Good art directs us to fundamental truths and teaches us lessons about what is noble. Reading a Superman trade paperback on the train the other day made me think about how comic books can elevate our culture.
In their award-winning series, “All-Star Superman,” Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant send Superman on a journey that pays homage to the labors Hercules performs in Greco-Roman mythology. Faced with mortality, Superman must overcome 12 “super challenges” before he attains a final apotheosis.
Such allusions to the classics give this Superman story a depth and timeless quality lacking in contemporary comics that too often trip over themselves to appease nouveau social justice gods. “All-Star Superman” ran from 2005 to 2008—a time far-removed from our own with heroes like the dean of students at the University of Chicago fighting against so-called “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” The series won Eisner, Harvey, and Eagle awards for being the best series of its time and was adapted into an animated movie in 2011. IGN.com ranks “All-Star Superman” as the number one Superman story of all time.
At one point in the story, Superman faces two Kryptonian astronauts who arrive on Earth and begin to subjugate humanity. They mock Superman for serving the “barbaric” humans and for refusing to establish Kryptonian dominance. They say his actions betray his homeland. Superman responds, “What right do I have to impose my values on anyone?”
What a ridiculous question. Instead of defending natural rights in the face of a claim of “might makes right,” Superman verbally throws in with the postmodern abandonment of principle (at least in speech). Yet Superman does not live by the implications of his reply to the astronauts. He goes on to thwart their plans for world domination.
What gives? The truth is that his actions speak louder than words. The archetypal Superman’s story is so strong it can even overcome weak, contradictory writing. Perhaps that’s why so many people like it.
Superman Constantly Imposes Values Through Strength
Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way. Those are “values” Superman has no problem imposing physically on Lex Luthor or any other menace to the common good. His right to impose them comes from the trust that the people of Earth place in him to protect them from threats to their well-being. His character repudiates the excuse so many use to cover their moral cowardice when insisting no one has a right to enforce or uphold objective truths that apply equally to every human.
Insofar as he defends the common good and does not seek to use his power to aggrandize himself, Superman has broad prerogative to fight and defend the lives and happiness of the people of Earth as their rightful champion. As a superbeing, he stands outside humanity itself, just like the eternal truths men of all ages have sought and upheld—until our postmodern era found it useful to pretend that because these can be complicated or unpleasant we should just ignore them entirely. The contradiction between Superman’s words and actions in “All-Star Superman” invites readers to consider the tension between liberal pieties like relativism and the necessity of preserving the safety and happiness of the community.
More concretely, “Let your freak flag fly” only works as a motto until freaks fly planes into buildings or shoot up night clubs. Then we realize some forms of freakery do cross the line into wrong and intolerable, and must begin to define which and why. Superman comics can help people wrestle with those issues while providing an escape from the brutality of many international headlines. After a long day at the office, I can process a nearly invincible alien flying around in tights fighting an evil sun more readily than I can a video of a young boy being saved from rubble in the aftermath of another attack in Syria.
Even if Superman does not seem to understand some of the nuances of political philosophy, he is a basically decent person who defends the honor of his adoptive planet. Readers can safely follow his example (to the extent mere mortals can, of course). Ordered liberty is the ideal of the American regime and the exaggerated stakes of a Superman story reinforce that idea without being preachy.
‘All-Star Superman’ Offers More than Hidden Philosophy
Making a political argument about a few scenes from a longer work might be interesting to some, but I recommend reading “All-Star Superman” for its artistic quality alone. It is a great example of what some of the best in the comic book industry can produce.
For anyone curious about comic books or graphic novels after the recent onslaught of movie and television adaptations, “All-Star Superman” is an accessible entry into the gargantuan Superman universe. One need not know the intricacies of Lois Lane’s attraction to Superman and her disdain for Clark Kent to appreciate the poignancy Morrison and Co. bring to the relationships between them and other characters.
Quitely’s art, particularly in the way he synthesizes Clark Kent’s affected bumbling incompetence with Superman’s duty to protect those around him, is beautiful and intelligent. The subtle way he shows Clark bumping into someone or spilling coffee to avoid a greater harm is like a clever private joke. Careless readers might miss the intent hiding behind Kent’s ostensible clumsiness.
Grant’s color choices are warm and realistic, which lends a sense of familiarity to a story that involves inter-dimensional travel and a scientist in a rainbow lab coat. DC Comics seems to have known what it was doing when it picked these three Scotsmen to tell this particular Superman tale.
The increasing popularity of comic book properties calls for a defense of the comic book as a potent medium for good art. As a blended visual and narrative print medium, comic books and graphic novels present an opportunity for artists to engage audiences in unique ways. Comic books can give more to readers than chase scenes, tights, and onomatopoeia. Done well, the comic book can reveal important truths about the world around us and raise important moral questions, like any good art.