"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
Last week’s solicitation roundup included the prediction that “Death of the Family” would kill young Damian Wayne. As most of you know, Damian is supposed to be about 11 years old, was raised by the League of Assassins, and has served (for the past “year or so” of comic-book time) as the latest Robin, the Boy Wonder. The solicitations were strangely silent concerning him, and thanks to the peculiarities of comic-book deaths, I figured he could take it.
That was last Thursday.
Since last Friday, I have rolled around that morbid prediction in my head, along with countless other real-world doomsday scenarios and nightmare moments. I am a fantastically lucky individual, and that is not meant as any kind of boast. I mean it simply to say that nothing remotely horrible has happened to me — no broken bones, no extended hospital stays, no natural disasters; and certainly nothing as devastating as my child’s death.
The newly minted phrase “husky 12-year-old boy” particularly places the idea of Robin squarely in the realm of fantasy. According to Marv Wolfman, who wrote Robin in the early ‘80s (both in the pages of Batman and New Teen Titans), the then-college-age Dick Grayson had been beating up bad guys since age 8. Because that seemed a little incredible, even for comics that took for granted the effects of intense Batcave training, Dick’s successors were invariably older: Jason Todd was probably about 11 and Tim Drake 13. Stephanie Brown was a little older than Tim, and plus she’d already started a costumed career by the time Batman selected her for the red and green. In this respect, 10-year-old Damian was something of a regression, but his League of Assassins background undoubtedly made up for a lot.
Still, that just highlights the credibility gulf between fictional kid crimefighters and real kids faced with danger. Damian’s fight with the Joker in last week’s Batman and Robin #15 was entertaining, but when President Obama’s Dec. 16 speech mentioned that little boy who knew karate, the youngster’s innocent confidence really warmed my heart. Such an attitude is somehow both naïve and mature, born of wanting to do all one can when one doesn’t know exactly what to do.
My daughter is just over 4 years old, and still trying out all manner of roles to play. Occasionally she’ll strap on a pair of fairy wings, sling a cape over her shoulders, or wield a wand or even a Green Lantern ring. Although she isn’t very safety-minded, she doesn’t know from tragedy, and I’m not sure she can quite comprehend it yet. Over the weekend, when she wondered aloud about all the flags at half-staff, I would just tell her it was because people were sad. We want our kids to be brave, but we’d be just as happy if they never needed to be.
I mention all this because my original idea for today’s post was “the end of the world”: specifically, comparing the wildly hypothetical Mayan apocalypse to certain Justice League-level threats. However, for too many people this Christmas, “the end of the world” means some form of catastrophic loss. There’s no small irony in the fact that the Sandy Hook shooter’s mother was stockpiling weapons for, yes, the collapse of society as she knew it. Even when there are no real-world perils, we construct horrific scenarios for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps most often we construct them out of a sense of security, test-driving terror because we want to assert control. To quote a pretty decent philosopher, “how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”
As it happens, I’ve been re-reading Gotham Central, the excellent 2003-06 series that viewed Batman through the eyes of the detectives whose lives he complicated. Written by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, and drawn by the likes of Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudino and Kano, it was one of the best superhero comics — if not one of the best comics, period — of the last 10 years. It took the familiar trappings of the DC Universe and made them realistic in the best kind of way, by using them as details in an otherwise all-too-believable narrative. It is literally thrilling, in that I still get wonderfully irrational thrills from the brief bits of Batman the stories incorporate.
Perhaps Gotham Central’s signature arc was “Soft Targets,” written by Rucka and Brubaker, drawn by Lark and Gaudino, and serialized in issues 12-15 (December 2003-March 2004). “Soft Targets” begins (just before Christmas, in fact) with the threat of a sniper, picking off public officials at random, and seemingly at will, but it escalates exponentially when the sniper is revealed as the Joker. In the world of GC, lighting the Bat-Signal is a last resort for these cops — a reluctant acknowledgment that they’ve reached the limits of their abilities — but when they learn the Joker’s involved, they flip the switch almost without hesitation. That alone conveys the gravity of the threat; and similarly, on the few occasions when Batman appears, the reader’s heart leaps. If the Joker is the ultimate problem, then Batman is the ultimate answer. That has the potential for a deus ex machina, but Gotham Central’s genius was in its judicious use of the Darknight Detective. When Batman showed up, for the most part everything turned out okay.
I say “for the most part” because with Gotham Central it was never that simple. The detectives of the Major Crimes Unit had enough on their plates before the supercrooks and vigilantes came along. Their world went crazy almost on a daily basis; and even if the Batman and his allies showed up to stop the latest super-rampage, the MCU still had to deal with the fallout. “Soft Targets” ends with Batman stopping the Joker, but its final scenes are of cops in the hospital.
Our cataclysmic moments are like that, too. We find ways to work through the big things, but the little things keep coming regardless. The particular stresses of the holiday season only add to the mundane rituals of everyday life. Tuesday may be Christmas, but Wednesday will still mean new comics.
Nevertheless, Tuesday is Christmas, and hopefully that gives you a chance to catch your breath. There is nothing quite like the calm of Christmas Eve, when the chores are all done and (in my house, at least) everyone else has gone to bed. When I was still single, often I’d end up on Christmas Eve alone in my apartment, winding down the evening more often than not with A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Gospel of John. These days it’s not so simple, but invariably I will have at least a singular moment of stillness to contemplate the great mysteries of faith. No matter what else was going on, that moment helped me regroup.
Therefore, if you are suffering through one of those nightmare scenarios, or even if you’re just in the middle of another hectic December, I hope you have that moment of comfort and peace. After all, the promise of Christmas — and of the solstice it’s co-opted — is that better days are coming. Even when you don’t know what to do, you do what you can. Even in the lonely moments, you’re not alone.