I just read Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant’s All-Star Superman courtesy Douglas Wolk, who gave me a copy last week, and I have to say, I was surprised by how incredibly sweet the comic is. I wasn’t really expecting that. The basic premise, for those not in the know, is Lex Luthor finds a way to essentially give Superman fast-developing cancer, leaving Superman to do a lot of bucket-list things: give Lois Lane the chance to experience his powers for the day; nail one last scoop for the Daily Planet; go back and visit the grave of Jonathan Kent, his adopted father; save the world one last time.
We tend to assume that people with superheroes will use their great powers for the greater good — or to commit great evil. But most of the dominant stories about extraordinarily able people don’t assume that they’ll turn inward, to projects of self-improvement, contemplation, and to the tender range of the emotional spectrum. When Superman tells Lois, who didn’t know he could sew or cook, that “I thought I should learn. My trip to the sun did more than triple my strength, Lois. It tripled my curiosity, my imagination, my creativity…The meal is from the actual one…from the Titanic…I picked the ingredients and prepared it myself,” it seems sort of mundane. But it’s also intensely human, and it’s striking that the things he’s picking to learn are traditionally feminine skills. We all know that Superman is compassionate, but it’s exciting to see him surprised or awed, as Quitely draws him when he sees Lois marching bold out of an alley in the suit that lets her experience his powers while he’s still shucking his Clark Kent disguise; as he is with a big arm cradling his father’s tombstone.
And the political nerd in me is interested to see the way All-Star Superman transmits that awe and empathy to us, through Lex Luthor, who in giving himself superpowers, accidentally taps into the way Superman sees the world, and is overwhelmed by it, if only temporarily. “I can actually see the machinery and wire connecting and separating everything since it all began,” he tells his niece, who is embarrassed by the sudden uncoolness of her favorite uncle.” This is how he sees all the time, every day. Like it’s all just us in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got….You’re supposed to be dead! I had it timed!…I saw how to save the world! I could have made everyone see. I could have saved the world if it wasn’t for you!” But of course he’s wrong. Superman is just an excuse. “You could have saved the world years ago if it mattered to you, Lex Luthor,” Superman reminds him, before knocking his nemesis out yet again.
Douglas thinks that after his defeat, Lex travels back in time and becomes Leo Quintum, the scientist to whom Superman entrusts his DNA and the secret of how to combine it with Lois’. I’ll admit that I was too absorbed in the emotions of All-Star Superman while reading it to pick up on the clues that he found, but it certainly seems plausible, and if so, it’s interesting in that it suggests that experiencing overwhelming empathy is transformative, even alchemical.