The character of Superman has been re-imagined more times than we care to remember, keeping Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s venerable superhero modern and relevant. In fact, it’s rarely the clean-cut all-American superhero who needs the update, more his surrounding characters – there’s little new on this earth that can harm an invulnerable Kryptonian, but journalist sweetheart Lois Lane needs her newsroom technology and wardrobe updating every now and then.
So Morrison and Quitely are treading familiar ground. Thankfully, they keep the origin story down to one page, four panels and eight words – this is no Birthright. Instead, we plough straight into what Superman does best – a mission to the Sun to save a talented scientist from a Luthorian plot.
In fact there’s a twist, and it’s entwined in this that the biggest change occurs to the usual Superman fare. This book brings Superman down to a personal level, makes him more introspective and brings his friends and family to the fore. There’s not very much rescuing of innocents or world saving going on here. Instead we see an inward-looking hero, capable of these feats but wrapped up in his own problems. There’s very little reference or acknowledgement of a world beyond Superman’s clique of close friends, colleagues and enemies.
Morrison includes some glorious set pieces, which wander gently around the core plot and offer some light relief to the overall build-up of tension. In one, Superman finds himself in the rather bizarre situation of pretending to be Clark Kent, stuck in the middle of a prison riot while interviewing Lex Luthor. He has to surreptitiously use his superpowers to save them both, while maintaining his cover as a bumbling oaf. It’s these little dioramas of Superman’s life that help add depth to his character, bringing him beyond the two-dimensional do-gooder he’s so often restricted to.
Quitely’s art is beautifully rendered. His Superman is a solid slab of muscle, but Quitely draws him less posed than most artists – he isn’t a muscular man in a Mr Universe competition, but a solid wall of impervious flesh. We don’t need to see throbbing veins through a skin-tight suit if he’s sitting having a chat with his dog. He also manages to give Superman’s Clark Kent alter-ego an ill-fitting suit, scruffy hair and glasses to successfully hide his identity – during his interview with Luthor, his arch-enemy even accuses him of being chubby. Quitely’s other characters are equally beautiful and iconic, unless they’re busy mutating into monsters, which he also handles deftly. His backgrounds are often left as rectangles of colour, rather than crammed with detail, but paired with Morrison’s dialogue, it helps point the focus to where both writer and artist clearly want it focused: on the characters.
This is a fascinating piece of genre fiction, giving Superman more of a personality than we’re used to. It doesn’t have the genre-breaking originality and brilliance of the superhero reworkings we saw back in the eighties, but it does do the job of providing a character often limited to two dimensions, with significantly more depth.
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