Marc Singer has up a long and thoughtful post about Grant Morrison’s run on All Star Superman (brought to my attention by my brother…thanks Eric!)

Anyway, you should definitely read the whole thing, but for this discussion I’m going to quote the last bit here:

After viewing the world through Superman’s eyes, though, Luthor gets with the All Star program. He realizes “The fundamental forces are yoked by a single thought”–apparently the entire universe is “thought-controlled!” His enlightenment and defeat aren’t just the typical final-act reversals; they enact the triumph of the ideal over the material. Or, as Superman tells Luthor (while laying him out with a decidedly material, decidedly anticlimactic, decidedly satisfying punch) “Brain beats brawn every time!” In grand superhero tradition, Morrison stages a conflict of ideas and resolves it through the physical embodiments of his characters… which itself happens to be a perfect illustration of their ability to embody our ideals.

But tragically, perfectly, the story doesn’t end there. Superman converts to pure “solar radio-consciousness,” pure information, pure idea, yet he still manages to save us all one last time. He ends the series presiding serenely over Metropolis and Earth, maintaining the sun that keeps them alive, duplicating his earlier custodianship of Kandor on a much larger scale. And he ends it as a purely ideal being inspiring others to do better, duplicating his relationship to us poor souls down here on Earth-Q, where he’s never been anything else. Trust Morrison to end All Star Superman with one more radical variation of scale, one more blurring of fiction and reality–but trust him also to apply these familiar games to a new theme, one perfectly matched to his character, about the power of ideas; the power of inspiration; the power of hope.

I’ve read the first bits of Morrison’s story. I thought it was entertaining enough, and from what I read Marc’s contentions here seems reasonable…that is, yes, Morrison’s interests are about inspiration, about the power of fictions and of the ideal.

The thing that leaves me kind of cold, though, in both Morrison’s story and in Marc’s essay is…what ideals are we talking about? You can’t have an ideal without content. As just one example, Christian ideals (meekness, sacrifice, mercy) aren’t necessarily the same as American ideals (freedom, opportunity, self-assertion.) And neither are quite the same as, say, Jewish ideals. Or Viking ideals. Or Japanese ideals (and yes, none of these ideals are monolithic either, but you get the general point.) Marc says that Superman is “inspiring us to do better,” but do better at what? Commit fewer crimes? Lift bigger weights? Donate more to charity? What is ethically at stake here?

To cut to the chase; I don’t think there’s anything ethically at stake here. Nothing in Marc’s post, and nothing in the issues I read, suggested that Morrison was interested in, or willing to, raise the sorts of questions you have to raise if you actually want to try to place super-heroes in some sort of coherent moral framework. To just touch on some of the most obvious issues; the whole idea of the super-hero is kind of fascist (law-and-order perfect genetic vigilantes beating the stuffing out of overly intellectual criminal masterminds.) Relatedly, the whole framework of crime and justice in which super-hero comics operate deliberately skirts any kind of political or social engagement. Having other non-divine people constantly offer salvation is not especially theologically subtle. And so forth.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about ideals intelligently in a super-hero comic. Alan Moore did in Watchmen and Miracleman; I think Grant Morrison himself did in Animal Man. But you do need to be willing to talk about something concrete. Cold war politics and the bankruptcy of both right and left in Watchmen; animal rights and non-violence in Animal Man. Life without ideals is arguably monstrous, but ideals without life are nothing — just hot air.

The crux of the matter for me is when Marc says that Morrison is saying, “If Superman didn’t exist we would have to invent him.” No. No we wouldn’t. Superman’s a copyrighted, invented, commercial character, who happens to have been around for a while. He has cultural meaning and significance, but in himself — he’s not an ideal. He’s not Christ; he’s not the Buddha, he’s not God; there’s no systematic , profound, thoughtful tradition to explain what he is and what he stands for. You want him to be meaningful or stand for something, you’ve got to tell a story which makes him stand for something beyond…I don’t know, nostalgia, and niceness, and protecting people from crime and violent death. (I mean, crime and violent death are bad things, but “safety” as a spiritual sine qua non leaves something to be desired.)

Maybe Morrison really does the work I’m talking about in those last issues; maybe I’d be a lot more impressed with the end than with the beginning. But Marc strikes me as an eloquent apologist, and despite his enthusiasm and his intelligence, I really don’t see anything in his review that suggests that this series has anything to say beyond, “Superman inspires us because…um, well…because we’re comics geeks?”

I guess I’m waiting for the day when Superman gets taken all the way back to his roots and starts acting like a socialist again. Maybe now that we’re entering another Depression we could have him beating up mine bosses again, huh? You can tell that that’s authentic, 100%, real idealism, because it would actually have the potential to piss somebody off.