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 ismoving.) 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 I don’t entirely understand and stick with the visuals, beginning with the basics: which panel is the first panel? The page. But in conventional superhero comics, pages rarely function as panels, because conventional superhero comics are orderly and the job of being panels belongs to the panels. (The exception being fights splashed onto pages, but even in those cases rarely do other panels tumble down the side as these do here.) The point being: the symmetry and grace of the preceding pages is disrupted by a page that can’t even control its own panels. The calamity befalling the characters in the second through fourth panels doesn’t belong to or in the harmonious universe previously described. They’re “falling into a sunspot the size of South America” precisely as the pilot in the first panels describes. Like much of Morrison’s work, they’re performing their own meaning. So too are the panels on the next page:
The page again functions as the first panel, but in this case, the panels it contains are orderly. They may not fit a convention 9- or 6-panel scheme, but they’re equidistant from both edges of the page and neatly organized in its central area. Did I say neatly? I meant obsessively: if we were to draw lines up from each panel it becomes evident that Frank Quitely has placed them in such a manner as to frame her face:
The second panel occupies the same width on the page as her hair. The third stops at the inward edge of her right nostril and the fourth begins at the inward edge of her left. The fifth frames the outside of her left ear and extends to the edge of her hair. (I alternated the line on the right edge of the second panel and the left edge of the fifth because it’s impossible to see the ears they’re framing beneath the lines otherwise.) This orderly composition of this page counterpoises the disorderly tumbling of the previous, and with good reason: that’s what Superman does. He restores order when the universe threatens to upset it. Morrison again has his form mirror his content (and vice versa). He wants the reader to both see and understand Superman’s function in his fictional universe.