Monday, June 22, 2009

A Tale of Two Earths

Starting in 1966, DC told us that there were two Supermen and two Batmen. A radical idea. The path had been prepared earlier with versions of (importantly) Flashes and later Wonder Women of two worlds. And so a seed of confusion was planted.

Just to throw out an approximate breakdown of the two DC flagship heroes' histories by era. Plenty of room to pick nits and further subdivide considerably... this is just an approximation.  

A 1939: The original, darker Batman
B 1940-1952: The somewhat lighter Batman paired with Robin; referred to in JSA stories
C 1953-1963: The much lighter Batman with Batwoman, Bat-Mite, sci-fi galore; shares universe with Superman and Club of Heroes but no JSA or JLA (until 1960)
D 1964-1971: The New Look Batman
E 1972-1986: The more gothic Batman, including Englehart & Rogers' run
F 1987-2005: post-DKR, "Batgod", "Bat-jerk"; many retcons, some undoing other retcons
G 2006-present: Morrison [Dini] Batman

H 1966-1979: Earth Two Batman with JSA past, married to Selina, killed by Bill Jensen (referred to since his death many times in the past tense)

A 1938-1942: Superman based in Cleveland, works for George Taylor at Daily Star; jumps but cannot fly
B 1943-1952: Superman based in Metropolis, works for Perry White at Daily Planet; flies and is much more powerful; referred to in JSA stories (1940-1947)
C 1953-1960: Superman folkloric in power, shared universe with Batman and Robin; past as Superboy (1945-1986)
D 1960-1972: first and most powerful in a world full of superheroes
E 1973-1985: post-Sandman Saga; numerous plots questioning and decreasing the primacy of Superman and JLA while retaining history of Silver Age
F 1986-2003: Byrne and Triangle Era Superman retelling many elements of the previous history
G 2004-2006: Birthright / Byrne-Birthright Superman
H 2006-present: soft reboot to more Silver Age blend of post-Crisis Superman

I 1969-1986: Earth Two Superman, member of JSA, contradictory accounts of power levels, married Lois
J 2005-2006: Kal-L escaped from paradise dimension, had crossover with post-Crisis Superman, killed in Infinite Crisis; said to be same as (I)

Now... in almost all cases, the Superman-Batman histories in the main comics are an unending affirmation of the previous history. The transitions are almost always presumed to maintain the previous history except where otherwise noted. The ONE exception to that is the introduction of the Byrne Superman, which came with the understanding that the previous history was not to be presumed until we'd seen in directly. Batman's (C) era was almost totally ignored by (D, E, F); not explicitly denounced, but definitely excluded from those eras by tone.

The Earth Two Batman (H) and Superman (I+J) were supposed to have begun their careers with the respective (A) versions, just as seen in the original publications, and set pre-WW2.

Batman, unlike Superman, has twice had his oldest history reaffirmed. (E) and (G) took stories from era (A) and placed them back into his history. Definitely with the presumption that they took place about 10-15 year earlier than the cover dates, not in 1939.

The "Golden Age" (a term coined by a fan, remember) corresponds to eras of publication (A) and (B) with no definite ending.

Now, when the Earth Two characters were brought into JLA-JSA crossovers, there was a bit of a white lie being told. The monthly comics had never introduced any sharp break in history. (The 1942ish transformations of Superman and 1964 introduction of the New Look Batman came closest.) And the Batman and Superman solo titles had made no mention of the other superheroes until they "met" in 1952, even though JSA stories referred to (and rarely included) Batman and Superman. Given that Batman #13 asserted that Superman was a fictional character even though they had been included in the JSA's "universe" as of 1940, you could argue that the Batman titles, the Superman titles, and the JSA amounted to three different continuities.

To say that the Earth Two characters were the Golden Age characters was a bit of a white lie. All of the sharp identity changes supposed to exist between the Earth Two and Earth One Supermen happened before Superman's one active JSA adventure in 1947. The JSA Superman, at least in his solo titles at that time, was the son of Jor-El, could fly, had been Superboy, and worked for the Daily Planet in Metropolis under Perry White. How do you like them apples? While your head is still reeling, grapple with the fact that the first appearance of the Earth Two Batman showed him alongside the JSA with a yellow oval on his chest with Blockbuster, a character who debuted five years after the JLA was begun. Two worlds couldn't be more mixed up if you saw the Pope celebrating Hanukkah.

So the "Earth Two Superman" (I) was a brand-new fusion of something that had never been: a guy who started off like Superman (A), but stayed that way through a career during the heyday of the Justice Society. I think owing to the extremely greater fan awareness of Superman's (A) era than his (B) era, this white lie was easily swallowed by fans from 1966 to the present. But in no way except one was the Earth Two Superman the Golden Age Superman any more than Englehart's Batman was the Golden Age Batman. And that one way is: The calendar of his publication and his supposed history were the same: He was supposed to have operated before and during WW2. Whereas Englehart's Batman had the history of Batman #1 in his past, you would have to assume, in 1978, that those events would have happened around 1970, earlier in his adulthood.

So this use of "Golden Age" to refer to the Earth Two characters is a bit of a lie for Superman and Batman. We can say that we know what DC means when they use the terms that way, but when it comes right down to it, the introduction of a second Batman and a second Superman was just the further tangling of a web that was already pretty well twisted by the minor inconsistencies that had grown over the preceding 25 years.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Roots of Superman, II

I've recently read some information and speculation on Superman's origins. This includes some misinformation and what I think is overly-imaginative perspective on the history, so I'd like to try to set some of that straight.

Long ago, I read in a major publication that Siegel and Shuster originally created a Superman character who was an evil mad scientist. That summary is almost but not quite true. The story itself is online, with minor legibility problems in the scanning. The actual plot is that a mad scientist uses meteorite fragments to create a potion that bestows great powers onto another man. That power corrupts the "Super-Man" and spurs the scientist to try to dose himself with the same potion, but is killed by the Super-Man instants before he is able to. The Super-Man loses his powers shortly thereafter, sparing the world from his otherwise certain domination. It is also worth noting that the powers of that Super-Man are altogether different from the powers of the hero Superman, being predominantly mental in nature (eg, mind control, clairvoyance).

A recent article in the USA Today offers some speculation regarding the creation of Superman, supposing that a robbery that killed Jerry Siegel's father (perhaps involving a gunshot) may have spurred the creator to invent a bulletproof hero. Moreover, a letter in the local paper from an "A. L. Luther" denounces vigilante justice, so one might suppose that Siegel chose that name (off by just one letter) for Superman's greatest enemy. In fact, DC writer Brad Meltzer supposes exactly that.

I am inclined in both regards to disagree, although only a brain scan of Jerry Siegel's mind at the time he was creating the character could tell us for sure. The "Reign of the Super-Man" story shows us that Siegel's first attempt to imbue a character with superpowers involved no such invulnerability. Nor did Siegel's second such character (Doctor Occult) have such a power. Superman was at the earliest Siegel's third powered title character (a sci-fi character named Jor-L also preceded Superman), and so the bulletproof power seems less central in his creative outlets.
And the primacy of Luthor among Superman's enemies is a later construct, perhaps owing to fan preference more than Siegel's. Luthor first appeared almost two years after Superman debuted, and was the second mad scientist he faced, following the Ultra-Humanite. There had been over 30 Superman stories before Luthor debuted. If Siegel was itching to villainize the letter writer, he took his time getting to it.

I have read various speculation that Siegel and Shuster's ethnic identity, as the children of Jewish immigrants, can explain their creation of a character whose home was destroyed, and thus came to us and became the best of us all. But the original concept of a heroic Superman placed his origin not on another planet, but as the child of a scientist in Earth's far-off future, and that his powers were owed to advanced evolution of our own race. Thus, he came to us not via space travel, but rather time travel. This idea, fully Jerry Siegel's, was later used as the "surprise" origin at the end of Mark Millar's story Red Son. Once again, an idea which tries to explain Superman by psychoanalyzing his creators fails to explain their earlier iterations.

Edit: I have not found confirmation to my liking that the first, never-published Superman story had the future, rather than Krypton, as Superman's origin. I found many sources stating that he was from Krypton in that story. If it were possible to read the story, I would use that as the definitive answer, but the story no longer exists. I'd like to see if a statement from Siegel or Shuster on the point exists. I emphatically retract the "future" claim in the absence of such information.

If one did seek to find Siegel's racial and ethnic bearings as the basis of his stories, one would be very hard pressed to explain the story line that introduced Luthor in 1940. Action #22 tells the story of war breaking out in Europe, with the aggressor having abruptly attacked another country. While fictional names are used for the two countries, it is clear that the story is patterned on Germany's recent invasion of Poland (which had already ended in German victory long before Action #22 hit the stands). Interestingly, the villain of that story was someone in the country that was attacked; if these events are seen as surrogates for the real countries, then Siegel made his villain for the story a Pole, not a German.

An even more surprising result is found in the follow-up, when Action #23 reveals that the fictional war was not actually caused by the surrogate Germany. It turns out that Luthor had manipulated events to create the war, so the fake Germany's leaders (surrogates for Hitler) are exonerated. On a fairly direct level, the Jewish writer of this story thereby created a fictional apology for Adolf Hitler. It makes more sense to conclude that Siegel was not so deliberate in providing veiled political commentary.

As Sigmund Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I think Roger Ebert expresses my take on psychoanalyses of Siegel like this:

When I was in college, we used to do "source studies" for the plays of Shakespeare, reading the books that were allegedly in his library and trying to figure out where he got his ideas. ... My source studies were always ungainly, disorganized and filled with wild surmises ("Shakespeare was undoubtedly referring to . . .").

Wild surmises are interesting. I can add my own: Eliot Ness, after bringing down Al Capone, moved to Siegel's own Cleveland and began a one-man war on crime. The year, 1934, just in time to inspire Jerry Siegel's idea of a one-man war on crime. Was this an influence on Siegel's stories? Or a coincidence? How could we possibly know? At least we know that at Nuremberg, none of the Nazis on trial claimed to have been following Luthor's orders.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Batman and Robin 1

A talking toad-man henchman who speaks in circus slang. A villain who debuted dead two years ago. A man on fire. And two sons surpassing their father. Dick Grayson takes the world's ultimate promotion, becoming Batman (not for the first time: Shhhh) and walking into his first week on the job with some sadness but no lack of confidence.

In what effectively resumes Grant Morrison's run on the Batman title, Batman and Robin launches with some of the same themes intact Interviewed, Morrison promises a simpler set-up than in his long wind-up to Bruce Wayne's departure. So far, the layering and texture seems to be all about mood and not about plot, but only time will tell if there was perhaps something like the "Zur En Arrh" graffiti in this issue, waiting for us to recognize its significance later. Nevertheless, this story connects with Morrison's earlier run in at least a few interesting ways. One, the Professor Pyg found dead in Batman #666 is the villain of this first arc, creating hideous doll-human servants by disfiguring and enslaving his victims, with a bit less technology than seen in that future story. And a last-page preview panel (Geoff Johns has made excellent use of these in JSA and elsewhere) shows Doctor Hurt, indicating that he will return on some level.

This first arc, as Morrison has already told us in interviews, is about the Circus of the Strange, and if you read his comments, you already know that the man on fire is a circus freak named Phosphorus Rex. The twisted circus calls to mind The Killing Joke as well as Dick Grayson's past, and if you spend some time looking up Toad's vocabulary, you'll find circus lingo is his dialect, which Dick tells us anyway. Clearly, his first mission as Batman is going to be a homecoming of sorts. The Ghost Train image has come up before in Morrison's work, and obviously Morrison and Frank Quitely (whose work in this issue is phenomenal in creating a mood) are putting us on a ghost train for this story. Of course, if there's a ghost story being told, Bruce Wayne is the unspoken subject (a spectral Batman appears in a preview panel as well). Damian and Dick both speak of carrying on his work for the first and surely not last time. It's refreshing that the theme of living up to Bruce's impossible standards has not burdened this issue. We know that exceeding the one, true Batman is impossible. And yet, look -- this Batmobile flies!