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Monday, September 22, 2008


All-Star Luthor: Xs and Os

Thanks to David Uzumeri at Funnybook Babylon for inspiring this post:

So All-Star Superman #12 is out. Superman is in the sun, evil is vanquished, humanity is ready to step into the future, and unspoken on the page but near the heart of the series, Lex Luthor and Leo Quintum are the same guy.

Throughout the series Leo has been presented as an obvious opposite number for Luthor, a scientific genius who actually uses his abilities to shape a better future instead of merely talking about it. But A-SS #12 puts the final puzzle pieces together, and makes it clear that Leo isn't merely a mirror for Luthor. He literally is Luthor--older, wiser, humane. And that's not just clever, elliptical plotting from Morrison. It gets straight to the thematic center of the story, to Morrison's idea of who Superman is, what he's capable of, what superhero comics mean now to those who read them.

Morrison has said that The Invisibles is optimally designed for its second reading--that you can only really start to understand the experience if you've already experienced it. To me this means that perceiving time in one direction limits your frame of reference too much to understand what's happening until it has already happened, and you're able to reflect. You can only discern a structure from outside the structure. So here's how I see the structure as it pertains to Luthor:

Throughout A-SS, Superman has maintained a belief that even Luthor can be redeemed. For all the labors Superman undertakes, proving his faith in Luthor is perhaps his toughest challenge, and the one task he seemingly fails, given only the evidence on the page. But we've seen over and over that Morrison's Superman, the perfect man, is never wrong, and always wins in the end. So what are the chances he fails to save Luthor?

Think about the events of A-SS #12--Luthor, juiced up on Superman's powers, finally understands the simple, harmonious structure of the universe. He touches the mind of god. Seemingly, it doesn't last, as Superman proceeds to deck him at his moment of enlightenment. Luthor's evil, petty nature reasserts itself, aghast that Superman has beaten him yet again. Then Superman lays him flat, and ends with a stinging rebuke: "You could have saved the world years ago if it really mattered to you, Luthor." But is this a disappointed write-off or a challenge?

After Superman leaves to reignite the sun, Luthor has a year to think about it--a year in which, according to the epilogue, even he is moved by Superman's memorial service, and, as Quintum himself says, the villain diminishes in the absence of his rival. So, let's say you're Luthor. Superman's finally gone, the world looks different to you now, and his final statement is ringing in your ears. Maybe you give up and let yourself be executed, as the overt text seems to suggest.

Or maybe you disappear, travel back in time, don a pair of glasses as a foolproof disguise, (plus some hair plugs, switching the X in your name to an O, and adding some colors to your old coat) and you become the man Superman always knew you could be. You devote yourself to scientific pursuits meant to expand human knowledge and create a better world. You place yourself near the sun where Superman must come to your rescue in issue #1 so that in #12, he may rescue the sun itself, and every creature that lives in its light. And eventually, because you earned Superman's total trust, you are given the chance to continue your former enemy's legacy for thousands of years, through the P.R.O.J.E.C.T. Remember, Superman is always right, and Superman always wins in the end. And if even Luthor can be saved by Superman, every single one of us is saved. What's more, Superman must know who Quintum is. That's why he's willing to entrust Leo with his and Lois's DNA--because he knows the man Luthor was, and the man Quintum has become. He has the confidence of seeing his beliefs proven true before his eyes.

Assuming that Leo is Lex, the next question is why? That is, why does Morrison, in nearly all his significant superhero comics, keep returning to the idea of the future reaching back to the past, so that they may save each other? The trope is present in Animal Man, New X-Men, DC 1 Million and The Invisibles, to name a few.

I think it might have something to do with the essential nature of superhero comics as they are created and experienced now, read primarily by adults, pale reflections of an idealized aspect of many readers' childhoods. There's the wish fulfillment aspect; hindsight as the ultimate superpower--the chance to do it all over again, but better. Leo is Lex's chance to be the man he always bragged about being, if only Superman weren't there to impede him. Again, Leo/Lex is the stand-in for all of humanity, in that regard.

All-Star Superman, the comic, is like a meta version of Leo Quintum. It's the Superman concept's chance to actually be what DC has puffed its chest about for decades--Superman as role model, Christ figure, avatar of morality and decency, etc. Except instead of telling us that in endless mediocre stories where Superman actually acts like a fool, dithering and crying, All-Star Superman shows us that role model in action, what it means to portray the best of our natures in a cape with a propensity for punching the fuck out of things.

The book itself recalls the past--not only of Superman, but for the people reading the comic, their own pasts. But it does so only in order to prepare the way for a brighter (Superman not only is in, but *is* the sun now) future. Grant Morrison strikes me as a nostalgic futurist, continually hopeful that by sifting the sands of our former selves, we can filter out all but utopia.

Ultimately, Luthor/Quintum is the lynch-pin character in the book, because 1) he initiates the plot, 2) he displays real (albeit off-panel) character growth in moving from the Luthor at the end of #12 to the Quintum at the beginning of #1, and 3) by doing so he symbolizes Morrison's hope for humanity. Superman himself is a beautiful cipher--by design, he's an avatar for perfection, always there for everyone else--for Leo and his crew, for the goth girl on the ledge, for Luthor, eventually for every living thing on Earth--to help them evolve, to become better. That's how Morrison ends so many of his stories--with humanity soaring into the sky to face Maggedon in JLA, or stepping beyond their physical forms to expanded consciousness in The Invisibles. All-Star Superman may be the most graceful version of the standard Morrison ending yet.

UPDATE: Finally had a chance to look through all the issues. In addition to Superman's line in #12 "You could have saved the world years ago if it really mattered to you, Luthor," a commenter below points out that in #1, Quintum tells Superman that he too is trying to escape a "doomed world--called the past." Further, in A-SS #10, when Superman gives Quintum his genome, the scientist questions the decision, saying "I could be the devil himself for all you know." Superman replies "Oh, I think I'm a better judge of character than that, Professor," then hands him the vials containing his and Lois' DNA, saying "This is how much I trust you, Leo." The scene takes on a completely new meaning, assuming Quintum is Luthor.

LATER UPDATE: Be sure to check the comments for the discussion, kicked off by RAB, of the derivation of the name "Quintum."

It just reminded me of something... one of Quintum's lines in #1 is:

"I'm trying to escape from a doomed world too, Superman.... It's called the PAST."

Could he mean he was trying to escape from his "past" as Lex Luthor?
Awesome. Now there's one of the textual clues to time travel I was looking for.
I'd like to believe this but I'm not convinced.

(For one thing, it hinges on Superman somehow knowing for absolutely certain that Quintum is in fact a reformed Luthor come back in time from the future, and not a still-antisocial Luthor conducting an elaborate charade. Why should he, when after all that's exactly what the present-day Luthor had been doing in the first issue? If Superman is merely taking this assumption on faith, that seems beyond reckless and foolhardy...especially when he can't even discuss it with Leo himself.)

One thing I'd like to see is some unpacking of the name "Quintum" -- "the fifth" in Latin, but why?
John Milton wrote a poem called "In Quintum Novembris" about the Gunpowder Plot (Guy Fawkes and all that) but is that relevant? Or is it just meant as a play on "quantum"?
Wasn't the chapter centered on Luthor the fifth issue/chapter? Okay, maybe that's a stretch of a connection but still....
Admittedly, whether Superman knows is tangential to the possibility that Luthor is Quintum--I just like it because it fits with my idea of Morrison's Superman as ultimately hopeful and forgiving. If Superman is unaware of Quintum's past, it all still works, it just isn't as poemy.
RAB--In Quintum Novembris isn't just about the Gunpowder Plot, it's also an precursor of Milton's conception of Satan in Paradise Lost. I found this online by a scholar named Macon Cheek writing in the 1950s:

"...if one were asked to name the three concepts most basic to the character of Satan as he is finally portrayed in Paradise Lost, he could perhaps find none more fundamental than the three following: first, the exile from heaven, the fallen archangel, that is, and, since fallen into a state “where peace and rest can never dwell,” the forever restless one, the eternal wanderer; second, the eternal envier and willful destroyer, hating all who possess that state of peace and rest which he once knew but can never know again, and inasmuch as he can never hope to regain it determined that all others shall lose it; and third, the wily plotter, “the artificer of fraud,” who works through deceit to conspiracy and then executes his conspiracy of destruction “under the fair pretense of friendly ends.” And though but briefly sketched here, and with a few lines only for each, these are essentially the three chief qualities of character which Milton gives this early Satan of the “In Quintum Novembris,” two of the three indeed being couched in phrases which in slightly modified form were to carry over into Paradise Lost."

Those three qualities--restlessness, envier/destroyer, and willing fraud--certainly apply *very* closely to Luthor, don't they? I think the name "Quintum" is Luthor's in-joke nod to his past self.

Here's the link to the page where I found that quote:

Excellent find re the significance of the Milton reference -- it really does cement a connection between the two.

The other thing: Superman knowing the real origin of Quintum isn't tangential at all, but critical to the whole idea. Morrison's Superman can read and decode DNA sequences. It's unthinkable that he wouldn't know Quintum was genetically identical to his greatest nemesis. Either Luthor's disguise would have to extend beyond the hairplugs and goggles and amazing technicolor dreamcoat down to the atomic level for Superman not to know it's Luthor, OR Superman has some sort of privileged knowledge we as readers never learn about that clues him in to Luthor as a reformed visitor from the future.

Don't get me wrong, I'm an admirer and careful student of how Morrison conceals information and leaves things unsaid to be discovered. But there's a critical step here that I'm not seeing and I'd like someone to point out where I missed it.
Point taken. I think by the nature of the device, evidence for this theory is never going to be more than circumstantial, unless Morrison says one way or the other, and I doubt he'd do that.

At a certain level, I guess I just accept that Superman believes in Leo's sincerity the same way Santa Claus knows when you've been bad or good.

However, here's a thought: perhaps the jury is out for Superman on Leo's intentions up through issue 10, at which point Leo has done enough demonstrable good that Superman is convinced he can totally trust him.

But here might be the clincher--when Superman gives Leo the DNA, it's a test he knows Leo will pass because Superman has already met the results--his own descendants--in #6. He's shared adventures with the very proof that Leo/Lex will go on to create the Superman dynasty, starting with Superman Secundus, down through Kal Kent, Superman 1 Million. That's how Superman knows.
"I'm trying to escape from a doomed world too, Superman.... It's called the PAST."

I just took that line as the center-piece of all futurists, utopians and anyone with a streak of progressive thinking. Like Stephen Dedalus in "Ulysses", "history is the nightmare from which I'm trying to wake up from". That there are things to be fixed and improved, that stagnation is locked by the past, what is given as inescapable in the notions of traditional, what's natural etc.

I'm not sold on the concept entirely, except on a very vague Morrisonian notion of transformation-incarnations and cycles (which includes the future guiding the present/ shooting itself into the past, ripples sent through time etc). Quintum mirrors Lex in many ways (and Agatha mirrors Natasha -- check the helmet that's brought explicit atention to and Agatha's hair). I re-read the issues with that notion, but it doesn't seem to click perfectly. It could potentially rhyme with issue 6's notion that Superman travels to the past with no intention of changing what can't be changed (so we never see Quintum ever considering avoiding things like Sun poisining). But still... Many potential holes to be considered and to be checked (and check if there are any nods to answer to those holes in the issues).

>Wasn't the chapter centered on
>Luthor the fifth issue/chapter?
>Okay, maybe that's a stretch of a
> connection but still....

Well, keep in mind that the only story arc that went for two issues was the Bizarro one, in opposite to all others. So that sort of play wouldn't be entirely out of question.
(I guess the last two could be as well, each had a more closed feeling and function individually more properly)

PS: I remember other bloggers commenting on Luthor as Milton's Devil.
Like I said to Jog at Savage Critcs, I think the line about "the PAST" can be read as futurism or as a confession based on biography. All of the "clues," if that's what they are, can be read two ways. This is a notion that's only there if you want it to be.
Extending the Quintum/5 thought, I just noticed that the number on Luthor's jumpsuit on the cover of #5 is 221, or 2+2+1. Then, on the splash page, he is put in a continuum consisting of 1) Attila the Hun, 2)Ghengis Khan, 3) Al Capone, 4) Adolf Hitler and 5) Lex Luthor.

In other news, I also see that Luthor named his monkey in the Superman suit Leopold.
>>>>In other news, I also see that Luthor named his monkey in the Superman suit Leopold

Ok, that's telling. I thought the numbers were just a play on the "23" stuff (which could, I guess, be some indication on the hippie quality of Leo). But that might have something...
I'd bet Lex's new name is Quintum, too, because "The Fifth," think about it:

Original Red-Hair Lex Luthor
Bald Ex-Con Jumpsuit Lex Luthor
Earth 3 Crisis Alexaqnder Luthor
New Earth Businessman Lex Luthor
Leo Quintum, the fifth Lex Luthor.

Great work, Cole!
P.R.O.J.E.C.T is basically the Cadmus project aka Kirbytech, so couldn't Quintum just be a sly way of referring to a 5th world? Darkseid and the 4th world stuff really doesn't seem to have any part in A.S.S. after all.
I'm almost convinced that this could be what Morrison had in mind...but if that's the case, he didn't quite pull it off, as there are too many things that have to be overlooked or explained away and no one thing we can point to as the clincher that proves the argument. What we really have is a question mark. Without this theory, Leo Quintum just comes out of nowhere and begs for some kind of explanation.

That said, here's one more hint Morrison could have intended this: he donated what he once called the best idea he ever had for Superman to Mark Millar for the ending of Red Son -- out of left field, and with no reason for it to be disclosed in that particular story, we're told that Lex Luthor is in fact the ancestor of Superman, and the "House of El" takes on new significance. Is it possible Morrison wanted to reclaim that idea and reuse it? Absolutely.
I've never read Red Son; that's interesting.

RAB, you and Mick have mentioned unexplained holes in the story--I think I'm a little too blinded by love for the Quintum/Luthor idea to see them--but I'd love some examples of places where you think the notion breaks down.
Oops, I ruined the epilogue of Red Son for anyone who hasn't read it! Um...spoiler warning?
Sorry, my bad.

This Quintum thing has been driving me nuts. I've developed a theory of how it could work that answers all the objections I had. But every time I close one plot hole, another one opens up requiring even more baroque rationalizations. There's just too much missing information! I'm starting to feel like a conspiracy theorist, or worse, a perfectly rational skeptic who starts thinking "well, let's just say hypothetically..." and then gradually slides down the slope into gibbering madness. Curse you, Cole!
Link added. Thanks, RAB.
And here's another interesting take... the connection between All Star Supeman and DC One Million, made a bit clearer.
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