Saturday, May 30, 2009

Death by Lightning

Reading through Golden Age comics is a favorite pursuit of mine lately. During Grant Morrison's run on Batman, I scoured over a hundred old stories looking for clues and Easter eggs, and found, at the very least, a lot of inspiration for elements in his RIP tale.

Lately, I've been reading up on the early adventures of the superheroes who eventually became the JSA, and found an interesting parallel between the current Flash Rebirth story and an extremely old story.

In Flash Comics #2 (the second Flash adventure, starring Jay Garrick), the Flash intimidates an opponent by flinging a metal lightning bolt into the wall. While those early Flash stories had a light-hearted feel to them, with especially cartoonish faces for many of the secondary characters, there was a lot of death, too. Being the Flash's enemy was not an especially good idea. Some of his enemies die, and he resorts to physical intimidation frequently.

The metal lightning bolt reminded me of the weapon used by the mystery villain in Flash Rebirth #1. It is mounted on a shaft, like a spear, but otherwise is a pretty similar artifact to the one Jay Garrick wielded back in 1940.

A clue? Probably not. More likely a case of "great minds think alike." It seems incredibly unlikely for Jay Garrick to be revealed as a villain. But if it is a clue, here are the two points that connect the line.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dick Grayson Is The New Batman

When Battle for the Cowl #3 makes Dick Grayson the next Batman, it won't make the first time he has taken over the identity of his mentor. Most current readers recall the Knightfall story that led to Dick spending twelve issues in the cape and cowl in a 1994 story line called Prodigal. But that wasn't Dick's first time going by the name Batman, either. Not even close. If you want to see Dick Grayson suit up in blue and gray for the first time, you shouldn't look to his first appearance as Nightwing in 1984. It was way back in 1951, in Batman #66!

In eight separate stories during the Fifties and Sixties, Dick was seen taking on the Batman identity in an imagined future (the first one set it in 1975, which was then quite a ways off). None of those stories were set in continuity, and employed three different gimmicks to put them in the minds of people who were in continuity. In the first such story, Dick Grayson, after disobeying a tactical order from Batman, had a dream about being "Batman II" and having his own Robin (his real son) disobey him, causing Dick's (imaginary) death. The dream-turned-bad was a morality play that convinced Dick to obey orders more precisely.

The second time around, in Batman #119, it was Batman who imagined the story, hallucinating after inhaling the odor of an exotic plant. In his vision, he awoke as an old man decades later, with Dick having graduated to the Batman role (without the "II" suffix) in a story called "Rip Van Batman". There was a Robin in this imagined story, too, although his identity was not discussed. Right after the elder Batman (complete with a gray beard) helped solve a case, he awoke to find himself back in the present.
The third set-up was provided by a series of stories in which Alfred took out his typewriter and imagined the future. The "II" was back in Dick Grayson's title, but his Robin in this rendition was the son of Bruce Wayne and Kathy Kane. This duo debuted in Batman #131 and ran in six stories, battling crime (even the Joker's son) and culminating in Batman #163, when future Dick Grayson ended up romancing future Betty Kane (who naturally graduated to the Batwoman role). As an indication of how persistent the idea of this imaginary future was, note that the last story was in the very last issue of Batman; the "Batman II" stories were only ended when the "New Look" Batman debuted, complete with a yellow oval.

Those stories ended with Bruce or Alfred noting that the butler's fiction could never be published, because it would give away Bruce and Dick's identities, but end with knowing winks and the question posed to the reader if they might actually come to pass some day. Many decades later, Dick finally became Batman in a story that counted -- in Batman #512. With Bruce sidelined with a broken back, Dick suited up for twelve issues, fighting confidence issues leading to a sort of final exam that pitted him against Two Face.

Battle For The Cowl sends Dick on the path towards putting the cowl back on. The preview for issue 3 offers Dick's thoughts: "Bruce ordered me to stay away from the cape and cowl. And I listened... But Bruce underestimated the psychological effect that Batman had on Gotham." It's easy to connect the dots: Dick is reaching his decision.

I think the outcome of BFTC has been clear for quite some time. At the risk of making a "Dewey Defeats Truman" post, I'll say that the indications are nearly undeniable that we will soon have in our hands the twenty-first comic to show Dick Grayson in the role of Batman.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Roots of Superman

"comic books suffered... from a bad case of the carbon copies. Everything was a version, sometimes hardly altered at all, of a newspaper strip or a pulp-radio hero... Consequently, the comic book, almost immediately upon its invention, or soon thereafter, began to languish, lacking purpose or distinction. There was nothing here one could not find done better, or cheaper, somewhere else...

Then in June 1938, Superman appeared."

-- Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Number One

What the Beatles are to rock stars, what water is to beverages, what the Sun is to things in the sky -- Superman is to superheroes. The first was the best; the field started at the top and had nowhere to go but down. It's as if the first person ever to play golf had been Tiger Woods. Superman won the argument and the fight afterwards. Superman was painted onto bombers in World War Two and is tattooed onto pro sports stars' arms in the present. Superman was America looking to ancient Greece to say, brimming over with confidence, "You thought Zeus was tough? Get a load of our guy."

Comic books could be found during the decade preceding Superman, and some of the titles that became DC's publications roster began about three years earlier. Among the strips devoted to comedy, comic strip adaptations of novels, and pages devoted to trivia regarding science, sports, and various oddities, there were the heroes. They fought mad scientists and smugglers, racketeers and mysterious-looking foreigners. They were masters of intuition and fistfights. Sometimes their stories wrapped up in a few pages, sometimes they ran for several issues. They always caught the bad guy, made witty remarks, and got the girl if there was a girl to get. Their stories had all the adventure a boy could wish for (and not get) in his own life, and they were so formulaic as to lack all suspense whatsoever once you'd read ten of them, which you could do in an hour.

The Creators

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, teenagers from Cleveland, Ohio, were part of that early history. They wrote and drew, respectively, four strips in early comic books: Doctor Occult, Spy (starring Bart Regan), Slam Bradley, and Federal Men (starring Steve Carson).

Taken from those features and the earlier story Reign of the Super-Man (readable here) many elements of the eventual Superman character had already appeared in one way or another in other places. Most notably, Joe Shuster tended to draw all of his heroes the same way, so you would have trouble distinguishing Superman from Slam Bradley, or either of them from Bart Regan, or any of the three of them from Steve Carson. Their women also tended to resemble Lois Lane, and it was a recurring theme for the hero to have a pesky, but attractive woman interfering with -- and inspiring -- his heroics. Their
 heroes, of course, always win in battles of wits and fist fights alike. They even had bald foes, cuing the Man of Steel's first foe, the Ultra-Humanite, and his most enduring foe, Luthor. Interestingly, an unpublished story idea for Superman titled The K-Metal From Krypton would have revealed his secret identity to Lois and made her a partner of his. This, too, was part of the Siegel and Shuster template: Bart Regan and Doctor Occult both acquired female partners, while Steve Carson and Slam Bradley had females tag along to help them on a more temporary basis. Completely outside the context of the Thirties, one Federal Men story had a flash-forward to a possible distant future, and featured a policeman adventuring on Mars under the name "Jor-L", the name introduced in 1939 newspaper strips as the Kryptonian
 father of Superman. Doctor Occult had been seen flying with a cape as far back as 1936, but this was a one-time event aided by a magical belt. And Slam Bradley hailed from Cleveland, also the setting of Superman in the earliest Action Comics before the fictional Metropolis was created to be his home.

Up, Up, and Away
Though many of the elements of Superman were derivative of earlier work by Siegel and Shuster, there were at least four strokes of brilliance separating Superman from any earlier works. One, he was the ultimate American immigrant, hailing from another planet and (great wish fulfillment for boys whose fathers had been born in Europe) being excellent precisely because he was from somewhere else. Two, he had great powers that were a part of who he was, not temporary endowments like the powers that Bill Dunn acquired by ingesting minerals from a meteorite in Reign of the Super-Man or that Doctor Occult acquired thanks to magical devices. Three, the flashy costume. Although he actually wore it only occasionally in some of his earliest stories, Superman became readily identifiable by his costume; a good thing since you couldn't tell him from Slam Bradley otherwise. Fourth, and essential -- the secret identity Clark Kent. While Slam Bradley had a clever but physically puny friend/assistant named Shorty, Superman essentially was his own sidekick, and at the same time, had a metamorphosis that could let the most insecure reader imagine himself shedding his everyday identity and becoming someone wonderful.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the true testament to Superman's success was the avalanche of superheroes who followed. What was a trickle in 1939 became a flood by 1941, with enough heroes being created to fill the sales racks, with their names more often than not being some word followed by "Man".

When a chemical solution is supersaturated, it has more of the solute than really should exist dissolved in the solvent, and when any additional change takes place, the solute suddenly consolidates. This phenomenon -- even its name -- is an apt analogy for what happened with Superman. All of the ideas that had been lying there separate in different characters came together, suddenly, and changed the medium, filling it with more Supermen (even if they had to go by other names like Captain Marvel and Aquaman).

Truth in advertising is rarely so prophetic: An ad in Detective Comics #15 announced Action #1 by saying, "You'll miss the treat of a lifetime if you fail to buy a copy!" Indeed, if you were alive then, you missed a treat of a lifetime if you didn't. Because not only did you miss out on the debut of Superman, but you also missed the opportunity to invest one dime on an object that would later be worth one million dollars.

Pulp Fiction

One of the best innovations that came with Superman may have been an accident.

The stories in most of Siegel and Shuster's early work (especially Slam Bradley) was achingly formulaic, on a par with the other stories in, say, Detective Comics (which ran Slam Bradley and Spy when Batman was not yet a twinkle in DC's eye).  The hero becomes aware of a crime, goes to investigate, and easily defeats the criminal upon encountering him. There was cosmetic variation to this: He might learn of the crime via his boss, or via witnessing it himself. He might be captured before escaping, or he might just win the battle outright.

Siegel's first Superman story began with this same pattern, and you can read that story in Superman #1. However, because of space limitations, that story could not be published in Action #1. Therefore, the first four pages, which fit precisely the pattern, had to be deleted. Consequently, Action #1 begins in the middle of, appropriately enough, action, rather than an editor receiving a phone call that tips off Clark Kent that an injustice is taking place.

While the greatness of Superman has to be judged by the major elements making up the character, it very likely helped him make a splash to have his story break the pattern that was so common and to begin instead with action. Quentin Tarantino cut up his film Pulp Fiction and rearranged the parts to make audiences scratch their heads and think more about his plot. Jerry Siegel had the same thing happen to him by accident in a magazine that was pulp fiction.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wizard #211 Platinum - Batman, RIP Director's Cut

I finally got my hands on this -- Wizard's distribution could stand some improvement, and the use of the same number for multiple issues is an interesting use of numerals.

While it's a fun piece with an A+ layout using the original story art, much of the material has appeared earlier on an almost phrase-by-phrase basis. For example, Morrison calls Batman "this perfect emblem of American physicality" and the Joker a "European sort of Berlin-era David Bowie-type". Almost a year ago, in an IGN interview, he talked about the Joker having "that sort of Euro kind of creepiness, that kind of heroine addict, David Bowie in Berlin seventies vibe". More or less the same words reshuffled. The contrast with Batman being "American" came up in last August's San Diego Comic Con, if I recall correctly. A lot of the commentary in the new Wizard piece was like that -- old news, but aggregated conveniently and attractively.

I'd also like to point out that there are three voices in the Wizard piece -- Morrison and Daniel, but also the supporting text written by Wizard staff (Kiel Phegley, Steve Sunu, and Tony Teofilo), and some of the quotations I have seen attributed to the piece, as though it were the pure voice of authority, come from those blocks of text. Just to point out the possible drift between Morrison and that rewording of his ideas, one of those blocks of text says that the final plunge [of the helicopter] was into "the ocean" whereas Morrison's own words placed the crash in "Gotham River" (Batman #683). So the quotations that are not directly attributed to Morrison and Daniel are not necessarily authoritative.

That said, there are lots of nice tidbits throughout the article. (Tony Daniel hates drawing Bat-Mite -- who knew?) The most attention goes to what seems to be a Frost/Nixon moment where Morrison says that he should not give the answer to the identity of the villain, but immediately does so:

Morrison: The minute I say who he is... it will stop people talking.

OK, so since Morrison wants to keep people talking, he won't say who it is?

Morrison: I was trying to do a definitive Batman story. Batman's stories tend to pit Batman against a diabolical mastermind. I thought, "Who's the ultimate diabolical mastermind?" This is a story about Batman's Black Casebook which is all the mysterious cases, the ones that are supernatural or bizarre. So for me, this is the ultimate supernatural Batman story.

Essentially every bit of that was already stated by Morrison before RIP ended, and was in fact excellent evidence that the villain was The Devil. At this point in the interview, Morrison is fighting with the instinct he gave in the first sentence. He doesn't want to tell. But he does want to tell. Were the interviewers shining a bright spotlight in his face? Probably not. But they did their job -- he reached his breaking point. He had to tell.

Morrison: There are clues, there are places in fact, where they actually state who he's up against in this story. But people don't want to accept the supernatural explanation. But yes: This is the story of how Batman cheats The Devil.

Obviously, Morrison was following the fan response to the story ("people don't want to accept the supernatural explanation"). The publication of #681 led some fans to impassioned exclamations that the story did not reveal the villain. But as Morrison points out, aside from the clues, there are places where they actually state who he's up against (the Joker and Lane each stating it directly). Somewhat like the Vatican admitting that Galileo was right many centuries after his death, the author's direct admission of the villain's identity finally came five months after the last issue.

That was so clearly spoken by the story that it took torturous logic to deny it even before this. But a parallel and interesting bit of explanation came from Morrison on the subject of the Joker's "apophenia" speech. In #680, the Joker said that none of his clues meant anything, which stirred up some fan reaction that all of the mystery-solving had been for nought. But Morrison corrects that perception, too:

Morrison: The Joker lies constantly. [...] The Joker's there to say that nothing makes sense, when every single element in this book makes sense -- and the Joker knows that. There's a double meaning there. It's a truth, but at the same time the Joker's lying to you. If you go over the entire story, you'll realize it was planned and plotted to the last second.

I think Morrison's having it both ways here, because the Joker's color-coded clues did mean nothing in the context of RIP. (It meant something very specific in Batman #663. In fact, the Joker didn't start the claim that red and black meant anything in RIP; Batman dropped that assertion in the Joker's lap in DC Universe #0). And though the Joker lies "constantly", he was one of the ones who told us that Hurt was The Devil. And clearly not every single element in the book makes sense; Morrison himself says "I hate things with answers" later in the interview!

But in a nutshell, the identity of the villain, and the Black Glove's plan, are spelled out in detail if you take the whole run and piece them together. But red and black had no meaning that has yet shown up, and the relationship between the Waynes and the Black Glove was hinted at but not defined, and may be the subject of future stories.

I would certainly enjoy interviewing Grant Morrison on the subject of Batman, RIP, and try to get at the relationship between the Mayhew plot and the Black Glove's attack on Batman. I think that in the process of creating the tale of "the ultimate diabolical mastermind", Morrison defined a new rule book for villains, one that I'll consider in more depth in future posts. While comic books are not usually how-to manuals, it seems safe to conclude that if you tried to get an enemy the way Doctor Hurt tried to get Batman, you'd probably succeed. By pitting Batman against this plan, Morrison raised the bar for villains and heroes alike.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Flash Rebirth 2

Barry Allen is the world's fastest man. His return to life is unfolding gradually, though -- it has been a year since he appeared as the narrator of DC Universe #0, but he is only now taking center stage in the Flash Rebirth series that describes his return to a place in the world he left behind. Let's catch up: The story so far has tremendous potential to confuse, in part because it picks up storylines from over twenty years from now, in part because it is rewriting some of the existing history, and in part because this story is, after all, a mystery.

Rebirth begins with a mystery villain attacking the Central City Police lab where Barry worked and experienced the accident that gave him super-speed. The mystery villain, after he uses a sword with the Flash logo as a weapon to dispatch several police scientists,  has a cosmic kind of knowledge that leads him to show up just before lightning hits the same shelf of chemicals this apparently gives him super-speed. He also claims to be the one who decided to bring Barry back from the dead. When we see the villain's face, it is a ghastly skeletal grimace, and so if it's anyone we know from the past, the identity remains hidden for now.

There is, therefore, a plot unfolding in the present, in which the concepts of Death and Super-Speed seem to be intertwined as though they were two sides of the same coin. The mystery villain has some sort of executive role in an unknown plot. Of this, we know the following:

a) The residents of Gorilla City are participating in a ritual that seems to anticipate events in the Flash-related plot.
b) The speed cult of Savitar (a speedster villain from the Wally West era) and the Lady Flash (Christina Alexandrova) are reawoken by what's going on. They separately attack Barry Allen and separately die, to his dismay, at his touch.
c) When Barry's touch causes the villain speedsters' deaths, very speedster with a connection to the Speed Force experiences a shock of some kind which gives them seizures, as though an electrical surge had risen up through the Speed Force.
d) The Black Flash (who, we are told, is synonymous with the Kirbyesque Black Racer who claimed Darkseid in Final Crisis) skids to a halt -- his own death -- in Fallville, Iowa, which is Barry Allen's birthplace.
e) Perhaps because of Lady Flash's death, perhaps because of Barry's arrival at the corpse of the Black Flash, Barry transforms at the end of Rebirth #2, becoming the new Black Flash.

Maybe this mystery has a lot more to it, and maybe it doesn't. It could wrap up simply (and soon) by revealing a villain who has magical/cosmic/future insights and found a connection between Speed and Death, cursing Barry with his role as a new Grim Reaper. The exact identity of the villain is still up in the air, but the facts we have so far seem to sketch out the plot as well as the implications. I would say there's maybe half a mystery left. Even though the themes and the characters seem to overlap partially with Darkest Night, chances are the stories will disentangle themselves. Why write one story when you can write two? Perhaps the plots will relate, obliquely, but they will not be one and the same.

Meanwhile, writer Geoff Johns is also reinventing Barry Allen's past to some degree. And this is at least partly necessary. When Jay Garrick recounts meeting Barry, we must have an account that matches the one-world universe. Instead of Barry Allen traveling to Earth Two to meet Jay, he presumably just ran from Central City to Keystone City.

But Johns is also reinventing Barry Allen's background. When Barry compares his return to Hal's, he reflects that Hal's death took place in ignominy, whereas when Barry died "Everything was fine." Well, that's not how it went down in 1985. Barry's last solo issue -- twenty-four years ago -- opened with the police announcing that he had escaped from his jail cell. In the eyes of the law, he was, like Hal before his swan song, a murderer. Also, Johns is possibly removing the facial transformation that Barry underwent before his disappearance -- not just restoring his face post-resurrection, but removing even the history of it having happened.

Additionally, Johns has created a new vaguely Batmanlike childhood for Barry in which Barry's father died in jail for the murder of Barry's mother -- a very different history than the original, in which the Allens were both present and alive during Barry's final solo issue. Henry Allen had been possessed by the spirit of the deceased Flash foe The Top, but was fully recovered. During the second Flash series, it was stated that the elder Allens both died after Barry's departure. Now we have a very different reality, and some of the old stories no longer match. So ultimately, this series is not only a rebirth in the sense of bringing Barry back from death, but it retelling his story's beginning.

Given the new approaches Johns is taking, readers who feel like they need to scan dozens of old back issues can sit back and relax. There is a wealth of old material there, but the road ahead is cutting its own path. If this is true to the success that Johns has had with Hal Jordan, we will see a new take on the past, planting new facts into the old origin that conveniently come due for repercussions in the stories to come.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Waynes and the Black Glove

A defining story in the Batman mythos was Detective #235, printed in September 1956. In this story, the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne was revealed to be not an accident caused by a random mugging but a deliberate "hit" by a mobster who had a grudge against Thomas. The origins of this grudge went back to a party in which Thomas Wayne was abducted to provide medical care for the mobster, Lew Moxon. Thomas was wearing a batman costume that inspired Bruce's choice of the bat-identity years later. Notice, moreover, that Martha Wayne's butterfly costume is dominated by red. If we hadn't been told that the Joker's color clues was a red herring in RIP, this might have been a credible origin for the Red and Black theme.

As the Silver Age gave way to the post-Crisis DC Universe, and other retcons over the years, this story was retold more than once. When Infinite Crisis had past, it was not clear if this party was still (or again) part of continuity. But the Thomas Wayne batsuit did appear in Grant Morrison's run as early as Batman #657, locked in a glass display case just as it appeared in Detective #235. This suit also appeared in an issue of Brave and Bold, and ultimately was worn by Doctor Hurt for the last three issues of Batman, R.I.P.

Because some details from the past have been rendered invalid and others have not, one cannot rely upon stories from the Fifties as being the authoritative truth -- most often, they are not. But Morrison's run on Batman dangled enough clues to make us suppose that the costume party did take place, and that, moreover, it may well have been a Black Glove party.

First of all, the Black Glove holds annual parties, with only very wealthy people in attendance. (Doctor Hurt makes all of this clear in #680-681; it is also stated in the Club of Heroes storyline in #667-669.) We know that the party in Detective #235 was also "annual". By dint of the Waynes' attendance, we know that at least some of the attendees were very wealthy. Similar language is used to describe each: The invitation that Jezebel reads in Batman #676 says, "The theme this season: Danse Macabre" while the 1956 story says, "The theme of this year's masquerade ball is 'Flying Creatures'."

While no direct statements are made to this effect, the suggestion is strong that the Black Glove party idea was adapted from the older story. They are further linked in that Doctor Hurt wears the batsuit to the latest Black Glove party. Additionally, it is suggested that the Waynes are linked socially to Black Glove members -- they are seen (albeit in the bogus "dossier" photos) with John Mayhew, and Bruce's own detective work suggests that the Black Glove involves "people my parents knew."

If the Waynes were involved with the Black Glove, it might also make them a match for the characters in the Black Glove movie: "Two innocent lovers corrupted and destroyed by a group of super-rich gamblers." And indeed, on the final page of Batman #681, we see several shadowy figures watching the Waynes just before the encounter that leads to their death -- just the sort of thing the Black Glove might have sanctioned... for revenge, or as the basis of a wager.

Finally, we have Doctor Hurt's claims of being or having been Thomas Wayne. When Alfred states that he is not Thomas Wayne, Hurt replies, "No, I'm Doctor Hurt now." This implies that whoever Doctor Hurt is, he used to be someone else (Thomas Wayne) in the past. Given Hurt's diabolical nature, we might suppose that the Black Glove is an entity that can inhabit different human hosts. Perhaps Thomas Wayne once hosted the same spirit that Doctor Hurt hosted in Batman, R.I.P. just as the two men, we know, wore the same garment. At present, we have a lot of suggestions and hints and no solid information -- but we may find out more when Grant Morrison resumes his writing this summer.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Joker's Rant

When fans opened the cover of Batman #663, they saw something comic fans usually don't -- a whole lot of words. While prose stories used to be a staple of comic books, they grew very rare by the Seventies.  The use of prose, of course, means a lot more language inside the covers, including a very gruesome description of how victims of Joker toxin die.

One particularly terse passage delivers a rapid-fire soliloquy by the Joker in which he pinwheels from one thought to another, shuffling personalities until settling on a new one. Morrison's take on the Joker as a composite of multiple personalities corresponding to the past eras of the comics was fulfilled in this speech, because it was composed of past speeches, draw from the Joker's very first appearance up to the present. Most fans were able to spot some of the lines right away, enough to realize that the speech probably contained even more references than they spotted. Indeed, it's all references, and most from famous stories that have been reprinted, but two of the lines were from very old stories that are also very obscure.

When I was tracking down every possible clue to Batman, R.I.P., I was determined to track down each line of the speech, and I did. Now, here is the artwork in which each originally occurred. Enjoy!

They can't keep me here I know a way out. 
Batman #1
You see I hold the winning card. 
Batman #1 

You're in my power Batman Ho Ho! I could pull off your mask 
now -- and end your reign! I could even kill you but I won't!
Batman #67
Let him live! He's so amusing when he tries to match wits with me. 
Batman #11 

Take a look! We resemble each other! 
Batman #251 

And I'm looony, like a lightbulb-battered bug. 
The Killing Joke

Aren't I just good enough to eat! 
Arkham Asylum 

Stop... stop... stop me... if you've heard this one... 
Batman #614 (Hush