“The last thing I wanted on your birthday was a reptile invasion from the Earth’s core.”
Superman has been exposed to something and it’s fatal. With a knowledge of his very real and close at hand mortality, he sets about to prepare the world for his absence. Where I expected a slightly more somber tone, this premise gives author Grant Morrison license to plumb the depths of DC’s bizarre gallery of obscure characters, similar to the animated series Batman: Brave and the Bold. It doesn’t apologize for the crazy things in the history of the Superman comic, it grabs hold and sings loud as can be. A super-scientist in a rainbow coat, a vial that grants superpowers for a day, Samson and Atlas, Bizarro Supermen, Doomsday Jimmy, a baboon in a Superman suit, the Superman Squad. Wow.
It somehow manages to run with all the zany and strange, and downright silly stuff, yet lend it all a great deal of emotional weight, tapping into the ‘aw, gee, shucks,’ ‘America!’ vibe that reminds us of who we wish we could be, what world we might make. Some of those utopian dreams of yesteryear. Under the protection of Superman, you can imagine a world of flying cars and floating cities, of super-science and peace. And then, in the midst of all the crazy, still tells the heartfelt tale of one of Superman’s great losses.
“They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl…and curse…and finally…They will join you in the sun, Kal-El.”
Probably the key thing that makes this book more impressive and interesting is that Superman is given his death sentence early on. He’s going to die. Then the book goes on to explore what Superman is, what he represents, and how he effects the world. There has been some talk, in comics and in movies, that super-villains wouldn’t exist without superheroes. That Batman is the cause of the Joker, Superman the cause of Lex Luthor. That reeks of blaming the victim, or blaming the helping hand. It’s something that happens all too often in the real world, so why not in comics. Anyone who tries to educate, elucidate, or uplift humankind is automatically feared and hated. I’m reminded of the people building the space gun in Things to Come, battling the ravening hoards of backward looking, fear-consumed folk who were overwhelmed by progress. Superman represents that progress. The Nietzschian uberman, not something to be feared, but something to aspire to. Luthor, to a degree, represents our natural inclination to fear change, to fear the future, to look to the past with those blasted rose-colored glasses. He has all the amazing potential of a Reed Richards, but his fear of something better than Man consumes him. Instead of using his colossal intellect to raise humanity up, he tries to drag Superman down. You see this every day in the real world, as people, smart and caring people, do everything in their power to tear down science and medicine, and cast us back into the dark ages of magic and superstition, afraid as they are, of a better world.
The second volume seems to be about the ways the Superman archetype can go wrong, and how it can go right. There’s the Bizarro-world Supermen, including the one thinking man stranded among fools, longing for intellectual contact while writing poetry. There are the Kryptonian astronauts who lack Superman’s purity of heart and optimism toward Humanity. And there’s Lex, jacked on Super-sauce, who lacks Superman’s vision. Ultimately, the book seems to say that a hero, a bold outsider, a larger than life person raises up those around him or her. Superman makes people better by being a living example of what we can be. He does the right thing. He stands up. He lends a hand. And like my favorite hero of myth, Odysseus, he believes in the possibility of Man. That when Humankind casts of the shackles of the past, of religion, of slavery, it could be great. We can all be Supermen, Superwomen. He holds out his hand to us, but it is up to us to reach for it.
I can’t end this without talking about Frank Quitely’s amazing art. It has a punch that is quite impressive. Somehow it feels both very retro, and very modern. It taps into that European comic look I often talk about, like the stuff you see in 80s issues of Heavy Metal. The clean panel work, crazy images, and intense color (from Jamie Grant) make it a feast for the eyes. And they lend the book as a whole a classier aspect.
“Gods achieve their power by encouraging us to believe in them. Superman achieves his power by believing in us.” -from the introduction