All Star Superman vol. 2, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant
"As a matter of fact, I had the whole thing paced out to end pretty much exactly like this, Lex."
For someone who used to complain about his inability to end a story, Grant Morrison is awfully proud of this one. And rightly so; All Star Superman is unusually well-structured for Morrison's works, and exceptionally well-structured by any standard, so much so that having Superman brag about it doesn't seem too unseemly. Everything has been planned down to the last detail, even the previously unsuspected clue Superman mentions in the next word balloon, set up all the way back in issue #2. This is one of Morrison's most meticulously plotted works and one of his best endings (especially if Cole Odell is right). While the finale pulls all the pieces together, though, the entire series has been structured with equal care. Now that the whole design is apparent it's clear that the second half is especially important, a coherent work of its own expressing ideas that extend well beyond the modest concerns of most supehero comics.
The first half of All Star Superman is mostly a tour of Superman's cast of characters, showcasing Morrison's takes on Lois and Jimmy and Luthor and the Smallville crowd. If the series had stayed at this pitch it would have been nothing more than an unusually well-crafted example of the "commercial strip-mining" approach, which Morrison once described as "creators playing it safe by cherry-picking and re-packaging all the best and most popular elements of an already successful feature."
Instead, the second half brings the focus back to the title character, assembles the stories into a unified narrative, and builds to a climax as thematically fraught as it is tightly plotted. Issue #7 marks the new beginning with several references to the first half of the series (opening with another dangerous Leo Quintum expedition, showing the missing technician from #4, releasing the baby sun-eater, and so on). A series that has already synthesized the best elements of every period in Superman's history is now including itself in the synthesis--as if the first half of the series were a separate work already fit for quotation and memorialization.
And a series that has already confronted Superman with several alternate versions of himself (the scoundrels Samson and Atlas, the Black-K induced evil Superman, the Supermen from the future) kicks into high gear. It's difficult to remember this in retrospect, but Morrison didn't really hammer home the alternate Supermen in his first couple of issues, and Luthor represents a different kind of reflection in the prison story. With the second half of All Star, however, every single issue features a copy--and sometimes, in the case of poor Zibarro, a copy of a copy as well. This is more than just Prismatic Age brand proliferation, though (or rather, it's one of the best "Prismatic" works because it achieves more than mere brand proliferation). Each of these distorted funhouse images, from the comedic-horrific inversions of Bizarro to the Kryptonian chauvinism of Bar-El to the nightmare scenario of a man with Superman's powers and Luthor's character, serves to burnish the original by comparison--even the best of them, Superman's Kandorian cousin Van-Zee, is too physically unimposing and ineffective to match the template. But a couple of them go much farther, speaking directly to the series' core themes of the power of ideas and hope for the future.
I wasn't a big fan of issue #9, the Kryptonian astronauts, when it was first released, seeing it as little more than a reworking of the Mon-El story. But reading it against the rest of the series, especially its immediate successor, reveals it as an important turning point. Bar-El and Lila accuse Superman of dragging his feet when it comes to freeing the citizens of Kandor, telling him he lacks drive and ambition. By issue's end Superman concedes the point, saying "Perhaps I could have done more"; the next issue he's rushing to settle his affairs, including the Kandorians. Similarly, Lila's comment that Superman "could have laid the foundation stones of tomorrow" leads into his gift to Leo Quintum and Lois Lane--the DNA sequences and superpower serums that will most likely generate his successors, as hinted on the series' final page. His bequest of the future answers Lila's challenge without duplicating her haughty Kryptonian cultural imperialism. The tenth issue is justly regarded as one of the series' highest points, but the ninth sets it into motion.
The grand finale in issues #11 and 12 opens with yet another set of call-backs, this time marking the end of the series and beginning the summation of its ideas. The first five pages of #11 contain visual or textual reminders of every prior issue; the next scene takes us inside one of Luthor's lairs, littered with costumes and weapons that indicate his own history is every bit as palimpsestic as Superman's. (Which, of course, it is. You can imagine these pages being outtakes from another comic--call it All Star Luthor--that just happened to intersect with this one.) These nods to comics tradition, and to All Star Superman's own prior nods to that tradition, aren't the important part, just structural markers that the end is here and the important stuff is about to begin.
The second half of the series highlights Superman's capacity to inspire people, even (especially) as a purely fictional character. It's the only power he has in our benighted world, and Morrison believes it's the most important one he's got. In fact, he says that if Superman did not exist, we would have to invent him (simply returning a favor, since Superman thoughtfully created us back in issue #10, March 2008; mark your calendars). That's why the finale pits him against an antagonist who disputes the very idea that fictions and abstractions can hold real power, as seen in this exchange from issue #12:
WHITE: The truth sent you to the chair, Luthor!
LUTHOR: Is that right, Mister White? Funny, I don't see the truth anywhere around, do you? I mean, what color is it? Can I touch it?
Luthor mocks White's dedication to abstract principle, confronting him with the truth's immateriality, because he's a materialist to the extreme. He says the priest at his execution "stinks of the irrational" and his niece proclaims "This is Science Year Zero!"--next I suppose they'll be rewriting the calendar. This scorn for idealism confirms Luthor's stature as the series archvillain, especially since a hallucinatory Jor-El (himself part of "the field of living, fluid consciousness") has just told his son he has given us humans "an ideal to aspire to, embodied [our] highest aspirations."
After viewing the world through Superman's eyes, though, Luthor gets with the All Star program. He realizes "The fundamental forces are yoked by a single thought"--apparently the entire universe is "thought-controlled!" His enlightenment and defeat aren't just the typical final-act reversals; they enact the triumph of the ideal over the material. Or, as Superman tells Luthor (while laying him out with a decidedly material, decidedly anticlimactic, decidedly satisfying punch) "Brain beats brawn every time!" In grand superhero tradition, Morrison stages a conflict of ideas and resolves it through the physical embodiments of his characters... which itself happens to be a perfect illustration of their ability to embody our ideals.
But tragically, perfectly, the story doesn't end there. Superman converts to pure "solar radio-consciousness," pure information, pure idea, yet he still manages to save us all one last time. He ends the series presiding serenely over Metropolis and Earth, maintaining the sun that keeps them alive, duplicating his earlier custodianship of Kandor on a much larger scale. And he ends it as a purely ideal being inspiring others to do better, duplicating his relationship to us poor souls down here on Earth-Q, where he's never been anything else. Trust Morrison to end All Star Superman with one more radical variation of scale, one more blurring of fiction and reality--but trust him also to apply these familiar games to a new theme, one perfectly matched to his character, about the power of ideas; the power of inspiration; the power of hope.