“You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”
Those two sentences sum up why I chose All-Star Superman for The Greatest Moment in Comics. Two simple sentences that not only define what makes Superman a great character but what makes me understand him on so many levels. It is a scene in a book that is filled with great Superman moments, in a series already full of those. It is a scene that is quiet and subdued in an issue of a comic that is equal parts dialogue and equal parts action. It is a moment that helps you remember that though he is “Superman”, it really is the “Man” aspect of the character and not the “Super” that makes him incredible. His endless compassion and love for humanity is what makes him great. Not the ability to fly. Not the fact that he has heat, x-ray, microscopic and telescopic vision. Not the fact that he can essentially bench the moon. What makes him great is his humanity, which considering the fact he is an alien is pretty damn beautiful when you think about it.
From the moment I came up with the idea for writing this list, picking #7-3 was the hardest part. I had my numbers 1 and 2 from the outset. There wasn’t even a great mental debate about which was which, All-Star Superman #10 written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quietly was far and away my #1. More specifically page 12, panel 4. It speaks volumes about the impact one person can have on your life and how them being there at the time you need them most is all that matters in the long run. It just so happens that in the scene in question the right person at that moment is Superman. But what is the scene? Why is it so important and how is it supposed to make the reader better understand this “strange visitor from another world”?
How does it help to define the character of Superman?
Well the overall issue deals with a day in the life of Superman. Not just any day in the life however, you see since the first issue Superman has been slowly dying due to overexposure to solar radiation when he went to rescue a manned space flight to the sun. Given that Superman is just a giant walking solar battery, his little trip to his power source supercharged his cells to the point that they can no longer regenerate. With that in mind, Superman‘s time left on Earth is limited and he knows he has to make the most of it, every second of everyday. All-Star Superman #10 is a day in the life of Superman. In a span of 24 hours he finally resolves the fate of the Bottled City of Kandor, stops a rampaging robot in Metropolis, takes a bunch of school children on a field trip to Egypt and visits terminally ill children in the hospital. He also sets up a simulated universe in the Fortress of Solitude; a simulation to see what life would be like if he had never existed. He does all of these things between pages 1 and 23. So it is smack dab in the middle of the comic itself that we see the moment that makes Superman so crystal clear and amazing.
It is all right there on Page 12, Panel 4.
But it is so much better than just the one panel. All of page 12 is a scene full of drama and potential tragedy and it is all set-up 5 pages before that in a moment that would almost seem trivial. Superman had just saved a runaway Metrorail car from crashing. He flies away, waving to those that are cheering and thanking him. But there is one man on a cell phone telling someone named Regan frantically to not leave their apartment and that he would be on his way directly. According to the page all of this happened at 4:35PM. It seemed like a throwaway bit of dialogue the first time I read the issue and I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I re-read All-Star Superman in a collected format that I connected the dots between page 7, panel 2 and everything that happens on page 12. It never dawned on me that Superman had listened to the conversation on the cell phone. Of course he heard the situation, he has super-charged super-hearing.
So what happens on Page 12 that is so monumental and moving all at once? Well, here is the panel by panel analysis.
Page 12, Panel 1: It turns out Regan is a troubled young woman and the man on the phone was her Doctor/Psychiatrist. He wanted her to stay inside because she was suicidal. She is crying as she stands on the ledge of a building. There is no question of what her intent is as she stands crying on the ledge. This is human drama; this is a person in pain that cannot cope with the pain of life. We don’t even know what her problems specifically are. All we see is a girl, on a ledge with clear intent.
Page 12, Panel 2: Regan is taking a deep breath. This is the moment. Tear stained face, running mascara, clasped hands, possibly in prayer.
Page 12, Panel 3: He is there. A broad chest clad in blue red and yellow. He talks to her, not harshly, not yelling. My lord as you read the words put in his mouth by Grant Morrison you can almost hear the voice of Christopher Reeve calmly speaking to this poor girl. “Your Doctor really did get held up Regan. It is never as bad as it seems”. Her look has changed from despair to startled. Not a horrified startled mind you, but nor is it one of suddenly being filled with hope. It is a look of genuine astonishment that someone is there on this roof with her and that someone cares. It doesn’t matter that it’s Superman. The fact that it is, is amazing unto itself but it isn’t like Regan specifically wanted Superman to reach out to her. She really just wanted someone, anyone to show that they genuinely cared. The fact that someone did is a blessing. The fact that it is Superman, that is miraculous.
Page 12, Panel 4: The “Moment” itself, the defining moment with that pure distilled ring of truth. Regan is still in shock that someone is there and in awe because that someone is Superman. “You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me”. Here is The Last Son of Krypton, knowing he is going to die any day now, doing everything in his power to make the world a better place. Why? Because despite being an alien; Superman is Human. Human in how he was raised, human in emotion and human how he relates to people, all people, be they human or not. He believes the world can be a better place for all humanity and, because of that, he views every human life as precious. It doesn’t matter what Regan’s problems are at that moment, it’s the fact that she is someone in pain that matters to him. “You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me” is sending a message to Regan about how fragile all life is. Superman wrestling with his own mortality is one of the themes of All-Star Superman and here, on Page 12, panel 4 a representation of that mortality turns and looks him in the face. How could he not reach out and help? His message in those two sentences is that life is worth living but time is short so do not throw the gift of life away.
Page 12, Panel 5: Probably the most emotional moment in any comic I have ever read. Superman takes Regan in his arms and holds her close. Two people, both on the brink of death, opting to choose life. In one page and 5 panels Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely have told this moment of human drama. It is a story all its own. Regan is relatable to any reader because so many people have been in her shoes, they’ve been that depressed, that desperate and felt that alone where they thought taking their lives was their only option. In five panels we have a story of intense drama, desperation and eventually relief. There have been writers who have spent years writing Superman and not told such a completely gripping story as Morrison and Quitely did in one page and five panels.
Honestly, it has never been about the powers and abilities Superman has. Those are just “Macguffins” to make you realize you are reading a comic about the world view of one individual and how that world view causes others to look at him. Superman maybe an alien but he counts himself a member of the human race. Just because he can fly doesn’t mean he is looking down on us. If anything Superman being able to fly is a metaphor for him being able to take that awesome step back and always be able to see the bigger picture. Hell the culmination of Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman is that Superman‘s ultimate enemy Lex Luthor finally has the powers of Superman. Luthor finally has the power to do what he wants but having those powers is his undoing as he is able to finally grasp how Superman sees time, space, the Earth and the entire Universe. It is so overwhelming to Luthor that he nearly breaks down at the sheer scope of it all. No mere mortal can cope with being Superman, hell Superman can barely cope with being Superman. It is the price of being “Super” so it is better to be just the “Man”.
Superman isn’t hiding as Clark Kent so he can “experience” being human. He isn’t even really hiding. It isn’t an alter-ego, they are the same person. There is no fake identity like Batman pretending to be Bruce Wayne. Superman is Clerk Kent, Clark Kent is Superman. Same man, same view of the world. The public persona of Superman isn’t any different than Clark Kent. On page 12, panel 4 Superman says exactly the same thing to Regan that Clark Kent would. In Comics a Hero’s secret identity/persona can be drastically different from their private one, especially if we’re talking about Batman. This is a case of one human being reaching out to another human being to let them know they aren’t alone. Superman’s “Never Ending battle” isn’t just about “Truth, Justice and The American Way”. The real never-ending battle is Life and Superman cherishes all Life!
The only argument I can find against this being the Greatest Moment in Comics is simply that it is a very recent story, less than 5 years old actually. The thing is, the age of the story shouldn’t matter. It is the weight of the story and the message that matter. This message in All-Star Superman #10 is already a classic; you just know that it will stand the test of time with comic book historians as well as casual fans. Hell, you can say that about ALL of All Star Superman. In the end, page 12 of All Star Superman #10 in its entirety tells a story within a story that should reach out to every person that reads it. In fact, the entire comic itself does that. What the message ends up being is left to each individual reader. I know how I interpret it may not be how the person reading this article interprets it, but through it, you should be able to get a better understanding of the concepts of love, compassion and the overall concept of Superman. That’s what any great moment should do regardless of the people or characters involved.