Okay, I’ve poo-pooed on a few of the middle issues of All-Star Superman (the more I think about it, the more I dislike the Bizarro two-parter), but I have to say that I actually found myself remarkably taken with issue #9 “Curse of the Replacement Supermen.” Its antagonists, Bar-El and Lilo (I don’t know enough about the Superman mythos to explain why Lilo doesn’t have a house name) are total heels who espouse a blatant form of cultural imperialism. They’re not supposed to be sympathetic at all but their circumstances leave you feeling some empathy in contrast with Zibarro from the previous issue whom Morrison and Quitely want us to like but who only annoys me.
This issue starts up two months after Superman disappeared into the Underverse while fighting off the Bizarro planet. In that time, two Kryptonian astronauts who were thought lost in space have arrived on Earth and taken over Superman’s duties as protector of the planet. Their motivations aren’t quite so pure (we see right away that they’re very intent on imposing Kryptonian culture on humanity by fiat if necessary), but they do seem to recognize the value of protecting human life, even if they think Earth’s inhabitants are inferior to Kryptonians. Superman initially tries to reason with Bar-El and Lilo, but he quickly realizes that they hold him in contempt and they are stronger than him (it’s so soon after being trapped in the Underverse that Superman’s still getting his full powers back). He’s forced to retreat, but Bar-El and Lilo track him down to the Daily Planet where they almost out him as Clark Kent before they become grossly ill from kryptonite that has formed in their bloodstream. Superman finds that he isn’t able to cure them, so he sends them to the Phantom Zone where they can beat up Kryptonian criminals all day in perpetuity until he can maybe find a way to heal them.
There are two strains of fun in this issue that I want to highlight. The first is, once again, Morrison’s ridiculous love of the Silver Age. Sometimes it’s overdone and obnoxious, but this issue seems to hit just the right balance for me. Here’s my favorite panel demonstrating this idea:
Superman’s totally befuddled by the Kryptonian spires because they’re so obviously out of place in Metropolis, but he has the wherewithal to exposit in a complete sentence for the reader. Where a more contemporary comic might condense Superman’s utterance to something like, “Kryptonian architecture?” Morrison just goes all in on the hokey Silver Age dialogue. The phrase, “my native planet, Krypton,” sells it the hardest, as it communicates to the reader information about Superman’s origin that Morrison has previously dispensed with explaining in detail (his and Quitely’s “four panels, eight words” opening from issue #1 is a relatively famous treatment of Superman’s origin that works because it assumes readers already know the important details about Superman, including his home planet of Krypton); Silver Age comics are infamous for reiterating core character concepts over and over again on the assumption that any comic could be a reader’s first encounter with its hero.
Besides all of that condensed awesome silliness, you also have to accept that the issue’s premise (a couple more Kryptonians just drop onto Earth from space and make Superman’s life complicated) is pure Silver Age absurdity (really it’s pretty much superhero absurdity in general, but DC tried to step away from the whole “Superman runs into a bunch of other Kryptonians who survived the planet’s destruction” angle when they realized it was getting out of hand). Also, the fact that Bar-El and Lilo show up at the Daily Planet, basically call Clark Kent Superman in front of his coworkers, and they still don’t make the connection is utterly bonkers; in any other book I’d hate it, but for some reason I find it charming here–probably because I have such a low opinion of the Daily Planet‘s staff that I’m not at all surprised by their obtuseness.
The other thing that I like about this issue is that it gets back to the core thesis of the series (which took some weird turns in those middle issues): that Superman is an essentially good person who tries to do right by everyone he meets. This concept expresses itself here in ways that are imminently admirable; Superman explains to Bar-El and Lilo that he has no right to impose his own values on others, particularly when it would supplant other equally valid values. When Bar-El describes Superman’s love of Earth cultures as going “native,” you can’t help but recognize that there’s a postcolonial critique happening, even if it’s only on a very basic level.
Superman’s conflict with the Kryptonians culminates with a sequence where they beat him handily and put a fissure in the moon, all while calling him a “soft wee scientists’s son.” This moment crystallizes in my mind the idea that Bar-El and Lilo are supposed to be obnoxious bullies from space while Superman is the sensitive, nerdy kid. It’s a funny setup, particularly since Superman is portrayed as so physically in control of himself and his surroundings in all other scenarios, but it rings true as an extension of what Superman values from the heritage his parents left him.
That the issue ends with Superman choosing to actively try to help Bar-El and Lilo with their illness after they essentially declared their intent to colonize Earth as New Krypton is pretty moving. I’m not sure if the Kryptonians actually would change their tune if they were to get better, but the fact that they’re at least not genocidal (unlike another villain that Superman might have been a little too easy on back in issue #5) suggests that there’s hope to reach them. Still, it’s probably for the best that they’re trapped in the Phantom Zone and it’s not within the purview of this series to explore what Bar-El and Lilo would do if released.