Grant Morrison's Superman doesn't exist within the confines of the DC universe. Of late, Morrison has become obsessed with the Silver Age of DC comics. The best way for you to understand the Silver Age of comics is to picture yourself at a Comicon trying to snap a surreptitious camera-phone picture of a man dressed as Nightcrawler while eavesdropping on a vendor explaining to a woman in a black fishnets and a leather bustier that today's Superman could never have once been Superboy-but that the sixties Superman easily could have been. OK, now picture the scantily-clad woman again. Do the editorial vagaries of Superman matter? They should-they're what are on the minds of scantily-clad women.
In short, Superman used to be fun. He could split himself into halves-Superman Red and Superman Blue-and then shtup both Lana Lang and Lois Lane at the same time. As a boy, he frequently travelled to the future where he could hang out with kids like himself. Nothing was off limits. Then the comics industry forced itself to grow up-all the brightly coloured oddballs in spandex with complicated back stories suddenly had to deal with death, AIDS, betrayal, genocide, amputation and alien invasions.
There's a three-panel gag strip by indie artist Evan Dorkin in which he addresses the growing cynicism in comics. In it, a generic hero and his boobly paramour have problems that begin with typical comic book silliness but then degrade to a level that sees the hero screaming, "Holy shit, Vulpina has space AIDS and I'm gay!" The hero is also missing the flesh on his chest so that you can see his ribcage. The point? Superheroes have become fallible to the point that even their fallibility is cartoonish.
Superman succumbed to it. He became a freak and had to be killed. And ever since he returned, he's been a bit of a drag. In Morrison's Superman, and in his Seven Soldiers books, he bends the concepts that we (read, "nerds") associate with classic heroes. He's thrown out the character bible and is instead approaching DC's universe of oddballs as if it were a memory that adulthood prevents him from properly accessing. The books are conversational in the way that all superhero comics are-why else do you think the letter columns are so essential to a comic's success?-but they're also the perfect representation of how comics have matured.
At this point, the sight of a superhero graphically depicted as a sadist has been well chewed over. Dark Knight, Brat Pack, the shittier Vertigo comics, and the Marky Ramone-level intellect of the early Image comics have succeeded in finally stripping away the "hero" in super-hero-so much so that there's just nothing left to say. Superman has been deconstructed and analyzed to such an extreme that he's now in pieces. It's time for him to be rebuilt.
Unlike much of his work-Seven Soldiers and The Invisibles included-Morrison's version of Superman is urgent. There is probably no writer working in comics today who makes comics more impenetrable to the casual reader than Grant Morrison. All-Star Superman is Morrison's idea of how things should be-of how to give the character life for another 78 years. Superman has to make you believe that the good guys are always going to win.
In Morrison's work, Superman's super-intellect has forced him to reveal himself as Clark Kent to Lois Lane; not because he's dying, but because he's scared of an uncertain future. There's a pretty good chance Superman is going to pull himself out of this-it's only issue number two-but he's not being a dope about it. He's built a suit for Lois Lane that she can wear to experience life with his power. He's really trying to explain what it's like to be the very antithesis of a human to another living creature-one he hopes will understand that he's something more than a super-powered freak. Of course, that "other living creature" is Lois Lane so you know she's going to fall for him.
Everything always works out for Superman, but it's not because he's an asshole. It's because he's a symbol of compassion. Frank Miller saw him as a willing yes-man to the horrid Ronald Reagan. Superman is the ultimate outsider, but he's smart enough to feel lonely.
The Superman of popular convention exists in a variety of different ways. In the strict DC Comics version he has been married to Lois Lane for well over a decade now and it's not very much fun. In the Smallville TV show he hasn't even dumped Lana Lang yet. (It is so fucking obvious that she's wrong for you, Clark. Lois Lane has a Pulitzer. Lois Lane is the kind of girl who gets in your head and eats your mind). Brian Singer's Superman is poised to succeed. That's how Superman should be. He should arrest your full attention. Ultimately, he's the kind of guy who decides to call himself "Superman", which is to say-he's kind of goofy.
Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith