Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
In Trinity Act Two (which began ‘way back on October 1!), series mastermind Kurt Busiek removed his three stars from their customary place at the center of DC’s superhero community. As a result, the past four months have told the weekly story of a world without Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Last fall, I joked that I’d already read this miniseries when it was called 52. However, in 52 the superheroes knew who was missing. Here, the Trinitarians aren’t just offstage, they’ve been erased from Earth’s history, and the world is desperately trying to find someone to replace them. Accordingly, Trinity’s altered timeline, plus the Trinitarians’ new roles as a younger world’s gods, has taken the miniseries down a more metaphysical road.
[Just to be clear, I consider Act Two to be issues #18-35; so this week’s issue #36 kicked off Act Three.]
Act Two has four main subplots:
— the changes to the timeline, as seen mostly through the exploits of Justice Society International;
— the League of Extraordinary BFFs and their search for the Trinity;
— the breakdown of the Troika; and
— the action in space with John Stewart, Krona, Despero, and Kanjar Ro.
Because (for the most part) Act Two couldn’t stage its subplots around the Trinitarians, it had to identify new protagonists. At first I thought it was going to balance out the Batman-heavy Act One with a Superman-themed Act Two, and while that may have happened, it didn’t quite come off like I thought it would. The tale of Kellel comes at the end of Act Two, and inspired a lot more Superman-oriented thoughts in me than either the Atmahn or Dinanna myths did. Combined with the Nancy-Gracious (a cousin of Granny Goodness?) version of Lois Lane on display throughout Act Two, and the relative prominence of Superman villains (Luthor, Brainiac, Khyber), overall I suppose the Superman cast got more “page time” than Batman’s or Wonder Woman’s.
It would also have been relatively easy for Act Two to fill the Trinitarians’ void through a committee of similar superheroes, and in fact that’s how it began: Green Arrow and Ragman for Batman; Black Adam for Wonder Woman; and Tomorrow Woman for Superman. Before too long, though, Act Two picked up with Act One’s de facto supporting cast of Gangbuster and Tarot, Hawkman, Green Lantern (John Stewart), and Firestorm. These characters helped track the changed playing field, including providing a transition into the BFFs’ journey. Act Two’s focus narrowed after about issue #24, which was the last glimpse of the “space subplot” featuring GL/John. The Troika subplot dovetailed with the JSI’s exploits to become the War of Arcana, leaving the BFFs’ journey for the A- or B-story as necessary.
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Taking the subplots one by one:
1. The “space storyline” was introduced at the beginning of issue #18 and tabled in issue #24. Essentially, it involves GL/John heading into space to try and get the Qwardian Void-Hound out of his system. The V-H is kept in check by the Construct, an old Justice League villain who is an electronic consciousness formed from the accumulation of Earth’s various broadcast and computer signals; and both are trapped in John’s power ring. While in space, John encounters Krona, who has just learned that planets themselves have their own form of sentience. Accordingly, Krona is intrigued by the Construct, and he and John disappear to who-knows-where. Meanwhile, it turns out that Kanjar Ro, posing as Despero, has screwed up the Troika’s ritual to remake the universe. Kanjar hightails it into space, where of course he encounters Despero’s fleet. Shortly after Krona and John depart, Kanjar and Despero team up, Kanjar having discovered Ultraman, Owlman, and Superwoman where the Justice League left them imprisoned.
Now, that’s a lot of plot; and it’s especially a lot of plot to be set aside for twelve weeks and counting. However, it doesn’t have a lot to do, at least on the surface, with the missing Trinity; and bringing it to a stopping place at the end of #24 lets Busiek and company focus on just two threads: the fate of the Earth and the (new) myths surrounding the Trinity.
Nevertheless, this storyline contains some pretty important players. The Void-Hound ravaged the Anti-Matter Earth, and could probably do the same to the regular one. Since the Construct represents a kind of planetary consciousness, it could help Krona (wielder of all that creation energy, remember) remake the timeline. The anti-matter Trinity is at least as powerful as the regular Trinity (in non-god form, that is), and they would be none too fond of Enigma remaking their world.
2. And speaking of Enigma, the Troika’s breakdown seems important enough to warrant its own section here. The Trinitarians had their “god war,” of course; but judging by the last page of issue #35, they made up. I doubt that will be the case with the Troika. It has already lost Despero to Kanjar Ro’s treachery, and both Enigma and Konvikt seem too ethical to continue their associations with her much longer. Never mind that Konvikt appears to want nothing more than his honor restored. (I’m sure Graak wants all the world-conquering action he can handle, but like Kanjar, he appears to be just a hanger-on.)
As such, the conquest of Earth has become, and probably will be, almost entirely Morgaine’s show, as her Dark Arcana team stakes out more and more territory. This has made the villains’ end of the storyline a little less complex than a more committed Troika might have made it; but of course the point of the subplot is to contrast an imperfect Troika with a missing, but more or less united, Trinity. Predetermination is perhaps Act Two’s central theme, and indeed all of Act Two rests on the assumption that things would have been even more different (if not unrecognizable) if the Troika’s ritual had been flawless.
3. Accordingly, let’s talk about the changed timeline. I’m a little slow in bringing this up now, but so far Trinity has the same basic structure as JLA/Avengers. Both begin with a “quest” plot — there, the two teams assembling mystic artifacts; and here, Morgaine’s servants putting together the ritual’s ingredients. Each story’s quest ends in a ceremony which fundamentally remakes reality. There, the DC and Marvel Universes were joined in a parallel-Earth relationship; and here, the Earth struggles to exist without its keystone heroes. Both stories feature characters who would be dead under normal circumstances (and who, upon learning the truth, soldier on gallantly). Thus, both stories hint that despite its fundamental wrongness, the changed reality isn’t all bad.
In fact, although the roots of Trinity’s altered timeline go back as far as ancient Egypt, the most obvious point of divergence seems to be fairly recent. In response to a Congressional hearing, the Justice Society went public instead of going underground. I have to admit, it’s a little hard for me to see how that relates to the Trinity, since it occurred years, if not decades, before any of them would have been born. It seems like more of a device for explaining plot elements (Earth’s collective xenophobia; the JSI’s ubiquity) than a development flowing directly from the Trinity’s absence. Still, Trinity offers no clues about the Kents, the Waynes, or Hippolyta’s Amazons, and therefore seems less concerned with cause than effect.
In other words, this altered timeline won’t be restored simply by the manipulation of a particular event. Neither is it a matter of finding replacements for the Trinitarians (and Act Two spends a lot less time on that subplot than I would have guessed). Instead, Trinity uses the idea of opposing Arcana teams as a vehicle for big action sequences.
This seemed to work better week-to-week than it does in one big chunk. Read all at once, the Arcana skirmishes tended to blur into one another. This is not to say that the subplot suffers greatly when read as a whole. However, once I knew where Act Two was going, I found myself wanting to get there.
4. With that, then, let’s move on to the meat of Act Two: the pilgrimage to find the Trinity. As much as I enjoyed spotting the Easter eggs and fluid changes in the revised timeline, my favorite parts of Act Two centered around the BFFs. They make a good group on paper, and they also work well together. I would have liked more Alfred/Dick and/or Dick/Donna interaction once they “woke up” fully, but that’s a minor nitpick. (Maybe in Act Three?) I also find myself questioning whether Etta Candy might have been a better choice than Nemesis; but I suppose that may have to wait until Act Three as well.
Regardless, the BFFs (man, I have got to think of a better nickname) have done a good job reminding the readers of what the Trinitarians were missing. Alfred, Lois, and Nemesis emphasize their friends’ human aspects, while Dick, Donna, and Supergirl represent their legacies. That may seem rather obvious and simplistic, so let’s go a little deeper.
Alfred isn’t just Batman’s father-figure, in many ways he’s Batman’s conscience. As the Wayne family butler, Alfred is an ever-present link to Bruce’s parents, and therefore to the values Batman wants to restore.
Dick stands in for the rest of Batman’s sidekicks and protégés (and hey, where has Barbara Gordon been in all of this?); but more than any of them, he is the best example of Bruce as a parent. “Richie” Grayson is an immature man-child who betrays flashes of an adolescent Boy Wonder, but who never had to grow up. Chris Kent aside, parenthood (or the next best thing) is unique in the Trinity to Batman, which is why it was essential for Atmahn to replicate.
Likewise, marriage is unique in the Trinity to Superman, so Lois shows another way for superheroes to relate to “mere mortals.” I suspect Nemesis is in this group for similar soulmate-based reasons, but since Wonder Woman’s mission of societal change is hardwired into her character, maybe he works better as a representative for Patriarch’s World generally. Similarly, while Donna is Diana’s sister in the familial sense, she may also be a representative of Diana’s sister Amazons.
That leaves Supergirl, recast here as Interceptor, who was raised by the military and not a kindly Kansas couple (or, for that matter, the Justice Society). Therefore, Interceptor is Superman without Clark Kent. However, because she doesn’t know what a “Kryptonian” is, she’s also Superman without Kal-El. The combination has left her a rather bland character who defaults to barking orders. That’s not really a criticism of Busiek’s writing, because I imagine it’s his point: without his dual heritage, Superman’s just a set of powers.
Therefore, it’s important for Superman, in whatever form, to assert his humanity at the expense of his powers, and I liked how this set him apart from his colleagues. Batman is humanized by friends like Dick and Alfred, and Wonder Woman relates to humanity through Nemesis and Etta, but neither of them really needs to be Bruce or Diana like Superman needs to be Clark. Accordingly, Superman’s core values come through strongest in Kellel’s story. The other two speak more to Trinity’s theme of predetermination.
Indeed, despite its many structural similarities to JLA/Avengers, Trinity offers a different perspective on the predetermined nature of corporate-superhero existence. JLA/Avengers removed its characters from their various continuity tangles, presenting them in what I can only call pure, unadulterated forms. When they realize the “truth,” it’s a harrowing moment, because Busiek seems to argue that in a perfect world such a parade of tragedy would never have happened.
However, Trinity suggests that such tragedies are not only inevitable, but that the characters themselves view them, albeit subconsciously, as necessary. I suppose the difference is that in Trinity, these are the only lives the characters know. The various tragedies may even express the characters’ inherent discomfort with being gods. Regardless, it’s a little unsettling to think that these things have to happen, especially if that makes them as important as, say, having Alfred or Supergirl in their lives.
It does make me wonder whether the influence of their friends will restore the Trinity to their familiar forms. Just as Donna rediscovered her powers, and Dick his abilities, upon hearing their mentors’ stories, will Nemesis telling Dinanna about their relationship help bring her “down to Earth?”
Probably not, but I guess we’ll know soon enough….
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Overall, I thought Act Two did a good job establishing the altered timeline without getting bogged down in its details. The “Arcana war” left room for plenty of action to balance out the exposition and mythmaking. Once the story’s attention returned to the Trinity, it built on the observations of Act One, but didn’t overwhelm the reader with infodumps. I feel like I got a lot out of Act Two, especially at the end, and now I’m ready for everything to come together.