All Star Superman #12, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant
A beautiful symmetry is at work in All Star Superman. The sixth issue showed a young Clark Kent learning the limitations of his powers when he failed to save his adoptive father. The twelfth and final one opens with Kal-El learning about the other side of mortality from his birth father as Jor-El guides him through a postmortem fantasy and confronts him with an important choice. Both halves of this series are punctuated with lessons from the fathers that Superman, for all his powers, can never rescue, and reassurances that he still lived up to their expectations anyway.
That's not the only elegant pattern on display in this issue as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely pull out all the storytelling techniques at their command, investing meaning in processes as mechanical and automatic as the turning of a page. Jor-El's injunction that Superman can linger in his fantasy world or "Turn and face down evil one last time" is followed by both a page turn and the face of evil, Lex Luthor, ordering the Daily Planet staffers to make their own life-or-death decision.
And if you've been reading these reviews for any length of time, you've probably already guessed that another heavily freighted page transition sets up one of my favorite bits in the issue--hell, the series. Immediately after Jor-El tells his son that Superman has inspired humanity's highest aspirations and embodied our best qualities, what should we see but Steve Lombard frantically performing CPR on Clark Kent, calling him "buddy" and apologizing for all those pranks. Lombard has usually been the butt of the joke in this series, just as God and Cary Bates intended, a preening he-man whose overcompensating hypermasculinity always falls short next to Superman's real deal. But this time Morrison grants some genuine heroism to the blowhard ex-jock as we see him working fearlessly to save the nerd he's tormented. Superman's in all of us--even Steve Lombard.
In the world of Superman, the better All Star world Superman's inspired, everybody does the right thing in the end (except Luthor, of course). This issue all of the little guys get their chance to make a stand, from Perry White's defense of the truth to Jimmy Olsen's timely turn as costumer. Does Jimmy know he's covering for Superman when he trots out the line about the disguise? And does Luthor figure out the big secret, the one that eluded him in issue five, on the next page, only to lose it when his super-enhanced intellect runs out? The issue moves so quickly that Morrison can only hint at these developments, planting just enough information for us to make the leap and then moving on to the next surprise. Even Superman gets to play the role of the plucky underdog, concocting a delightful quasi-scientific trick to beat his artificially empowered archenemy at his own game.
Because it's a Morrison comic there are also the references, fleeting and supple, to Supermen past: the scarlet fevers and fire falls of Silver Age Krypton, the crystal canyons of the Salkind movies, the fantasy life of "For the Man Who Has Everything," various deaths of Superman from the sixties to the nineties, Morrison's own DC One Million, and a flight of balloons that recalls the end of Miracleman's "Golden Age." They're all executed without rancor, just a patient sense of obligation that suits the book and its subject. Morrison's not trying to banish or one-up anybody, only to sum up all of his predecessors in a single compelling vision of the character.
Jamie Grant contributes an unusually vivid palette of bright primary and secondary colors, and Quitely is up to his usual high standard whether he's giving us a gorgeous x-ray panel or a stop-motion view of a truck in collision (both of which call back to his finest work in We3). The series' final image--I won't spoil it--is a beautiful piece of graphic design, as much a question as an answer and one that leaves me clamoring for a sequel we may never see.
Morrison and Quitely have accomplished something that many comics creators and fans thought impossible: they've found a way to tell stories about Superman that feel fresh and energetic after seventy years of the neverending battle. Yes, they amplify the menaces, but that's just the window-dressing--and they avoid the woefully common misstep of writing Superman down, casting the world's greatest superhero as an incompetent or a fascist to make their own jobs easier. The physical challenges are never a problem for the man of tomorrow, even at Quitely's cinemascoped best. The emotional challenges--to atone with his fathers, to be with the woman he loves, to confront his own mortality, to inspire our compassion and courage and hope--those are the tough battles, those are what really matter, and Morrison knows it. His real coup is not just making Superman interesting again, but showing us why it matters that we still come up with new stories about him. Because even if he were perfect, we can always be better.
It's a fitting end to All Star Superman. Even if the comic got a little flabby in the middle with the Bizarros and the astronauts (a story that actually reads much better after you've read the next one, but that's a post I'll probably never write)... well, all it had to do was stand up straight, unslump its shoulders, take off its glasses and show us the taut story that was always waiting within.
This issue is a masterpiece.
...Aren't they all?