This was only the second time I've assigned a Grant Morrison comic; as with the first time, it was a relief when the book taught better than I could have hoped. And like that first time, the class discussion initially gravitated towards Frank Quitely's art.
But that's where the similarities ended. Quitely did strikingly different work in We3 and All-Star Superman, the former most notable for its overt experiments, the latter for its more subtle virtuosity. We began with a close reading of the first eleven pages of All-Star Superman, focusing on how Quitely modulates his layouts to match the action. Superman's mere presence quells the skewed panels that depict the crashing solar probe, a graphic demonstration of the sense of order and security that he provides throughout the book. Even the few showpiece pages in the prison sequence (which we also looked at in some detail) provide a narrative justification for the formal games; Quitely always fits his panel arrangements to the action rather than imposing an external structure like Miller or Gibbons.
The discussion of those parts more directly attributed to Morrison also started off well with a look at his "science fiction folk tales," the mythic retellings that served as a rebuke to the putative realism of recent decades. In a great unplanned correspondence, students were using the concepts we'd discussed in All-Star Superman that morning to make sense of "The Waste Land" in my American lit class that afternoon. They complemented one another better than I would have expected: they are, after all, two works that both trade on arcane references to old mythologies, both follow mythic plot structures, both construct themselves as pastiches of other texts. But for some reason, students have an easier time with the Superman comic...
The problems only set in after the class got caught up in tracing the references to other comics; some of the students felt, my assurances to the contrary, that they needed a Ph.D in Superman to understand the book. I'm not sure I agree, as the nods to Mon-El or DC One Million or "Superman's New Power!" generally provide surplus value for fans in the know, not essential keys to interpreting the work, but once the class got a sense of how far the references extended they began to feel left out. Even that led to a productive discussion, though, as we talked about the narrative posteriority and the superabundance of influences that made All-Star Superman one of the most postmodern texts we read.
We also discussed the retrograde gender politics that appear to have piggybacked in on the retro comics references. The class needed no prompting to point out that the women in All-Star Superman are uniformly passive, denied even the opportunities for heroism given to supporting actors like Jimmy Olsen or Steve Lombard. That part of the book serves as an object lesson in the dangers of recreating past eras and old genre conventions without any critical distance. It also served as a reminder that as the class has advanced towards the present, the gender roles have been holding steady or perhaps even backsliding a bit. The most progressive and varied representation of women--and I say this with some mixture of horror and newfound admiration--was probably in Claremont's X-Men.
We did a lot of looking back over the course of the semester, a task for which All-Star Superman is perfectly suited. The book provided one last chance to revisit Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes, which went over like a lead balloon at the beginning of the semester, but his chapter on Superman's alter ego proved endlessly useful since then. That was fortunate, since All-Star Superman was half the reason I included Feiffer in the first place--specifically the Luthor issue, which Joe McCulloch once described as a riposte to the Feiffer/Kill Bill interpretation of Superman.
(Let me pause here to comment, and not for the first time, that no series of comics posts is complete without a link to Jog--even if I have to reach back nearly eight years to do it.)
That was how I planned to put the two readings in dialogue, anyway. But looking back over the series, it's not at all clear that Morrison disagrees all that much with Feiffer. He takes every opportunity to undercut Luthor's cynical take, and the idea that Superman is looking down on all us mere mortals. Yet when our hero gazes into the Mirror of Truth in issue 2, slumped forward like Clark and wearing his glasses, the figure who gazes back is pure Superman, all heroic posture and no specs in sight. That's the core of Feiffer's idea, that Superman is the real person and Kent the disguise, and Morrison doesn't really challenge it. His twist (a common enough one, these days) is to suggest that Clark is an externalization of Superman's desire to be normal. He's not looking down at us; he's looking up.
It struck me as I was working up my lecture notes that most of this material hadn't found its way into the Morrison book. It's fascinating to see how my take on this series has already changed after just a few short years. That's partly because of the change in contexts, but it's also one of the marks of a great work--that ability to renew itself by supporting new interpretations with each reading. For the benefit of my own work as well as my students, I can think of few finer places to end the class.