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Strong characterisation, poor story
on 16 October 2013
Despite being a massive Superman fan, it's taken me a while to get to this book - which many readers put forward as one of the "must-read" Superman books - because it's written by Jeph Loeb. I really don't like Loeb's writing and his Batman stuff is among the most overrated garbage I've ever read. That said, I felt compelled to read this if only to say I have and can say with authority that it too is terrible - which is why I was pleasantly surprised with what I found with Superman For All Seasons. It's still not an amazing Superman read but, considering that I was expecting far worse from Loeb, this turned out to be a decent Superman book.
Right away the book is structured in a gimmicky four-part/four-seasons fashion for no real reason except that Loeb has some weird fascination with this kind of symmetry with time as seen in his most famous book, Batman: The Long Halloween, which is based around public holidays. Each of the four chapters are narrated by an important person in Superman's life though never by Superman himself - Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang (lotta LL's in Superman's life).
First thing you're going to notice as it's on the cover is Superman's character design. Tim Sale's a decent artist but I'm sorry, this character design is just ridiculous. His face is too small for such a massive head, he looks by turns a cartoon character - in a comic! - or like Down's Syndrome Superman. I just don't understand his design, his body is too balloon-like, especially once he puts on the costume, to take seriously.
Like so many of Superman's books, this one is also concerned with retelling the character's origins: how he slowly discovered his powers, moved from Smallville to Metropolis, met Lois and Lex and became Superman. It's a well-worn story done numerous times in the 75 years the character's been around (by the way, Happy 75th Birthday, Superman!), but a fascinating one nonetheless, hence it's endless repetition. But I would argue it's not nearly as good as other origin stories like John Byrne's Man of Steel or Mark Waid's Birthright.
The first part in Smallville is pretty good as we see a young Clark discovering his abilities and there's a nice visual reference to the first Chris Reeve Superman movie when Clark races a train (and of course beats it). But there's a scene between Clark and Jonathan that summed up the book for me. Clark is afraid of his powers, standing in a field looking lost and Jonathan walks out to talk to his son. Martha stands on the porch, along with the reader, as we see, in the distance, two specks, one Jonathan the other Clark, standing, then move together at the end in a hug. That distance seemed unnecessary - why couldn't we have seen Jonathan and Clark, father and son, up close? Why couldn't we hear their conversation? Waid does something similar in Birthright but doesn't keep the reader at a distance, instead drawing them in right into the conversation and we see the two interact up close in real time. Loeb's choice to keep the reader well away from Jonathan and Clark not only makes reading this book a less personable experience but also sums up the book's coldness. Everything is narrated in the past tense for some reason and makes reading it feel less immediate and urgent.
But Loeb does get the characters right, and most importantly gets Superman right. At the end of the Smallville sequence, a twister devastates the small town and is also the first time Clark behaves like Superman sans costume. After saving several peoples' lives, he looks troubled and has this great look in his eyes as he surveys the destruction and murmurs "I could have done more..." which is Superman in a nutshell. Later in Lex's sequence, Lex says "Fame is fleeting... but Lex Luthor is forever!" which also sums up that character nicely (it's also worth noting that this is still John Byrne's Lex, ie. middle-aged, paunchy, with red hair and a constant cigar poking out of his mouth rather than the lean, bald figure that will emerge shortly after). Lois behaves true to form, independently, strongly, and only once as the damsel in distress, and even Jimmy has his classic bow-tie! Also, and this is a very minor point, but Shelby, Clark's dog, is in this one which I loved seeing (I'm a dog person).
I felt it was an inferior origin story because Loeb doesn't really explain much. Clark moves to Metropolis from Smallville, but why does he get a job at a newspaper? Where did his Superman outfit come from? How did he meet Lois and when did he fall in love with her? Is he in love with her? When did he make the choice to become Superman? How long as he been Superman - literally just a season? Where did his personal philosophy come from? Where did the Superman/Lex rivalry spring from? These are things that are addressed better in Birthright where we see the formation of a character - in All Seasons we see Superman fully formed. He literally transitions from Clark Kent from Smallville one minute and then Clark Kent, superstar reporter and Superman the next. It's too quick and almost lazy because his origin story is so well known, that Loeb doesn't even try telling it properly. But most importantly this shows that Loeb doesn't have anything new to say about the character, or have anything interesting to add to Superman's story - no new angles are explored, it's like watching a jigsaw come together: flat and predictable.
Also the Jenny Vaughn/Toxin scene was very weird. Superman saves Jenny from a burning building and she becomes obsessed with him. Lex uses this brief connection to Superman in a convoluted plan to infect the city with an airborne virus only he has the antidote for, and then gives to Jenny - who is now conditioned as a hero of sorts, stupidly called Toxin - so that Superman can lift her up as she sprays the antidote over the city. Except through another arbitrary twist of fate, Jenny dies and Superman is unable to stop her, sending him into a deep depression where he stops being Superman temporarily. Wha...? There are just too many questions over this bizarre sequence to convince me that it's a positive addition to the book.
Sale's art is pretty good, I guess, I'm not a big fan though his stuff here looks better than his Batman art thanks in large part to colourist Bjarne Hansen who really brings the images to life. Sale often uses splash pages in his comics and there are lots of them in this book, though unlike splash pages in most superhero comics, Sale's are often focused on landscape imagery and the ones here, in particular the sunset on the Kent farm, are very beautiful with Hansen's colours giving the scene a natural majesty. But I also really liked Sale's depiction of Smallville, it's streets, it's malt shop (really!), and the splash page of Superman stopping a train was really eye-catching too.
Superman For All Seasons is an ok origin story. Loeb crucially gets the characters and their voices right but doesn't do anything different with his version of Superman's story to help readers understand the character. The story isn't spectacular or especially original, but Sale's art is the best I've seen it thanks to Hansen's colours. Considering I was dreading this, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found - Loeb's best book! Which is still only average. Read Byrne's Man of Steel and Waid's Birthright for better Superman origin stories and you'll see where I'm coming from.