"Just before your death, it's said you completed 12 super-challenges. The stuff of legend."
All-Star Superman, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Frank Quitely, inked and colored by Jamie Grant and lettered by Travis Lanham, is not only one of the most iconic, classic, and renowned Superman and superhero stories of all time, but just of comics in general. If you ask people for their favourites in any of those categories, this is one that's bound to show up somewhere.
Over the past couple of years, I've been crossing more and more comics off the "Comics I always hear that everyone should read at least once" list, so when DC released a deluxe edition of this book back in January, I knew I had to check it out. The Absolute would be nice but is a bit too expensive, and I probably would have bought the trade eventually if not for this, but it's great to have that middle ground format there.
All-Star Superman is a comic that lived up to my expectations, but not necessarily in a way I might have expected. If you've read anything by Morrison before, or know of their reputation, you probably know how wild and sometimes confusing their books can be. A lot of their work is tied to the sprawling depth of the DC Universe, down to the most obscure stories you might not have heard of, and to quote the description of this edition, there are many "heartfelt nods and winks to legendary tales".
I say that, because there is a tendency to recommend this to new readers, which I totally understand. It's entirely self-contained (so much so it's an Elseworld tale as well, but I'll get to that in a moment) so it might seem easy to hand to new readers, but I think it's important to note and remember just how stylistically Morrison this book is. I haven't read all of their work, but from what I have read, this feels like a quintessential Morrison book just as much as a quintessential Superman book. That mine seem obvious to some, but I just thought it was an interesting thought to mention, as someone only just now experiencing this book for the first time.
Now by all means, I'm not trying to sound like I'm gatekeeping, I hope I don't come across that way, but having read it I agree with some people that have said there might be some better first books to read for Superman. If you want to read this, absolutely go ahead, I hope you enjoy, but there are some parts which are inevitably confusing or obscure, or just simply (at least personally) joyful comic book wildness in a certain way that only Morrison can achieve. It's well worth the read, but I thought it was also worth noting that caveat.
I said I would touch on the "Elseworld" aspect of the story, and in my experience, the unique feel of All-Star Superman is largely down to that. The phrase "uncanny valley" is generally used when talking about simulated computer graphics of humans in film or TV, it looks real but it also feels slightly off-putting. That's what comes to mind when I think about describing this world this story takes place on, and I mean that in a good way. It allows Morrison and Quitely, both story-wise and artistically, to have all those familiar elements of a Superman story, playing around with them telling their own story with them, but not having to be restrained to that mainline continuity version of the character and his surrounding world.
On that note, I want to dive a bit deeper into the individual issues and aspects of the story, without spoilers of course, so you don't have to worry about that if you haven't read this yet.
“Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”
If you haven't ever seen the first page of All Star Superman #1, you can see it at the side there. Arguably one of the most iconic opening pages (and again, just comic pages in general) of all time. Superman's origin story is succinctly distilled into just 4 panels, with a pair of words captioning each one. The panelling is just as succinct, illustrating those 4 phases so effectively, with such bright, warm coloring and perfect lettering to go with it all. It doesn't need to expand beyond that, it works so well for anyone that doesn't already know it, or needs a refresher.
After that the issue gets right into the action, setting up the event that causes the rest of the series. There's something so interesting about how it's conveyed with the artwork. It looks fantastical, because of what it is, but it still feels so grounded and full of expression and emotion. That's definitely a highlight of how Superman is illustrated through-out the series, even down to the classic cover of the first issue. Him just sitting there, peacefully, basking in the golden glowing light rays of the sun, looking upon Metropolis as he sits amongst the clouds. It's such a cosy image, like a warm hug. Superman feels human, but simultaneously the series isn't afraid to revel in the fantastical superhero comic book nature of itself.
Two of the best examples of this are around the middle of the series (with another near the end I'll talk about) with issues 5 and 6. I'll talk about #6 first, because I think I have more to say about #5.
#6 exemplifies what I'm always a sucker for with comic book stories. It's so outlandish, using in part Morrison's own Superman One-Million, with an equally outlandish villain and wider cast. But then how that's utilised to create an emotional payoff at the end that felt like a punch in the gut? I adore that. It isn't seemingly tied to the main story, and it closes out the first half of the series, so it feels like a nice hard-hitting interlude in that sense.
“I’ve always liked you, Kent. You’re humble, modest, uncoordinated; human. You’re everything he’s not.”
#5 is titled "The Gospel According to Lex Luthor", revisiting him after the events of the first issue.
I won't spoil it, but the issue follows Clark Kent interviewing Lex Luthor, which makes for a fascinating character study of Lex, his dynamics with Clark and Superman, and the comparison of those two identities as well. That quote from the issue is what stuck out to me the most, and I think truly highlights why I think it's such an interesting study. All-Star Superman isn't a comedic book, but that moment of dramatic irony is a point of levity in the story, and it's all illustrated masterfully. The respect Lex seemingly has for Clark with the sneer for Superman, meanwhile through-out Clark just looks as clumsy as he appears to be sometimes.
I loved the note about this in the extras of the back. Another classic thing to look at if you haven't already is the transformation sketch from Clark to Superman Quitely did. Alongside that he mentions the idea of a farmboy Clark Kent in the big city, not use to all the tight spaces, bumping into things, and you can physically see throughout the story his slouch, and how that compares to him as Superman. Such a simply fantastic artistic distinction to make.
“Your doctor really did get held up, Regan. It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”
I could probably talk much more about this book, if I wanted to go into full spoilers, but I hope if you're reading this and you haven't read All-Star Superman already, you feel more inclined to now.
So finally, I want to touch on #10, arguably one of the best of the series. It's titled "Never-Ending", presumably as a reference to the idea of Superman's "Never-Ending Battle". I haven't even talked about the structure of this series, and that's partly because to understand the full context of it would be slightly spoiling the premise, which I wanted to and will hold off doing. I alluded to this in the quote that kicked off this review, but to again quote the description, it mentions "twelve impossible labors and mere moments to save the Earth." I don't know anything about the twelve labors of Hercules, I have to admit, but the idea of basing the story around something similar is so interesting.
Ten issues in and Superman has already accomplished a lot. The final two issues are a two-part finale, so it makes the story of #10 all the more impactful. It follows Superman throughout his day, just simply... doing good. That's it. All the wild, wacky and wonderful events this series has followed, and yet at the end of the day he's still around just for a whole day of good deeds.
There was a quote from that issue, that I started this section of the review with. It's probably the page I've seen shared around most, over the years, alongside the first page of the whole series. The best Superman quotes are the most simple, inspirational, wholesome and emotional ones like that. So powerful, so effective, as a page alone, but then within the pacing of the whole issue. It makes you pause, reflect, and showcases the beacon of hope, comfort and a better tomorrow that Superman can, should be, and is when he's at his best. The cover of #10 (also used for this deluxe edition) embodies this best, with a warm, comforting Superman almost with the Earth in his hands, with his iconic wisp of hair on his forehead, and a subtle smile.
“You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl....and curse....and finally.... they will join you in the sun, Kal-El. They will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.”
All-Star Superman is well deserving of its status as a modern masterpiece beloved by so many. It's a story that feels full of elements that make superhero comics so special to me. The incredibly entertaining, fun fantastical ride that Morrison takes with the story. The penciling by Quitely that manages to capture everything so effectively, from the most grounded, heartfelt moments, to the most extreme, wild moments the story takes. All finished off in one beautiful package with the warm, comforting colors by Grant and perfect fitting lettering by Lanham.
A beautiful love letter to classic Superman stories that's as delightfully rich with the thrilling style and ideas of those tales, as it is so emotionally grounded and heartfelt.
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