Reading “Being Bizarro”

If you set aside the problem of Lois Lane in Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman, my biggest complaint is that the macro arc of the series is extremely disjointed.  Outside of issues where Lex Luthor appears (spoiler: he’s the main villain of the series), each issue is meant to be more episodic.  I suspect part of this structure is derived from Morrison’s love of the Silver Age; the plotting style of comics from the ’50s and ’60s was to have a fully self-contained story in each issue that sets off from and returns to an established status quo (if you like to watch television, think of it as the structural difference between a sitcom and a serialized drama), and Morrison seems to be drawing heavily from that tradition in the way he approaches each issue.  If you keep in mind that All-Star Superman was published in the mid-’00s when decompressed storytelling in comics was at its most extreme (decompression is a narrative style in comics where the action in the story is spread out over a very large number of panels, allowing for significantly fewer story beats per issue; it’s receded in popularity slightly, but many creative teams still write story arcs designed for consumption all at once instead of in monthly increments), then the use of this episodic, self-contained format makes great sense; Morrison’s calling back to an older era in Superman comics, and he’s employing structural as well as mythological features of those old stories.  Still, my comics habits, having been formed through a preference for trades over floppies, means that I want each issue in a series to feel more like a chapter than a short story; Morrison and Quitely are working really hard to go for the short story feel in this series.

Now having said all of that, we have to contend with the fact that this is the first issue of the series that ends without a feeling of resolution.  Superman faces off against the new Bizarro threat, and at the moment of crisis he gets sucked into the Underverse with the Bizarro planet.  The day is saved, but he’s trapped and rapidly losing his powers in the absence of radiation from a yellow sun.  This issue’s clearly designed to be the first of a two-part arc, which would have been a big deal in the Silver Age.

The only problem with all of this stuff about Silver Age style plotting is that the issue’s part of a mini-series where we’ve been promised from the first that this was going to be a story about Superman dealing with his mortality.  He has a death sentence hanging over his head, and the Bizarro plot doesn’t really do anything with that idea.  Superman saves the world and finds himself imperiled, but this issue’s so heavy on action that there are no moments of contemplation like what has been regularly worked in to all the previous entries.  Superman traveling in time to prevent missing the death of his father, trying to talk Luthor into reforming, confessing his identity to Lois (note, though, that all of these endeavors are marked failures for Superman, and they carry with them the suggestion of his need to accept his limitations at a point where his power appears limitless) all remind the reader that we’re looking at the adventures of a man who knows he’s dying; none of that subtext is present here.  The only thing I can think is that maybe Morrison and Quitely saved the pathos of this story for its second part; I’ve not re-read it yet, so its particulars are still fuzzy in my mind.

On a different note, one aspect of this story that irritates me immensely is the use of Allie, the fat Black woman, as the expendable character meant to demonstrate how dangerous the Bizarros are.  She’s a perfectly well sketched character (I find her epicureanism charming), but this issue is her first appearance, and it’s clear she’s only given some depth so the reader can feel bad when she’s infected with the Bizarro virus and Lombard throws her out the window.  In a cast that’s overwhelmingly white (Morrison and Quitely don’t attempt any kind of race- or gender-bending of legacy Superman characters here), the decision to introduce a Black woman just for the purpose of killing her off to let everyone know the issue’s threat is serious business comes across as incredibly callous and insensitive.  Allie serves as yet another example of how creators should not integrate women and people of color into their stories.

We barely knew you, Allie. (Pencils by Frank Quitely, inks & colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

Altogether, this is a weird issue; it’s far from my favorite.  There’s a heavy dose of action, probably more than what’s been built into previous issues, and the emotional beats are largely unmemorable.  Things do get better from here though; the major arc needs to get moving soon, and from what I remember the last half of the series will accelerate substantially with its core story.

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