superman’s relationship to it. On a plot level, thanks to Lex Luthor, Superman is poisoned by an excess of solar radiation while saving a crew of space explorers from a very hot death, and now he has only a year to live. Morrison and Quitely also do a bunch of clever things with the art throughout the twelve issues (a solar year), chronicling his rise and fall like the rise of the sun. And the sun, of course, is a potent metaphor. The twelve issues in the book follow Superman’s last year, as he performs his prophesied twelve labors and puts his affairs to rest. He fights bad guys, invents things, saves people, travels in time, gives Lois superpowers, creates life . . . etc. You can’t escape this book without knowing we’re meant to associate Superman with the gods, from his ability to draw power from the sun like a modern day Ra or Apollo, to performing twelve labors, just like Hercules did.
This structure and the artistic thoughtfulness and integrity behind it automatically raised my opinion of the book once I caught on to it, and especially once I’d read some analyses and behind the scenes details. It feels very purposeful and sure of itself, and that’s always a good thing in art.
But . . .
Aside from my complaints over the general feel of the story, which I would like to have connected to more, I do have some specific issues, the first and foremost of which is Lois. As previously mentioned, Lois Lane is my hero. She’s one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. She’s smart and feisty and intelligent, and yet she’s human. She’s stubborn and oftentimes reckless. She lets her ambition blind her to danger. (She’s also a bit of a workaholic.) This Lois . . . was boring. And stupid. The first issue features Clark telling Lois that he is Superman. AND SHE DOESN’T BELIEVE HIM. AFTER HE LITERALLY TAKES OFF HIS CLARK COSTUME IN FRONT OF HER AND FLIES HER TO THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE. And then the rest of the book is spent with her still thinking they’re two different people IT MAKES NO SENSE.
I was also really excited for the part where he gifted her his powers for twenty-four hours, but first of all, the costume he made her was disgusting, at least give her some fucking tights, you a-holes! Nope, it’s leotard up the crotch, boots, I AM WEARING NO CLOTHES. And then there’s this stupid thing where Atlas shows up, and Samson (who is a time-traveler??), and they fight over her like a piece of meat and please wait I must go vomit. She also did not dress like my Lois Lane. Leggy skirts and tight blouses all over the place. She was entirely drawn for the male gaze. It makes me want to light things on fire SHE HAS A BRAIN YOU KNOW.
One thing I feel like they got right in this book is Jimmy Olsen, who actually plays a pivotal role, and does not come off as that kind of annoying, innocent, fresh-faced, over-eager beaver we sometimes get with him. But it’s sad when your Jimmy is better than your Lois. This also does not contain my favorite version of Clark, but I know that’s a feature of the comics, which have always, always prioritized Superman as the main identity over Clark Kent, when I prefer it the other way around. This Clark is stodgy and boring and clumsy, and no one pays him much attention, which I guess is functional as a cover identity, but it sure isn’t my favorite. (Though Quitely does something in this book in his portrayal of Clark/Superman that I’ve never seen done before. His Clark hunches and puffs out; he is physically almost unrecognizable from his counterpart. It’s kind of remarkable.)
I’m also not a huge fan of all the DC shenanigans called back to here, but I will readily admit this is a me-issue, and not really a fault of the book. I’ve never cared for the way superhero comics wind in upon themselves, constantly creating new continuities, feeding off past stories, obliging you to have an inhuman recall ability. This book is supposed to play outside that main continuity, alleviating a lot of that frustration, but at the same time it relies on all this weird stuff in a condensed way that assumes you’re familiar with it, like the Kandorians (which I know about from Superman documentaries and history books), the Bizarros, and P.R.O.J.E.C.T. (Or, back to that first page of the comic, which is a perfect example, because you’re only really going to GET IT if you’ve read or seen Superman before.) It felt overstuffed to me, and every time one of those plot distractions showed up, I felt it was taking away from the emotional part of the story.
On the one hand, I realize this is a function of the structure that I admire so much (so in control of its story, and very aware of what each issue should contain), but on the other hand, it felt condensed and rushed and overstuffed.
I feel like I’m maybe not making much sense here, and that this review is bouncing all over the place. If that’s the case, it’s because that’s how it feels inside my head. From one moment to the next, I can’t decide how I feel about this comic. I think about the issue where Superman sets down his last will and testament, and I’m moved. Then I think about Superman arm wrestling with Atlas over Lois and GOODWILL GONE. I think about how annoying the Bizarro issue was, and how it felt unnecessary, but then I remember Zibarro and his loneliness, among his own kind, but never like them, and it feels right, an underworld reflection of Superman among the humans. And of course, there’s this. I’ve now written 2,000 words about a comic book I thought I didn’t like, but now I don’t know? From one moment to the next, I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM.
In the end, I think what we have here is a philosophical difference about the nature of Superman. Morrison and Quitely’s Superman has no inner life, because he doesn’t have a life of his own. He belongs to the people. What you see is what you get. There is nothing under the surface. Twenty-four hours a day, he saves people, and there is no room for interiority when the only thing in your life is other people’s needs.
I guess I prefer my Superman a little more human. That way, when he does something to remind you he’s a God, you feel it even more.