Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Retro Review: The Dark Knight Returns

Widely considered to be one of the best and most important works of its kind, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns transformed the superhero genre, its media, and one of its most prominent characters. DKR greatly elevated the popularity of Batman and superhero stories in general among a wide population who were not traditionally readers of comic books, but found appeal in a graphic novel that looked attractive on a bookshelf and delivered trenchant social commentary in the guise of fiction. DKR was so influential that readers who have come along since its publication may find it pedestrian and unoriginal in comparison to later works that were, in fact, inspired by DKR. Critics’ best-of lists for graphic novels do not make the same mistake: DKR tops many such lists and rarely falls lower than #3.

The element of DKR that is perhaps most noticeable in contrast to the comics before it is the tone. Batman stories from the Forties up through the Eighties had already portrayed their share of homicidal psychopaths in action. DKR upped the stakes: We see previously taboo elements such as profanity and sex (sometimes consensual, never marital). We see guns aimed at children, bullets ripping through soldiers, multiple instances of mass murder, and a limited nuclear war. This is a hard-edged story and while some of those things might have appeared in previous stories, at their climax, in DKR this sort of savagery is practically wall-to-wall.

Perhaps more startling is the way DKR paints the moral landscape in shades of gray. The heroes aren’t all good and the villains aren’t always wrong. Enemies aren’t always the costumed lunatics with flashy names and weapons. They are the media, the politicians, and some of the bystanders. The effects of Batman’s war on crime are generally positive, but they also, unmistakably, beget more acts of violence in the form of malignant vigilantism and, most notably, the Joker’s return.

What makes the work so memorable, and its power among new audiences so great is the compelling social commentary. The world of DKR, like that of all superhero comics, has superhumans and implausible mystery men, but it also contained a compelling and haunting prophecy of a possible future for readers in the Eighties to fear. The rise in violent crime that actually occurred from the Sixties onward was projected forward into an imagined dark America verging on chaos. This was a trend that fortunately did not continue in the real America of the Nineties, but the fear that it might was credible and terrifying to see on the page. What was horrifying about the Mutant gang was not the threat they posed to Batman but the threat that forces like them might one day exist in our world.

Perhaps darker than the knives and guns of DKR’s villains was the superficial sleaze of its media. News-as-entertainment, a reality in our world, was portrayed in caricature, replacing reason and contemplation with punch lines and showbiz. Gotham’s response to Batman’s return, as all other issues in the DKR world, was determined by polls and ratings, and not even an imminent nuclear war could hold onto the short attention span of its society for more than a couple of minutes. This also in 1986 seemed to be prophetic, and actually was. Many of the more superficial traits of DKR’s television news, identifiable on today’s CNN and Fox News, combined exposition with social commentary. It pays to read carefully: When Carrie Kelly breaks up a three-card monte game with a firecracker that surprises a few but harms none, the news covers it as the game being napalmed. Distortion and emphasis on opinion over fact shape DKR’s populus into a cud-chewing mass of nearly-indifferent cattle, whose slight preference for one lie over another determines national policy and forces their superheroes to leave or go underground.

One more prophecy, which fortunately did not come true, was the imminence of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and United States. This grew out of a ground war in a fictional Latin American country, Corto Maltese, patterned after actual wars then taking place in Central America, particularly Nicaragua and El Salvador. In this respect, DKR adopts a side plot resembling the main plot of many books and movies of the time, expressing a generally held fear that a Reagan-era uptick in animosity between NATO and the Warsaw Pact might lead to nuclear annihilation. As in Watchmen, the balance of power in the fictional world hinged upon a single, nearly omnipotent, superhero on the Western side. In neither story did this superhero prove to be as decisive as hoped. In the real world, the years of maximum tension passed with the ending of the Cold War. So, in another way, DKR lost one of its compelling characteristics as time went by, but at the time of its publication, DKR and Watchmen begged the reader to consider how threatening the Cold War truly was in our world without Superman, Batman, or Dr. Manhattan.

The preceding commentary describes the world of DKR, but that is merely the backdrop for the groundbreaking portrayal of Batman, who is the central figure not only of the story, but in many ways of his entire world. The history of Batman had previously involved a wide spectrum of “darkness,” with an initially-dark Batman in 1939’s comics giving way to lighter and lighter renditions until about 1964, when things became darker and grittier, just as the Adam West television series acquainted the broad public with a campy Batman who delivered far more amusement than thrills.

But Miller’s Batman is not simply darker than previous versions of the character. He is (excepting his ten-year retirement which is seen at the start, and explained only partially) absolutely singular in his devotion to his war on crime in ways we had not seen in earlier versions. In all previous renditions of the character, he had devoted his life his life to the mission, but Miller gave us a Batman who seemed to have no other priorities whatsoever. He could joke, he could jest, but there was no indication that he sought any human comforts that might distract him from his cause. He seemed endlessly buried in the details of being Batman, and Miller explained even the most superficial trappings of the character as part of a purpose (such as the yellow symbol on his chest serving as a target to attract gunfire to his armor). Though not infallible, he was never completely off guard, even deducing from a simple power outage that a Soviet nuclear explosion had produced an EMP, and he immediately had a countermeasure in mind (traveling by horse instead of car). Miller’s Batman was – simply put – relentless, in a way seen rarely in all of literature. And so, Miller replaced in the consciousness of the wider public the Adam West Batman who was amusingly mannered with a character that is by definition the perfection of human striving, the paragon of focus and dedication. Before Miller, “Batman” meant a crime fighter who had a sidekick, a butler, and bat-themed everything else. After Miller, “Batman” means a person of singular, unwavering determination, who also happens to be an unimaginably skilled bat-themed crime fighter. And the second definition has proven to be far more compelling in the wider consciousness than the first.

The writing in DKR is so powerful that one may forget that Miller began as an artist. Eschewing the realism of a Neal Adams, Miller excels in creating a mood with his work, creating with a single face a character you’d like to know better. He’s also clever, shaping panels like TV screens, and blending a close-up of an American flag to a close-up and then zoom-out of Superman’s symbol so smoothly you don’t notice at first, but then think about it a lot once you do notice. He also worked subtext into the background, such as the bird of prey snatching a rodent as Superman threatens to arrest Batman. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that the first page, narrating Bruce Wayne’s near fatal crash in a car race, symbolically encapsulates the entire story’s plot, down to the last page. The colors are perhaps even more remarkable, Lynn Varley’s paint looking nothing like the halftone dots that colored comics on newsprint over the preceding half century. The look and the feel of the graphic novel perfectly matched the more serious tone, and were instrumental in putting DKR in the hands of people who would never have bought four staple-bound comic books, no matter how cheap the price.

Above all those aforementioned virtues, the greatest power of DKR was its premise: The story of an older Batman when he comes out of retirement to address the faults of a world gone mad. This borrows a central element from the Iliad while upending the traditional serial format of comic books by skipping ahead to the “end” of the characters’ lives. The plot has no climax as such: Batman, the relentless hero, engages every source of chaos in his world and bests it. The four way division of the story pits him against Two Face, the Mutant gang, the Joker, and Superman, but he also begins to win over the new Gotham Police Commissioner, Ellen Yindel, escapes from the corrosive media spotlight, and in organizing youth into his own army, neutralizes the problem of age.

The Dark Knight Returns was, at the time it was published, the most substantial work that DC Comics had produced in decades, arguably ever. It was, of course, promptly and many times since imitated and homaged. It inspired the Burton films and Nolan films and arguably, in tone, many non-Batman superhero movies that followed. Remarkably, DKR, though set in an uncertain future, changed the portrayal of Batman in current continuity: It began a trend to make Batman “more realistic” (that is, with vaguely realistic-seeming explanations of his still-impossible feats). It broke decades of tradition by making Superman and Batman something between rivals and uneasy allies. And it suggested that in some sense, Batman’s mind is more than human, that his skill of anticipation, preparation, and utilization of his human abilities is superhuman and even absolute. All of these characteristics have been adopted and developed in later works, not because they follow DKR in story time, but because Miller’s depiction of Batman is simply more compelling (and better selling) than the Seventies Batman, a detective/gymnast/fighter who ekes out tough victories on a human level.

The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece. It changed the genre in ways that perhaps no work since has been able to, and nearly 30 years later, we may need to wait decades more for a work of greater impact to come along.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Retro Review: Crisis on Infinite Earths

Crisis on Infinite Earths is a work of singular importance in DC Comics; it was and remains unprecedentedly broad in both scope and in ambition. Although various sequels have been published, none of them has had the power of the original. COIE was, essentially, destined to succeed owing to the sheer boldness of its objectives: It’s impossible to discuss the history of DC Comics without discussing COIE and impossible to understand a great many of the comics that followed it without having a passing knowledge of it. It brought to DC the company-wide crossover format which has yielded many subsequent successes; it altered the destiny of many characters; and, it altered the basic nature of the DC Universe for decades to follow. Simply put, it is tremendously important and influential.

But is it good? In many ways, yes; in other ways, less so, but this depends on one’s criteria, and should be taken in the context of what COIE tried to accomplish.

There are at least four distinct roles that COIE played:

1) It made a sharp before-and-after change in the basic facts of the DC Universe. Most important, it moved the Earth Two characters into the same world and timeline as the Earth One characters, creating a new unified timeline that resolved the generational contradictions in a new way.
2) It made several changes of immediate importance in rearranging DC’s lineup; such as, removing the Flash (Barry Allen) and Supergirl entirely, while putting characters such as Blue Beetle, Wally West, the new Wildcat Yolanda Montez and Green Lantern Guy Gardner into the spotlight.
3) It was one of several works that changed the tone of DC Comics, reflecting an increased maturity level (and age) of readers. While the story is in many scenes bright and optimistic, it also portrayed murder, madness, torture, and genocide.
4) It was itself a story that captured a great deal of attention. Changes (1) and (2) could have been made with – rather than a 12-issue miniseries – a one-page editorial proclamation. They chose, however, to convey the sweeping changes through a story, with science fiction plot elements that made the changes happen to the characters. The story tells a tale that goes about these changes in a particular fashion, bringing to DC a crossover "event" format that had previously been used by Marvel Comics, and while it left many contradictions and loose ends for other works to resolve, it related those changes taking place as part of one grand science fiction story, which can be read and enjoyed on its own merits.

On those first three points, readers may express their own feelings about the strategic merits and demerits of what COIE did to the DC Universe, much of which was proclaimed from editorial heights downward, outside of the will of creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez. These changes spun off over two decades’ worth of storylines that took the setup laid out by COIE and took it forward into directions like the John Byrne reboot of Superman, Keith Giffen's take on the Justice League, and later to new characters like Kyle Rayner, Bane, and Doomsday. Some of these changes were controversial among fans, creating debates between generations of fans as to whether the changes should be retained or undone. Eventually, the pendulum swung the other way, with a penchant for Silver Age revival underlying many changes to the Justice League and Superman, among other characters, in various ways back to their pre-COIE states, and COIE’s single universe has once again been replaced by a Multiverse. History shows that COIE’s changes endured for a long while, then were largely undone.

As a story itself, COIE is certainly large and eventful. It is well-drawn and exciting. New characters capture the imagination and emotion springs forth from tragedy.

For the modern reader, it has many shortcomings. It is extraordinarily repetitive. For example, Pariah explains his predicament half a dozen times, more than once to almost-identical scenes of a world dying. We’re told many times that Harbinger must, against her will, kill the Monitor, and after it happens, we’re reminded of it several more times. One may understand this as a product of its publication history: A 12-issue release which some readers read piecemeal, giving the writers a need to bring along casual readers as well as the devoted.

It is also repetitive in raising then resolving serial threats. The heroes and villians begin at odds, then ally together, then fight each other, then ally again, then end up at odds. When the Anti-Monitor’s Plan A fails, he goes on to Plan B, Plan C, and… without taking notes, it’s hard even to remember how many new threats he raises. In fact, there are about six distinct cycles of threats raised by the Anti-Monitor and resolutions, plus one threat issuing from the super villains who are otherwise allied with heroes against their common foe. The reader may grow weary of if not overwhelmed by the large number of gyrations in the plot, though in fairness, this is a characteristic of epics as far back as the Iliad. The following outline sketches out COIE's major developments.

1) Anti-Monitor's antimatter wave destroys over 1000 matter universes.
2) Monitor sends groups of heroes and villains to defend five tuning forks placed in different times and places.
3) Harbinger kills Monitor.
4) Energy of Monitor's death places Earths 1 and 2 into netherverse, leaving only three more threatened universes: Earth X, Earth S, and Earth 4.
5) Earths 1 and 2 threaten to merge, which would destroy them.
6) Harbinger moves Earths X, S, and 4 to the netherverse, joining Earths 1 and 2.
7) Strongest heroes attack Anti-Monitor. Supergirl dies.
8) Anti-Monitor builds cannon to continue his attack. Destroyed by the Flash, Barry Allen, who dies.
9) Remaining Earths jeopardized by a time/dimensional flux.
10) Super villains conquer Earths X, S, and 4.
11) Anti-Monitor launches attack at the beginning of time. Heroes fail to stop him. Villains fail to stop Krona.
12) Spectre opposes Anti-Monitor and Universe begins again.
13) Single Universe with only the heroes remembering the Multiverse and Crisis.
14) Anti-Monitor brings Earth to antimatter universe.
15) Shadow demons attack Earth, then sent away by magicians.
16) Anti-Monitor blasted by Darkseid, then destroyed by Kal-L.

The logic of the story is not exceptionally coherent. Twice, characters ask the Monitor why he assembled precisely the team he did instead of a more powerful team, and both times he dodges the question. More than once, the story reminds us that it was not simply copies of the planet Earth but entire universes (infinite Ranns, infinite Kryptons, infinite Thanagars, infinite Andromeda Galaxies, etc.) which were being destroyed and merged, but then it lazily reverts to the Earths alone. Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply avoid those questions rather than to first raise and then dodge them?

If the Internet had existed in 1986, there probably would have been a record of discussion and discontent owing to the similarities between COIE and Marvel's Secret Wars event, which ran one year earlier. Secret Wars was also 12 issues long, and involved virtually all of Marvel's most prominent characters, brought together by a single, mysterious cosmically-powerful figure. On the surface, COIE seems to import or even steal its basic ideas from Secret Wars, although in fact COIE was being planned before Secret Wars was published, and some of the similarities are likely to be coincidental.

In pursuing its goal of reinventing the superheroes' world, COIE resorts too often to giving the superheroes an inflated sense of importance. Billions of innocent beings die, but a tear-jerker scene is devoted to Wildcat Ted Grant accepting the fact that he has been crippled. While millions die on the newly merged Earth, reporters Lois Lane and Lana Lang are choken up on-air by the death of superhero Dove. And while Pariah voices anguish over the deaths of ordinary citizens, the story repeatedly uses them as nameless mass fodder while superheroes are both saviors and victim. The focus on superheroes to the exclusion of regular people goes so far that in the reworking of the Multiverse into a Universe, no one is even bothered to mention if Alexander still conquered the ancient world, or how World War Two turned out. On one level, this is understandable, as the reader buys a comic with superheroes on the cover expecting a series about superheroes, not alternate timelines for Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln. The degree of the focus, however, is strange and unnecessary. Superhero comics began with the premise of powerful, benevolent people providing justice for ordinary citizens. COIE's 12 issues could have devoted more than a few perfunctory pages to the inter-global consequences of worlds merging.

And while the story is mature in terms of sheer violence, it doesn’t offer sophistication to match. At the climax of one issue, the Flash tells the Anti-Monitor, who had destroyed a thousand universes, that he’s done nothing to prove himself. Then the Anti-Monitor steps out of the shadows to reveal himself and the Flash is silent with shock, as though by being ugly the Anti-Monitor “proves himself” more than he did by destroying universes.

And yet, we must remember the DC Universe that COIE changed. If Marv Wolfman's dialogue and characterization seem weak in comparison to those of Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, that is natural given the state of comics in 1985. The passion generated around the sacrifices of Barry Allen and Supergirl was effective and real and needs no apologies. From the disorientation that Batman and Superman show early on to Wally West's mournful acceptance of his mentor's death, the story succeeds in making us feel, in part because of the surprise of seeing these erstwhile ever-happy, ever-smiling characters thrown into shock by death and mayhem.

If COIE were written in 2014, released in a shorter time frame, with current sensibilities, it would probably be a better work. And yet, it has not been easy to improve upon: It's sequels have not been remembered as better than COIE, and its level of fan appeal has been exceeded by few subsequent events. Even now that the world it created has been erased, the path between DC Comics' first half-century and the present can only be understood by reading COIE and its status as a must-read work cannot be erased.

While it began in title and in concept as an extension of the "Crisis" theme begun in JLA-JSA crossovers, COIE has itself been much-imitated, spinning off memorable sequels such as Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis, and JLA/Avengers. With Geoff Johns' recent events Trinity War and Forever Evil depicting the destruction of Earth Three by the Anti-Monitor, it is clear we have another, if slowly developing, sequel to COIE in progress, and readers who want to understand DC's future find themselves once again opening the pages of COIE to understand adequately DC's past.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forever Evil #7

Geoff Johns is, as we already knew, orchestrating serial events, now in the New 52 as he did for much of the past several years beginning with Infinite Crisis. Trinity War led right into Forever Evil, and it's long been apparent that another event would take the baton, in due time, from this one.

While it followed many familiar patterns from pre-Flashpoint continuity, Forever Evil ended on an original note, or at the very least blended a large number of stories we'd seen before. Johns did some of his most inventive work in creating or adapting new characters in his reimagined Crime Syndicate, although most of that squad, save its own Trinity, is now dead.

Probably the single greatest surprise of the series is that the heavy hitters of the Justice League did absolutely nothing to defeat the big bads. Batman and Cyborg played supporting roles in the victory, but most of the Leaguers needed to be saved themselves, thereby disproving the old adage that every major DC event ends with Superman punching something.

The event's possible death was teased but Dick Grayson literally came back from the dead. We've seen the death of the Nightwing character, but DC's ninth-oldest superhero lives to fight another day.

The great original stroke of the series is that a group of classic super villains saved the day, not in a supporting role, but doing almost all of the heavy lifting. Luthor prevailed as the central figure, leading the more powerful members of his team, slaying two members of the Crime Syndicate, and single-handedly saving Dick Grayson, Batman, and Superman. This leads to Luthor asking for JLA membership in Justice League #30, seizing to capitalize on his role as a human savior with no superhuman powers.

But, despite Luthor's plausible story while lassoed by Wonder Woman, is this all just an act? Luthor surely has the ability, whether with self hypnosis or some other means, to fake his way around that test. The older story guiding the narrative here might be 1961's "Death of Superman" story in which Luthor pretends, over an extended period of time, to turn good in order to lure Superman into a death trap. Despite outward appearances, perhaps Luthor is doing so here. Evidence of this is his unilateral invitation of Shazam to join the Justice League despite his ongoing disdain of superpowered beings. Maybe Shazam's strength will be utilized by Luthor in a future devastating strike against the Justice League. This would hearken to another existing story in which Luthor used a mind-controlled Shazam as a weapon against Superman, Kingdom Come. The richest possibilties might be for the story to explore Luthor as a hero for several months, then have him find out, to his own surprise, that he'd been acting that way as a ruse involving self hypnosis, with the heroes struggling to fend off his betrayal.

Johns was also used misdirection in his clues regarding the bigger threat to come. While it seemed all along (and still does, to Superman at least) that Darkseid was the threat behind Earth Three's destruction, we find out at the end that the Anti-Monitor is the muscle behind the event, but someone still unknown is the mastermind. This is in keeping with Johns' love of throwing the biggest villains into a surprise reveal, and he's used the Anti-Monitor for this purpose before, with one page at the end of Sinestro Corps War Special #1 containing Sinestro, Parallax, Superboy Prime, Cyborg Superman, the Manhunters, and the Anti-Monitor. Johns also used the Anti-Monitor in Blackest Night. Here, we see a war of unsurpassable proportions building: The Anti-Monitor and his unseen master are planning an attack against Darkseid. In order to gain power for these attacks, he consumes the energy of a positive-matter universe, and he began with Earth Three. As I observed in an earlier post, destroying Earth Three is precisely how Crisis on Infinite Earths began, so Johns is setting up a sequel to that event. For those who are keeping score in the New 52, Darkseid has been turned away from an attack on Earth Prime, and has devastated Earth Two, nearly conquering it. Now we see that his nemesis has taken Earth Three for its sheer energy, and we have the makings of a battle that could carry over to any of the 49 other Earths as well.

Again, we see Johns riffing on older stories on an unprecedented level, as even Infinite Crisis was a sequel to COIE. Forever Evil #7 managed to remix old themes just enough to avoid the series being a forgettable retelling of ideas we'd seen before. Johns continues to keep interest going, but he's teetering on the edge of a Crisis of Infinite Story Recycling.