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All Star Superman vol.1
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
DC Comics / Titan hardcover $19.95 / £11.99

review by Patrick Hudson

As the very first superhero, Superman defined the entire genre. The whole over-familiar superhero routine - the secret identity, the love triangle with his alter ego, the pure-hearted motivations and the underwear pervert fashion sense - comes from the pages of Superman. The costumed heroes that came after him have largely been defined by the ways in which they differ from this primary text. The accident of timing of his birth - just as America as preparing to step onto the world stage as a world-leading military and cultural force - has also lent Superman an iconic status, not just for the genre but as a symbol of America. 'Superman' is an instant-shorthand, nearly universally recognised in the west, and in much of the developing world, possibly only rivalled by Mickey Mouse and Elvis as a symbol for the American ideal.

His iconic status and position as the baseline of super-heroics make him difficult to make interesting. Introducing shades of grey to his characterisation, or making him overly gritty (in the current standard superhero style) risks adding all sorts of unwanted connotations about the wider world, and opens questions that the owners of the copyright would much rather leave firmly shut off. Additionally, his lack of a defining gimmick - unnecessary to differentiate him from the cowboys, two-fisted detectives, space heroes and funny animals with whom he shared the comics pages in 1938 - leaves him with very little in the way of built-in story hooks, and the character's long history means that all have been pretty much pursued to their logical conclusions.

Superman is thus a comics' creator's greatest challenge. It's a challenge that defeated Bryan Singer in 2006's Superman Returns, and has resulted in Superman's death, his resurrection, changes in costume and most recently a year away from DC without his super-powers. How much more is there to say about this already iconic character?

The latest attempt to answer that question comes in the shape of All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, assisted by the inking and colouring of Jamie Grant. Morrison has been working hard at DC over the last couple of years trying to re-shape the DC Universe into something for modern audiences, work that has been characterised by no lack of imagination or enthusiasm, but which has also tripped up more than once on the necessity to do something new while remaining something old. All-Star Superman, however, manages to find exactly the right balance between these twin demands. Morrison and Quitely have produced a book that combines modern storytelling techniques and some dark themes with a deliciously light touch of classic DC naiveté to produce a story that is light and fluffy but fresh and rich, like a lemon mousse. He manages to capture the timeless whimsy of the very best classic DC without seeming anachronistic or cloying, but underneath Morrison toys with more serious questions of mortality that one hardly notices.

All-Star Superman is intended to get back to the character's roots, and Morrison wastes no time, assuming that we know who Superman is, who Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are, and that the general outline of Clark's life. There are new characters - such as super-scientist Leo Quintum, and the strongmen from the future, Samson and Atlas - but Morrison is generally happy to stick with the existing cast. Luthor is the primary villain, but we get glimpses of Brainiac, the Parasite and yet another take on the Bizarro concept. While his take on the characters is slightly different to the way they appear in current DC continuity, his versions they are at least as familiar as those that appear in, say, the Lois & Clark series, or the Christopher Reeve movies.

This refreshing trust in his audience allows him to get things moving quickly, and in the first issue an act of sabotage by Lex Luthor sees Superman apparently doomed to a lingering demise. The subsequent stories trace Superman's reaction to the knowledge that he will soon die, although the resolution - be it life or death, and I don't doubt for a second that Morrison is willing to kill his Superman off - isn't reached in this collection, and this sense of foreboding is what keeps the lighter elements from overwhelming the series completely.

Frank Quitely brings a clean, elegant, widescreen style to the art that meshes perfectly with the character of Morrison's Superman, dignified, a man of few words. Superman himself is not the anatomy-diagram muscleman with a painted on costume of contemporary superhero comics, but solidly clad in a cosy looking costume. He's a big man but not disproportioned, solidly built to be believably powerful looking without being freakish. Clark Kent is also brilliantly characterised, with the lithe power of Superman turned inward in Kent, making him into a clump-footed stoop. The artwork is unfussy and spare, and the beautiful subtle inks and colours by Jamie Grant provide the atmosphere.

Morrison has been doing some great work at DC, and his wild, at times childlike, imagination works well in DC's often-quirky continuity. In 52 and Batman, Morrison has been sticking to the contemporary 'gritty' school, with 52 in particular being surprisingly brutal in places. Here, though, Superman's long history of light-hearted stories is evoked and then put into service of a modern, more sophisticated sensibility. Morrison and Quitely don't bother trying to sort out the kinks in Superman's past, but concentrate very precisely on their own intense, concentrated version of the iconic Man of Steel.
All Star Superman

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