When Words Collide

Wed, September 24th, 2008 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: September 24th, 2008 at 11:07pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

MORRISON'S PERFECT SUPERMAN

Grant Morrison's Superman didn't debut in "All-Star Superman," or even in "JLA." His Superman didn't make his first appearance standing uselessly outside the Painting that Ate Paris in "Doom Patrol," although that was an early take on the character, to be sure. No, Morrison first tackled Superman -- in comic book form -- in a two-page scene from "Animal Man" #2, from the late summer of 1988.

As everyone knows, Superman had been around for 50 years by then, transforming from a New Deal strongman to a sci-fi god to an anxiety-ridden savior to a good-hearted farm boy over the intervening years. But as Buddy Baker sits on a low-slung rooftop eating nachos and thinking about how little he knows about his current case, Superman appears with a smile and a wave and a simple, "hi there." Morrison's version of the character may have drawn upon five decades of baggage, but his portrayal is crisp and streamlined. His Superman provides a contrast to the befuddled Buddy Baker. His Superman is everything Animal Man is not: confident, powerful, larger-than-life. "I like the costume, the big 'A,'" says Superman, supportively. "I saw you with my telescopic vision and thought I'd say hello."

Superman soon rushes off after hearing of some light aircraft trouble miles away, but the brief scene ends with Buddy Baker listening to R.E.M. singing "Superman" on his Walkman. (As a quick aside, I'd like to point out that in 1988, Superman, with his red and blue tights and flowing cape looked hopelessly out-of-date compared to the jacket-sporting Animal Man. Now, looking back on that scene, it's Animal Man who looks like a fashion victim while Superman's costume remains as iconic as ever.) Perhaps because it's only a quick scene, Morrison's Superman distills the essence of the character quickly, and presents him in all of his overwhelming majesty and sweet innocence. It's only a couple of pages, but it was an early glimpse of what Morrison would, decades later, expand into "All-Star Superman."

"All-Star Superman," recently concluded in its serialized incarnation but sure to last forever in glorious hardcover form, features the essential -- the quintessential -- vision of Superman. It's Grant Morrison's version of the perfect Superman story, showing what the character can be -- what the character should be -- by paying homage to Superman's past and distilling it into a transcendent form.

"All-Star Superman" may not exactly transcend the genre the way something like "Watchmen" did, but by working within the expansive confines of the Superman mythos, Morrison has produced one of the great superhero stories of all time. So great, actually, in its simplicity and elegance that it might well point the way toward lean and crisp superhero storytelling of tomorrow.

But the seeds of "All-Star Superman" have been germinating for years, in some of the smaller corners of Morrison's "JLA" work and in the triumphant ending of his otherwise convoluted and unimpressive "DC One Million." And, perhaps most importantly, in the never-completed "Superman 2000" project -- the aborted 1998 retooling of the Superman mythos for the new millennium, proposed by Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, and Tom Peyer.

It's impossible to say which writer contributed which idea to the proposal, but it's clear that Morrison has mined the abandoned pitch far more than his three compatriots. Though the pitch was specifically designed (and labeled) as a way to revitalize the Superman franchise, it still laid out a clear concept of who (or what) Superman should be, no matter the surface changes (like the way the proposal recommended getting rid of the red shorts). "Superman’s character is one we all feel we know intimately," says the "Superman 2000" pitch. "The scene with Superboy and the grasshopper in 'Miracle Monday' nails it beautifully; this could be the world’s scariest living being, a detached, scientific observer with the ability to experiment upon us all. Instead, this brilliant Kryptonian brain was introduced to the noblest of human values and somehow those great powers were put to use in the service of an ethical code the Kryptonians would have been impressed and startled by."

In Elliot S! Maggin's "Miracle Monday," Superboy dissects a grasshopper to discover the mechanics of life, in a scene that horrifies Pa Kent, who thinks that perhaps his son has killed the creature just to find out how it works. When Pa Kent learns that the grasshopper was dead when young Clark found it, he breathes a sigh of relief, but not completely, for he realizes that there's little he, or anyone, could do if Superboy were to turn against humanity. It's only the ethical code imparted to him by his adopted parents that keeps him human.

Morrison emphasizes this notion of the character most specifically in "All-Star Superman" #9, in which Kryptonian astronauts Bar-El and Lilo show what an undiluted Kryptonian perspective would look like. Outside of the Superman family, most Kryptonians shown in the comics over the decades have been criminals of some sort, but Morrison gives us ethically-neutral scientists, astronauts, who merely impose the standard Kryptonian attitude on the Earth. Their attitude toward humans is quickly summed up on the fifth page of that issue, in which Lilo says, "I think we could just as easily clear the apes out of Metropolis and build there." Her companion puts up no objection: "Ha! Why not?" he replies.

The clarity and simplicity of their characterization typifies Morrison's approach to the entire series. He doesn't belabor the notion that the Kryptonians consider humans to be "apes," nor does he show the two as being particularly malicious. Instead, they are quickly defined as a superior species full of all the arrogance that humans have in their dealings with lesser life forms. And when Lilo chastises Superman for not using his powers to build a new Krypton "in this squalor," Superman's reply is just as simple and direct: "That's not fair. What right do I have to impose my values on anyone?" In those two sentences, Superman's ethics are apparent. He believes in fairness and everything it entails. And he believes that it's not up to him to impose his values, and, presumably, it's not fair for anyone to do such a thing. Instead of making the world a better place, Superman inspires greatness through his actions. His selflessness is his main virtue, and by showing compassion instead of force, he changes lives.

As Bar-El lies near death, he wonders why Superman shows him so much kindness -- trying to help save him even after the Kryptonians have bullied Superman and punched him literally to the moon and back. Superman credits his adoptive parents, and gains the respect of the dying Kryptonians at last. Morrison directly echoes the language of the "Superman 2000" proposal in this scene, as Superman admits, "It's in my nature to observe and to learn…and not to interfere too much. Perhaps I could have done more." It's the Maggin-esque portrayal of Superman's scientifically detached persona, but with a very human sense of under-achievement.

This notion that Superman could have done more returns powerfully in the climax of the series. Even after death, as seen in "All-Star Superman" #12, Superman feels that he has unfinished labor on earth. As his consciousness transcends the physical bonds to attain something more "fluid," Superman discusses his sense of failure with his biological father who appears to guide him through this transitional state. "Always one more," says Jor-El, indicating that his quite human sense of forestalled ambition will never cease. But, says Jor-El, "you have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall, and crawl…and curse…and finally…they will join you in the sun, Kal-El."

This kind of inspirational language echoes the sentiments of the "Superman 2000" pitch: "Superman’s job is to fight for and inspire those who cannot fight for themselves. His job is to make this world a better place and to help all men realize their potential as supermen." The aborted proposal goes on to say, "Further to this, it’s important to keep in mind the Superman/Christ parallels WITHOUT being obvious and heavy-handed about them. Superman has to think differently from us, and when we see into his head, we should be shocked by the clarity and simplicity of his brilliance and compassion. This is a god sent to Earth not to suffer and die but to live and inspire and change the face of the galaxy by his deeds and reputation." That is the essence of Morrison's Superman, and though he concludes the series with the "death" of Superman, his life in the literal -- not metaphorical -- sun is the kind of god-like sacrifice that connects the character to other religious icons. He's the fertility god, the Adonis who brings about the ascendance of humanity.

Morrison contrasts sacrifice with surrender, repeating the latter word several times over the course of "All-Star Superman," most notably in issue #3 and issue #12, with two uses of the word that provide semantic bookends for the series. In issue #3, Superman deals with would-be Lotharios -- and time-traveling gods -- Atlas and Samson, who bring the Ultra-Sphinx into the 21st century. Samson, with knowledge from the future, tells Superman that legend describes Superman completing twelve "super-challenges" before his death, including his answering of the "unanswerable question." To save Lois Lane, who the Ultra-Sphinx has trapped in a Schrodinger's cat kind of paradox (neither living nor dead, but in a state of "quantum uncertainty), Superman must answer this question: "What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?" His response? "They surrender," he says with a laugh, and thereby completes the first of his twelve legendary labors.

The first of Superman's 12 Labors
It's worth nothing that the twelve labors, or "super-challenges" are outlined to some degree but never fully described. Most of the labors refer to plot points from the final few issues of the series, and it's problematic to clearly identify all twelve based on the evidence in the series itself. Listing the twelve specific super-challenges is irrelevant, really. It's not the specific labors that matter but the heroic and legendary nature of their existence. It's a way to emphasize Superman as a mythic character more than as yet another costumed hero. Like his meeting with Atlas and Samson, it's another reminder that Superman's peers are the gods and heroes of classic mythology.

And even though Superman proposes the notion of surrender as an answer to the unanswerable question, he, in typical heroic fashion, cannot choose that path for himself. In issue #12, when Jor-El, or the ghost of Jor-El (or however you want to explain it) describes Superman's death and "conversion to solar radio-consciousness," he ends his speech by saying, "You must surrender to the process." Like Lois in the earlier scene, Superman is caught in a state of quantum uncertainty himself, neither living nor dead, but more because of his Kryptonian physiology than from any philosophical paradox. Superman says, "Surrender?" as if he's contemplating the decision and remembering the riddle of the Ultra-Sphinx. But like any true hero, surrender -- even of the divine sort -- isn't an option, and he returns to the world of the living, completing his final, millennia-long labor: crafting the mechanical heart of the sun. It's called a "labor" for a reason, and his Adonis-like sacrifice ends not in death but in a prolonged state of work -- it ends with him playing the role of a super-charged Hephaestus, sculpting the gears at the center of the solar system.

Superman's apotheosis derives from struggle, but it's not simply his final challenge that matters. Throughout the series, Morrison contrasts Superman with his shadowy reflections, most notably in the form of the imperfect duplicate Bizarro (and his kin) and the intellect without morality of Lex Luthor. The new, infection-spreading Bizarro world which Morrison uses in issue #7 first appeared, conceptually, in the "Superman 2000" pitch along with many of the other core ideas for "All-Star Superman." As the "Bizarro" section of the proposal says, "Imagine a living planet which hunts through space. The entire world is a sentient system and it preys on other planets like a cancer. This self-aware -- but not particularly intelligent by our standards -- macro-entity has learned to imitate its prey and does this in order to 'sneak up' on a victim in a pleasing, non-threatening shape. Its method is to transform itself into a crude copy of its target, sail in close and then strike by launching self-replicating parts of itself. Now it's coming our way and it's scanning for life as it prepares to imitate and destroy the juiciest planet in its path."

Morrison doesn't explain this new concept of Bizarro World within the confines of "All-Star Superman." Instead, we see it unleashed upon the Earth and the lack of a detailed backstory makes it all the more terrifying. "Suddenly the Bizarros are nightmarish, unstoppable plague carriers," says the pitch, "who also happen to be a form of life which is only trying to exist on its own terms and which Superman knows he cannot simply destroy." The Bizarro creatures within the series stay close to the concept elaborated upon in the pitch document, but Morrison expands the notion with the sad case of Zibarro in issue #8. Zibarro, the imperfection of imperfection who ends up as the sad and lonely poet of Bizarro world, is the exemplar of the kind of humanity Superman imparts on those who look up to him. Zibarro helps the dying Superman to escape from Bizarro World and takes the notion of Bizarros as mindless plague-carriers and turns it into a sad parable of heroic sacrifice. His selflessness saves Superman, but from where does his selflessness come if not from the original source? If not from Superman himself?

Zibarro saves Superman
On the opposite end of the moral spectrum, Lex Luthor embodies pure self-interest, particularly at the expense of humanity. The "Superman 2000" pitch details a bit about the secret underpinnings of Luthor's character: "Here’s a secret about Luthor no one yet knows. Despite his born ruthlessness, he was once salvageable, once redeemable -- until Superman arrived. Though even he doesn’t consciously realize it, every iota of Luthor’s self-esteem was pinned to achieving that most lofty goal: to be considered the greatest man who ever lived. And he was on his way -- until Superman appeared and outclassed him, triggering the scattershot sociopathic tantrum that is his criminal career." Sadly, as the pitch explains, "and though Superman’s greatest priority will always be to stop Luthor’s schemes, his greatest frustration will be his continuing inability to rehabilitate Lex for the good of all mankind." Morrison's Luthor builds on this kind of characterization, but with the addition of a sexist, bullying tone that captures the arrogance and disgust inherent in the character.

"All-Star Superman" #5, the Luthor-centric issue, shows his narcissism and his obsession with his own physicality and masculinity, as if he's in constant competition with the superhuman man of steel within his own mind. Luthor refers to his two burly (male) prison guards as a "pair of fat girls," and he criticizes Clark Kent for using shorthand, saying, "what kind of ridiculous affectation is that for a man?" as if Kent were somehow letting the male side of the human race down -- making it look bad compared to Superman's ultra-masculinity. Of course, Luthor fails to recognize the irony in his statement because he can't conceive of Superman ever adopting a disguise as emasculated as the weak and clumsy Clark Kent. In his mind, Superman is always taunting him with unattainable perfection, not walking the Earth with humility. Showing the depths of his ignorance, Luthor even mocks Kent for being "flabby."

Luthor's ultra-masculine pose continues throughout that issue as he shows off his hard-earned, all-human muscles to Kent and uses the word "girls" once again, this time in response to the other prisoners. They are "girls," apparently because they are victims in Luthor's schemes, unable to fend for themselves. By the end of the series, when Luthor confronts the core Daily Planet staff, he refers to Lois Lane as an "ambitious girl" who might find herself working for Luthor someday. Luthor, with the 24-hour super-serum, declares himself "the most powerful man on Earth," and when Kent stands up to him, Luthor accuses him of growing "a spine to impress the girl." Luthor's façade of strength shatters when he sees the universe in all of its true nature -- the way Superman sees -- and realizes that "it's all just us, in here, together." All we have are other people. There is nothing else.

Luthor gains transcendent knowledge and it destroys him, emotionally. He can't handle seeing reality for what it is, because his pettiness and cruelty has ill-prepared him for the truth.

Ultimately, Luthor is a minor annoyance in Superman's greater quest to save humanity, and the series ends as it had begun: with Superman inside the Sun, the modern-day Apollo inside his solar realm, with the knowledge imbedded in the text that he will one day emerge as a golden god, and become leader of the Superman Squad of the future.

Morrison has referred to "All-Star Superman" as "Apollonian" not just in concept but in execution. If drama which aspires to the Apollonian is based on principles of beauty and clarity and perfection, "All-Star Superman" has achieved that goal. In many ways, it's Morrison's most straightforward work, with little of the subtext or layered symbolism he relies upon in his other projects. It's not the complexity of "All-Star Superman" that brings about catharsis, it’s the perfection of its form -- in all of its bright, shining, transcendent Apollonian splendor.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the recently-released "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes." More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  grant morrison, superman, frank quitely, lex luthor

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