Friday, October 20, 2006

Analyzing the Man of Steel

On Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman #5... (written September 8, originally posted to

Lex Luthor explains that “We all fall short of that sickening, inhuman perfection, that impossible ideal.” Lex’s diatribe is familiar, but his situation is uniquely dire. Having charged himself in Morrison’s first issue with the mission of “getting serious” about killing Superman, Luthor is now on death row. This is a particularly uncontrolled Lex as well, his obsession having surpassed the neurotic and become a full-blown psychosis. The line separating the ice-chilled logic of Luthor and the lunatic genius of the Joker has never been so thin – and it’s certainly never been so gleefully fun to try peeling back the layers and parsing those minute differences.

To my mind, the rather uncomplicated relationship of Lex to Superman – “It’s all very simple” Lex naively declares. “If it wasn’t for Superman, I’d be in charge of this planet!” – has always disappointed when compared to the depth of the relationship between Batman and the aforementioned Joker. Morrison would appear to agree, and the Luthor/Superman relationship under his pen is more psychologically engrossing and entertaining than ever. Enacting a sort of quasi-Oedipal mission to not simply destroy Superman but to replace and become him, Lex’s final interview with Clark Kent – his “Gospel of Lex” – is less an autobiography and more a rant about his attempts to refashion himself in Superman’s admittedly unattainable image. Lex charges recklessly into a confrontation with the Parasite – oversaturated with energy after greedily siphoning from Clark the same power that’s killing Superman – screaming and beating on the super-villain in a heavily symbolic and uncontrolled rage. It’s with just a little bit of irony in mind that a frantically note-scribbling Clark gently asks Lex to calm down, as his “shorthand can’t handle the volume”.

Irony and pastiche at both the textual and aesthetic levels have been the touchstone for Morrison and Quitely’s All Star Superman. Clark saves Lex’s life numerous times through acts of seeming buffoonery, adding a degree of campiness to the issue that’s evocative of Superman’s Silver Age comics (not to mention dialogue and images that recall even the more measured campiness of Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman). The visual gags don’t end with those slapstick exercises, but it would be a crime to reveal some of the most unexpected and absurd moments of incredible campiness. The best of these serve to remind us that Quitely is not simply providing wonderfully detailed and well-laid storytelling, but is also an active contributor to the book’s meanings and messages – the humor in the acts through which Clark saves Lex, for instance, rely entirely on Quitely’s delivery. While a good penciller directs the reader’s attention and avoid distracting from what’s happening in the text, an artist like Quitely builds on the words and adds a depth and texture that encourages and rewards close re-readings.

Perhaps the most interesting ironic commentary is directed at the issue of Lex’s genius and his adequacy as an intellectual, if not physical, replacement for Superman. Morrison’s Lex, after all, is a blowhard who admits that he’s never succeeded in his life’s one ambition (that is, to kill Superman), a man who sucker-punches a defeated Parasite and claims victory, who can’t read Clark’s shorthand (though he brags that he can decipher any code), and even comically misuses the word “ironic” in conversation (!). That he also declares Clark to be the exact opposite of Superman and totally fails to realize they’re the same person is a given – the comic is, as I said, very much an homage to the Silver Age. But Lex actually intellectualizes and acknowledges Clark and Superman’s striking similarities – “You have the eyebrow shape beautician’s call the ‘Superman swoosh’” – and still bafflingly fails to make the connection. Such an inept villain is hardly worthy of beating Superman, much less replacing him. One has to wonder whether the final irony will be that Lex has known Clark’s secret all along, and that his interview and his Gospel is just one more knife-twist in the stomach of a distraught Superman on his last legs.

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