Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Action Comics #18

The final installment in Grant Morrison's extended Superman story is like a piece that fit just as it must, in the shape of the hole the unfinished puzzle was missing. Surprises? Not so many. There was no doubt Superman would beat Vyndktvx, and the way he did it, well that didn't matter so much. In fact, what was it? Or did he beat him a thousand times?

For anyone looking to be deeply invested in a linear plot, this multidimensional story about a 5-dimensional villain left them hanging, although the past several issues should have made that clear. The 18-issue run gradually turned more and more into a fractured, postmodernist experience that used science fiction to explain the twisted structure which was about the science fiction it was describing, a self-writing meta story which has been Morrison's vision in his previous Superman works. In that regard, there was nothing new here, and the greatest difference from Action #14-17 and Action #18 is that the cliffhangers all convert into victories, as we knew they must.

To the extent there is a story, it is this: Vyndktvx, being a 5-dimensional being, attacks Superman not just in space but in time; Superman wins when he realizes that from Vyndktvx's perspective, there is only one attack he will ever make against Superman, and by beating him once, Superman beats him many times, and every time. So of the many fronts on which Superman and his allies are fighting Vyndktvx, which of them is crucial? One, all, or none, but Superman's victory is preordained, and as he starts doing stuff to one-up Vyndktvx, it all works at once, ending in a definitive defeat of Vyndktvx, and saving every life that was jeopardized along the way, including those which earlier seemed to have been lost. Does the Legion of Super Heroes' plan succeed? Yes. Did Mrs. Nyxly really die? No, and we see her live happily ever after with Mxyzptlk. Did the little boy and other colonists on Mars die? No, because the one wish Mrs. Nyxly had left was used on something red (Mars) to set them all right again. And of course, Superman and Krypto survived, and there the story ended, like a final panel from the Sixties, with the man and his dog in a definitive happy ending.

And in many ways, it was from the Sixties, and the happy ending was definitive. As with Morrison's Final Crisis, Superman Beyond, and All Star Superman, the story has too many references to serial storytelling structure for us to miss the larger message. The story of Superman isn't a lot of stories. It's basically one story, where the strong and just man defeats evil. From 1938 until the Sixties or so, Superman most stories happened in circular time, time out of time, where everything was always put right back where it started at the end of the story. As a Superman mythology grew, Superman began to live in linear time, with some stories changing his world in significant new ways, with new Kryptonians and other major changes coming along, gradually writing a larger narrative with a beginning and middle... and at last, in 1986, an end. Which led to a new beginning, and recently, another end. Because Superman is still in circular time, and if the circles take 25 years to come around where they started, that's still a circle. Superman Beyond reminded us that Superman's epitaph is "To Be Continued." Action #18 observes that all of Superman's victories are just one victory, and if he has to do the impossible to accomplish them, then the impossible is what has to happen.

The last point repeats a meta observation made in 1987's "The Greatest Hero of Them All", in which that story's Superboy performs a feat that's seemingly impossible, and notes in his death scene that maybe he always could do anything he needed to. Perhaps the most meaningful reference to earlier stories is that the villain here was styled after Doomsday, the villain who killed Superman in 1992, but this time, despite the title of Action #16's story, "The Second Death of Superman", cannot finish the hero off. In an alternate timeline seen in Joe Kelly's 2005 story "This Is Your Life", Superman simply refuses to die in the Doomsday battle, and reflects that for Superman to die points his universe in the wrong direction. Morrison's epic emphatically agrees, and this Superman never dies. Perhaps the choice of Doomsday here is to inoculate the post-Flashpoint Superman from ever having that death story re-told by future writers. As with Morrison's desire to liberate Superman from a commercial, faceless shell (as Vyndktvx says here, with "$" in place of "S"), his power to control the future is limited, but he does make a heroic bid to do right by the Man of Steel with these creative moves in a run that will inevitably be remembered.

In Morrison's Batman run, it was asserted that all of Batman's past eras, as diverse as they were, existed as part of one timeline, and he created a belabored explanation within the story for the many sharp changes in tone between those different eras. In Action, he has an easier time of accomplishing much the same result because Superman's science fiction underpinning makes alternate timelines a straightforward consequence of fifth-dimensional villainy. Morrison has included characters and scenes from 1938, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Byrne era, and a plunge from the sky oddly reminiscent of 2006's Superman Returns. Mrs. Nyxly, speaking with a Red-and-Blue Superman from the Nineties (which was itself an echo of an earlier era's "imaginary story") tells this timeline's Superman that he'll never know what he was giving up. Being fifth-dimensional, she knew as we do that the adult Kents have been virtually killed by this reboot. This and other nods to other Superman continuities make it appropriate that fifth-dimensional character were in the forefront in this run, because, as Morrison's Bat-Mite told us, "Imagination is the fifth dimension." Morrison has essentially written a 32-story Superman epic that began in the All Star Superman continuity, continued in the post-Byrne/post-Infinite Crisis continuity, and ended in this post-Flashpoint continuity, but folds all of them together in a way that we, and fifth dimensional characters can see as one. And now we shall see where the next generation of writers take the rebuilt Man of Steel.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Killing Damian Wayne

In 2006, the world’s greatest superheroes suddenly got three sons. In the film Superman Returns, we found out that Superman and Lois conceived a child way back in 1981’s Superman II. In DCU continuity, Superman and Lois adopted a Kryptonian son they dubbed Christopher Kent. And in the pages of Batman, Bruce Wayne found out that he had conceived a child with his lover/enemy perhaps during the same events narrated in the 1971 story that introduced Talia. Three sons introduced at the same time. Now, all of them are gone.

It has long been noted that Grant Morrison planned to kill off the Damian character as soon as he introduced him. In fact, the Batman and Son story ended with events that might have been interpreted as Damian’s death. But seven issues later, a quick scene established that Damian, thanks to his mother’s access to remarkable medical technology, would survive.

Damian played a major role in an al-Ghul crossover story, then reappeared briefly during the long storyline of Batman, RIP. After Battle of the Cowl, Damian had his longest time in the spotlight, as the second title character of the Batman and Robin title. While Damian has appeared in several titles over the past three and a half years, the centerpiece of his character development was in Morrison’s first sixteen issues of that new title, with Damian and Dick Grayson inverting the familiar dynamic of a serious Batman and a cheerful, punning Robin.

It appears to have been Morrison’s intention for this third long storyline, that of Batman, Inc, to have Damian be murdered by his own mother. It has been foreshadowed generally that someone would die, and specifically that Damian was the object of a murder plot, and now, with Batman Inc v2 #8, we appear to have seen this transpire.

We have also seen, in Batman #700, a future in which Damian becomes Batman, although this future was never guaranteed to take place. It resembles the one seen in Inc #5, and Bruce Wayne, following the information he saw at the end of time in Return of Bruce Wayne #6, took steps to prevent this from coming true. By firing Damian from the Robin identity, and as the heir as a subsequent Batman, Bruce Wayne effectively chose to save his city while sacrificing, on some level, his son. In the final scenes before Damian’s death, we saw the cat that would have been his pet had he gone on to be Batman in the future seen in Batman #666 and elsewhere. Small references taking the story backwards and forwards in time, like a double punch shared by Dick and Damian, and the minor character Ellie, first seen in the same story back in #664-665 where Damian returned from the dead.

Will he return from this death? Impossible to say. Inc v2 #1 ended with the apparent death of Damian, which proved to be a ruse. Batman: The Return opened with Bruce saving a man’s son from apparent death. The theme has been established. Whatever Morrison’s plans are, it could happen sooner or later in any case.

But what are Morrison’s plans for this story? A grand death has happened. Batman has suffered a tragic loss. The man who lost his parents to murder has now lost his son.

The solicits for upcoming issues run as follows:

9: The fallout from last month’s shocking turn of events has Batman on the run! Is The Dark Knight a murderer?
10: When only one can survive, which will it be: the man or the bat?
11: Batman’s world has been devastated by his war against Talia, but is he willing to give up on his own humanity?

These point to the flashforward seen in Inc v2 #1, where Bruce, mourning a loss, plans to quit the Batman role, upon which he is promptly arrested as a murderer. Clearly this is a plan on Talia’s part. Clearly, Bruce Wayne has to prevail on some level, and will save the world and Gotham from destruction, and also return to be its protector. But what of the loss of his son? When Grant Morrison took over the Batman character, he spoke of the grimness with which his predecessors had handled it. In an interview as well as in the pages of his stories, he included the death of Jason Todd as part of a pattern that had led Batman down too dark a path. How can Morrison feel that way then and kill Damian off now? We had Batman, RIP end with Batman climbing out of a grave to fight and win again. Jason Todd himself had died and come back, as did Dick Grayson in the old story Morrison cited, Robin Dies at Dawn. Will the grave, having let these other Batman and Robin return, prove inescapable for Damian?