All-Star Superman is the reason that comic books exist. It’s one of the brightest stories the medium’s ever seen, but the irony is that it hinges on darkness. Superman, the titular character, is faced with his own death, and it makes for a depressing read.
But the way author Grant Morrison spins the tale makes it anything but. Morrison takes everything that makes Superman such a renowned character and throws it in a blender to make the purest concoction. All of the camp, all of the impossibility and all of the heart that makes Superman the most iconic character is featured heavily in the series. The book is better for it, because instead of ignoring most of the things that would be considered too “ridiculous” for a fresh take on such a time-honored character. Morrison embraces it all with a bear hug that admits the implausibility. At the same time, he encapsulates the core of Superman: nothing is impossible for the Man of Steel.
Originally, the All-Star line of comics was supposed to be an entry point for the uninitiated to the comic book world by DC Comics, but only one series in the imprint actually made it to completion, and that was All-Star Superman.
It’s a damned good thing too, because if it hadn’t, DC would have robbed us of the best Superman story of the last quarter-century. Morrison, with his frequent partner Frank Quitely handling pencils, lets loose with a tour de force that hasn’t been topped since.
Superman is forced to complete 12 labors that seem altogether unthinkable. He’s made to answer the unanswerable question, create life and save the sun, all while facing his own mortality head-on. It’s the series’ biggest strength, because it allows Morrison to dance with the idea of an immortal facing his own end.
He plays against expectations, because instead of facing demise with a sense of dread, Superman faces it with all the courage he’d bring with him into a fight with a giant robot. There’s no wallowing in pity, only a drive to make the world better with the precious time he has left.
But what makes All-Star a must-read for rookie comic readers is that it can be the first and last Superman story you’ve ever read, and it’ll have the same impact as if you’d been reading the character for decades. Morrison distills Superman down to his most basic ideal: he’s everything that’s good about humanity. Nothing short, nothing less.
There’s not a thing about Superman himself that’s evil, and Morrison takes the time to illuminate this fact to his readers over and over again. Quitely keeps this theme prevalent in his work too; Superman always looks like the kindest and most vital person in every panel. Quitely’s lines usually have a muddled and world-weary look to them, but for Superman’s design, he drops the clutter and presents him as the epitome of decency. He’s youthful, vibrant and compassionate, even when faced with such a personal struggle.
The distinction is welcome because every other character in the book carries Quitely’s distinct approach, while Superman is allowed to breathe in the middle of it all. It’s a very messianic take on the character, but it never feels forced on the reader because Morrison knows how to tell stories without getting bogged down in theme. This story does have a beginning, middle and an end, but it’s about more than these checkpoints for the character.
What Morrison did with this series is take a character many consider outdated and irrelevant and reestablished him as the preeminent superhero in comics. No one’s been able to take a character with so much history and focus it through such a tight prism since Morrison, and it might not ever happen again, which is all the more reason to go out and buy All-Star Superman immediately.