As part of the London Graphic Novel Network’s roundtable on All Star Superman, Ilia put forward the following suggestions about the book’s ultimate meaning:

My sense is that there’s a religion to science move in the final issue – Lois believes that one day Superman will return, while Leo Quintum goes off to try and solve the problems of the universe on his own. Maybe Quintum isn’t just Luthor (first time I’ve seen that theory and like it a lot!), but the Superman of the future. That is to say: the representation of our collective 21st century aspirations.

The Quintum/Luthor angle has been played to death round my way, but the idea that the last issue represents a move from the religious to the scientific is genuinely intriguing. For me, the question is how we square that with Lex Luthor’s pantomime performance of smug, materialist arrogance, as captured perfectly by Marc Singer here:

The second half of the series highlights Superman’s capacity to inspire people, even (especially) as a purely fictional character.  It’s the only power he has in our benighted world, and Morrison believes it’s the most important one he’s got.  In fact, he says that if Superman did not exist, we would have to invent him (simply returning a favor, since Superman thoughtfully created us back in issue #10, March 2008; mark your calendars).  That’s why the finale pits him against an antagonist who disputes the very idea that fictions and abstractions can hold real power, as seen in this exchange from issue #12:

WHITE:  The truth sent you to the chair, Luthor!

LUTHOR:  Is that right, Mister White?  Funny, I don’t see the truth anywhere around, do you?  I mean, what color is it?  Can I touch it?

Luthor mocks White’s dedication to abstract principle, confronting him with the truth’s immateriality, because he’s a materialist to the extreme.  He says the priest at his execution “stinks of the irrational” and his niece proclaims “This is Science Year Zero!”–next I suppose they’ll be rewriting the calendar.  This scorn for idealism confirms Luthor’s stature as the series archvillain, especially since a hallucinatory Jor-El (himself part of “the field of living, fluid consciousness”) has just told his son he has given us humans “an ideal to aspire to, embodied [our] highest aspirations.

Thankfully, I think Ilia has already suggested the answer to this question by noting that Quintum is both Superman and Luthor – a figure capable of aspiring to ideals and in working in the world to attain them.

As sneering, Kryptonian hard cases Lila and Bar-El note in issue #9, Superman is a scientist’s son, a curator of wonders who thinks his way around a problem as often as he smashes his way through it, leaving his many stand-ins (be they brawny, like Hercules and Sampson, or brainy like Lex) in the dust.  Hell, for all his self-aggrandisement, Luthor spectacularly fails to see what’s right in front of his face when he gives Clark Kent a tour through his prison, and it’s hard to imagine his nemesis making the same mistake.

What to make, then, of Quintum as a replacement Superman?

What’s his purpose?

What does he have that Superman doesn’t?

Think back to Lex Luthor complaining about the fact that Superman doesn’t age at all in issue #1. More specifically, to Luthor’s comment about the lines that have started to appear in his mirror image, the cracks in the canvas that give the picture’s final theme away.

If, as I’ve suggested – and as Marc Singer argues in greater detail – All Star Superman presents Superman with a series of reflections of himself, it’s worth noting that Lex sets him off on this journey by making him mortal.

I don’t want to make too much of this point, but I keep coming back to those moments where Quietly and Grant give us a Superman who shows the wear of the world on him. I’m thinking of the Underverse story again, of course, but also of the Superman in issue #11  who slumps in his chair recording his final thoughts.

Luthor might lose in the end – worse, might actually get a chance to see things from Superman’s perspective – but he manages to put some lines on Superman’s face along the way. With a little bit of help from Frank Quitely, he briefly forces Superman to confront what he might look like if he was truly of this world.

This is all getting a bit Jesus again, especially given that Superman ends the story by becoming more otherworldly and miraculous than before. What role did Lex Luthor play in the bible again? It’s been a while since I read it, and anyway I only really liked some of those early issues, where they had the good inker.

So, given that I was supposed to be talking about Leo Quintum, where does he fit into this scheme? Unlike Lex, he’s able to see Superman as something to aspire to, rather than as something to bring down. Unlike Superman, he doesn’t need to be brought low to face the prospect of his own morality, and as the story ends he seems not to be at risk of sublimation. Grant Morrison is perhaps a bit too fond of William Blake-derived, “without contraries is no progression” style rhetoric, but it might be applied here as something other than an excuse for ineffectual confusion.

What does Quintum has that Superman doesn’t? Well, he’s one of us, and as we’re told at the climax of the Luthor/Superman battle (which remember, is won by a mix of brute strength and applied scientific knowledge)…

…we’re all that we’ve got.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.