Saturday, 14 April 2012

Five By Five - Comics, week 2: All Star Superman

Oh Superman, Superman. With your chiseled jaw and your lovely manners, you’re just the kind of superhero any girl could take home to meet her parents. Whilst Batman might come across as sullen and a little bit emo (what’s with all the black?) and Spider-Man tends to leave those sticky patches all over the place (highly undesirable when meeting the potential in-laws) Superman could be trusted to sip his cup of tea, and say all the right things about being a good person and choosing the righteous path and always remembering to floss.

The thing is though, as a hundred bitter single guys will tell you, that just isn’t always enough to get a girl’s pulse racing. And to be honest, Superman has always struck me as just a little bit, well, dull... So when faced with the Man of Steel himself on the cover of All Star Superman, cape flowing, hands beatifically raised, there may possibly have been some eye-rolling and pre-judging going on. Hard as it may be to believe it’s possible that I even approached the text with something less than true literary impartiality.

So this is where I tell you that the All Star version of Superman blew all my preconceptions away right? That this version of the character left me quivering with scholarly excitement and barely suppressed lust. Well, not quite. Superman here *is* distinctive (particularly in his Clark Kent incarnation) but essentially he wouldn’t be Superman without that aura of incorruptible goodness and perfection. It makes him iconic of course; an archetype of chivalry and moral courage. But it also makes him only slightly less bland than a sandwich made with one of those blasphemous plastic squares of cheese.

The point is that, as with swallows, one flying guy in a cape does not an amazing graphic novel make. And that’s OK. Because one flying guy in a cape plus a bunch of other interesting, well realised characters, deftly handled plotlines, and recurrent thematic ideas? Now you’ve got a summer.

Let’s assume for a moment that as a reader of this blog, you’re pretty likely to have come across Superman in one form or another; comics, eighties movies, life-size cardboard cut-out that you stole from the foyer of your local cinema growing up, whatever works for you. All Star Superman takes all of that accumulated baggage and turns it into lore, so that rather than a jumble of admittedly interesting but rather abstract ideas, what we get is a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. I won’t give away the hook that drives the story forward, but the premise allows for myriad explorations of mortality and what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be a super hero.

Superman himself of course has always struggled under the weight of dual identities, and there’s a stroke of genius in the artwork and the writing here. I’ve always found the ‘Clark is Superman, just with glasses and a suit’ school of thought a little less than satisfying, but in All Star Superman the two men *move* differently. Clark is a pot-bellied, head-bowed cerebral type; too busy thinking about his next story to exert much control over his hulking farm boy’s body. Whereas Superman is straight and tall and rigid (ahem), a Kryptonian arrow pointing the way to justice and betterment and all of that other good stuff. It’s effective and it has the odd side effect of placing doubt in the reader’s mind as well. There’s an early scene where Superman tries to convince Lois that he and Clark are one and the same. And even though I *know* he’s telling the truth, I sort of understand her skepticism. Is Clark truly a part of Superman or just a disguise he wears?

Lois, by the way, is gorgeously drawn and splendidly fiery throughout, though it would have been nice to see her with a bit more to do than just hanging around like some kind of sexy occasional table. To be fair, there is a gleeful episode where Lois’s Superwoman gets to wear the outfit and try out some saving of humanity for herself and her lack of hesitation when faced with the chance to live in Superman’s world for a while is telling. (We’ll gloss over the fact that even as a superheroine she still ends up as a bit of a damsel in distress). This trying on of Superman’s role is a recurring theme throughout, with both Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor also metaphorically donning that lycra and giving superpowers of their own a go at various points.

This question of what it means to live in a world where super-powers exist seems to be pretty central to the story in general and it’s not Superman who struggles with it, but the characters around him. Jimmy, a pair of wonderfully disdainful Kryptonian time travellers, Zibarro (more on him later), but none more so than Lex Luthor. I’ve never come across a Lex with more fully realized motivations than the one here; utterly unable as he is to reconcile himself to being ‘just’ an ordinary human in a universe where Superman is constantly buzzing around like a red and blue bee, stinging away at Lex’s own need to be brilliant and special. There’s almost a sibling-like relationship between the two of them as Lex rails against an older ‘brother’ the world will always prefer and Superman, ever patient, continues to try to re-direct Luthor’s energies. Lex’s focus is a world without Superman, and yet he positions Superman at the very centre of his own personal world.

Lex’s bigger problem though, is the story’s other over-arching message. ‘Superman’ is more than just the cells and the outfit that make up Kal-El. ‘Superman’ is an image of selflessness and idealism; an idea; a theory. And just as it’s impossible to destroy an idea once it’s free in the world, it’s equally impossible to destroy Superman. On a literal level, this manifests as a bunch of other red and blue clad heroes that haunt the pages throughout All Star Superman. Not only Lois as Superwoman, but future incarnations of Superman himself, as well as flawed doubles like the heartbreaking Zibarro, alone in his sentience on a planet of lesser beings (spot the unspoken metaphor…).

And maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to get on board with Superman as a character. I’ve been going about it in the wrong way, because fundamentally he’s more than that. All Star Superman makes this transience explicit. It isn’t Superman’s own story, it’s the story of humanity pursuing the ideals he embodies: goodness, self-sacrifice and, OK, who doesn’t like a chiseled jaw?

This week Kate Townshend is hoping you’ll join her in ignoring the temporal lapse between this and the last Five by Five column. It’s one of those timey, wimey, wibbly wobbly things.

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