Tuesday, August 18, 2009

DC vs Marvel

Fighting Words

It's easy to imagine a DC fan and a Marvel fan locked in a raging argument about one's preference for DC and the other's for Marvel. I've never been in that argument, but the fact is: I have long been a fan of DC and have read very few Marvel comics over the years.

I have no particular animosity towards Marvel. I can plainly say that as an adult I read DC (as opposed to Marvel) largely because of momentum: I used to read DC Comics when I was a kid, and I read very few Marvel Comics when I was a kid. I can plainly say that when I see a Marvel comic, the main thing keeping me from buying it is a sense that I am coming into the story late; that I have no feelings towards the characters and I won't get what's going on without catching up on their histories, which I don't have the gumption to do. Basically, the same reason why I do read books in English (I know English, having learned it as a child) and don't read books that are in Russian (I don't know Russian, not having learned it as a child).

However, there's a more interesting story to this because at some point in my childhood, I chose DC over Marvel. In the Seventies, I read a fair number of Marvel comics and, without any anger or disdain, but just some ineffable disliking, I stopped buying them. That choice took place when I was a very different person than I am now. If I made the choice with my current sensibilities, I might choose differently, becoming a fan of Marvel, or both DC and Marvel... or perhaps neither. But as it was, I made a decision for DC and not Marvel.

Crossroads

Something about that decision came to interest me, because the boy who made that decision eventually became me, but with the fog of three decades' time, I couldn't, with my memory alone, reconstruct the decision much less relate to it.

I did remember, though, that sometime in the key years of my early comic buying, I read one particular comic and it played a large role in turning me off to Marvel. Or at least, it was one of many that collectively turned me off. It left me unsettled, somehow, like I'd seen a superhero cast as something I didn't want a superhero to be. I couldn't remember the whole story, but I did remember the gist, as well as a handful of random details:

1) It was an issue of Thor.
2) The date must have been around 1979.
3) Thor encounters some enemy in the woods.
4) Thor doesn't get the best of the enemy. But he doesn't really lose, either. He ends the story confused and discontented.
5) He is outdoors at night, apparently in some rural area, at the end of the issue.

Years ago, I looked through my boxes of old comics to see if I could find that issue, but it wasn't among the hundreds of comics I saved from the Bronze Age.

Archaeological Evidence

About a year ago, it occurred to me that I could find the issue anyway. Looking over a web page displaying the covers of every issue of Thor, I quickly had a very short list of candidates that matched what I remembered about the story in question. Then I was free to thumb through the used-comic bins at a local comic book store. Really, the whole process was almost as easy as finding this week's new comics. And so I was reunited with my past memories. The comic was Thor #272.

Just about everything I remembered was in there. If there was any discrepancy, it was that many Thor comics placed him in an Asgard that resembled some other planet, with a sky permanently black and thus full of stars. So I'm not sure if at story's end it was actually "night" or if Thor was just in some cosmic location with a permanent night sky. However, there is much about the comic that I did not remember.

The writer was Roy Thomas, who also scripted a large number of DC stories I had enjoyed, so certainly the writer alone did not cause this issue to emphasize any DC - Marvel distinction.

Structurally, the story opens with Thor interacting with some boys in an American city, choosing to involve himself when a bully picks on them. When they guess that Thor has never had to worry about anyone being stronger than him, he takes a walk down memory lane, relating a story to them that demonstrates that he had had such an experience. Most of the rest of the issue is a flashback to that event.

And here is the issue's most remarkable characteristic: Mr. Thomas borrows a chapter from Norse mythology, telling a story that is not of his own invention. A version of the story, deviating from the comic in a few details, can be found on the web here.

The story, in a nutshell, involved Thor and Loki wandering into the land of giants, where they were belittled literally as well as verbally. Then Utgard, the leader of the giants, set before them a number of tasks that initially seemed trivial, but Thor and Loki were humiliated (and perplexed) when they failed miserably in each challenge. However, upon Thor failing the last, Utgard revealed to them that each challenge was rigged: While Thor and Loki were tricked by illusions that made the challenges seem easy, in reality they had been pitted against unbeatable forces of nature: Thor's hammerblow that failed to disturb a giant had actually struck a mountain. Loki's failures in an eating contest and a footrace had actually pitted him against fire and thought, respectively. Then Thor failed to empty a drinking vessel that was actually being replenished by the ocean. When he thought he was unable to pick up a housecat, he was actually attempting to lift a serpent that encircled the world. Finally, when an old woman bested Thor in wrestling, he was actually fighting Old Age itself.
Impressed by how well Thor performed (destroying the mountain, lowering the sea's level, recovering his youth after fighting Old Age), Utgard decided against sending the giants to invade the world and wrest it from the control of the gods. With that, Thor's angry demand for a real battle with the giants was cast aside by Utgard teleporting Thor and Loki away. Contemplating what had passed, Thor noted that by preventing the giants' invasion of the world, they had actually won. But, humbled by the encounter, Thor stood there philosophizing about it. And then the story skipped back to the present, wrapping up Thor's talk with the boys and providing a brief lead-in to the next issue.

I don't mean to persuade anyone to dislike the story. I react to it very differently now than I did as a pre-teen. But I think I can reconstruct why, in 1978, I disliked it:

a) The hero didn't win. While he declared a sort of victory in having prevented a war with the giants, even the cover sold the issue as the story of "The Day The Thunder Failed". The very point of his story was how he was humbled by it. Moreover, while his physical skills were ultimately revealed to have been impressive, he was tricked and never realized the deception until Utgard revealed it to him.

b) The hero was not obviously morally better than his enemy. In the flashback itself, there was little reason offered for us to want Thor to beat the giant. There was no reason given in the story to suppose that the world was better off run by gods than it would be by giants. You can fault the giant for planning an aggression, and for deception, but none of that makes the hero particularly good. Subtleties aside, the contest between Thor and Utgard was a sporting event of obvious consequence only to them, not to mortals.

c) Thor's emotional range trended hard towards the negative. A few panels presented him with a facial expression that was slightly upbeat, but he usually looked intense, often as though he were straining physically even when he was not. He looked confused a few times and at other times enraged. He did not smile once.

d) The dark art. There's an enormous topic here for future posts: Dark themes tend to bring on dark art, with heavy lines and black backgrounds. I have gone so far as to collect some preliminary data (specifically, from the first JLA series) along these lines suggesting that DC began to feature much darker covers in the years leading up to 1970 or so, then began making them lighter again, full of bright colors by the early Eighties. This Thor issue was darker than a DC comic literally as well as figuratively. The cover background was black. The skies were always black. Shadows were ponderous, claiming large portions of figures and faces. It made it seem gloomy to me.

e) Thor's whole look was off-putting to me. No men in the world around me had mullets. Was he a hippie? A hockey player? Baring shoulders and armpits seemed inappropriate, maybe low-class.

f) The rural setting for the beginning and conclusion of the flashback. Superhero stories have canonically used America's large cities as, effectively, the stadiums in which superheroes play their sport (thwarting evildoers and natural menaces alike) in front of huge crowds. On some level that I felt, but couldn't articulate at the time, it seemed to me to be beneath a superhero to be wandering around the woods lost, far from any useful mission or glory. If a superhero had to fly in and out of some remote area for a mission-specific reason, fine. But for a hero to be wandering around the woods lost made him seem far less relevant if not downright pathetic.

And I had, for my tastes, a hero to prefer. Thor ended the flashback with a question, intended to be rhetorical: "Who is so great, so mighty, that some day, somewhere he will not meet his master?" And the answer was right in front of me -- the star of a movie that was released that very same summer, as well as comics on the rack next to Thor's. This panel from Superman #325, published the same summer as the Thor comic in question, answers the Norse god's question.

Everything I found distasteful about the Thor issue met its opposite in Superman comics. He always won, and was always morally superior to his opponents (who vied not only to challenge him but to conquer, maim, and kill other people). He opened the story smiling in four panels straight. While tights were maybe as odd a choice of street apparel as was Thor's costume, his costume was far too burned in my consciousness for me to question why a man would wear tights and a cape. When they're that colorful and suggestive of hope, why worry?

Light and Dark

It is not too great of a simplification to conclude that Superman's stories of that time simply aimed at a younger readership, and since I was a younger reader, naturally they appealed to me. I came to comics seeking something purely escapist and always morally black-and-white. The Thor story, in being a bit more subdued and a bit darker, asked bigger questions and probably aimed at an older reader. Seen in that light, the quality of each comic is purely subjective, with Superman having been "kid stuff" when Thor aimed a bit higher. It provided a "real world" lesson which is undeniably truer than anything about a Superman story: That whoever you are, there is always someone stronger. If I started to try to argue which comic is "better" as I see it now, I would drift from my point. The real point is that by being "better" in the ways that it was, (Thomas's longer run on Thor was nominated for an Eagle Award, and offered some cultural awareness by putting a Norse myth into the story) the Thor story lost me as a young reader, simply because it strove for things contrary to my sensibilities.

They say there's no accounting for taste, but in tracking down that comic from 31 years ago, and contrasting my preferences then with my preferences now, I'm was trying to demonstrate that there is accounting for taste. Thor's and Superman's 1978 renditions served different audiences. In the cases I've presented, Thor was more sophisticated, in many ways. But that's not an intrinsic superiority, just a different taste. After all, if a reader favored sophistication, why choose a superhero comic book at all? And while this issue of Thor reinforced a lesson that works in the real world (in a way that most Superman stories did not and do not), we may also ask, if a reader favors real-world lessons, why choose a superhero comic book at all?

The late-Seventies Superman stayed fairly true to the Golden Age comics that provided simple stories with clashes between clearly-labeled good guys opposed by clearly-labeled bad guys, with the good guys destined to win. This is a simple template for a story, but one whose appeal has been enduring. Roy Thomas's run on Thor helped bring to comics the shades of moral complexity for which The Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns won rave reviews eight years later. They both provided some set of readers a way to forget about the day's worries, or to thrill to the silent joys of a story that spoke to them. The comic book rack was richer for having offered them both.

Friday, August 14, 2009

To Live and Die in the DCU

Superman is Dead

It is with great regret that I must inform you that Superman has died.


Over a dozen times, in fact, and DC is as certain to kill him again as a dog that's soiled the carpet that many times is to repeat the crime unless, well, it dies.

I remember reading JLA #145 in 1977. I was at an elder aunt's house, reading the comic off by myself somewhere enthralled by Steve Englehart's story of how Superman and the Phantom Stranger battled forces on "the other side" until, 29 pages later, he had cheated death and returned to life. Four JLAers made the round trip in that story. They didn't even need to wear a band-aid afterwards. No harm, no foul.

Later, I read the earlier 1961 story of Superman's death in some collection or other. As an adult, I heard on the news that Superman had died, and I wasn't sure why it was news. I found the trade while traveling a few months later and read it in the mall where I bought it. It was also after the fact when I sat in a coffee shop and read Joe Kelly's excellent "Obsidian Age" story, in which Superman and the other JLAers die in battle while visiting the past. By that time I'd already read Joe Kelly's "This Is Your Life" story which shows, among other big events, Superman dying. When I read Mark Waid's The Kingdom, which showed Superman dying many times, it just seemed tacky. But the story had a confession to make, introducing Hypertime, which said that basically every story happened somewhere or other. A similar idea appeared in Jeph Loeb's "Absolute Power" story in which Superman dies -- many times, in different timelines. Evan Dorkin's "World's Funnest" brilliantly manages the absurdity of it when Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite kill Superman and every other DC character over and over like it's a pie-eating contest.

So perhaps we should get some solace when, with no great originality, Infinite Crisis #7 has Geoff Johns tell us, from Superman's own lips, "It's never going to end... for us." Superman tells us that when he happens, incidentally, to die.

For Superman, dying is sort of a hobby. Other characters like Hawkman and the Joker are pros at it. The Joker could stand at the collision of two black holes then appear in another story without readers even expecting an explanation. The Joker almost invented coming back from death -- he died (in grand fashion, laughing) at the end of his second appearance in Batman#1 but the creators had tacked on one more panel depicting his shocking survival so that we could get 70 more years of Joker stories. However, an even earlier Batman foe had already returned from the dead in Detective #30. That character's name was Doctor Death. He has appeared as recently as 2006.

You have to get at least a little sense that death is being misused, at least overused, as a way to stir up drama, having less impact each time it is used, until "death" in the comics is really something more like having a cold. It ceases to have meaning -- at least the meaning it has otherwise. Consider that elder aunt at whose house I read JLA #145 -- she's long since become dead in the usual way. The kind that happens to real people and tends to last. Now if a comic book character died like that, it would really be death. Like, apparently, Don Hall, the Dove, has died. Because in Blackest Night #2, when the dead are rising like it's going out of style, he doesn't. Frankly, the odds are, if enough time goes by, some writer will even bring Don Hall back to life, but for now, he's staying put, and the contrast between Superman and the Dove makes us consider, as Geoff Johns is asking us to do: What is death in the comics? Because, after all, I only used Superman as an example -- every member of the original JLA has died at least once, as have numerous other characters.

Anatomy of a Death

There are countless ways to die in the real world and in comics. But in the real world, there is pretty much only one way to be dead, which is to stay dead. In borderline cases, people can be resuscitated after brief heart stoppages, but as the minutes go by, it promptly becomes permanent. But in the comics, there are countless ways to come back from death.

1) Magic or Cosmic Reset. There are beings who seem to be able to reverse death without trying very hard. Sometimes they are bound by rules that keep them from doing it too often. Example: The Spectre bringing back Green Arrow.

2) Surprise Reveal. This one can happen in the real world, too, but tends to be rare. It can turn out that the person you thought was dead was actually alive all the time. Example: Spoiler. The special case of this is when the death is uncertain in the first place, which is how a huge number of Joker stories have ended.

3) Retcon. Sometimes a minor character is announced to be dead but he or she later just reappears without explanation.

4) Reboot. When a major portion of the universe is told anew, and this is admitted to be an act of the editors, not given some device within the story, characters who'd died before get to live again. John Byrne's reboot of Superman brought Jonathan and Martha Kent back to life (Jonathan has since died).

5) Super powers. Superman and Doomsday both died at the conclusion of their big battle in Metropolis, but it turned out that both of them had enough "super" in their bodies to get back up after being dead for a long while.

6) Time travel. A character who dies has still had a finite life with a large number of hours of down time that were never on camera. Time travel can bring the character from his or her life back to our present, their future. Or other characters can visit the deceased in the past.

The problem with all of this is that on a narrative level, death is chosen precisely because of the major impact it delivers. Undoing it, even once, robs it of its punch whenever any character dies. On an editorial level, there are the following kinds of death:

a) Temporary by Design. When Superman died in JLA v1 #145, it was obviously part of the plan for him to be alive again by the end.

b) Story-driving, but Temporary. When Superman died fighting Doomsday, it was again part of the plan for Kal-El to once again be Superman, just as it is now part of the plan for Bruce Wayne to return, eventually, as Batman.

c) Permanent. Sort of. When Barry Allen died in Crisis on Infinite Earths, there was clearly no awareness that Geoff Johns would eventually bring him back to life. They meant to kill him. Bringing him back to life happened after many changes of staff at DC, and was a different decision and a different event. But even then, Marv Wolfman wrote a loophole into Barry's time-traveling death so that he could reappear. And it was used to show him alive on a number of limited occasions over the years. Ultimately, any dead character can eventually be revived. If they hang around dead long enough, it seems like it has to happen unless it was never that interesting of a character in the first place.

The Power To Decide Who Lives and Who Dies

Among recent DC creators, Geoff Johns has been empowered to make a lot of influential decisions, and it might seem to be leading up to Blackest Night. Against the backdrop of comic-book death (versus real death), we have Blackest Night in which the dead come back angry and evil (or at least, full of animosity). It is sure to be a comment on death in the comics, but what does Johns, who has directed the rebirth of two heroes have to say about it? Given the way death has worked, how would he like it to work? Presumably, there's something about the status quo that doesn't sit well with him, and I've offered (without any originality) some perspectives regarding the status quo that are worthy of being against. But how will the man behind two (and counting?) Rebirth series weigh in? Will he say that it's just fine for death to be a revolving door in comics? That death has to be done better than it has? That deaths should stop occurring? Or that only now that he's brought his favorites back, should death be permanent and not reversible? His comments outside of the story don't yet indicate that the story is necessarily taking a stand:

"It's not a commentary on just comic books. It's a commentary on self-discovery. It's a commentary on cracking open your heart, literally. It's a commentary on pain and death. It's a commentary on a lot of things."

The way that Johns has depicted rebirth -- in three series now -- provides more detail on how he can use superhero comics as an allegory for how we real people are affected by the deaths of others. With assiduous similarity, Green Lantern Rebirth and Flash Rebirth showed the characters most similar to the one who was being reborn going through difficult times on the occasion of the rebirth. GLR began with Kyle Rayner injured and in need of help. Guy Gardner went through near fatal rejection of his non-Green Lantern powers. John Stewart went berserk. Alan Scott, feverish, struggled with a physical illness. These effects were not precisely explained, but had something to do with the cosmic disturbance of Hal's imminent reappearance. It was all reprised in Flash Rebirth, with almost naked similarity to the case with Green Lantern. Every living speedster felt some sort of feedback surging through the Speed Force after Barry's return, striking all of them down and killing the evil speedsters who happened to make physical contact with Barry. This has not been explained, as the series is still in progress, but a science fiction explanation is not as interesting as the consistent allegory for how the dead in reality affect those closest to them.

But whereas the two Rebirth series only showed a single life each, as two pillars of the DCU returned from death, Blackest Night shows so many resurrections that we have to see the "commentary on pain and death" very clearly, as the repeated examples make us understand the twisted way that the dead and living relate throughout this series.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

You can tell that Blackest Night is a good action story, because the blatant exposition of the fine points is somehow going over many fans' heads, leading to discussion threads where someone asks, "Is it possible that...?" when characters in the story have asserted precisely the same thing in direct statements.

The dead want peace. They want to find the living, excite emotion in them, take that emotion, and leave death behind, feeding the emotion to the death spirit behind the story (which happens, we now know, to be Nekron).

That is why Scar rejects the Guardians, who have no emotion, as targets for the harvesting of hearts. That is why Black Lantern J'onn J'onzz instills fear in Barry Allen. Why Black Lantern Ralph Dibny says hateful lies that enrage Hawkman. Why Black Lantern Aquaman tries to instill sexual jealousy in Mera. Getting the living to feel emotion: Is that really what they want? Black Lantern Aquagirl makes it exceedingly clear when the "black vision" shows the word HOPE: "Yes, Garth. Hope for me. Hope for Atlantis. That's just what I've been waiting for." And then she pulls his heart out. It is clearer than the rules of cricket how the Black Lanterns are operating. Scar lays it all out in GL #44: "The Black Lanterns are collecting hearts full of the splintered light -- and soon it will be [Nekron's] turn to rise." And the goal? "...the only way to eliminate chaos, to half the continued growth of the emotional spectrum, is the annihilation of sentient life."

Requiescat in Pace

But not every dead person in the DCU is coming back as a Black Lantern. Only those who are close to a living superhero (or villain? "Those who shine brightest") and, we can induce from the salient example of Don Hall, the Dove, one more thing. The voice of the Black Lanterns calls Don Hall, but is cut off mid-word, because those who are at peace will not return.

Hal and Barry talk about J'onn's state of mind before he died, and they conclude that he was distanced, alienated. Black Lantern J'onn, if he is speaking his own mind, lists the affronts that the world brought him and his family. He concludes that justice is dead. "The man who orchestrated my murder still walks the streets." He is definitely not a soul at peace.

In Tales of the Corp #3's "Director's Cut" of Blackest Night #0, Geoff Johns tells us that the fact that Aquaman is buried on land will come up again. In Blackest Night #2, Black Lantern Aquaman tells the Atlanteans that he is glad he is buried "in mud" because of the mistreatment he'd suffered in Atlantis. But this may be a ruse to instill rage or some other emotion in his would-be victims. "Mud" is not the most favorable term for land. Possibly his burial site is a source of postmortem torment, keeping his soul from being at peace.

If there's one thing about Latin that's easy, it's that "Rest in Peace" has the same initials in Latin as in English. That makes sense -- it's a dead language. We see those initials, "R.I.P.", on Don Hall's grave, and probably not just for style points.
Which brings us to Batman. It's hard to look at that tombstone and not be reminded of 2008's blockbuster story with death in the title -- "Batman, R.I.P.". It's unlikely that Morrison began plotting his Batman run three and a half years ago with a crossover collaboration with Geoff Johns already in the forefront of his mind. But if the reason why Bruce Wayne does not rise (aside from being used as a power battery and being Omega Sanctioned into some weird niche in time) is because he is at peace, it would be a strange fulfillment of a comment in a DC Nation column written by Mike Marts:

"Is "R.I.P." an acronym for its tradiational usage -- "Rest in Peace"? ... We here at DC know its real meaning... but you, gentle readers, will have to wait until the culmination of the story to discover the chilling truth."

Morrison said long ago that there was a need to help Batman out of the tense and traumatized state that he was in. Maybe the smile and "Gotcha" as he faces the Omega Sanction is a way to let us know that Bruce didn't just die following his battles with Doctor Hurt and Darkseid, he also got to Rest in Peace.

Life after Death?

So is a permanent change coming after Blackest Night in the way that death works in the DC Universe? Can comics have that sort of willpower, to stop utilizing the rhetorical (and sales) punch of death and rebirth? If that is the suggested direction, it seems unlikely to last. Comics and death are like a habitual drinker and booze. "I'm quitting. And this time, I mean it." In each era to come, creators will try to have the best for themselves: To have huge events happen during their tenure, and hoping to restrict other creators from using the same tricks too often. Superman's rebirth following the huge "Death of Superman" event ended with some mumbo-jumbo about how the trick used to restore him to life would never work again. How convenient.

If there's a term that seems to flow quickly from Geoff John's pen nowadays it's "Justice League". Of course, Blackest Night #2 ends with a splash page featuring the Black Lantern Justice League, and Blackest Night #0 opens with flashbacks (to a Batman / Green Lantern feud we'd never seen when the Silver Age stories were new) to Justice League stories and Hal's ironic comment that the Justice League was untouchable. While the story shows heroes from all around the DCU, there are many lines singling out the Justice League, such as Black Lantern J'onn J'onzz saying "Half the league you knew is gone." And Geoff Johns' commentary, again, in Tales of the Corps #3 makes this clear: "We focus in on the JLA as even though this is a Green Lantern story, it's bigger than that and will matter to the entire Justice League for years to come." Justice League... more so than the rest of the DCU? Does this have anything to do with the solicit for JLA #38 that promises: "in the coming months ... a fresh line-up for DC's flagship team." Will we see JLA Rebirth, in deed if not name, with Superman, Batman, Hal, and Barry? All signs point to this. A DC Nation column by Dan Didio recently discussed his preferences for a Justice League with the majors, in contrast, we can see, to the current lineup. Some of those zombie Leaguers are possibly going to make the lineup -- maybe all of them? In a recent interview, Johns says "Aquaman and Martian Manhunter should never go away. They're too important."

Sometimes the answer is in thinly-veiled code: Jim and Barbara Gordon tell us what Geoff Johns view on death in comics really is when the Commissioner says that he's afraid to turn the Bat-Signal off and Barbara says, "Then don't, Dad. Leave it on." There's no better way to save yourself the trouble of a Rebirth series than to leave the character alive in the first place.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Where Is Batman?


Death Takes The Dark Knight

Batman is dead. Everyone who knows him best thinks so. Alfred, Dick, and Tim. Green Lantern and the Flash.

But some fans aren't sure. After a wild ride of twists and turns, with numerous stories showing us people who weren't who we thought they were, armies of clones, memories that never happened, and events that weren't really real, what do we know for sure? Was the skeleton we saw in Superman's arms at the end of Final Crisis #6 really Bruce Wayne? Was that even Bruce Wayne who shot Darkseid, or in Final Crisis at all? Is the skull that Black Hand is brandishing really the cranium of one of DC's flagship heroes? And who is ("was") wearing the bat-pants in the past, as seen on the last page of Final Crisis #7? Were all, none, or some of these Bruce Wayne? When Bruce Wayne comes back (And, yes, he will.) where is he coming from?

Any way you look at it, something tricky was going on. And with combinations of rumors and innuendo circulating, there are fans going over artwork with a magnifying glass looking for clues. In particular, there are suspicions that the skeleton and skull attributed to Bruce are not his.

Showdown in Bl├╝dhaven

We know that Bruce Wayne raised a gun at Darkseid and pulled a trigger. Grant Morrison said so in an interview for Wizard: "So, Batman himself is finally standing there to complete that big mythical circle and to have the image of Batman up against the actual personification of evil and now he's got the gun and he's got the bullet." It doesn't get much more direct than "Batman himself". It was him. The Omega beams hit him. What then?

Skeletons in the Closet

Rumors stirred up by Dan Didio, and perhaps artist Doug Mahnke, suggest that what we saw in Superman's arms later in the same issue was not Bruce Wayne's skeleton. I'm not going to parse Didio's comments again -- he says what any reasonable interpretation would take as a statement that it was not Batman's skeleton. But he doesn't flat out say it, and after a long history of Didio's comments having misled fan speculation (for the sake of fun), we shouldn't take this as the straightforward message it seems to be.

In the absence of such comments, the stories that have followed (particularly Blackest Night) have dealt with Bruce's death, and even his actual corpse, in a fashion that introduce no doubt that it is his skull that Black Hand is wielding as a battery for the Black Lanterns. The story doesn't deny that they are Bruce's remains. Do they confirm it?

I think so. In Green Lantern #43, William Hand hears the voice of whatever cosmic death force is behind the Black Lanterns, and he hears a list of names: First, two lists (separated by a pause) of superheroes and associated characters who have died. Then a third list of those who died and returned. The second list ends with "Bruce Wayne". William Hand never would have known that Batman was Bruce Wayne. This cosmic force that speaks to him does (as well as knowing the secret identities of many other dead superheroes), and is presumably near-enough omniscient to be trusted on the matter. However it's coming up with this information, it seems to be trustworthy.

But does that mean that Bruce died in Final Crisis #6? Since we saw him in the ancient past (Grant Morrison has also confirmed that it was him, not a caveman in Batman's pants), isn't it possible that the death also took place in the past? Probably not. Because the names in those lists are for the most part in chronological order. The first list, featuring characters who have died fairly recently, is perfectly ordered, even to the point of listing the three Freedom Fighters who died in Infinite Crisis #1 in exactly the right order. The second list is also perfectly ordered, but starts from far earlier than the first list, beginning with Boston Brand (who died in the Silver Age) and Tara Markov (who died in 1984), and ending with Jonathan Kent (who died right before Final Crisis) and then Bruce Wayne. These sequences are not likely to be coincidence, even if they fall short of being a signed contract that there are no exceptions. (The third sequence, portraying those who have returned from the dead, is in order except that it ends with Barry Allen. That could signify either his time-traveling nature or the emphasis on Barry as a central character in this plot.)

Furthermore, while Black Hand doesn't quite point to the skull and ever say, "This is Bruce Wayne", the story keeps giving us every reason to believe that it is. Multiple characters in the story think so. But probably the most authoritative statements come from outside the story: The narration caption in Blackest Night #1 calls the setting "The graves of Thomas and Martha Wayne and the unmarked grave of their son, Bruce." This is an omniscient narrator (distinguished with subtle shape and color differences from the narration balloons attributed elsewhere in the issue to Hal). You have to get pretty philosophical to question whether or not the unmarked grave of Bruce might contain someone else's skeleton.
But even this level of certainty is trumped if you look at the director's cut for Blackest Night #0, which appears in Tales of the Corps #3. Geoff Johns says flat out: "The darkest place in the DCU... not just any grave, the grave of Batman -- Bruce Wayne." You have to be exceedingly philosophical to find any leeway there. People have argued crazier things, but when the writer says that it's someone's grave, it's a pretty good bet that that's whose body is in the grave. And if he says that it's the darkest place in the DCU, it's probably not the grave of a clone.

Two more omniscient narrators hammer the point home. The preview for Blackest Night: Batman #1 shows a page in which scenes only an omniscient narrator could be showing us include Black Hand staring lovingly at the skull he's toting and it has a bat-ear as a stylistic flourish. And more convincing yet, with the power of the almighty dollar behind it: The merchandising for Blackest Night includes a figurine of Black Hand wielding a skull with the same obvious Batman touches. (Remember that an action figure for Bart Allen as the Flash was revealed before it was revealed in the comics. And a poster showing Barry Allen as the Flash was released before his return to life.) Do you think anyone wants to refund fans' money if it turns out not to be Batman's skull? DC has hinted with innuendo that it's not Batman's skeleton, but has told us loudly with direct omniscient narration and action figures that it is.

Edit: Blackest Night: Batman #1 has Deadman say that it is Bruce's skull in Black Hand's grasp, and he seems to have that knowledge in some direct way that wouldn't be fooled by observing events in the conventional way (he didn't even know that Bruce had been replaced by Dick). Moreover, the bat-ears appear on the skull on the cover of Blackest Night #2.

Alpha and Omega

OK, so Batman's dead. Where is he?
Or "when"?

Despite what we saw on the last page of Final Crisis, scholarly fans are combing old stories trying to decipher what the Omega Sanction did to Bruce. But the simple answer is: No past story can be used as a guide, because the Omega Effect can do many different ("intriguing"!) things, depending upon Darkseid's whim, and he's often strangely generous. But sometimes not.

He has killed victims before, including Batman in an alternate timeline in Grant Morrison's "Rock of Ages" story in JLA v3. He also gave Desaad the "total wipe out" in New Gods #11 (a story by Jack Kirby -- Desaad's return six years later in a Gerry Conway story should be regarded a retcon).

But the first time we saw the Omega Effect (Forever People #6), it merely sent the victims into the past, and it was rather trivial for Highfather to retrieve the Forever People (leaving Sonny Sumo to live happily in Japan's past).

And Grant Morrison has concocted his own version of the Omega Sanction, showing Mister Miracle Shilo Norman living out a series of dreary lives that he had to live through in succession before he finally (naturally) escaped.

But what happened to Bruce needn't be any of those. And despite the suggestive presence of the rocket that had borne Batman's story to the past (as well as the bat-signal, if not other bat-relics), we know that the bearded man in Batman's pants, wearing the best boots the past had ever seen, is Batman, because Grant Morrison said "Final Crisis revealed Bruce is still out there and he’s got to make his way back in some way." So since it revealed that, that's him on the last page, not a Neanderthal enjoying someone else's pants.

If you can accept an old cop being possessed by an evil god who can shoot beams out of his eyes that can destroy a person or send the person alive into the past, then you can probably accept an old cop being possessed by an evil god who can shoot beams out of his eyes that can destroy a person and send the person alive into the past. Can't you?

Back in Time

A clever twist of Final Crisis is that one cover of the first issue showed the bat, super, and wonder symbols with a typical cave drawing of deer. This finished painting, which you see before the first page of the series, is not part of the narration anywhere until you get to the last page, when you see Batman beginning the painting.

Why did the Daily Planet's rocket land right where the Omega Sanction dropped off Bruce? Why did every last chunk of Krypton's explosion end up on Earth? Because it's convenient. That's usually a good enough reason.

Good news for our long-lost Batman. Cave Carson and his crew found, in Final Crisis #3, the symbol that Anthro painted in Final Crisis #7. If that's the same exact rendition, then Bruce's art is just a few feet away. His return to the present could be as simple as Cave Carson taking six more swings of a pickax, finding the heroes' symbols in the past, and then summoning some time-traveling JLAers to go get Bruce and bring him back. It could be that simple. Or arbitrarily complex.

But we do know that Bruce is coming back. The ghostly image seen in the previews for the third arc of Batman and Robin could be related or totally unrelated. (That image might not even be corporeal or even ectoplasmic in the "real" world of the DCU.) But as another post in this blog has mentioned, Grant Morrison has already told us plenty about Bruce Wayne returning to the Batman identity, and when. As for how -- I doubt if it will be as quick as the simple possibility mentioned above. Bruce Wayne's story is never that of someone who overcomes small challenges.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In Brightest Day

The Worlds' Series

Two monthly series. Four events. Sixty-seven issues and counting. That is the slate upon which writer Geoff Johns and some very talented artists have rendered the Green Lantern mythology anew.

The story stars Hal Jordan, but features dozens of other Green Lanterns, including four other men who hail from Earth (and in fact, from the United States). It is an intricate braid of DC's post-Crisis history, Hal's Silver Age history, some evocative stories by ace writer Alan Moore, numerous retcons, and, naturally, a lot of new material. The signature devices of the Green Lantern series have been the creation of structures within which most past storylines fit neatly, and in which the broad details of future storylines are easy to anticipate. These structures combine old story elements with new ones, and have the feel of Greek tragedy, with timeless prophecies guiding the story along as though it is on rails. These prophecies of doom are in complete opposition to the norms of superhero comics, in which good must prevail, and the hero must triumph. In fact, because this new story of Hal Jordan reverses his earlier downfall, the story is a sort of anti-tragedy wearing tragic clothes. As it twists and turns new and old story elements around one another, it also winds backwards and forwards through time. Flashbacks to the past are frequent, as are prophecies of the future. Prophecies within flashbacks tie in to the present. Events are told mosaic style, being introduced briefly, then receiving elaboration later. Tiny clues to later storylines have been planted far in anticipation of their bearing fruit, leaving us to wonder how many future stories have already begun before the current plot has unfolded. There are echoes of Silver Age stories so subtle that only an aficianado can catch them.

For all this, being as complex as you could ask on a structural level, the story is easy to understand issue-by-issue, and for this, along with a shameless love of its heroes, the series has lofted Hal Jordan to among the very top selling characters in comic books. 

Redemption

Green Lantern Rebirth reversed Hal Jordan's downfall and death by reimagining the earlier stories, explaining his path of destruction as a sin of weakness, not evil itself, but rather allowing an evil entity to possess him. The separation between the man and the sin is made extraordinary explicity, putting him to battle against the giant yellow space insect embodying fear, appropriating the name, Parallax, that had earlier been applied to Jordan himself. As their battles unfold, we see Jordan sometimes inside Parallax, Parallax sometimes inside Jordan, and at other times, the two of them face-to-face. When the nature of Parallax is made clear, it is identified as the sentient embodiment of the yellow impurity inside the Central Power Battery, the embodiment of fear, and therefore of evil.

More than any other element of the relaunch, this retcon of the earlier story has been derided as an overly-convenient disposal of the non-heroic end Hal Jordan underwent years earlier. It is the first time, though, that we can see the new run pile up elements of the Silver Age Green Lantern (the second Green Lantern series, following the Golden Age series starring Alan Scott). Because it is in Green Lantern Volume 2 #9 that the impurity in the battery, the color yellow, and evil are mutually associated. In that issue, we first see Sinestro's yellow power ring and learn that the impurity can be used to create a power similar to the Green Lanterns' but opposite in orientation. In abandoning the Nineties story, Johns pivots to the Sixties and finds the basis of his story there. The yellow inside the green is evil; fear is weakness; courage is strength. Johns paints a Hal Jordan who is neither as good as the Sixties made him out to be nor as bad as the Nineties did. Hal is no longer a man born without fear nor a hero turned villain. He is a man that will overcome great fear. Who gave into it, but will overcome it. His weakness is overcome and the universe forgives him, returning him to life, along with his victims and enemy.

In time, those who would have been his victims, the "Lost" Lanterns, are saved by Hal and forgive him.

Then that leaves Batman.

In Darkest Knight

Heat flows from a warm body to a cold body. So does fame. And over the last twenty years, no DC character has had the spotlight so much as the man of the shadows, Batman. Portraying Hal Jordan and Batman as erstwhile rivals is not only good politicking for the less-famous character, it's also natural character development for both of them. Green Lantern would get attention from a rivalry with Superman, but it would have to be subtle. Superman doesn't have the ego or the opposition to what Green Lantern stands for. They are both heroes of bright and colorful light.
So Johns made Batman a hurdle that Hal had to overcome, in his past as well as present incarnations. Batman has appeared on-panel in every series where Hal has starred, and their relationship is never simply that of allies. The opposition of their tactics is developed at length in GL #9 (Volume 4, which is to be presumed from here on when I don't specify 'Volume 2') and how Hal's fearlessness grates on Batman is explained by John Stewart in GL Rebirth #1. The two trade barbs, punches, and eventually begrudging respect. But even as late as Blackest Night, we see flashbacks to a simmering rivalry in the early days of the Justice League, a retconned Silver Age history that grossly violates the tone of Sixties' comics, but feels true today. It's the history that these characters had to have had, but that we couldn't see until now, when the all-smiles era of superheroes has yielded to character development (at least, in moderation).

Making the Most of Moore

Just as Batman is at the pinnacle of fame among DC heroes, Alan Moore, who had a brilliant but limited tenure writing for DC, is at the pinnacle among comic book writers. Johns has built on Moore's past stories in both large ways and small. When Guy Gardner says "Mogo wants to socialize", Johns is making an in-joke by citing a former story's title, but it is worth noting that the writer of that story is the illustrious Mr. Moore. And Mogo, Moore's invention, has figured into Johns' version of the Green Lantern Corps in key ways.

The odd line aside, the nod to Moore ideas was more apparent when a pair of issues borrowed the Black Mercy that Moore had put onto Superman (and Batman) in an acclaimed story and gave Green Lantern and Green Arrow their turns with it. A one-panel glance at "For The Man Who Has Everything" appears in Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps #1, the second story of which closes with narration that quotes the 1985 story verbatim.

Another Moore invention appeared in the Green Lantern Corps Recharge mini-series, a character named Bolphunga the Unrelenting.

Still, this is small-scale use of Moore's ideas compared with the sweeping infliuence that the magnificent twelve-page story named "Tygers", which appeared in Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #2 back in 1986. This story introduced a planet of demons, enemies of the Guardians of the Universe, one of whom used the gift of prophecy and an excellent poker face to become the instrument of death for Hal Jordan's predecessor, Abin Sur. This prophecy, and another depicting the end of the Green Lantern Corps, has become a defining element of much of Johns' run on Green Lantern. The demon Qull and his associates (retconned into a group of five aliens who have survived a massacre by the Guardians' Manhunter androids) have surfaced in flashbacks, with Johns building a new history around their encounter with Abin Sur, adding a return trip to their planet in Abin Sur's itinerary, leading to his death at the hands of a newly-minted associate (and murderer) of Qull named Atrocitus, whose role in the story has yet to conclude.

A more elaborate story that intertwined with the Sinestro Corps War was that the prophecy of the final end of the Green Lantern Corps seemed to start to play out. Several characters mentioned in the prophecy appeared in major roles, and the prophecy went a long way towards its conclusion until Green Lantern Corps #16 (written by Dave Gibbons, a frequent collaborator of Moore's) stopped at the brink with Sodam Yat and Mogo surviving mortal threats. Since we've since seen Sodam Yat alive in the distant future, the prophecy seems to have been invalidated.

Memory Lane

Naturally, the existing history of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern mythology (and that which came later with John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Kyle Rayner) is the backstory of this run, but with a high degree of selectivity. Black Hand is far darker than his Silver Age self. But the little details are there in the old stories: William Hand did loathe his family (GL v2 #29). The Manhunters did rebel against the Guardians (JLA v1 #141). Hal and Sinestro do go beam-to-beam and Hal always wins, starting in GL v2 #9. It was even in the books -- Carol Ferris was attracted to Hector Hammond. Look it up in GL v2 #5 if you don't believe me.

The selectivity is what makes the long backstory work, and may other comic writers pay careful attention to the mastery Johns shows here. He does some "king-making", elevating some past foes to prominence while ignoring others. But he does so to build this grander story. Which foes get the greater role here? The ones who fit in to the long, eighty-issue plan directly and logically. A talking shark? No, not in the new continuity. A guy with the color motif black? Yes, definitely -- because colors have a large role to play.



The Rainbow Connection

It's simple and nonsensical, and yet strangely compelling: Each color of the ROYGBIV spectrum is an emotion. Each color has a corps. Moreover, as the story has it, the spectrum has two kinds of structure: Benevolent emotions to the blue side, malevolent ones to the red side. And, chaotic ones to the outside of the spectrum, orderly ones to the middle.
There are rules we know (blue stops red; yellow stops green) and those we don't. This simple structure took the green and yellow from old-time Green Lantern history, added in the Star Sapphires (who began as a Jay Garrick villain before vexing Hal Jordan) as violet and gave us four more to fret over. Symmetry, but broken symmetry. The orange corps has only one living member. The red spit their power out. The blue seem weak except when they are ungodly powerful. And the indigo are still somewhat of a mystery. The emotional spectrum made it easy to understand the general context but left all of the specifics for future stories. Twenty-some issues later, we've still got more to know about them and their interactions. This device has been played so well it's almost embarrassing to consider its childish simplicity.

Think about the Future

Qull's prophecy, and many others inside and outside of Johns' stories (think also of Booster Gold's time travel and JSA's last-page flashforwards), have provided a sort of in medias res device where flashbacks, prophecy, time travel, patterns that run across multiple story elements, and hints from the creators have wound the past and present into a braid that is easier to glimpse in parts than as a whole.

As a result, when seven issues coming well into the series tell the "Secret Origin" of Hal Jordan, it's not a digression from the larger story, but a way of inserting convenient details into the past so they can come to fruition right now. One issue after Secret Origin ended, a character introduced in it attacked our heroes. When we see Sinestro destroy Hal's plane in Rebirth #5, the event lacks context until Secret Origin's fourth issue. Piecemeal we get the story. This makes it worth of study. Otherwise, you might miss details like that the Indigo Lanterns' mission to spread goodwill was explained way back in GL #25. You might miss that Johns is bowing not just to Moore's excellence but also to his own extensions to the mythology when he reminds us years after the original panel of Kyle's ring-powered archery practice on Sinestro's back and the line, "Green Arrow says 'hi'."

By mixing the past, present, and future selectively, Johns' run has maximized interest and suspense. It is easy to tell that something is going to happen. It is hard to know what. When we were told that John Stewart would see his dead love Katma Tui again, we might not have imagined it would be with her as the Black Lantern zombie who rose in Blackest Night #1. Although it was possible to guess: The foretelling of their reunion came after the foretelling of Blackest Night. Clues have been embedded so deeply in the earliest parts of this run: The Emotional Spectrum and Blackest Night were first mentioned in Green Lantern #6. The individual colors were first listed by Cyborg Superman and a Guardian in Sinestro Corps War Special. Knowing that details can be so pregnant with meaning, we have to wonder about gremlins and the death of Martin Jordan. We have to look twice at Green Lantern Rebirth #2's line that hoping is what Superman does best.

We have predictions that Sinestro "Sinestro will be the greatest Green Lantern again" (Sinestro Corps War Special) and that he will oppose the Five Inversions' revenge. We know tht if the universe is to survive, willpower and fear must come together (GL #25) and that Sinestro will tell Hal Jordan "I can't do this without you" (GL #42).

Looking almost certainly further into the future, we have a prophecy that Hal will become renegade once more (GL #37) after the Guardians take away his greatest love. And -- don't miss this -- the universe will divide.

Top of the Charts

With layer upon layer of narrative masterstroke, Johns has put the Green Lantern series, more of an ensemble deal than the relentlessly Hal-driven covers would suggest, into the top tier of the DC Universe. Certainly where sales are concerned. Green Lantern is outselling any single title starring Superman or Spider-Man, and has been for some time. And it's not because Johns has given Hal a Betty to go with his "Veronica" (GL #20). It's not because he showed us the Anti-Monitor, Sinestro, Cyborg Superman, Parallax, and Superboy Prime in one panel. It's because he's using a richly intertwined narrative of Homeric proportions. This run has transcended the genre while stooping (the Emotional Spectrum) to its guiltiest pleasures of simplicity and Jack Kirby's art of always topping himself. Before Sinestro Corps War was over, we already saw the bigger thing coming, and now, with Blackest Night upon us, the next bigger thing yet is taking shape. You don't need to be Qull of the Five Inversions to see that Green Lantern is going to be successful well past this year.