Man, Myth, and Superman.
With their twelve-issue run on All-Star Superman having come to an end, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have given us something that has often been talked about, but not often seen: Superman as American mythology. It’s all the more impressive that this was achieved by two Scotsmen, which on the surface could seem quite unusual, but this sort of thing has been happening for years. In a recent interview, former Talking Heads front man and visual artist David Byrne said of his long-time collaborator and friend Brian Eno:
Foreigners, maybe starting back in the 1960s, were kind of the first ones to hook onto American rock and roll; Little Richard, or the blues. Brian said he finds gospel music very amazing, whereas a lot of people here, if you’re dialing on the radio, would just skip through those stations. You kind of ignore the stuff because you just figure it’s out there, so you don’t need to know about it. Sometimes it takes foreigners to kind of point it out and say you’ve got some amazing stuff going on in your midst. And the foreigners will do a version of it and sell it back to you.
This I think is very similar to what has been happening with American comics since the 1980’s. Writers and artists from other countries have been, for years now, telling amazing stories based on their own perspective of the American comics they grew up reading. And in turn, the stories they have been telling often seem so new and fresh to us. One of the great Platonic Ideals of America is that it is a place where people from other countries can realize their dreams and aspirations.
But back to the story itself. From the beginning, Morrison was working in elements and themes taken wholesale from Greek mythology along with elements of Hebrew mythology as well, specifically the one page/four panel retelling of Superman’s origin in issue one, like the story of Moses and the appearance of (a somewhat re-imagined) Samson in issue three. Professor Quintum, an important character throughout the series, is very much like the Greek titan Prometheus, even referring to himself as having tried to steal fire from the sun. However, unlike the titan of mythology, Quintum is not punished for his actions, but is instead rewarded later by Superman when he gives Quintum his DNA and the DNA of Lois as a means to continue the legacy of Superman. Again, this strikes me as a unique and ultimately American revision of the Prometheus legend, where one is rewarded for his endeavors to serve humanity rather than punished.
In All-Star Superman, we see a Superman who is very much a god among humanity, but it is in the face of this god that we see the reflection of the ideals of humanity: truth, justice, and the drive to improve ourselves and those around us. One interesting point in the story is that Superman needs humanity as much as humanity needs Superman. In an early issue, Professor Quintum remarks that all clones of Superman so far have resulted in imperfect Bizarro creatures, but with the combined DNA of Kal-El and Lois Lane it is assumed that the addition of humanity to Superman’s alien DNA is the key to continuing the legacy of Superman. Kal-El is the world’s greatest hero not only because of his alien origins and physiology, but also his very human and idyllic American upbringing.
Tying all of these ideas together is the basic story of this heroic god (actually demigod seems more appropriate). From the beginning where, through his actions as well as through the machinations of his nemesis Lex Luthor, Superman is told that he is slowly dying, we watch as he confesses his love to Lois and grants her his powers for a short time, travels back through time to have one last moment with his father, confronts members of his long-dead race who, while as physically strong as Superman, and outnumber him two to one, are unable to defeat him because of who he is. In issue #10, (in my opinion one of the best issues in the series) Kal-El creates life, which in turn evolves and ultimately creates its own version of Superman as a fictional character—possibly our own universe. Until the final confrontation with Lex Luthor where Superman ultimately triumphs yet in a way sacrifices himself to save the Earth by going into the Sun to repair the damage caused by Solaris, the tyrant sun.
Like all enduring myths and stories, All Star Superman is both simple and very complex. Take for example the portrayal of Superman’s enemies Lex Luthor and Solaris. Until the last issue of the series, all confrontations between Superman and Luthor are by proxy; whether Luthor talking to superman through his “human suicide bomb” or Superman as Clark Kent talking to Luthor in prison. We learn a great deal about how each sees the other. Superman sees Luthor as a disappointment to humanity—a man with immense intellect and resources who has done nothing in all of his years to better mankind. Luthor sees Superman as an alien intruder holding humanity back, but this is only his way to justify his own actions and an excuse for not helping to make a better world, since it’s clear he despises the world and everyone in it. Solaris, a uniquely Morrison creation is an interesting character in its own right; a version of the thing that gives Kal-El his great abilities that wants nothing more than to destroy him as well as Earth itself. In the end Superman defeats Solaris, overcomes his own impending demise, and defeats Lex Luthor, but the victory is short-lived since Superman has to leave Earth and everyone he loves to repair the damage to our sun caused by Solaris. In the end this is also a kind of victory for Luthor who finally has a world without a Superman, at least until Professor Quintum can perfect his cloning technique and continue the dynasty of El, similar to how Morrison described it a few years ago in the DC 1,000,000 storyline.
It has been said by many that All Star Superman is quite possibly the greatest Superman story ever written and I find it hard to argue against that (although I would have liked a Brainiac appearance). Morrison and Quitely have given us something that will be written about and puzzled over and reinterpreted for many years to come. And for that they have my eternal gratitude.
By David Faust