Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
For fans of DC’s various Multiverses, this has turned into a big week. Action Comics vol. 2 #9 offers Earth-23, while the new Earth 2 and Worlds’ Finest series center around the latest take on Earth-2.
First, though, a nitpicky note. As usual with DC’s cosmologies, things can get confusing quickly, so here are some helpful definitions. The Infinite Multiverse refers to DC’s classic Multiverse, which saw its last big hurrah in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Worlds of the Infinite Multiverse have their number-tags spelled out, as with Earth-One and Earth-Two. (The Infinite Multiverse also had some letter-tagged worlds.) The 52 Earths refers to the Multiverse revealed in 2006’s 52 #52. Its worlds are tagged only with numerals, as with Earth-2 and Earth-51. There is the Earth One series of graphic novels, with which we are not concerned. Finally, there is the Current Multiverse, which may in fact still be the 52 Earths, and which apparently follows the same naming conventions. I will try hard to avoid getting into a discussion which dwells on these distinctions.
Now then …
These three issues each take different perspectives on the parallel-world concept. Earth 2 #1 lays out the rough recent history of the parallel world and introduces us to its major players. Similarly, all of Action #9 takes place on Earth-23, although it’s part of the background of Grant Morrison’s larger Superman work. Earth-2 in Worlds’ Finest #1 is background as well, since it’s part of the main characters’ shared backstory, but not a place with which they currently interact. Accordingly, I liked each of these introductory issues on their own merits, because I thought each did what it needed to within those particular contexts.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for Earth 2 #1, Worlds’ Finest #1, and Action Comics vol. 2 #9.
Earth 2 #1 (written by James Robinson, pencilled by Nicola Scott, inked by Trevor Scott) is an involving mix of setup and pathos. Actually, it’s setup through pathos, as we see its Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman lead the charge against an Apokoliptian army led by Steppenwolf. It may well anger a large group of longtime DC fans, because it is absolutely not the original Earth-Two, and neither does it look like any pre-existing parallel DC Earth. If you were expecting to find the back door to a DC you might have known, keep looking. In fact, this Earth-2’s history ties obliquely into the New-52’s Justice League, since both feature Apokoliptian invasions from “five years ago,” and I suspect the attempt on one Earth probably led to an abortive invasion of the other.
The plot concerns the last battle of Earth-2’s “Apokolips War,” in which Superman and Supergirl, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman storm Steppenwolf’s stronghold in order to shut down the network of power terminals supplying his Parademons. We know, if we have been paying attention, that Robin and Supergirl are sucked through a Boom-Tube to the main DC-Earth, so that they can headline Worlds’ Finest. What we don’t know, going into this issue, is a) whether the Earth-2 Trinity survives and b) what other superheroes exist on that world. Earth-2 answers the first fairly early, but teases the second only at issue’s end. It’s sufficient to say, again as solicitations have indicated, that Earth 2 looks to be focused primarily on Jay “Flash” Garrick and Alan “Green Lantern” Scott (and their peers) and not variations on the Trinity. Furthermore, thanks to Steppenwolf and company, Earth-2 itself is a world recovering from the nigh-unimaginable horrors of otherworldly battles.
Upon first reading I thought this was a mistake, mostly because much of the New 52 already has such a Very Serious attitude. However — and I may be ascribing motives to James Robinson which he does not have — I think this is his way of recreating the turbulence of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s when the Golden Agers were created. We may imagine that period, and especially the postwar years, as more optimistic and innocent, but that’s not necessarily true. Now, Earth 2 has the opportunity to show that sort of optimism taking hold, and informing the new crop of superheroes, while remembering that the world has suffered these great losses.
To be sure, there’s no guarantee that Earth 2 will move past a sort of grim, paranoid mindset. The overall tone of Earth 2 is one of capital-T Tragedy, as shown in the preview pages where Superman remembers the murdered Lois Lane and Wonder Woman is the last Amazon. Yes, Superman and Batman come from tragic circumstances, and Wonder Woman is not blind to the realities of war; but right from the start there is no joy on Earth-2, and it may be simply more of the same for many readers.
In any event, the mechanics of Earth 2 were solid. Robinson brings back the shifting-narrator device from his Justice League of America run, transitioning smoothly from Superman to Batman to Wonder Woman, and also employing an omniscient narrator as part of a quasi-framing device. That sounds complicated, but in practice it works fairly well. Dialogue has the usual peculiar Robinson rhythms, especially where exposition is involved, but a more charitable impulse might chalk that up to the “other-Earthiness.” By the end of the issue we’ve met Jay Garrick (younger than Barry Allen, incidentally), Joan Williams, Al Pratt, and Alan Scott, and we’ve heard about Tyler Chemicals, so the pieces of a familiar puzzle are converging.
I’ve been a fan of Nicola Scott’s since her Birds Of Prey work, so her involvement was enough to get me excited about Earth 2, and I was not disappointed. In fact, issue #1’s fight scenes compare pretty favorably to Jim Lee’s Justice League work. Scott’s pencils for these scenes are very busy, mainly because they have to show hordes of Parademons fighting Superman and Wonder Woman over a decimated Metropolis while Batman scales a Giger-esque tower to plant a doomsday device. However, the storytelling is quite clear and lively, always keeping the reader’s eyes where they should be. For example, in a couple of places, we see Parademons exploding from unseen fire before the Batplane zooms into view. Appropriately, things calm down considerably during the closing pages, when we meet Alan, Jay, and Joan.
I’m not sure how I feel about Trevor Scott’s inks or Alex Sinclair’s colors. Trevor Scott uses a looser, thinner line than I’m used to seeing in Nicola Scott’s inkers, which makes her distinctive faces a little harder to see, so it may just be a reaction to that. Likewise, the color palette is dominated early on by a sickly purple sky and mustard-yellow buildings, each of which tend to wash out the brightness of superhero costumes and even the bright green and gold Parademons. Still, aside from those things I have no complaints. The most effective scenes in the book are the rapid-fire deaths of Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman. Each has a certain element of (shall we say) unwelcome abruptness, if not outright emotional manipulation, especially Robin’s tearful “don’t die, Daddy”; but the art makes up for whatever shortcomings are in the script.
Earth 2 is certainly not perfect. Its setting is built on a depressingly-familiar foundation of loss, and it jettisons much of what characterized its namesake. (Whether it’s an “old universe,” in the sense that the Trinity were around for decades, has yet to be revealed.) However, I like that it makes the Trinity and their next-generation sympathetic in short order (even if much of that is trading on preexisting affections), and then drops them out of the book entirely. That, plus my Nicola Scott crush, will keep me coming back for a while.
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Speaking of crushes on artists, George Pérez and Kevin Maguire made it easy for me to pick up Worlds’ Finest #1 (written by Paul Levitz, with Pérez inked by Scott Koblish). It’s a more conventional buddy-hero title, as you might expect; and it repurposes Helena/Huntress’ and Kara/Power Girl’s Earth-2-related grief accordingly. Neither are overly grim, but Huntress is determined and Power Girl has made the best of things. Actually, Power Girl may turn out to be a nice exploration of the “if I had superpowers, I’d be rich” theory, since she used said powers (covertly), plus some “seed money” Huntress stole from the main Earth’s Bruce Wayne, to start Starr Enterprises.
The first issue is fairly simple, with the two investigating a fire at Starr’s Japan plant and finding the super-powered saboteur just in time for the last page. Pérez and Koblish draw the present-day scenes, and Maguire provides flashbacks. It’s a good combination, since the two have more in common storytelling-wise than I might have guessed. (Some of that no doubt comes from Maguire working so much from Keith Giffen’s breakdowns.) One layout in particular, where Maguire shows Robin and Supergirl dropping out of the sky, looks very Pérezian.
Since the story is so straightforward, a good bit of the issue’s appeal is in the details. Pérez emphasizes the characters’ physical differences. Helena has an exotic look, appropriate to a woman who can choose from multiple assumed identities, whereas Kara looks more like a bodybuilder. During the first scenes in the destroyed R&D facility, Kara’s dress has become tattered, so that’s where the differences are most apparent. In fact, after a few pages of Kara running around like mid-‘70s She-Hulk, the Power Girl costume almost makes her look demure.
Like Earth 2, Worlds’ Finest may not be popular with longtime DC fans. After Crisis on Infinite Earths got rid of the original Earth-Two’s Helena Wayne, mob princess Helena Bertinelli took over the name and costume for over twenty years, including an extended stint in Birds Of Prey. When previews for WF #1 revealed that the New-52’s Helena Bertinelli was actually a dead woman whose identity Helena Wayne had assumed, fans were not happy. Personally, I’m not sure where the equities lie — is a Bat-daughter from an alternate universe tied more closely to the Batman “family” than an outsider who had to earn her way in? — and I sympathize with Helena B.’s admirers. However, I thought Worlds’ Finest was an engaging way to reintroduce these characters, and it sure is a nice-looking comic.
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Finally, there’s the pure anarchic joy of Grant Morrison and Gene Ha’s lead story in Action Comics #9, which folds a number of Silver and Bronze Age Superman elements into the tale of Earth-23’s Calvin Ellis, the Obamaesque President of the United States. After a while the thought that President Superman could be on the phone with a dictator while helping the Justice League destroy said dictator’s secret nuclear labs (as in Sholly Fisch and Cully Hamner’s sublime second story) seems just as believable as Earth-One’s Clark-the-anchorman reporting the news virtually as he’s making it. The meat of Morrison and Ha’s story has to do with yet another alternate Superman, the “Last Knight of Tomorrow” who was (re) designed by his eventual corporate masters to be the last word in grim anti-heroics, and who has spent most of his cybernetic existence slaughtering his way across the Current Multiverse. Why, just after an alt-Jimmy Olsen and an eyepatch-wearing Lois find President Superman, the Last Knight fries his co-creator Clark Kent.
I can’t tell you how this story fits into Grant Morrison’s larger narrative. I have no idea what prompted him to plop it into issue #9. Nevertheless, it’s a delirious mashup of two of the world’s most powerful positions, told as if all involved had wild secret-knowledge gleams in their eyes. Back when 52 revealed its multiverse, DC sought to populate-slash-exploit it by bringing in various alternate-history stories, including New Frontier, Gotham By Gaslight, and Red Son. This Earth-23 doesn’t come with the same emotional attachments as those Elseworlds, but neither does it feel like a universe created just to be exploited. Indeed, “created to be exploited” is a notion this story rails explicitly against.
Even so, Earth-23 and its ultra-competent Superman may be too much of a good thing. Sure, he won’t be President forever, but eight years is surely enough time to use the engines of government for the permanent betterment of all humanity. (Unless his Senate still gets hung up on that “60-vote supermajority” stuff, I suppose.) I mean, that Earth had President Rickard, for gosh sakes! There’s just more drama on Earth-2. While it may hurt to watch that Trinity meet their fates, and while those deaths may feed modern superhero comics’ worst impulses, at least there are glimmers of working through that grief until it is just a distant memory.
Whatever happens next on Earth-23, I have a feeling it will survive, because if this issue is any indication, Morrison is more interested in creation for its own sake. At the risk of reading too much into it, Earth-23 represents the sort of mindset which is happy to expel ideas into the ether, but which invests those ideas with enough raw potential that they resist just being used and discarded. Earth 2’s world was destroyed to provide a dollop of gravitas for that title and for Worlds’ Finest, and the rampaging Superman who comes to Earth-23 appears emblematic of those who swear by such destruction.
However, Earth-23 appeals to me because it offers the hope of a place which looks as if its act has been gotten together. If we hope for the best for the folks on (or from) Earth-2, we can see that hope personified a few Earths down the block. Never mind those seeds of pessimism — for now Earth-23 just looks fun, and that’s something the Multiverse desperately needs.