All-Star Superman wraps up its run this week. It’s actually a good example of what I think the “All-Star” premise was intended for: A couple of big-name creators given the time and leeway to produce the best story featuring the character that they could. The book wasn’t monthly, but it shipped regularly, and fans looked forward to it. (By contrast, All-Star Batman seems to have received more bad critical attention than good, and I think it’s still not done, even though it started before Superman. I skipped it, since I see writer Frank Miller as little more than self-parody, these days.)
What did I think about it? Well, I thought it was very good, and occasionally excellent. I think it’s hands-down the best thing Grant Morrison has done over the last two years (though admittedly I think you have to go back to JLA to find his last really solid series). It uses (essentially) the pre-Crisis Superman, a figure of almost godlike power but deep connection and empathy with mankind, and explores the nooks and crannies of his friendships and backdrop, without getting wrapped up in continuity or going overboard with too many characters.
The story’s structure is based around the twelve labors of Hercules (although I don’t think the tasks in each issue correspond even loosely to those of Hercules), with the detail that in the first issue Lex Luthor manages to overwhelm Superman’s cells with a blast of energy from the sun, giving him additional powers but also dooming him to death within one year.
There are several excellent issues in the series, especially issue #5 in which Clark Kent interviews Lex Luthor in prison. (To be fair, this issue has a pretty bad pun near the end, which may be biased me in favor of it.) I also particularly liked #2, with Lois staying at the Fortress and seeing some of its wonders. On the other hand, stretching the Bizarro world story out to two parts (#7-8) felt like pushing it. Issue #9 with the two other survivors of Krypton seemed routine. And issue #10 features a number of running themes of the series, but also feels disjointed and like little more than a lead-in to the two-part conclusion.
This last issue is something of a mixed bag. The final confrontation with Luthor is quite good, but the scenes where Superman returns from the brink of death didn’t really make any sense. Morrison’s hallucinatory sequences tend to be among the least effective moments in his writing. He’s much stronger when he stays grounded in the concrete elements of the story. Consequently, the issue’s denouement has a weak moment – in which Superman goes off to “fix” the sun, with a Morrisonian flourish in which he’s building it a new heart, a concept which sounds good in words but seems ridiculous when illustrated – and a strong moment, when the scientist Leo Quintum answers the question of what the world would do if Superman didn’t come back. (Thus the series ends with one of its strongest visual images.)
I’m always conflicted when I see Frank Quitely’s artwork. In many ways it’s similar to that of Gary Frank: Both artists give a real sense of form and substance to their figures, but both artists tend to be weak on backgrounds, in that the backgrounds are often absent so they feel rather distracting when they’re present in a panel. Their characters also often have the same facial tics, which often works for Frank but which I find a minus for Quitely because his characters’ grimaces often make them look grotesque, even inhuman. Quitely’s female figures have this squashed look to their faces, and their bodies look weirdly deformed – and it’s consistent across the women, so it looks really weird. The best art I’ve seen from Quitely was in JLA: Earth 2; it seems like his style has been getting quirkier ever since then, and not, to my mind, for the better.
Overall, a good series. Not as strong as Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, to which it has some similarities, although to be fair that’s a ludicrously high standard to hold any Superman tale to.
Bill Willingham is probably best known in comics today as the writer of Fables, the DC/Vertigo book about legendary fantastic characters exiled to our world. And it’s a well-deserved reknown, since Fables is an excellent comic that I’ve been enjoying from the beginning. Back in the 1990s he was a lot less well-known, though; I mainly knew him from his 1980s series The Elementals, and his short-lived series Coventry. Somehow I stumbled upon issue #4 of Pantheon, a series Willingham was writing for Lone Star Press, and I was impressed enough to order the earlier issues and follow it through to its conclusion (it ran for 13 issues, with a few side stories along the way). Now the first half has been collected in paperback – and in color, as the original series was in B&W – with some extra material. The second volume is planned to come out next year.
Pantheon has a high concept premise: It’s another “last superhero story”, which is the same high concept as Watchmen, and which came into vogue later through (for instance) Marvel’s “The End” series of stories about its characters. In that way, it’s not very original, although that doesn’t really diminish the concept: Not only do readers enjoy reading the end of a story, but reading about the end of an era also has its own special charm (it’s the reason I regard The Lord of the Rings as a great story – the end of an era of wonders pervades every chapter of the book). And while Watchmen is about a particularly quirky world with an unusual assortment of heroes, Pantheon is about (essentially) any DC/Marvel-style superhero universe, with specific characters standing in for the trademarked ones. So we have the Freedom Machine standing in for the Justice League and Avengers, with Dynasty and Blackheart standing in for Superman and Batman, and various clear analogues throughout the rest of the roster.
What makes the series work – and what, frankly, is Willingham’s true strength as a writer – is that all of these characters are their own figures, they’re not merely pale shadows of the more famous ones. Dynasty is a woman, and her powers are somewhat tied to that fact. Blackheart is as obsessed as Batman, but he has his own particular quirks. Willingham takes ideals and creates new and memorable concrete characters out of them. You’d think every writer could do this, but somehow Willingham does it better than almost everyone else. I think this is part of why Fables works, too: Willingham tends to the details, and is able to bring them out to the point that they affect the big picture, too. (I think the evolution of Prince Charming is a good example of this.)
The premise of the story is that the heroes have defeated all of the major villains in the world, having either imprisoned, exiled or killed them. But what do the heroes do once their work is done? They split into two factions, one (led by Dynasty) which believes in staying ready but otherwise staying the course as defenders of humanity, and another (led by the telekinetic Daedalus) who thinks that superheroes should take over the world and guide it into a new golden age. Daedalus is cold and calculating, and believes that anyone not with him is against him (or might be), and takes terrible measures to prevent any aid from coming to his foes. He also releases four of the worst villains the Freedom Machine has imprisoned to keep them busy while he schemes. Most chilling is a flashback – which obviously is important since it spans two issues of the series, but it’s not immediately evident how – in which all the heroes gathered together in the 80s to fight a terrifying teenaged villain named Deathboy. This sets the tone for the series as being brutal in resolving the characters’ fates in high-pressure situations, although it never falls to the level of raw gore; it’s still rooted in the style of traditional superheroes.
For me, Pantheon had a “can’t-look-away” feel to it, with imaginative characters and scenarios which made me what to see how they turned out. Without giving too much away, the story completes its arc as intended, although I found it just a little bit disappointing for not going farther than it did, although with some bits left deliberately dangling at the end and left to the reader’s imagination. While I’d say Pantheon didn’t quite live up to its promise, it’s still a really good story and a must-read if you enjoy this sort of story, or just enjoy superhero stories with an unusual degree of imagination in them.
The art is by Mike Leeke and Bill Williams (Williams being the publisher of Lone Star), with the occasional artist doing a few pages, presumably when Leeke couldn’t keep up. Leeke has an interesting style, reminiscent of Steve Woron’s (although without the “good girl art” content), with a good sense of form, design, and expression, yet with some rough edges: Sometimes a head is too small, or a pose looks a little off. But overall he fits the series very well. And if you’ve wondered why I sometimes carp on artists who give backgrounds the short shrift, Leeke’s a good example of why: He draws detailed and solid backgrounds which provide a strong sense of setting. Even in a sequence in the Grand Canyon he puts plenty of rock formations in the background rather than just drawing shots of people standing on (or flying above) the ground. Although it looks like he did some work for Comico and Valiant (both now defunct companies), I don’t think I’ve seen his work anywhere since Pantheon, which is a shame.
(The covers to the issues of the series were really cool, too. Colorful and eye-catching.)
It’s rare for a small press to produce a mainstream superhero book which stacks up against the big guys – even the larger independent companies often have trouble pulling that off – but Pantheon hits the mark while being different and imaginative. It might not be for everyone, and some people might find it not different enough, but for most people, if you’re a fan of superhero comics, this one is well worth searching out (or even buying from the publisher!).