Wednesday, 19 October 2011

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Form and Content in Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman Before I begin, I would like to re-admit that I don't "get" Grant Morrison. I understand and, to some extent, can appreciate what others find interesting about his work, but for me reading Morrison is akin to arguing with someone who believes that, after death, we enter "the Supercontext ... a fifth-dimensional, informational continuum where things that we don't quite understand go on." (Because that's exactly what it is.) In other words, I don't disapprove of Morrison's grand scheme so much as I think its philosophical underpinnings are as sound and stable as those of anyone else who drops too much acid and claims communion with unseen entities of vast esoteric power. They—being the philosophical underpinnings, not the unseen entities of vast esoteric power—are there, certainly, but they're there to be accepted as revelation, not to be argued with. That said, I decided to teach All-Star Superman anyway and will attempt to do it justice. Fortunately for me, that's not too difficult to do if I concentrate on the opening pages of the first issue. To wit: Absent from these four panels is any hint that "[t]hat 'S' is the radiant emblem of divinity we reveal when we rip off our stuffy shirts, our social masks, our neuroses, our constructed selves, and become who we truly are." (We're not, truly or otherwise, anything we see on that page.) Instead, Morrison presents the familiar origin of Superman with a narrative economy as impressive as it is moving. (Or because, despite its familiarity, it is moving.) In eight words evenly distributed over four panels, Morrison captures the oft-forgotten pathos of the character. How does Morrison effect this? By creating an alternating rhythm to the panels. The first depicts a world-historical catastrophe; the second, a medium close-up of two people caught in it; the third, the catastrophe again; the fourth, a first-person extreme close-up of two people whose lives are changed by it. The balance created by alternating between the catastrophic scale in the first and third panels emphasizes, by putting into relief, the personal scale evident in the second and fourth. Put differently: the pained faces in the second panel are both magnified and humanized by the events depicted in the panels bookending it. Similarly, the inquisitive faces in the fourth panel are made meaningful both by the third and the splash page that follows: The second and third pages aren't typically considered part of the opening sequence, but they seem to me vital to understanding the rhythm Morrison establishes. It's almost as if the Kents' curiosity on the previous page is answered by the magnificance depicted on the two subsequent ones. (The visual impact of the second and third pages is diminished by the necessities of blog-columns, but if you click on the images they should open in their original sizes.) In short, the book opens with symmetry (page one) and transitions to sublime grace (pages two and three), which perfectly prepares the reader for this: I'm going to avoid plot-points...
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Less human than human. Alyssa's post on the sentimental core of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman is spot on: 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. However, the hallmarks of Morrison's work, according to renowned comic scholar (and Alyssa's occasional interlocutor) Douglas Wolk, are: reality-bending metaphysical freakouts dressed up in action-adventure drag; metaphors that make visible the process by which language creates an image that in turn becomes narrative; a touch of feel-good self-improvement rhetoric; faith in the the power of pop and popularity to do magic; and skinny bald men who are stand-ins for Morrison himself, heroically conquering sadness and making the world evolve. (Reading Comics 258) If those two descriptions seem at odds, that's because they are. Morrison is a talented but unintegrated artist. What do I mean? He can be as aggressively annoying as Wolk's flattering account of him suggests. Incorporating proxies of himself into narratives about the nature of narratives and claiming that magic makes these metaphorical selves visible? That is, to quote my advisor, pure "postmodern gee-whiz wankery." It's cleverness for the sake of being hailed as King Clever, and it grates on my every last nerve because it's so clinical and intellectualized. AND YET. I came to graduate school to study the works of James Joyce, whose complex wankery far outstrips anything Morrison's attempted, much less accomplished. So why does Morrison bother me in a manner Joyce doesn't? The short answer is that, at his best, Morrison doesn't bother me at all. When is he at his best? As Alyssa notes, it's when he's stripped a story to its emotional core and presented its complexities not as worthy subjects in and of themselves, but as natural consequences of a human narrative. Of course, the protagonists of these "human" narratives are rarely human: in All-Star Superman, it's Superman; in We3, it's a trio of weaponized house-pets. That is to say: Morrison seems to have a problem elevating actual humans to a position worthy of simple human sympathy. A kidnapped pet or an orphaned alien are worthy of sympathy because they aspire to be more than their outsider status allows them to be. But an average human being? He or she is what he or she is—short of a magical authorial intervention that's as likely to land him or her in Sade's castle as provide anything resembling hope or help. The only transcendence average people can acquire is by proxy, e.g. Lois's "acquisition" of Superman's powers on her birthday. In short, I don't find in Morrison much in the way of human sympathy for ordinary...

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