I recently finished Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman; it was a 12 volume comic book run that is now collected into two trade paperbacks.
Superman is very awkward as a superhero. On the one hand, his boyish, all-American charm is great, the Clark Kent disguise is amusing, and his superpowers are, well, rather powerful. And it’s that last one that’s the problem; he is way too powerful. Without a limitation, there isn’t much drama. So, along come kryptonite, which renders him utterly powerless. With no kryptonite around, he is indestructible; with kryptonite around, Elmer Fudd could beat him. So, how do you write a comic book about him? Who’s he going to fight?
As a result, I’ve never been all that interested in Superman comics; as a Superhero, I like the idea of him, but it’s hard to get excited about him. Similarly, all the Superman movies are pretty lame. (I know it is heretical in some circles to say that Christopher Reeve’s original Superman movie was bad, but really, have you watched since you were a kid?—it is painfully bad. And the franchise which started bad got progressively worse.) The only Superman portrayal I really enjoyed was Alan Moore’s great two issue story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” which, set in a future in which Superman has vanished, asked what happened. All-Star Superman tries to capture the same feeling as Moore’s story.
The idea behind the All-Star series is that it doesn’t have to fit into the DC Universe continuity—so the author is free to start and end anywhere. That gives a bit of freedom to Morrison, and he uses it in an interesting way. What is one enemy that Superman could fight in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion? How about his own mortality? The basic story: Lex Luthor comes up with an evil (obviously) plan—if Superman has to fly into the sun to save some people, he’ll get exposed to so much of the quality of the sun which gives him his superpowers that his body will overdose on the sun and he will die. The plan works. Superman finds out he has suddenly become mortal. So, he sets out to perform 12 heroic deeds before the end. The best part about the story not being tied to the DC universe is that it is possible that Superman can actually die here. (Superheroes can’t die in the real fake DC universe because there is a need for more comic books, so you have to have a fake fake universe if you want even the possibility of death. Such is the reality of the comic world. (One Christmas, my family gave me The Marvel Encyclopedia; my father-in-law, upon seeing it, commented, “Hmmm. An Encyclopedia about things that aren’t real?” My father-in-law probably won’t be reading All-Star Superman anytime soon. (Fortunately I read non-comic books too, so that he doesn’t think I read only absurd things.)))
Does All-Star Superman work? A little. It’s OK. Part of the problem may be Morrison; the only other thing of his I have read is Arkham Asylum (a Batman story) which is pretty good. But both of his books I have read have a very jerky, episodic feel. He jumps over parts of the story and then you have to fill in what just happened; it isn’t hard to fill in the blanks, but the stories don’t feel like they develop; instead, they simply lurch forward. (It’s sort of like watching Frankenstein’s monster walk.) Some of the parts of All-Star Superman are clever and well done, but other parts are tired.
The Bizarro World section runs on way too long; there is a really interesting character in it, so the episode is actually good, but too much Bizarro talk gets old. (By the way, in one of my lectures not too long ago, I mentioned Bizarro world, and met with a sea of blank faces, I asked if anyone knew about Bizarro world. Nobody did. Not a single student knew about it. Sigh—kids don’t read enough comic books these days. (And, incidentally, Bizarro world is discussed in an episode of Seinfeld—doesn’t anyone watch Seinfeld anymore?))
What do we learn from this story (All-Star Superman, not the Seinfeld episode)? It’s an extended reflection of our own mortality. Superman, suddenly faced with mortality, has to decide how he wants to live the rest of his life. We, constantly faced with our own mortality, don’t think about it all that much. Superman has a year to accomplish his 12 tasks. He picks an odd set of tasks. Suppose you had the rest of your life to accomplish 12 things—what 12 things would you pick? Seriously, try to make a list of the 12 Labors of You. It’s an odd Thought Experiment. And why do we rarely ask ourselves that question?
One other interesting Superman note: I can't remember where I read it, but recently I saw someone note that Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, is unique. Every other superhero’s alter-ego is the real person. Bruce Wayne is the real person, then he puts on a mask and becomes Batman. Peter Parker is the real person and becomes Spider-Man (note correct spelling of "Spider-Man"). But Superman is the real person and the mask he puts on is Clark Kent. I wish I remember where I read that tidbit. I know I read it recently, but I cannot remember reading anything recently which would have had an observation of that nature in it. Come to think of it, it was probably in Wired magazine—they always have geeky observations like that.
The obvious Music Video. I love the song; but hate the original music video (it’s terribly lame), so this one gets some good video to go with the song.