September 26th, 2008
SUPERMAN SAYS “NO!” TO DRUGS
It was 2005 when I decided to paint my walls ASS pink and give up dope.
I was a smug bastard about it too.
I think the catalyst for it had something to do with a very nasty bout of cannabis fuelled morbid self-analysis, which saw me pacing my then matchbox of a bedroom, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, for at least half an hour, in an attempt to disperse the soul-shredding anxiety and paranoia, through, if anyone should have really been spying on me via evil satellite link, embarrassing levels of exercise. Thankfully the munchies eventually kicked in, the clouds lifted and I decided enough was enough. It would be the last time I raided the fridge for Ryvita and sweetcorn relish (anything tastes good when your in the throws of, as my Mum’s friend put it, ‘the delicious eating’) at four in the morning, and it would be the last time I performed like a crazy monkey-man for the entertainment of the evil bastard demons plaguing my befuddled noggin.
After that everything shifted.
My room, which had up until that point shared more in common with a bin than a sleeping space, became as tidy as Trevor in his special Topman shirt out on the town on the Friday razz. Overnight I actually started to give a shit about my living space. And that’s when the pink happened. And the orange duvet. And the Japanese toys. And the superhero blow-ups adorning the walls. And the 1950′s wind up robots. Everything went dayglo, and, while it might sound horrendously garish, there was something so light and vibrant about that space, and somehow I think it worked.
A bit like Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant’s colour scheme for All Star Superman. In fact, now I look back at my room, it reminds me more and more of a real world extension of that fictional space.
So don’t worry, Mindless Ones hasn’t shifted its remit from men-in-pants to interior design – we’ll get back to all things Krypton in just a moment.
The point is, everything started to feel illuminated and energized: music, people, parties, my head. Life went from being a dirge to the best it had been in years, and it took a matter of weeks. It was a magical period. Soft. Fairytale. Permeable. Malleable. Mine. I was in love with the world again. It felt like being rescued.
Corny? Lame? Heart on sleeve crap? Sure. But this post is about fucking Superman, mate. Superman isn’t afraid to give a shit. And while the Apollonian sphere might be all about maths and logic, it’s also about our bloody souls. And just about the time Supes floated dreamily onto my radar on that cotton wool cloud, things really started to shine. It was like someone had turned the Sun on in my heart. The book’s beautiful, candybox-pastel sheen seemed to reflect something of where my life was at the point. No… more than that, there was a rainbow flavoured feedback loop crisscrossing between the two. ASS was an integral part of the architecture of that very special time, and to this day it feels as though the spell wouldn’t have been complete without it, one of the central glyphs.
I know we often bore with autobiographical preamble here at Mindless central, but this time it seems so appropriate to do so. Superman is, I think, such a personal superhero. He’s the source of them all, the guy that will save everyone, and as such we depend on him. Basically, he’s all about THE LOVE. And up until the point Grant, Frank and co. released their building bounding baby on greyfaced fandom, I think we all missed him just a little bit. Because where had superhero comics been up until that time? Down and dirty in the trenches of the realistic, pitches for blockbuster movies that would never (?) happen, analogues for last night’s events on CNN. Frankly, I can’t think of a great deal of stuff that was fun about caped crusaders at that time. The children of Miller had grown up and the market reflected that. Sure, there was always the odd bout of craziness like Jack Staff, but, really, everything was still dominated by the sadistic gruntings of Mark Millar and the curmudgeonly scowling of Warren Ellis. Fuck – Ellis! It’s unbelievable, but before the mid zeros superhero comics were in the hands of at least one top creator who actually HATED them. Jeez, give me Geoff Johns over that guy any day. No, when Superman returned to comicdom he brought a whole lot of the good stuff back with him. ASS was the anti-Dark Knight.
SUPERMAN SAYS “STOP THE VIOLENCE!”
To begin with, there’s the colour scheme. It’s almost a direct answer to DKR – It could even be subtly mocking it. There’s the muted shades, sure, but this time, rather than blues and browns and greys, everything’s in Technicolor. Sometimes it dares to border on garish and lurid, but it doesn’t give a fuck about that. Jamie Grant’s pallete celebrates colour. Like the book itself, it’s life affirming and conclusive in stark contrast to DKR’s fearful 80′s uncertainties. The art is playful, amusing and cartoony, as opposed to the scratchy, gritty expressionism Miller favoured, and the bunched up, claustrophobic panels that inform his Gotham open out into the wider, expansive, hopeful vistas of Quitely’s zeppelin canopied Metropolis. In fact I would go even further and argue that ASS is a pointed refutation of the entire ultra-realist project unwittingly begun by Mazzuchelli and Miller in the mid 80′s, all the way through to the black guttered storyboards of Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates, and by virtue of this a massive two fingered salute to everything those books stand for. ASS really represents an entirely different aesthetic to most of the guff crowding out the stands, and with it an entirely different attitude.
We have so much to thank it for.
To start with ASS is definitely Morrison’s most balls to the wall romantic work. All of his stuff contains *moments* – it’s one of the elements that makes his work so good, above and beyond the far-out SF concepts and head-mangling conceits – but largely he saves this stuff till the end of the story. Not so with Supes. I mean, it’s almost incredible just how many people, completely independently of each other, agree on 6 and 10 being the best issues of the book, and those issues are full of it: Clark and Krypto playing in outer space; Pa Kent’s funeral; Superman’s future self presenting him with the golden rose from New Krypton; the image of our hero by his father’s grave; carrying the school bus; the rescue of the goth girl; the title banner ‘FOREVER’ beneath Siegel’s first mock up…. the Kandorians flying from his hand (that one always gets me). If that seemed like a list, then it was. I want to underline just how many touching, emotionally stirring moving parts this 12 issue mega-story contains. And then there’s all the other stuff: Jimmy cradling a broken Superman in his arms; Lois being carried to bed; that kiss on the moon; Robot 7 wandering back into the darkness of the Fortress of Solitude…. And in the end when Morrison makes good on the promise of the book’s title and our wannabe Sun God truly becomes one with a star. It just doesn’t stop. Grant wants us to care, and it’s testimony to his skills as a writer that he succeeds every time. Anyway, that’s Superman’s aura right there. He cares. A Superbook without that – one that fails to bring about those feelings in the reader – misses the whole point.
All Star was a one book rebuttal to the snidey, mean superheroics that preceded it. Can you imagine Morrison’s Superman dropped into any of Millar’s Marvel books, with all those vicious one-liners as superfriend electro-fries alleged superfriend’s brain? He wouldn’t know where the fuck he was, but he’d damn well know who the baddies were. All that cynicism, sarcasm and playground homophobia? That shit’s for snotty teenagers. The latent anger, fear and generally scaled down expectation that characterises those “heroes” and those books? Shut up! Dare to dream! Dare to believe! Look the world in the face and imagine… Sure, Kal-El couldn’t keep up with all the snappy name dropping and movie referencing, but he couldn’t give a shit. Superman isn’t cool. He doesn’t give a shit for cool. Real grown ups just don’t care about that crap. Anyway, Superman pwns the cool kids. The man has style, a whole aesthetic, an entire history – indeed, an entire culture – that pours out of him like radiation from a star; and Morrison knows this. Superman’s for kids? Well, as my old Nanny Sandy used to say ‘Confident adults don’t worry about playing around and looking silly – anyone who uses the word ‘immature’ too often probably better take a good look at their own self esteem issues’. Anyway, we’ve been mature readers for so long now, even the 8 year olds are forced to grow beards before picking up their first Spidey book. Maybe it’s time to reappraise the stuff that we dumped around the same time I bashed up my Transformers collection. We might learn something new.
Everything in ASS is a toy – just check out Jamie’s play school dipped paintbrush and the legion of fun, collect-em-all characters. There’s the ones that cameo but never speak, such as the future Supergirl in issue 10. There’s the one issue supporting cast – the Superman from the 5th dimension (complete with whirling cloud action!) and Cal Kent (see his eyes glow white with super-telepathy when you hit the button on his back!), all the way through to the Mr Quintums of the piece (collect all five of his outfits! Coat of many colours comes with swirling hologram effect!). There’s a wide range of accessories too, and the most expensive thing in the entire range, coming in at around £50, the Fortress of Solitude! Morrison and co. seem to be deliberately referencing our yesteryears with every panel. This is a world to be enjoyed, to kick about in, not to be scared of. I think the Supercar in 12 sums it up the best. This is a serious fucking scene, where Superman has to conquer the Bardo itself, flooded with the pink light of generation and rebirth, but somehow, inspite of all the brooding portent and imminent apocalypse, Morrison uses this sequence to make sense of the most stupid supertoy imaginable. What on Earth does Superman need a car for? Well now you know. This is such an effortless reappropriation of our childhood playthings, and embodied right here is the idea that this is really a bedtime story for grown ups. Things are getting heavy but there’s always a big smile beneath the piece. Sod off, Gaiman. I think it’s important to the function of the book that it brings out the wide-eyed kid in all of us, that it reimagines the reader as child, because Superman sees us that way, he’s the Ultra-Dad, and we have to acknowledge the vulnerable, expansive aspects of ourselves if we’re going to be saved.
Continuing the theme….
Gone are the movie sets in favour of a modern day, 2D, comic book playset, possessed of such tangible verisimilitude we could almost reach into it….if we weren’t scared of our fingers getting burned by Doomsday’s heat rays. Because in ASS the action figures have a life of their own. Quitely’s art is like a window into a gorgeous homunculus mini-universe, a la Qwerq, where on the surface of things – at a glance – everything seems simpler and less dense, but then one’s eye gets drawn in, closer, by subtle nuances of gesture and facial expression, and closer still by the freeze framed trajectory of tiny dented bullets as they bounce off steel hard super-skin, and still deeper, into and across the suburbs, satellite towns, far away villages and mountain ranges of shrunken Kandor, and out… until we’re lost in the burning, lonely pink wastes and skeletal mining farms of doomed Krypton. Imagine the Kenner plastic Hoth set of your childhood sprouting the kind of fractal complexity necessary to transform it into a fully functional world – a real war zone, where the Force is a living thing and goodies and baddies really duke it out for the future of the universe and the heart of an alien princess. Imagine the functions your imagination performed every day as a child. That’s what Quitely, Grant and Morrison conjure here. That’s what this work reminds us of. We really feel, reading ASS, that we’re sand-pitting in an utterly immersive and convincing fictional world. The walls are solid, but the emotions are grander, more mythic primal and dreamlike. The impossible can happen and the laws of physics are shunted just a a little bit to the left. I mean, who could resist vacationing in a space like the Underverse, or PROJECT’s moonbase or the Daily Planet once every couple of months?
And Superman is playing too. Sure, there’s drama and narrow escapes, but the indestructible body can accommodate any environment, any wonder – it’s built to withstand the twin pressures of novelty and imagination – the sci-fi writer’s palette – and more than anything else, even when things get a bit tense, we understand we’re just exploring. We can go anywhere with him, even to the edge of death itself. Let’s get this straight – this is not a combat based narrative. Because we’re safe with Superman we’re allowed to be curious and open-minded, we’re allowed to care about the villains of the piece, we don’t have to view things through a thick shield of irony. And of course this is another of the book’s selling points. As I mentioned above, Superman is unashamed, and ASS likewise. Obviously this makes ASS rather hard to sell to your non-comics reading friends, but that’s just cause we’re living in a culture where Batman’s all R & D and where Harry Potter books have to sport special covers to make them attractive to an adult audience. We’re supposed to have put aside fairytales, aren’t we?
Well, perhaps until our lives turn into one.
SUPERMAN SAYS “NO!” TO WATER COOLER CULTURE
Most of us, if we’re lucky, will experience a time in the future, perhaps an extended time, maybe a moment or two, when we’re really taken out of ourselves. When the grey scales fall off our eyes. It could be at our child’s birth, it could be falling in love, it could just smack us in the ennui one day when we’re walking down the street, and this is the atmosphere, the internal environment, that All Star Superman is trying to reflect and catalyse in us – the best days of our lives (as THE ADAMS sang), when, as I said above, everything’s soft (because the boundaries between things needn’t be so rigid anymore), fairytale (because everything seems primal, mythic and illuminated with significance), permeable (because we want to interrogate, explore and know more) and malleable (because we’re an integral part of the whole thing). With this in mind, have a look at the landscape of ASS again. It’s all those things: Bric-a-brac colour schemes that lap at the eye; balloon-skin thin line work; an illustrative style that summons up bedtime and “Nan, can I see the picture…?!?”, a gentle three dimensionality rotating softly within and around itself. If Morrison’s preceding works have aggressively shoved the reader towards the kind of…err… magickal awareness he wants to provoke, then All Star Superman is a far subtler beast. It doesn’t rely solely on didactic screeds, or narrative thrust, or belligerently zany page layouts to make its point – it’s all just loaded into every panel, the mise-en-scene, the general tone. Superman’s got there already, and all he wants us to do is catch up, because sometimes it’s lonely on that cloud. The book is truly a collaborative effort. I’ve made every effort to include the artists in this little eulogy as much as I’ve included Grant, because everyone working on it contributes to the fiery nimbus that surrounds the piece, either by accident or design. It doesn’t matter. The spell just worked.
Sometimes it comes steam engines. Sometimes it comes All Star Superman time.
What a brilliant book.
I love you Superman!
Epilogue – a second synchronicity to finish with: The lovely woman I met at the beginning of this little..umm.. reminiscence recently disappeared from my life, just prior to the last issue coming out. It’s been a difficult break up and there’s been lots of mutual anger, pain and shouting between us, which I know we both regret enormously. The last such bout, and probably the worst occurred last week (I won’t go into details here, for obvious reasons), but on the morning 12 came out in the UK we made up, and she said something I’ve been waiting a very long time to hear her say. Something I needed to hear a great deal. And just to make sure I’d got the message she presented me with a present.
And, no, she had no idea that ASS was waiting for me at Dave’s Comics that day.
*That mighty piece of scene shifting, cheesy space electro was brought to you by the insanely good