Grant Morrison's Superman Saga, Pt. III

Thu, February 19th, 2009 at 3:12pm PST | Updated: February 19th, 2009 at 3:19pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

"Final Crisis" begins

In our first installment of GRANT MORRISON’S SUPERMAN SAGA, we explored Grant Morrison's early Superman phase, and then spent a few thousand words on Morrison's "JLA"-era Superman, and now it's time to bring it all to a climax with the late-phase work of "Final Crisis" and "All-Star Superman." If Morrison's Superman Saga is a single story -- and I'm playing along as if it is -- then this late-phase work is the stuff of climax and denouement. This is where Morrison takes Superman to the next level of existence.

2008's "Final Crisis" begins with the death of a New God -- former JLA member Orion, who the JLA seems to barely remember when "Final Crisis" opens. Something has changed their memories of the New Gods in the intervening years, or maybe they never knew their otherworldly teammates as well as one might think, because Superman feels the need to explain the peculiar situation of Orion's existence as a god of the Fourth World.

Before long, the Martian Manhunter dies as well, slain without dignity by the mysterious Libra and the Spear of Destiny. It's not a heroic death; it's a pathetic one, a cheap murder just to satisfy the supervillain rabble. Morrison gives Superman a memorable speech at the funeral: "We'll all miss him," he says, "and pray for a resurrection." Under Morrison's guidance, Superman is well aware of the transitory nature of life and death in the DC Universe, as well he should be, since he and his colleagues have returned from the metaphorical undiscovered country on more than one occasion.

In the first act of "Final Crisis," which runs through issues #1-3, Superman tries to prove that Hal Jordan has been wrongly accused by the Alpha Lanterns, but he has some secret identity obligations to take care of first, and he's incapacitated by a bombing at the Daily Planet. The bomb doesn't hurt him, of course -- he's Superman -- but it leaves his wife, the intrepid Lois Lane, lingering between life and death. And though he knows the Martian Manhunter's resurrection is almost guaranteed, he doesn't feel so confident about the fate of his beloved. So when Monitor Zillo Valla appears at the hospital and offers Superman a chance to save Lois's life, how could Clark resist?

He's Superman. He saves people. That's what he does.

And so he walks out of "Final Crisis" proper and into the two-issue "Final Crisis: Superman Beyond" spin off. His absence from the middle of the "Final Crisis" series gives Morrison the freedom to let evil truly win -- at least for a while. Darkseid and the Anti-Life take over the world without Superman around to stop them, as Superman runs off on his heroic quest to gain the elixir of life, which will save his wife.

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond
Superman on a 3D heroic quest

In "Superman Beyond," Superman is Jason, venturing forth into the unknown (Multiversal) world with his intrepid Argonauts, all variations of the Superman archetype: Ultra Man (evil Superman from the antimatter universe), Captain Marvel (innocent, wide-eyed hero from Earth 5), Captain Allen Adam (Captain Atom/Dr. Manhattan mash-up from Earth 4), and Overman (Nazi superman from Earth 10).

Passing through the Bleed -- the veil between parallel universes -- Superman and his companions end up in Limbo. Morrison's comic book Limbo -- first established in his "Animal Man" run -- is populated by the forgotten DCU characters, the ones that don't exist in continuity anymore, the ones that very few readers even remember anymore. In Limbo, Superman meets Merryman, former member of the long-out-of-print "Inferior Five" team, and learns about "The Book," which tells the history of the Monitors and the creation of a quintessential Superman -- the platonic form from which all other superheroes are imperfectly copied.

Superman then learns, from first-hand experience, that the Monitors have become corrupted by their contact with superhumanity. Zillo Valla, their guide through the Bleed, literally turns vampiric, sucking on the blood of Overman. The Monitors, guardians of the fictional DC multiverse, have begun to feed on the power of story, and some of them can no longer live without it.

Ultra Man goes rogue after seeing the final chapter of "The Book" and learning of the existence of a higher power -- a god, says Ultra Man, who "hates us all. "He's building a bridge from the void into the Multiverse…crawling up from darkness to feed on light," Ultra Man declares. That god's name? Mandrakk.

Mandrakk is the Monitor who was so corrupted by his contact with the realm of fiction -- his first contact was depicted in "Crisis on Infinite Earths," and his corruption described in "Superman Beyond" -- that he became a dark god who needed to feed on stories to survive. Ultra Man wishes to become his herald. He plans on taking Villo Zalla's multiversal ship, the "Ultima Thule," and spreading the "new gospel from world to world, in flames."

Pages from "Final Crisis: Superman Beyond" #2

"You'll have to go through me first," says Superman, "and you know what that means." He turns to Captain Marvel for aid: "Warn everyone," Superman shouts, "like Paul Revere! Tell them Mandrakk is coming! I'll do what I can to plug the hole in forever!"

Morrison's Superman has fought angles and dark gods before, but here he faces the end of existence. The end of his fictional realm at the hands of a cosmically-charged editor in the form of Mandrakk who would suck the life out of every character, every story.

Captain Adam, the Alan Moore-influenced version of the original Charlton hero, has a more detached and logical solution to the problem. With his ability to see the understructure of reality -- the underlying patterns of the fictional universe in which they live -- Adam states, "there are no dualities. Only symmetries." Then he uses his vast power to combine the seemingly opposite Ultra Man and Superman, fusing the two into the ultimate concept of the Superman archetype. This Superman is a "thought robot, capable of adapting instantly to counter any future threat."

Superman's metaconsciousness allows him to access a higher level of reality, reaching out toward the reader, moving beyond the panel borders and realizing that he is in "a self-assembling hyper story." With the new transcendent awareness, Superman resists the awesome power of Mandrakk -- who, though corrupted by story, is still trapped within one -- and journeys home to save his wife, but not before burning an epitaph, a warning, into his own tombstone.

With the elixir of life in his mouth -- he had sipped a bit of the Bleed and held it between his lips on the voyage home – Superman revives Lois and completes his heroic quest, bringing back life from beyond.

The final page of "Superman Beyond" reveals what he had carved into the tombstone, what ultimate warning could keep Mandrakk -- or those like him -- from ever destroying the concept of Superman: "To be continued." Morrison emphasizes that Superman can never die, his universe can never be destroyed, because he is part of an ongoing adventure that will continue to be published long after all of the current readers, editors, writers, and artists have died. Someone who devours stories like Mandrakk can never win, can never devour them all, because new stories will continue to be told.

Pages from "Final Crisis: Superman Beyond" #2

Although never explicitly depicted in a Morrison comic, Superman must have been plucked out of the middle of "Final Crisis" almost immediately after he saved Lois and brought into the 31st century to help the Legion of Super-Heroes. Morrison does show us the end of that episode, as we see Superman preparing to return to the 21st century and talking with Brainiac 5 in the future. Most importantly, Superman gets a chance to view the Miracle Machine in the 31st century, a thought-powered contraption that can change reality. His x-ray vision allows him to study its composition momentarily, providing Superman with the knowledge he'll need later when he's humanity's only hope for survival against Darkseid's anti-life. He may not know when he'll need the plans for the Miracle Machine, but Morrison's Superman never fails to take advantage of an opportunity that's presented to him.

When Superman returns to the 21st century in the closing sequence of "Final Crisis" #6, he begins blasting away with his heat vision, clearing a path toward Darkseid and emerging from the rubble with the skeletal corpse of Batman. Though Batman's death is implicitly as transitory as Martian Manhunter's -- and though Superman's adventures into the Bleed have taught him that the power of creation, of story, is more potent than that of destruction -- he's still angered by the death of Batman, and he confronts the weakening Darkseid (who had been mortally wounded, at least physically, by a cosmically-charged bullet fired in Batman's final living moments). Superman realizes that Darkseid's body is that of an old friend, Lieutenant Inspector Dan Turpin, and that all of Darkseid's Anti-Life manifestations -- represented by the helmeted "Justifiers" -- are just innocent humans (or superhumans).

"How can you hurt a foe made of people?" asks Darkseid, mockingly.

But Superman doesn't have to, because the Black Racer -- the literal embodiment of death -- is coming for Darkseid, led to him by two Flashes (Barry Allen and Wally West) who run at the speed of light to keep the Black Racer from catching up to them. The Black Racer finishes off Darkseid, but the Anti-Life lingers. The DC Universe is still in jeopardy. And Darkseid still exists, without physical form, as a kind of frequency. The frequency…of evil.

Superman triumphant in "FInal Crisis"

With the Anti-Life devastating the world around them, the remaining superhumans, including Superman, Supergirl, Kid Devil, and Wonder Woman, preserve the surviving humans by shrinking them down and keeping them in cold storage, an undignified type of suspended animation where they seem to inhabit sci-fi ice cube trays. And Superman builds a Miracle Machine, from memory.

"It's taken all our resources, the accumulated knowledge and expertise of a whole culture," says Superman, "to make the Miracle Machine. One chance, one wish." Powered by thought, the Miracle Machine can change reality -- at least comic book reality -- with a single wish. But they need to find a way to power the machine.

Darkseid's incorporeal form taunts Superman, saying "It is over," as "the walls are coming down" around him. But since Darkseid is nothing more than a vibration, Superman knows how to dispose of him. "Everything's just vibrations, really," says Superman. "And counter vibrations cancel them out."

Superman sings, and Darkseid is gone.

Mandrakk, the corrupted Monitor, appears in the finale of "Final Crisis." "Here at the end of all stories, "says Mandrakk. But Superman will not go down without a fight. In Morrison's comics, even though Superman's longevity is ensured by his nature as a fictional being, it's Superman's essential character that gives him such power. In other words, Superman's eternal existence isn't guaranteed simply because he's fictional. It's guaranteed because he's Superman. Other stories, other characters, do fade away -- forgotten and lost forever when the last living person who remembers them slips into darkness. But Superman is such a strong fictional concept that he will outlive us all, and it's part of that strong fictional concept that Superman will never give up. He will always keep fighting. And that's what he does at the end of "Final Crisis."

Using whatever solar power he has stored in his body, Superman jump-starts the Miracle Machine, and it allows light back into the world. The Green Lantern Corps, the Pax Dei, the Multiversal Superman doubles, and even the animal heroes known as the Zoo Crew can finally make their presence known. The Anti-Life, like a black hole in reality, was keeping them away, but the Miracle Machine allowed their sun to shine in, and their combined power overwhelms Mandrakk.

"This multiverse has natural defenses none of you could have imagined," says Mandrakk's son, Multiversal Monitor Nix Uotan. Thus, the Universe survives, and Morrison's greatest threat is overcome, with more than a little help from that lynchpin of the DCU, Superman.

Superman was poisoned by the very sun that provides his powers

In "All-Star Superman (originally published from 2006-2008), Morrison explores Superman's final "labors," as the hero who cannot die faces his own mortality, poisoned by the very sun that provides his powers.

Though "All-Star Superman" might be seen as a problematic fit in Morrison's Superman Saga -- perhaps it doesn't make complete sense within Morrison's larger Superman framework and acts as kind of thematic accompaniment, as a distillation of all of Morrison's Superman ideas in a twelve-part story -- if we make some intuitive leaps we can wedge it into place The bulk of the series (other than the first page of issue #1 and the story in issue #6) must take place after "Final Crisis," but when "All-Star" begins, Lois Lane is not aware of Superman's secret identity, and she's certainly not his wife.

If we add one element of the "Superman 2000" pitch into Morrison's Superman Saga, we can fit the Lois-lack-of-knowledge into place. In the pitch, which was ultimately rejected by DC a decade ago, on the verge of the new millennium, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, and Tom Peyer proposed to end the Lois and Clark marriage. The pitch describes a scenario in which Lois's memories are literally killing her, and Superman is left with a single choice by the powerful Mr. Mxyzptlk: "The offer’s on the table," reads the pitch, "the clock is ticking on Lois, and together, she and her husband make their tragic decision. Though Lois would rather spend one day with Clark’s love than a lifetime without it, he swears to her that they’ll be together again when the time is right. For now...they have no choice but to erase their lives together so that Lois might live."

The pitch goes on to read, "Mxyzptlk weaves his spell. As night falls around the globe, people will begin to fall asleep--and as they do, the world will change and Clark’s secret will be restored. People will awaken without any memory that Clark Kent and Lois Lane were ever married, were ever together."

A super-kiss with Lois Lane on the moon

Though such an event is never referred to in the text of "All-Star Superman," it would explain how Superman's "final" adventure could feature a Lois who knows nothing of his secret identity.

Other than that, "All-Star Superman" fits into Morrison's larger Superman Saga quite nicely. There might be some discrepancies with the dates, but there are more aspects of "All-Star" that do fit into the larger picture than those that don't. And as a culmination of the Superman Saga, it works majestically.

"All-Star Superman" begins with Superman rescuing the exploratory vessel Ray Bradbury from inside the sun. It's all a trap set by Lex Luthor. As noble scientist Leo Quintum explains, "You risked everything to save my crew and me. But Luthor has used us to kill you."

"Apoptosis has begun," says Quintum. "Cell death."

Faced with his own mortality, as impossible as it might be to believe, Superman says, "There are…things I have to do first."

And the first thing he does is reveal his true identity to Lois Lane. Superman takes Lois to his fortress of Solitude for her birthday and shows her the exo-genes he's been developing which "allow a human being to duplicate [his] powers for 24 hours." Then he gives Lois a costume. The super-powered duo fly to Metropolis to deal with a "reptile invasion from the Earth's core," but super-strong Samson and Atlas have already arrived to take care of the threat. Faced with romantic competition from the two legendary Romeos, Superman must also rescue Lois from the Ultra-Sphinx. After battling the Ultra-Sphinx and defeating the two would-be suitors in a simultaneous arm wrestling match, Superman brings his super-enhanced beloved to the moon, where he gives her a super-kiss. Her powers wear off at the end of the (admittedly jam-packed) day, and he tucks her in gently.

In the follow-up adventure, Superman becomes exposed to Black Kryptonite, which turns him bad, and it's up to Jimmy Olsen -- temporarily in charge of Leo Quintum's P.R.O.J.E.C.T. team -- to stop Bad-Superman by injecting himself with a serum that turns him into the beastly Doomsday. The battle between the two ends with Jimmy and Superman collapsing in each other's arms.

After they awaken, Jimmy explains to Superman, "The Black K Superman was everything you're not. A bully, a coward, a liar." "Weird thing is," Jimmy continues, "the worse he acted, the weaker he became." Morrison implies that Superman's goodness is what gives him his strength.

Black K Superman vs. Jimmy Olsen

A back-to-normal (though still dying a cellular death) Clark Kent interviews Lex Luthor in prison, which leads to a bit of a problem with the Parasite, who feeds off Superman because of his close proximity, but most of that adventure is spent listening to Luthor rant about his relationship with Superman. "If it weren't for Superman, I'd be in charge on this planet!" Luthor raves. "And now he's dying. What more could I want?"

With thoughts of mortality and his own encroaching death, Superman disguises himself as the Unknown Superman of 4500 (his face covered with bandages) so he can travel back in time and spend a few final moments with his dead father, Jonathan Kent. This is one of those adventures when Morrison's Superman Saga converges on itself, as the exploits of young Clark Kent -- as described in Part I of our overview -- overlap with the adventures of Clark Kent at the apparent end of his life.

With the Superman Squad alongside him -- and the Golden Superman of the distant future waiting in the wings -- Superman sees his father one last time before getting a gift from his future self. The Golden Superman gives him an indestructible flower from New Krypton, saying, "In remembrance of all that we are. And all that we will be."

Upon returning back to his own time, Superman faces an attack on Metropolis from a new kind of Bizarro. Organized, contagious, and duplicative, a mass of Bizarro creatures attack the night side of Earth. Superman flies up to the encroaching Bizarro planet -- a square, imperfect duplicate of Earth -- and drags it back into the "Underverse" from whence it came. Unfortunately, Superman is still on the Bizarro world when it travels into that dimension, and he cannot find a clear way back. His powers are fading too fast. He can no longer fly.

Luckily, he meets Zibarro, the imperfect Bizarro. Zibarro is handsome where the Bizarros are ugly, intelligent where they are idiotic, and sensitive where they are obtuse. "Must only Zibarro see the beauty in a sunset?" Zibarro asks. "Must only Zibarro search for poetry in this senseless coming and going?" He is all alone in a world filled with inferiors, much like Superman, though Zibarro handles it was sadness while Superman embodies strength.

Superman visits Lex Luthor in prison

Superman builds a rocket ship to get himself from Bizarro world back to Earth, and Zibarro provides a little help, but it's ultimately Super-Bizarro -- Bizarro #1, as it were -- who says "Hello and bad riddance" as he hurls the super-rocket off the planet and back into Superman's home dimension. Zibarro waves goodbye to his only friend.

With Superman gone for a while in the Underverse, two new heroes took over the mantle of "Earth's Champions." Bar-El and Lilo, the first astronauts from Krypton, finally arrived on Earth after decades being lost in space. They look down on the inferior humans with disdain, and when they meet Superman they chastise him: "You could have built a New Krypton in this squalor," says Lilo. "You could have laid the foundation stones of tomorrow."

"That's not fair," says Superman, presented by Morrison as the ultimate representation of selfless heroism. "What right do I have to impose my values on anyone?"

Bar-El and Lilo soon discover that they are dying of Kryptonite poisoning, something picked up on their travels through space, and in an act of compassion, Superman saves their lives by transporting them to the Phantom Zone, where they will instill some "law and order at last."

With his death imminent, Superman works on composing his last will and testament and wonders about the future of humanity. He experiments by creating "Earth Q" inside the infant universe of Qwewq, a world much like Earth but without the benefit of their own Superman. Without Superman's presence, Earth Q creates their own version of him, and Morrison gives us snapshots of that world: aboriginal paintings, Friedrich Nietzsche's writings, Joe Shuster's drawing. Earth Q is us, says Morrison. In a world without an actual Superman, we can only tell stories about him.

Lex Luthor, sentenced to death for his crimes, frees himself from the electric chair as he announces, "I just drank…a 24-hour…superpower…serum." Using a similar formula to the one given to Lois Lane as a birthday present, Luthor breaks free from prison and prepares to take over the world with the help of his "secret ally," Solaris, the Tyrant Sun.

Superman, wearing a protective solar suit, battles Solaris (and gets surprise assistance from a former pet of his, a young Sun Eater whom Superman had released into the wilds of space). Superman defeats Solaris, but not before reminding him that he'll one day be reformed: "By the 24th century, I'm told, you'll have been rehabilitated to work with humanity instead of against them."

Solaris and Luthor are doomed to failure

"There's a way into everyone's heart," Superman tells Solaris, "and I can see yours." Then he punches Solaris into submission.

After Solaris's defeat, Luthor attacks the Daily Planet, hovering in the sky like an arrogant god. Clark Kent, knocked out by Luthor's attack (and weakening from his own cellular degeneration), hallucinates about -- or makes psychic contact with -- his biological father, Jor-El. His father offers Superman a choice: "Remain at play within the field of living, fluid consciousness. Or to turn and face down evil one last time."

Superman returns to the land of the living, and, even though he's severely weakened, he confronts Luthor. Using a gravity gun to speed up the time around Luthor -- causing him to cycle through his 24-hour powers more quickly -- Superman punches out Luthor, who whines, "I could have saved the world if it wasn't for you!"

"You could have saved the world years ago if it mattered to you, Luthor," replies the dying Superman.

But Superman's not dead yet, and in his final act, he flies up into the sun -- the sun that had become damaged and contaminated thanks to Luthor and Solaris -- and inhabits it. Superman lives inside the sun, the sun keeping him alive, and Superman "building an artificial heart to keep the sun alive," as Lois explains to the sorrowful Jimmy Olsen. Morrison -- with artists Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant -- gives us one final image of Superman in the "All-Star" series as he stands, like a god, inside the machinery of the sun, working to sustain solar life.

And Leo Quintum isn't done either, as he reveals a secret chamber within the P.R.O.J.E.C.T. complex: a sector devoted to the replication of the Superman gene. A sector devoted to ensuring that Superman lives on.

More than ten years before the final issue of “All-Star Superman,” Morrison showed us what would become of Superman in the future, and as Hourman explains in the 1998 series "DC One Million," "In 70,001 the Prime Superman returned from adventures on the rim of time and space and took up residence inside his solar fortress of solitude. Our sun." The Prime Superman (or Superman Prime) is, of course, the name of the orginal Superman -- not to be confused with the cloned descendents created in Leo Quintum's lab. And in his time building an artificial heart for the sun (from the end of "All-Star Superman" #12 until who-knows-how-long), Superman must have constructed a fortress for himself inside.

Superman Prime descends from the sun

The future timeline is a bit murky, though we do know that the Superman from the 853rd century (Kal Kent -- a cloned descendent of Superman, presumably) traveled back to the 20th century to fight the Chronovore with the help of the Superman Squad. In "DC One Million" #1, Kal Kent says that adventure occurred "two days ago," though what that means when you're dealing with time travel is open for debate.

During the events of "DC One Million," Superman himself spends time in the 853rd century, and meets up with his descendents and even his future self before returning home. We know that Kal Kent met up with the Golden Superman -- the Superman Prime who inhabited the sun for so long he turned to a glowing golden color -- at the "Universal Gate" in 1999's "DC One Million 80-Page Giant" #1. And Superman Prime appears at the end of "DC One Million" in the 853rd century, shooting out of the sun with the "lost power ring of the Green Lantern" in his grasp to defeat the future incarnation of Solaris. Apparently, the recidivist Tyrant Sun was unable to fully reform after the 24th century.

After Superman Prime, the Golden Superman, saves the day (saves the future, and the past, and the present too), he creates an artificial Lois Lane, using her stored memory banks, and they embrace into eternity.

At some point after that, after creating New Krypton in the 853rd century, Superman Prime returns to the distant past to visit the his also-time-traveling younger self in the pages of "All-Star Superman" #6. He gives himself the flower from New Krypton and offers enigmatic words of comfort, hinting to his past self that even when facing certain death, everything will come out all right in the end.

The story that takes place last in Morrison's chronology is also the story that takes place first. It begins with "All-Star Superman" #6, and it ends there as well.

But he's Superman, Morrison has reminded us innumerable times, and his story will always really end with the same last words, "to be continued."

TAGS:  superman, all star superman, grant morrison, final crisis, dc comics

 
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