Reading “Superman’s Forbidden Room”

The second issue of All-Star Superman serves the purpose of citing much of the continuity that Morrison is going to gleefully pull from in building his version of Superman’s world while also establishing the stakes of the larger story being told.  We know that Superman is dying from his recent trip to the sun, and here he tries to come clean with Lois Lane, someone whom he’s deceived for the length of his career.  This is a timeline where we’ve never seen anything like Superman revealing his secret identity to Lois, let alone them getting married; their relationship appears to be founded more on all the weird stuff of the Silver Age Superman (thoroughly catalogued at Superdickery) where Superman just went to absurd lengths to keep people from finding out who he is.  That Lois begins the issue totally skeptical of Superman’s confession to be Clark Kent is a nice way to put all the terrible stuff he did to her in the Silver Age in a context that makes narrative sense, and then it takes an absurdly dark and delightful turn.

The key thread for this issue is Lois’s skepticism of Superman suddenly coming clean with her.  It gradually escalates into full blown paranoia as Lois decides that Superman is actually plotting something sinister when she stumbles into a room filled with superscience and diagrams of Lois’s body.  This all culminates with Lois shooting Superman with a green Kryptonite gun (he’s fine; green Kryptonite no longer hurts him after his sun supercharge) and Superman revealing his birthday surprise for Lois: a day with the same superpowers as him.

Lois being all action-hero-y when she’s at the height of her drug-induced paranoia. Notice how she’s drawn in a nonsexualized way and her fears revolve around being forced to be Superman’s mate. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant)

What’s fun about this issue is the way Lois descends into her paranoid state; Morrison never breaks from her perspective throughout the issue, so we see a very logical internal progression, even as Superman does everything he can to be totally upfront with Lois.  He shows her all the wonders of his Fortress of Solitude, which is a cool premise by itself for an issue.  There’s no major conflict happening here other than a minor lab accident that we don’t know about until the very end.  It’s just Morrison throwing all his favorite parts of the Superman mythos out there for Quitely to illustrate and letting us marvel at it all.

Of course, there is a dark side to this issue.  Lois’s paranoia is induced by exposure to a toxic substance, but her reasoning that it’s suspicious for Superman to come clean after he’s lied to her for years isn’t wrong.  As the audience we know that Superman is trying to get his affairs in order because he’s going to die, but this issue does give us an opportunity to consider how it all looks from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know what we know.  There’s a certain paternalistic edge to Superman’s actions here (not his hiding Lois’s birthday present, but his decision not to tell her that he’s dying), and it’s uncomfortable that Morrison asks us to dismiss Lois’s concerns at the end of the issue just because her paranoia’s been artificially elevated.  This is the unfortunate duality to the premise of All-Star Superman that our hero is at the peak of his abilities, and because of his elevated consciousness he knows best in all situations.  Morrison and Quitely fully embrace the tradition of Superman as a messianic figure, but they overlook the fact that he’s still mortal with finite, if vast, knowledge of the universe.  We’re supposed to trust that Superman always makes the right choice, but in this little issue that’s just about his relationship with Lois we get a relatively deep exploration of the problem with entrusting a single person with so much responsibility.  It’s one of the few moments where Superman’s flaws are highlighted in an otherwise optimistic, idealistic series about him.

Here’s Lois before she’s exposed to the gas. She’s shown naked in the shower, in a pose that doesn’t seem anatomically possible (her feet are flat on the floor, but her legs are flexed like she’s on tip-toes), wondering if “Superman’s girlfriend” is going to get what she wants. The more I think about this issue, the grosser it feels. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant)

On the art side of things I have just one complaint about Quitely’s work in this issue.  I normally love his stuff (his figures never look like unblemished mannequins the way you get in some other artists’ superhero drawings), but there’s one panel in this issue where he draws Lois taking a shower to get ready for her dinner with Superman.  The showering itself isn’t a problem, but the pose that he puts Lois in bugs me immensely.  She’s standing flat-footed in the shower, but her back is arched and her legs are flexed like she’s wearing heels.  It’s a small complaint; this is one of the few times in an issue that otherwise depicts Lois in action running around deserted hallways where the objectification is blatant.  I don’t think we ever seen anything like this again in this series, but it catches my eye every time I read through the issue, and it bugs me.

Despite all this, the issue ends on a high note, with a splash page of Superman presenting Lois’s birthday gift to her, with the promise that next time we’ll get to see them operating as equals, at least for a day.

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