It’s safe to say that I never really enjoyed Superman as a character or hero. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the character is one that doesn’t really work well in the current era of comics.
Superman is the peak of “golden age” heroes – a knight in shining armor, full of virtue and lacking any weakness, to save the day when things look grim. And while that sort of hero was a great thing to read during the 30s and 40s, as time has gone on, readers of comics(and fiction in general) look less for characters they can look up to and more for characters they can identify with and, given his almost god-like status, Superman was never a character readers could find any sort of identification with.
That is, until the release of All Star Superman.
Our story begins as many a Superman story does: With Supes saving someone in distress. The particular persons in distress this time being Dr. Leo Quintum and his team of scientists who are attempting to capture energy from the sun, only for it to be revealed that one of the members of the scientific expedition is actually a genetically altered being (crafted into something of a living suicide bomb) whom is being remotely controlled by Lex Luthor and is set to explode in short order.
As expected, Superman intervenes in the machinations of Luthor and sends the living bomb hurtling towards the sun, saving the crew on board from the explosion by expanding his bio-electric field to soak up the solar radiation and other nasties that may lurk within.
To horrible consequences.
It is revealed by Dr. Quintum, after exhaustive amounts of testing, that Superman’s cells – which normally convert the solar radiation and energy from the yellow sun and fuel his powers – have become so overcharged by the massive amounts of energy he took in that his body is now suffering from apoptosis – cellular death.
After this somewhat startling revelation, Dr. Quintum and Superman discuss the future, the good doctor saying he will do what he can to cure Superman’s illness and, if he is unable to find a cure, find a replacement for the Man of Steel. Before leaving Quintum and his lab, Superman tells the Doctor that “no one must know” about him dying, at least “not yet” because he has “things to do”.
Later, a pair of police officers track down Lex at the facility where he operated the living bomb, with the intent of taking him into custody on the grounds of attempted murder and crimes against humanity. Lex complies without any resistance, telling the officers he knows it’s “for his own good” and telling the police to put him away before he “does something really terrible” to Superman.
The first issue ends with Clark and Lois walking through the streets of Metropolis with Clark being somewhat cryptic about death and if Lois ever thinks about it, all the while craftily saving a man from being crushed by a large metal object crashing to the ground. As they arrive at Lois’ apartment, Clark tries to tell Lois about his important news, only for him to be interrupted by her, as she assumes it’s something trivial, like coverage of a trial, only for him to remove his glasses and pull open his shirt to reveal his biggest secret, the classic ‘S’ symbol of his suit.
The next issue opens with Superman and Lois on their way to his Fortress of Solitude, Lois riding in her car as Superman carries her, all the while disbelieving that Clark Kent could really be Superman(despite all the times she tried to prove exactly that).
While at the fortress, Superman gives Lois a grand tour of the facility, showing her the various interesting things he has found in his time as Superman and decided to store there, objects ranging from The Cosmic Anvil used to feed small suns to a sun eating cosmic horror to a one way communication hub from future Supermen to even a device that could actually harm/kill him: The Kryptonite Laser.
While being shown the Cosmic Anvil, Lois happens to peek into a room that should have had its door closed, where she can see one of Superman’s many robots working on something. Something that oddly resembles her. But, of course, before she can investigate further, she is told by Superman that room is the one room in the entire fortress where she cannot be allowed to enter. As he takes her away from the room and towards one of the many other wonders the fortress has to offer, he commands the robot who left the door open to report for repair.
During their dinner later than evening, Superman keeps trying, most in vain, to show Lois that he had been Clark the whole time and that he only lied to her for as long as he did to protect her, explaining as best he could the instances where people like Batman took his place as Clark for appearances or where he used something like a robot, but he finds himself unable to answer her most burning question: “Why tell me now?”
When he cannot answer her question and just asks her to trust him, it only drives her mind into deeper and darker places, thinking that his trip to the sun must have done something dark and sinister to him and ultimately driving her to the conclusion that “he must be stopped.” Slipping into the room that had The Kryptonite Laser and evading the multiple Super Robots who come to see if she could use any assistance, she finds the room that Superman was working in, shooting him right in the chest as the doors open.
Only for Superman to utter one word: Oww.
Initially horrified by what she has done, Superman quickly alleviates her concerns by mentioning that incident was an interesting way to discover his newfound immunity to Green Kryptonite before calming asking if he can take the laser from her and explaining that the robot he had sent in for repair, the one that left the door open to that room she wasn’t allowed to enter, needed to be sent in for repair because that particular room had chemicals within it that caused visual hallucinations and paranoid delusions in people not immune to said chemicals. As it turned out, the reason why there was anything in that room that resembled her was because Superman was working on something special for Lois: her own Superwoman suit and a concoction that would give her the same powers of Superman, if only for one day. And, as one would expect, being able to be like Superman for an entire day is something Lois is more than happy to test out.
The Super Duo finds themselves flying in on Metropolis being invaded by Reptiles from the earth’s core, but it would appear they are not alone, as Samson and Atlas were already on the scene dealing with the overgrown lizards by the time Supes and Lois arrived. With the immediate threat of the Repiles dealt with, Samson and Atlas very quickly begin flirting with Lois, much to the annoyance of Superman, who didn’t exactly desire to have his special day with Lois be interrupted by a couple of asshats that he could fold into pretzels if they pissed him off too much.
Samson and Atlas propose that they three strongmen see which of them Lois would rather spend her time with by showing off what great feats they can each accomplish, Samson having defeated Krull, the son of the Dino-Czar, and Altas having defeated the rest of the Reptile army and both of them claiming there is not much Superman can do that would be more impressive than either of those feats.
And so, Superman goes to speak with the Dino-Czar himself, only for it to be revealed that Krull did not act of his own volition, but was goaded into the attack by none other than Samson himself. All the while, Samson and Atlas are still flirting with Lois and doing everything in their power to win her over, including giving her some crown jewels they had taken from a creature known as the Ultrasphinx. Pulling Lois aside, a clearly upset and exasperated Superman confronts Lois about her flirting back with Atlas and Samson, only for her to shoot back at him by saying that she might be trying to teach him a lesson for impersonating Clark for so long. When he responds that he is Clark and not just some cheap impersonation, she tells him to relax. It’s her birthday and they could both stand to have a little fun, as they both know Superman can easily win any contest the “losers” could dream up.
Upon confronting the two strongmen, Samson in particular, about leaving Lois alone, Samson reveals that he(being a time-traveler and all) knows that Superman’s days are numbered and he’s doing what he can to get closer to Lois because “All’s fair in love and war.” But, as it turns out, Lois might be the one closer to death than Superman, as the Ultrasphinx arrives to retrieve what was stolen from them, holding Lois in a state of limbo, neither dead nor alive, where her fate will be discerned by if Superman can answer the question asked of him in a way that satisfies the creature.
The creature’s question is simple: What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?
And Superman gives an equally simple answer: They surrender.
The Ultrasphinx accepts this answer and releases Lois and returns her to Superman, who decides that he’s had enough of all this and desires to just go back to the date he had planned with Lois from the start. But, of course, Samson and Atlas can’t help but poke at him one last time about being a coward. Finally at his limit, Superman accepts to take on a challenge of strength against them, a simple arm wrestling contest. One where he breaks both of their arms.
After sending the strongmen on their way with their tails between their legs, Superman and Lois enjoy their date at the bottom of the sea and then travel to the moon for a loving kiss on the satellite’s surface, something Superman has wanted to do with Lois from the moment he met her. Later that day, as her powers begin to fade and the woman of his dreams drifts off to dreamland, Superman tucks her into her bed, gives her a kiss goodnight and takes his leave.
The next several issues of All Star Superman read as a sort of chronicling of various adventures and mishaps that Superman has to deal with, such as being exposed to Black Kryptonite – which turns him from hero to villain – and Jimmy Olsen having to turn into a variant of Doomsday to stop him, Supes visiting Lex Luthor in prison in disguise to not only protect the mad scientist from being killed by the other in-mates of the prison, but to get an exclusive interview with Luthor, travelling back in time with other Supermen to say his last goodbyes to a long dead Pa Kent – as well as ensure the timeline is secure and the events of his past come to pass, to even going to the Bizarro homeworld during an invasion and meeting Zibarro – a Bizarro who, unlike the others of his race, has found the ability to converse in a way much like those from earth and has even developed powers similar to that of Superman himself, who assists Supes in getting home after the Bizarro homeworld returns to its native location in the Underverse.
In issue #9, we see the introduction of Bar-El and Lilo, a couple of Kryptonian astronauts who were away from the planet when it was destroyed, and who have also taken up the mantle of protecting earth from threats(or so it seems at first) in Superman’s stead, since he was away for so long dealing with the Bizarros. While Supes tries to make nice with those whom he might of at one time referred to as family, they are quick to rebuff him and insult him, along with his father.
It is revealed that, in his time away, a lot has changed. Bar-El and Lilo have occupied his Fortress of Solitune, gotten rid of the statues he had constructed of his parents, and have shown to not have a very fond view of Earth and its inhabitants, something that greatly troubles Superman. Not that it matters much, as Bar-El very quickly decides that Superman is a traitor who must be dealt with and proceeds to brutalize poor Supes, including tossing him into the moon so hard that it cracks the damn thing in half and then returning him to Earth in a similar, albiet less destructive, fashion before declaring Earth “New Krypton” and flying away to make a crude fix for the broken moon.
Some time later, while spying on Superman, who had since recovered from his injuries and had made his way to the Daily Planet as Clark, Lilo begins to feel ill and begins to plummet towards the ground, only to be caught as Superman, who explains that on their way to earth, they likely passed through a certain cosmic cloud that has turned the minerals in their bodies into Kryptonite and that their bodies are now beginning to poison them.
At first outright refusing to accept his help, Bar-El eventually relents in his fervent hatred for Superman due to the Man of Steel showing unwavering kindness to himself and Lilo, even going so far as to tell Superman he is proud to call him his kin. Unfortunately, there is only one way to save the dying Kryptonians: A one way trip to the Phantom Zone. Bar-El accepts this fate over a painful death for himself and his lover and Superman does what he must to send them away, his last words to them being that “The Phantom Zone will have some law and order at last”.
As we go into issue #10, we open with a scene of Superman carrying a bus full of sick children for a nice little field trip to Egypt to see the Great Pyramids. As he returns the children to their hospital room and bids them goodbye for the day, a nurse pulls him aside to thank him for the good he is doing – remarking that his visits are all some of these children have to look forward to anymore – something Superman claims is “the least he could do”.
Back at the Fortress of Solitude, Superman begins writing down his last will and testament on a large stone slab using a device that translates his thoughts and words from English to the Kryptonian alphabet, leaving it as something for a future/alternate reality Superman/woman to find after his passing.
We then cut to Superman and Dr. Quintum preparing the latter for his trip into one of the relics of Krypton that Superman has in his fortress, The Glass City of Kandor. The Kandorians were Kryptonians who were miniturized by Braniac at some point in the past and who have spent all of their time since trying to figure out a way to bring themselves back to normal size, something that other minds, such as Superman himself, have also attempted.
Later, we see Superman responding to an attack being waged by an old man in a giant robot(supposedly from the year 2312) that has taken Lois hostage. After quickly disposing of the robot and leaving the old man inside harmless, Lois reveals to him that she wasn’t actually taken hostage, but that she felt getting into harms way was the only feasible way to get Superman’s attention, as she felt ignored and as if he was avoiding her. She also reveals that she knows that his time is short and that he is dying.
As they two begin to talk, Superman can his a distant telephone call between a doctor and his patient as the former tries to prevent the latter from committing suicide. Superman tells Lois he has to go and we see him appear behind a young girl named Regan, who is standing on the ledge of a tall building, clearly ready to jump and end her life. Placing his hand on her shoulder, he informs her that her doctor really was being held up and that she is much stronger than she thinks.
Back in Kandor, a group of scientists aware of Superman’s illness have created an emergency plan to attempt to save the Man of Steel’s life, only asking that their leader, Van-Zee, lead them as he once did in their mission.
Back on Earth, Superman meets with Lex Luthor, admitting to him that he’s won and that world will be his for the three weeks before they execute him for his crimes. Superman also invokes a challenge to Lex, harkening back to all the good Lex claimed he could do for the Earth without Superman around, and begs him to do that good because he knows there is still good within the man.
Lex, of course, responds by spitting on the glass between him and Superman.
After dealing with Lex, Superman goes to speak with Quintum in order to give him something the good doctor has wanted for years now: an ability to clone Superman. Having cloned his entire 8,000,000,000+ genome sequence into a book for Quintum, he also gives him the instructions on how to combine human and Kryptonian DNA strands together, as a way of showing how much he trusts Quintum with this kind of information.
Superman returns to the children one last time, but he’s not alone. The scientists, as he expected, who couldn’t cure his illness, but he did expect they could make short work of what was making the children so sick. If he couldn’t visit the children again, he wanted to make sure he had a way to make it so they could find the same happiness he brought them in other ways.
As we wind down the series with issues #11 and #12, we finally see things really ramp up. The scene begins with Lex Luthor’s execution date finally coming to pass, with Lex lamenting Superman’s lack of attendence and also criticizing the fact that a pastor is there at his execution, claiming the man of faith “stinks of the irrational”. Lex asks the man in charge of throwing the switch how he feels to murder someone who has the ability to cure his sister’s cancer before the man responds with “it’s too late for her AND for you!” before throwing the switch and ‘killing’ Lex Luthor for good.
However, it would appear that Superman was not the only person able to re-create his powers for 24 hours and Lex very easily escapes custody, ready to set phase three of his plan into action. While Lex and his neice prepare to take down Superman once and for all and prepare the world where he is their ruler, Superman is getting the last of his affairs in order, such as giving his robots directions on how to take care of all the artifacts and creatures that still remain in the fortress after his death.
While discussing things with his neice, Lex reveals that he had one additional trick up his sleeve. Because of Superman’s weakness to red sunlight, he had enlisted the help of Solaris, hoping that bit of additional insurance would allow for an easier fight. However, knowing that Lex might try something like that, Superman had fashioned a new suit that specifically protected him from red solar radiation, and the Man of Steel makes his way, along with his army of robots(save for one to defend the fortress), into space to deal with Solaris.
As the battle rages between Superman, his robots and Solaris, Robot 7 reveals that he must atone for his sins, as he was the reason why Lex Luthor was able to create the superman serum. At some point, Solaris had invaded the Superman robots’ neural net and stole the formula from Robot 7 and given it to Lex, as part of a deal made between the two villains, and now, Robot 7 was willing to give his very life to make things right, asking Superman to forgive him as he releases the Sun-Eater to aid in the fight.
At first, it seems the Sun-Eater will devour Solaris, but as he releases a lot of solar energy all that once, Solaris manages to destroy the Sun-Eater, enraging superman to the point where he repeatedly punches Solaris in one of his blue “eyes” enough to make the living computer fall out of orbit and come crashing down to Earth. Though the Sun-Eater was not able to kill Solaris, it did leave him sufficiently weakened. As Superman looks upon the weakened being, he tells him that by the 24th century, Solaris will be an ally to humanity, rather than an enemy and that his rehabilitation begins now, knocking out the living computer with a final punch before vanishing.
Back at the Daily Planet, Clark Kent arrives, clearly winded and looking poorly, to announce that he had just witnessed the fight between Superman and Solaris and that he has a “big headline” for tomorrow before he appears to die right in front of all his co-workers. As everyone is trying to figure out what to do with Clark, Lex Luthor destroys one of the windows outside, standing before them proclaiming “Clark is the least of their worries”.
After his “death”, Superman finds himself on what appears to be Krypton and speaking to his deceased father, Jor-El, who explains to him that his body is going through a mutation and that like matter and energy, things like a consciousness cannot be created nor destroyed, but can take on new forms. He also explains that Superman has one final choice to make: to remain at play with the field of living consciousness, or return to Earth one last time to take on evil one last time.
Back on Earth, Lex condemns the employees of the Daily Planet, claiming they were the reason he was sent to the electric chair. He also states that if they think they can decide who gets to live or die that maybe he should make them decide whom he kills over the next 24 hours of his reign as the most powerful man alive. All of this grandiose speech is cut a bit short by Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, who reveal that Solaris had double crossed him and, in all his vanity, he allowed someone to exploit his desire for revenge to screw up the entire planet. In a fit of rage, Lex uses his super-breath on Lois to send her flying across the room
As Clark is revived, Jimmy takes a swing at Lex, who shouts at the reporters that he can easily repair the sun and that all they need to do is watch him and write the headlines. Easily tossing Jimmy aside, Lex ponders if anyone else desires to act out in front of him, only for Clark to slowly get up and seemingly trying to hide something from him. As Lex looks upon the man incredulously, asking what exactly he is trying to hide, Clark whips out a gravity gun and shoots Lex with it, sending him plummeting towards the ground.
As the battle ensues between the two equally matched Supermen, Lex grabs hold of Superman as they both fall through the pavement and into the subway system of Metropolis, Lex pulling Superman by his cape and dumping him on the ground as Lex begins looking at the world in awe of all the things his new body is capable of.
As he continues, his neice asks him if he’s alright, to which he responds that he’s never been better, but Superman reveals that what Lex is actually trying to say is that Lex is finally aware of how gravity warps time, forcing Lex’s body to compensate for the time warping by shooting his metabolism into overdrive, thereby draining his powers much more quickly than the 24 hours Lex thought he originally had, giving Lex a solid punch to the jaw.
As Lex begins to panic, he reaches for another dose of his serum, only for Superman to show that he grabbed it from him during one of their struggles. As Superman holds the now depowered Lex at bay, the latter laments how he could have “saved the world” if not for Superman and, with a final punch, Superman tells him that he could have saved the world years ago if it truly mattered to him.
With only moments to spare, Superman shares a final kiss with Lois before flying into the sun to repair the mess that Lex and Solaris had made. A year later, Superman is still missing, with many assuming he is dead, but Lois feels as if he is just still hard at work at that when the time is right, Superman will return and he will come find her.
In the final pages of the comic, Dr. Quintum and his assistant discuss the ceremony, commenting on how Lex seemed absolutely devastated now that Superman was finally dead, considering how that was his ultimate goal. As she asks him what happens if Superman never returns, Quintum responds with a smile, saying now that they know how to make Supermen, he’s sure they’ll think of something.
All Star Superman is honestly a must read for any fan of comics. Not only is it one of the best depictions of the Man of Steel I have ever personally read, but it is also just a really finely crafted story that ties up everything in such a way that you don’t feel cheated by the way that it ends and I feel that if you don’t give it a read, you are doing yourself a disservice.