Comic book writer Grant Morrison runs hot and cold. When he's good, he's really good, close to greatness. His ability to come up with fresh, bold and innovative ideas and concepts are second only to the legendary Jack Kirby. In the '90s, Morrison took B-list characters and titles ANIMAL MAN and DOOM PATROL and turned them upside down and inside out, making for some truly groundbreaking comic book storytelling. Morrison can find new ways of looking at old, tired and worn out characters and injecting them with fresh creative blood, as if we're seeing these familiar characters and narrative tropes for the very first time.
But when he's bad (as he has been recently), he's terrible. I've found some of his recent work right next door to incoherent. His stories in such titles as BATMAN, FINAL CRISIS and the New 52 re-launch of ACTION COMICS were puzzling, confusing and deeply frustrating. After reading them, I'd sit and scratch my head and wonder what I just read. And it's not that you had to read all of the issues in a story arc to finally "get it". Even after reading the entire story I felt like I was still in the dark. It's my opinion that Morrison has oftentimes coasted on his name and reputation with editors at DC giving him carte blanche to write whatever the hell he wants to write because, hey, he's Grant Morrison and his name alone will sell books.
Morrison's book SUPERGODS (2011) was part memoir/part deconstruction of super hero comic books. It also provides a clue as to what may be going on. In the book, Morrison admits to copious drug use, especially drugs of the psychotropic variety. That could explain a lot of what goes on in his work. But I wish Morrison would lay off the drugs and concentrate on writing good comic book stories. That said, I highly recommend SUPERGODS. It's an engrossing, thought-provoking read.
Which brings us to Morrison's ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, a twelve issue mini-series that ran from November 2005 to October 2008. I sat down yesterday and read the entire run in a handsome trade paperback edition and I have to say that it's one of the very best Superman stories that I've ever read.
Morrison and artist Frank Quietly make us see the familiar Man of Steel and all of his iconic baggage in a new and inventive way. When Superman rescues an expedition to the sun, he's bombarded by solar radiation, suffering an overdose of the power source that makes him super. Faced with inevitable death, Superman must perform a series of trials and labors before leaving earth and humanity behind for good.
Each issue reads like a classic SUPERMAN comic book turned up to eleven. The Lois Lane chapter is an issue of SUPERMAN'S GIRL FRIEND LOIS LANE in which she receives super powers for 24 hours. Jimmy Olsen's chapter reads like an issue of SUPERMAN'S PAL JIMMY OLSEN but without the dorky, stupid and lame antics of the Olsen of old. The chapter set in Smallville is reminiscent of an issue of SUPERBOY with supporting players Ma and Pa Kent, Lana Lang, Pete Ross and Krypto (!) on hand. There's a visit to the Fortress of Solitude, the Phantom Zone provides a solution to the problem of two renegade Kryptonians, and mythological strongmen Samson and Atlas appear to challenge Superman for the hand of Lois Lane. There's a totally "bizarre" spin on the Bizarros and their world, the Parasite makes an appearance and Lex Luthor schemes to rid the world of the Man of Steel.
But wait, there's more. Solaris, the tyrant sun, a character Morrison created for the DC ONE MILLION mini-series in 1998, is here as is P.R.O.J.E.C.T., a super science consortium led by Dr. Leo Quintum and it's this organization that holds the key to Superman's future. The Daily Planet supporting cast of Perry White, Cat Grant and Steve Lombard play key roles as does Clark Kent himself. The book ends with Superman "dying" but the last page offers a ray of hope.
Frank Quitely's artwork is very good and consistent across all twelve chapters. Each chapter provides some new take on what we think we know about Superman while providing excitement, suspense and action. The story was made into a direct to DVD animated film in 2011. I watched the film and reviewed it here a couple of years back. I liked it but now that I've finally read the book, I plan to watch the film again with a new perspective.
Superman is my all-time favorite comic book super hero. I've read a lot of Superman stories over the years, some good, some bad, many of them average or mediocre. But when a creator truly gets what it is that makes the Man of Steel such a vital and important character, the results can be spectacular. Alan Moore did it with his WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW two-issue series in 1986 and Grant Morrison has done it here with ALL-STAR SUPERMAN.
Highly recommended for anyone who has ever read and enjoyed a Superman comic book at some point in their life. And isn't that almost all of us?