All-Star Superman #5, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Quitely really should get top billing this time around: he simply outdoes himself. Given an issue that's mostly set in Stryker's Island, Metropolis's prison for super-criminals, he turns the prison's stark utilitarianism into part of his layouts. He stages the initial prison scenes in a three-tiered, six-panel grid that reflects the monotony and confinement of prison routine. In one beautiful two-page spread the prison design literally becomes the page design, and throughout the sequence panel gutters bleed into prison walls and vice versa.
But when the Parasite triggers a riot the pages open up into four-tiered widescreen layouts, the better to capture the action. When Clark ends the Parasite's rampage with a timely earthquake, the gutters themselves bend and buckle, doubling as ceiling and floor. And when the issue ends on a note of uncertainty Quitely gives us a splash page, leaving us no clear visual cues on where to go next. It's a wonderfully self-assured artist who can turn such a conventional scenario into a breezy lesson on page design--and do it without smacking of effort or pretense.
It doesn't hurt that Morrison is firing on all cylinders, too. This issue returns to three of the key elements that made All-Star Superman #1 so entertaining, none of them much in evidence since then: Luthor, Superman's impending death, and Clark Kent. All three lend Morrison's Superman a vulnerable, human side that's been noticeably obscured in the last couple installments--although Lex intends just the opposite. He's granted a death row interview to Clark Kent (presumably an old Smallville chum, given Lex's shout-out to Mrs. K) so he can vent about the oppressive perfection of the strange visitor from another planet. As Jog says, it's basically the Jules Feiffer/Kill Bill interpretation of Superman, but Morrison keeps undercutting Luthor's spiel with little reminders of how much he's missing.
"I've always liked you, Kent," he says. "You're a humble, modest, uncoordinated human. You're everything he's not." And because any five-year-old can appreciate that irony, Morrison and Quitely don't stop there: they hammer us over the head with it, playing Luthor's hoary interpretation for comedy and countering it with a decent, humane, fundamentally nice Superman at every glance. Lex spends the entire issue failing to notice the many times Clark saves his life without breaking cover (the best gag from #1 recycled many times over); he can even stare an angry, de-spectacled Clark right in the eye and still not recognize the Superman simmering to the surface. Nor does he see that the "smug self-regard" he so despises in his foe is just a projection of his own overweening ego. (In this respect he's a bit like Morrison's treatment of Darkseid in "Rock of Ages": two iconic super-villains who can't see anything but themselves, monomaniacally projecting their own worst traits onto the world around them.) Any intimations of Superman's arrogance or condescension are rightly placed back on the shoulders of his antagonist, where they belong.
The comic's finest moment is a visual joke so good I'm not even sure I should spoil it. (But I will, so look out.) The beautiful part is not Morrison and Quitely hiding the set-up in plain sight for several pages until they're ready to roll out the punchline. It's not seeing Lex Luthor redrawing his eyebrow with a pencil. (First I wondered if the missing eyebrow signified some dastardly escape plan, then I considered the possibility that Lex had subconsciously trimmed it into the "Superman Swoosh" and shaved the whole thing off in a fit of pique. I was lost until no less a luminary than Cameron Stewart over at Barbelith suggested Morrison was simply extending Luthor's baldness--and this is clearly the classic Luthor, presumably with the classic explanation for his baldness--to his entire head.) No, the beautiful touch is that when Luthor redraws his eyebrow, he redraws it in character so he can deliver a menacing supervillain rant with that much more flair. That's dedication to the part!
And then, at his most ludicrous, Lex reminds Clark that he's killed him. It's a gut-punch ending, reminding us that we have to take Luthor seriously in spite of his arrogance and blindness--or because of them, because they've led him to condemn the kindest man in the world. Clark doesn't seem to know where he's going next and neither do we, but I'm sure eager to follow him there.
This was easily the best issue of All-Star Superman yet. Then again, I thought that last issue and I could probably say it of all of them except the third one--this comic just keeps getting better. Morrison has taken what could be a dreary and repetitive story structure, the grand tour of all Superman's friends and foes, and transformed it into a thoughtful reflection on what makes these characters tick. It's a Superman story bible that retains the energy of a proper story, filtered through Quitely's expert storytelling. Again, he's the one to beat in this issue; as well as Morrison writes Clark Kent, Quitely sells us on a Clark so self-effacing that in some panels he actually appears to have a paunch and a double chin. You can honestly believe he doesn't need the glasses to hide his alter ego (which makes Luthor's ignorance a little more understandable, I suppose). Morrison's script is note-perfect, but it's Quitely who never lets us overlook the man in the Superman.
If he'd just show Clark pulling the covert-powers-stumblebum routine to make a prank backfire on Steve Lombard! Come on, guys, will this be the money shot of your twelve-issue megaplot? What are you waiting for?