Life on Earth Q: Love, Childhood, and All Star Superman (part 1)
1: November 16th, 2005-September 17th, 2008
I was sixteen years old when the sixth issue of All Star Superman came out. January 2007 in Berkeley California. I was fifteen when issue one hit the stands, but it’s six that I think of first whenever that comic comes up. Due to artist Frank Quitely’s perfectionistic vigor -- when asked about his artistic process in an interview, he spoke of creating massive numbers of different layout thumbnails for each page, sifting through the infinite possibilities of how a given segment of information could be presented to readers before touching his mechanical pencil to the final page -- All Star Superman came out infrequently enough for each issue to feel more like a special occasion than a scheduled delivery. It was enough of a big deal that my best friend and I made a ritual of picking just the perfect record to play (John Cale, more often than not) and getting as stoned as we could before cracking the covers on a new issue, Corey leaning in to see the pictures as I read the words and did the voices. By issue six my first girlfriend, Olivia, had joined us, bringing with her the idea that we should all dress up in our most stylish clothes before we began.
I remember the three of us sitting on Corey’s bed and opening up “Funeral in Smallville”, me in a tweed jacket and tie, him in a tailored Oxford, her in a green dress and the pearls I’d bought her for Christmas with a month and a half of money from my comic book shop job, and before I read the first word balloon I turned to them, hazy marijuana smile no doubt plastered on my face, and pointed to our reflection in the mirror across the room. “Look at us right now,” I remember saying. “We are exactly the kind of people the Nazis were trying to get rid of. They were found high on illegal drugs, reading American Superman comic books. They were shot on sight.”
I think I flash back to that moment so often because it’s a solid picture of who I was and how I lived during the time the comic was coming out (a bit under three years between late 2005 and late 2008). Looking back at All Star Superman, I can’t help but use the language of pathos in describing the changes in my life that have taken place between now and then, even though I like both myself and my life a great deal better than I did when I was sixteen years old. Still: I don’t get stoned anymore because I’m afraid I’ll get addicted to drugs like I have before. I ditched the suits and ties because at some point it became more important to me that I fit in than stand out. The only time I really listen to John Cale is when his music pops up on itunes shuffle. Olivia and I moved to Los Angeles and got engaged before she broke up with me. I haven’t had a steady girlfriend since because I haven’t felt like I could trust any of the women I’ve dated after the one I fell in love with left, and I’m close to finishing a novel-length comic that I started with the intention of creating something that would make her hurt as badly as she hurt me if she ever happened across a copy on the shelves of some trendy Los Feliz bookstore. Corey is still my best friend. I still work at a comic book shop.
I’ve become a professional comic book critic now too, so I know all about the general consensus that people who write about art should keep themselves and their own personal experiences out of their work as much as possible. But without our experiences of them comic books are nothing more than cheap glossy paper and printer’s ink and two staples each, not much remarkable at all. It’s our lives that make the comics special as much as it is the other way around -- the memories they call up, the new ideas they build onto our older ones, the nostalgia they frequently produce, the pulses they pound and the smiles they raise and quite often the boredom they drape over us. Our readings of comics are experiences in a long, uninterrupted line, flowing in and out of the rest of our lives without ever stopping. Whether you’re more of an art guy or a writing guy or a superhero guy or a art-comix guy, the single reason that all of us read comics is that they mean something to us as individuals. While hero comics, especially, have a tendency to all mean basically the same thing to their readers, no two comics are ever going to have competely identical meanings to anyone who reads them. You can’t read a comic without filtering it and your perceptions of it through the person you are, through everything from your family history to your recurring dreams to your favorite color combinations. Any critical judgment that anyone can possibly express about a comic is the product not just of their mind and their computer’s keyboard, but of a physical body that’s existed in certain spaces for a certain number of years, and been formed by certain experiences. We write about comics because of the people we are, never independently of them, and it’s useless to pretend otherwise.
So All Star Superman came out when I was between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, a time frame during which I began and maintained my first and only committed romantic relationship, wrote four unpublished novels, worked at comic book shops in Berkeley and LA, dropped out of high school, used any number of different drugs, and spent well over fifty percent of my time with either Corey or Olivia, both of them more often than not. Olivia and I had our first date two weeks before issue one came out, and issue two was the one that finally got Corey into comics after years of failed attempts. Issue four came out at the beginning of the summer that I decided I wasn’t going back to school when it started again. Corey left for college after issue eight, so we waited until he was home for Thanksgiving to read issue nine. When Olivia and I drove from the Bay Area to LA to move in together, issue eleven was sitting on the car dashboard, still unread. And shortly after issue twelve concluded the series, she and I took the drive back for our first visit home, during which she confessed that she was developing feelings for a guy in the acting class she was taking. The time period that comic came out over was a strikingly exact mirror to a particular period in my life, that one time when I was a teenage writer who wanted desperately to grow up to be someone people took note of, who loved his hot girlfriend so much he stopped loving himself, who was too cool for school and worried about what life after leaving home would be like and moved the wrong city to follow someone who had decided to follow her own dreams. When I read All Star Superman now, even with my Professional Comics Critic hat on, I both feel like the boy I was again and end up analyzing him as much as I do the drawings’ line qualities or colorist Jamie Grant’s divine digital palette. To separate the two just because I’ve decided to write something new about it would be to betray both that boy and the man I am now.
It’s more interesting to begin with endings in All Star Superman. It is, after all, a book about life’s struggle against the inevitability of death, and I did, after all, read it as the things that made up my final few years of childhood slowly left my life in order to create a newly formed adult. In traditional corporate-comics fashion, the issues’ covers list the creative team’s names hierarchically: writer Grant Morrison first, artist Quitely second, and colorist Grant last. In terms of sheer impact, though, the man with his name at the end outdoes his more ballyhooed cohorts. When one opens All Star Superman in any of its many printed forms, one can’t see Morrison’s story, and Quitely’s linework only registers after the blunt fructose shock of the colors Grant bathes it in. No matter how outré its content may be, a comic has to look different from everything else to be truly unique, and this is what Grant’s contributions bring to the table: a marvelous surface that begs for a word more evocative than technicolor, pages filled up by a visual environment that immerses the eyes and punches them back into your head in equal proportion. Grant functions as both mesmerizer and push man, paradoxically drawing readers into the miniature worlds contained in Quitely’s single illustrations while also whisking us along to the next frame, and the next. More than an exhibition of immense skill, Grant’s color jobs are an unspoken inducement for readers to interact with the comic in the most satisfying of ways, soaking up as much beauty as can be wrung from the pictures without moving too slowly through them to derail the perpetual motion of the story they push forward.
The colors are also what give All Star Superman its heady aura of futurism. Though rarely drawn as subtly and with as much consideration as Quitely’s, mechanical men and Deco-tech cityscapes are hardly anything new to comics. It’s Grant who sells these things as actually existing in a world capable of producing them, a place called tomorrow. Much of this is due to the clearly digital origin of the coloring: no painter can mix colors so vibrant, no human hand can distribute the glow around a light source so evenly or orchestrate the fade from one hue into another with such smoothness. Yet the restraint Grant exhibits is easily as impressive as his pyrotechnics, probably more so when judged against the work of his contemporaries as seen in the rest of the superhero genre in the late twenty-oughts. Flat, uninterrupted areas of bright color cover the open spaces behind Quitely’s figures, little rendering is applied where the linework doesn’t already indicate it, and the tonal combinations are simple and bold, often consisting of a single jump across the color wheel. The effect is like hearing punk rock played by a virtuoso orchestra, varied and complex but to the point and never less than certain of itself.
All Star Superman’s other ending, the final page of the book, is an odd one, and gives no small amount of insight into its writer’s position. More a new beginning than a conclusion, it wraps the story up with the promise of a sequel, giving us a brief glimpse of a project that has devoted unlimited resources to cloning the deceased Man of Tomorrow. The sequel never did and never was intended to materialize, though a few one-shot “special issues” were rumor mill grist for a few years before mercifully evaporating. As an ending, it’s concept rather than content, the “to be continued” finale of every other superhero comic under the sun being reinforced in celebration, not discarded by a superior work. It also reflects Morrison’s penchant for circular narratives -- his experimental magnum opus The Invisibles, to name just the most prominent example, begins with the line “and so we return and begin again,” and ends with the loaded suggestion of a Quitely (un)drawn blank page. As the book’s time travel-based subplots constantly remind us, no story can ever be told completely; we are merely seeing a notable section of the endless continuum of time, as many things or more shown being set in motion as resolving.
It is also a choice informed by the comic whose influence weighs most heavily on Morrison, Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, which among many other points of pride is complete in twelve issues, a self-contained story that begins and ends between the same set of covers, depending on no other, pre-existing comics to tell its story. Morrison’s twelve issue superhero opus follows the same basic goals, but in places it fondly picks up genre standbys that Moore discarded: mentions of team-ups with Batman and Robin are made though the Dynamic Duo never appear in the comic itself, the cultural ubiquity of the Superman origin story is heavily leaned upon so that exposition can be avoided -- and then there’s that last page, reminding us that this is far from the first or the last Superman comic, only a better one.
Morrison’s commitment to following traditional modes of superhero storytelling is at heart a kind of classicism, a desire to be like what has come before, one that perfectly counterbalances the futurism of Grant’s colors. I spent a year or so in the middle of All Star Superman’s run discovering Winsor McCay’s masterwork Little Nemo in Slumberland (which ran weekly in newspapers between 1905 and 1914), generally agreed upon as the first great work in comics, so the two are linked in my mind, but I think there’s an objective comparison to be made. With their book, Grant, Quitely, and Morrison did something quite similar to McCay, beginning a few short weeks after the centennial of his great strip’s debut: using their era’s dominant comics idiom and the most advanced technology available, they produced an experimental, brightly colored tour-de-force that never lost sight of the audience it was entertaining, affirming the vitality of comics as they stood while pointing the way to a brighter future. All Star Superman may not be the first great comic of the 21st century, but it remains the most viable road map for the development of the form over its next hundred years, the only one which takes advantage of everything available to the modern comics-maker, up to and including computers and the built-in audience for superheroes. All Star Superman is a story about cheating death, and as the market for comics shrinks ever smaller and becomes ever more corporatized, polarized, and conservative, it begins to look more and more like the magic spell that might just be able to change everything back to how it once was, or at least how we like to remember it -- if only it could be incanted once more, in great numbers.