Whatever happened to the man of tomorrow? A review of All Star Superman #12

Only now at the end is it really clear about what Grant Morrison was really trying to do with All Star Superman.  In the twelfth and final issue, Superman is depowered, weakened by the rampant energy that’s taking over his body while Lex Luthor is the new superman, getting the power he’s long desired to have to kill Superman.  Lex has become the king with Superman now the pauper, lying at his feet.  The enemies’ positions have switched and the balance of power and strength are now on Lex Luthor’s side. 

For the preceding 11 issues, Superman has been often put in a position where his strength and power didn’t make him unique.  First he gave his powers to Lois as a gift. Then he had to deal with blowhards Samson and Atlas and their competing quests to woo Lois.  Soon after that, Jimmy Olsen had to once again take on super powers to battle an out-of-his-mind Superman.  Toss in Bizarros, future and impish Supermen and now Lex Luthor and you may be left questioning “what makes Superman unique?”  Heck, if Jimmy Olsen can go toe to toe with the Man of Steel, doesn’t that diminish Superman’s own status a bit?

The key to Morrison’s Superman isn’t in his power but in what he does with that power.  Everyone else may have had power but what did any of them really do with it?  How did they affect the lives of those around them for the better?  How did they change the world?  To them, the powers they had were momentary toys, tried on and taken out for a test drive.  Lois has Superman’s powers but they were fleeting and she knew it.  Jimmy had powers and used them to save Superman but he easily gave them up when he thought they were no longer needed.

Two of the most fascinating characters in this series and the exploration of power have been Zibarro (the imperfect Bizarro?) and Luthor himself, who has had three major beats in this 12 issue story.  These two characters should easily be Superman’s match in almost every aspect.  Shouldn’t an imperfect Bizarro be Superman?  Shouldn’t a powerful Luthor have the smarts to defeat his enemy?  There’s one thing to be said about power and intelligence, both of which can easily exist in almost anyone.  So what is it that Superman has that none of these other characters could come close to?

At the end of the series, it’s not really about power; it’s about heart and it’s about purity.  Those are the qualities that Superman has that are lacking in the other characters in this book.  That’s not to say that Lois or Jimmy lack a heart but the transitory nature of their powers don’t give them any time to develop it the way that the last son of a dying planet was able to.  They’re not heroes; they’re just playing with the powers of a real hero.  In fact, there are no other heroes in All Star Superman; no Batman, no Wonder Woman and no Justice League.  Within the small microcosm of All Star Superman, there is only one true hero; Kal-el of Krypton and Smallville.

Morrison has stripped down the Superman mythos to its core.  All Star Superman is almost the purest form of Superman, featuring Superman and Lex Luthor locked in a battle until one of them is dead and gone.  Just like there are no other established heroes, there are almost no other established villains in the story either.  This could also be an “All Star Lex Luthor” story as well, casting aside almost every tacked on character piece to Luthor and reducing him to pure physical hatred of Superman.  And here, at the end, he has to power to finally achieve everything he wants.  He has the power to take over Superman’s place in the world and what does he do with it?

All Star Superman #12 is the perfect non-ending to Morrison and Quitely’s story.  It wraps up the tale that they were telling but ends with Superman flying off to face his next labor.  As his father Jor-El says in a memorable scene from this issue, “Always one more.”  The trials and labors never end for the hero and they don’t for Morrison’s Superman either.  #12 closes the door on the story about how Superman deals with the idea of his own mortality but it doesn’t close the door on Superman stories at all.  It’s a wonderful open ending that hopefully Morrisona and Quitely can use one day to return to the world of All Star Superman.

All Star Superman #12
“Superman in Excelsis”
Written by: Grant Morrison
Pencilled by: Frank Quitely
Digitally inked and colored by: Jamie Grant
Lettered by: Travis Lanham

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