Posted May 11th 2012 by J. Edison Thomas.
As I learned a few years ago, the local library can be a pretty good place to find comics. Had I known this when I was a kid, I probably would have spent a lot more time at the library, and I probably would have read a lot more comics. As it turns out, despite being a big fan of characters like Spider-Man, Batman and the X-Men, what I knew about comics characters came from Saturday morning cartoons, movies, and discussions with nerdier friends. The only comics I had ever read in my childhood and teenage years were the incredibly stupid DC vs. Marvel crossover a friend in high school lent me, and a Captain America PSA comic about asthma that I got from my doctor. Neither of them made me feel any better about comics, or about having asthma.
In my early twenties I read a few graphic novels that Adam Glasgow either recommended to me or bought for me outright, but not much beyond what was dropped directly in my lap. I've been an avid follower of webcomics for years now, which have the twin advantages of being both free and centralized. Unlike superhero monthlies, which can be incredibly exclusionary to those who haven't been shelling out for years to keep up with storylines, if you like a webcomic you can gobble up its entire archives without going out of pocket or having to hunt anything down. Well, that brings me back to my local library, which is free and has a surprising abundance of comic anthologies and entire story runs bound as trade paperback. Some time ago at the library, while making an earnest attempt to find a non-fiction hardcover about history or politics or whatever, I saw a book left on a chair with cover art featuring Wonder Woman's boot standing on Batman's head. It was called Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia, and I sat down and read it for awhile. Then I checked it out, because I am a slow reader. When I returned it to the library a few days later, I headed straight back to the comics section. And what I got was All-Star Superman.
This is a well-known, popular comic, and it shouldn't be news to any comics fans that it's worth reading. But I was a complete comics newbie, and to me, it was a real eye-opener.
I'd heard good things about All-Star Superman from the NerdMentality forumites. The unfortunately-named ZachityZach had this to say in a topic about Superman's woeful history in film: "Read All-Star Superman, that's all you need to get a really good idea for what a good Superman story is like." The two-volume storyline also had the alphabetical benefit of appearing first in the top row of comics, so I went for it.
The story involves Superman becoming overcharged with solar power and dying from it, with the caveat that until it finally kills him, the supercharge has left him even more powerful than before. The premise is essentially a slap in the face to everyone who has ever complained that the problem with Superman is that he's "too powerful to be interesting." Instead of trying to figure out a way to alter Superman so that he can fit into what we assume is interesting, Grant Morrison embraced what Superman actually is and even doubled-down on his godlike abilities (Superman has even become immune to kryptonite, for instance) and figured out a way to make great stories anyway.
What perplexed me about All-Star Superman is that I have this assumption that any groundbreaking or critically-acclaimed addition to a canon the size of Superman's has to be some kind of stripped-down reinvention or deconstruction. In a way All-Star Superman seems to be the exact opposite of that—there are Bizarros and time travel and alternate-dimension Supermen and all kinds of the outlandish shit in there. Again, the goal seemed to be to embrace Superman's canon rather than try to shamefully hide it in a back room and pretend Superman's universe isn't absolutely ridiculous. At first this approach turned me off, maybe because I've been conditioned by Hollywood's comic adaptations like X-Men and Batman Begins that put so much effort into "grounding" those worlds by excising the more cartoonish elements. But by the end, the world of All-Star Superman had charmed me over. It made me realize that the horrible Superman Returns movie that I hated was basically the stripped-down Superman story I had been anticipating, and that's the reason it was awful; if Superman himself is the only fantastic element in the story, all he has to do with his time is pine over Lois and have Lex Luthor shove kryptonite in his face. It's boring.
By contrast, All-Star Superman is very much a cartoon world. In one story alone, Superman gives Lois Lane a potion that gives her Superman-like powers for her birthday, and then lizardmen who live in the center of the Earth attempt an uprising in Metropolis, which is met by Samson and Atlas, who then set Superman up in a riddle-to-the-death against the infinitely-powerful Ultrasphinx. It's such an insane pile-up of absurd ideas that it's hard to imagine what Superman does in the next episode. And it's reminiscent of the kind of ancient myths that comics advocates are so fond of referencing, where events only have to make narrative sense, rather than pointlessly anchoring down a story about a superhuman with tethers to reality.
For someone with plenty of familiarity with less whimsical spins on Superman in movies and television, reading through these books was like seeing the bursting forth of a wild cornucopia of everything Superman has been and could be. Like stepping into Willy Wonka's chocolate room, only instead of candy, it's Superman stuff. Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination... And then Willy takes a bite out of a candy cup. That's the part where Superman feeds tiny stars to his pet Sun Eater.
I must admit that some of the more fantastic elements of the book were, in a weird way, challenging. Superman keeping an alien entity that eats stars made the caveman part of my psyche think "KILL IT KILL IT, THIS THING COULD EAT OUR SUN IF IT GOT LOOSE." But then I'd remember it's Superman, and he can afford to give an inch of mercy to a cosmic monster. Then there's the part of my brain that wrenches itself into a pretzel with concepts like the Bizarro World. "Is that REALLY the opposite of its normal counterpart?" I would think about every little thing. Like names of things, which are spelled backwards in the English alphabet, but phonetically aren't really the opposite. "Earth" would be something like "Thurr," not "Htrae." But luckily, the humor of the stories calmed down my brain at moments like this. My mind follows the rule that if something is funny, it gets a pass. And the books are nothing if not funny.
Sometimes the situations themselves are comic, like Lois Lane going on a mad Die Hard mission against Superman out of a ridiculous escalation of paranoia. Or Lex Luthor belittling Clark Kent to his face, obtusely unaware that he's face-to-face with his god-enemy. Other times it's just the little things, like how Luthor draws on his eyebrows a little derpy sometimes, resulting in a permanent evil crook-eye. Set against the backdrop of Superman having a terminal illness, it's surprising how zany it can be. And it surprised me to realize how zany Superman needs to be at some point just to make some of the medicine go down. Superman disguising himself with a pair of glasses? That's already pretty campy all on its own.
My final take on All-Star Superman is that it's a fun set of stories that put a smile on my face and made me root for Superman in both the individual episodes and the overall arch. It made me feel something like when I was a kid watching the old Fleischer cartoons or Superman II, only so much more approachable and fantastic. I wondered if the book was giving me a glimpse of what Superman comics had to offer, or if it was the culmination of everything Superman could be, and it would all be downhill from there. And I aimed to find out upon finishing the books, when I returned to the library hungry for more of those classic comics who hang out at that party where I'm so late to arrive. But that's another story for another day.
lol the name drop
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