Thursday, November 26, 2015

Retro Review: The Killing Joke

Alan Moore's final work for DC was the 1988 landmark, The Killing Joke, a one-shot magnificently illustrated by Brian Bolland that redefined Batman and the Joker and the relationship between them. Cutting between flashbacks and narration in the present day, TKJ offered a possible backstory for the Joker, and showed one fateful encounter between the caped crusader and his archenemy, which left Barbara Gordon disabled for over two decades of DC comics.

The Joker's Plan

The major action of TKJ showed a plan by the Joker that targeted Jim and Barbara Gordon with acts of exceptional cruelty and violence in order "to prove a point." Apparently, he was able to carry out every step that he had planned. After enticing another man to pose as him in Arkham Asylum in order to delay notice of his escape, the Joker agrees to buy a closed-down carnival, but he murders the sales agent, then begins to adapt the location for a single night of terrorizing Jim Gordon.

Shortly thereafter, bizarrely dressed in a tropical shirt, he arrives at the home of Jim and Barbara Gordon. Without saying a word, he fires a gunshot into Barbara's midsection, crippling her. Then, while his thugs incapacitate Jim, the Joker comments that Jim is "topping the bill." He strips Barbara and takes photos of her naked, injured body.

When Jim Gordon awakens, he is tormented by dwarfs grotesquely clad in sadomasochistic leather. They strip him of his clothes and bring him to the Joker, who begins to assault him verbally, and sings him a song about the virtues of insanity. Then, Jim is taken on a ghost train ride and shown gigantic photographic enlargements of the nude photos that the Joker took of his bloody daughter. When the ride is over, the Joker once more explains to Jim, with mock compassion while an audience of "circus freaks" laughs, about the good sense of losing one's mind.

At this point, Batman arrives, deliberately tipped off to the location by tickets the Joker sent to the Gotham police. A short chase through the carnival grounds allows the Joker to make his pro-insanity lecture to Batman. The chase eventually turns into a fight, with the Joker injuring the caped hero lightly before Batman inevitably brings him down. Along the way, Batman escapes a couple of attempts on his life, and it is not clear if the Joker expected those to succeed, or if they were mere gestures to express his hatred. When the Joker is completely beaten, he says, in self-pity, that Batman should "kick the hell out of [him] and get a standing ovation from the public gallery."

Batman's Pitch

The timing of the Joker's plan coincides exactly with Batman's desire to make an overture to his enemy, that they should put aside their conflict. Batman first begins to make this pitch to the man who was posing as the Joker. It is repeated in silent captions when Batman begins to fight the Joker. Then, when the fight is over, the Batman lays it all out again: He doesn't want to hurt the Joker, and that if they don't stop their conflict, one or both of them will end up dying. He offers to help and rehabilitate the Joker. The Joker seems to consider it, but answers, "No. I'm sorry but… No. It's too late for that. Far too late." Despite the rejection, the Joker tells Batman a joke, and they appear to communicate calmly and genuinely once the fight is over, but it is clear that their battle will resume when next the Joker is once again free.

The Joker's Origin

Usually, recurring heroes and villains in comics are given a distinct origin and real name. Occasionally, there is no origin out of apparent indifference on the part of the creators. The Joker, however, is one of a select few for which an origin has been intentionally vague, to preserve a sense of mystery around the character. In 1987's Secret Origins #10, Alan Moore provided one of four possible origins for the Phantom Stranger. In The Killing Joke, Moore provides one for the Joker.

An earlier semi-origin the Joker had been offered in 1951's Detective Comics #168. That story indicated that the Joker had originally carried out crimes as the Red Hood, who wore a helmet and matching cape. His initial interaction with Batman ended with a swim through chemicals that transformed his hair to green and skin to clown white. Maintaining the character's mysterious background, that story never offered his real name nor showed his pre-accident face.

In an extended flashback divided into four parts, TKJ affirms the basic details of the 1951 story, but added more detail to the character's backstory, indicating that the man about to become the Joker was a failed comedian and only reluctantly a criminal, who lost his pregnant wife and unborn child on the same day that his botched robbery and run-in with Batman changed his pigmentation. TKJ breaks from the 1951 story in adding a significant emotional element to the Joker's transformation, indicating that the trauma of that one bad day instantly changed him from a not-particularly-bad man into a devoted criminal, whereas the earlier story implied that the one bad day only altered his appearance.

Moore only offers these details tentatively, however. In one panel injecting ambiguity into the flashback, the present-day Joker says, "Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I'm not exactly sure what is was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" Thus, Moore makes the Joker's backstory, like that of the Phantom Stranger, one that we have possibly but not certainly seen.

Theme: One Bad Day

An essential idea in TKJ is that trauma can remake a man from something ordinary into something remarkable. The Joker analyzes his own past in this way, and the flashback implies that the pre-Joker individual was driven to crime only out of extreme financial need and an honorable desire to support his pregnant wife and soon-to-be family. As soon as he learns of his wife's tragic death, he tries to back out of his agreement to participate in a robbery, but he is forced to comply by his partners. The day is marked not only by extreme misfortune but also by futility, as he is unable to make his own decisions, being threatened into crime by the Red Hood Gang – of which he is a stooge, not the leader – and then being cornered by the relentless police and Batman. Faced with the futility of being good – and sane – the Joker snaps and becomes a devotedly insane criminal as we see him in the present.

This aspect of the origin is owed crucially to one earlier story: Batman's origin as first presented in Detective #33. That first telling of Batman's origin connects the "terror and shock" of witnessing his parents' murders as the single motivation for his life as a crime-fighter. The vow he makes on that occasion is called "curious and strange" by Finger and Kane. The details have been affirmed and extended numerous times in successive stories, but the essential idea is that trauma fundamentally transformed the normal boy into something extraordinary.

There's little in DC mythology that's firmer than the concept of Bruce Wayne deciding to become a crime-fighter because of his parents' murders. As such, it is natural for Moore to take the same idea and reflect it through a mirror, and make a similar moment the origin of the Joker.

However, TKJ does not affirm that simple psychological model of trauma. The Joker carries out his plan for the express purpose of transforming Jim Gordon, to make him insane, but, while the Joker is able to carry out every step in his plan, Gordon does not change as the Joker hopes. When Batman rescues Jim Gordon, Gordon tells him, "I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!… We have to show him that our way works!" This fact, which Gordon and Batman rub into the Joker's face, shows that the Joker was wrong, that One Bad Day does not drive everyone mad, and as Batman adds, "Maybe it was just you, all the time."

This is a neat contrast insofar as the Joker and Jim Gordon go, but what of the third side of the triangle? The Joker guesses that One Bad Day is what made Batman what he is, and in this, he is correct. But, as part of his perception of the situation, he sees Batman as confirmation of his theory, that One Bad Day turned him into someone who would "dress up like a flying rat," which is "crazy," as is "everybody else." If this is wrong, then it was unnecessary for Gordon to be put to the test; Batman already shows that One Bad Day does not drive someone crazy.

Indeed, various creators over the years have suggested that Batman is crazy; TKJ neither confirms nor rejects the idea, but it agrees, as all Batman stories do, that the traumatic event was transformative, and suggests that Batman's life itself is not enough to reject the idea that One Bad Day makes a normal person "crazy."

Mutual Assured Destruction

Batman's description of his ongoing war with the Joker closely parallels the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). As applied to the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union both possessed massive nuclear arsenals, the idea was that a war between the two would inevitably lead to the destruction of both of them. Therefore, any war between them was unwinnable and therefore unthinkable.

War is obviously on Moore's mind in TKJ, as voiced by the Joker. He explicitly uses the phrase "World War Three" as he describes how close the world is to accidental nuclear war. One panel later, he (with considerable oversimplification) suggests that "the last World War" (WW2) was triggered by an argument over telegraph poles. TKJ describes the Batman-Joker war in terms that are parallel to the Cold War conflict between the US and USSR.

When TKJ begins, the Batman-Joker war has been in progress for years, but Batman sees death as an inevitable outcome. And, while he rejects the suicidal nature of it, the Joker accepts it. As such, the dynamic in TKJ is similar to the Cold War's nuclear arms race. In Watchmen, Moore, through Ozymandius, also expresses that nuclear war is inevitable unless something exceptional takes place to prevent it. In TKJ, Moore scripts the Joker's position as similar to that of the U.S. and Soviet Union, while Batman's choice is something sane that the West (and Eastern Bloc) should adopt. In another possible comment on nuclear war, the Joker says, "That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day." A nuclear war would be to the world what the Joker is to a healthy, ordinary mind.

But, as in his Twilight of the Superheroes proposal, Moore also finds fault with society as a whole. He believed that society as a whole was at risk of disintegration, and the Joker in TKJ voices similar concern, that the average man has a "deformed set of values" who survives "not very well" in "today's harsh and irrational world."

As prophecy, Moore's work has, fortunately, not played out in the 27 years since it was printed. Total societal disintegration has yet come to pass.


The artwork, by Brian Bolland, is exceptionally vivid, with the use of photorealistic proportions in most cases highlighting exceptions such as the proportion of the Joker and his circus freak sidekicks. Another exception is when Bolland copies panels from older works, such as file photos of the Joker, Batman from the cover of Detective #27, the Batman family including the Kathy Kane Batwoman, and an implausibly old-fashioned Batmobile. The technique of including older-style artwork within a story has been used many times since TKJ, and it powerfully contrasts the style of those more innocent times with the especially brutal content of TKJ.

Moore makes use of the medium in unusual and attention-getting ways. The story begins and ends with long stretches without dialogue, with the title pages' artwork blending seamlessly into the story. In the beginning, as in the end, we see the concentric circles made by raindrops as a pattern in puddles. This suggests cycles and repetition and the fact that the struggle between Batman and the Joker, and all superhero comics, goes on in a repeated pattern forever. The scene between Batman and the solotaire-playing (fake) Joker is iconic and was repeated by Grant Morrison in DC Universe #0's lead-in to Batman, R.I.P.

Dialogue and captions are repeated, overlie superficially unrelated art, and make sly comments at the transitions between scenes. The first line of the joke that Joker tells at the end are used, out of place, as the story's first words: There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum. In fact, Batman and the (fake) Joker are the two guys in a lunatic asylum, and the joke at the end provides commentary on them. The re-use of the line also reinforces the pattern of a cycle, and the fact that Batman and the Joker cannot break out of their endless war. Later in that scene, Batman says that he doesn't want Joker's death on his hands as the makeup of the fake Joker comes off and smears his gloves. When Jim Gordon warns Batman not to harm a hair on the man's head, Batman offers Gordon the fake Joker's wig. When the real Joker, at the carnival, says that money isn't a problem "these days," we see the first cut to his earlier days, when poverty was a great problem. When that scene ends with the pre-Joker seeing his face reflected in a metal cabinet door, the narration cuts back to the present-day Joker seeing his face reflected in the glass of a "LAUGHING CLOWN" machine, but the Joker isn't laughing. When Joker kills the sales agent, his dialogue is overflowing with double meanings, seemingly speaking cheerfully while referring, repeatedly, to the man's death. The man's death grin ends one scene as the joker card that Batman took from Arkham opens the next one. Later, after shooting Barbara, the Joker refers to her, a librarian, as though she were a book, including "There's a hole in the jacket and the spine appears to be damaged." The Joker ends the scene holding a drink in one hand as he touches Barbara, and then the narration cuts to the proto-Joker holding a drink in one hand as he picks up a shrimp. The technique is used, scene after scene, throughout TKJ as it was in Watchmen and other Moore works.

Moore, a horror writer in his work on Swamp Thing, uses particularly sharp moments in the wording and actions to build up the Joker as something otherworldly. When Batman accosts the man who helped him escape from Arkham, he asks, "Do you realize what you've set free?" with not a "who" but a "what." The Joker strips both Barbara and then Jim Gordon naked, an indignity one wouldn't find in earlier superhero comics, with an added note of perversion when he forces Jim to see pictures of his naked (and crippled) daughter. Later, Barbara shares her horror with us when she tells Batman, "He's taking it to the limit this time. You didn't see. You didn't see his eyes." The proto-Joker's shock when he learns of his wife's death and again when he is forced into joining the robbery are exceptionally tragic alone and more so in juxtaposition. When his grief is the greatest, two leering figures, one of them probably a prostitute, lean in and seem to laugh at his misfortune. Elsewhere in that scene, we see a man passed out in his own vomit. The cover itself is shocking, with the Joker's seemingly harmless "Smile" as he points a camera towards us is galling when one considers how he used a camera in the story. Moore doesn't just break the rules of family comic books; he shatters them. While the Joker and the Gordons are traumatized by their experiences, the reader – at least in the late Eighties – was shocked by the innovative levels of horror in the content. And, given the themes of the story, this is not gratuitous; it illustrates the points effectively.

Did Batman Kill the Joker?

In August 2013, Grant Morrison, in an interview with Kevin Smith, says that in his interpretation, Batman kills the Joker at the end of TKJ. As he explains, Batman reaches out and places his hands on the Joker, then the laughter stops, then the light goes out, and this "in such a way that it’s ambiguous" indicates that Batman has killed the Joker.

It's certainly no better than ambiguous: There is no real evidence that Batman has killed the Joker, and certainly readers do not typically read the story concluding that he did, or else Morrison's supposition would not have made such a splash online.

I strongly disagree. Laughter ends in that scene because laughter always ends. The siren ends and the light goes out because police turn off their sirens and their headlights. The jumps from one panel to the next do not have a specific timeframe associated with them, and we see simply nothing of any attack by Batman on the Joker.

Even more important: Batman has just said that he will not beat the hell out of the Joker because he is (as requested by Jim Gordon) doing this one by the book. Batman is asked to do it by the book, he says that he is doing it by the book, and we don't see anything to indicate that he's not doing it by the book.

References online to the original script seem to confirm that the story does not end with the Joker's death. The description of the ending is, "[Batman] and The Joker are going to kill each other one day. It’s preordained. They may as well enjoy this one rare moment of contact while it lasts." But I don't think this evidence was even needed.

Morrison used the carnival grounds from TKJ in his run on Batman and Robin. He obviously respects the work greatly. But this particular theory seems to me to be difficult to defend.


Though not a perfect story, TKJ is nonetheless one of the most memorable Batman stories – and certainly one of the most memorable Joker stories. It is flawed: The point that the Joker is trying to make and the way it is refuted are both fairly slapdash. The comics make much of One Bad Day creating a hero or villain, and neither the Joker's thesis that it always creates a villain nor the case of Jim Gordon in refuting that thesis are very compelling. As Alan Moore himself says, "Brian did a wonderful job on the art but I don’t think it’s a very good book. It’s not saying anything very interesting." He furthermore said, "Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they're just two comic book characters."

That last comment is particularly interesting. The Cold War parallels might permit the claim that TKJ is saying something interesting and that Batman and the Joker in TKJ are symbols of something real. This leaves us to conclude either that the Cold War parallels are unintended, or that Moore considers any such parallel relatively inconsequential.

This suggests that the Cold War overtones that I saw in TKJ from my first reading is, like the Batman-killing-Joker ending that Morrison saw in it, more in the eye of the reader than the writer. And perhaps that is a benefit of the doubt that readers extend to an accomplished writer and a work that is of overall high quality; Moore's reputation makes readers look for hidden levels that may not have been intended. It's perhaps timely to post this retro review right after the one for Kingdom Come, as both are highly regarded for their excellent art and powerful overtones, but neither has a deep message to make them truly great, though they easily fool us into feeling that they do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Retro Review: Kingdom Come

From the first pages – even from the cover – Kingdom Come made DC readers feel as though they had entered another world, the world where their comic book heroes are real. Alex Ross' art, which is painted rather than drawn, is as unlike the halftone color printing of the past as reality is unlike a dream. With respect to the visuals alone, Kingdom Come, like Ross' Marvels before it, is categorically transcendent, and automatically a classic.

The story itself, by Ross and Mark Waid, aspires towards greatness. Its scope is grand, the passions run hot, the new characters are wonderfully creative, and the world of Kingdom Come is more complex than most of what had come before it.

This starting point for the story closely resembles the premises of a trio of stories from the previous decade – The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and the unpublished Twilight of the Superheroes. With those stories in mind, many have observed that Kingdom Come is not entirely original, and that is hard to deny. Nor do the creators try to deny it – a copy of the book-within-a-book Under the Hood by Watchmen's Hollis Mason appears on Kingdom Come's eighth page, and we soon learn that KC's Batman has become the field general commanding an army of younger crime-fighters much as he was at the end of DKR. Kingdom Come acknowledged those creative debts, but it makes them its starting point, not its conclusion. It may more closely resemble TOTS, though those commonalities go only so far.

Though it opens with minor and almost pointedly mortal characters (Norman McCay, an old man, and Wesley Dodds, the now-dying Golden Age Sandman), it soon comes alive with colorful – and frequently wonderfully original – super beings. The realistic art drives home a dark theme, that the brief era of superheroes such as we have known, eventually gave way to a kind of super-chaos as a tiny oligarchy of super-powered beings turn the whole world into a mere arena for their non-stop brawling. There are no longer heroes or villains, justice or injustice – there are simply battles unleashing tremendous forces, and the non-super-powered majority cower and can only hope to avoid becoming collateral damage.

KC, like DKR, adopts the opening gambit of Homer's Iliad – a great hero is physically able, but unwilling to fight, until something goads him back into the battle. KC's Superman has, in the story's past, lost a non-physical showdown with a violent superhero named Magog. In a tragic turn of events, the Joker has killed Lois Lane. Magog executes the Joker on the street, violating the moral code the superheroes had previously respected. But here, justice and the law became tangled, with Superman expecting a court to convict Magog for this act of vengeance, but neither of them feeling completely vindicated when it did not. Superman retreated entirely from the world, and Magog became just one representative of a new era, one in which heroes were not quite heroes anymore. A few years later, as the story opens, things are pretty rotten, but they soon become much worse. A handful of heroes pursue the Parasite from St. Louis westward across Kansas, and when the villain is cornered, he panics and rips open Captain Atom. The resulting explosion kills one million people, including Superman's adopted hometown of Smallville. When Wonder Woman brings the news of this to Superman, he returns from his self-imposed exile to try to set the world straight.

At this point, the major players and their positions are as follows:

• A new breed of reckless hero – exemplified by Magog, Von Bach, and 666 – operates outside the law. They execute supervillains preemptively, and risk civilian lives needlessly in their battles. Their lifestyle is not as squeaky-clean as the heroes of the past.

• Superman and his Justice League want to corral the reckless heroes, and are willing to imprison those who don't fall in line.

• Batman and an urban league including Green Arrow, Black Canary, and Blue Beetle keep order in Gotham, Star City and elsewhere using their expertise and a squadron of younger enforcers.

• Luthor and several former supervillains, whose Mankind Liberation Front conspires to turn the conflict between the erstwhile superheroes into a battle that rids the world of superbeings for once and for all. Batman and his allies seem to throw in with Luthor, but that is a ruse.

• The world's civilian authorities, led by a UN Secretary General named Wyrmwood, another reference to Revelation.

Unlike the comics of the past, the sides do not merely engage in super-powered battle, although there is plenty of that. They take time out from the usual superhero-vs-supervillain kinetic activity to philosophize, negotiate, argue, and deceive.

And it is on this deeper level that the script falters, badly. Every panel and every speech balloon in Kingdom Come seems to come from a passionate and wonderfully scripted epic, but Kingdom Come is not wonderfully scripted. Ross and Waid's writing aspires to greatness but fails to grasp it. A large fraction of Kingdom Come is devoted to talk and arguments, but the arguments do not make sense, or they are exceedingly shallow, or the characters talk past one another. On several occasions, they argue passionately for a viewpoint, are willing to go to battle over it, then suddenly appear to be arguing for or acting for the other side of the argument. When these changes take place, there is never a reason given as to why the hero changed their mind, nor do the other characters seem to notice the discrepancies. Perhaps this because Waid and Ross didn't notice them, either.

• Batman calls Superman's efforts "totalitarian" while running Gotham and other cities as a police state run by fear.

• After Batman's ruse to double cross Luthor is completed, he once again tells Superman that he is not on Superman's side. A few minutes later, he shows up thousands of miles away with his allies to fight on Superman's side.

• At the end, Batman looks on smiling when Superman finally agrees to operate with the cooperation of civilian authorities, but Batman and his allies have spent years running law enforcement in several cities "our way… ourselves."

• Superman and his allies call the prison they build a "gulag" – a perjorative term completely opposite in connotation from the noble intentions they have for it.

• Superman and his allies say that the new, reckless breed of heroes risk innocent lives, but Superman places his prisoners in the middle of the country, which – he admits – is a safety risk. He says that this was necessary so the reckless heroes could be monitored and taught, which does not justify why someone who could effortlessly bury Brainiac's parts on Saturn would collect the world's most dangerous superbeings in one location in the middle of the United States.

• Wonder Woman joins Superman's crusade against superheroes who are too aggressive, too reckless, and willing to kill, and in her efforts to control them, she is too aggressive, too reckless, and willing to kill. Yet, she is adamant that they must be stopped.

• In an argument before the final battle, Batman argues that perhaps it would be for the best if all the superbeings die. Superman vehemently disagrees. Minutes later, Superman says that perhaps he has no right to stop the bomb from killing all the heroes, but Batman does everything he can to stop one of the bombs. The two have exactly switched positions, and nobody seems to notice.

• When Batman incapacitates a temporarily-powerless Billy Batson, he does so with his foot alone and does not, for example, tranquilize him. This mistake risked the fate of the world.

• When Superman incapacitates a temporarily-powerless Billy Batson, he lets Billy decide whether or not to let him stop the final bomb, even though Billy had up to that very moment been guided only by the derangement that Luthor had induced in him. This mistake risked the fate of the world.

• While Batman and Wonder Woman are fighting on the same side, he insults her until she stops fighting their common enemy and turns to fight him. With the fate of the world at stake, they disengage from the battle to settle an argument of no apparent value.

• Superman spends the entire story trying to educate the reckless heroes because they needlessly kill villains. After the bomb kills many superbeings, Superman is on the verge of killing the civilians who dropped the bomb.

• After the bomb explodes, the Spectre describes the status as: "There were survivors. They are fewer in number, and their pain is great… but their war is over." Batman, minutes later, says that there are "enough [survivors] to leave us with the same problem as before. The same impasse. The same dangers."

• The problem that the story opened with was that there was a new breed of reckless superhero. At the end of the story, there are still enough of them to leave "the same problem as before." How are the problems solved? Superman tells the civilian authorities his solution, not counting the description of what it isn't, in only these words: "We're going to solve them with you… by living among you… We will earn your trust." An unmasked Batman offers a cockeyed grin of approval; the emptiness of those words is one of the strongest impressions I take away from Kingdom Come. Superman in no way articulates a solution to the problem of the reckless heroes. He merely says that the superheroes (who failed to solve the problem) will solve the problem with the civilian authorities (who were unable to solve the problem). During an epilogue, Wonder Woman says that what they went through gave the reckless heroes "plenty of incentive to learn." Batman, who had argued that Superman's methods were totalitarian, has the MLF working for him subdued by inhibitor collars.

Upon any but the shallowest scrutiny, Kingdom Come's script is shockingly disappointing. The entire middle half is devoted to telling us that imposing authority on superbeings by force is doomed to failure, then the epilogue breezily suggests that now it will work out fine.

And yet, there are fine moments along the way. Orion, having overthrown his father Darkseid as the ruler of Apokolips, describes the difficulties of ruling a former dictatorship in terms that consciously parallel the then-current situation in the former Eastern Bloc countries, commenting cogently on instability in Russia and war in the former Yugoslavia. The political rants of old Ollie Queen are both in-character and easy to imagine coming from the lips of a real former radical. Snippets of dialogue in several different languages capably give the story the feel of a real international drama. The shallow Planet Krypton aptly portrays modern fascination with pop culture in a world where that pop culture is about real people. And then there are gems such as the interaction between Ibn al Xu'ffasch and his father, the Batman:

"And they're prepared to fight tooth and nail with the generation that sired them?"
"Aren't all young people, son?"

Despite the very serious failures in the script, Kingdom Come is nevertheless a landmark and a must-read. It looks like an important story, usually feels like an important story, and as a result, is an important story. A small minority of readers (some 5%, based on Amazon reviews) focus on the script flaws and find the work to be outright bad. Most readers consider it an unqualified success. The truth lies between these: The art is a triumph, and Kingdom Come does enough right to keep readers paying attention from the start through the last scene – enough right to keep many readers from even noticing just how much goes wrong in all those speech balloons along the way.

Several works in the second half of the Eighties demonstrated that superhero comics can potentially be a vehicle for art on the highest level. The fact that a work so superficially pretty but deeply flawed as Kingdom Come can stand as one of the genre's landmarks doesn't reject that proposition, but it suggests that the potential has not been exercised that often.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Retro Review: JLA Top 5 - Obsidian Age

As Joe Kelly's JLA ran began in 2002, the team ran into powerful magic users in separate, seemingly-unrelated incidents. Kyle Rayner started having nightmares and visions that showed the JLA dying in battle. With unprecedented planning and foresight, Kelly used his first eight issues to set up the central storyline of his run, a story called "Obsidian Age" that took the team through the lowest lows and highest highs they ever faced. At its darkest point, Superman's skeleton and a mocking note served notice that the team was dead. The population of Atlantis was enslaved. We see Wally West captive with his neck broken and legs amputated, and then the whole team dies in battle. After that happened in the past, a seemingly-undefeatable witch in the present is about to make the Earth fall into the Sun. It's bad. It's very bad.

This sets up a finale when a staggering number of heroes in a greatly-expanded roster go on precisely the winning streak that saving the day requires, everyone playing a key role in a victory that cheats death several times, gives half a dozen characters arguably their finest moments, and then finally moves the Earth. There's a pause before the finale where a ghostly, undead Kyle Rayner tells Nightwing, "You're doing a hell of a job, by the way." It's impossible to reach that moment unmoved by the sentiment behind it.

But it began with the preparation earlier in Kelly's run. After the JLA had tangled with a Central Asian ruler/magician named Rama Khan, the story begins in earnest when two powerful opponents representing ancient Mexico and an unspecified Native American culture materialize at Disneyland and use their combined magic in an attempt to kill the JLA. They nearly succeed when Batman awakens from a spell that is supposed to keep any human asleep, and Kyle Rayner arrives in time to blindside the attackers, who escape where Atlantis used to be. This begins a mystery in which the JLA begins to search for Aquaman on the spot where Atlantis has, apparently, disappeared into the past. With Batman and Kyle expressing strong misgivings, they go 3,000 years into the past, and then things turn sour.

Kelly divides the story into parallel narration of the past, in even-numbered issues, and present, in odd-numbered issues. While the Big Seven plus Plastic Man gradually realize they are in over their heads in 1000 BC, a new replacement team led by Nightwing faces existential threats in the present, eventually realizing that their problems and the disappearance of the main JLA are related.

The split narration makes it all a mystery for readers to unravel, too. We know the JLA is missing before we know they are dead, and we know they are dead before we know why. The invocation of time travel makes it a little hard to unravel even at the end, but the flow of events goes like this:

In 1000 BC, a malevolent Atlantean sorceress named Gamemnae unites forces with Rama Khan, the forerunner of the Central Asian mystic whom the JLA had encountered in the present. Rama Khan in 1000 BC has visions of a seven-headed destroyer from the future. This is interpreted as being the JLA, but will eventually prove to be Gamemnae herself. The two of them gather a team of rather formidable super-beings from around the world and prepare to lure the JLA into the past and ambush them. Rama Khan and other members of the team do so believing that the JLA really is evil. Gamemnae, however, does so to facilitate her conquest of the Earth and manipulates the rest of the "League of Ancients" into eliminating the JLA for her.

Aquaman and the citizens of modern day Atlantic travel into the past as a refuge from the "Our Worlds at War" crisis. Arthur the first to fall, trusting Gamemnae before he is turned into a disembodied water wraith trapped in a pool. Then she raises the underwater city back to the surface and leads the ancient Atlanteans in enslaving the modern-day Atlanteans. Two of the League of Ancients travel to the present to battle the JLA, which succeeds in luring them back to their time, and into a very well-prepared trap.

In the past, the JLA covertly investigate Atlantis, trying to avoid walking into a trap. However, when they think they understand the situation, they do not, and the League of Ancients has mutilated the Flash in a separate ambush before the other heroes make their appearance. Behind the scenes, however, the Native American magician Manitou found out that Batman was unharmed by a weapon that could not harm a just person, a discovery that begins to win Manitou over to the JLA side. This is too late, however, for the rest of the team, who go down hard in the face of Gamemnae's perfect battle plan. Martian Manhunter is lit afire, Plastic Man shredded, and Superman physically beaten to death. Kyle Rayner is the only one who wins his matchup, using his ring to save Atlanteans who seem to be his enemy; this is the act of mercy that definitively brings Manitou to the JLA side, and in a brilliantly ambiguous moment, Kyle allows Manitou to rip his heart from his chest as part of a magical spell that's necessary for the league's resurrection.

With the JLA dead, Gamemnae turns against her allies, absorbing them into her own body with magic, which gives her the sum of all of their powers, all but that of Manitou, who hides the spirits of the JLA in Kyle's heart for three thousand years.

In the present, Gamemnae, now hideously monstrous, absorbs Tempest and Zatanna before the new JLA shows up in force, and she begins to pick them off, too. President Lex Luthor nukes the battle site, appearing to kill the heroes even while Gamemnae is unaffected. And after that bleak point, everything turns around.

Kyle Rayner, who has survived as a combination ghost / power ring entity for three thousand years, uses his ring power to save the new JLA, who put Manitou's plan into action. Nightwing declares, "I don't know jack about magic, but I do know people. If Gamemnae does have a weakness, it's her strength. It makes her confident, and will blind her." That observation is the pivot in the confrontation. Nightwing's people skills, his ability to lead the replacement JLA, ultimately turns the tide against a villain so powerful that she is basically a god.

The six dead JLAers bond as ghosts on the spirit plane, with Batman playing the chess master, directing Manitou to animate them as skeletal forms that are immune to Gamemnae's magic, and as the undead JLA begin to fight the witch, Kelly unveils some of his best dialogue…

Gamemnae: What good are a handful of shades against the force of Earth's gods?!?
Batman: You're about to find out.
Firestorm (to Manitou): I didn't think it was possible… but you actually made Batman scarier.

Attacks by the undead Superman and Wonder Woman manipulate Gamemnae into using her magic to bring the Leaguers back to life, while Batman whispers, "The chess match has begun. Force the move."

Meanwhile, the replacement Justice League under Nightwing try to find a way to beat Gamemnae. Jason Blood sacrifices himself in order to liberate Zatanna from Gamemnae, the Atom makes himself too small for magic to affect him, and the demon Etrigan and a Kelly creation named Faith lead a delaying attack before Firestorm uses his matter-transmuting powers to connect the pool confining Aquaman with the sea, in effect giving him command over the entire ocean.

At this point, with the teams in the past and present both at impressive levels of power, they win a double battle against the sorceress, with Manitou's magic, Aquaman's power, and the resurrected JLA beating her into submission.

Kelly uses the extremely traumatic events in the story not as a gimmick to impress the reader but as a means of bringing out the personalities of the characters. And so, we're not asked to believe in Wally West's nobility because he is running fast, nor even because he is risking danger. We feel it when he's being held by his broken neck, legs amputated, at the mercy of a merciless enemy, and he tells his comrades, trying to save their lives at the cost of his, "Run. Please. Just run." J'onn's death transforms Plastic Man's zaniness into fury, driving him to suffocate Rama Khan and yell, "You like burning?!? How about the burning inside your lungs as they choke for air?!? LIKE THAT?!?!" Superman tries to reason with the League of Ancients even as they try to kill him. Firestorm and Zatanna are frustrated by not knowing how their powers can be used to beat Gamemnae, then figure it out at the last minute. We see Kyle Rayner grimly whisper, "Be alive, be alive" before falling silent when he sees that every one of his teammates is dead.

And it hurts. It hurts Kyle and it hurts us. Seeing the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash die is a shock, one that might be a cheap stunt if handled differently. Joe Kelly, yes, brings them back to life, cancelling out those deaths as he certainly had to do, but he uses the death-and-resurrection to achieve a grand narrative payoff in the rich characterization it allows.

Kelly gets it. Death in comics isn't a moment for the writer to step back, quit writing, and hope the penciller can imitate Michelangelo's Pietà. Death isn't a moment at all. It's a process, an event, a beginning rather than an ending. Kelly wrote a story around the JLA's death, but it's neither cheap nor lazy. It's a tangled story that started setting things up twelve issues before their deaths and kept unspooling the consequences for several issues longer. It's obvious that he worked not only smarter but also harder than writers usually do, and the result was what I consider probably the finest Justice League story ever written.

Rikdad's JLA Top 5 Stories (in chronological order)
Steve Englehart – No Man Escapes the Manhunters
Steve Englehart – The Origin of the Justice League Minus One
Grant Morrison – New World Order
Grant Morrison – Rock of Ages
Joe Kelly – Obsidian Age