Once upon a time, Tim Callahan and Chad Nevett completely disagreed about some comics. This is that time.
Tim Callahan: So All-Star Superman #12 finally came out, and I wrote about the whole series at CBR, but here’s my quick review of issue #12: brilliant! And All-Star Batman has been in the news lately with some cussin’, plus you recently read the first collected edition. The people want to know: what’s the better comic, and why are you going to be so, so wrong when you answer this question?
Chad Nevett: All-Star Superman is a better comic, but I like All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder a whole lot more. I’ve never really been on board with All-Star Superman (except for issue eight, which everyone else seemed to hate at the time) and I must admit that I’m not entirely sure why. Everyone else loves the book, hails it as brilliant, discusses how it transcends the genre, and it leaves me cold. Obviously the book places a great emphasis on the emotional connection with the reader and that connection just isn’t there for me. I mentioned on my blog another problem I have: the book is about how wonderful and advanced Superman is, how he is better than humanity, and is meant to inspire us to be more than we are… and yet he’s still just a guy who uses physical violence to solve his problems. He dresses it up with intelligent reasoning, but how does he beat Lex Luthor? He shoots him with a gun and then hits him a few times. I suppose I can’t take him that seriously as “superior” when my favorite version of the character is where he’s a pacifist, someone who does transcend other superheroes and relies on his intelligence and wits to solve problems rather than his fists. In that regard, All-Star Superman seems hollow to me. Oh, there’s plenty to admire about the book, as there is in pretty much everything Grant Morrison has written, but nothing in it has really captured me.
Last week, I got the hardcover collecting the first nine issues of All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, and really, really liked it. I can see why it would read horribly as individual issues that come out every seven years, but, as a whole, I could see a pattern forming and how this book ties into Frank Miller’s other Batman work. It’s absurd and funny and strangely realistic in its portrayal of a young Batman who has gone so overboard in his war on crime that he’s half-insane and stays up for days on end. I actually believe this Batman.
I know, I know, it goes against conventional thinking, but that’s where I am with these books. But then again, I’m more cynic than optimist, so maybe my preference makes sense.
TC: I didn’t really “get” All-Star Batman until issue #6 or so, when I decided to just go with it and have fun, and then I became quite fond of it. I thought the Green Lantern all-yellow issue was a ridiculously absurd story, and yet it perfectly captured a kind of warped vision of the dynamic between the quasi-realistic Batman and the Silver Age goofiness of Hal Jordan. And All-Star Batman is certainly fascinating as a self-indulgent commentary / pastiche of Miller’s own Batman work, but it feels so incredibly toothless, don’t you think? It’s fun in a juvenile, naughty sort of way, and I certainly don’t hate it, but what story is Miller really telling? It’s all over the place. It’s capricious and whatever the opposite of whimsical would be.
All-Star Superman is, on the other hand, a 12-issue gem of a comic. I have to go back and reread all of the issues before declaring anything about its structure, but it feels so finely crafted, sparkling with facets of brilliance. And it’s such a vital and honest portrayal of the character in all of his strength, power, and nobility. I’ve said before that I don’t understand when people say a comic left them “cold,” because comics, for me, aren’t about emotion — they are about structure and imagery and metaphor and symbolism and recursion. All-Star Superman doesn’t make me “hot,” in other words. I enjoy it for aesthetic reasons, which are, for me, the reasons I read comics. I feel pretty strong about the Morrison and Quitely’s work on the series, but it’s not like my heart skipped a beat when Superman seemed to have died or whatever emotional moment I’m supposed to care about. From my perspective it’s just a wondrous and majestic story about a god who walked the Earth.
But your response raises an interesting question: how can you say that All-Star Superman is “a better comic” even though you like All-Star Batman more? How do you separate your aesthetic judgment from your personal preferences and don’t you think you could make the case that All-Star Batman is actually the better comic because it achieved a stronger impact with the reader (a.k.a. you)?
CN: That’s always been a struggle, I think — separating “best” from “favorite.” Often the difference is something intangible, something that can’t be measured. The best example I’ve always been able to point to is my loving the work of Joe Casey far more than that of Alan Moore despite Moore being a better writer from a technical standpoint. I’ve always pointed to Casey’s work having more energy, which I think applies here, too. Usually, Morrison’s work is full of energy, but maybe because he’s so in love with the character, and has been, in many ways, wanting to tell this story for so long that it lacks a certain energy that All-Star Batman definitely has. But All-Star Superman is more cohesive, better structured, and is aesthetically more pleasing (especially when looking at the art), while Miller’s book is just so absurd and over-the-top, and works, in a large part, because I see where it fits in with his other Batman stuff. I’m not sure how well it stands on its own. Then again, I’m not sure how well All-Star Superman stands on its own since it’s littered with references to other Morrison stories, and other Superman stories, which is, partly, why it works so well for some it seems.
I think the interpretations of the two main characters also plays a big role. As I said before, this version of Superman isn’t that interesting for me. The religious undertones (done so heavy-handed, “undertones” seems like a weak word) especially turn me off, mostly because I find those connections boring. As well, I’ve grown up with a version of the character very different from the one Morrison knows and loves. My Superman is Clark Kent first, Superman second. I’m used to a character who was raised human and still retains that humanity despite his powers, whereas this character is more alien, more detached… It’s odd to have my opinion swayed by something like that, but it is. Whereas Miller’s Batman has been the dominating version of the character for my entire life, basically, and, despite what people say, the All-Star version isn’t that much different. He’s just younger, more energetic, and is kind of vapid and stupid in that way young and energetic people are. It’s an interpretation that makes sense to me and feels right.
Also, I’m always willing to admit that maybe I’m just going against the grain because it seems like a fun thing to do. I don’t think I’m doing that, but who knows.
TC: I didn’t exactly grow up with the John Byrne, Clark Kent-ified Superman, although that was certainly the version I read regularly when I became a comics fan. I grew up with the Super Friends version of Superman, really, and Clark Kent wasn’t a big part of that version of the character. I wonder if that affects my bias? I doubt it, though, because I enjoyed Byrne’s Superman work as long as it lasted, mostly because it was so much more human, but I think Morrison, in returning the mythos to something more than human has re-energized it. And I certainly think All-Star Superman is full of energy — every page is crackling with it, leading into a powerful climax that might well be Superman zapping Lex Luthor, but it’s also so much more than that. And it’s such a celebratory comic book series, fully embracing the potential of the character. It’s by far the best Superman story ever.
All-Star Batman just feels cynically constructed and, while it’s fun, it’s fun in a more destructive way. Perhaps the character of Batman deserves such an approach, since an optimistic vision of Batman might be out of place (although, interestingly enough, Morrison might be headed that way in his current Batman run — we’ll have to see how that plays out). I do think Miller’s work here is pretty subversive — or it would be if it weren’t so obvious. You talk about the religious metaphors being heavy-handed in Morrison’s Superman, but All-Star Batman is a sledgehammer of heavy-handedness.
Really, All-Star Batman isn’t a major work — it’s the equivalent of dirty words written in a Gotham City bathroom stall — while All-Star Superman is so much more than that: it’s a comic that aspires to transcendence. It’s beautiful and All-Star Batman is ugly (in every sense of the word), and I’ll take beauty any day.
CN: As I’ve said, I don’t think Morrison really “fully embrac[es] the potential of the character,” only because more advanced ideas have been used before. I hate to sound like a broken record, but it’s still just a Superman story where he fights Lex Luthor and ends it by hitting him… That’s about as basic a Superman story as you’ll get and it’s also tedious in its mundane-ness.
Here’s something that people keep talking about, but have yet to really explain: how does All-Star Superman “transcend the genre”? I’m not sure if you’ve said that ever, but a lot of people have and I can’t see it. It’s a well-constructed superhero story, sure, but where does it actually reach beyond that?
TC: I don’t know that it transcends the genre, so I wouldn’t be comfortable defending that statement, but it fully realizes the genre so well that it becomes a transcendent experience, which sounds a lot like “transcending the genre,” but it’s really not. It’s really just the Platonic form of the Superman comic made real, and in doing that, Morrison and Quitely and Grant have achieved something remarkable.
So let’s look at what makes All-Star Superman transcendent: (1) It allows Superman to be nearly unrestrained in imaginative abilities. He’s not artificially weakened just to make him seem more “human.” He’s allowed to be who he always should have been: a god who walked the Earth and helped save it. (2) It cuts through the years of baggage and gets to the core of both Superman and Lex Luthor, defining each character in relation to the other. (3) It’s beautiful to look at. (4) It’s apparent simplicity is its greatest asset. Instead of overwhelming us with a wordy tale of Superman’s final challenge, Morrison keeps the dialogue sparse, choosing the right words over MORE words. (5) It doesn’t actually end with Superman punching Lex Luthor, contrary to what you keep saying. (6) It pulls the most vivid ideas from the Superman mythos into the backstory without resorting to winking at the audience. (7) Did I mention how beautiful it is?
I would indeed argue against it transcending its genre, because I don’t think that it’s the type of comic that you could give to someone who wasn’t interested in superheroes — I don’t know that you could even give it to someone as a way to convince them of Superman’s inherent greatness — because it seems to me that the comic works best for those of us who always hoped Superman comics could be better than they actually are. The cynics and disbelievers in the crowd will be unable to recognize its brilliance because they are cold and dead inside. They might, for example, prefer Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s juvenile and cruel version of a certain caped crusader.
Also, my wife HATED the first collected edition of All-Star Superman because “the characters are ugly” and “it’s pointless.” (I gave it to her to read as the most immediate and simple representation of Morrison’s work, since she was ever-so-slightly curious about this guy I wrote a book about. I would have given her Animal Man, but I can’t imagine her getting past B’Wana Beast.) So, yeah, it’s not going to be converting any lay people to the Superman cause.
CN: I’ve never denied that I’m cold and dead inside, as you very well know.
I’m glad to see that you don’t support the “transcend the genre” comment, because it is a work so based within the genre and Superman mythos. A lot of the enjoyment does seem to derive from people going, “Finally! A Superman story that I don’t hate!” The collective will of superhero fans who have been longing for a great Superman post-”Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”
You are right, though, it is a beautiful book. There, I’d give All-Star Superman a big edge over All-Star Batman (but my distaste for Jim Lee’s art is not exactly a secret). I absolutely love Quitely’s art. It reminds me of the work Moebius and Zoran Janjetov on The Incal, and has for a long time despite the art by the three men not looking that similar when I’ve compared it. An underlying sensibility maybe? I found some of Quitely’s choices to be interesting, too. His Lois Lane doesn’t really look like any previous version of the character and his Clark Kent is wonderfully absurd in that “Seriously, you people can’t see that he’s Superman?” sort of way, while also having body language that makes their ignorance almost seem plausible. You’ll never hear me say a bad word about the art.
Out of curiosity, what did you think of that second Bizarro issue? Like I said before, it was the first issue that really had me engaged in a serious way and then I came online to find that everyone normally praising the series hated it. Is there something about that issue that perhaps speaks to why my views seem to differ from people I usually agree with?
TC: I love the second Bizarro issue. Zibarro is a great character, and I don’t see why it’s any different than any other issue of the series. All-Star Superman is a tour-de-force through the Superman mythos, but it’s still a tour, stopping and checking out the scenery at various locales. Morrison clearly goes out of his way to add new dimensions to the Superman universe — but what he adds clearly links to the stories of the past. The Zibarro stuff is a great example of taking a classic concept and spinning it in a new, fresh direction. It’s great stuff. I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t have liked it. Unless they had trouble understanding all the Bizarro-talk.
So we agree that the Zibarro issue is great, and the art’s great throughout. My question then is, what’s so great about All-Star Batman? How does it have more energy than All-Star Batman? Is it because there’s more swearing and crotch grabs?
CN: It feels more unrestrained, more like Miller is having fun and just letting it go. It’s like he sits down to each issue and just writes whatever occurs to him and when it turns out that he wrote two scenes, he shrugs and goes “Ah well!” He’s just freestyling and jamming, and seeing where things take him. He seems to have a direction in mind, but it’s got the energy of seeing a band turn a four-minute studio song into a half-hour jam. Not for everyone and certainly has masturbatory elements, but it appeals to me. I’ve already seen the controlled, “studio” version of Frank Miller’s Batman… it’s nice to catch the meandering live version. If The Dark Knight Strikes Again was the live Dark Knight Returns, this is the live Batman Year One. I know I ask this almost every week at some point, but… does that make sense?
TC: It does make sense, and I don’t disagree, but I would say that such a feeling is undercut by the chiseled and sterile Jim Lee artwork. I don’t necessarily hate Jim Lee, although I dislike the Scott Williams-style inking over all of his work, but All-Star Batman has such an improvisational feel and the art should carry that though with vibrant glee. It would work brilliantly with Bill Sienkiewicz or Ashley Wood. Even Lenil Yu could pull it off. But Jim Lee’s hardened statues show up instead.
Give me the nearly flawless All-Star Superman any day.