I've never been into Superman and lately I've suspected that this is due to a lack of exposure to Superman comics. Like Charlie Chaplin or Dracula, Superman belongs less to the medium that birthed him and more to a seemingly ageless popular pantheon. So when I say, I've never been into Superman, what I really mean is the idea of an invincible do-gooder who defeats megalomaniacs.
When I shared this with a friend he eagerly thrust two trade paperbacks into my hands and said, read these. I was happy to oblige, but not because I thought I was going to finally "get" Superman. Despite my disinterest in the Man of Steel, I tend to follow writers and artists and not particular characters. Thus, I was more interested in the creative teams than the titles themselves. The first, All Star Superman, is by a creative duo that I count among my all time favorites (Morrison and Quitely) and the second, Superman Birthright, is written by Mark Waid, a formidable presence in comics that I have never gotten around to reading, but have been eager to check out.
What follows are my personal impressions of each book. I wouldn't call this informed comic book criticism, but the opinions of a passionate reader (and keep in mind, a not Superman fan).
All Star Superman (DC Comics, 2006-2008)
w. Grant Morrison
a. Frank Quitely
c. Jamie Grant
The All Star line was designed to let writers take a crack at key characters without disrupting mainline continuity. As someone whose never been interested in continuity, or canon for that matter, this already appeals to me. Morrison's Superman is a greatest hits of sorts, telling a new adventure while streamlining several canonical elements of his mythos (Krypto, Lex Luthor, Bizarro World). These classic elements are tethered to a narrative of Superman dying due to an overexposure to the Sun that sets in motion his desire to ensure a safe planet post-Superman. Strangely, this plot is rarely front and center with several episodic events becoming the primary action (each issues is called an episode and feels very much like a classic serial). The real marvel of this style is how Morrison manages to craft intimate reflective moments within a coldly distant space opera. Even when emotional reflection is limited to one or two panels, they resonate deeply before opening back up to inter-dimensional and cosmic happenings. The loss of Pa Kent, the tenderness of the Super-Lois conclusion, the loneliness of Zibarro, and the death of the replacement Supermen are written and drawn with such emotional clarity that they become painful moments of human loneliness sprinkled through a pop-art kaleidoscope of unexplained weirdness and inhuman feats that gives All Star Superman its unique quality. It is this pang of loneliness and isolation that anchors the comic, which is far more interesting than any good versus evil morality play, which Morrison has playing in the background as the general make-up of this comic book world.
Both the writing and the visual composition produce multiple ellipses, truncating both action and exposition; this is all lean and no fat. This has the overall effect of producing a comic comprised of legendary moments within the Superman imaginary, but it also feels grounded in a peculiar immediacy by Quitely's art, which emphasizes both the particularity of individuals and the homogeneity of the human form. Quitely's style incorporates various elements of a classical style, Supe's jawline and the sexless-yet-erotic composure of bodies that are at once god-like, yet strangely idiosyncratic in a very human way. In more ways than one, Quitely's drawings feel like Joe Shuster by way of Egon Schiele. While I've spilled more ink on Morrison's writing, I can't imagine this comic having the impact that it does without Quitely's art, which sells both the emotional resonance and the epic scope, making this feel like an organically fresh take on a relic from the 1930s and not a forced "update" to bring said relic into a contemporary milieu.
The creators take full advantage of the breadth and scope of the Superman universe to craft a world that feels new yet familiar and wastes no time on world building, or for the reader to catch up or accept what is happening. One would benefit from a healthy familiarity with Superman, but you can also go in only having a vague idea of what Superman is, like I did. In this way, All Star Superman felt like a old school serial; a comic focused on being fun, eye catching, and always moving forward. The fact that Morrison and Quitely achieved this with such emotional depth is quite the accomplishment. If the purpose was to bring me to the Superman fold, then count this as a success: I'm in. But credit where it's due: I am predisposed to love Morrison and Quitely and it should be clarified that their style is what made this, not any intrinsic qualities of the characters, but their approach to them.
Superman Birthright: The Origin of the Man of Steel (DC Comics, 2003-2004)
w. Mark Waid
a. Leinil Francis Yu
i. Gerry Alanguilan
c. Dave McCaig
At least once a decade a major character gets a reboot or a retelling of their origin story, and in the age of corporate synergy, this is almost always tied to other media formats. This in itself in neither good nor bad, as Morrison and Quitely's incredible New X-Men run was tailored to dovetail with the X-Film franchise. But if I may lay all my cards on the table, I find origin stories to be the abomination of the comic book world. While it is possible for an origin story to be great (Batman: Year One), most of them are dreadfully uninspired. They are burdened from the weight of obligation, having to tick off a number of expected elements by rote, simply because the creative team has to, or worse they have to explain why things look the way they do. It is rare to read (or see) an origin story that cares first and foremost about telling a good story and exploring an interesting style or presenting a keen vision. Instead, they forefront information and incident and act as little more than placeholders for future installments.
Superman Birthright mostly confirms my feelings toward the origin story genre. While it has its moments of inspiration and is not without its pleasures, it is saddled with exposition and incident, most of it completely unnecessary. I do not wish to judge Waid's talents on this book alone, as I will assume he was required to hit certain marks both for the publisher's continuity and to overlap with the television series Smallville, as the book's introduction suggests. And to his credit, I didn't put this book down and read it in one go. But the writing is wholly generic and felt like a number of superhero comics that I've read and forgotten; nothing feels urgent or fresh, only perfunctory. This is a comic about plotting, about explaining why certain things look the way they do, about bringing every single detail into a coherent explanation.
The script is also dialogue heavy; dialogue that is flat and merely catches the reader up on things that stand in for characterization: "gee son, ever since that one time you did this you've been feeling this way...". Such characterization could have been achieved through more precise artwork and/or more fully realized character moments. But nothing here is a character moment, only explanation of a character's existence. The dialogue does all of the heavy lifting. This subsides when Lex Luthor returns as the villain of metropolis, mostly because a plot is in motion, but it dominates the rest of the book. Stuff happens because is has to, characters are present because they have to be and it's never evident why. The characters themselves are not distinct, unique, or interesting enough to save such flatness. We only know the characters are different because they're drawn that way.
Despite all of these limitations the most frustrating aspect of Birthright is that Luthor makes absolutely no sense and when your comic is entirely focused on plotting it becomes more essential that character motivations are legible. Luthor makes several drastic transformations that are forced, both as a teen in Smallville and as a major figure of Metropolis. Waid went for a tragic fall to humanize Luthor, but it happens so quickly and without reason that it merely distracts from the larger narrative. Luthor goes from a lonely genius to a cynical murderous tyrant. The assumption seems to be that we just accept it because Luthor has to be Superman's nemesis. However, the plot device of Superman learning of his origins from Luthor was a nice touch and shows that the writing is clearly more interested in these updates than in character. Ham-fisted transformations are not exclusive to Luthor as the book opens with Clark Kent's stint in a cartoonish, borderline offensive rendition of Ghana where Clark learns the true meaning of something or whatever and decides to be Superman.
The art in this book is great, poppy stuff, but it doesn't feel tied to the writing. One could replace it with any other art style and it wouldn't impact the book at all, which is a problem: it has no emotional or intellectual resonance. Leinil Francis Yu's style is incredible on its own though. He juxtaposes a late 90s preoccupation in cartoon exaggeration with strong movements towards manga stylizations. This is most evident in the Kryptonian styles seen above. Yu's art tends to work best in the busy moments, when too much is happening at once. He frequently finds the perfect harmony of detailed clutter (always kinetic) with large swaths of negative space. He's brilliant at evoking action in a single frame, especially in facial reactions, but frequently throughout sequences of movement become incomprehensible or required further study to parse out the spatial orientations. Contained to a single frame, his work is masterful, but when spread over pages it quickly gets muddled.