Just about every issue of Morrison’s All-Star Superman would probably be a good fit for this column. With the exception of the Bizarro Earth two-parter and the two issue conclusion, every issue could stand alone as a fantastic single serving Superman story. There are two stories in the book’s 12-issue run, however, that deserve special attention in this regard: “Neverending” and “Funeral in Smallville”. For now, I’ll be focusing on All-Star Superman #10, “Neverending”, but believe me, I’ll come back for the other.
All-Star Superman #10 deals explicitly with the ongoing arc of Morrison’s 12-issue series: the death of Superman. Back in the first issue of the series, Superman flew through the sun to rescue scientist Leo Quintum from death, from sabotage courtesy of Lex Luthor. He succeeds in saving Quintum, but the radiation from the sun has supercharged him to the point where his cells are dying. He’s stronger than ever before, but he’s also quickly dying. His time can no longer be measured in years, but in months – if that.
This was the driving force behind the previous issues, but never the focus. It was the reason he confessed his identity to Lois Lane, and it inspired him to greater heights in his adventures… but now, we see the dark side of it all, as we see him weakening rapidly. Before now, he was at the height of his powers; here, he’s sweating just sitting in his Fortress.
In my original notes, I repeatedly called the issue “The Last Will and Testament of Superman,” which is a fitting, albeit less optimistic title. Rather than having a single adventure to hold us down, the story instead follows a number of different narrative strands, “what if” stories about the problems he never got around to solving and the issues he never explored as much as he might have wanted. About his tumultuous relationship with Lois Lane. About the injustice of children dying of a disease he should have been able to cure years ago. About his struggles to save the people of the Bottle City of Kandor. Like any dying man, Superman is thinking about all the projects he wished he could have finished.
The issue deals with death and decay on just about every single panel of every single page. It opens on a shot of the ancient, crumbling pyramids in Egypt, then on a cancer ward for sick children before finally settling on the framing device of the issue: Superman in the Fortress of Solitude, composing his last will and testament. He sweats. He deals with the dying Kryptonian culture in dying city of Kandor, which opens on a scene of Van-Zee complaining that he found another gray hair. From the senile old man who has kidnapped Lois Lane to Lois’ own “35,000 dead skin cells scattering like confetti… like promises… like the dust of dead stars,” that Superman can’t help but notice as they talk, death permeates “Neverending” in a way that can only be purposeful.
And then there’s the issue’s defining moment:
A depressed girl, thinking about killing herself. She stands on top of a building in Metropolis, alone. Her doctor has seemingly abandoned her. But Superman has not, and he knows that her doctor hasn’t, either. He doesn’t catch her as she falls and leave her somewhere, again. Instead, he takes time out of one of his last days on Earth, interrupts one of his final conversations with the woman he’s loved all his adult life, to fly up to the ledge and talk to her. To give her a hug. It’s a perfect scene, flawlessly built to and fearlessly executed.
The disparate narrative strands come together in often unexpected ways. Regan’s psychiatrist is held up because the monorail was destroyed by a giant robot, looking for a time capsule from the future. The giant robot was created by Lex Luthor has kidnapped an utterly unconcerned Lois Lane, who allowed this to happen so she could speak to Superman. Similarly, while Superman isn’t able to cure cancer and miniature Kryptonian super-scientists aren’t able to cure Superman, miniature Kryptonian super-scientists are able to cure cancer, a feat they accomplish in part because Superman fails to cure them of their own ailment. Everything is connected, here, everything dies, everything falls apart. But it doesn’t stop there.
You see, death permeates every panel of All-Star Superman #10… but so does rebirth, the reason for which would become apparent as the series came to an end. Kryptonian culture is dying… but Leo Quintum has a solution to prolong it. Miniature Kryptonian super scientists cure all the children in the cancer ward. Superman creates an entire universe, our universe. And he convinces a young woman that she, that all of us, are much stronger than we think we are. That we aren’t alone.
“Neverending” is, for an issue that’s got death buried deep inside, almost relentlessly optimistic. More hysterical books often posit that, without our heroes – without Batman, without Superman, without Spider-Man – the world would be a bleak, doomed place. All-Star Superman #10 suggests otherwise. In “Neverending”, Superman has the same concern, so he does the next logical thing: he creates a smaller universe in his Fortress to examine a world without Superman. And he learns an important lesson: in a world without Superman, we’d create him. People would step up. Because, as Superman says, it’s never as bad as it seems. We’re much stronger than we think we are.
- Cal Cleary
Coming Up Next: X-Factor #13, “Re-X-Aminations”
One Shot 8: The Unwritten #5, “How the Whale Became”
One Shot 7: Detective Comics #826, “Slayride”