Tuesday, March 29, 2011

“All Star Superman, Part 1” by Grant Morrison (DC Comics)


Quick review of highly-recommended, but disappointing Superman graphic novel

The world’s most famous superhero, Superman’s adventures protecting Metropolis have thrilled readers worldwide for over sixty years! Now, with his body supercharged to the point of self-destruction, the Man of Steel makes his preparations for the end. But first, he must deal with some tragic, personal events that life still has to throw at him.

Written by acclaimed Grant Morrison (The Invisibles, Final Crisis) and artist Frank Quitely (We3), All Star Superman marks a reimagining of sorts, a “unique and elegant interpretation of the original and most recognizable of superheroes.”

I used to read comics whenever I could, as a kid and teenager – because we lived overseas, however, choice was rather limited (I tended to read X-Men, G.I.Joe and the occasional Spiderman, Superman and Batman comic when available). So, after a couple of years involved in blogging, and because a number of other blogs and sites that I follow cover comics and graphic novels, I decided to dive back into this branch of publishing. After a few open calls for suggestions via Twitter, and among friends, the near-unanimous suggestion was All Star Superman, written by comic-extraordinaire, Grant Morrison. So, off I went and bought it… and came away rather underwhelmed.

I’m a big fan of the Superman movies, which I watched over-and-over when I was younger. I even enjoy Smallville, and have watched every episode thus-far (despite the latter having far too many frikkin’ frustrating moments to properly forgive). So, the suggestion of All Star Superman seemed like a logical place to start my return to comics. Little did I know that I would be completely lost amid a sea of references and characters I knew nothing about, failed to form a connection to, and some who were frankly ridiculous or irritating. My lack of familiarity with the Superman comics should absolutely be taken into consideration when reading this review.

Let’s start with the story and writing: it’s rather choppy, and very episodic. This prevented a cohesive whole from forming, in my opinion, and I often found myself wondering whether or not the book would get to a point. The theme that Superman has become supercharged and is on the brink of death is not really kept running throughout the book, so the poignancy many fans have mentioned was lost on me. (For one thing, Jimmy Olsen forms the focus of a large chunk of this volume; and then Clark Kent’s interview with the incarcerated Lex Luthor forms another, and only mentions Superman’s impending death fleetingly at the end.)

It is perhaps the author’s desire to stick to the premise’s “All Star” aspect that is the culprit for the plot problems I saw – by including so many characters, enemies, and so forth, there’s just too much going on for a new reader. References to past events in the comic timeline come thick and fast, and the truly fantastical elements of the established Superman mythology were a little too fantastical for my tastes. I didn’t like the frequent references to future and alternate-dimension Supermen, which I’ve never liked in comics (or fiction, for that matter).

I found much of the dialogue canned, cliché and sometimes unnatural or simply awful, and frequently found myself raising an eyebrow in disappointment. (I do not believe this is a result of the medium, by the way – I’ve read a small handful of other graphic novels, and the dialogue remains perfectly natural and realistic.)

Frank Quitely’s artwork is at times subtle and very detailed, with plenty of nice little touches for the reader who’s paying as much attention to the art as the story/dialogue. But even here, the book is inconsistent. The full-page artwork is undeniably gorgeous (particularly a number focused solely on Superman – like the one at his father’s grave), but many of panels felt hastily done to their detriment, rather than giving it a rugged feel. I did find it amusing that Superman makes an incredibly skimpy feminist-not-approved outfit for Lois Lane.

Perhaps I’ve just become too familiar with the movies and Smallville to appreciate the wealth of Superman lore and mythology that’s been created in the comic series. Have I grown unfond of Superman? I’m not sure. I don’t for a minute think it’s a case of being too ‘mature’ for this book. I just think this wasn’t the right book to start with. (This, in fairness, is a problem with all comic series, which have such histories and back-catalogue publications, jumping in at any point is a daunting prospect.)

Reading All Star Superman gave me considerable pause about delving back into comics and graphic novels. After finishing All Star Superman, I was not sure if I would buy and read the second part of the story, but, I have been urged to do so, so if I find some spare time, I might still give it a try. Maybe it’s as simple as my not ‘getting it’.

Up to this point, I’ve stuck mainly to Star Wars graphic novels which, again, I didn’t find as satisfying as prose novels or the movies. As a kid, I loved Marvel’s Operation: Zero Tolerance event, which I read whenever I could (I lived in Singapore and Malaysia at the time, and the comics were readily available), so I had hoped I would like this – especially given the number of people who encouraged me to read it, and the reputation of the writer. At the same time as buying this, I bought Morrison’s The New X-Men, Vol.1 – I’ll see if the greater familiarity with the characters makes a difference to my enjoyment. I’m almost done with X-Men: Age of Apocalypse Book 1, which I’ve enjoyed a great deal more, so at least I know it’s not comics/graphic novels in general that are a problem.

I am tempted to read a lot more Superman books, and then return to this in order to reassess my opinions, but I can’t see it happening any time soon.

[I would strongly encourage those who have read this series – whether you loved it or not – to include your thoughts in the comments thread.]

1 comment:

  1. Sorry you didn't dig the first part dude. Chris and I are longtime Grant Morrison fans and we loved this, but it works on various levels, like nostalgia and the like that may not have impressed. The Superman mythos and storylines for years stagnated and I think Morrison's take was so fresh and interesting that it made for a great book...but you had to be aware of that previous stagnation to get it. I think that is what it was for me anyways.

    If I could recommend Morrison's finest work ever... WE3 is a three issue (now collected in trade) series that is so poetic and amazing that it humbled me to read it.

    If you are just getting back into comics I have a few others for you to try as well.

    RUNAWAYS (Marvel Comics)
    ULTIMATE X-MEN (Marvel)
    PLANETARY (DC Vertigo)
    AUTHORITY (DC Vertigo)