I don’t have the same inherent interest in Superman that I do in heroes like Batman or Iron Man or Wolverine. The idea of Superman doesn’t interest me. It’s when a great storyteller takes hold and turns him into something more than an all-powerful defender that I take notice. There are many, many great Superman stories from nearly 75 years of comic book storytelling, but if you asked me to pick one for the very top of the heap, I’d go with Grant Morrison’s exultant love letter to the Silver Age: All-Star Superman.
When the first manned mission to the Sun is sabotaged by Lex Luthor, Superman saves the day, but with terrible consequences. His cells are overwhelmed by the solar radiation, and though this gives him incredible new additions to his power, it also dooms him. Super scientist Dr. Leo Quintum informs the Man of Tomorrow that he only has a year left to live. Luthor has beaten him. The sabotage mission was simply bait to lure Superman into the trap of the Sun. A Clark Kent article on the sabotage sends Luthor to jail, but Superman is still doomed. With his time ticking away, he opts to keep his impending death secret, and decides to make the most of the time he has left.
What follows is a tale of mythic proportions in which Superman fights to complete his own version of the Labours of Hercules. His adventures are cosmic, romantic, personal, universal and altogether impossible, yet he does them anyway. He has no limits now save but one, his mortality. And in many ways, that’s the key here.
This is the kind of superhero story Grant Morrison was born to tell. Anyone familiar with his original works, things like The Invisibles and The Filth (both of which are essential reading, kids), knows that he’s better at finding meaning and power in the seemingly surrealistic than any other comics writer alive. He explores the outer edges of consciousness, the outer limits of plot coherence, and the farthest reaches of comic book excess, and yet he makes everything feel so alive with emotional punch that it doesn’t matter how outrageous he gets. All-Star Superman is a very cohesive and coherent piece of work compared to some of the things you’ll find when Morrison is off the Big Two chain, but where it gets the Morrison touch is his decision to look back to the most outrageous time in Superman’s history, the Silver Age.
Seriously, go back and read some of those books from the ’50s and ’60s. They’re insane sci-fi amalgamations of superheroes, aliens, time machines and Jimmy Olsen getting up to all kinds of freaky hijinks. They’re imaginative writing run amok, in a really good way, and to tell his ultimate Superman story, Morrison wisely sought to mine the best of that age, to get back to the true power of Superman: because he’s impossible, he really can do the impossible.
To that end, Morrison doesn’t settle for hero vs. villain punch outs in this story. There’s no Brainiac, no Doomsday, no Batman, no Justice League. This is about what Superman can do, not what he can beat. As his death approaches, he fights to make the world better, to leave it a nicer place to live in than it was when he arrived. He fights for humans and Kryptonians, he tries to leave a mark, and in the end he becomes a kind of martyr, the thing Morrison’s always referred to him as: a Sun God.
Morrison’s storytelling feats here are twofold. One, he manages to brilliant and insanely weave all the elements of awesomeness in the Silver Age into one tale. You get the sense of a massive Superman universe out there despite the fact that you’re only reading 12 issues. This is an expansive, ambitious of view of the world through Superman’s eyes, and yet it all feels seamless and perfectly reasonable, even as you’re wondering how it got so crazy. Two, and this is important, he latches on to what is perhaps the greatest reflection on Superman’s meaning I’ve ever read. Superman’s great tragedy is that he can never save everyone. Here, the great tragedy is that he can’t save himself, but that also turns out to be a revelation of his true purpose. In facing mortality, he accomplishes more than he ever did when he was invincible. It’s here that Morrison’s true genius for superhero storytelling kicks in. Superman’s invincibility is secondary. It’s his quest to be a constant light for the world (something he achieves almost literally in this story) that matters. He’s a Christ figure, an elemental deity, a proactive God. He’s a savior, even when he knows he won’t see what happens next.
This, combined with the remarkable emotive art of the great Frank Quitely, is enough to turn even the most cynical of comic book readers into a believer in Superman. This is, in many ways, the ultimate Superman story, superstar storytellers laying it all out there, holding nothing back and leaving nothing but hope when you close the book. This is great Superman storytelling, even if you’re not a Superman fan.