Above: the most important two-panel comic in the medium's history
For all the genre’s wonders, the notion that a superhero comic can change the medium for the better, or have any positive impact on it at all, is in the long run a false one. It is probably the great poetic irony of comics that the segment of the form that focuses most heavily on ideals of justice and freedom is the one that gives the smallest amount of these things to the people who make the art, that the comics in which good not only always triumphs but must continue to do so always are created in, by, and for a culture in which it almost never does. All Star Superman is corporate property, now and forever, and the money I spent buying those comics went into the coffers of the Time Warner Corporation. (Money spent buying comics from the other superhero publisher, Marvel, puffs up Disney.) In corporate superhero comics more than any other artistic field currently doing big business, the consumer’s purchase of a product does nothing to enrich or even advance the careers of the people who created it. This is true for a few reasons, all of which contribute to the Sisyphean boulder-sized grain of salt any positive referendum on All Star Superman must come with.
Comics are a rough business all around. Retailers eke out money month by month in an industry whose most common profit margin is a dollar and fifty cents per item sold. Readers negotiate baffling release schedules, unexpected cancellations, false advertising, and publishing strategies that push as much superfluous product as possible onto them until they inevitably drop out from sheer exhaustion. And the publishers themselves face vast public disinterest and scorn, despite the strides comics have made into the cultural mainstream since the turn of the millennium -- not to mention the extinction threat all print media is pitted against in the digital age. But things are most unfair if you’re an artist.
I remember being a kid and thinking that making comics professionally had to be the coolest life ever -- tons of money, public adoration, and above all else, you get to tell stories about superheroes that are read the world over. That last part is true, but it's got little value when the larder's bare. In comics the only jobs that pay enough to live a decent life on give out nothing more than middle-class accommodations, and publishers do everything they can to de-emphasize the role of living human individuals in the creation of the product they sell. The reason for this is superhero comics’ most pernicious truth, the great shame that it must always carry with it: no matter what you do, how much or great what you create is, once you’re out you’re out.
In the corporate houses that pump out the monthly adventures of every superhero anyone really cares about, the artist does not have the right to own the work her brings forth with his own two hands. After the meager page rate check is cashed, the publishers’ legal obligation to their employees ends, even if an artist’s work sells a million copies, or ten million, or starts a multi-decade publishing franchise, or spawns TV shows and T-shirts and toys and billion dollar movies. And with comics’ position on the bleeding, sink-or-swim edge of American market capitalism, it should go without saying that neither of the corporate superhero publishers has ever followed up on the moral obligations they have to the creators of such work. Not even when men who don’t know how to do anything but draw because they spent their whole lives doing it are robbed of the ability by age or illness or the grief of seeing everyone but themselves enriched by their imaginations. Not even the families comics’ middle class paychecks put up in middle class worlds until the day their breadwinners’ services are no longer required. In the comics superheroes save lives, but in the real world they’ve done more to destroy them. This is why I say there is no such thing as a truly good superhero comic . Even if its creators are paid a generous sum (as Grant, Quitely, and Morrison by all accounts were), even if the work inside is accomplished and transcendent and inspiring (as All Star Superman is), they are all built on human pain. They all feed into a system that treats art as labor, that goes about the making of dreams as if it were an endless hammering of round pegs into round holes. No matter what messages of peace and happiness are contained between their covers, superhero comics are morally inexcusable.
It gets even worse with Superman comics. The Man of Steel’s creation story is pure American myth both on and off the printed page. Called to life by the idle fantasies and crudely powerful pencil drawings of two naive Cleveland teenagers named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was sold to Harry Donenfeld’s National Allied Publications, a failing publisher of sleazy pulp magazines, for a few hundred dollars and a vague promise from the businessman that he would take care of the boys. Then it was sold back to a ravenous American public to the tune of a few million copies, and more the next month, and more the next for years thereafter. Superman was a national fixation, a cultural ubiquity. And here came Siegel and Shuster’s downfall, and with it, perhaps, the real end of any hope for creators’ rights in hero comics.
The earliest Superman stories prominently featured their creators’ last names on the opening pages, and had the boys been a bit cannier, this could have been a springboard to media fame. Given the millions of pairs of eyes those names touched in Superman’s whirlwind first few months of success, it’s not impossible to imagine that if things had worked out differently “Siegel and Shuster” could have become something parallel to what “Walt Disney” did, shorthand for the entirety of the medium they influenced so profoundly. Instead, the two young artists, overmatched by the incredible popularity of their creation, let demands for more work than any two people could possibly handle pile up on top of them, and in short order began to outsource, creating a studio of cartoonists to craft professional-grade Superman stories underneath their guidance. Of course, there were only two paychecks to go around, and as the franchise got bigger the compensation grew leaner, and Siegel and Shuster’s names slowly slid from the masthead of their creation. Character had outstripped artists, and it was National Allied, later DC Comics, who owned him. And that was they way it would be with the heroes, and that is the way it will be. Every superhero comic published since Superman touched earth contributes to the power of this less-than/greater-than algorithm, gives the companies more to own and takes more ideas away from people who deserve better for them. Find somebody who doesn’t read comics, and ask them how many superheroes they can name, and then ask them how many cartoonists. Why would the people who hold both the purse strings and the names that really matter in comics -- not Siegel and Shuster or Morrison and Quitely and Grant or any of those who’ve served in the capacity they did, but the names of fictional men who hide their faces -- why would they do anything to make it any different?
All this is why I find it hard to write about All Star Superman, about any superhero comic. I wouldn’t be writing about this one except for the fact that no comic has ever meant more to me, because I was different in those days. And even though I knew all of this then, I felt as though superhero comics’ place in larger narratives -- both the decades-long sagas of the characters they feature and the great American story of toil and exploitation -- was something grand and powerful enough that my own complicity in it, at $2.99 an installment, was negligible. I didn’t care that my heroes, Morrison and Quitely and Grant, were dancing on the bones of the men who built their hero, Superman. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than the person I was, and I wanted to read comics that were part of something bigger than the people who made them. So I saved the three bucks every few months for All Star and gave up the rest of my money for presents to the girl I could scarcely believe wanted me before anyone else, and I paid billionaires who didn’t lift a finger to help when Shuster ended up blind and penniless and sued Siegel’s family when they wanted the rights to their ancestor’s idea back to tell me stories of a perfect man. Those comics changed my life, but I look back and I wish I hadn’t bought them, because it wasn’t worth the other things that I was paying for.
I tell you these things about myself because there’s no good reason that anyone who knew what I knew then and know now would buy superhero comics -- only rationalizations, hypocrisies, cowardices. These were mine. The act of reading these comics is never going to make anything better. How could it? It can only compound wrongs already done, contribute, however minimally, to an unjust system. The closest you can get to the crystalline morals of the man you’re watching save the world is to find a way to do no harm. If you want to read All Star Superman, steal it from a chain bookstore. Then the only person you run the risk of hurting is yourself.