BY AARON BLOCK
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever.]
There’s something a bit unsettling at the heart of the Deserted Isle scenario, isn’t there? There’s no “until you’re rescued” clause, no guarantee that you’ll lose the concept of time and your island excursion will become some sort of fanciful dream. No, you’re stranded for good, no hope of escape, the life you knew over.
You’re going to die alone. It might be from old age, or a coconut to the head, or perhaps terminal chafing, but it’s all the same in the end. And because washing up on the island is basically death itself, then the question of what book you’d bring with you is really asking how you would design those final moments. It’s fitting, then, that I’ve chosen a book that’s all about what a man does when death comes to call. Well, not just “a” man. Superman.
All-Star Superman is a twelve-issue series written by Grant Morrison, illustrated by friend and frequent collaborator Frank Quitely, and digitally inked and colored by Jamie Grant. It launched in the Fall of 2005 as part of DC Comics short-lived All-Star line, which promised top-flight talent telling stories outside of DC continuity, thus offering room for looser interpretations of iconic characters. The only other title published under the banner, Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s still-unfinished All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder featured a manic, gleefully violent, vigilante-as-bad-parent version of Batman, reversing a two-decade trend of ultra-serious Batman stories that, arguably, began with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. All-Star Superman is that book’s opposite number, calm where the other is frenetic, hopeful where the other is cynical. The cover of the first issue says it all: Superman sitting on a cloud overlooking Metropolis, elbows resting on his knees, looking over his shoulder at the reader and smiling warmly. It invites, rather than demands, your attention.
But warm though it may be, All-Star Superman’s premise is inherently tragic: when Superman rescues a space mission that Lex Luthor sabotaged, he flies too close to the sun, which causes his solar-powered cells to overload, an outcome Luthor was banking on from the beginning. Essentially diagnosed with untreatable cancer, Superman commits what time he has left to making sure humanity will be ok without him and attends to some personal matters along the way. This being a mainstream superhero comic, however, those tasks are complicated by supervillain attacks, an invasion by the Bizzaro-verse, fifth-dimensional monsters, and Lois Lane’s stubborn refusal to believe that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person. And true to form, Superman proves to be invulnerable even to the stages of grief—he accelerates immediately to acceptance, ready to do what needs to be done and selflessly devoted to leaving the Earth better than he found it.
Morrison’s vision of Superman makes me think of the scene from Kill Bill Vol. 2 when David Carradine’s Bill explains his interpretation of the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy. Kent, he believes, is Superman’s judgment of humanity—he sees them as weak, awkward, bumbling cowards, and so presents himself in the same way when he wants to pass as human. Morrison, on the other hand, offers a Superman who recognizes all the strength, resolve, ingenuity, and love that humans are capable of, and uses his abilities and station to inspire them to reach that potential. Say, isn’t there some other story about a notably powerful guy who sacrifices himself for humanity and inspires people to be good? Who am I thinking of?
OK, you’re right, the Superman/Jesus analogy has been done to death. And Morrison and Quitely don’t go in for the usual sermonizing and posing that come with such a comparison. But at the heart of the series is the idea that Superman’s love for humanity is boundless and universal, and you can almost feel it if you read the panels closely. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but after reading issue ten of All-Star Superman I finally understood what it must feel like to invest so much hope and faith in stories and characters. As his body’s deterioration accelerates Superman shifts into overdrive, rescuing Lois and curing diseases and mapping his own genome. In the middle of all this, in one beautifully structured page, he takes the time to seek out a goth-looking teenager who has climbed out onto a ledge and is preparing to jump. Rather than me summarizing it poorly, take a look for yourself:
That page is one of three moments in All-Star Superman that brought tears to my eyes (the other two being Superman’s appraisal of Zibarro’s poetry, and his goodbye to Lois before flying into the heart of the sun to spend the rest of his life working to keep it alive). Not tears of sadness, but tears of faith, I suppose. For a moment I really felt that Superman believed in me, wanted me to be my best, and would catch me if I fell.
Naturally, Superman teaches by example. Throughout the story he demonstrates how to be a thoughtful boyfriend, a loving son, a best friend, a trusted colleague, a nature lover and affectionate pet owner, a dedicated employee and considerate employer, and a sensitive counselor. He even manages to forgive his greatest enemy, the man who engineered his death, and offer him a last chance for redemption (which Luthor coldly dismisses, but still). Everyone aspires to be at least one of those things, and All-Star Superman explains that we don’t need super strength or X-ray vision to be good to each other and to ourselves.
So, why would any of that matter on a deserted island, with no one to be good to and no moral or social codes binding me to any standard of behavior? Wouldn’t it be cruel, or bittersweet, to be presented with an exciting, fulfilling life that I am forever after barred from? Maybe, but I suppose All-Star Superman would offer me a record of the world I left at its absolute best, like a fantastic photo album of a dream vacation, and it would be comforting to go into that final phase of my life with a reminder of humanity’s capacity for greatness. That sounds like a peaceful, happy way to go out.
(P.S. I’m bending the rules a bit—All-Star Superman isn’t a book, The issues have been collected in a variety of ways, including hardback and paperback volumes, and digital comics, but I think I’d opt for the handsome, oversized “Absolute” edition that includes every issue, lots of behind-the-scenes stuff, commentary from Grant Morrison, and a handy-dandy reading ribbon, and which sits on my desk as I write this.)