Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman:

Science Fiction or Science Fiction Appropriated?

Like traditional literature, graphic novels and comics approach the science fiction genre in a variety of different ways, and this should come as no surprise given the various approaches to sequential art in the United State and abroad over the years. During the Atomic Age of comics[1], many creators were preoccupied with interplanetary adventures, futuristic technology, and other tropes from science fiction—and Superman was no exception during this period of time. However, looking at a more contemporary iteration of Superman—Grant Morrison’s collected series All-Star Superman vol. 1—can one make the same claim of this work being seen as science fiction still today? If his contributions to the Superman mythos are not seen as contributing to science fiction in a significant way, then the question is raised as to why Morrison chooses to appropriate certain elements of the science fiction genre.

At first glance, modern comics readers might not think to pair Superman with the science fiction (SF) genre; yet, there are some elements from comics’ flagship superhero that do—arguably—place him within the science fiction genre. According to Michael Drout, a work can be viewed science fiction when it concerns itself less with answering questions of mystery and the unknown with magic and instead, aims to provide logical, scientific, or technologically based responses to these problems. The more concern an author places on providing answers grounded in hard science and explaining the mechanics of how certain technology works, the more the work is considered “hard” science fiction; the less details provided, the more that particular work is considered “soft” science fiction (Drout). While Morrison does not have the background—and I would argue the interest—in providing readers with a mainstream comic series that blends superheroes and hard SF, he does make use of soft SF techniques to provide a stronger appeal to realism for his retelling of the Man of Steel’s origin.

The first page of the “Faster” episode is broken down into four panels, which immediately cue the reader into the other-worldly nature of Superman: the destruction of an alien world, a distressed couple—scientists, no less—dressed in foreign garb reminiscent of 1930s modernism, a space shuttle hurtling away from the exploding planet carrying Krypton’s last son, and finally, the image of Jonathan and Martha Kent looking over (what we know to be) the orphaned infant. As if there were any doubt about Morrison’s interplanetary interests, the double-page spread that follows presents Superman flying against a backdrop of the sun. Only a few pages later, we are told that Superman’s cells are like those of a solar battery that soak up the energy and power him providing a rudimentary understanding of what makes Superman so super. On the other hand, there is no real explanation behind how this biological process works. We are meant only to take Agatha’s word when she tells us this point of fact. Again, it’s important to Morrison that the reader know there is science behind the amazing fiction we are reading; the problem is that he neither has the ability nor the interest in going any further in describing it. And we shouldn’t fault Morrison for this either. His aim is to tell the reader a story about Superman—not create an in-depth scientific treatise of how Superman’s biological makeup allows him to be the super man that he is. He provides just enough detail to explain the relationship of Superman to Earth’s sun without overloading his reader with the hard science of it all. But it is for this reason, I believe, his Superman cannot be viewed as “hard” SF.

In what can be construed as a nod to the “bio-punk” movement in science fiction, Morrison uses Lex Luthor as the conventional “mad scientist” who threatens Superman and the crew with a living fusion bomb placed aboard the ship. Biopunk, like cyberpunk of the 1990s and earlier, positions biology as a form of technology that can be manipulated to the needs and/or interests of science (Drout). In this light, we can see how Luthor’s living fusion bomb is a type of biological machine constructed with a specific purpose in mind—in this instance, jeopardizing the space machine and luring Superman into a potentially lethal trap: “I’m a genetically modified suicide bomb in human form. Death. Courtesy of Lex Luthor!” (Morrison 14). As Luthor expected, Superman forces the fusion bomb monster into the sun moments before it explodes. Yet, his understanding of the science behind Superman’s biology allows him the ability to create a situation in which the sun’s stellar radiation would oversaturate and burn out Superman’s cellular bioelectric absorption thereby killing him. It seems to be just the sort of insidious machination one would expect from the evil genius…only it’s never actually explained to the reader just how this will happen. Further, the situation that Grant concocts overlooks humans’ ability to travel so close to the sun without being incinerated, let alone the attempt to harvest elements of the sun. Once again, this points to Morrison only introducing elements of soft SF. He does not fully commit himself to writing within the genre as this helps move the plot along without being bogged down by the technical details. After all, he is not trying to show readers the process of harvesting the sun; instead, it is merely a plot device used by Luthor to kill Superman—the true focus of each episode of All-Star Superman.

Throughout the first volume of All-Star Superman, it should become clear that while Morrison is interested in adapting some science fiction elements into his retelling of Superman’s origins, his true focus lies predominantly in weaving the Superman story into the fabric of world myth. The most obvious evidence of this ambition is the appeal to classical Greek myth’s Heracles and the Twelve Labors, which is refashioned as Superman and the Twelve Challenges—the first four of which are presented in volume 1. However, it takes more than one parallel to the past for Morrison to cement his Superman as a modern member of the mythic canon.

Peter Coogan looks discuss certain key elements of the superhero, and many of his points transfer readily to past conceptualizations of mythic heroes. In particular, Coogan posits three characteristics that set the superhero apart from all others: mission, powers, and identity (77). Morrison’s Superman certainly possesses powers above and beyond the normal man, but even every other superhero. This is clear when Superman is juxtaposed against two strongmen from the biblical and classical eras: Samson and Atlas[2]. These two “heroes” are formidable as evidenced by their handy defeat of the lizard men, and yet, Superman makes it clear that they are reckless in their use of powers: “”Krull’s lungs just burst,” and he flies into space to save the lizard prince (Morrison 64). We also discover these two “would-be conquerors” (66) instigated the lizard man’s appearance when they encroached upon his territory beforehand. Finally, neither braggadocio is manly enough to win the girl in the end despite much bravado on either individual’s part: “Look, I’m genuinely flattered, guys—but you’d have to go a long way to outdo Superman” (67). Sure enough, Superman handily defeats both strongmen at the same time in an arm wrestling match that results in both losers getting their arms broken. And of course, Morrison provides examples of Superman saving men, women, and children throughout the entire volume—either as background filler while attempting to disclose his secret to Lois up to driving major plot points, such as subduing the Chronovore and saving the astronauts on the sun mission. What’s worth noting is that Superman not only possesses significantly greater powers than other heroes—mythic or contemporary—but he also understands that these powers must be used responsibly[3].

Where Morrison’s work emphasizes Coogan’s identifying traits of the superhero most is when Superman imbues Lois with his powers for a full day and presents her with a costume of her own. Coogan states: “These costumes are iconic representations of the superhero identity,” (79) and having Lois adopt the very colors and style of Superman underscores this notion—a hero is identified as a superhero through iconographic representation in conjunction with superhuman abilities and a “pro-social” mission (77). Readers only need one glance at the red cape, inverted insignia complementing Superman’s icon reflecting a yellow “S” on a red background, blue leotard, and red boots to realize exactly whom Lois is modeled after. We know she is now a superhero—even if for only 24 hours—because she is fashioned as a sort of “Superwoman.”

Ultimately, Morrison brings readers to the sun, moon, and back to Earth to showcase the interplanetary appeal of Superman. We experience the advanced science of the P.R.O.J.E.C.T. moon base through the eyes of Jimmy Olsen, and see how the technological wonders create a Doomsday replica through a simple injection as a “Superman fail safe.” Despite the appeal to science, however, there is no substantial attempt on Grant Morrison’s part to engage in true scientific discourse. Instead, Morrison uses elements of science fiction writing—predominantly soft in nature—to help bring a heightened sense of realism to this fantastic collection of stories. The result is that he provides new ways in which Superman can continue to be identified as the modern superhero myth for comic fans and mainstream audiences throughout the world.

Works Cited

Coogan, Peter. “The Definition of the Superhero.” A Comics Studies Reader. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: UP Mississippi. 77-93. Print.

Drout, Michael. “From Here to Infinity: An Exploration of Science Fiction Literature.” The Modern Scholar. Prince Frederick: Recorded Book, 2006. Audio CD.

Morrison, Grant. All-Star Superman vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2007. Print.

[1] This period is generally believed to have taken place between 1945 (the end of World War II) and 1956 (the following the establishment of the McCarthy-era Comics Code).

[2] Or more appropriately, fashioned after these heroes of myth.

[3] The theme of power and responsibility are common themes most often associated with Spider-Man since the 1960s, but they did not originate with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s famous creation even if they verbalize a common understanding more succinctly than most other comic creators.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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  1. Good article. I don’t necessarily agree with Drout’s definition of science fiction, but you make some good points using it. And in the end, that’s what I think is valuable. We can use a genre as a way to pick out stories that we like because we know they’ll share basic features. Or we can use a genre as a perspective to use to understand a story.

  2. Ben Roth says:

    I’m taking one of Michael Drout’s courses this semester, and although I’ve seen his name referenced in connection to his Beowulf and Tokien scholarship, I never expected to find him referenced on Sequart. So, thanks for that little thrill.

    As you’ve noted, capturing the aesthetic elements of science fiction like Morrison has done, seems to be in service of making his attempt to weave Superman into a world myth. But I’m curious to hear what role you think science fiction as a genre plays in comics, since you’re right, I don’t tend to connect Superman to sci-fi. In fact, I can’t think of a single comic that I consider embodies the science fiction genre. Many comics definitely contain elements of science fiction’s aesthetics, its form, language, and visual vocabulary, like computers and space travel and radioactive spiders; but fiction genres aren’t really defined by the recognizable aesthetic so much as the questions they raise, e.g. romance tends to focus on human/social interaction, and asks questions like “What is love*?” Science fiction, at its core, asks about technology, and about the nature of our relationship to technology, and the specifics of technology’s impact on our society. Essentially, Asimov isn’t science fiction because he wrote robots, that only nets a fantasy genre classification. He’s science fiction because of what his robots are there to do — show us ourselves.

    I don’t know if I’ve found that in comics yet. Julian Darius’ introduction to “Minutes to Midnight” quotes Neil Gaiman to use his characterization of science fiction as the “What if-” genre to argue, among other things, that Watchmen functions as a piece of what Drout would call “hard” sci-fi; but– where else is it? Any ideas?

    *(–baby don’t hurt me)

    • @Daniel: Thanks! I’m glad you liked the article. I know a few people who might disagree with some of the points Drout raises, but I appreciate the fact he provides a fairly thorough foundation to begin a discussion on how one might define science fiction.

      @Ben: As for the role of science fiction in relation to comics, I’d suggest it is like many other traditional literary genres and subject to comic treatment. We’ve had western, mystery, romance, and action novels, so I see no reason we can’t have science fiction comics. One that comes to mind off the top of my head is Richard Starkings’ “Elephantmen.” Now, the division that I see coming to light is whether or not SF comics are “hard” or “soft” (using Drout’s terminology). To this question, I’m not entirely sure. It seems to me that “hard” SF–being primarily concerned with explaining the details and grounding the science and technology of the work–is going to require a significantly greater amount of explanation, i.e. a MUCH longer work. I wonder how this would be accomplished through a predominantly–though not exclusively–visual medium? I don’t doubt it could be done; however, I suspect it would be better suited towards the graphic novel format over a monthly issue publication, nor do I think it would be something as likely to come out of one of the major publishers since it would probably fall more in line with a niche market.

      All of these factors lead to my general impression that comics, by their general make up, are probably best suited towards “soft” SF and/or simply appropriating SF techniques into the creating process. Obviously, there are members here who know a great deal more about SF and comics who can go into greater detail about this (for or against my position), but I hope that answers your question!-)

    • Thanks for the citation, Ben. I’m personally a bit irritated by the “fantasy masquerading as sci-fi” phenomenon.

      • Julian,

        Knowing science fiction to be dear to you, I was wondering what your thoughts might be on this particular article.

      • Thanks for asking, Forrest! My only problem is that I really liked the article! It’s well done. I just don’t know that I have much to add — I agree with you, and I love the way you argue by defining terms and citing sources. You’re dead right about Morrison’s Superman not being hard SF — and about Morrison not inclining to explaining the science. Warren Ellis would nod in that direction, but what interests Morrison seems to be the ideas, not how they work. So yeah, you nailed it… and it was a fun read, no less. Kudos.

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