To balance out the unrelenting cynicism of Watchmen, I’ve decided to alternate entries in that series with analysis of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s 2006 series All-Star Superman. I think it’ll be a nice counterbalance.
Some background: In the early 2000s Marvel launched a line of reboots of their most famous properties set in an alternate universe freed of the decades of continuity that bog down most mainstream Big Two comics. This was their Ultimate line (I was an ardent fan of the Ultimate X-Men book for many years before Marvel reduced and restructured the line; as a teenager it looked like my best opportunity to jump into comics). The popularity of the Ultimate books eventually got DC to respond with a line of their own that would involve telling stories of their big heroes divorced from their own snarled continuity. All-Star Superman was the first in this line, and it was pretty universally acclaimed though the relentless weirdness of the follow up All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder killed enthusiasm for the project (I’ve never read any of that Frank Miller and Jim Lee train wreck, though I wouldn’t be opposed to it if I ever wandered across a collected trade at the public library).
The irony of the All-Star line’s intent is that at least with All-Star Superman continuity isn’t so much jettisoned as remixed and reveled in. Grant Morrison’s main schtick as a comic writer is that he adores Silver Age comics goofiness but he has more contemporary storytelling sensibilities. That comes across in the first issue of All-Star Superman where we open on an intrepid explorer and his genetically engineered assistants attempting to collect a sample of the sun as their vessel’s heat shielding starts to crack and one of the assistants reveal that he’s actually an organic time bomb planted on the expedition by Lex Luthor to sabotage everything.
Yeah, this stuff is bananas.
In another comic you’d probably set this crisis up as the main event, the thing that the hero needs to resolve in order for the story to be complete. Morrison sets this up as the opening act and immediately diffuses the tension by cutting to Lois Lane writing a headline about Superman saving the sun expedition. Other reporters at the Daily Planet point out that he hasn’t actually saved them yet, but we get the sense that there’s really nothing to worry about.
This is a major motif that Morrison and Quitely push throughout the entire series: whatever bad thing is going on, Superman has got this. He’s the original superhero, and attendant with all the god-like powers that he has, we get to rest in the fact that he will always do the right thing, at the right time, to create the right effect. There’s no room for cynicism or grittiness in this story (which is why I think it pairs nicely with Watchmen).
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story without some kind of conflict, so we learn in the aftermath of Superman saving the explorer Leo Quintum and his expedition to the sun that his body has been overloaded with energy from up close exposure to the solar radiation that gives him his superpowers. It’s too much even for Superman’s body to metabolize, and he’s given a terminal prognosis. In the meantime, however, his powers are vastly expanded (Quintum runs strength tests when assessing Superman’s health and finds no discernible upper limit). Receiving this news puts Superman in a position to decide how he should get his affairs in order, and the issue ends with him revealing his secret identity to Lois as Luthor is taken into custody for his crimes. We have our great tension for the remainder of the series: will Superman find some way to reverse the cell death, or will he die and have to leave behind a world that must go on without him?
Overall, this is a super comfortable comic to read. Superman’s a character who is at his best when he’s acting like a paragon of a superhero. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman to fit the Messianic archetype with echoes of Moses and other Jewish leaders who tried to enact the will of God. It’s this tradition that Superman appeals to, as an agent who acts with perfect judgment, and that prospect is comforting. He’s not a fallible human in the way that the characters of Watchmen are revealed to be, and while the world he inhabits isn’t realistic, it’s not meant to be. All-Star Superman is a series that explores the Ur-superhero in a way that highlights what’s best about the genre. Superman’s supposed to be an inspiring figure, and the conflict at the center of the book is the question of what the world will look like in his absence. Where Moore and Gibbons ask, “Wouldn’t the world be terrible if we really had superheroes,” Morrison and Quitely ask “Wouldn’t the world be worse if we didn’t dream of them?”