Thursday, April 30, 2009

Superman's Vision Powers

The notion of Superman's vision powers is, if it is possible, even more impossible scientifically than his strength or invulnerability. Eliot S. Maggin had a beautiful description of what Superman's vision was like, and the idea was more that he had a broad range of "visions" rather than that he had six or seven different vision powers. So his infrared vision versus his x-ray vision worked like your "red vision" versus your "blue vision". Your red vision doesn't interfere with your green vision and your blue vision; they overlap, beautifully. 

The human eye has three types of color receptor and one for perceiving in dim light that is not sensitive to color at all. We should imagine that Superman has a much vaster range -- 11 or 20 or 60 "colors" covering a wider chunk of the spectrum. How traveling from Krypton to Earth would make his eyes change in that way is a good question.

One of the biggest problems for Superman acquiring super vision is that human vision is already really good. Our eyes take in as much light as can pass through our pupils and processes it pretty efficiently. It has been experimentally determined that people can respond to a dim flash of light that only shines nine photons upon the human retina. Since the photon is the basic, indivisible quantum of light, Superman would be hard-pressed to turn in a better performance -- nine times better at best. Telescopes see things that people cannot, but that's because they are bigger than human eyes and let in more light. But Superman doesn't have extra-large eyes -- that would make his secret identity pretty hard to hide.

While hawks, for example, have vision with higher acuity than humans without their eyes being larger, this is because the hawk's eye is specialized for small details while sacrificing the kind of processing that helps us see "the big picture". While a hawk can see a mouse from a long way away, a hawk would probably perform very poorly driving a car in heavy traffic, missing the car approaching it from the right while being acutely aware of the license plate of the car right in front of it.

These kinds of properties are hard-wired into the architecture of the human (or hawk) eye, and it doesn't seem possible for any being or device to possess them all and switch between them. At least, not in ways that would work under the light of a yellow sun, but not under a red one.

How Strong Is Superman?

The Question

Once Siegel and Shuster introduced a character whose most obvious trait was, if not his goodness, his strength, the question has been obvious: How strong is Superman? (Curiously, no one ever asks "How good is Superman?")

The Answer

Disappointingly, the answer will not be easy to summarize with a number. Three key points:

1) The depictions of Superman's strength have varied over the years, from writer to writer, and even in stories by the same writer. Roughly speaking, he started off in 1938 much stronger than any real man, but weaker than he's ever been portrayed since. He was already strong enough to move a planet in 1949. In 1972, a story cut his power in half. In 1986, John Byrne's reboot depowered Superman considerably. Since then, his power levels have more or less crept back up toward his previous highs.

2) Sometimes strength can be measured by a direct statement of a number, but more often, we just see Superman do things, and then we can infer how strong he must be. If he lifts a truck, though, that doesn't tell us that he can ONLY lift a truck -- he might be much stronger than that. You really only find out exactly how strong he is if you see a point where he tries to do something and just barely succeeds or just barely fails.

3) If you don't want to think about this any further, that's fine.  As William Shatner said on Saturday Night Live, "It's just a show!" (Well, just a comic book.) It's not real, and there are no real answers. But "How strong is Superman?" keeps coming up again and again. People want an answer. That's going to require some science, or pseudoscience, so I'll talk about some of the issues first:

Weird Science

In real physics, although not in comic books, these things are true:

1) It's impossible, using hands the size of human hands, to pick up a very, very large object and have it hold together. If you tried to pick up the Great Pyramid by its top stone, you would only lift the top stone off of the pile and carry it away while leaving 99.99% of the pyramid behind. If you tried to grab it by two bottom stones, you'd only end up with those two and perhaps some other slice of blocks that were carefully balanced on top, but you sure wouldn't get the whole pyramid. Large objects lack structural integrity compared to their bulk.

If you'd like a comparison, try to use a toothpick to lift a cake. It's impossible -- the toothpick will slice through the cake, carrying almost no cake with it. That's what would happen if an incredibly strong being tried to lift a huge object.

Therefore, if Superman's really strong, he will be able to lift any object that is capable of being lifted, but larger objects will simply crumble. That certainly includes a planet. If he tried to push a planet, he should just end up drilling a hole through it, and maybe end up holding a piece that's not very big.

John Byrne wrote that Superman's ability to carry things was actually a form of telekinesis, so that he was holding the object together in some way other than with his hands. Not many writers allude to that, and it's more that they ignore the issue than take any particular approach to it.

2) The oft-cited test of "moving a planet" is naive with respect to physics.

First, the ability to push a planet at all involves the flying power, not the use of very strong arms. If a very strong being without flying power (say, Doomsday, or the Hulk) tried to push a planet, nothing would happen. Newton's laws (if we pay any attention to real physics at all) dictate that something has to be pushed against. An airplane pushes against air. A rocket pushes against the exhaust that it expels. Because Superman can fly in space, and change directions, we have to imagine that he has some unreal ability to push and pull against something, through some unspecified force (electromagnetic or gravitational?) and large astronomical bodies seem to be the only candidates.

Second, if any force pushes on an object in space, the object will move. The question is not whether the object will move or not. The question is how much the pusher is able to accelerate the planet.

This is different from the physics of everyday objects because of things like friction. Heavy objects are "stuck" to the Earth's surface, creating a force that resists meager efforts to move them. If you apply 50 lbs of force to move a parked truck (with the brakes locked), you will not move it at all. If you apply 200 lbs of force, you still will not move it at all. (At least, you won't move the wheels. You may rock it slightly, while the wheels remain fixed.)

However, in outer space, if you applied 50 lbs of force to a truck, you would move it, and the longer you kept pushing, the more it would speed up. In fact, if you applied 50 lbs of force to a planet, you would push it, but by some incredibly small amount.

When Superman has been seen to move a planet, the real assertion is that he moves it a significant amount in a fairly short time. If he were "weak" and he only moved a planet one inch after pushing for a week (which is still way beyond normal human strength), it wouldn't match the feats we've seen him perform in the past.

The ability to move a planet is a pretty good match to the top strength levels in Superman's past. We first see Superman moving a planet in 1949, in Superman #58. The planet has human-like inhabitants, so it's probably roughly the size of Earth. While the post-Byrne Superman admitted outright that he was unable to move a planet, the ability came back later, even if the writer (Joe Kelly) didn't intend it. In JLA vol. 3 #75 (the end of Obsidian Age), Superman, Martian Manhunter, and Wonder Woman move the Earth. Unlike the physics of everyday objects (like you and two of your friends moving a couch), the physics of bodies in space means that the contribution of forces is more or less linearly additive. That is, if 3 equal parties moved the Earth at a certain level of acceleration, then one of them alone could move it at 1/3 that acceleration.

Presumably, Superman is stronger than 1/3 of the total in that group, but that doesn't matter too much. Whether he's only 1/3 of the total (exactly equal to Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter) or 99% (much stronger than the two of them combined), that nails down his strength level pretty closely.

One might wonder how fast and how hard Superman (and his friends) pushed those planets. In both cases, he needed to push the planets in order to adjust the orbit significantly (in one case, the planet was too far from its star; in the other case, too close). The stories don't provide the boring details of how long he has to push to make the needed change, but you certainly feel like it happens pretty quickly -- minutes or hours, not days or weeks.

Unfortunately, we hit another clash between real physics and the storytelling, because if Superman (or anyone) pushed a planet hard enough to move it significantly in minutes, the acceleration would absolutely devastate the people, trees, buildings, etc., on the planet. Over large portions of the planet, the force would be sideways, which is exactly what causes damage during an earthquake.

1% of the Earth's distance from the Sun is 1.5 million kilometers. To change a planet's temperature noticeably in a short time, it would have to move at least about that far. If Superman pushed at 1/10th of a G force, this would require 48 hours of pushing. That is actually too hard of an acceleration (it would devastate objects on the surface of the planet), too little of a change in the orbit (no one would notice the change in temperature for a long time), and yet too long of a delay (Superman doesn't say, "I'll see you in a couple of days!") to match the details in the stories, and if we loosen any of those assumptions, the other details become even more inconvenient. Let's say, though, that pushing an Earth-sized planet by 1/10th of a G is a good trade-off between the contradictory details. Let's say that Superman pushes the planet for 48 hours, it somehow holds together, and applying 1/10th G, he saves the day. (Given the nature of orbital mechanics, a single push is not the right answer, because making the orbit as close to circular as the Earth's is now would require a much more sustained effort, but we've already fudged on the precise details in imagining that it causes the necessary climate change without wrecking objects on the surface.) Let's say that pushing Earth at 1/10 G is the level of Superman's strength.

The Planet-Moving Answer

If Superman is just capable of pushing the Earth at 1/10th G, then his strength could be expressed in the following terms:

1) How much could he lift if he were lifting a weight against the 1 G gravity we experience on the surface of the Earth? 

Very simple: It must be 1/10th of the mass of the Earth. That is 6 x 1024 kg, or, if you want to see the big number:

6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons.

2) How much stronger is he than a normal man?

The current world record in weightlifting (of any kind) is the 390 kg back squat by Hossein Rezazadeh. That makes Superman 15 sextillion times stronger than the strongest actual man. Of course, Rezazadeh is much stronger than an ordinary man, maybe ten times stronger.

"Sextillion" is a very rare term, so to rewrite that in more common terms, Superman is 15 billion trillion times stronger than Rezazadeh, and about 150 billion trillion times stronger than an average man.

Really Big Numbers

All told, there are more digits than you would expect in the sorts of numbers we're talking about. Let's say that Superman got into a fight with an opponent who was very strong, but not as strong -- someone who could lift a small mountain (1 mile cubed of rock). What would the fight look like between Superman and that enemy? A decent fight? Would the enemy get in some good blows before eventually losing?

Given that premise, Superman would be about 500 billion times stronger than the enemy. To put that in perspective, compare a man and a fruit fly that is 3 mm long and weighs 3 milligrams. Flying, it can just support its own weight, so we'll call that its strength. Hossein Rezzadeh is only 130 million times stronger than the tiny fruit fly. Superman would have a much bigger advantage over the mountain-lifting enemy than Rezazadeh would have over the fruit fly. The edge that Rezazadeh has on a fruit fly, planet-moving Superman would have on an opponent who could lift a mountain range (3000 mountains).

Basically, for an opponent to tangle with Superman, in terms of sheer strength (and not magic or some other angle) the opponent would have to be a planet-mover, too. An opponent with 1/10th of Superman's strength would push a planet as much in 20 days as Superman pushes it in 48 hours. (If the opponent had flying power at all.)

Energy Sources

Superman's strength (and other powers) have been explained in a number of ways over the years.

1) A "physical structure" that is "millions of years advanced" (Action #1). This implies that great strength is a form of perfection that evolution naturally leads to, overlooking the fact that natural selection does not lead to perpetually increasing strength in all species, because sheer strength is not the sole determinant of survival. For example, gorillas do not have an inherent evolutionary advantage over squirrels.

2) That "the smaller size of [Earth], with its slighter [than Krypton's] gravity pull, assists Superman's tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength" (Superman #1). Alas, modern planetary science does not lend support to this idea. Even an extremely large planet would not have gravity so much stronger than Earth's so as to explain Superman's planet-moving strength. While some planets orbiting other stars have been found with masses about 3000 times that of the Earth, those are gas giant planets (like Jupiter) that lack solid surfaces. Even if a planet the size of Jupiter were made of solid iron, its surface gravity would be less than 20 times that of the Earth. Superman's strength is far greater than that, so a better explanation is needed. (Of course, powers like telescopic vision also require a better explanation, no matter what the numbers.)

3) That "ultra solar rays" of the Earth's Sun, a yellow star, have an effect on Kryptonians that empowers them instantly. (Action #262)

4) In John Byrne's Man of Steel #1, Jor-El explains that his son, as a Kryptonian, will "grow ever more powerful" because "Kryptonian cells will become living solar batteries". This implies that the power output of a Kryptonian would be about the same as if human-sized solar panels were used to charge a battery. Solar panels are not very efficient, so we might expect, somehow, for Kryptonians to extract power more efficiently, and from a larger portion of the spectrum. But that is ridiculously less power than Superman is seen to display, and would moreover imply that feats of strength would exhaust the stored energy.

So of the offered explanations, (3) actually works best, mainly by being sufficiently evasive about how it might operate.

Eat, Eat, Eat Your Way to Super Strength

One bedrock truth of physics is that for a force to act upon a body, some source of energy must be expended, and therefore some mass must be expended. When a person walks up a flight of stairs, chemical reactions that power the muscles cause a tiny amount of mass that is bound in molecular bonds to be converted into the energy that powers their climb (this should not be confused with the measurable weight loss that takes place through exercise; even in all of the exercise you perform in your life, less than one gram of mass is actually converted into energy). When dynamite explodes, a larger yield comes from other chemical reactions. When a hydrogen bomb explodes, nuclear binding energy is expended to create the explosion. Each of these events causes some mass to be converted into energy. For example, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima converted about 0.6 grams of matter into energy. When you walk up a flight of stairs, the amount of matter converted into energy is tiny, but not zero.

This truth of physics was introduced into the Flash series starring Wally West in the late Eighties. Bursts of super speed left the Flash hungry, needing to eat vast quantities to replenish what he had burned. Energy does have to come from somewhere and for people, food is the explanation. For feats like Superman's, solar batteries are not going to cut it.

But the amount of fuel required depends on how good you are at extracting energy from it. Chemical energy tends to be vastly weaker than nuclear energy, by a factor of up to 100 million. People (and dynamite) use chemical energy. Nuclear weapons and stars use nuclear energy. But it is possible in principle to use all of the energy in an energy source. An explosion like 1945's atomic bombs would result if 0.6 grams of matter were completely annihilated. (0.3 grams of antimatter, in the Earth's atmosphere, would accomplish that task by annihiliating an equal mass of matter.)

The greatest imaginable source of power for Superman would be if his cells could completely convert some fuel into energy, as efficient as a matter/antimatter explosion, and considerably more efficient than the fusion of hydrogen that powers the stars. This is where explanation (3) comes closest to succeeding, because it does not stipulate that the Sun's rays directly power Superman, but that they enable him to begin to display super powers. We can imagine a super metabolism that is normally turned off, but that is turned on a like a switch by the presence of yellow starlight. Then his super metabolism could tap into some unspecified manner of turning fuel into pure energy -- there could be no more potent way of powering a superman.

Truly Impossible

So when Superman performs a super feat, he, like us, must burn up some mass, and because he uses much more energy than a normal person, he must lose mass at a much greater rate. For Superman to exert a force that pushed the Earth at 0.1 Gs, he would have to convert a certain amount of mass into energy every second, given by Einstein's famous equation E = mc2. The bad news is, for Superman to push a planet with the force described above, he would have to burn up 2 quintillion tons of matter each second. That would require that he weigh an enormous amount before undertaking the task. If he were that heavy, he would crash through the floors of buildings and into the center of the Earth whenever he slept.

Realistic Impossible

If you take the energy-mass equation seriously and work backwards, you have to conclude that planet-pushing is not a feat for human-sized beings even if you hope for a perfectly-functioning super metabolism.

So, if we imagine that Superman burns up several grams of matter in this perfectly efficient way, we find that he produces energy on the scale of hydrogen bombs (which do not adjust the planet significantly in its orbit). This leads us to a more modest and in fact Byrne-like calculation of Superman's strength. Imagine that a ship were sinking and Superman flew into Metropolis Harbor to lift it and carry it to safety. Upon landing, we should hope that he did not burn so much matter as to look emaciated to Lois Lane. Let's say that Superman weighs 100 kg (220 pounds... very close to what he says in Superman The Movie) and that lifting the ship for 100 seconds leads him to lose only 1 kg (2 lbs, not quite noticeable). With those assumptions, how much could he lift?

Burning 10 grams a second, Superman could lift 20 billion tons. That's a tiny little fraction of the mass of a planet, but it's not too shabby. In fact, it's a lot stronger than the Byrne Superman. Instead of being 15 billion trillion times stronger than Hossein Rezazadeh, he would "only" be 45 billion times stronger. "Realistic" Superman would be weaker than a fruit fly compared to planet-moving Superman. In fact, he would be precisely mountain-moving Superman, capable of lifting about one cubic mile of rock. (That's the size of a mountain in the Appalachians, not in the Himalayas.) Ships would be no problem. He could still "move" planets, but not so much that you'd notice, unless he pushed for years.

Does It Matter?

Does it matter how strong Superman is? To most people, of course not, and that even includes a lot of the writers who have handled him over the years. Superman is science fiction, not a physics textbook. But the attempt to include a "real science" explanation for his power goes all the way back to the first page of Action #1. This is an attempt to talk about his feats in terms of real science. If you got this far and aren't interested in the topic... sorry.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Superman: The Story

In April 2009 alone, DC will print twenty new issues or volumes based on Superman. That counts his two "solo" titles (which happen not to feature him at all lately), a number of team titles (not counting JLA, which had featured him until recently), collected editions of Superman stories from over the years, and single issues devoted to characters who were strictly derived from Superman (eg, Supergirl). That's not counting Captain Marvel (who, a court agreed, copied Superman in concept) or for that matter, all of the superheroes published by all comic book companies who were inspired by Superman. Twenty. And that's not an atypical month.

In the Fifties, Superman regularly appeared in four stories a month (three per issue in Superman, plus one in Action Comics) plus World's Finest. During the Bronze Age, Superman appeared monthly in Superman, Action, World's Finest, DC Comics Presents, Justice League of America, Super Friends, and Superman Family. Overall, Superman has appeared in an average of perhaps 50 comics a year over seven decades, in addition to representations in other media like animated series. As a rough estimate, we can speculate that there have been about 4000 Superman stories. Unless you count individual episodes of a soap opera as a story (they tend to feature each character for only a small portion of each episode) or a daily newspaper strip (same proviso), it's hard to name another character who has appeared in that number of stories. Well, besides Batman. Much of what I say here applies to Batman as well.

That's a lot of space to thrill and a lot of space to fill. How does one tell 4000 stories about one character? In a nutshell, one covers a heck of a lot of ground, one repeats a lot of story ideas, and one isn't "one" at all because this is a character who has been passed around to hundreds of writers since the original creators have long since moved on (and passed on).
There is a framework of three kinds of story that has filled Superman's history:

1) The Legend: The absolute immutable features of the character. Father sent his son to escape a dying planet. Arriving on Earth, the son was raising by good farm people. When he was old enough, he used his amazing powers to fight for justice. Held down a day job as Clark Kent. While a few variant tellings have shaken up even these axioms (Stan Lee's version comes to mind), these basics have not been changed often. There's also not a lot of material here -- it's not much longer than my four-sentence summary.

2) The Adventure(s). The basic Superman adventure. Maybe the villains are from organized crime, or maybe they're from another galaxy. Maybe they fire pistols from their getaway car, or maybe they bend space and time, but whatever their plan is, it's ruined when Superman shows
 up. This story has been done a thousand times, but it's really one basic plot. It's therefore, by and large, fairly repetitive. The names and faces of the villains change, but the plot has a predictable form. It's because these thousands of stories are so similar that I put the "s" of "Adventures" in parentheses. To some extent, it's the same Adventure over and over again.

3) The Mythology: While most Superman stories change nothing about his life in any enduring way, every now and then something significant would happen and add a meaningful chapter to a slowly-growing mythology. Usually, these changes, once rendered, had a life of years before being revisited.
For the most part, (1) is a single story. It's been told many times with (usually) minor tweaks, but can't be changed greatly without it being a new character (like Stan Lee's "Superman" or Captain Marvel).

The majority of Superman stories are in class (2). If you look at a typical decade of Superman stories, you'll see a large number of (2) stories with a small number of (3) stories. For example, once Kandor appeared as a bottle city, 21 years passed before Superman succeeded in restoring it to full size. The introduction of Kandor in Action Comics #242 was a major event in Superman's life, shaping many stories over the years to come. But it was atypical: The very next story, for example, involved Circe turning Superman into a lion-man and his finding the cure to turn himself back into a man by the end of the story. When Supergirl was introduced in Action #252 (a major event), the next story in Action was about a Kandorian criminal escaping to vex Superman before being defeated. The overall pattern has been pretty stable over the years. Major stories have to remain rare because Superman's life story is not a story of 4000 consequential events. Although a humdrum story by Superman's standards is usually a bigger adventure than anyone real ever experiences. (When's the last time you fought an escaped alien?)

Because (3) stories were rare, he accumulation of mythology from 1938 to 1986 was gradual. In the same way that one year for a dog is like seven years for a human, you could say that seven Superman years was about one person-year. When Superman had been in 49 years of comics, he'd perhaps "aged" seven years from his debut. And by "aged", I don't mean that he looked older, but that he'd accumulated enough personal history to correspond to about that much time. A great summing-up of the first 40 years of Superman was in the Great Superman Book, which listed, encyclopedia-style, all of the big players in Superman's life and many of the smaller ones, although it conspicuously ignored any mention of the Earth Two / Earth One distinction that DC had been using for several years.

The repetitive nature of type (2) stories forced some accomodation. I think a useful perspective is in Margaret Boden's analysis of creativity in general, The Creative Mind.

She (with no reference to comic books) observes that in any creative medium, you see the various artists in that field explore a certain "space" of what is acceptable, eventually covering so many of the possibilities that new work starts to seem to repeat what has already come before. Eventually, there is a break-out: Someone does something so new that it brings up some truly new possibilities. Of course, some of the audience loathes the new work (imagine playing gangster rap, or ragtime for that matter, for people who only like Baroque music). In time, the new "space" is also exhausted and a new revolution has to happen.

Superman's stories have followed the same path. At first, he only faced realistic threats, such as corrupt politicians and businessmen. Eventually, he faced mad scientists, and then all kinds of wild science fiction threats. His personal life began to become a meaningful topic. And finally, when the accumulation of mythology seemed too cumbersome, and a break-out was needed for new kinds of stories, DC gave John Byrne the reins to utterly revolutionize Superman. He kept (1) the same (basically), and told plenty of (2) stories, but with a new feel to them, and a totally blank slate as far as (3) went. Given that blank slate, Byrne and his successors wrote a comparatively high percentage of (3) stories, refilling the blank slate they'd been given. (3) stories are hot -- they're exciting and they're (potentially) less repetitive than (2) stories. The post-Byrne writers not only filled Superman's mythology much faster than the pre-Byrne writers, they also stepped all over each other's toes, retelling Superman's origin, and creating multiple redundant versions of some supporting characters. For each individual writer, (3) stories were a huge enticement. The "gold rush" to redefine Superman led to excess, and a greater (and sooner) need for cleaning house after 20 years than was needed before after 49.

One soft reboot later (Infinite Crisis), Superman is receiving a new mythology thanks to Geoff Johns and other writers. It's attractive, well-thought-out. It takes the best of various versions from the past (Steve Lombard and Cat Grant, together at last). It's perhaps just exactly the way Superman should have been done in the first place.

Nevertheless, it's a perilous path to walk, and so far, lacks thrills. The problem is that retelling old stories, tweaking the details -- even when improving them -- is still retelling old stories. In Action #242, when Superman entered the bottle city of Kandor for the first time, it was a dramatic moment. We'd never seen more than three Kryptonians at a time since the planet had blown up. This was a curveball the reader couldn't possibly expect. But when Superman "discovers" Kandor in 2008, the shock is his alone. Almost every reader knew that Kandor was going to be found. This isn't a matter of shock or wonder any more than it is funny to hear a joke the second time. Worse, this is not only the second "introduction" of Kandor, not even the third, since a post-Byrne Kandor had already been introduced and re-cast. It is the fourth or fifth version of Kandor.

Johns (et al) inherited a mess. Re-inventing the mess might possibly create a clean Superman mythology that future writers may profit from. But for the time being it is uninspiring storytelling. The mythology was exciting the first time around because it was the first time around. When asked what he thought of kids imitating his band by wearing Beatles wigs, John Lennon responded, "They're not imitating us because we don't wear Beatles wigs." I approve wholeheartedly of the particular details in the new Superman encyclopedia that Johns is writing for us, but it's neither improving upon nor matching the Silver Age Superman because he wasn't a bullet-point-by-bullet-point retelling of a previous version. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Blackest Night and Flash Rebirth: Silver and Gold

Batman replaced by Dick Grayson... Green Lantern and the Flash replaced, too. Did you catch all of that news? It happened in 1951. In Batman #66, Dick Grayson dreamt of a future in which Bruce Wayne stepped aside so that Dick could become the new Batman. A few months earlier, the original Flash and Green Lantern made their last appearances of the decade. 

When I started reading DC comics in the early Seventies, I saw three parallel timelines unfold at once. The new stories told the first-run adventures of the JLA, written in the Seventies and printed in the Seventies for readers in the Seventies. By chance, the first JLA comic I bought was the same one that introduced Libra, who reappeared in Final Crisis.

But at about the same time, DC was reprinting Golden Age stories. The very oldest comic that I kept ahold of was published in 1972, but showing the then-thirty-year-old origins of Wonder Woman and Wildcat. Meanwhile, many JLA issues had older features in the back, either from the original JSA era or JLA stories from the prior decade. And moreover, the JSA appeared in crossovers with the JLA. The distinct art styles immediately told me which era a given story matched, and I preferred the clean lines and sleek art of the newer ones. I also found the older characters harder to get to know because the coverage skipped around, and moreover had less of a tendency to discuss the heroes' identities. I felt like I knew Elongated Man after reading probably no more than fifty panels with him speaking, whereas Hourman seemed like an outsider who showed up and fought without my understanding him. In truth, there probably wasn't that much I knew about the Elongated Man, either, but at least I knew that he was named Ralph Dibny.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman outlived the end of the Golden Age. If a few more of the JSAers had, as well, there probably never would have been the idea of such distinct eras. But as it was, only three heroes nailed down enduring solo titles while the rest faded away. And when editor Julius Schwartz decided to fire up the superhero machine again, he decided to reinvent some of the JSAer with new names, faces, and outfits. Different origins, too, with Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom being reborn as science fiction heroes, which the Golden Age versions of them were not.

I always thought of the Golden and Silver Ages as having a blank decade between them (the time between the last original-run JSA story and the first JLA story), but the truth is that the transition was more gradual. Superman and Batman "met" in Superman #76 only one year after the last JSA adventure, effectively rebooting their personal continuity (forgetting their past mutual membership in the Justice Society and starting a continuous friendship that was not reinvented again until 1986). Just one year after that, a 1953 story titled "The Manhunter From Mars" appeared in Batman #78, reading like a rough draft of J'onn J'onzz, the eventual charter member of the JLA.

But if you want to pinpoint the first "rebirth" in DC superhero comics, it was the Flash, who was reinvented in many ways (although the lab-accident origin story remained, with some tinkering). Unlike everything else the Flash did, this happened slowly -- Barry Allen did not inherit the Flash title until 1959, almost four years after his first of four appearances in Showcase. But this character was infectious like none had been since Superman's own debut in Action #1. The success of the new Flash led directly to the new Green Lantern later that year. Barry Allen basically made Hal Jordan.

Fifty years later, Hal returned the favor. Thanks to a fabulously successful reinvention of Green Lantern in the hands of Geoff Johns, the resurrection of Barry Allen looked like an obvious decision, business-wise as well as aesthetically. If Hal hadn't soared to the top of the sales charts (outselling, for a time, any other solo character from DC or Marvel), Barry Allen might still be a trail of ashes in the Anti-Monitor's headquarters.

Geoff Johns obviously sees a lot of past in the future. After a strong run on JSA, he's penned both Flash Rebirth #1 and Blackest Night #0, which look more than anything like two episodes in one story in which our heroes beat death. Not just by escaping a death trap, but by escaping death itself. The JLA took four of the Golden Age's surviving heroes and paired them with three Silver Agers. We now know that those three Silver Agers will all come together again in Green Lantern #44. The reunion doesn't look like it will start off very friendly, but with these heroes, there's always time for a happy ending.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Who is the Black Glove?

A year ago today, I posted to the DC Message Boards commenting on who the mystery villain of RIP was going to be with the subject "Mister Whisper" and the message "Just a thought."

It proved to be the right kind of thought, but not the right answer. Mister Whisper was the villain of Grant Morrison's 1990 story Gothic. He was seen immediately to have supernatural powers, and was soon revealed to be a medieval monk who had made a deal with "Satan".

While Morrison's run (particularly issues #666, #672, and #674) frequently echoed elements of Gothic, Mister Whisper himself did not make a reappearance (apparently, he's quite occupied in Hell) But his "business partner" did reappear.

This is a big enough topic to discuss in more than one post. Later on, I'll take a look at how fans approached the mystery, what we figured out, and when. Here, I just want to lay out the answer itself. It's a simple question: Who is the Black Glove? It's a simple answer: The Black Glove was The Devil.

This was a tricky mystery to solve, and contrasts with other kinds of mysteries in comic books and elsewhere. Frequently, a whodunit has a lone culprit who is one member of a large cast of characters. The mystery lies in figuring out which suspect had the motive and the means to commit the crime, and the author's job is to eliminate the innocent suspects while implicating the guilty, while making the whole thing un-obvious until the end, and then make it completely obvious.

That's an ideal mystery, but there are other kinds. More than one mystery that I've read/seen have a trickier answer, with two culprits. This kind of answer can be utterly impossible to solve for a reader who assumes as fact that there is just one culprit, because it may turn out that every suspect has an alibi to some part of the crime or another. There are also mysteries shrouded in obscure identity -- if someone is more (or less) than they seem to be. Twin Peaks, a clear influence on Morrison, turned out to work that way, with the body and the spirit of Laura Palmer's killer eventually revealed as two different beings.

Finally, there are unsolvable mysteries, and television's famous "Who Shot JR?" worked this way -- there were a number of suspects, but absolutely no clues allowing the viewer to exclude all of them. The only way to "solve" this mystery was to guess and be lucky. Or to interpret correctly the writers' larger motives. (Eg, there would be various costs to revealing the victim's mother to be the killer, which might eliminate a beloved character from future stories, or shock the audience in a way that hurt future ratings.)

RIP, as a mystery, did not play by the nicest possible set of rules, even though the genre was bid an homage by a reference to the groundbreaking mystery novel "Mystery of a Hansom Cab" in the first pages of RIP. At right, you can see a panel from an informational page in Batman #64 side-by-side with one of the first panels of RIP, showing Le Bossu arriving at the first Club of Villains meeting. Did Morrison read about that novel while reading old Batman stories as part of his research?

There were lots of clues given by Morrison, and at least one by Tony Daniel, in interviews, blog posts, and conference addresses. But let's stick with the story itself. Does the story actually reveal who the Black Glove is at all?

I felt that the clues closed in on the answer like a noose. By the time #674 was out, there was reason to suspect the Devil. After #676 was out, I "officially" guessed the Devil, although #676 itself gave little in the way of real clues. By the time the second-to-last issue had been printed, I thought there was essentially no way that the Devil was not the answer, although it had not been asserted as a definite fact. The last issue, though, totally locked it up -- but many readers nevertheless came to the end of it unsure who, if anyone, had been revealed as the answer.

Reality in Fiction

Because of the subtle nature of the reveal, it's useful to take a step back and consider in what ways fiction can portray truth within the world of the story. In principle, there is no absolute certainty in a narrative. Some philosophers, from East and West alike, have said the same thing about the world as a whole. Long before The Matrix was in theatres, philosophers wondered if there was any way for a person to be absolutely sure that he or she was not merely a brain in a vat, or a butterfly dreaming of being a person.

In fiction, it's trickier, because authors can and have gone out of their way to make these unlikely possibilities true. The Matrix is one example. The first scene of Morrison's run is another: We see the Joker fighting (in fact, killing) "Batman", who ends up being another man altogether, something we find out only a couple of pages later. When we see two Batman on-panel at the same time, we know that one of them's not the real deal, and it's quickly settled which is which.

Is this just Grant Morrison being unconventional and tricky? Well, consider that the same trick took place in Batman #2 way back in 1940. A Batman appeared who fought policemen, then killed one of them before being brought down in a hail of bullets. Of course, it wasn't the real Batman, but it was several pages before the story revealed that. If we consider this some sort of new-fangled unconventional storytelling, then we're almost seventy years behind the curve.

In two ways, Morrison gets a bad rap (or an incorrect rap) as an unconventional storyteller. As seen above, his "tricks" are not so unstandard. And moreover, he does stick to a pretty firm structure in his narrative. His stories (well, his Batman run, anyway) have a beginning, middle, and end. He foreshadows in a very straightforward manner. He goes for the "big" moment (his JLA run is full of such moments) and does not just build them up without delivering. He wants to write good stories. He primes you for the punchline. When he does, the punchline follows.

Clues in the Story

The first indication, however subtle, that the villain was the Devil came when Batman recalled in issue #665 that one of the replacement Batmen "sold his soul to the Devil and destroyed Gotham". At the time, that claim seemed like a throwaway (referring to a "dream"), but one issue later, when we saw a Batman who sold his soul to the Devil and tried to destroy Gotham, it brought a belated punch. Perhaps more telling in #665 was this dialogue:

Jim Gordon: Why did you have to choose an enemy that's as old as time and bigger than all of us, Batman?
Batman: Same reason you did, Jim. I figured I could take him. This isn't over.

This is not proof that the Black Glove is the Devil. No single line or panel is. This is just the beginning of the noose closing in on the answer. And it's not misleading. The case isn't over. Batman could take this enemy. And the enemy is as old as time and is bigger than all of us (besides, of course, Batman). Of course, a literal reading of that dialogue doesn't force one to conclude that the Devil is at work. On the surface, it seems to be about police corruption or something more general like "evil". But it's the first indication of the answer.

The next issue, #666, is so obviously about the Devil that it's not subject to doubt. However, since the story is set in the future, it's fair to wonder if the story is related in any way to the present-tense Batman story. And actually, the number on the cover serves to play down the connection to Bruce's enemy, because "666" is justification by itself for writing an infernally-themed story (as Kurt Busiek did in Superman, which reached the same issue number at about the same time). However, it makes a statement that Morrison was willing to put the Devil so firmly into his run at this point.

The Club of Heroes storyline actually introduces the Black Glove, and shows us something of how he operates. This, too, is just suggestive of the final answer, and I was moderately surprised to see that the setup of issue #680 matched the idea of wealthy people wagering on evil events we heard in #667-#669. It made sense to consider that the two "Black Glove" plots would be of the same kind, but it also made sense to consider misdirection. But no, Morrison is not as tricky as all that. We learned at this point that the Black Glove was a truly evil foe who seemed to use evil not as a means, but an end. This is an important clue, and immediately distinguishes the Black Glove from, say, a typical Flash villain who is willing to do evil things, but doesn't them in order to profit. The Black Glove is revealed here to be concerned, fundamentally, with Good and Evil, and to prompt wealthy people to wager on murder (among other things).

The story with Lane in #672-#674 tells us quite a bit about the enemy. Including the astonishingly frank lines: "...sent me to Hell to learn from the Devil" and "Doctor Hurt was the Devil." The natural reading of these lines, in isolation, is to consider Lane to be a deranged, wounded man who wrongly believed that his very evil tormentor was the Devil. These panels alone like what had come before led us to expect an enemy who was evil with an "e", not devil with a "d".

But at this point, four issues (in a sequence of ten) had made the assertion that the Devil was a villain in this run. For a reader picking up the issues and reading them only on release day, those four references might drift into the vague memories of the last year of one's life. But taken together, they established a clear theme of the Devil being part of the run.

There were also by this time a number of similiarities to Morrison's story Gothic:

a) Mister Whisper likes to hang his victims upside down. At the  beginning of #667, we see the Black Glove with someone (Mayhew?) hung  upside down. 

b) As the school headmaster, Mister "Winchester" kills seven  boys. Bruce was to have been his next victim, #8, but Bruce escaped  thanks to his father pulling him out of school. The demon Asmodeus  (mentioned in #663) killed seven men and the eighth escaped. Batman  is also the one winner in the Club of Heroes, which has 8 in all. 

c) When Mister Whisper and Batman get into their final confrontation,  Whisper says "Your arm first" and strikes Batman's left forearm just  where Lane tries to in #674. This is the meeting where Batman keeps  thinking "Every move is a clue." The first demon-cutter in the desert  also gestures to cut Bruce's arm. 

d) At the end of Gothic, Bruce calls Alfred and says "Gotham  Cathedral. Now. And bring a band-aid." At the end of his captivity by  Lane, Bruce calls Alfred and ends with, "Oh, and bring band-aids." 

e) In Gothic, Batman tells Whisper "You should have killed me  then. I'll make you regret that you didn't." Lane tells Batman "This  is your chance. If you kill me now, you can stop what's going to  happen." 

f) In LOTDK #7, Whisper is cornered by Batman, so he jumps off a  building, hitting the pavement below. Upon landing, he says "Oww." In  #666, Damian is shot up by the police. Kneeling on the ground  afterwards, he says "Ow." 

g) Whisper kills five mob bosses. In #666, Lane kills five mob  bosses. The Black Glove have five members. 

h) The main threat in Gothic involves roses (both the flowers and the  architectural feature) that will destroy Gotham and the main clue for  Bruce to solve is "Open the rose." The Joker's weapons in this story,  which could threaten the whole city, are roses.

Edit: (i) At the end of Gothic, Satan calls Mister Whisper his "My good and faithful servant." In RIP, Doctor Hurt uses the same line to address the Joker. This biblical phrase appears in Matthew 25. Grant Morrison also used it in The Invisibles.

So it's clear that Morrison intentionally brought up the theme of the Devil.  Just raising the theme, however, does not require the actual literal Devil to be part of the story. There was a very strong Devil theme in No Man's Land, with the "Nick Scratch" character whose name, henchmen, and language all hinted very strongly at the Devil. But there are two important differences. One, Nick Scratch had been offered a painfully standard science fiction origin. Two, and this is a factor I have excluded so far from the discussion, Morrison's interviews (as well as one by Tony Daniel) added a lot of support to the idea of there being a literal Devil in this story. This continued as the run went on. I will put interview hints and clues aside in the rest of this post because as a basis for solving the mystery, they come across more like an ad hoc declaration by the author and not like a mystery story at all. I did use them at the time to argue my solution to the mystery, but now that the story has been printed, we can find the answer in the story itself.

Two more issues followed without a lot of evidence (aside from the creation of mood) regarding the identity of the Black Glove. At that point, in late May, I posted my "official" guess that the villain was the Devil. I didn't feel that the matter had been proven (RIP had only been one-sixth printed), but that the four issues I alluded to earlier made it the best guess. I would also point to lines Batman said in DC Universe #0, that the case he was now facing was "the big one", "primal", and "fundamental". These phrases do not directly pinpoint the Devil, but do declare Morrison's intentions to make the story and the villain central in some respect. That leaves open a number of suspects -- anyone really core to Batman's career -- but had to be taken as a likely disqualification of miscellaneous Batman villains like the Riddler or a resurrected Jean-Paul Valley.

It's precisely because Morrison does adhere to structural norms that the list of suspects was so short at this point. By putting those phrases in Batman's mouth, Morrison distinguished his intentions from a typical whodunit in the DC universe. Frequently, a writer has used the whole continuity of the DCU to pick an answer that blindsides the reader because the character has appeared little or not at all in the story! This would be completely bogus in, say, an Agatha Christie novel or other standalone mystery story, but is valid in the DCU because of the ground rule of accumulated story over a span of decades and the work of hundreds of writers.

Once Morrison called the culprit "fundamental", he eliminated literally hundreds of suspects (while leaving a dozen or more).

At this point, after the publication of #676 (and just before the online preview of #677, as well as the telling Tony Daniel cover of #678, showing Batman surrounded by flames fighting demon-like gargoyle henchmen), 11 months ago today, I posted the following analysis. Note that I made use of hints that Morrison had given in interviews:

The mastermind really has to fall in one of these categories, I think:

1) Someone we've never seen before. Eg, some really rich guy with no superpowers who is evil and has been backing crime for a long time. Sort of like Sherlock Holmes's Moriarty or businessman versions of Luthor with less of a public profile. This would be almost by definition not shocking, unless you've never read a comic book or seen a James Bond movie ever before.

2) Someone we've seen before who has more to them than we've suspected. For example, if Dick Grayson or Poison Ivy either turned out to be the mastermind. This ranges from anyone we see frequently to almost never.

3) Someone who has not been in the comics basically ever, but is still shocking in his/her/their nature.

4) There is no mastermind. For this to be shocking, there has to be something really wrong with Bruce's mind to make him think there was one.

(1) is automatically ruled out. (4) definitely has something to it, but I think we'll find out that the mastermind has been behind the futzing with Bruce's head.

When we narrow it down to (2) and (3), I think very few candidates for (2) make sense, which is why my first guess was Talia, under the condition that she was actually much older than she is. On paper, that still works, as does R'as, or maybe Vandal Savage. But Morrison has come out and told us that he wanted to create a new Batman villain, so he's pretty much telling us (3), and all of the guesses to the effect of (2) almost have to be wrong. There's some wiggle room: If someone old is cast in a new light, they could be a "new" villain.

The Devil

More clues as Batman, R.I.P. Moved On

The more Doctor Hurt talked, the more we got telling clues as to the motive of the Black Glove. Here is how Doctor Hurt described Batman (audience in parentheses):

arrogant aristocrat (to COV) 
upstart idealist (to COV) 
noble human spirit (to COV) 
the ultimate noble spirit (to BG) 
usurper (to COV) 
undefeated hero (to BG) 
good (to BG) 

And here is Hurt's telling of the consequences Batman must pay:

rude awakening (to COV) 
lesson he will never forget (to COV) 
broken (to COV) 
see the error of his ways (to COV) 

This established a motive structure that was particularly focused: It all pointed to a villain who had no conventional profit at stake, and probably was not merely avenging an injury owed to Batman. This was a villain who seemed to think purely in terms of Good and Evil and moreover sided with Evil. This eliminated almost every villain who ha
dn't already been eliminated.

Moreover, the visual style kept on the pressure. Look at the panel at right showing Doctor Hurt in Batman #678.

Coming into issue #680, it certainly had to be taken seriously that the Devil was a top suspect for the Black Glove.

The Finale

Batman #680, the second-to-last issue of RIP clinched in my mind that the villain was the Devil. After all of the hints and clues and nods and winks up to this point, the story had grown very short with few other directions to go. I put down #680 thinking that Morrison had done everything to tell us that Hurt was the Devil besides put him in a baseball cap that read "I Am The Devil".

In the final forty pages of RIP (the final issue as well as the last ten pages of the issue before), the Devil is mentioned in the following ways:

a) Batman, running down the hall of Arkham, yells "Cupid and the Devil" in offering an interpretation of the Joker's card deal.

b) When someone refers to Batman's "worst enemy" (referring to the Joker), Hurt says "Speak of the Devil."

c) The Joker, who had already been told Hurt's identity, gives a rambling, poetic speech calling Hurt the Devil.

"devil is double is deuce, my dear doctor ... and joker trumps deuce"

d) Gaucho says that the makers of the Black Glove film had died because "the story is that the Devil himself put a curse on the whole thing".

e) Bruce's Black Casebook entry asks of the whole episode of his involvement with Hurt, "Did I finally reach the limits of reason? And find the Devil waiting? And was that fear in his eyes?"

How is All of That an Answer?

It's fair to ask at this point if an answer had been given at all. Hints, of course. But Hurt never sprouted horns or breathed fire.

There are two ways to see how these (and dozens of other) items transcended from hints to being an actual answer.

The key is to recognize how Morrison did use a pretty direct structure of question-and-answer, point-and-counterpoint throughout the story. It's not just that the Joker said that Hurt was the Devil. It's that the issue before built up the point that Hurt told the Joker who he was and that what the Joker heard changed how the Joker saw him in a fundamental way. That's as good as a signed contract that the answer was coming. Of course, we also have the question of the Black Glove's identity being raised as a question by Batman himself, asking "Who is the Black Glove?" in the first pages of #677 as well as #680. If we got to the end of issue #681 without finding an answer, it would be time to circle back and look harder, because the story told us that an answer was coming, and moreover that it would be "fundamental".

Let's imagine two scenarios. In one, I walk into a room and say, "I'm going to tell you who ate my cookies." Then I point at Bob and I walk out. I just told you that Bob ate my cookies.

In scenario two, I walk into the room and say, "I'm going to tell you who ate my cookies." Then I point at Bob. After a pause, I shake my head and say, "No -- Mike really ate my cookies. I was just kidding about Bob." Then I walk out. I just told you that Mike ate my cookies.

The pointing without saying anything is enough to make a statement -- if it is not superseded by a more direct statement. People rightly denounced the Devil mentions as something short of a direct statement. (Of those five mentions above only (c) was an assertion that Hurt was the Devil; the other four were uses of the word on a symbolic level, in a figure of speech, in relaying a dubious assertion, and in asking a question.) That did leave the possibility open that later in the story, someone would do what I did in blaming Mike -- pulling off a latex mask and revealing Hurt to be someone specific who is not the Devil. Except that never happened. Like in the first scenario, the pointing is enough.

And it's also key to recognize that the mystery ended. The sixth issue of RIP says "Conclusion" right on the splash page. Comics are inherently serial, but Morrison wanted to make his statement right then and there, and he said "Conclusion" to make it clear that the "No -- Mike really ate my cookies" moment was not coming. In fact, when Morrison next referenced Hurt, in Batman #683, it was for Bruce to use the phrase "Burn in Hell" as his message to Hurt.

The matter has been met with some skepticism. An issue of Wizard Magazine that I have yet to lay my hands on purportedly settles the matter with a direct statement by Morrison. But really the answer was right there in the story on the first go-around. And the interview hints made by Morrison made it more than clear before RIP even concluded. Simple question / simple answer: Who was the Black Glove? The Devil.

So That's What Happened To The Caped Crusader

Detective #853 concludes the two-part story that began in Batman #686, with Neil Gaiman wrapping up the life of the Caped Crusader and then starting it all over again. The mystery turns out not the way I saw it going, but in one of the other ways I thought it might go. Ultimately, in just the right way. I thought we might see if Selina was trying to get Bruce to give up his war on crime. In retrospect, that's not interesting at all, because we all know what happens when someone asks Batman to give up. There's no story there at all.

The word "story" is not quite right, because in the end, this look at Batman's life, poignant and full of awe, is not a story. It doesn't have a plot to follow, at least none that you didn't already know. As we'd already seen in the first part (and the preview), we get many tales of Batman's death, and this story is not about telling us that one of them was "real". All we know is that Batman dies and before he dies he gets to say goodbye to himself. If there's a real literary inspiration for this story, it's Goodnight Moon, and as Batman says goodbye to himself, he says goodnight to Robin, and Alfred, and the Giant Penny in the Batcave, and even to the Joker, too, because all of those things are him.

By recycling all past eras of Batman at once, Gaiman gets to the heart of the character without choosing any of them. When we see the key to Superman's Fortress of Solitude, we get an entire era handed to us in one tiny geometric figure. The Betty Kane Bat-Girl hands us another, and Kubert's impeccable take on Brian Bolland's art from The Killing Joke hands us another, and it's all there -- everything that Batman ever was. Batman's life story is not a plot. It is a cycle. Villains try to take advantage of victims, Batman stands in their way, and he wins again and again.

There are three main impressions that Gaiman and Kubert try to get across, and they get them all across brilliantly. One, that Batman has a wonderfully colorful cast of characters around him, sometimes goofy and sometimes lethal and sociopathic, but always diverse, like a puzzle built to confound the world's greatest detective. Two, that Batman never gives up. People sometimes comment that Batman is more realistic than other superheroes, and it is quite rightly objected that swinging a hundred feet on a rope into a gang of armed murderers and surviving the experience is as much science fiction as any deed could be. But Batman's real superpower is not the incredible fighting prowess (which we all lack) or the incredible knowledge (which we couldn't acquire in a lifetime) or even the personalized helicopter that we can't afford. It's that he never gives up, and in our weakest moments, we can forget that it's a story and tell ourselves that we don't need to give up. And the third, perhaps most powerful part of this story -- of Batman's story -- is that it's very tragic. Five spare panels in Detective #33 told us the origin of Batman that can be read in a minute, but never really faced fully -- the horror of a little boy watching as two gunshots take his parents from him. The rest of his life is an attempt to respond to that event. He saves other lives, saves the city, and with the Justice League often saves the world, but he can never do the one thing he would so desperately wish to do -- to undo that terrible minute.

But Batman's life is not just a cycle that lasts one issue at a time. It is a longer cycle encompassing his whole life and taking him from newsprint to digital animation to the big screen. It is a cycle within which the cycle of fighting crime occupies a smaller part. When each new medium begins anew, his parents die, and he starts his war again. But he gets to be the boy who lived before the tragedy again and again. Watch 1989's Batman film, and you see the innocent, happy boy. Watch Batman Begins, and you see him again, just as he was for one panel in 1939's Detective #33. In DCU continuity, Batman has left us for a while. Somewhere, he's a little boy again and has not yet known tragedy. Somewhere, he is sitting on his mother's lap reading a book. He has not yet faced down psychopaths and become Dick Grayson's mentor. He's just a boy. He's just happy.