All Star Memories: Grant Morrison on All Star Superman, 5

Morrison on All Star Superman, 5

We continue our epic (and growing) conversation with Grant Morrison about his and Frank Quitely’s recently concluded run on All-Star Superman. It’s ten parts in all – collect all of them, and get the stick of gum!

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Newsarama: How have your perceptions of Superman and his supporting characters evolved since the Superman 2000 pitch you did with Mark Waid, Mark Millar and Tom Peyer? The Superman notions seem almost identical, but Luthor is very different here than in that pitch, and so is Clark Kent. Did you use some aspects of your original pitch, or have you just changed his mind on how to portray these characters since?

Grant Morrison: A little of both. I wanted to approach All Star Superman as something new, but there were a couple of specific aspects from the Superman 2000 pitch (as I mentioned earlier, it was actually called Superman Now, at least in my notebooks, which is where the bulk of the material came from) that I felt were definitely worth keeping and exploring.

I can’t remember much about Luthor from Superman Now, except for the ending. By the time I got to All Star Superman, I’d developed a few new insights into Luthor’s character that seemed to flesh him out more.

Luthor’s really human and charismatic and hateful all the same time. He’s the brilliant, deluded egotist in all of us. The key for me was the idea that he draws his eyebrows on. The weird vanity of that told me everything I needed to know about Luthor.

I thought the real key to him was the fact that, brilliant as he is, Luthor is nowhere near as brilliant as he wants to be or thinks he is. For Luthor, no praise, no success, no achievement is ever enough, because there’s a big hungry hole in soul. His need for acknowledgement and validation is superhuman in scale. Superman needs no thanks, he does what he does because he’s made that way. Luthor constantly rails against his own sense of failure and inadequacy…and Superman’s to blame, of course.

I’ve recently been re–thinking Luthor again for a different project, and there’s always a new aspect of the character to unearth and develop.

NRAMA: This story makes Superman and Lois’ relationship seem much more romantic and epic than usual, but this one also makes Superman more of the pursuer. Lois seems like more of an equal, but also more wary of his affections, particularly in the black–and–white sequence in issue #2.

She becomes this great beacon of support for him over the course of the series, but there is a sense that she’s a bit jaded from years of trickery and uncomfortable with letting him in now that he’s being honest. How, overall, do you see the relationship between Superman and Lois?

GM: The black-and-white panels shows Lois paranoid and under the influence of an alien chemical, but yes, she’s articulating many of her very real concerns in that scene.

I wanted her to finally respond to all those years of being tricked and duped and led to believe Superman and Clark Kent were two different people. I wanted her to get her revenge by finally refusing to accept the truth.

It also exposed that brilliant central paradox in the Superman/Lois relationship. The perfect man who never tells a lie has to lie to the woman he loves to keep her safe. And he lives with that every day.

It’s that little human kink that really drives their relationship.

NRAMA: Jimmy Olsen is extremely cool in this series – it’s the old “Mr. Action” idea taken to a new level. It’s often easy to write Jimmy as a victim or sycophant, but in this series, he comes off as someone worthy of being “Superman’s Pal” – he implicitly trusts Superman, and will take any risk to get his story. Do you see this version of Jimmy as sort of a natural evolution of the version often seen in the comics?

GM: It was a total rethink based on the aspects of Olsen I liked, and playing down the whole wet–behind–the–ears “cub reporter” thing. I borrowed a little from the “Mr Action” idea of a more daredevil, pro–active Jimmy, added a little bit of Nathan Barley, some Abercrombie & Fitch style, a bit of Tintin, and a cool Quitely haircut.

Jimmy was renowned for his “disguises” and bizarre transformations (my favorite is the transvestite Olsen epic “Miss Jimmy Olsen” from Jimmy Olsen #95, which gets a nod on the first page of our Jimmy story we did), so I wanted to take that aspect of his appeal and make it part of his job.

I don’t like victim Jimmy or dumb Jimmy, because those takes on the character don’t make any sense in their context. It seemed more interesting see what a young man would be like who could convincingly be Superman’s “pal.” Someone whose company a Superman might actually enjoy. That meant making Jimmy a much bigger character: swaggering but disingenuous. Innocent yet worldly. Enthusiastic but not stupid.

My favorite Jimmy moment is in issue #7 when he comes up with the way to defeat the Bizarro invasion by using the seas of the Bizarro planet itself as giant mirrors to reflect toxic – to Bizarros – sunlight onto the night side of the Earth. He knows Superman can actually take crazy lateral thinking like this and put it into practice.

NRAMA: Perry White has a few small–but–key scenes, particularly his address to his staff in issue #1 and standing up to Luthor in issue #12. I’d like to hear more about your thoughts on this character.

GM: As with the others, my feelings are there on the page. Perry is Clark’s boss and need only be that and not much more to play his role perfectly well within the stories. He’s a good reminder that Superman has a job and a boss, unlike that good–for–nothing work-shy bastard Batman. Perry’s another of the series’ older male role models of integrity and steadfastness, like Pa Kent.

NRAMA: There’s a sense in the Daily Planet scenes and with Lois’s spotlight issues that everyone knows Clark is Superman, but they play along to humor him. The Clark disguise comes off as very obvious in this story. Do you feel that the Planet staff knows the truth, or are just in a very deep case of denial, like Lex?

GM: If I had to say for sure, I think Jimmy Olsen worked it out a long time ago, and simply presumes that if Superman has a good reason for what he’s doing, that’s good enough for Jimmy.

Lois has guessed, but refuses to acknowledge it because it exposes her darkest flaw – she could never love Clark Kent the way she loves Superman.

NRAMA: Also, the Planet staff seems awfully nonchalant at Luthor’s threats. Are they simply used to being attacked by now?

GM: Yes. They’re a tough group. They also know that Superman makes a point of looking out for them, so they naturally try to keep Luthor talking. They know he loves to talk about himself and about Superman. In that scene, he’s almost forgotten he even has powers, he’s so busy arguing and making points. He keeps doing ordinary things instead of extraordinary things.

NRAMA: The running gag of Clark subtly using his powers to protect unknowing people is well done, but I have to admit I was confused by the sequence near the end of issue #1. Was that an el–train, and if so, why was it so close to the ground?

GM: It’s a MagLev hover–train. Look again, and you’ll see it’s not supported by anything. Hover–trains help ease congestion in busy city streets! Metropolis is the City of Tomorrow, after all.

NRAMA: And there’s the death of Pa Kent. Why do you feel it’s particularly important to have Pa and not both of the Kents pass away?

GM: I imagined they had both passed away fairly early in Superman’s career, but Ma went a few years after Pa. Also, because the book was about men or man, it seemed important to stress the father/son relationships. That circle of life, the king is dead, long live the king thing that Superman is ultimately too big and too timeless to succumb to.

NRAMA: There is a real touch of Elliott S! Maggin’s novels in your depiction of Luthor – someone who is just so obsessive–compulsive about showing up Superman that he accomplishes nothing in his own life. He comes across as a showman, from his rehearsed speech in issue #1 to his garish costume in the last two issues, and it becomes painfully apparent that he wants to ursurp Superman because he just can”t be happy with himself. What defeats him is actually a beautiful gift, getting to see the world as Superman does, and finally understanding his enemy.

That’s all a lead–in to: What previous stories that defined Luthor for you, and how did you define his character? What appeals to you about writing him?

GM: The Marks Waid and Millar were big fans of the Maggin books, and may have persuaded me to read at least the first one but I’m ashamed to say can’t remember anything about it, other than the vague recollection of a very humane, humanist take on Superman that seemed in general accord with the pacifist, hedonistic, between–the–wars spirit of the ‘90s when I read it. It was the ‘90s; I had other things on my mind and in my mind.

I like Maggin’s “Must There Be A Superman?” from Superman #247, which ultimately poses questions traditional superhero comic books are not equipped to answer and is one of the first paving stones in the Yellow Brick Road that leads to Watchmen and beyond, to The Authority, The Ultimates etc. Everyone still awake, still reading this, should make themselves familiar with “Must There Be A Superman?” – it’s a milestone in the development of the superhero concept.

However, the story that most defines Luthor for me turns out to be, as usual, a Len Wein piece with Curt Swan/Murphy Anderson– Superman #248. This blew me away when I was a kid. Lex Luthor cares about humanity? He’s sorry we all got blown up? The villain loves us too? It’s only Superman he really hates? Genius. Big, cool adult stuff.

The divine Len makes Lex almost too human, but it was amazing to see this kind of depth in a character I’d taken for granted as a music hall villain.

I also love the brutish Satanic, Crowley–esque, Golden Age Luthor in the brilliant “Powerstone” Action Comics #47 (the opening of All Star #11 is a shameless lift from “Powerstone”, as I soon realised when I went back to look. Blame my…er….photographic memory….cough).

And I like the Silver Age Luthor who only hates Superman because he thinks it’s Superboy’s fault he went bald. That was the most genuinely human motivation for Luthor’s career of villainy of all; it was Superman’s fault he went bald! I can get behind that.

In the Silver Age, baldness, like obesity, old age and poverty, was seen quite rightly as a crippling disease and a challenge which Superman and his supporting cast would be compelled to overcome at every opportunity! Suburban “50s America versus Communist degeneracy? You tell me.

I like elements of the Marv Wolfman/John Byrne ultra–cruel and rapacious businessman, although he somewhat lacks the human dimension (ultimately there’s something brilliant about Luthor being a failed inventor, a product of Smallville/Dullsville – the genius who went unnoticed in his lifetime, and resorted to death robots in chilly basements and cellars. Luthor as geek versus world). I thought Alan Moore’s ruthlessly self–assured “consultant” Luthor in Swamp Thing was an inspired take on the character as was Mark Waid’s rage–driven prodigy from Birthright.

I tried to fold them all into one portrayal. I see him as a very human character – Superman is us at our best, Luthor is us when we’re being mean, vindictive, petty, deluded and angry. Among other things. It’s like a bipolar manic/depressive personality – with optimistic, loving Superman smiling at one end of the scale and paranoid, petty Luthor cringing on the other.

I think any writer of Superman has to love these two enemies equally. We have to recognize them both as potentials within ourselves. I think it’s important to find yourself agreeing with Luthor a bit about Superman’s “smug superiority” – we all of us, except for Superman, know what it’s like to have mean–spirited thoughts like that about someone else’s happiness. It’s essential to find yourself rooting for Lex, at least a little bit, when he goes up against a man–god armed only with his bloody–minded arrogance and cleverness.

Even if you just wish you could just give him a hug and help him channel his energies in the right direction, Luthor speaks for something in all of us, I like to think.

However, he’s played, Luthor is the male power fantasy gone wrong and turned sour. You’ve got everything you want but it’s not enough because someone has more, someone is better, someone is cleverer or more handsome.

Next: Morrison discusses some of the themes in his series, and the power of fiction.

Special Thanks to Grant Morrison: The Early Years author Timothy Callahan for his help with this feature.

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