Thursday, September 24, 2009

Superman: Secret Origin #1

The artist takes a pencil and traces an oval where the face will be. Rather than touching the pencil to the paper and drawing it in one solid curve, the oval is composed of many shorter arcs, parallel, intersecting, concentric. Each one nudges the outline from where the previous faint lines had begun, adjusting them, repositioning the curve, correcting it. The pencil is flipped and the eraser rubs some graphite off the page; a sleeve wipes the rubber and dust away, and then the pencil goes back to work. At some point, a mannequin-like shape is there, and then a face is drawn inside, outside, and over it, without ever erasing the original imperfect outline. Eventually it will have life. Eventually it will be a face. Little strokes keep touching it up, making it better, or at least different. 

Superman is a work in progress. I first realized this when I was nine and he was forty, when the movie portrayed details differently than the comics I'd been reading. Jor-El had white hair instead of black. He wore a shining robe instead of a green shirt. And many other details, important to me, had been changed. The unescapable conclusion was that the movie must be flawed; I preferred the familiar to the new.

Around that time, my teacher asked me if I could bring a comic book to school. They wanted to have one of the art teachers make a poster featuring Superman and needed an example for her to draw him from. I proudly brought in one of my late-Seventies comics, with its two dozen pages of Superman drawn by Curt Swan, countless panels for the art teacher to choose from as the basis for her poster. When I saw the final product, three feet tall hanging inside the main doors of the school, I was aghast -- she had chosen the best drawing in the comic for her purposes, but it was the wrong Superman -- the Earth Two Superman, who was posed heroically in an ad for DC Comics, unrelated to the story. Something about his face was wrong, but -- more appalling for me -- his chest symbol was flat at the bottom instead of coming to a point. I felt like a traitor to the cause of artistic truth; given a chance to personally select the vision of Superman that my whole school would see, I had introduced the "wrong Superman". It distinctly upset me, in a way I couldn't explain to anyone.

A decade later, I was in college. I hadn't read many comics over the previous six years, and had totally missed the changes wrought by The Man of Steel. When I picked up Time Magazine's 1988 article on Superman turning fifty years old, and read that Luthor had been turned into a businessman who had dated Lois. I felt about this Lex Luthor probably like Pope Leo X had felt about Martin Luther. The article didn't explain that there had been a "reboot", so I imagined that somehow old Silver Age Lex had figured out a way to woo devoted, Silver Age, Kurt Schaffenberger Lois away from Superman, and I didn't much like the thought of it. It seemed to be not merely an artist decision in one serial but a sign that somehow the whole world had gone sick and wrong.

If the editors had known how sour my reaction was, they would have winked at the camera, Clark Kent style, when they saw me, a few days later, buying a Superman comic at the college bookstore. This was a turn of events that surely would not have taken place if the Time article had led me to believe that everything in Superman's world was just as it had been when I'd stopped buying comic books. And when I picked up that issue to see that Brainiac had also been radically transformed from the android I'd known him to be, I didn't like it, but I was interested. This sent me down the path that led to buying large numbers of back issues, eventually owning the entire sequence from Man of Steel to the then-current day. It would have been foolish not to be self-aware enough to recognize that my reborn interest in the Superman series was a product of the new directions they had taken. And when an artistic decision provides me with something I enjoy, I can't readily call it bad.

And yet, having accepted the principle of reinventing periodically The Man of Tomorrow, having learned about his past versions as well as those that followed Byrne, I had recently come to worry about Superman. I knew that many fans still yearned for the same Superman I had been raised on in the Seventies while, contrarily, other fans who had embraced (or known only) the post-Byrne Superman were upset by the reintroduction of Silver Age elements in recent years. Overwhelmed by the many little tweaks in Superman's mythology -- and big ones -- coming from Dan Jurgens, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Darwin Cooke, and many others, I felt like the pencil drawing from my opening paragraph had been made, irrevocably, into a smudged and smeared blur, with every facet of Superman's visage sitting on the page for only moments before someone sought to erase it. While many fans were bothered immeasurably by some detail of Superman's latest version, I felt like he was more than anything lost in the multiplicity of version. How could I really care what kind of tail fins the rocket that Superman rode to Earth had if the absolute rock-solid canonical version from the Bronze Age was reimagined on an almost biennial basis?

If you'd asked me, even days ago, I would have told you that the Byrne reboot had retroactively become the worst thing that ever happened to Superman because it opened a Pandora's Box of relative truth in Superman's mythology, making every detail not only tentative, but evanescent like vapor. Whereas once it made sense to print a Superman encyclopedia, logging all of his significant history in a prestige volume, now Superman was lost in the multiple accounts, never again to be an icon, just the central figure in a cluttered scrapbook full of so many alternate versions of Bizarro, Krypto, and Supergirl that you couldn't tell the current one from any of the outdated ones. I feared that Geoff Johns had no chance of meaningfully setting the record straight with his upcoming Superman: Secret Origins, and that all he could do was add another voice to the cacophony.

When I read the first issue, just hours ago, I was very pleasantly surprised.

I expected good writing. What I didn't expect was the approach. Maybe Johns' notion of Kryptonian guilds should have tipped me off. The genius of this issue is how well it weaves different eras of Superman together. Johns neither embraces the Superman of my (and his) childhood slavishly nor invents, with a flourish, his own. He begins the issue almost exactly like Man of Steel began, showing young Clark coming to acknowledge his burgeoning powers during a game of football. He changes Clark's age, and moves the game from a stadium to the sandlot, but clearly Johns, suspected by many of being a shill for the Silver Age opened with conciliation, giving Byrne's version the first say. Later, of course we saw Silver Age touches and "Movie" Superman (before moving from film to comics, Johns was Richard Donner's assistant). And if you'd asked me this morning, I would have told you that seeing homages to Smallville was the last thing I wanted to see in this series, but when I saw the red jacket and the hormonally-inspired flashes of heat vision, I admired the spirit of peacemaking. And, crucially, the grace with which it was done, doing no damage to the overall fabric. By the time we saw the issue end with another pinpoint nod to Byrne's first issue, with Clark putting on a Martha Kent rendition of the world's most famous tights, we had a story whose seams were evident only to those who'd seen the constituent parts before the sewing began.

Superman is the Great American Hero, and America is a country that was saved by a quirky Constitutional fiat called the Great Compromise. If Superman was being torn apart in a creative tug of war, Geoff Johns has refused to pick sides. He's come down hard on the side of not favoring sides. Ultimately, the kind of tail fins the rocket has don't matter so much as the adoption of a version of Superman that reminds a plurality of fans of Superman. What could be more pleasing to Superman than to have everybody win?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Black Hands

How Does That Grab You?

A poster on the DC Message Boards under the name jackhenryjr pointed out the black hand on the card that Red Hood hands out in Batman and Robin #4. Because it's been a recurring image during Grant Morrison's run on Batman (and Robin), I thought a visual comparison would be useful, so here readers can see three examples placed together.

First, there is the poster for John Mayhew's film The Black Glove. Based on comments made by Man of Bats in Batman #681, the Black Glove himself seemed not to be thrilled with having been featured in a film, and eventually took revenge on those involved in the making of it, although that revenge seemed to be a long time in coming. The poster was seen in Batman #667 (the first mention of "The Black Glove") and Batman #677.

A similar image appeared on the screens of the Batcomputer when Bruce fell to the Club of Villains at the end of Batman #677. The image remained on the screens afterwards -- exactly how and why this visual display was arranged is not clear, but it helped set the mood. Since Batman was under psychological attack, maybe it contributed to the effectiveness of the "Zur En Arrh" trigger phrase that he heard simultaneous. Maybe Doctor Hurt just likes to do things with flair.

And now a very similar image appears on the business cards handed out by the Red Hood. It could be the imprint of the hand from the Batcomputer, or the other hand (hands do tend to come in twos). Note that if it's a palm, then the card advertising a "red right hand" is actually a left hand!

Given that the first two examples indicate the Devil and the third is accompanied by a line from Paradise Lost that is attributed to Belial, one other thing we can say about these three black hands on a red background is that they're associated with great evil. Is the latest example linked to Doctor Hurt? Or are Morrison and Tan setting a mood that goes beyond the efforts of characters in the story to arrange?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Batman and Robin 4: Revenge of the Red Hood

"Who are these people?" Dick Grayson asks rhetorically, after having seen too much of the Red Hood and Scarlet.  He's echoing one of the catchphrases of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the prototypical buddy film. Damian, his new "buddy", doesn't have the answer, and we have just half of it. While Dick is asking only about the new pair of costumed vigilantes, he could be asking it of a much larger cast. Most all of them have some shade of red associated with them. While red is in, black and white is out: This is the first issue of the series that hasn't featured dominoes in some way.

At this point, Grant Morrison has left such a rich heritage of signs and symbols behind him that they keep popping up everywhere: Maybe it's a coincidence, but Lightning Bug's suit has a glowing yellow outline on the front which strongly resembles the one that Mister Miracle used in Final Crisis to protect himself against the Anti Life Equation. It doesn't protect him from his own life ending, however. The Red Hood and Scarlet are out to kill criminals, to "wipe the vomit off the face of Gotham once and for all." Lightning Bug gets wiped away in this issue. And isn't killing lightning bugs tempting for any nasty child?

The Red Hood is forward thinking. He sounds like the CEO of a Web 2.0 company: "cool, modern, edgy, the next level, hotter, in tune with changing times". Scarlet records their vengeance with an iPhone and posts it real-time to Twitter. Killing the past: His victim's would-be victim has a parrot that is killed for repeating Fred Flintstone's "stone age" line "Yabba dabba doo". Old cartoons are dead, long live the new. But for everything that plugs him in to 2009, he also hearkens back to 1667, leaving a calling card that paraphrases Milton's Paradise Lost:

What if the breath that kindl'd those grim fires
Awak'd should blow them into sevenfold rage
And plunge us in the Flames? or from above
Should intermitted vengeance Arme again
His red right hand to plague us?

Red Hood's card reads: "Vengeance arms against his red right hand", and it maps to the original (Belial, one of the fallen, is speaking and refers to the red right hand of God) by making the Red Hood into a vengeful God lashing out at evil. This is the useful interpretation of the card, but you might find yourself cheering the Red Hood on to the sounds of Nick Cave.

There's clearly a mystery regarding the Red Hood's identity, and while I think the evidence (especially Grant Morrison's direct hints in interviews) comes down hard in favor of Jason Todd, the last person to wear that costume, the Joker is also AWOL and was lightly homaged in Batman and Robin's first arc with The Killing Joke's circus being Professor Pyg's home base. The Joker was the original Red Hood in Detective #168 (1951), and again in The Killing Joke, but nothing about this Red Hood reminds us of any previous incarnation of the Joker, and as Morrison said that the villain of the second arc was a character he hadn't handled before, it's hard to support the Joker as a suspect. Not to mention the fact that the Red Hood doesn't laugh. However, he's one of the few characters known to call himself crazy and Red Hood says that his story is "the revenge of one crazy man in a mask on another crazy man in a mask" and he then utters his only iota of humor: "Heh."

Long before Dick finds out who these people are, he has one of those canonical introductions that detectives so often experience at parties early in the mystery, an author of mysteries, no less, who sees the world quite literally through rouge-colored lenses, like the villain is known to. Oberon Sexton, a man whose wife was killed the same night his face was scarred, a distinction shared by the Joker in The Killing Joke's putative flashback. His last novel was about corn dollies, which sort of look like Red Hood. 

We see Red Hood place red lenses (night vision) over Sasha's eyes and she sees him in green in reverse angle (and perhaps sees the dim outlines of his face). Soon thereafter, Dick uses very similar looking lenses and also sees his stake-out prey in green. These duos are not so unalike? Maybe. When Dick gives Damian some costume advice "a hood can become a blindfold", we have to wonder if Dick believes that the Red Hood's dome is his blindfold. Maybe it detaches him to be the sort of dark hero that Batman's not going to tolerate?

But we can see why the heroes might need to get up to date with the Web: In the gathering of criminals, Santo preaches to Penguin that the "new model of crime is grass roots, viral". And then all the players suddenly rush onto stage at once: The dark duo lash into the gathering of villains, bringing Batman and Robin into a confrontation with the Red Hood and Scarlet (remember, she has a score to settle with Damian, from last issue when he failed to save her). And the Red Hood comes charging at Dick with guns drawn just as Dick asks, in Philip Tan's rendering almost poignantly, "Jason?"

In the larger structure of this 12-part run, the Devil themes are brought up in a new way thanks to Milton's classic. Subtly, another of the villains of Batman #666 surfaces with the off-camera Flamingo who looks weak when Damian casually smashes him with a batarang in the future, but in the present, you have to have a grim appreciation for a villain who is called "the eater of faces". Nothing is so much an eater of faces as a mask, though, and in this issue, everyone had one, leaving a couple of those faces hidden even from us. If that is Jason Todd behind the Red Hood, he's doing what he did in Judd Winick's Under the Hood, but he's definitely doing it in a new way. And the inconclusive battle between the first and the second Robin that started in Battle For The Cowl is on again. Who more aptly than Jason Todd would start getting revenge on Dick Grayson's Batman by getting himself his own sidekick to show how in his own violent way the dynamic duo should be done right?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Batman and Robin: Professor Pyg

Running from the Devil

Way back in Batman #666, the first we saw of Damian as the future Batman, he was on the trail of a villain named Professor Pyg. In one of those double-villain twists, a worse bad guy, who happened to be Replacement Batman Lane, serving as the Antichrist, had already killed Pyg, as well as four other bad guys including one named Phosphorus Rex. Two years later, Grant Morrison brought us the earlier lives of Professor Pyg and Phosphorus Rex in the first story arc of Batman and Robin, which has been DC's top-selling series thus far during its brief life.

The story in the present seems to be just as tangled as the one in the future, with multiple layers of villainy, sometimes flagging alliances between good guys, and a whole lot of opportunities for mistaken identity, a thing that often goes by the name of "mystery".

Just as Morrison's run on the Batman title began with hidden messages that could be noticed ("Zur En Arrh" graffiti) but not possibly decoded until later, the early issues of Batman and Robin point in some mysterious directions. Things are in code, with "wooden gallopers" being a clue that leads Damian to a carousel. We're surely being shown things whose anomalous nature can be noticed now, but whose real importance will be made evident only later.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend?

If you go back to the Silver Age, you could read a hundred comic books in a row where every good guy was on the same side, and each issue's villains, if there were more than one, were also on the same side. Three issues in, Batman and Robin has presented us with so many different sides of bad guy that it's not clear who is out to get whom.

What we know: Professor Pyg had a deal going with Russian mobsters who never appear on-camera. Mr. Toad and two henchmen who are brothers (or brothers-in-law) are caught by the new Dynamic Duo on their way back from a drug deal that involves a double-cross of some kind. Instead of hauling cash, they have one trunk full of dominoes and one full of random trash. When Pyg finds out that the cash is not going to materialize, he gets revenge on the henchmen, one of whom is the father of Sasha, a character who will play a bigger part in the Red Hood story to come. So Pyg mistakenly believed that they were to blame for the failure.

But when Mister Toad is in jail, everything on the surface makes it look as though Pyg's Circus of the Strange underlings are on their way to break him out. Until he ends up dead. And then we're not sure who exactly killed him, but given that a domino appears again, it's probably whoever double-crossed Pyg in the first place. This leaves two unanswered questions: Were the Circus of the Strange really trying to help Toad after having disfigured his helpers? And, who is the Domino Killer? Is it Pyg, suffering from multiple personalities? (MPD would not be his biggest problem if he did suffer from it.) The Siamese Triplet fighting Batman warns him that "Tober Omi", the owner of the circus is on the loose -- but is he referring to the imminent death of Mister Toad or to the terror campaign underway elsewhere in the city? Or is the Domino Killer one and the same as the Red Hood, utilizing two distinct modus operandi? Or is it possible that there are three distinct circles of villainy in the story so far?

Perverse Psychology

Professor Pyg sees himself as a kind of Henry Higgins. But another "H.H." figures into this story, a research psychologist named Harry Harlow. Harlow's experiments, intended to show the importance of nurturing human children, subjected rhesus monkeys to isolation and deprived them of affection. In one such experiment, the monkeys were given milk by a "mommy" made of hard metal wires, which provided sustenance, but no comfort. These monkeys ended up irreversibly damaged psychologically, whereas monkeys given a similarly artificial but soft cloth-covered mommy did not. And so, as the image above makes clear, Pyg's "mommy made of nails" was patterned very obviously on Harlow's apparatus. Even more striking, Pyg's delirious rant that he delivers upon Damian's waking up mentions a "despair pit". Harlow called an even-more horrific piece of lab equipment the "pit of despair", which was a dark isolation cage in which he placed baby monkeys, leading them to grow up even more damaged psychologically.

That Pyg is similarly damaged is clear. An intriguing question is whether or not there is a story about how he got that way. When Dick Grayson says "Something happens to... Lazlo Valentin... he becomes Pyg", we might detect undertones hinting at a bigger plot yet to surface, one in which making Valentin into Pyg is just part of the horror. And given that the Devil ends up hauling Pyg in sometime in the future, it's a plot that could go all the way to the top... or the bottom.

Maybe Lazlo Valentin had, like famous Psycho Norman Bates, a cruel mother who made him this way, although Dick's line hints that it was a post-childhood transformation. Pyg himself keeps identifying monstrous females as part of a mythological (and initially alliterative) rant that names Mormo, Tiamet, and the Gorgon Queen as the sort of mother figure he's trying to please. When Batman and Robin collar him at the end, he acts just like a little boy who was caught misbehaving.

But don't move past the "cruel mommy" theme without pausing to consider our Robin. In #2, Alfred comes out and says to Dick, "Yours were loving parents, your role models were of the highest caliber. Master Damian was raised by assassins and master criminals, far from his father's influence." And on the same table in the penthouse where Dick has placed a photo of himself, happy, with Bruce, Alfred, and Ace [the Bathound], Damian has a coldly impersonal photo of himself with Talia. The real point of the Mommy Made of Nails may be not to show a snapshot of a delightfully scarred villain, but to sketch out just what is wrong with the son of Talia, all the better to illuminate his path towards a more heroic future to come.

Double Twelves

The tokens of games are intriguing symbols, with discrete items, distinct in color, number, and kind, all ready to represent real things in the real world. After the card deal in DC Universe #0 ended up meaning just about nothing (although the Joker's mimed gunshot may have foretold the showdown between Batman and Darkseid), we shouldn't get too eager to decode the dominos in this story on a deep level, but at least they seem to mean something on a shallow one.

Two dominos have been put out in isolation: A double-twelve in Toad's hand upon his death and a twelve-eleven in Pyg's lab. That sequence happens to be a legal pair to play (any domino with a twelve in one half would match a double-twelve). It also happens to hint at a sustained countdown, which would take twenty-three more dominoes to reach double-zero. Does that mean that twenty-three more "hits" are coming? Was the second domino even the scene of a hit? There was no dead body at the scene, so why did the Domino Killer leave a token behind? Or if Pyg is the culprit, why did he sting himself in the drug deal... and get mad about it?

Two things about dominoes: They consist of matched pairs, so they are a potential echo of the crime-fighting duo that headline the book, as well as the malevolent duo of Red Hood and Sasha who are to fill the next few issues. And, every Robin wears a domino mask: Dick Grayson, Damian, and Jason Todd all have some history with that.

The teaser at the end of #3 and the title of the first issue point to the other use of dominoes besides playing games with them; namely, to line them up so that each one that falls can push the next one over, a dynamic that was once supposed to menace all of Southern Asia with Communism. The dots on the dominoes in that teaser appear to count up. It seems like one way or another, a sequence is underway. What began with Mister Toad will end with... what?

Riffing on RIP

Besides the use of game tokens and the wrapping up of unfinished business involving Le Bossu, Batman and Robin has echoed Batman, R.I.P., whether deliberately or because Morrison enjoys using a good line twice. So the Joker's "I'd like to bet you have no idea what you're dealing with" is echoed by Phosphorus Rex, who probably means something more than just Professor Pyg. Bruce's collapse in Batman #677 to the tune of "I'm not ready yet" is echoed by Professor Pyg. And the Green Vulture's request that Batman and Robin hit him is echoed twice by Professor Pyg. Pyg's rant before his dance includes the Hebrew phrase "Tohu va bohu", shapeless and formless, a line from the very beginning of the Bible, maybe suggesting a full circle with the Revelations-themed events in Batman #666 and RIP.

And, for a touch of the ominous, the black-gloved hands on the binoculars watching Bruce and Jezebel in Venice all the way back in Batman #665 have their counterpoint in Batman and Robin #3, as Alfred, tidying up the penthouse, is watched by someone whose dark boots are astride a gargoyle across the street. Boots that could turn out to belong to just about anybody, good guy or bad guy, besides Alfred.

Boots that tell us: something dark is still to come.