John Pistelli's Reviews > All-Star Superman

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison
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bookshelves: comics, teaching, twenty-first-century

I've gone back and forth most of my life (I believe I was eight when I read Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious Earth ) when it comes to Grant Morrison, thinking him alternately genius or trickster. Probably a genius-level trickster! But I have decided that the best way, for me anyway, to appreciate his stories, which I don't always understand at the plot level in great detail, is to savor the poetic asides. Morrison favors a "compressed" mode of storytelling, a jump-cut-like rhythm, perhaps in reaction to Alan Moore's intricately smooth narrative preferences. This means that I've always been slightly unclear as to what's going on from page to page--and not only in the explicitly counter-cultural trippy material like Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, but also in his mainstream work. (My favorite of which remains New X-Men, incidentally, though I should say I've excused myself from his recent DC work.) His cut-up method enables him to reorient the reader's attention away from the satisfying but facile narrative pyramid of set-up/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement to the lyrical flowers growing in that structure's pocks and niches.

So this book--a kind of "last" Superman story à la The Dark Knight Returns--gives us the last days of the Man of Steel as he struggles to complete twelve labors and save humanity while dying of solar poisoning. This summary suggests a mythical substructure: Hercules the strong man, Apollo the sun god, Christ the savior.

As for the treatment of the classic Superman elements, some I loved--Morrison's Jimmy Olsen is particularly wonderful and deserves to be the definite take on the character ("What are they TALKING about? I'm Jimmy Olsen! I look GREAT!"), and the depiction of Bizarro World as a chaotic land of ambition thwarted by incapacity (with Zibarro as its unwilling bard) has an inexplicable poignance. Some I found inadequate--Lex Luthor just doesn't come to life here, despite visually being a Morrison-like stand-in, and the whole story about Samson and Atlas is puerile, not worth a whole chapter. Morrison's Lois is promising, but could have been more. Lana Lang should have more than one scene.

Politics? Oh well, as in Marvel Boy, I think we're dealing with "Zen Fascism." There is frank talk of superior and inferior civilizations. Jimmy Olsen, avatar of postmodernism, transgender on the first page of his story, is instructed by Agatha: "Unlike YOU, our social roles are PREDETERMINED. It prevents CONFUSION." (You'd think she could avoid the dangling modifier, then; but I digress.) But the thing is called Superman--what are you going to do? The book's upshot is that we should all help others and have compassion because the forces are unified and we are all in it together; this somewhat mitigates the book's implicit investment hierarchy by assuring us we can all get to the top if only we realize the wholeness of the whole. Morrison's frank defense of idealism--mind makes world, so think beautiful thoughts--is refreshing; there is a lush Romanticism here that gives me energy. Geoff Klock and David Fiore have both compared Morrison to Emerson: it is entirely fitting.

Quitely and Grant's art is uneven. The technique: Quitely's pencils digitally inked and colored by Grant. The effect is odd because the lines are sketchy and even fussy without adding shade and volume, which latter are produced via digital airbrush and color gradients. I suppose they were going for the beauty of old cartoons (perhaps an allusion to Max Fleischer), slightly disturbed by intricate and sometimes grotesque linework. I grasp the concept, but I'm not sure how much I like it. (I owe some of these insights to the art students to whom I taught the book in my graphic novel class, and I thank them for it!)

The book's tone does not cohere: it moves from ironic farce to earnest elegy from one panel to another. This is not necessarily a problem.

But the lyrical flowers: they, I think, are the reason to read it. Superman creating our earth in his fortress of solitude, complete with Pico della Mirandola, Nietzsche, and Joe Shuster, just to see what will happen in a world without Superman, to show in a literally cartoonish Hegelian fashion that the idea of Superman is necessary and inevitable, the destined product of humanity's immanent self-transcendence. The P.R.O.J.E.C.T. poet trying to describe the unified field in a haiku, coming up with the syllabically-inadequate but nevertheless profound "To imagine the forces unified is to begin the unification..." Superman saying, "You've broken the moon." Agatha looking at Superman's cell structure and marveling: "Oh, it's like BACH." Luthor's niece, Nasty, ferrying Clark Kent across the underground river in the book's most resonant mythological image. Unless that honor should be reserved for Superman working in the sun, half Egyptian relief, half WPA mural--and what is that image an allusion to? Ra piloting the barque of the sun?

Should you read it? Probably only if you already care about Superman. But if you read it, read it as a poem.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
October 1, 2014 – Shelved
October 1, 2014 – Shelved as: comics
October 1, 2014 – Shelved as: teaching
October 1, 2014 – Shelved as: twenty-first-century

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