His heart grew three times that day.

All Star Superman #2

Call me a villain for homage, but does anyone else think the view of Lois Lane’s pantied posterior this issue is a reference to that much-discussed sequence in All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #1? I mean, the narrative captions open up each book’s respective scene in a highly similar fashion (“Gotham City. Vicki Vale. Columnist.” vs. “Lois Lane, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist…”), and the posture of each woman in their respective panels is identical (left hip out to the side, torso kind of curving). Both women spend their respective sequence pondering the nature of the titular male hero, both of them questioning his motives. It’s really quite surprising when you put both books together. For me, it even raised questions regarding other lines in this book (“Batman? Great. You know Batman.”), so direct did the reference seem.

Note my use of the term ‘homage’ - that was meant in a generic sense, not intended to connote any reverence on writer Grant Morrison’s part for Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s particular vision. It could be anything, really. It might well be a simple jest, a little bit of collateral play on Morrison’s part - after all, this issue also provides a wholly gratuitous reference to the writer’s JLA run (well, ok, DC One Million), so there’s certainly in-issue precedent. And we all know how much Morrison loves throwaway details - this issue is simply packed with them. Singing flowers from Alpha Centauri 4. A baby Sun-Eater that Superman feeds fresh miniature stars. A Mirror of Truth that’s so honest that it won’t allow Our Hero’s hunched put-on posture or his Clark Kent glasses to show up in its reflection. Some readers seem to get annoyed with this, saying that Morrison throws out these crazy details with no follow-up, masking a deficiency of storytelling with flashy half-notions, provided simply to dazzle. I’ll readily agree that some of these little ideas are window-dressing, but I feel they’re vital to the milieu that Morrison is setting up, and fun at that.

And there is most certainly storytelling at work, especially in that memory-stirring piece of cheesecake. Hey, maybe Morrison intended the scene as a criticism of Miller's work. I don’t know for sure. But such an argument could certainly be supported by the execution of this issue on the whole; while Miller’s Vicki Vale is but one more gear in his cuckoo clock of boisterous genre grinning and bombastic tale-telling tics, Morrison is utterly committed to letting Lois have her say, totally enveloped in the Silvery mood of his story but hell-bent on making the characters seem richer through change. Both All Star books are quite straightforward in execution, emotions on their sleeves, but those emotions are very different - I really can’t imagine a more empathetic Superman comic than this. Here we’ve got a book that has the title character saying aloud lines like “How can I spoil her birthday with the news that I’m dying?” and you’ll never doubt for a second that it’s a 100% serious moment, genuinely sad for all its silly details; it’s aided tremendously by artist Frank Quitely’s character expressions, and Lois’ inquisitive (slightly imperious) arms-folded posture, and the joy with which Superman strolls though a mist of stardust.

That’s what rescues this issue’s story, which is probably one of the oldest ‘modern’ examinations of the Superman mythos imaginable: the Lois/Clark/Superman love-rivalry. Kurt Busiek just tackled that one in the standout issue of his uneven 2003 Astro City: Local Heroes miniseries (issue #2), and I know dear old Alan Moore went over this back in Supreme, which also sported an initial 12-issue series of semi-standalone stories that examined various (and heavily Silver Age-derived) aspects of the Superman world. But none of them dove in with quite this much enthusiastic zeal behind the evocations. Busiek used his stand-ins to explore the inherent cruelties of the constant dance of deception that ‘Lois’ and ‘Clark’ engaged in, utilizing the freedom of approximation to bring it all to its sad (if eminently realistic) conclusion. And Moore would doubtlessly acclimate us to the trope under the microscope by whipping up a period-style short within the story, probably based closely on a real Superman tale from back then, and tweak it all from a reconstructive modern perspective. There is love, but there is distance.

Morrison does not bother to acclimate us to anything. Indeed, though I praised last issue’s use of shorthand in dispensing with the expected origin theatrics and ‘introduction to the powers’ shenanigans (positing that it ought to serve as a model for DC’s upcoming line-wide relaunches - I stand by that still), I’m left wondering here if maybe Morrison is already beginning to paint himself into a corner, playing off not merely the Lois/Clark conflict but a specific iteration of said struggle, the robot doubles and the awful surprises and the embarrassments upon embarrassments of issues long gone. I know of this, but does everyone?

And yet, I think such things only add extra kick. The issue works by itself. We stick largely to Lois’ perspective here, as she contemplates the many fake-outs and deceptions of her past with Superman - she’s been told by the man himself all of his secrets, and the irony is that she literally can’t believe it. It has to be a joke (or a dream! an imaginary story! aren’t they all?!), and it quietly poisons Superman’s genuine efforts to bare his slowly dying soul to her. The beauty is that Morrison is not afraid to present Lois in a less-than-perfect light. She’s kind of snippy. Paranoid. Slightly bruised in ego. Utterly doubtful:

When we’re married fifteen years, when I’m sagging and he looks just the same, will he still meet me and say things like…”

This caption accompanies the derrière panel, by the way, and it lends an additional meaning to the sequence - sure, Lois knows she’s got physical beauty, but she’s not perfect, she’s not constant. She’s not Super. And she’s understandable, quite justified in her questioning of Superman’s motives. I mean, who wouldn’t be in such a universe? He’s been telling lies forever, because he’s incontrovertibly different from her. He’s still hiding the truth at the end. Hell, we hear a little sci-fi ‘explanation’ for Lois’ actions at the end, but how do we know Superman is being honest even there? Even the future Supermen that Lois speaks with can’t be straight with her - the whole situation is neatly encapsulated by Lois’ interrogation of The Unknown Superman of 4500 AD, a bandaged incarnation of Our Hero with a big ‘?’ on his chest instead of an ‘S.’ His answers to Lois’ earnest (there’s that word again!) questions are only riddles, and he only wants to unravel 21st century celebrity trivia (cheesy joke, but I laughed anyway). Nothing gets through.

Morrison sides with Lois. She’s a proud, determined, but perpetually toyed-with woman dealing with an aloof, impossibly powerful male who can’t seem to open up to her, and often seems to be only playing with her. And through this characterization, Morrison provides maybe an eloquent critique of Miller’s cackling more-is-never-enough approach, citing the work but seizing Miller's most garish devices (ok, Jim, he’s shameless!) in providing a wholly rounded, gratifyingly unpolished heroine in his own poppy superhero story.

Oh, right. Superheroes. What of the big guy himself? Really, what Morrison is doing here is similar to the overarching theme in his Seven Soldiers (and maybe his entire body of work) - he’s forcing his protagonist to undergo a transformation, becoming something new and better by confronting what he already is and embracing new things. The sun has overcharged Superman. He has new powers. One very old characteristic of his is simply thrown in the trash. His strength, curiosity, imagination, and creativity have tripled. “And it’s also made you three times more honest, is that what I’m supposed to believe?” No, but he’s thrice the sensitive super-soul he once was. He can see things more clearly now, and he can try to revise his relationships. And in the end he decides on what to do, in just the manner of some silly old story from long ago, some childish joke ending, because that’s where Morrison wants his characters to live. It’s no kiddie resolution though - Superman’s gift is to bring Lois up to his level, to apply his super-smarts to open up his physical world to her as well, so maybe he can finally know her as a person, and relieve her justifiable qualms.

And he does it using some of that crazy sci-fi background dressing. Which fits in after all.

It’s only temporary, only one day's worth of success, of equality. He’s trying hard now, at least.

But can that ever be enough?

To be continued…