Comics of the Decade: All Star Superman

9th December 2009 | by | No Comments

All_Star_Superman_CoverOver the next three Wednesdays, the Comics Daily team will be taking it in turns to pick a comic – a run, full series, graphic novel or even single issue – that we feel defines the last decade in some way. These aren’t necessarily our absolute favourite or objective “best” of the decade (if we could even pick just one of such a thing), just books that we think have been a special part of our comics reading over the past ten years. First up, then, it’s Seb’s choice

This one picked itself, really. My admiration for Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely individually is surpassed only by what I think of them when they work together – from Flex Mentallo, to the issues of New X-Men that Frank managed to draw, and even the likes of Earth 2, they simply have not done a single run or series that I haven’t loved. In the 2000s, they managed to turn out two works that could easily top any comics’ reader’s “best of the decade” – but while many would claim that We3 is their true masterpiece, I can’t help but hold a sneaking preference for All-Star Superman (even though, unlike We3, it never made me cry in McDonald’s). I don’t know if the same would be true if I weren’t such a fan of the character anyway – although all available evidence would suggest that, like any sane comics fan, I’d still think it a magnificent series – but speaking as someone who owns a t-shirt with the black-and-red Max Fleischer-cartoon-era “S” shield on it, this was a comic I’d been crying out for ever since, as a nipper, I used to run around the house in a blue costume recreating the bit from Superman III where he freezes and lifts the lake.

Because if there’s one thing that any Superman fanboy in their right mind wants to see happen, it’s to have the character treated as if he has any level of relevance and, indeed, resonance. And that’s what All-Star does. In one sense, it’s a pure and retrospective celebration of the myth of Superman, crunching together elements from across seven decades’ worth of stories – but in another, it seeks to establish everything that he represents as significant to us right now, even when dressing it in the trappings of gloriously over-the-top retro sci-fi escapism. We’re no longer afraid of true heroes in the way that we were in the late ’80s and early ’90s – and while the success of certain superhero movies suggests that the majority of people still feel unable to enjoy them without a dose of irony or darkness, the role of the hero as someone who simply wants to help people has become something that we’re less ashamed of. The relevance of Superman in a year that the USA elected a comic-book-collecting President who based much of his campaign on a wave of hope, optimism and promise of change simply can’t be ignored.

A crucial element of the book’s success is that one of the strongest cues it takes from the Mort Weisinger era is to tell stories that could only be Superman stories. The point is, he’s Superman – everything he does should be bigger, better, more exciting, with more at stake, than anybody else around him. It’s why ninety per cent of the time he simply doesn’t work that well in a shared universe – and why he can look “lame” compared to the glut of cooler heroes given movies and TV shows in the last couple of decades. Other heroes can be night-stalking vigilantes, or catch crooks, or stop the odd natural disaster – even save the world every so often, or be an intergalactic policeman. But Superman? Superman has test-of-strength contests with Hercules and Samson, battles his imperfect duplicates, and punches tyrant suns in whatever passes for their faces.

Besides which, it’s not even as if there are any “other heroes” in All-Star. And this is something else that Morrison gets – there has to be that sense of wonder around Superman, and that can only really happen when people aren’t used to seeing other caped characters flying around. But what really drives the series along, aside from that sense of reverence, is Morrison’s unparalleled imagination. This is a world where no idea that pops forth from his head is left without a place to be used – whether it’s background detail or major plotlines. The majority of us will have got into comics at some point because of the excitement, escapism and sheer inventiveness that they offer – and All Star Superman, in offering all of those things while also staying intelligent and insightful, is everything that a great comic should be. And in the end, in turning out to be the most loving and powerful tribute to Superman yet seen in the medium (or, at least, aside from Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?), it becomes as loving and powerful a tribute to the superhero genre and the comics medium themselves as it’s possible to get. We’ve already written about it twice before, but in my book, issue #10 is simply the finest single comic of the decade – no question.

It’s also fair to say, though, that as good as Morrison’s writing is, All Star would be only half the comic it is without the presence of Quitely – and without the unique working relationship that the pair have, each working to each other’s strengths and bringing the best out of each other like no-one else can (I’ll always love Frank’s draftsmanship, but nobody gives him quite the same drive to express his brilliance as Morrison does; and nobody effectively communicates Morrison’s mind the way he does). From the effortless brilliance of his character designs and landscapes (has Metropolis ever looked quite so much like the “City of Tomorrow”?), to moments of storytelling bravura both huge and small (perhaps my favourite set of panels remains the moment in issue #1 when Clark saves an old man by “accidentally” bumping into and knocking him over) and astonishing levels of attention to detail, this is a comic that looks like no other – and frankly, it puts almost all of its contemporaries to shame.

All Star Superman is a comic that can be held up as a shining example of just what comics are capable of – and, perhaps more pertinently, of just what the superhero genre is capable of, and as evidence that there’s still life in the old capes yet. The 2000s have been a wonderfully fruitful decade for comics of spectacular brilliance and levels of enjoyment, but of all of them, All Star is the one that simply makes me thankful, and proud, that I’ve spent the last two decades immersed in this medium. It’ll be a long time before we see its like again.