- I PLAN to talk about this comic in much greater depth at some point in the future, but here are some thoughts on the specific experience of reading the stuff in the massive new hardcover that just came out.
First off, what can I say? It's big. And while that may not change the story any, Frank Quitely art at this size is a significantly different experience than it is in the pamphlets. Everything about this presentation begs the eye to linger, to forget the forward pull of the story entirely and rove around the corners of the panels, swimming in the marks. Quitely gets knocked a lot for the minimal backgrounds in some of his panels (even though, y'know, when it's a wall the guy just draws a wall instead of some big meaningless production), but when he puts an environment behind the action he doesn't do it by halves. At pamphlet size the detail of his backgrounds just kind of knocks you back with all the minutiae, but blown up big you can go into it and lose yourself, really feel the texture and sprawl of the spaces. These comics aren't set on the flat, two-dimensional stage so many action books fall back onto. The adventures are grounded in their setting so deeply, and it does wonders for the story: you can really understand why things happen in the radiant, technicolor way they do in this book when you've got your feet firmly planted in the concrete caricature of the alternate world Quitely creates.
- NOT TO mention, the deep focus of the panoramic shots makes those backgroundless color-heavy panels take on a hell of a pop art wallop by contrast. I want the poster of this one on my wall:
- WHILE IT'S not as in-depth or comprehensive as I would have liked (and it certainly doesn't justify the hundred dollar price tag if you're on the fence; no Quitely commentary, what?), the supplemental material in the back of the book is still pretty interesting. The sketchbook sections are incredible to look at -- though quite a few of the images appeared in Wizard circa February '05 if you still have that issue -- and there's plenty of fun text with Grant Morrison getting all Grant Morrisony as he tells the stories behind some of the book's crazier ideas and explains overarching themes that you'll never catch a whiff of in the actual comics no matter how hard you try. That's the best part about Morrison's behind-the-scenes text pieces, though: reading the ideas that didn't make it onto the pages (or lord knows, the ones he thought up after he was done writing the books). Not everybody brings enough concept and backstory to their comics to even fill the panels themselves up, and it's cool to go through these stories again knowing how much is floating around behind them. Read the backmatter first, would be my recommendation. It'll definitely enhance the experience.
It can get frustrating to read all the ideas Morrison was forced to cut or leave by the wayside, though. All Star Superman is probably the best use of the superhero comics pamphlet format we got last decade, and that's no small achievement -- but reading stuff like the untold origin of the Ultra-Sphinx ("When he crashed to Earth his otherworldly science founded the advanced, ancient dynasty of Atom-Hotep, a civilization eventually destroyed by the nuclear war that left northern Africa a desert") just makes me wish there could have been a little more sprawl to it, that the diamond-hard self-containment of the stories would have been worth sacrificing to see Quitely draw a few extra pages of this here and that there. The outside-story stuff that wouldn't have added anything to the plot but so much to the narrative. This is as close to a perfect superhero comic as it gets, and I'm not knocking it... but it still woulda been cool. Oh well.
A final thought on Morrison's text before we get back to the important parts (the art, that is): he mentions Scotland a lot. This book has the most personal feel of any Superman comic in decades, and it's interesting to see how Morrison -- and presumably Quitely, too -- charge it with bits of inspiration from their home country to make it more than just another foray through a fictional universe. Superman wears his Kryptonian costume "the way a patriotic Scotsman would wear a kilt". The rival Supermen of issue 9 are the answer to the question "What if, basically, there were SCOTTISH Kryptonians?" Again, this stuff doesn't really show up much in the actual books, but you can see how coming at the work with these kind of individualized notions about such universal characters was a distinct factor in making All Star Superman everything it is.
- THIS WAS the comic where Frank Quitely arrived at a fully-formed, buttoned-down individual drawing style. He nailed the construction aspects of comics art in We3, but by the end of this book he isn't even drawing like himself anymore, it's just the Platonic ideal of elegant, kinetic, escapist superhero artwork. A lot of that has to do with his embracing, assimilating, and eventually transcending the influence of Curt Swan, whose work on the Mort Weisinger-edited Superman comics of the early 1960s is the closest thing this comic has to direct ancestry. As no less an artist than Dan Clowes says, Swan's art during this period "is the most uninflected comic art there is." Quitely, though he shares a few notable mannerisms with Swan, and plays them up in All Star, seems to have taken that lack of immediate style as the big lesson from Swan, and especially toward the end of the book you can really see his shorthand dropping out as the figures and facial expressions get less and less caricatured and more and more... well, "realistic" isn't quite the word for it, because it's still fully grounded in cartoon. But it's pressed up about as close to the logical, controlled look of the real world as possible, completely cleared of any expressionist tics or stylistic maneuvers that might obscure the simple facts of what's going on.
Where the Quitely comes into it is how the characters move, the way the action proceeds. The guy's always been a master of body language, but seeing his gummy, flexible, no-words-necessary choreography tacked onto the pure, direct Swan figures is really something else. These drawings look like people, perfectly formed beautiful people, but they pose in the panels like bags full of snakes. It gives the beauty of the art just the right amount of edge, whipping the remote Swan refinement into rich bursts of vitality and life.
- FIGURES ASIDE, Quitely also places a greater emphasis than ever before on the precision and regularity of his shapes, the lines that form his backgrounds. There was certainly a lot of work done with rulers and compasses to form Superman's world: every building's line is string-straight, every angle tightly squared off, every circle perfectly round. Like I said, in the pamphlets you didn't notice the backgrounds half as much as you do in this big book, and there it all just looked natural -- a perfect expression of the world as it is, where Paul Pope brushstroked buildings are as much a possibility as Bizarro invasions. As livable environments, though, these technically perfect backgrounds risk sterility, their blueprint-quality shapes running close to expressionlessness.
But the larger size reveals something else that was obscured by the pamphlet's shrunken-down dimensions. This comic went to colorist Jamie Grant uninked, the pencils fine and assured enough to black up in photoshop and take color all by themselves. And while they carried the strength of ink-trails into their original size, here they waver, they tremble, and the grain and irregularity of graphite on paper comes shining through. No two pencil lines are exactly alike, and in their slight variations of weight and direction, Quitely's perfect penciled shapes give off at least as much of the human hand behind them as they do of mechanical craft. There's a truly beautiful dialogue between concept and execution, fullness and flaw, at play in Quitely's big precise forms, a stirring background for a comic that tells the tale of the pure gold in humanity as well as the awkward honesty of the divine.
- SPEAKING OF the pencil grain, the large size that opens up the lines' imperfections made me notice something else. About midway through issue 4, the waver drops out of the lines that form the panel borders, replaced by totally clean, razor-thin edges that cut the drawings off where they meet their ends. Yep, Quitely (or maybe Grant) starts adding the white gutters that slice up the pages digitally, blending a mechanical perfection with the expression of the drawings themselves. It creates a pretty interesting cosmology for the comic: what's inside the panels is alive, human, and what isn't is not. But it's really fascinating to look at from a craft perspective: instead of the gutters acting as the remnants of the original white page left behind the panels, underneath them, they become an addition, imposed over the page, on top of the drawings. The final element as opposed to the first. It really gets you noticing how well Quitely uses the gutters to place subtle emphases on what he's doing. A panel of Superman zooming up into the sky extends all the way to the bottom of the page. A particularly powerful punch sends the teeth it knocks loose flying out into that white negative zone. A panel depicting the effects of a shrinking ray is slightly smaller than the previous one in the grid. Plenty of guys can put good stuff in the boxes, and plenty more can bend layout to content, but I can't think of anyone else who makes the gutters themselves sing.
- I'M HELLA mad the sequence in this series of sketches didn't make it into the comic:
- READING THE story as one massive book is a completely new experience. In the original issues the story was chopped up into twelve installments, and even the collections put it into the boxes of "volume 1" and "volume 2". I remember Morrison talking about the series as "one big perfect Superman book" in promotional interviews before it started coming out, and it's cool to finally see it presented as such. It definitely makes it a different read, too: everything happens so fast this way, the ideas fly so relentlessly, the inspiration's so unceasing, and even the quiet moments are charged with a surprising energy. Morrison and Quitely on their A game for 300 pages reads like a runaway train.
I dug savoring the issues until the next one came out months later like everyone else did, and they do work so well as single hits of brilliance, but the opportunity to bathe, to glory in the full sweep and scope and accumulated majesty of All Star Superman, is one that should be taken up by any means. The less impressive individual issues, the ones that didn't work quite so well as done-in-ones (the elliptical Luthor story in issue 5, and the part-1-of-2's in issues 7 and 11) come off as some of the best in the book here. Their decreased emphasis on compression and willingness to throw story threads forward without reeling them right back in within a couple pages plays wonderfully to the sense of piling on that makes this book so great, really digging in and taking a second to explore the possibilities behind some of the ideas powering the plot. Read as one big story, the consistency of page after page, scene after scene, episode after episode, is nothing short of astonishing.
- IT WAS a pretty wack decision to erase the original issues' creator credits from the title pages in this book. Not only did they break the panel sequences they sat between up really well, they also had one of the best things about the comic in them:
Yeah. That's not in this book. Lame.
- JAMIE GRANT. He doesn't get talked about a tenth as much as he should. Such a massive amount of this book's dynamic quality, its subtle nuance, and its future-of-superhero-comics sheen comes from his colors. There's no overstating the amount of pure visual power his bright, glowing tones give the pages. Honestly, in a lot of these panels the linework feels pretty secondary to the color's eloquent blasts.
But Grant's greatest strength is as a collaborator, the best colorist ever to touch the work of the best line artist comics have going. Quitely's never been better served, and another advantage of reading All Star Superman uninterrupted is watching the rapport between the two flourish into one of comics art's greatest team-ups of all time. The elements are already all there in issue 1, with the pop and surface grandeur of Quitely brought to the fore by Grant's technicolor candyfloss.
It's great to look at, but it's still hanging to some of the mistakes modern comics make, the perfectly matched hues not quite covering up the disconnect between penciled lines and digital rendering. The highlights are a little too bright, the shapes and contours of line and color don't quite match up. But by issue 4 the contrast levels are perfect, we're getting colored linework, and the shadows Grant's adding in are lending just enough dimensionality to a blank Quitely background.
And by issue 6 Grant's internalized Quitely's construction, doing as much drawing with his shadows as Quitely is with the pencils. He isn't drawing a face over a face anymore, he's enhancing the placement of Quitely's lines with shapes and highlights of his own that harmonize perfectly.
They're in complete tandem by issue 10, every hue placed with Zen accuracy, every emphasis strengthening the original intent. Grant's doing audacious things like blurring out the original pencils, and it's only making the work do what it does that much more efficiently. He's the primary artist on this panel, not Quitely: the linework is obscured by the blur, and the blur itself is what we're looking at, what's important.
Grant reaches an equilibrium with Quitely, lifting the same share of the book's visual weight by the end, and that is not only a hell of an achievement on its own, it's a blueprint for just how much colorists can and should be doing to the comics they work on. Jamie Grant on All Star Superman is a thrown gauntlet to the rest of the chroma crowd: this is the new standard, and it stands as tall and proud now as it did on those Wednesdays a few years back.
Of course, you could say the same thing about the whole comic.
- FINALLY, THIS book smells great -- exactly like my copy of the Complete Little Nemo. Which is perfect, because if there's a Little Nemo for the 21st century, All Star Superman is it.