This Book Has Not Stopped Being Good

All Star Superman #4


Though note that I’m mostly throwing up that warning because it’s certainly best to wander into this issue knowing absolutely nothing about what’s going to happen. It’s just one of those books where the sheer manic drive of it all provides a good source of the pleasure, watching writer Grant Morrison dropping Superman and company into situations, the particulars slapped together from seemingly incompatible fragments of Supercanon, yet made to work beautifully. Just seeing it all in action is almost like witnessing a supremely confident live performer go through an act, every twist and turn of the presentation not outstanding for its objective content but from the cumulative effect of the sheer occasion.

Of course, Morrison has other tricks up his sleeve for later. But primarily, this is a comic for gulping down in the parking lot, page after page flying, just so you can witness where the damned thing is going to go next. And very few of those places are necessarily new, but all of them are freshly considered, and supercharged with delight for their particular positioning. And even that kind of thing is hardly innovative, but I can’t recall seeing it pulled off better than it is here.

So what we have is the expected ‘Jimmy Olsen and his zany antics’ issue, though it’s all mixed up with a fractured Death of Superman homage, complete with an All Star version of preeminent '90s shit-for-brains behemoth Doomsday. There’s also all the usual All Star Superman themes, as set up in earlier issues, plus clever revisions and updates of smaller concepts, and even a tiny whiff of industry critique. It all absolutely shines, thanks to Morrison’s wit, his skill with quiet characterization, and penciler Frank Quitely’s often brilliantly subtle art, not that such things prevent him from cranking out a massive fight sequence when necessary.

The actual plot outline is pure Silver Age cheese, with Jimmy encountering wacky transformations on assignment for the Daily Planet, eventually meeting up with his good buddy Superman and (once again) proving his worth as a friend. I’ve really enjoyed the little tastes of All Star Jimmy as doled out in earlier issues, but this full-length adventure surpassed even my high expectations in terms of character handling: Morrison’s Jimmy is delightfully recast as a low-nutrition weekend lifestyle reporter, surely lower on the respectability totem pole than Clark Kent’s “honest-to-god, get-your-hands-dirty, old school journalism” but wildly popular, transforming Superman’s pal into a divisive geek chic star, the sort of lad who can go out in public in a sweater vest and bow tie, with impossibly elaborate and carefully molded ‘messy’ hair, and never feel like he’s anything less than tops. But one never gets the feeling that Jimmy is a posuer - he’s just confident that the world has finally gotten around to appreciating his innate value, though not all the world agrees:

I love your ‘For a Day’ columns… they take 7 minutes to read, which, quite coincidentally, is the time I, personally, require on the toilet.”

So ‘jokes’ returning character Space Wonka (ok, Director Quintum), whom, as Barbelith has already observed, hands out a veritable Golden Ticket to Jimmy, giving him free reign over that vaguely sinister sci-fi advancements lab, P.R.O.J.E.C.T. Seeing as how every time Superman gets mixed up with these folks deadly mayhem ensues, I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to expect some slow-cooking revelations to boil up around issue #10 or so. But for now, Superman winds up getting hauled out to save Jimmy, only to transform into an understandably evil opposite version of himself.

It’s kind of like Bizarro, especially the ultra-logical ‘mass murder is the opposite of a vow against killing’ Bizarro glimpsed in Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? But Morrison rebuilds the concept from the ground up by examining every aspect, positing that the opposite of Superman would also be vain, and would gradually lose strength in the clinch, and wouldn’t speak eloquently, and would cry and cower when confronted with his own mortality. And through this, Morrison slips in some great characterization (as glimpsed via mirror), revealing Superman’s inner strength in facing his series-wide glide toward doom by showing how badly his opposite acts.

This is also where Quitely absolutely shines. Pay close attention to the character art here. Not just Clark Kent’s always-excellent milquetoast sitting style, or Jimmy’s frantic leaps through the air, but the way the afflicted Superman’s cape gets caught between his legs when he lifts a car, or how it clumsily covers his shoulder after throwing said vehicle. His very poise is the opposite of Superman’s as well - he looks like how you or I would if given superpowers and made to fight, while the real Superman remains cool and calm and straightened out. It’s just superb, story-enhancing detail, above and beyond the more immediate pleasures of Quitely’s grasp of how fast Superman goes, our vision often only catching him as a red and blue bolt at the edge of a panel, his wake filling up the rest.

Anyway, Jimmy decides he needs to unleash Doomsday to stop the madness - it turns out that the monster (who has cute spine-covered word balloons to match the opposite Superman's appropriate white-letters-on-black design) was created by Superman himself as a strategy to stop him if things ever got bad. Does that cover 'bad sales' too? Soon that infamous clash is revisited, complete with a finale by the Daily Planet building, two inarticulate bruisers hitting one another and teetering on the edge of giving in to their darkest impulses. Luckily, a silly, candy-colored thing from the past arrives to symbolize enduring, old-school friendship, and everything turns out ok, Superman forced to face his mortality once again, with yet another close friend (Jimmy rather than Lois), and deep feelings are almost revealed. Jimmy's howl of "Don't let anybody see him like this! You hear me?" thus rips open for public viewing the depth of feeling possible in such excursions into kitsch.

And that's maybe Morrison's and Quitely's most exquisite achievement in this series thus far.

Oh, I should remind you that all of this is often really funny, and works perfectly as a nice done-in-one story if you've never heard of Doomsday or anything. There's lots of neat little bits, some of them almost spooky; I expect the throwaway line about guys wanting to date Jimmy is a reference to that supposed draft of a fifth Superman movie that recast Mr. Olsen as a homosexual, but it seems oddly relevant today in the wake of conversation over the 'gayness' of the actual Superman Returns. Jimmy's teasing, materialistic girlfriend provides a cute, corny set of bookends. There's more. All in 22 pages.

Some first-class superhero comics, this.