All Star Superman #5
What a surprise to discover that this issue is 48 pages long! Granted, only 23 of those pages contain All Star Superman material, but boy did I feel like I was purchasing a supple thing as I walked to the store counter. And DC didn’t even jack up the price like Marvel did that one time - what a bunch! Did other DC books this week seem overstuffed?
I only ask because part of the extra bulk is an eight-page preview of the upcoming Wildstorm Universe revamp, heavily powered by writer Grant Morrison; his books are the first two showcased in the feature, and while it makes perfectly simple sense to hype new books in a popular current book, I kind of wonder if there isn’t a little selling of Grant Morrison too. As in, ‘hey, look at what the guy behind this popular book is going to write next - and look at all the other books that are sort of connected!’ Morrison is probably more popular now than he’s ever been, but his devout fanbase is vastly outstripped by folks who simply enjoy the way he writes popular superhero characters. Having this ad in All Star Superman strikes me as a canny way of targeting that larger audience, who might be interested in other, established, yet less sure-thing superhero properties. But again, I don’t know how many books DC put this stuff into. It was also really skimpy on the art, being mostly a letter from Jim Lee and a rollout of glorified solicitation texts, catchy quotes from the line’s various writers interspersed.
Another eight pages, by the way, are burnt up on an ad for some collectible figurine tactical battle game called Heroscape; there’s a comic (written by Ty Templeton of Bigg Time), a contest, and a fold-out poster. No Grant Morrison tie-ins in sight.
But let's not forget the Superman story that takes up just shy of half the pamphlet’s contents; it’s predictably a hoot. Devious Lex Luthor is sitting pretty in supervillain prison, and it’s Clark Kent’s job to interview the rotten bastard for an hour. Meek Clark appeals to Luthor, who sees the big oaf as everything in squishy humanity that Superman reigns over like an impossibly arrogant god, so the villain confides his darkest thoughts to the reporter. Morrison essentially gives Luthor the same opinion of Superman espoused by the titular David Carradine supervillain of Kill Bill (though I think Quentin Tarantino took the idea from a Jules Feiffer essay), albeit stripped of the knowledge that Clark Kent is Superman; I recall reading an interview with Morrison in which he expressed his dislike for that bit of superhero interpretation, and he misses no opportunity to make Luthor look like a vain, elitist, deluded, hypocritical fool, though a charismatic one with some real scientific talent. But the ultimate joke is that moral Superman would never allow a man to be killed in cold blood, so he must constantly rescue Luthor from the many assassination attempts that follow a man of his notoriety into... the general prison population (and yet, out of all this foolery, I was only really bugged with Luthor’s being sentenced to death at the same time he’s found guilty - oh Grant, I demand scrupulous research of US criminal justice trial procedure to be evident in all my funnies!).
Remember that bit at the end of issue #1 in which Clark saves a guy from getting killed by bumping into him? That’s this whole issue; since Clark needs to be with Luthor at all times, it’s his challenge to constantly save the day without ever breaking free of his mild-mannered persona, particularly tough when he’s being followed around by the Parasite, a villain that grows mighty by merely standing around powerful things. All of this gives penciller Frank Quitely a plethora of opportunities to shine, from the pure, broad comedy of facial expressions and marvelous character ‘acting,’ to the ceaseless slouching and grimacing and flailing of Cowardly Lion Clark, to the superbly measured shifts in poise that mark the use of Superman’s powers, to the occasional piece of We3-type creative paneling. There’s this one sight gag, which I can’t ruin, that goes on for four pages before someone finally points it out - and then it continues on in a different form for another two. You’ll be flipping back through the comic just to see what Quitely’s done with it, since it’s subtle enough that you might have simply missed it on your first read - that’s the kind of re-read value superhero comics could use more of. Quitely is absolutely irreplaceable.
Meanwhile, Morrison also continues the series’ running concern with Superman’s reaction to his own mortality. This time, he literally descends into the underworld with a devilish guide, a trickster who can burrow through solid rock with simple words, and can never be talked away from his crazed death wish. Truly, Luthor is Superman’s opposite: he’s a pompous blowhard while Superman/Clark can “write like a poet,” he has no concern for any life, least of all his own, while Superman strives to physically and philosophically save his worst enemy, and he faces his own onrushing doom with an makeup-enhanced sneer and total self-absorption, unlike our driven-to-evolve, true-hearted hero. How can this force be overcome, especially when it sees its mission as complete, the die already cast? Clark can’t say, riding down the Acheron with a boat captain dressed in black. Charon?
Well, actually Barbelith says it’s a ‘70s villain from the Supergirl rogues’ gallery. Which makes more sense for this book anyway.