There happens to be another title in DC's (mostly failed) All-Star line, and that is called "All-Star Superman" by Grant Morrison. If you take all the hate, annoyance, and confusion that resulted from Frank Miller "All-Star" series, and flip it upsidedown to pure unending praise, you'd get the reaction from the superhero critics about "All-Star Superman". Its repeatedly listed among the best comics of the last decade, its won awards, it is simply beloved by nearly everybody who loves Superman, superheroes, and comic books. It apparently redefined and reaffirmed everything that made Superman SUPERMAN. I thought, "hey, I had to suffer through goddamn 'All-Star Batman and Robin', I deserve to read a good superhero comic, don't I?", so I sat down at a Barnes & Nobles for an hour, found a copy of "All-Star Superman", and read it cover to cover. And wow... what the fuck was that?
I've never really been the world's biggest Superman fan, but I've always respected the idea of Superman. I could appreciate what he was: the quintessential embodiment of American exceptionalism. A walking avatar of what our brightest dreams for what American should be: the invincible guiding protector for the entire world. And its probably due to my own personal cynicism that I've always preferred Batman to Superman*, but this seems to be a notable cultural shift in our entire mass consciousness. At some time as the generations passed Batman became more popular. It would take a sociologist years to figure out what exactly that means, but I don't think its good news for our mass-psychological health. If somebody could remind everybody why Superman is so important and why we need our Superman dream, I would be there to support the idea. Unfortunately, "All-Star Superman" loses whatever high-minded plans it had thanks to the great disease of superhero comic books: continuity obsession.
It seems weird that "All-Star Superman", of all things, would fall prey to an obsession with keeping up with past stories, since Grant Morrison is writing in the "All-Star" label, thus being free of all connections to the "main" Superhero adventures. Morrison had a blank check to write any Superman story he wanted, but due to his undying love for the Superhero stories from the past, he felt he could not tell his story without mixing in elements from a million others. This means that if you aren't a huge comic book guy already, "All-Star Superman" is completely incomprehensible for the most part. I'm not a huge comic book guy! I know plenty about Superman, I used to watch the 90s cartoon, I've seen all five movies, I can name a good deal of his rogues gallery from memory: Lex Luthor, Brainiac, General Zod, Parasite, Mister Mxyzptlk, Metallo, Bizarro Superman, and um... Nuclear Man(?). And you know what? I was lost on virtually every page, because "All-Star Superman" is just weird as Hell.
The main plotline begins when Superman has to rescue a spaceship on the first manned mission to the Sun. Now, like most things in this comic book, you have to simply accept the idea that we can send a manned mission to the Sun and then a few other things. Its a comic book, you have to suspend disbelief, but the sad part is that "All-Star Superman" asks that you endlessly suspend disbelief, constantly accepting every bizarre change in plot on every page. So the problem with the manned (groan) mission to the Sun is that Lex Luthor has left a splinter cell on board as one of the astronauts, who is primed to explode, but Lex Luthor is controlling the guy from Earth. So Superman saves the astronauts but since he's gotten too much power from the solar rays at point blank range, he's going to die in a year.
Now that's an interesting take on the Superman story, imagining what the world's most powerful creature would do when forced with a clear timeline and a desperate need to get all of his affairs in order. What does he do about Lois? What does he do about Lex Luthor? Superman has to set all of his affairs in order while slowly degenerating and dying. His mission in this story seems to be mainly to create a new age of Supermen. A lot of these ideas are in "All-Star Superman", but Superman actually spends a weirdly short amount of time with Lois Lane and most of the time fighting really weird enemies resurrected from the Silver Age of Comics - that time period when comics ran mostly on Adam West "Batman" logic and just made crazy shit up endlessly to entertain the kiddies. So for the most part "All-Star Superman" is a series of strange episodes of Superman fighting every manner of thing, and... wow was I disappointed.
It starts out promising enough, as Superman reveals his identity of Clark Kent to Lois Lane and takes her to the Fortress of Solitude for her birthday present. Lois is of course, really taken aback by all this, partially because her boyfriend and her best friend have both been lying to her for years and are actually the same person**, and partially because Grant Morrison fetishistically has to show off every item in Superman's colorful toy chest. So Lois gets to see Superman shrunken city(?), and a magic mirror from where Superman can communicate with the Mystery Mummy Superman from the Year 4500, and Superman's army of robots, and gets to learn that every time she saw Superman and Clark Kent in the same place at the same time it was actually Batman in disguise. I suppose all these various details are great throw-backs to people who actually have read the comics, but I find myself rapidly overwhelmed by all of these things.
Eventually Superman does give Lois a magic superhero serum that lets her have superpowers for a day. This at least is a fun little plot point and I think finally is getting to the raw point of Superman and Lois' relationship. And who wouldn't like to see Lois Lane in a skin-tight superhero costume? Unfortunately the story gets sidetracked when the Greek God Superman and the Jewish Superman appear, who give Lois a diamond necklace that they apparently stole from the Sphinx. No, not the Sphinx, the ULTRA-Sphinx. Because... uch... I don't know. Finally we get to the point and Superman and Lois have a great kiss on the Moon:
Welcome to the best part of this series.
Well, now Morrison lets Lois sit down for the next ten issues while Superman fights a Bizarro Earth Cube, a Sun Eater, an Evil Sun, two Kryptionian astronaut, a time traveling paradox creature, and a giant robot. Its just one after another strange thing, all to reference some past adventure that I've never heard of. I guess all these things mean a great deal to the fans, but they appear with such rapidity and suddenness that you never quite grasp what the Hell any of them are supposed to be or why they're here. The strange thing is that Superman only fights a couple members of his normal rogues gallery, and doesn't even get around to fighting Lex Luthor to the end. Every new enemy isn't merely a criminal mastermind but some interdimensional being of unimaginable power that comes out of nowhere, and just as quickly are dispatched back into the nothing they came from. Then Superman wins and I'm left more confused and put-off after every page. I'm trying to suspend disbelief, but there is a limit to how much I can deal with! Is that the true meaning of Superman? Fighting cheap B-movie SciFi creatures from Planet X? Maybe Superman really does suck.
There are a few moments in this series that I do like, and I guess there is a pretty good heroic tale in this thing somewhere. If I wasn't getting fed up with the bizarros and the dude in a rainbow coat(?) and the Mummy Superman, I might have enjoyed myself. The best chapters are of course, the ones with Lex Luthor in them. He spends most of the comic in prison mocking the American justice system, like when he forces a picture opt in prison of him shaking hands with a smuggled monkey in a Superman costume. Eventually his plan is to steal Lois Lane's Superhero serum and become Super For a Day and conquer the world just when Superman dies. But after Superman comes back from Kryptionian Heaven... somehow... he manages to get Lex Luthor to realize the ultimate beauty of Superman and his powers - then punches Luthor in the face. The world is saved. Then Superman dies for real... or becomes a solar being, or something. I stopped giving a shit.
Also, I really wasn't a fan of the artwork on Superman. His face is like too small for his head. All the big burly men come off with weird shrunken faces. Its just me.
At least I can tell that "All-Star Superman" was made by a real fan of the Superhero mythos. You can tell Grant Morrison truly loves Superman and everything he's ever done. But there's a point of limit. You can love all those things, you can even try to celebrate the entire history in a storyline, but he let it devour his storyline. To the point that weirdly, I don't think Superman ever tells Lois Lane that he's dying. He never stops lying to his beloved. And that's more or less a monstrous betrayal of her trust, Moon kiss notwithstanding. I'm not really sure what Superman did during this entire run that was actually special due to his failing health. Its more or less the same cheap childish pulp that all comic books do, only especially nonsensical. Its really unfortunate for me, because everybody else with interests in the character seems to absolutely adore this storyline, while I'm left on the sides scratching my head in confusion - the one guy at the concert who doesn't like the band playing, and doesn't even like the genre of music.
So I guess I'm criminally insane and unworthy of this comic. Or well, no. It actually was really stupid, but I there's a sincerity to the stupidity that I could appreciate, but never enjoy. It focused on the wrong things, there were real mistakes and missteps taken during this comic book. This is not the definitive Superman storyline like I hoped it would be.
Then I did the only logical thing: I got up from my seat in Barnes & Nobles and picked up a Batman comic. "Court of Owls", the first volume of the New 52 Batman series. Now that was awesome!
* Batman is my favorite gritty dark Superhero. But as for my favorite Golden Age hero of pure incorruptible heroics? Captain Marvel. You don't get any purer or saintly than Captain Marvel - because he's actually a kid in adult form. I'm confused as to why there isn't a "SHAZAM!" movie yet, probably because the director would ruin it.
** Why exactly does Superman keep up the stupid disguise as Clark Kent anyway? If he really loved Lois he would have revealed his identity to her back in the Forties. I have to ponder that there is some unspoken weakness in character behind Superman that he must keep his closest relationship so far away from his true self.