"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Len Wein is becoming something of a go-to writer for DC Comics’ superhero flashbacks. After retelling the origin of Libra (a character he created for May/June 1974’s Justice League of America vol. 1 #111) in the recent Final Crisis Secret Files, last week’s comics featured two similarly-styled issues written by the comics veteran. Justice League of America vol. 2 #29, drawn by ChrisCross, was a condensed version of three 1972 issues which introduced Starbreaker, the cosmic vampire*; and it prefaces next month’s new Starbreaker story. Meanwhile, Superman/Batman Annual #3, penciled by Chris Batista and inked by Mick Gray and Jack Jadson, continued the S/B Annuals’ pattern of backwards-looking tales by revising the origin of the Composite Superman.
(SPOILERS FOLLOW for these issues and the original stories which inspired them.)
While I’m not opposed to this kind of revisionist-nostalgia approach — I’d rather revisit a status quo through a flashback than roll back to it through convoluted continuity gymnastics — I have been surprised at just how deliberately retro these stories are. Len Wein didn’t (and doesn’t) go for the sort of wildly-over-the-top plots and dialogue which inspire bloggers to create gleeful retrospectives (see, e.g., Bob Haney).
Instead, his bio is full of enjoyable, entertaining, solidly-constructed stories which look very impressive in the aggregate. Here’s a partial list of his credits, off the top of my head: co-creator of Swamp Thing, Wolverine, and the initial batch of “all-new, all-different” X-Men; editor of the Batman titles, New Teen Titans, Crisis On Infinite Earths, and Watchmen; writer of Justice League of America, Incredible Hulk, Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, multiple incarnations of Star Trek comics, and the late-‘80s Blue Beetle revival; and scripter of George Perez’s Wonder Woman revival. He and Walt Simonson also produced one of my favorite Batman stories, “Once Upon A Time” from Detective Comics #500. I am always glad to see Mr. Wein’s name in the credit box.
Still, these days, what with the decompression and the narrative captions and the lack of thought balloons, they don’t write the funnies like they usedta, nosir. Therefore, to me it takes a certain amount of guts to have Libra narrate his life story not through those cold, impersonal caption boxes, but right there in your face, shoving his scales-of-justice prop unavoidably at you-the-reader. He’s not even talking to anyone in particular, just doing a comprehensive one-man slide show of his origin. Furthermore, Wein incorporates the story title into Libra’s monologue, like it’s still 1987 or something; and he never lets the reader forget the theme of “balance.” “Balancing Act” (see?) is twenty-four pages (four more than the original JLofA story) whose value to the overall Final Crisis miniseries has yet to be determined, but on its own it’s good enough. I had more problems with artist Tony Shasteen’s depiction of Darkseid than I did with the plot or the dialogue.
Wein constructs JLofA #29 pretty much the same way, with Starbreaker ostensibly addressing the reader throughout. (At the end, though, we see who’s really listening.) Unlike “Balancing Act,” however, “Star Struck!” must distill three issues’ worth of early-‘70s Justice League into twenty-two pages. This is actually easier than it might seem, because Wein pretty much cuts an issue-and-a-half out of this version. The original arc spanned JLofA vol. 1 #s 96-98 (February-May 1972) and was written by Mike Friedrich, penciled by Dick Dillin, and inked by Joe Giella. In issue #96, the JLA defeats Starbreaker’s minions; but in #97, Starbreaker comes to Earth and defeats the League, setting the Earth on a collision course with the Sun to boot.
At this point there must have been some Dreaded Deadline Doom approaching, because the story shifts gears in order to accommodate a flashback. (Symmetry!) The demoralized Leaguers are revitalized after reviewing their own origin story (10 pages reprinted almost wholesale from the classic issue #9, plus a few more adapted by Friedrich/Dillin, et al.), but the issue ends just as they’re ready to charge. Moreover, it ends with the sudden appearance of Golden Age hero Sargon the Sorcerer, who in #98 reveals that his Ruby of Life can drive off Starbreaker if only its three pieces can be brought together. Therefore, while the rest of the League gets ready to fight Starbreaker, Aquaman and Black Canary fetch one piece while Hawkman and Batman find the other. These side trips have little to do with space vampires or superheroes, except that they show the ruby-pieces’ positive effects on their owners. Each issue of Justice League boasted a 25-page lead story back then (part of a 52-page package!), so I suspect that contributed to some flabby pacing. The final battle includes a confusing time-travel subplot which doesn’t help much either. Anyway, the JLA wins the rematch, helped by Sargon’s magical reinforcement and the power of positive thinking (literally).
Naturally, Wein dumps the motivational-origin sequence and the time-travel, but also omits Sargon’s involvement. (Sargon does merit a cameo, along with a few other magic-based DC characters.) Again, this may be a function of Starbreaker’s perspective, since he wouldn’t have known about Sargon’s behind-the-scenes help. However, Starbreaker also describes other scenes from which he was absent, including a meeting aboard the Justice League Satellite where Green Lantern offers some (by this time) redundant background on the villain. Whatever the reason, in the end Wein’s version reinforces a few key points: Starbreaker feeds on negative emotions, the League overcomes its bad vibes, and by inspiring the rest of the Earth it’s able to drain Starbreaker’s power.
Now, that sounds rather hokey — no one else ever thought to think positive against Starbreaker? — but on the whole I think the Wein/Chriscross update was an improvement. The original is full of baroque narration, like this bit from the beginning of issue #96:
How does one really measure time in space? There are no minutes, hours, days … these are but Earthly concepts, created in cosmic ignorance of the universal rhythm that truly times us all.
Yet this much is certain — there is a Now … and it is now that Superman streaks across interstellar space!…
Later in the issue, Hawkman stops a mechanical monster from destroying a temple, which apparently inspires him to talk like Thor:
’Tis fortunate the gods of this city are long dead and forgotten, else they would surely be enraged at this most unholy of sacrifices!
To be fair, Wein’s dialogue is far from spotless. JLofA #97 was called “The Day The Earth Screams,” so Wein has both Starbreaker and Green Lantern independently utter variations of the phrase. Wein updates Hawkman’s original line “the key words are ‘I surrender!’” by replacing “key words” with “safeword” — and thereby gives me a picture of Hawkman I really didn’t want. Wein’s Starbreaker also gets to quote from “Ozymandias” (you know the line), which might be a nod to Watchmen but which feels more like an early-‘70s superhero-writer’s stab at literary resonance.
With both of these stories I get the feeling that Wein allowed himself a bit of the ol’ schmaltz because of their original era. If it was okay in the early 1970s for a villain to declare, without irony, “The Justice League will pay for their interference!” and “The cursed fish-man was right” then why can’t he talk the same in a retelling, thirty-seven years later? Starbreaker could be the “unreliable narrator’s” grandiose cousin. Besides, a certain subset of readers may well think that this is how superhero comics should read: lots of action, high concepts, and sweeping pronouncements. I don’t know that I could take it on a monthly basis, but again, it works for what it is.
That brings me to the last book in this trifecta, Superman/Batman Annual #3. I can’t comment on its fidelity to the original Composite Superman story, which appeared in World’s Finest Comics #142 (June 1964), because I haven’t read it. (However, Dial B For Blog summarizes it, with scans, here). Nevertheless, according to my trusty Michael Fleisher encyclopediae (he’s in both the Batman and Superman volumes, of course), the original CompSoop was really truck driver Joe Meach, who wanted to raise his employment profile by staging a high-diving stunt. However, he swore eternal vengeance upon Superman after the Man of Steel saved him from diving from the top of a tall building into (what Meach was apparently unaware was) an inch of water. Superman got Meach a job as janitor at the Superman Museum, which for all I know paid more in 1964 than driving a truck. It still did nothing to dispel Meach’s bad mood. Long story short, Meach got zapped by a freak bolt of lightning while cleaning the Legion of Super-Heroes display, it gave him all the Legionnaires’ powers, and turned him into a green-skinned half-and-half Super/Batman. Yadda yadda yadda, he defeated Superman, Batman, and Robin, but his powers eventually faded, with no hope of returning.
Owing, I presume, to intervening changes in the Superman/Legion relationship, the Superman/Batman Annual‘s “Compound Fracture!” dumps the Legion angle entirely, making its Composite Superman a long-lost product of Professor Ivo’s failed attempts to create his own Justice League. (These attempts, the story tells us, later resulted in Ivo creating the League-duplicating android Amazo.) It’s a clever workaround, and as Scipio points out, C.S. ’09 uses powers which are common to both Leaguers and Legionnaires.
The story itself is pretty simple: a series of action scenes strung together initially by the mystery of the Composite Superman’s origins, and later by C.S. kidnapping Lois and Robin. Artists Chris Batista, Mick Gray, and Jack Jadson provide clear, straightforward middle-of-the-road superhero fare. (As it happens, Batista also penciled last year’s Superman-meets-the-Fourth-World revisionist flashback which ran in Superman Confidential.) This Composite Superman doesn’t want revenge on Superman and Batman, though — he wants to replace them, because it’s all he knows how to do. Accordingly, he’s a rather tragic figure, but the World’s Finest duo pulls a James T. Kirk, urging him to choose between various menaces until C.S. has a nervous breakdown and literally tears himself apart. Afterward, Batman intones that there was “no other way to destroy something that was more powerful than the entire JLA.” Lois observes that “nobody could live up to that much pressure,” and our heroes answer in tandem, “it’s an impossible job … but somebody has to do it.” I could have done without the gore (couldn’t C.S. have gotten something less messy, like a brain embolism?), but all in all, “Compound Fracture” was another of Wein’s entertaining, enjoyable stories.
What’s interesting to me now, though, is that here, Wein employs a more current array of storytelling devices. The plot uses DNA about as capriciously as a latter-day Star Trek series, but as long as you don’t try to reconcile Ivo’s super-clone experiments with Project Cadmus’, it’s not really an obstacle. Wein’s dialogue is less florid, although his Batman is a little more glib than he’s usually written today. Narrative captions replace thought balloons, there’s marginally more profanity, and as mentioned above, there’s more violence. Nevertheless, “Compound Fracture” is made up largely of classic superhero elements, and it aims to be set in a recognizable continuity (although not bound strictly by one).** The story has an easy learning curve, requiring nothing more than accepting that Superman is married to Lois Lane and Tim Drake is Robin. The first development is over 12 years old, and the second over 18; and neither is really critical to the story’s emotional beats.
“Compound Fracture” isn’t the same sort of revisionist nostalgia as the Justice League flashback stories discussed above. In fact, I can’t quite figure why it needs to be set in the past, unless DC felt that it needed to be separated pretty definitively from current goings-on in the Batman and Superman lines. As I said above, I’d prefer a flashback to a complex continuity justification, but ideally DC wouldn’t need either to tell this kind of story. Quite frankly, it’s the kind of competent, professional work I expect from any DC superhero comic: reasonably accessible, efficiently written, and effectively drawn. Len Wein made his career doing just this kind of work, and I hope DC lets him do more.
* [Whether by coincidence or design, the Justice League battled a space-vampire just as Marvel was launching Tomb of Dracula (TOD #1 was cover-dated April 1972).]
** [The exact placement of this story still eludes me. Superman and Lois are married, which would put it after December 1996. However, Batman stopped wearing the classic yellow-oval/undies-on-the-outside outfit around November 1994. I wouldn’t get hung up on the costume, except that it is a minor plot element. Also, this Composite Superman appears to use Firestorm’s atomic-restructuring power, despite the fact that Firestorm wasn’t even a little atomic glimmer when C.S. would have been created.]