Monday, July 22, 2013

Opening Contract - All Star Superman #1

As you can see, this week I’ll be dealing with what’s perhaps one of the greatest opening pages in recent memory with All Star Superman #1 (Words by Grant Morrison, Art by Frank Quitely Inks and Colors by Jamie Grant and Letters by Phil Balsman and Travis Lanham). In the opening page Morrison recreates the famous origin of Superman in four, simple, page-width panels. But, like everything Morrison does, looks can be deceiving and it perhaps ties into something far grander than first imagined.
In the first panel we see Krypton in its death throes as it begins to tear itself apart. The second panel depicts Jor-El and Lara looking skyward as white cataclysmic light explodes around them. The third panel has the rocket carrying Kal-El/Clark to Earth hurtling through cosmic debris as Krypton explodes into shards. The final panel is from Clark’s POV looking up at the Kent’s as they discover him in a Kansas field.

Each of the panels are beautifully rendered by Quitely, and Grant’s colours lend them all a gorgeous, luminescent tone. Every panel is also accompanied by a caption containing no more than two words in each.

Doomed planet.
Desperate scientists.
Last hope.
Kindly couple.

Before All-Star Superman took its current form, Morrison helped create a pitch to DC Comics that’s since taken on the moniker Superman 2000. This pitch also involved Mark Waid, Tom Peyer and Mark Millar. The pitch can be viewed here.

The pitch was turned down, but parts of it later resurfaced in Morrison’s run on All-Star Superman. The first part of that pitch reads:

“Historical record tells us that every fifteen years or so, Superman is re-imagined to address the wants and needs of a new generation. Fifteen years ago, John Byrne recreated Superman from the ground up. Fifteen years prior to that, Julie Schwartz and Denny O’Neil engineered the biggest shakeup since Mort Weisinger began bringing in all his familiar lore fifteen years previous.”

Keep that piece of knowledge tucked in the folds of your noggin. It’ll be important later. Promise.

The key though, comes when the team describe their approach as “an honest attempt to synthesise the best of all previous eras”. And that’s what this opening page is in a nutshell. Its origin agnostic. Nothing is made ‘non-canon’ by this page. Everything is included. Anything can be ignored. This is the distillation of the origin story to its purest form.

As we move on with his book we see that Morrison (like his run on Batman) considers everything to be canon. Golden Age, Silver Age, every era, every silly escapade and gimmicky story all happened. This page is a blueprint of that stripped down, everything goes concept. A universal approach. As DC put it in their promotional material for the book, the story would “strip down the Man of Steel to his timeless, essential elements”. Or, as Morrison himself puts it in Supergods, “We aimed for the pared-down clarity of folktales.”

If we circle back to the the first part of the pitch there’s the notion that Superman is reinvented in 15 year cycles. Like Batman, Superman is a character who’s defined and reinterpreted for the times we live in. We always get the Superman we deserve/need. This page marks a kind of Alpha/Omega version of that theory, sitting in a universal, mythic territory that can be applied to any era. We get (pardon the phrase) the best of both worlds.

In Supergods, Morrison talks about the Sekhmet Hypothesis which links the emergence of phases in youth culture and movements to solar activity. Morrison in particular labels these 11 year phases as being either “punk” or “hippy” in their outlook, feel and aesthetic.

Punk is identified with its hallmarks of “short hair, tight clothes, punch popular music, aggression, speedy drugs, and materialism”. Hippy, by contrast, is all “long hair, loose or baggy clothes, longer-form popular music, psychedelic or mind-expanding drugs, peace, and a renewed interest in the spiritual and transcendental.”

Published from 2005–2008, All Star Superman sits a few years before the start of the next (Hippy) phase in 2011. As such, it could be argued that it exemplifies both aesthetics, a comic of two cycles, of two worlds, acting as a kind of nexus.

On the one hand this page exemplifies elements of the punk aesthetic. It’s distilled, pure and choppy, utilising almost half a century of rich history and paring it down to its most basic beats. Punk music as we came to know it took pieces from fetish culture, and musical progenitors like Garage Rock, the Mod movement and American acts like the MC5, The New York Dolls and The Stooges and made it into something new.

Fanzines of the original punk era were spliced together bits of paraphernalia, pieces and elements of other media crafted into a cohesive whole by skilful, nimble fingers, and that's what Morrison is doing with this work, and its opening page. He's taking disparate elements of the old order, reveling in them, but still crafting something fresh, new and exciting.

The ‘hippy’ parts of the page are perhaps best pointed out by Morrison (again, in Supergods) where he talks about superhero books post–2011 as “becoming more fantastic, colourful and self-consciously mythic.”

And what is this opening page but mythic? It has a simple, almost, Campbell-like feel to it. A heroes journey. But merely his first. The one that defines him. This page marks Superman’s beginning, something befitting a book about his end and subsequent legacy. The punk/hippy dichotomy this page encapsulates is one that runs throughout the book, almost in a linear fashion along a spectrum. We start with an image of a dying sun and the most basic building blocks of who the character is. But, as we near the end, it begins to change into something else.

With his twelve labours almost complete, and Lex Luthor making mischief once more, there’s nothing left for Superman to do but save the Earth one more time. With his final breaths he enters the sun, repairs it and saves everyone. We later learn he’s become one with the Sun, a being of pure solar energy.

We go from a sun causing a planet's death to the orphan of that planet becoming one with a sun to give life to others. The Alpha and the Omega.

Is there anything more spiritual, transcendental and mythic than that?

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Iain said...

The idea of Superman pulsating away in the sun reminded me of my first superhero experience in childhood. I'd wandered down with my friends into the basement of a night club which sat on our tenement block. It was daylight hours and the club was empty. There on the wall was a gigantic painting of a superhero.
Later that night the hypnotic music from the club bounced through the walls as I lay in bed, lulling me to sleep. I imagined that the 'superman' as I called him, had become animated by the music, pulsating in time to the bass. Alas, it wasn't enough to lure me to Superman in the comics: the villains in Batman were much more fun. Superman just seemed too 'nice' for my liking. I've just watched a couple of videos on youtube about All Star - the WB lengthy version & CBG19, both fascinating.

I'd like to apologise for the pretentious blurb on the back of the book above. I hope the rewrite (devoid of any solar nonsense) is a bit more down to earth. I haven't read All Star yet but your review here has tempted me, so thank you.

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