Grant Morrison's Superman Saga, Part I

Tue, February 17th, 2009 at 11:28am PST | Updated: February 17th, 2009 at 3:59pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

Young Superman and his Superdog from "All Star Superman" #6

With the recent release of the "All-Star Superman" Volume 2 hardcover, it seems like a good time to reflect on Grant Morrison's entire Superman saga, looking at how all of his Superman stories fit together, from the beginning of his career through his most recent celebration of the character in "Final Crisis." If we consider every single one of his stories as part of a larger, self-contained continuity -- if we imagine that everything from "Animal Man" through "JLA" and "All-Star Superman" tell the story of a single version of Superman -- then what would that larger story be? Regardless of publication dates, what is Morrison's chronological Superman?

The youngest Superman Morrison writes is in the opening page of "All-Star Superman" #1 from 2006, in which Morrison recaps the character's famous origin in a few terse lines: "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." The twelve-issue "All-Star Superman" is mostly about the end of Superman's life, not the beginning, but in issue #6 it also features Morrison's only story about a young Clark Kent -- this one dealing with his father.

As the youthful Superman plays fetch (using a tree trunk) with Krypto, three strange men arrive and offer their help to Pa Kent during harvest season. Young Clark has apparently just returned from an internship -- or his first few months on the job -- at the Daily Planet, and as he spends time with his boyhood friends, Pete Ross and Lana Lang, he displays a degree of uncertainty that he would never show again.

"I just don't know if I need to be in the city at all," says Clark. "I still haven't decided what to do next. I like farming." With his super-hearing Clark discovers reports of a Superman sighting, and he leaves his friends with a lame excuse to investigate what's going on. He discovers that the three mysterious farm hands are Supermen from the future: Kal Kent, Superman of 85,250; the Unknown Superman of 4500, and Klzyzk Klzntplkz, the Superman of the 5th dimension.

The assembled "Superman Squad" work together to defeat the Chronovore, but there is more to this battle (and these characters) than it seems, for facing the Chronovore causes young Clark to lose three precious minutes of his life, and "in those three minutes," Kal Kent says to himself, "Jonathan Kent suffered a fatal heart attack."

Superman rushes to save his father from the inevitable

"I can save him!" insists the young Superman. "I can save everybody!" But, of course, it is too late, and Morrison jumps from those lines of dialogue to the solemn funeral of Pa Kent. "He taught me," says Clark at the funeral, "that the measure of a man lies not in what he says but what he does. And he showed me by example to be tough, and how to be kind and how to dream of a better world."

As Martha Kent consoles Clark after the funeral, we learn that the "Unknown Superman" of the supposedly distant future is actually the adult Clark Kent, poisoned by the sun in "All-Star Superman" #1, taking a trip back to his own past to spend a final few moments in the presence of his father. As the issue ends, the leader of the Superman Squad appears: a golden Superman who gives Clark Kent the gift of an indestructible flower from New Krypton. "In remembrance," says the golden Superman, "of all that we are. And all that we will be."

Continuity-wise, the next Morrison Superman story is actually the first one he ever published, and it wasn't even for American audiences. Published only in the UK, "Superman Annual 1986" featured Morrison's "Osgood Peabody's Big Green Dream Machine,” a three-page prose story with accompanying illustrations by a young Barry Kitson. The story depicts a Superman at the height of his powers, but that's true of all of the other Morrison stories besides the extended flashback featured in "All-Star Superman" #6. In the "Osgood Peabody" story, Morrison presents a meeting of the five heads of the organized crime syndicates. Gangster Carver Goodman calls the meeting to introduce the men to a super-scientist by the name of Osgood Peabody, a genius who has found a way to exploit Superman's only weakness. As Goodman explains, "Superman's body may be inhumanly powerful but how are the workings of his brain to those of a human? Perhaps he has some hidden fear, some complex or deep-seated anxiety that can be rooted out and used to destroy him!"

Peabody's solution to discover that deep-seated anxiety? A Dream Machine.

"Osgood Peabody's Big Green Dream Machine" from "Superman Annual 1986"

Using a transmitter Peabody placed on Superman's costume -- which leads to some skepticism from the assembled mobsters, who wonder if Superman actually sleeps in his tights -- Peabody plans to tap into the Man of Steel's dreams and find out the "key to [his] destruction."

The machine seems to work extraordinarily well, as the criminals gather around a monitor screen to watch images created from the dreams of Superman. First, he dreams of charging through a cloudbank to bring rain to a parched village, then his dreams take a strange turn: "For several seconds the screen was filled with bones; hundreds of bones -- a landscape of bones of every shape and size."

Superman's dreams return to the more patently heroic, as he uses his heat vision to incinerate a dangerous rogue meteor, but soon the image flickered back to bones again, as "strange skeletons stretched for miles like a crazy graveyard for monsters."

The recurrence of the bone imagery leads Osgood to conclude that Superman must be afraid of death. Though seemingly invulnerable, Superman's deepest fear must be that his powers will not be enough to keep death from encroaching.

As Superman dreams of blowing out a sun which threatened to explode into a supernova, the criminal masterminds send out a call for bones. "As many as you can get," barks Goodman to his minions. "No, it's not a joke." Goodman stands in front of his thuggish peers and declares boldly, "Soon Superman will be in our power, betrayed by his own subconscious mind!"

When Superman crashes into the villains' lair, the gangsters, confident in their knowledge of Superman's weakness, thrust a wishbone in his face. Instead of cowering in the presence of the physical embodiment of his greatest fear, Superman snatches the bone and throws the man wielding it across the room. After destroying the Dream Machine, Superman rounds up the gangsters and Osgood Peabody, who's baffled by the failure of his invention.

"But those were s-super brainwaves I was picking up? W-who else could it be but you? Who in their right mind would dream about bones?" asked Peabody.

Superman reveals that he found the transmitter and left it behind with a good friend of his: "Krypto the Superdog." Superman's laughter rings through the air as he leads the criminals off to prison.

Superman pops up for a moment in "Animal Man" #2

That kind of supremely powerful, confident, jovial Superman reappears again in "Animal Man" #2 from 1988. Though Morrison gives us no indication of Krypto's existence -- since, in the DCU of that post-"Crisis" time, Krypto no longer existed in Superman's world -- the cheerful boy scout who swoops down from the sky to greet Buddy Baker is consistent with the Superman Morrison presented in the UK Annual.

Superman only appears for a few panels in "Animal Man" #2, and he barely seems to remember working with Animal Man in the past -- the sort of vague awareness of the relatively obscure Silver Age character DC readers would have had in 1988 as well.

In a scene lasting less than two pages, Animal Man sees a dot on the horizon, and as Buddy Baker himself narrates, "Before I've got time to blink…He's standing in front of me." "He," of course, is Superman, who smiles and says, "Hi, there." Morrison presents a Superman brimming with confidence here -- a superhero ambassador greeting what he thinks is a new member of the crimefighting community. Superman and Animal Man had met before, in previous DC stories written by other writers, but as far as Morrison is concerned -- and probably as far as "Crisis on Infinite Earths" changed the rules about these sorts of things -- this is Animal Man's first encounter with the Man of Steel.

"He shakes my hand and makes me feel like I'm made of glass," narrates Animal Man, during their brief encounter. Within a few panels, Superman is gone, with his super-hearing picking up a "light aircraft in trouble of Port Townsend." With a "have a nice day," Superman departs, not returning to a Morrison-penned comic for over a year.

When Superman does make a return appearance in a Morrison comic -- and this would be the next in-continuity appearance as far as Morrison's Superman Saga is concerned -- the character isn't the confident, smiling boy scout of the "Osgood Peabody"/"Animal Man" era.

1990's "Doom Patrol" #29 features one of the strangest battles in DC comics history as the Doom Patrol team -- Cliff Steele, Rebis, and Crazy Jane -- face off against the Brotherhood of Dada inside the "Painting that Ate Paris." It's a battle of form and expression and idea within the aesthetic confines of a work of art, and when Superman and the Justice League International arrive, all they find of the French landscape is a desolate wasteland and a painting on an easel.

The painting that ate Paris terrifies Superman. He cannot defeat Absurdism

Superman approaches the painting with caution and concern, using his super-senses to take a closer look into the infinitely regressive painting. "Good grief," he says, "…Something's coming…A horse?...Gigantic…" Then, with fear in his eyes and an expression of disbelief, he says, "it's coming."

"We're all that stands between this thing and the world!" Superman shouts, bracing himself for what's rushing out of the painting. "It's coming!" He repeats again, never flinching.

He ducks at the last minute. And what came out of the painting? What physical manifestation did the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse take?

A child's hobby horse. Inert. Absurd.

Superman, ever compassionate, appears in a few more panels on the final pages, carrying the apparently dead body of Crazy Jane -- she's not really dead, of course -- and all he can say is, "I'm sorry."

Morrison's "Doom Patrol"-era Superman is a cipher. A simple, stoic representative of the strong man archetype, but one who is completely ineffective against the abstract and absurdist villainy confronted by the Doom Patrol on a regular basis.

And after that one brief "Doom Patrol" appearance, that's all the Superman we get from Morrison's early DC career.

Join us next time when we take a look at Morrison's Superman Saga from the cosmic heights of "JLA" and the build up to "Final Crisis."

TAGS:  superman, grant morrison, dc comics, all star superman, doom patrol

 
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