Reading “Neverending”

The tenth issue of All-Star Superman is probably my favorite one out of the series.  It departs from a standard story arc structure to instead deliver scenes from a day in Superman’s life as he alternates between performing his regular superhero functions and getting his affairs in order for his impending death.  The action is split between several different events that comprise the day, and the flow of the story moves non-chronologically as we flash back and forth between Superman dictating his last will and testament in the evening and his accomplishments from earlier in the day.

This is probably the most stressed Superman looks at any point in the whole series, and he’s just sitting and thinking about what’s going to happen to the world after he’s dead. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

The plot threads that make up this issue can be divided into three categories based on the social scale of Superman’s impact, moving from the very personal up to the communal and on up to the universal.  Superman races between crises and duties constantly, one moment facilitating diplomatic negotiations between Leo Quintum and the shrunken inhabitants of the Kryptonian city of Kandor, the next stopping an attack on Metropolis, and the next comforting a suicidal girl who was about to jump off a building because her therapist was unable to reach her in time.  The time stamps on the scenes from all of these stories, while initially disorienting, help emphasize just how tightly packed Superman’s schedule is.  The urgency of his pace here is underscored by the flashes to the end of the day where he explains that he knows his death is imminent, but he has to complete all of his labors before he can rest.  Superman knows he’s on a limited clock, but aside from the flashes of events like him recording his entire genome so it can be studied by Quintum’s PROJECT and his work on a new suit that will be needed for a conflict we’ll see in the next issue, the impression that Morrison and Quitely seem to want us to take away here is that this is just how a normal day goes for Superman.  He has immense power to help people, and he throws himself totally into using that power to its fullest potential; the whole practice feels like an echo back to young Clark’s mistaken assertion in issue #6 that he can “save everybody.”  This Superman is more tempered than he was in his childhood, but he’s clearly still grasping for that ideal.

Sprinkled throughout the accounting of Superman’s work are panels showing the gradual development of human civilization on an Earth located inside a miniature universe that Superman has stored in his Fortress.  The purpose of this Earth Q is to provide Superman an opportunity to see how the world will fare without him there to protect it.  The glimpses we see show that this Earth Q is remarkably similar to our own Earth as it shows moments reflecting the advancement of thought that leads to the character of Superman as he was conceived by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  This little subplot strikes me as Morrison and Quitely asserting the importance of Superman as a symbol for hope even in a universe where he doesn’t actually exist.

What I like most about this issue in particular is that it operates as the central thesis for the All-Star Superman series as a whole.  The point since issue #1 has been that Superman always operates in good faith and never slacks off from the responsibility that he’s assumed because of his abilities.  This is a fact of Superman’s life that continues in the background of all the adventures we’ve seen him have since he got supercharged by the sun, but the beauty of this issue is how it fills in the gaps between those big milestones.  Superman’s helping sick children and saving people from supervillains when he isn’t embroiled in any particularly spectacular conflict that’s worthy of having a comic book issue devoted to it.  He is, apparently, inexhaustibly good, but that appearance is cracking here as the toll of the supercharge is catching up to him.  Though it never shows when he’s in public, Superman looks incredibly stressed when he’s alone with his thoughts of what comes next for the world.

When I think about what makes Superman an excellent character, I’m thinking largely about the way he’s imagined specifically here, rushing nonstop towards problems that need his help because it’s the right thing to do.  There’s a moment in this issue where Lois, having thrown herself in the way of a rampaging supervillain to get Superman’s attention, asks Superman when they’re going to have a chance to talk now that she knows he’s really dying.  Echoing her confidence from the first issue, Lois has total faith that Superman will find a way to save himself; Superman’s not so confident, but he doesn’t have time to talk.  This scene’s interesting because we get to see that the crisis Superman’s flying off to deal with is an important, though small, one.  He’s not exactly trying to avoid the subject of his doom (he skirted the issue much earlier when he was treating Lois to her birthday celebration), but it’s definitely not a conversation he wants to have; the way he sidesteps Lois’s complaints while addressing the emergency with the suicidal girl is quite elegant: we get to see a sharp example of how he packs his time for maximum efficacy while also indulging in one of his deepest flaws.  Superman is a lonely figure in ways that aren’t exactly tragic (he’s not wallowing the way Batman often does), but he clearly feels an emotional distance from everyone around him.  I suspect some element of Superman’s avoidance of Lois (he never talks with her directly about what’s happening to him) and others is meant to be tied back to the trauma of losing his father; that event sits at the center of Morrison and Quitely’s series, and its impact echoes strongly here.

Superman has some intimacy issues. (Artwork by Frank Quitely, colors by Jamie Grant, letters by Phil Balsman & Travis Lanham)

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