"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
Because it’s the day after Christmas, and I don’t want to write 1,500 words about Forever Evil and its Justice League tie-in — except to say they both felt a lot like stereotypical Lost, and not necessarily in a good way — here’s a stocking’s worth of number-based observations about DC past and present.
Twelve Crisis issues: I talk a lot about 1984-85’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, mostly because it so completely transformed not just DC’s shared-universe continuity, but its publishing philosophy. On its merits, Crisis is a mixed bag, pairing stunning visuals with a sometimes-flabby narrative. However, despite its sprawl, COIE ended up with a definite structure. The first four issues deal with a mysterious antimatter onslaught which destroys whole universes, apparently including the familiar Earth-One and Earth-Two. The final page of Issue 4 is nothing but black “smoke” clearing away, revealing blank white space. Issues 5 and 6 offer vignettes on the five surviving universes, as time periods intersect in “warp zones” and ordinary people see multiversal counterparts of departed loved ones. Issues 7 and 8 are, to put it bluntly, the Big Death issues, with Supergirl saving her cousin from the Anti-Monitor and the Barry Allen Flash destroying Anti-M’s latest doomsday weapon. Issues 9 and 10 feature the “Villain War” and a two-pronged time-travel assault on Anti-M’s efforts. That ends with a shattered, otherwise “blank” comics panel, as the Spectre wrestles Anti-M for control of history itself — and issues 11 and 12 feature the heroes of a new, singular universe fighting a final battle against the Anti-Monitor. Today’s decompressed (and sometimes decentralized) Big Events focus more on character moments and slow burns, and more often than not they don’t have to streamline fifty years of continuity, but Crisis remains a model for just how big an Event can be.
Eleven Forever Peoples: Jack Kirby produced three Fourth World series, New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle. All have since been revived multiple times, mostly without Kirby’s involvement — but unlike those of its siblings, Forever People’s original run ended on a cliffhanger that Kirby never got to resolve. Kirby did 18 issues of Mister Miracle, ending the last issue with Scott Free marrying Big Barda. The other two ran only for11 issues before being canceled abruptly. However, The King returned to New Gods in 1984 to wrap up the story with a “12th issue” (part of a reprint series) that led into the climactic Hunger Dogs graphic novel. Meanwhile, though, the Forever People were still stuck on the idyllic planet Adon, where Kirby had left them at the end of FP #11. In hindsight, it was somewhat ironic that DC didn’t exploit FP as quickly as it did the other two series, both of which were revisited in the mid-‘70s by folks like Gerry Conway, Don Newton, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. (J.M. DeMatteis and Paris Cullins produced a FP sequel miniseries in 1988.) See, while Darkseid was introduced in Kirby’s run on Jimmy Olsen, and an ex-Boy Commando named Dan Turpin figured prominently in New Gods, Forever People had guest stars like Superman and (reluctantly) Deadman, making it perhaps the “best-connected” of the three main Fourth World titles. Maybe the higher-ups at DC figured that the Forever People would do just as well stranded on Adon as they would fighting Intergang in Metropolis. In any event, considering DC’s up-and-down treatment of Kirby’s creations, their restraint was probably for the best.
Ten Finest team-ups: As the post-Crisis revisions of the late ‘80s were themselves revised, the late 1990s and early 2000s reexamined and reconciled various aspects of DC history. There were miniseries focused on the Justice League (JLA: Year One and JLA Incarnations) and on particular characters (like Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold). One of the best was Karl Kesel, Dave Taylor and Robert Campanella’s Batman and Superman: World’s Finest, which devoted each of its 10 issues to a single meeting. Naturally this also involved aping different superhero styles and trends, from Silver Age Wacky to early-‘90s stunts. The high point may have been Issue 7 (penciled by Peter Doherty), in which a grieving Batman, shaken by the double barrels of The Killing Joke and “A Death in the Family,” commiserated with Superman, who was dealing with his own decision to execute three Kryptonian criminals. B&S:WF was pure fan candy, but it connected those sorts of events extremely well, offering new perspectives on old stories and (for the most part) having fun doing it.
Nine books forever: Another of my standard themes is the notion that DC will publish some volume of Detective Comics, Action Comics, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League and Legion of Super-Heroes until the sun burns out and/or the publisher closes its doors forever. With Legion’s recent cancellation, and no replacement on the horizon outside of JL 3000, I wonder if I need to rethink this theory. However, it may just be a slight shift in strategy, since Teen Titans may be on its way to the permanent roster. DC may not always publish 52 ongoing series, but apparently it will at least publish nine.
Eight Rogues a-stealing: One thing I do appreciate about Forever Evil is its notion that many of DC’s villains can be somewhat sympathetic when they’re up against pure-E Eeeevil like the Crime Syndicate. Historically this hasn’t been much of a stretch for The Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery (Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Heat Wave, Pied Piper, the Trickster and either the Top or his girlfriend Golden Glider), because part of their criminal mindset was a general desire to bedevil The Flash. Other classic Flash foes like Gorilla Grodd, Abra Kadabra and Professor Zoom had more sinister motives, and as a result they didn’t mix well with the Rogues. After Barry Allen’s death, the Rogues went separate ways, whether to the Suicide Squad, to pester other superheroes, or to a less-larcenous lifestyle. They got back together briefly in Underworld Unleashed (written by then-current Flash scribe Mark Waid), and in a follow-up Flash arc, they got their powers turbocharged and took on the entire Justice League. Still, at heart they’re still a down-to-earth group, devoted to their own less-than-savory moral code. It’s nice to know that will keep at least one set of DC villains in check.
Seven Justice Leaguers: The 1996 JLA relaunch “reunited” the original 1960 League membership, albeit in updated form: black-suit Batman, mullet Superman, hook-hand Aquaman and Flash and Green Lantern legacies. Since then, the League’s core has been effectively set at seven members, and the New 52 League was no different, only swapping out Martian Manhunter for Cyborg. However, despite a brief membership expansion (courtesy of “Throne of Atlantis”), the main Justice League may look a bit different following the events of Forever Evil. It doesn’t have to contract back to seven members, either — both the original League and Grant Morrison’s expanded team mixed and matched their 14 or so members to good effect. Naturally, the choice of members fit the type of story, so if the post-Forever Evil League goes the same way, here’s hoping it will be diverse both in terms of Leaguers and adventures.
One six-inch hero: Along those lines, the Atom is one Leaguer who seems to have done better as part of the team than on his own. After his Silver Age series ended, he appeared mostly in JLA and in a memorable arc in the anthology Super-Team Family, where he teamed up with various heroes to find the missing Jean Loring. In the 1980s he “retired” to the rainforest in the Sword of the Atom stories, came back for the short-lived Power of the Atom series, and turned over his size-changing equipment to the Suicide Squad. Finally, in the late ‘90s he rejoined the League in a mostly advisory role, but Jean’s role in Identity Crisis forced him back into retirement. Successor Ryan Choi enjoyed a well-received (but also short-lived) series, and the two eventually shared the Atom role. In the New 52 Palmer was seen last as a non-costumed SHADE scientist, and I’m not sure what’s going on with Choi. The newest Atom (Rhonda Pineda) did join the League, but it hasn’t worked out — and I hope that’s not a sign of things to come. The Atom does have a distinct set of powers, and can go places and do things the bigger Leaguers can’t. The right writers and artists might even be able to use his or her powers more creatively, even philosophically, to explore what “inner space” really involves. More than microscopic combat, that’s for sure. A new focus on the Atom isn’t my highest priority, but it would be a sign that DC hasn’t abandoned one of its more under-utilized characters.
Five Lantern rings: (Like this one could be anything else.) At the moment there are only three Green Lanterns from Earth, namely Hal Jordan, John Stewart and Simon Baz. For various reasons, I would be happy reading about any of them. I liked Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner fine when they wore the green rings, but that’s not enough to get me to follow their current gigs. Instead, my fourth and fifth favorite GLs are Katma Tui, who replaced Sinestro in Sector 1417, and B’Dg of Sector 1014, who helped “train” Simon. Although Katma’s introduction was, at best, a product of its time (basically, “power ring … or wedding ring?”), she became a great GL soon enough. She teamed up many times with Hal and John, joined a Justice League task force to destroy the Manhunter homeworld, and lived on Earth for a while as part of its dedicated group of Lanterns. Eventually she and John married, but she got fridged by Star Sapphire in a move that wasn’t good for anyone involved. I like B’Dg for a much simpler reason: not only was Simon’s life turned upside-down by his involuntary Corps recruitment, the first Lantern he met was a talking squirrel who had no time for his inexperience. Whenever DC decides to do something more meaningful with Simon, I hope B’Dg is part of it.
Four Architects: The four writers of 2006-07’s 52 — Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid — were the villains of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s contemporaneous Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality, picking and choosing which obscure characters to rescue from DC limbo. (Hint: It wasn’t the heroes of “A&M.”) While that was a very clever satire, it pointed out that Johns, Morrison, Rucka and Waid collectively held a good bit of power in shaping many of DC’s characters. Johns had just finished Infinite Crisis and five years on Flash (as well as continuing on GL and JSA), Morrison was starting on Batman and All Star Superman, Rucka had finished Adventures of Superman, Wonder Woman and Gotham Central and would soon start Checkmate, and Waid was coming back to Flash. Today, the new 52 may be the upcoming Futures End, written by Azzarello (ironically enough), Jeff Lemire, Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens. Whether this signals a shift in the “architecture” or is just a disparate group brought together for an editorially-drive project remains to be seen, of course; but it’s not a bad group, and Azzarello’s involvement alone should make it worth reading.
Three Trinitarians: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are DC’s “Trinity” almost by default, because (among the company’s superheroes) they alone survived the purges and economic cycles that helped end the Golden Age of Comics. Today we think of them as various mixtures of idealism and pragmatism, shaped by distinct childhoods with different degrees of parental involvement, and set on singular, but complementary, paths. However, I’d say these differences started getting highlighted only after the characters each got relaunched in the mid-1980s. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight redefined the Superman/Batman relationship — not necessarily favorably for the Man of Steel — and George Pérez’s work on Wonder Woman laid the groundwork for writers like William Messner-Loebs and Greg Rucka to place her in more real-world settings. For several years these characters interacted only sparingly, and without a lot of the chumminess of the earlier status quo. Still, by the time they were all put (back) together in the Justice League, the old camaraderie was back. Now, the New 52 is having Superman and Wonder Woman date, and revealing that Batman and Superman’s friendship goes back (five whole years!) to the beginning of the modern superheroic age. As with many aspects of the New 52, sometimes these interplays come off rather forced, because while a reader may appreciate all that goodwill, it was originally acquired gradually, and in its own time.
One Dynamic Duo: And that’s a good segue into one of DC’s most valuable relationships, Batman and Robin. I’ve written before that for all the emotional investment the New 52’s Batman and Nightwing have in each other, the notion that they bonded so well over the course of a brief “internship” cannot compete with decades of pre-relaunch adventures. The accumulation of those stories described a pairing that informed every other superhero mentor and sidekick. It made Dick Grayson’s graduation to Nightwing a big deal. However, it also helped fuel the theory not just that there could be multiple Robins, but that “Robin” itself was only a temporary gig. Not quite Bruce’s son, but not quite his little brother, Dick — and Robin — became one of the ways that Batman held onto his humanity. Robin was “Batman” applied to childhood, giving Dick an outlet for his rage and frustration that Bruce never really had until much later. Every Robin since then has used some form of that outlet, and I would say that Bruce saw “Robin” as an especially effective way to keep his son Damian away from Talia’s malignant influence. If the New 52’s timeline has helped undermine that emotional component, then “Robin” might just as well be a curriculum, and Batman could run a finishing school for crimefighters on the side. Besides, even if you see “Robin” now as something like the Doctor’s Companion — an adventure-seeker matched with a lonely soul — it’s still important to see that relationship unfold, and not just be told about it. With 2014 being the 75th anniversary of Batman (like you didn’t know) and 2015 the 75th anniversary of Robin, more than likely we’ll see someone new in the red vest very soon. Here’s hoping her origin doesn’t skimp on that emotional connection, because both parts of the Duo need it.
And a Wayne building with a big tree: Predictably, I love the Batman of my 1970s childhood, with his unassuming Batmobile and downtown sub-basement Batcave. Moving out of stately Wayne Manor wasn’t just about getting away from the house where Adam West’s Caped Crusader lived, it was (as 1969’s “One Bullet Too Many!” put it) about fighting the criminals that hid “in the fortress towers of Gotham’s metropolis!” The Wayne penthouse debuted in that story, but the familiar Wayne Foundation building came later — and when it did, it was a feat of architectural indulgence, a modern skyscraper with a giant artificial tree apparently growing up from the pavement and into various offices and shops. (The tree trunk helped conceal the Bat-elevator, but it also served more mundane engineering functions.) I just loved the dichotomy of a “realistic” Batman who lived in such an outlandish environment, because if you’re Bruce Wayne, why not? In fact, I’ve lived in a high-rise and currently own an artificial tree — it’ll go back into its box in about 10 days — so clearly the Batman of the ‘70s has affected me in more ways than one.
Hope everyone is having a great holiday, where applicable! See you in 2014!