Sunday, December 19, 2010

Books of the Year, Part 1: Absolute All-Star Superman

It's my favorite super-hero comic of the last 10 years (at least), so it's no wonder that the deluxe, super-sized collection would make my list of the best books of the year.

Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant took the most iconic super-hero of all time (and, let's be honest, one who's usually not that interesting) and made him exciting, compelling and (in the best sense of the word) awesome -- and they did it without resorting to the tired, juvenille trick of exploring his "dark" side.

In fact, what stands out most about this Superman is his sheer sense of decency, his mission to be the hero, to make the world a better place. For instance, there's the great throwaway sequence in issue 1 where, while Perry White is yelling (of course) about Clark being late (of course), Superman takes a crucial few seconds out of his day to save a boy from being hit by a car. We see the boy in traffic and, barely visible in the background, we see the telltale red-yellow-and-blue blur speeding toward him. Then we cut to Clark's arrival at the Planet, where Perry is still yelling. Then, finally, in the last panel of the page, we see the boy, sitting on the curb. Safe.

And, even better, in issue 10, which, may be the greatest single super-hero comic book of the last decade or two, there's this scene, which might be one of the best Superman scenes of all time...
Simple and heartfelt, and you really don't even see Superman use his powers. You just know he flew to that ledge, right in the nick of time. The dozen issues of "All-Star Superman" are full of moments like that. (Two more in issue 10, in fact -- Superman saying "I've brought some friends to meet you" in a children's cancer ward, and that shot of Joe Shuster's pencil finishing a very familiar sketch as he says "... This is going to change everything." If that didn't send a jolt up your spine, what the hell were you doing reading a book titled "All-Star Superman?)

The fact that the series also includes the best Lex Luthor story and the best Superboy story ("Why can't I hear Pa's heartbeat?" is the sort of sentence that says everything you need to know about Superman) is just the icing on the cake. There are also great moments involving Lois (their kiss on the moon in issue 3, for instance), and her response to him saying "And I only have moments to save the world" is to kiss him and say, simply, "That's more than you ever needed."

Jimmy Olsen's showcase issue actually demonstrates why Superman would consider Jimmy a friend and not just an annoying hanger-on. Jimmy saves Superman (and the world) in a very Jimmy Olsen way, then acts protective of his friend while he's recovering. As a longtime fan of the Mort Weisinger-era Jimmy Olsen goofiness, I was amazed how Morrison and Co. managed to deliver all the hallmarks of those stories -- weird transformations, Gypsy curses, petty arguments, pursuit of Lucy Lane and even cross-dressing -- and still give it an emotional punch.

That's the reason "All-Star Superman" is a genuine classic. It doesn't ignore the goofy history of Superman -- it embraces it, taking in everything from the bottled city of Kandor (his solution to their shrunken state is so simple it's a wonder no one considered it decades ago) to Krypto to the fortress of solutide, and weaving it all into one cohesive, poweful story. Alan Moore's farewell to the old Superman, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is brilliant, but this "last Superman story" is even better, an epic flight over decades of comic book history that takes its time to remind us why we fell in love with Superman in the first place.

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