Saturday, December 11, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 311 (12/11) -- All-Star Superman, Vol. 1 by Morrison & Quitely

This book is museum-quality: a highly-polished, painstakingly labored over, carefully presented coprolite. Every moment of it was digested long ago -- by writer Grant Morrison, by its expected readers, by twelve-year-olds of all ages and eras -- and it's been fossilized to precisely replicate the quirks and oddities of the cud that Morrison and that audience chewed together, decades ago, with all of the original short-lived deadline-driven newsprint goofiness replaced by the granitic rock of fancy modern printing and trendy retro-superhero nostalgia.

But it's still a turd.

I can't blame Grant Morrison, even though he long ago aimed his career down the narrow corridor of allowable modern superhero stories, carefully aping the past as slavishly as possible while still giving a sense of newness [1] -- a man's got to eat, and Morrison is clearly good at punching that particular button in the fanboy brain. And I suppose it's not Frank Quitely's fault that every single one of his characters seems to be assessing the reader as a very low form of life and considering extermination options. (And there is a clear masochistic streak in the modern superhero fan -- who else would return, again and again, to the scene of the "raping of his childhood"? -- which, I suppose, makes Quitely's characters the doms of the comics dungeon.)

And it's unsurprising that All-Star Superman, the twelve-issue monthly series that took three years to complete, has been almost universally beloved in the comics world, since it's exactly what that audience craves so much: a product meticulously crafted to appear to their now-jaded and middle-aged eyes as closely as possible to the way Silver Age stories looked when those eyes were young. It's not even nostalgia, which at least genuinely looks backward, but something much less healthy, a dragging of childhood obsessions bodily forward into later life under the pretense that they're anything but childhood obsessions. And so here we have a Fortress of Solitude full of Superman robots, a Lois Lane obsessed with unmasking Superman, a Jimmy Olsen forever donning bizarre costumes and having absurd adventures, and even that pinnacle of '70s absurdity, Steve Lombard. Of course we do: the fake nostalgia wouldn't be complete if all of the pieces weren't clicked into place.

All Star Superman, Vol. 1 is a collection of the first six of these twelve trompe-l'oeil paintings, each one minutely detailed to give to the kind of grown men who hang around in comics shops every Wednesday the illusion that it's 1974 again and all of their lives are still in front of them. But it only works if you were there, if in 1974 or some similar year you imprinted on unsophisticated Superman comics and yearned for the world they depicted. If you had any other kind of childhood, reading All-Star Superman is like reading a well-bound, impeccably produced collection of someone else's sexual fetishes.

I read the second half of this series back when I was an Eisner judge, early in 2009, and I wasn't overly impressed. But I figured I should give it a second chance, since so many people seem to love it so much, and I picked up the first half of the story this week. Nothing changed my mind, and now I resent past-me for making now-me read this junk. Good thing I can't get my hands on my own past self.

I'm sure I won't change anyone's mind on All-Star Superman; it's one of the pillars of modern adventure comics. But it's bad in corrosive, creativity-destroying ways, and someone needs to point those out every so often, even if no one listens.

[1] See my ComicMix review of Batman R.I.P. for another example of High Morrison.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index


ADD said...

It's rare for a review to be as completely and utterly incorrect as this one is.

All-Star Superman isn't even meant for nostalgia-craving longtime readers, rather it is a celebration and recombination of every notable Superman trope from all the eras of his existence, aimed at both new readers and progressive-minded longtime ones. I'm always up for a convincing contrarian view, but your review is the least convincing argument against a great comic book that I've read in a long time. God knows Grant Morrison has turned out some uneven works in the past half-decade or so, but All-Star Superman isn't one of them. It is, as with most of Morrison's collaborations with Quitely, exceptionally good and way above the industry average for corporate-owned superhero comics. I don't think you even score one point against the work itself in this vague, unconvincing bitchfest.

Anonymous said...

"aimed at both new readers and progressive-minded longtime ones. "

I dunno, Alan. Let's look at one of the dominate tropes of the book: the constant mythological allusions. Superman the sun god- fallen and risen like Christ, the twelve trials like Hercules, the trip to the bizarro underworld/hades, Superman as literally the creator of our universe, the actual mythological characters that turn up. Are new readers really looking for this sort of thing, or is it pandering to people who have been reading this stuff for decades?

It seems to be saying, "you may have spent decades reading repetitive pulp stories, but actually, good Superman reader, this character well deserves all the thousands of dollars you’ve spent on his adventures. Superman is actually the modern Christ, the modern Zeus, the modern Prometheus, the modern version of the Gods of old, and that makes you his apostles, his crusaders, his high priests! What I’m saying, good reader, is that Superman is VERY IMPORTANT, and that makes your hobby VERY IMPORTANT as well!

Morrison seems to fall back on this (now pretty tired) trope a lot when writing DC characters.

For the retro Superman thing, I prefer Supreme, which was a lot warmer, and didn't see as interested in pandering to the readers by having constant odes to how wonderful Supreme was, and how mythological resplendent his book is.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you really didn't get it, did you?

Cole Moore Odell said...

Descriptions of "pandering" and punching fanboy buttons casts Morrison as a purely cynical mercenary, leaving aside the strong possibility that the guy sincerely believes this stuff. His many, many excited-futurist interviews across the years--and the earnestness (I think) I see at the heart of most of his comics--would seem to bear it out.

I'd be really interested in reading a comprehensive takedown of this series, one that 1) actually used the text, rather than inventing bad motivations on the part of the creators; and was 2) free of self-aggrandizing, "someone needs to speak truth into the abyss" windmill tilting. Frankly, Andrew, this review jerks itself off as much as you think All-Star Superman does, in its own way.

I've long thought that DC's main problem with Superman was its insistence on telling stories about how great Superman is, rather than telling great Superman stories. While I really, really enjoy All-Star Superman, it's guiltier of this sin than just about any other Superman story ever--it's just that the craft elements are so much better than the average, desperately defensive Why-Superman-is-American-Jesus, "the bad sales numbers are not in our stars but in our readership" filler story.

ADD said...

I'm not sure if Anonymous #1 is arguing with #2 or what's going on there, but in any case anyone not willing to sign their names to their comments is not worth reading anyway.

Anonymous said...

Cole wrote:

“Descriptions of "pandering" and punching fanboy buttons casts Morrison as a purely cynical mercenary, leaving aside the strong possibility that the guy sincerely believes this stuff.”

This is anon from the second comment:

It’s pretty much irrelevant as to whether he believes the stuff, there’s only so many times he can develop the theme that the true gospel of Jesus Christ is edited, owned and controlled by Time Warner shareholders, the true heirs of the gods of old, before his comics become fairly dull, at least of a thematic level. (He’s talented enough that they rarely feel actively horrible)

I recall Wizard was comparing Grant Morrison’s JLA to the Greek gods back in his 90s run, presumably based on some interviews he did. (Maybe with an Arthurian thing as well, they have a roundtable, right?)

Maybe he should, like, try to develop a theme besides Superman= god? Old comics = modern tales of the legends of old?

Maybe this is expecting too much of him and maybe most writers tend to repeat themselves,, but I really prefer, generally, to read authors who don’t have this thematic thing where they nudge the reader and say “Huk Huk, isn’t this character neat?”

And Superman: The Motion Picture did the religious icon references pretty well back in 1980, except it actually had a fairly straightforward approach that felt like it was telling a story without all the naval gazing. With Morrsion, he’s now remixing his own earlier Superman/ JLA comics remixing older silver age comics. He’s at the point where he’s doing “homages” to his old Superman stories like JLA 1 million- and not really saying much that’s new.

Cole Moore Odell said...

@Anon From the 2nd Comment: It's relevant in that Andrew seemingly based his critique on the premise that Morrison has lazily, consciously sold out to give the Pathetic Fanboy Army comfort food comics they think they want, but which are only encouraging their basic emotional retardation. I don't accept that frame, I don't think Morrison would accept that frame, and while that dynamic is certainly present in many instances of the creator/comic/reader relationship, I really don't think it pertains to All-Star Superman or most of Morrison's work--for the reason Alan suggests above. Morrison thinks Superman should be for everybody, so he made a Superman comic for everybody--one that uses previous history and ideas without requiring a Master's degree in them.

I understand Andrew's contrarian shtick, but this is a case where a writer tries to will a strongly held feeling into an argument with a bunch of name calling conjecture. I don't really know how Morrison intended the comic, or how most of the audience received it, but after reading this post I have a pretty clear sense of the kinds of guys at the comic shop (and online critics) Andrew wants us to think he hates. So in order to complete his I'm-sticking-my-dick-in-your-eye routine, he loads the language with conventional wisdom scorn. What might be a reader or writer's fond memories become "childhood obsessions"; preferences become "cravings." Nods to the character's long, odd history that studiously avoid requiring knowledge of comic book continuity are bafflingly recast as Morrison writing in an impenetrable, nerd-ego-stroking language. The most effective refutation of all this horseshit is that my 12-year-old picked it up and read it of his own accord and thought it was great.

As ineffective as I think his post is, Andrew can take solace in knowing that even if "no one listens" and he'll never change Doug Wolk's mind, at least God is reading his blog.

(The joke, of course, is that God is actually Superman.)

Andrew Wheeler said...

1) Hey! I've got multiple comments on one post! Guess I should piss off Superman fans more often!

2) Honestly, thanks for playing (mostly) politely while I was busy elsewhere.

3) Alan: I'm glad to hear that you enjoy All-Star Superman; it's always preferable to enjoy a work of art than to hate it. But I believe you vastly overestimate its appeal to "new readers." In fact, I tend to disbelieve that there are any new adult readers for Superman comics, and would argue that this particular work is very obviously aimed at the kind of people who know that the Fortress of Solitude has a honking great yellow key that only Superman can lift. The entire purpose of these stories is to say, "Remember that thing? Wasn't that cool?" If one believes those things were cool, one will enjoy these stories. If not, not.

And "way above the industry average for corporate-owned superhero comics"? I don't even need to make the obvious point there.

4) Anonymous #1: You seem to agree with me, which I enjoy.

5) Anonymous #2: I'm assuming your nameless drive-by comment was aimed at me, so: there are some things I'm not nearly dull and unimaginative enough to "get," and this is, happily, among them.

6) Cole: You're entirely right that this post was quick and desultory; I really don't want to take any substantial time to engage with something I find this second-hand and lifeless. I hope someone else follows the lines you suggest; perhaps you're the one to do it, actually.

I don't believe that Morrison is a mercenary; he clearly does get something out of writing reams of superhero stories, even if I can't conceive of what that is. But he's capable of so much better than this -- let me mention We3 and Seaguy, from the same time-frame -- that I do have to wonder if he has a particular mindset he drops into to write the big crowd-pleasers.

Oh, and this post didn't compare All-Star Superman to Morrison's masturbatory products; it said All-Star Superman was a fossilized piece of shit. And I stand by that characterization; it's deliberately inflammatory but describes the situation as I see it.

7) The real problem, at this point in US comics history, is that the Big Two have been highly optimized to provide ever-more stories about the same few characters, on a relentless schedule, until the point at which every single potential purchaser is utterly sick of them. And since a large number of people will never be sick of any particular thing, they can continue to chase that core audience in ever-tighter spirals as their product becomes more hermetic and unapproachable than modern poetry.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Belated note: Cole Moore Odell's comment (#7) got caught in an automated spam-trap that I rarely check, so I only noticed it today.

I of course completely disagree with his characterization of my review, but I didn't suppress it on purpose, so here it is in all its splendor.

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