Sunday, August 31, 2008

Superman for all times

It's been a while since my last post. I've been busy catching up on my reading material and all the ongoings of FINAL CRISIS and SECRET INVASION. It seems that the respective comic universes are coming down either at the hands of the reborn New Gods or because it's drowned in more skrulls than you can shake a stick ( or a She Hulk ) at.

But in reading all about vengeful Rogue's, running towards salvation or new orders I have neglected my own blog a bit. I tried to finish all my reading before my brother comes to Spain next month because naturally he won't bring his own laptop so I won't have access to mine once he gets here. I'm now halfway through ( or maybe two thirds ) with the biggest parts still ahead of me like ANNIHILATION which I want to read before I read issue 1 of the new GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY series. That's the only comic left from my last comic order. I have already ordered the next batch ( because I doubt that I can read any comics on the computer once my brother gets here ) but it takes two weeks for them to get shipped to Spain so I don't know if they arrive before my brother. The only other comic to read is the fourth volume of the Jom Aparo stories for THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD but I want to drag that out for as long as I can so I'm reading all the stuff that's still on my laptop. But I had to take a break.

One reason is that my head's ready to explode from sensory overload the other reason is that I wanted to put up post 150 ( the second one ) as long as I still can. It has taken me this long because normally I just write whatever comes to my mind but I already had the topic for post 150. So when another topic started manifesting itself in my head I had to write it down to post it as post 151. Which took a few days but in the end I did it.

The downside was that normally after emptying all my creativity into one of my usual incredible litrary pearls that I share with my fortunate readers - I'm feeling pretty drained. Which combined with the fact that I got caught up in my reading material led to the huge gap between the last post and this one.

Well, what is done is done, now we're back on track and the positive side is that I have already written post 151 which is sure to bring quite a lot of controversy with it.....which is the reason why it's not post 150. For this post I have decided not to write about destructive and negative things like skrull invasions or final crisis but about something positive : namely the rebirth of everything super in the form of ALL STAR SUPERMAN. Right in time with the 70th anniversary of the Man of Tomorrow this instant classic wraps up so what better time to take a look at it than right before the last issue ships ?

So let's fetch some Pretzels and beer, turn on the old phantom zone projector and dive into some Silver Age vibe.

The guy everyone loves to hate

The one comment I read most while doing the research is " I was ready to hate the series when I first hear about it but when I read the first issue ( insert clever play of words ) bla bla bla ". It seems the general populace is not too impressed with the Man of Steel. While on one side everybody on the planet ( no pun intended ) seems to know who Superman is on the other side mostly everybody thinks he's boring, uninteresting and just a living anachronism. It seems that when the average Joe thinks about Superman he doesn't think about all the great things about Superman like the first Superman movie, Superman vs Muhammed Ali, Superman for all Seasons or Kingdom Come.

No. When they think about Superman it's normally the likes of Superman the fourth movie, Superfriends or all those bad Superman stories.

Additionally the whole basis of Superman seems so outdated that it's bordering on the ridiculous. In today's world everybody's in it for himself and someone who is as altruistic as Superman must be crazy or having a hidden agenda. Today's slacker generation is more likely to see delinquents like 50 Cent or Lex Luthor as their heroes than Superman. Most people just see what Superman COULD do with his powers and they don't think that someone on this powerlevel could be very interesting. I mean with all his power what could really happen to him ? It's a rule that a main character's appeal to the reader is tied to the possibility of being hurt or his possiblities to die. And most readers see Superman as indestructable.

And this is where a good writer comes in. Because most people are so focused on the powers that they forget the man behind the cape. Let's face it : it's all about Clark Kent. In KILL BILL it was said that Superman is always Superman because he can't turn off his powers. And that Clark Kent is his commentary on humanity that he sees as weak and fumbling. Now while it is true that Superman can't turn off his powers ( at least not without a lot of trouble ) it is not true that he's always Superman. He is always Clark Kent.

Once upon a time in America

Superman is a universal story because it's about things everybody on the world can relate to ( or should be able to relate to ) truth, justice and doing the right thing. But it always had a special connection to America because the story is also a typical american story : a foreigner comes to America where he finds a life, friends and a destiny to fulfill. Superman is not the first immigrant nor will ne be the last but he's the most famous one. Contrary to other aliens like the Martian Manhunter or Hawkman Superman grew up as an american citizen and his values are therefore american values. He grew up in Smallville as Clark Kent and despite his super powers that's who he basically is. He may be the strongest being on the planet ( or the second strongest depending on how you rate J'onn J'onzz ) but his mindset is of a boy who grew up on a farm working hard with his own bare hands.

Superman is not who he really is. Superman is something he created to give to the press and the media so they are occupied and don't bother Clark Kent.

It has always been said that a pair of glasses is the worst disguise when in reality it is the best disguise - if it is a disguise after all. Because normally heroes hide their faces in their superhero identity and show their real faces in their secret identity. With Superman it's the other way around. He shows his real face in his superhero role. Which is the reason that most people don't think that he even has a secret identity ! I mean everybody on the planet knows how he looks. How could he have a secret identity ? It's not possible. So most people think he's just Superman 24 hours a day. It's logical. If you could be Superman all the time would YOU be someone else ? And everybody has seen Superman at baseball games or other public events. It's not like he's averting desasters all the time. And when he wants to be alone he just goes to his Fortress of Solitude. Most people just think that Superman is always super and always does super things. They don't think much about what it means to be this Superman.

Because that's the crux of every good Superman story. Don't forget the Super but concentrate on the man. Despite of all the power there is still a man inside this hero and that's also where his greatest weaknesses hide. There are some things that Superman can't do and that has always been the parting point for the best stories. Like the fact that even Superman can't be everywhere at the same time was the beginnig of the KING OF THE WORLD. Or the fact that even Superman can die was the beginning of THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN, WORLD WITHOUT A SUPERMAN and REIGN OF SUPERMAN.

Or the fact that even the greatest superpowers are worthless if you can't trust your own senses. If you don't know what's real and what's not all your super powers amount to nothing which was the beginning of the RED GLASS TRILOGY and the DOMINUS storyline.

There are certain points where even Superman reaches his limits.

May it be the fact that he can't change history, bring back the dead or simply won't break the law. But the great weakness as well as the greatest strenght of Superman has always been Clark Kent and his human side. So it's no wonder that ALL STAR SUPERMAN gives us a hefty dose of this human side.

All Star Grant Morrison

There is always the danger of coming across as pompous when you use terms like " instant classic " , " best comic " or " all star " but that's something I'm going to risk in this case. Because it's not too big of a risk if you ask me. So far there have been only two kind of reactions by readers of this series :

Firstly complete approval by all Superman afficionados who read it. And secondly a big dose of " What's so great about this series ? " by readers who never were very interested in Superman for the most part of their life. And I can understand that. No, really. If you haven't been reading Superman for 35 years like me and you haven't followed him through storylines that hurt worse than a kryptonite infection it's hard to see how brilliant this new series is.

If you don't know much about Batman you also don't know how brilliant Tim Burton's first BATMAN is. It's a good movie but nothing more if you don't know your Batlore. And if you don't read much Superman it's also difficult to grasp how brilliantly Grant Morrison takes everything from Superman's 70 years of history and weaves it into one complex story that I'm sure will go done in history as one of the best stories ever.

And not only because the story is littered with little winks and nods to Superman trivia or because Grant Morrison seems to come up with the craziest ideas effortlessly like a new key for the fortress that's so heavy that only Superman can lift it. No it's also because he incorporates things like the Suneater, the computer tyrant Solaris or encounters with Samson and Atlas or the Superman - Jimmy Olsen - War and puts his own spin on it. Everything that makes Superman Superman is in this book and like the fortress of solitude get a brand new makeover.

But what makes this series so great is not only the content but also the format.

To be continued

You know I pity the people who buy this as a trade. No, I really do. Because let's face it : Grant Morrison is reviving a lost art form with the book. The self contained single issue story.

Even though every issue is part of a big story that unfolds like a giant mystery story it contains a story that stands for itself. There is a creepy story in SUPERMAN'S FORBIDDEN ROOM,a blockbuster action story in THE SUPERMAN / OLSEN WAR, a tragic story in FUNERAL IN SMALLVILLE, a bizarre story in the Bizarro two parter and a Lex Luthor story in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LEX LUTHOR. Each issue leaves you on the edge of the seat and you can't wait for the next. Which for me was always how I rate a series. Not if the writer or artist is hot but how much do I want to read the next issue. Which is one of the reasons why I read John Byrne's BLOOD OF THE DEMON or DOOM PATROL. Because I just wanted to know what happened next. That's just part of every good comic reading experience. Waiting for the next part and rereading the issue and descovering all the little things you overlooked the first time. Savoring each little part of this twelve part series on it's own. And that's something all the people who are waiting for the trade are missing out on. And that's why I pity the fools.

If you think about it the whole series is a big Lex Luthor story. Because in the end that's all what it boils down to : Lex trying to kill Superman. Of all the villains Superman has had over the years Lex Luthor has always been the least powerful and the most successful. But why is that so ? What has made Lex the eternal thorn is Superman's side ?

In the beginning he was no different than all the other cheap throw - away, dime - a - dozen villains that paraded through the pages of the Superman magazines like the Prankster, Terraman or Brainiac. But over the course of time Lex became his big nemesis first by tying his beginnings as a villain to Superboy and then by seeing Superman as nothing more than an alien invader. The moment when Lex started to refer to Superman as the alien was the moment when he took his first steps to become the Ying to Superman's Yang. The next big step was when John Byrne revamped the Superman franchise and turned Lex Luthor from the armory wearing bruiser to a kingpinlike untouchable crimelord who held Metropoils in his iron claw and was seen by all inhabitants of Metropolis as the ultimate humanitarian. This concept was so successful that it has been incorporated in the ADVENTURES OF CLARK & LOIS tv show ( starring the fantastic Teri Hatcher )

 and all following versions of Lex.

Lex Luthor now had two things that would make him Superman's equal ( if not better ) : one of the most brilliant minds on earth and absolutely no remorse. He would do whatever it takes to bring down Superman and take his natural role as president of the United States and ultimately king of the world. I always asked myself why Lex really hates Superman. Is it the fact that he sees him as an obstacle to mankinds natural evolution like he always proclaims ? Or does he just hate him because unlike Lex he never wanted to rule earth ? Does Lex see Superman as an alien because he came from the stars or because Superman's ideas of using all his powers to the benefit of mankind without getting something back are something he can never understand ? Let's face it : Lex always argues that it's the fault of Superman that he's a criminal and that with Superman gone he could rush in a new utopia. But in the year without Superman he didn't invent a cure for cancer or build new cities on the moon or find a new source of energy. All he did was build machines to kill Superman. So that shows what he's really made of.

The house that Lex built

It's no wonder that Grant Morrison shows us a invigorated and charismatic Lex. One that's so obsessed with the achievements he made without super powers like his muscles or his intellect that he never even suspects that some feeble and clumsy human like Clark Kent could be Superman.

The Luthor we can find in this book is vain, brilliant, funny and utterly evil. Without spoiling too much he kills Superman in the first issue because Lex has wrinkles. That's badass.

And that's really not much of a spoiler because that's the whole parting point of the series, the big idea of Grant Morrison : Lex finally suceeding in killing Superman and what Superman does in his final days. There have always been two kind of superhero stories that have been repeated over and over again : the origin and the final days. It seems the most interesting points in a superheroes life are his beginnings when he learns the ropes and the ending. Which is the reason why Superman's end lasts eleven issues. Because as THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN showed the event in itself is not the interesting part but what leads up to it or what comes afterward. And in this case Superman knows that his days are numbered. Which Morrison uses to delve into the psyche of this Superman to see him experience fear, tragedy, defeat and short being human.

All Star Frank Quitely

A comic is always the combination of words and pictures giving the reader the creative fuit of labor of a great writer as well as a great artist - in the best cases. So I would be amiss if I didn't mention the work of Frank Quitely. Where Grant Morrison does his magic with words to pull us into the story it's the art of Frank Quitely that really takes us to the fortress of solitude, bizarroworld or the underverse. And where Morrison weaves a story that seems simple but reveals layer upon layer of deeper meanings Quitely unfolds a tapestry of iconic pictures that capture the sheer scope of the Superman universe adding all the little easter eggs for Superman fans to discover on the third or fourth reading. And believe me, you will be reading the issues four or even five time. And not only because of the story but also for Quiteley's amazing art. His Superman is imposing, his Clark Kent looks like he dressed himself without lights and his Lex really instills fear.

It's not always easy to transform godlike superfeats into something printable....well, unless you're Frank Quitely. Which is surely one of the reasons for the books Eisner awards.

So far the series has received nothing but praise so I don't think it's much of anunderstatement that this is one story that in future times will be refered to as one of the classic stories like WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW ?, FOR THE MAN WHO HAS EVERYTHING or SUPERMAN FOR ALL SEASONS. For some stories only time can tell if they can stand the test of time but sometimes you know right away if something is just perfect like the MASTERS OF EVIL storyline by John Buscema and Tom Palmer.

So the final issue is still to come and like always Lex Luthor has managed to turn the tables on Superman. And while I think I know what's to come I have long given up trying to secondguess writers of the calibre of Grant Morrison or Erik Larsen because it's just not possible. All you can do is strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. After all this is Grant Morrison's world - the rest of us is just visiting.

Normally I would have put up the amazon link for the trade but in this case the hardcover is cheaper than you will get in any comicshop on the internet ( at least the ones I know ) especially if you keep in mind that this includes shipping - within Germany at least.

Now lastly here's something for those that don't care to be spoiled. On this blog you can find a little experiment, namely the whole story told in eleven panels taking the pivotal panel from each issue for it. I think it suceeded : All Star Superman in 11 panels

New to the blog ? Everything you need to know about TALES FROM THE KRYPTONIAN : top ten posts / more posts of interest

No comments: