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Favorites: All-Star Superman

Sean T. Collins

All-Star Superman Vols. 1 & 2
Grant Morrison, writer
Frank Quitely, artist
DC, 2008-2010, believe it or not
160 pages each
$12.99 each

The cheeky thing to say about the brand-new out-of-continuity world Grant Morrison constructed to house his idea of the ideal Superman story is that it’s very much like the DC Universe we already know, but without backgrounds. Like John Cassaday, another all-time great superhero artist currently working, Frank Quitely isn’t one for filling in what’s going on behind the action. One wonders what he’d do with a manga-style studio set-up, with a team of young, hungry Glaswegians diligently constructing a photo-ref Metropolis for his brawny, beady-eyed men and leggy, lippy women to inhabit.

But, y’know, whatever. So walls and skyscrapers tend to be flat, featureless rectangles. Why not give colorist/digital inker Jamie Grant big, wide-open canvases for his sullen sunset-reds and bubblegum neon-purples and beatific sky-blues? We’re not quite in Lynn Varley Dark Knight Strikes Again territory here, but the luminous, futuristic rainbow sheen Grant gives so much of the space of each page–not to mention the outfits of Superman, Leo Quintum, Lex Luthor, Samson & Atlas, Krull, the Kryptonians and Kandorians, Super-Lois, and so on–ends up being a huge part of the book’s visual appeal. And thematically resonant to boot! Morrison’s Superman all but radiates positivity and peace, from the covers’ Buddha smiles on down; a glance at the colors on any given page indicates that whatever else is in store, it’s gonna be bright.

Moreover, why not focus on bringing to life the physical business that carries so much of the weight of Morrison’s writing? The relative strengths and deficiencies of his various collaborators in this regard (or, if you prefer, of Morrison, in terms of accommodating said collaborators) has been much discussed, so we can probably take it as read. But when I think of this series, I think of those little physical beats first and foremost. Samson’s little hop-step as he tosses a killer dino-person into space while saying “Yo-ho, Superman!”…Jimmy Olsen’s girlfriend Lucy’s bent leg as she sits on the floor watching TV just before propositioning him…clumsy, oafish Clark Kent bumping into an angry dude just to get him out of the way of falling debris…the Black-K-corrupted Superman quietly crunching the corner of his desk with his bare hands…Doomsday-Jimmy literally lifting himself up off the ground to better pound Evil Superman’s head into the concrete…the way super-powered Lex Luthor shoulders up against a crunching truck as it crashes into him…the sidelong look on Leo Quintum’s face as he warns Superman he could be “the Devil himself”…that wonderful sequence where Superman takes a break to rescue a suicidal goth…Lois Lane’s hair at pretty much every instant…You could go whole runs, good runs, of other superhero comics and be sustained only by only one or two such magical moments. (In Superman terms, I’m a big fan of that climactic “I hate you” in the Johns/Busiek/Woods/Guedes Up, Up & Away!) This series has several per issue.

And the story is a fine one. Again, it’s common knowledge that rather than retelling Superman’s origin (a task it relegates to a single page) or frog-marching us through a souped-up celebration of the Man of Steel’s underrated rogues gallery (the weapon of choice for Geoff Johns’s equally underrated Action Comics run), All-Star Superman pits its title character, directly or indirectly, against an array of Superman manques. The key is that Superman alternately trounces the bad ones and betters the good ones not through his superior but morally neutral brains or brawn, though he has both in spades, but through his noblest qualities: Creativity, cooperation, kindness, selflessness, optimism, love for his family and friends. I suppose it’s no secret that for Morrison, the ultimate superpower of his superheroes is “awesomeness,” but Superman’s awesomeness here is much different than that of, say, Morrison’s Batman. Batman’s the guy you wanna be; Superman’s the guy you know you ought to be, if only you could. The decency fantasy writ large.

Meanwhile, bubbling along in the background are the usual Morrisonian mysteries. Pick this thing apart (mostly by focusing on, again, Quitely’s work with character design and body language) and you can maybe tease out the secret identity of Leo Quintum, the future of both Superman and Lex Luthor, assorted connections to Morrison’s other DC work, and so on. But the nice thing is that you don’t have to do any of that. Morrison’s work tends to reward repeat readings because it doesn’t beat you about the head and neck with everything it has to offer the first time around. You can tune in for the upbeat, exciting adventure comic–a clever, contemporary update on the old puzzle/game/make-believe ’60s mode of Superman storytelling in lieu of today’s ultraviolence, but with enough punching to keep it entertaining (sorry, Bryan Singer). But you can come back to peer at the meticulous construction of the thing, or Morrison’s deft pointillist scripting, or the clues, or any other single element, like the way that when I listen to “Once in a Lifetime” I’ll focus on just the rhythm guitar, or just the drums. Pretty much no matter what you choose to concentrate on, it’s just a wonderfully pleasurable comic to read.

18 Responses to “ Favorites: All-Star Superman

  1. Great review of one of my favorite Superman stories of all time. Superman v. his own death! One question: what’s the secret identity of Leo Quintum? I’ve read other accounts of the character that suggest he’s not exactly what he seems, but I’ve reread the series and can’t figure out what that means. The best explanation I’ve seen is that he’s the mad scientist archetype turned on its head. He’s a brilliant man who is just as good and moral as he seems — kind of a rare occurrence in comics. Anyway, if you could expound on this point, I’d appreciate it.

  2. This review has me wondering what comic you were reading.

    To be fair, that’s something I wonder whenever most people talk about All-Star Superman, and more generally whenever people talk about Grant Morrison as a “visionary writer” or something like that. So clearly I’m in the minority. But after despising the first issue of All-Star Superman, I forced myself to read through the rest of it just to see what the internet saw in it. And I was a bit confused. A few issues were brilliant (#10 especially), but just as many were so bad they were almost unreadable (#7 especially), and the rest were just mediocre. With such inconsistent quality, I really don’t understand what everyone else sees in this series.

    Ah well. Lord knows there are plenty of things I adore which are not widely enjoyed; it only makes sense that that would go both ways.

  3. Thom: Google Lex Luthor Leo Quintum. I could SWEAR our own Douglas Wolk expounded on this subject someplace, but for the life of me I can’t find it now.

    Mory: It takes diff’rent strokes to move the world. Yes it does!

  4. […] Sean T. Collins writes a beautiful piece on All Star Superman over at the Savage Critics. Sure, we've read many reviews of the work, but there's a reason for […]

  5. “I could SWEAR our own Douglas Wolk expounded on this subject someplace, but for the life of me I can’t find it now.”

    I think it was in his “Best Comics of the 2000s” run-down, but I don’t recall where it ran. Initially, the idea came up in the comments thread of Jog’s review here at SAVAGE CRITICS, I think, though I’m not sure if that’s still around, either, after the switch.

  6. Morrison talks about Quintum extensively in part three of the excellent “All Star Memories” interviews at Newsarama. If you haven’t read them, click my name for a link to part ten, where you’ll find links to the first nine installments.

  7. Also not sure if the argument held all that much water to begin with. Not to belittle the discussion (which is what this stuff excels at – the generation of thought etc) but I agree with thom kimota when he says quintum is an archetype turned on its head. Quintum gives us Superman Secundus who then begins to lay the foundation for the Superman Squad / Destiny that filtered all the way through to the DC one million books.

    Grant’s already told us the end of this story – Superman wins – the world slowly embraces its best destiny – Luthor (and those like him) fade and becomes small because as many have suggested this is not a war of fists but a war of IDEAS. His are small and petty – Supes’ are large and benevolent.

    We fall prey to the same thing that Supes has for all these years – we WANT Luthor to redeem himself so we create and forge these connections for ourselves taking threads and snippets of dialogue and turning them into “second shooter” level conspiracy theories. While it’s a compelling read and fun to banter about I’ll stick to my standard “pics or it didn’t happen” stance.


  8. The most detailed explanation I’ve found was on Barbelith. Go to http://www.barbelith.com/topic/22644/from/1890 and scroll down to vajramukti’s post.

  9. Morrison has plenty to say about Quintum in part three of the “All Star Memories” interview at Newsarama: http://www.newsarama.com/comics/100823-Morrison-Superman3.html

  10. This book was bubbling in Morrison’s brain for ten years. It’s his love poem to everything that makes Superman Superman, a trimmed-down, supercondensed poetic complex of story and meaning.

    I’m pretty confident there’s not an ounce of creative fat in this book that’s not deliberate.

  11. “We fall prey to the same thing that Supes has for all these years – we WANT Luthor to redeem himself so we create and forge these connections for ourselves taking threads and snippets of dialogue and turning them into “second shooter” level conspiracy theories.”

    But before the series was over, I remembered a lot of people were expecting Quintum to do a heel turn.

  12. I’m sure I was inspired by a few ideas thrown around, but it MIGHT have come from me:

  13. Heel Turn! Yeah, digging through the Johns boards on ASS is pretty interesting as people were posting and following the series in real time.


    But again, and this thread may be a little unfairly tilted towards my view, you can see how the tweaks and re-tweaks to the theory he initially puts out start to become more and more tenuous.

    I like / lurve this kind of thing – just in this case I don’t feel the connection like I did with some of the other nods and winks.

  14. […] All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely: Morrisonia quite aside, this is just a magnificently pleasurable superhero comic to read. This was the first time I'd done so all in one go as opposed to its serialized installments, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. […]

  15. I believe where I first saw the Quintum theory was Cole Moore Odell’s comment on Jog’s review of the final issue here at SavCrit (the comments don’t appear to be there any more).

  16. Yeah, I was in the mix on the Luthor/Quintum idea, and I ended up pulling together a bunch of obscure and probably dubious evidence to support the idea, but once again I have to give props to David U. on that one–he got there ahead of me. Most of what I said in that JOG thread is in this post (and the attached comments):


  17. […] or which titles. Apparently, now that I look it up, Grant Morrison is the guy who did New X-men, All-Star Superman, the acclaimed run on Animal Man, and The Invisibles, along with tons of other stuff, both […]

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