Thursday, September 8, 2011

Action Comics #1

Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Yes, it's all there, and not by coincidence. The second Action Comics #1 visually-checks numerous elements of Superman lore without always name-checking them. And so, we get references to the Thirties in the form of the wife-beater who is thrown through a wall, the poor tenants who have their homes destroyed, and even (Neo) Nazis. We get a nod to the 1978 movie when Superman is asked if he can do something and he says he's never tried. From later eras, we see a photo of the deceased Kents, Jimmy Olsen holding a device that emits a zee zee zee, and of course, Lois Lane putting herself at risk and needing to be saved. Grant Morrison is aware of the elements he wanted to include, but unlike the Superman he portrays, he doesn't want to beat anyone over the head with them.

And conscious as he is of the little touches, he begins on page 1 by showing Superman overshoot his intended target. The seemingly countless elements of Superman lore that Morrison includes make it important to note which ones he avoids. This is not the Superman who is so used to holding back that he has forgotten what it is like to go all out. This Superman is going all out, frequently, and he's a bit of a bull in a china shop.

The china happens to be the powerful and the corrupt, who include Glen Glenmorgan, the Army of Sam Lane, and a Lex Luthor who is not a fugitive, but far from law-abiding, and whose use of electricity to stun, but not stop, Superman, channels the Ultra-Humanite from Action #13. Glenmorgan merges together in one person several powerful men whom Superman harassed in 1938's Action, including a magnate who is promoting arms in order to sell armaments and a mine owner who subjected his workers to unsafe conditions. He may also be based on Morgan Edge, as the owner of Galaxy, and the Earthly liaision of Intergang, and therefore of Darkseid. This, then plays on the Darkseid plot in JLA #1, and suggests that the matchup we saw in Final Crisis that nearly ended the last DC Universe is at the forefront as we begin this one.

Morrison excels in teasing future plots, and while the main action in Action #1 concerns Sam Lane and Luthor teaming to trap Superman (as in the recently out-of-continuity Superman Secret Origin) while the threat of Intergang looms, there is more. An object entering the solar system from afar is sure to be the focus of another plot. The diction resembles that used of the kryptonite asteroid from Jeph Loeb's Superman/Batman, but this could be just about any interplanetary friend or (more likely) foe. Clark Kent's landlady has a name that suggests the Fifth Dimension. The three friends -- two men and a beautiful blonde -- visiting Clark are almost certainly the Legion of Super Heroes. And as Clark now works for an editor named Taylor, he is probably at the Daily Star, which may go out of business if it is, as stars normally are, part of Galaxy. That would mean that by taking down Glenmorgan, Superman is taking down Clark Kent's boss. And the little man turning the tables is what Action #1 was all about. Both Action #1s.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Who Took The Super Out Of Superman?

Who Took the Super?

For much of his 73 years, Superman has been the leading character of the superhero genre. The first of the successful prototypical comic book superheroes, Superman has also been – at times – the best-selling, most popular, most powerful, and in a couple of different ways, the defining symbol of righteousness. At others times, however, he has been less than that, and by and large several of these quantities have trended downwards over the last half of the character's history. The purpose here is to ask, as the title of a 1976 story put it, "Who Took The Super out of Superman?"

To the greatest extent reasonable, I have collected data to back up these points. I read one page of Superman from each year and counted the number of panels and statements that, in my view, portrayed certain traits. Ideally, one would examine every panel of every issue and have multiple readers "coding" their impressions, but I believe that the sample I performed is still enough to show some obvious facts on the scale of decades. I also used sales data to the extent that I could find it. I think there are some interesting and underappreciated truths in this data, and enough information to deflate a few myths.

History of Superman

Over seven decades, the tone and structure of Superman stories have varied considerably; to some extent, he is a barometer indicating what sort of stories one may find in each era in American culture as a whole. Summarizing Superman's history in any detailed manner would be a massive undertaking. My goal here is simply to sketch out some defining trends in the kinds of stories that have been told. Some of these trends are specific to Superman. Others reflect trends in the comic book medium or American entertainment as a whole. Some changes have led generally in one direction, whereas others have cycled like fashion.


Superman's physical powers have generally increased over the years. This is probably best seen as a gradual many-step retcon; there was not an overarching account that Superman's powers were increasing over time. Certainly the physically weakest version of Superman came right at the beginning. A process of powering him up lasted about thirty years. Since then, his power levels were twice (1972, 1986) reduced for creative reasons, but there have been power-ups along the way. The cumulative trend from his creation to now is definitely upward, but the increases generally came in the first half of his history, with power levels being cyclical since then.


The tone of Superman stories has teetered between dark, noir themes and tales of childlike simplicity. This ran roughly parallel to similar changes in Hollywood. Current readers who think of the Fifties as "old" may not appreciate that cinema had a darker era before the mid-Thirties, much as Superman and Batman inhabited tougher worlds in their initial run which quickly mellowed as the Forties began. Both Hollywood and the comics had official "codes" to preside over family-friendly standards. Then, in the Sixties, as major cinema began to allow darker themes, the comics also ratcheted up their seriousness. Superman's facial expressions alone are unmistakable gauges of this. His foes of the Fifties seemed merely to confound and irritate him. As often as not, his menaces were nothing more than attempts by Lois Lane to discover his secret identity, or to marry him. In the Sixties as in the Thirties and early Forties, he once again grimly faced killers.


In his earliest stories, Superman had no confidante in the world, and other than his dead adopted parents, apparently never had. And yet, he never expressed any regret or remorse. From the Fifties through the Eighties, he had a large cast of friends at the Daily Planet, but he never trusted anyone with his secret identity unless that person was also a costumed crime fighter. Certain other superheroes, particularly Batman and Supergirl, became true confidantes of his. His romantic relationships became increasingly weird, as his cycles of denying and desiring Lois Lane actually hinged on the "rule" that the publishers could not change the mythos by marrying the pair, but within the comics, Superman always offered the reasoning that it would endanger her if they married – illogical given the public nature of their romance such as it was. With the Byrne reboot, Superman became significantly less odd. His closest superhero friendships were deleted but more than replaced with the return of his adoptive parents, the Kents. A "super family" of super powered friends arose, and Superman finally married Lois Lane, giving him a complete confidante.

Superman, Kal-El, and Clark

There has been a complex juggling of three or more personas within the character of Superman. Where there is one physical body, he has been, or subsumed, all of the following:

a) A human and specifically American who happens to be of alien origin.
b) A tough man with powers who pretends to be a frail weakling.
c) A tough man who is reasonably tough even as Clark Kent.
d) A Kryptonian who remembers his early childhood there and reveres the memories and traditions of his lost planet.

During the late Bronze Age, that last personality became, like his romantic relationship, increasingly strange, with Superman's life full of solitary rituals devoted to the memory of Krypton, rituals he rarely shared with his cousin. An undue number of thought balloons contained Superman thinking about his favorite topic – Superman, not infrequently thinking of himself in the third person as something that may have been himself or may have been his sense of his own public image. As Alan Moore had the man himself say in Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?, Bronze Age Superman was "too wrapped up in himself," which helped motivate the humanizing reboot that followed.

For the first thirty or so years after the Silver Age effectively merged Superman's world with that of other heroes, they called him "Superman." This has since changed, in many stories to "Kal" or "Clark" when no outsiders are around. The use of "Kal" seems to have peaked in the Eighties; Lois calls him Clark, but not infrequently, the ironically belittling "Smallville."

Rivals (in the Superman titles)

Superman's universe has became increasingly more populated with characters whose powers (or gadgets) rivaled his own. Initially, Superman was the only unreal element in his fictional world. That lasted for just one year, after which mad scientists and their creations began to challenge him. By and large, such additions to his fictional world "stick" and are less often subtracted, so his fictional world has continually become a more challenging environment as time has gone by.

In his own titles, Superman had the first of many encounters with characters who physically rival him, when he struggled to defeat the giants created by a mad scientist in Superman #8. At first, the idea of a foil that could match Superman was fresh and used rarely. In Action #47, Luthor used electricity to give himself strength almost equal to Superman's. In Superman #30, Mxyzptlk had powers that matched, but did not clearly exceed, Superman's. In the early Fifties, two stories introduced characters with Kryptonian-level powers. Within little more than a decade, they added Superman's pets, cousin, a clone of sorts, and we learned that two entire Kryptonian cities plus that society's equivalent of prison had survived the planet's destruction. Superman had a virtually intact Kryptonian society he belonged in. Meanwhile, in another line of stories, Superman had another set of peers with the Legion of Superheroes.

Ironically, the stronger Superman became, the more often he ran into rivals and foes that were stronger than him.  What was once meant to be a fresh and original twist – a foe stronger than Superman! – soon became a cliché. Initially, every Superman and Action cover showed Superman doing something dominant and amazing. Over the next several years this pattern was interrupted by covers showing Mxyzptlk, the Prankster, or Toyman making a dupe of Superman. Much later, in 1952, a cover promised "The shock of the year" – showing a character punching Superman backwards through a wall. That was perhaps a shock in 1952 (one which ended up not being real; Superman had staged a phony defeat), but by the late Sixties, nearly a quarter of all covers showed someone physically overpowering Superman, and many of the rest showed him in some other way humiliated or bested by the like of Atlas, Samson, Hercules, and Zha-Vam, a Captain Marvel surrogate. The original premise of Superman as an unbeatable winner had given way to the point of monotony as a super powered punching bag that was nearly always faced with some form of domination. Of course, this is how the cover pitched the comic, while the story inside would end with his eventual victory. But in the process, Superman went from a character that was dominant 100% of the time, to one who often spent almost every page of a story losing and only winning in the last page or two. When 1978 rolled around, Superman was punched, zapped, or blasted off his feet in no fewer than 11 of the year's dozen Superman issues.

And while the Byrne reboot cleared the slate of all of those rivals it quickly replaced them, and established that in the new Superman continuity, many characters and even rather conventional machines, were not only a match for Superman but also in many cases far stronger. He soon faced Apokoliptan villains and four Kryptonians of the Pocket Universe whose power far exceeded his. Doomsday was introduced as a brutish foe that could physically beat Superman to death. When Infinite Crisis reintroduced Superboy Prime, he was shown to be clearly stronger than our Superman, as though the "power down" that Superman underwent in the Eighties did not affect him.

Rivals (DC Universe)

While the pages of All Star Comics had several times in the Forties featured Superman in several cameos and just one actual illustrated adventure, the reality of those stories seemed absent from the heroes' solo features. Superman's universe effectively merged with that of Batman in 1952. The single biggest change came in the early Sixties when the Silver Age merged the fictional worlds of all of DC's major superheroes. But the advent of the Justice League, like the Justice Society before it, was not immediately mentioned in the characters' solo titles. Crossovers began in 1962 to establish the unified nature of the heroes' universes even in their own titles. This happened for Superman at a slow pace: A party for Superman in early 1964 had no Justice Leaguers besides Batman present. The other Justice Leaguers were first mentioned in a Superman title in July of that year. And the third and fourth appearances of characters from another "sandbox", besides Batman and Robin, on a cover of Superman came only in 1973, with the offbeat choices of Star Sapphire and Batgirl.

The Seventies, though, solidly asserted the relevance of the Justice League in Superman's world, and in so doing, gave major creative decisions a back door into Superman's titles that they had not previously had. Initially, Superman's physical supremacy over his allies was frequently implied and then vigorously asserted by Justice League #63, which opened the "versus" topic by stating that Superman could physically whip the entire Justice League (including Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman; Martian Manhunter was not present) at once. It went on to state neither Wonder Woman's lasso nor Green Lantern's ring alone could restrain Superman, but that in combination, they could. Soon, however, Green Lantern rings were getting the best of Superman, with guest Tomar-Re zapping Superman in JLA #80. Through the late Sixties and early Seventies, many new and existing DCU/JLA foes are shown outpunching Superman, and this now meant that Superman's rank among the strongest beings in his own universe was continuously lowered. Currently, DC comics have indicated that Superman is roughly on par (perhaps a bit stronger, perhaps a bit weaker) than a vast number of other leading characters. Whereas Superman began as easily the strongest being in his own universe, he is now matched or bested or tied by whole races, and may not be even the millionth-strongest being in his own universe.


One of the hallmarks of Superman is that he has certain stock weaknesses. This superhero trait began with the original Green Lantern's weakness to "non-metals", which he encountered unfortunately frequently. Over the years, Superman has acquired specific weaknesses to the effects of kryptonite (1943 on the radio; 1949 in comics), red sun (Action #262, 1960), and magic (Action #86, 1945). These weaknesses, like powerful rivals, play a precise role in the narrative, giving Superman an obstacle to overcome, which inherently introduces variety into the range of storylines. When this was not enough, red kryptonite was introduced, allowing an implausibly vast range of quirky plots. The importance of varying story templates is the focus of the next section.

Story Structure

The classic story formula – not just for Superman, but also for Western literature as a whole – is Situation, Complication, and Resolution. In Superman stories, this is most often realized as follows: The peace of Metropolis (or the Earth as a whole) is attacked by an enemy. Superman comes forth to end their evil ways. A common alternative is that the enemy is aware of Superman and begins by attacking him directly.

Superman stories tend to run several pages (once as few as twelve; now, over a hundred, in the form of multi-issue story arcs, is not uncommon). Superman essentially always wins, and he is defined, traditionally, as being capable of beating almost any enemy. Accordingly, some counter-complication has to happen to prevent Superman from winning on the first page.

Over the years, this has tended to consist of largely repetitive formulas which paradoxically have evolved over the years. A formula is used for years on end, then is discarded, and a new formula is used.

For the first year or two, Superman faced almost no setbacks of any kind. The stories, which were usually quite short, consisted of him asserting his will onto a situation. Sometimes, he set out to change a social situation, and (as in the first two stories in Superman #1) his extra-legal solution consisted of forcing someone to undergo an experience that would make the person become more moral.

That template of story was mixed in with, and gradually replaced by, low-level mysteries. Superman would fight his way through some henchmen in one or two encounters before finally cornering his enemy. The key condition that enabled this was that Superman, though virtually invincible, was not omniscient. It was never asserted, as it later would be, that he could use his various sensory powers plus speed (plus little concern about invading the privacy of many innocents in order to catch the guilty) to scan large areas to find anyone he was looking for.

In the Fifties, there was a rise in stories where Superman was troubled by some sort of personal difficulty, often involving his secret identity or Lois's quest to marry him. From the Sixties to the present, the most common complication is that a foe has a way of besting Superman, despite his great powers. Many of the ways that this can happen have already been listed, but there are others: Superman is vulnerable to mind-reading, hypnosis, teleportation, threats to his friends and innocent bystanders, and countless science fiction constructs that infect, overpower, shrink, enlarge, zap, trap, or otherwise transform him. By and large, the default Superman plot has transformed into one that begins by emphasizing the limits of his power, and then the interest in the story shifts to how he overcomes that limit. Sometimes, this takes the format of a "Flash facts" story – Superman exploits one science law to beat his foe, and the issue thus becomes a mini-science text. Sometimes, Superman comes up with a clever tactic, or gets help from an ally. Sometimes, he seems simply to try harder in his third encounter with the villain than he did in the first two, summoning up just barely enough will power to win.

All told, the various degradations in Superman's relative powers and the increasingly challenging situations that he has faced can be seen as a way of renewing the creativity of the serial, allowing stories other than the repetitive stories of his initial year. However, these plot devices have themselves often become repetitive. A year's worth of stories in which Superman always solves a problem on the second-to-last page is no more or less formulaic than a year's worth of stories in which he always wins on every page.

Character-Driven Stories

Superman began as a supremely self-confident individual, bold, egotistical, and prone to boast, even gloat. He, like DC's next three heroes, was also a vigilante, working as a fugitive and at times almost as an anarchist. He resembled Frank Miller's Batman more than he resembled most later versions of Superman. When the comic genre as a whole lightened in tone, Superman naturally lightened with it, but his good nature remained even when the world around him became more complex in the Sixties and onward. Superman became the "Big Blue Boy Scout", at home in one-page promotional spots where he lectured kids on good values. His level of confidence and ego has generally wavered between the Sixties and the present. While, in the Fifties, Superman had not much personality at all, he now has essentially no personality at all. While he of course remains a heroic figure, the details of his values vary sharply from writer to writer.

As the tone of Superman stories changed over the years, embedding a long "nice" period between his rougher first year and the darker Sixties, Superman's personality developed accordingly. In the Fifties, all DC superheroes had much the same personality: They were happy and optimistic when things went well, temporarily glum but still optimistic when things weren't going well; they were upset by setbacks, but never angry.

As the publisher aimed for older readers, and mindful of the competition from Marvel Comics, DC had their superheroes begin to grow up in the Sixties and Seventies. In this new era, one could say that the Flash, Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow definitely had different personalities from one another. One can say that the industry grew up, replacing one-dimensional characters with more realistic, more "literary" characters, the basis of richer stories, more deserving of mature readers' attention.

To an extent this is true, but the character development has gone only so far, and is probably no more than one finds in "young adult" literature, aimed at teens. While stories are sometimes quite complex, they tend to be complex in a science fiction way, not like classics of literature. And, fair enough – they are churned out and mass-produced. In most media, serials and classics are distinct. Moreover, the "hero" genre excludes some of the range of personality from the creative palette: if a set of characters have to be heroic, then there is quite a bit that they cannot be.

Superman's characterization in particular left him penned into some strange pigeonholes. His Bronze Age love life was a soap opera with Lois and Lana at the corners of a love triangle. After the Byrne reboot, Superman planted an unreciprocated kiss on Wonder Woman then creepily told her he'd had erotic dreams about her. It was as though the mightiest hero in the world had the emotional and romantic stature of a fifteen-year-old boy.

The most problematic nature of Superman's characterization is how it has ended up so malleable as to have no solid core. Superman is the property of no single writing team, and in any given decade dozens of writers get their shot at him.
While certain values – of course, his goodness, heroism, and resolve – are relatively fixed, Superman has not become a well-developed character because different writers manipulate his finer points to make their stories work, leaving Superman with no real core.

For example, 2002's eight-issue crossover story Ending Battle climaxed with Superman refusing to kill Manchester Black even when he believed that Black had brutally murdered Lois Lane. Less than two years later, that value was affirmed when Superman said of the prospect of willingly killing a foe, "Never for me. Superman doesn't kill. He has too much control. He'd never make that kind of mistake."

But a year later, the Sacrifice crossover contradicted this by showing a Superman who was willing to kill Brainiac and other powerful foes when confronted with the same illusion that Manchester Black had shown him. The second story, a lead-in to Infinite Crisis, changed this value of Superman's for the sake of making the plot go where it needed to go. Even in this regard, the handiwork was careless: In order to make Superman a dangerous menace in the hands of Max Lord, it was only necessary to make him perform ruthless aggression while believing that he was responding appropriately. Sacrifice could have achieved the same thing by having Superman fight (nonlethally) opponents like Darkseid and Doomsday. In fact, he could unwillingly dole out lethal force while thinking that he was dismantling a bridge, or moving a pile of gravel. The writers and editors of 2005's story could have kept Superman consistent with his 2002 characterization simply by telling the story in that way. What were sacrificed was not the life of a fictional character or the reputation of Wonder Woman, but the creative values of consistent characterization.

The irony is that second-tier characters like Green Arrow and Damian Wayne have been characterized considerably better while Superman's characterization has, in the words of Gertrude Stein, "no there there."

Who Took The Dollars Out of Superman?

A simple display, and at first glance a shocking one. Here are the monthly sales of the Superman title from 1946 until the present. There are some factors that make this display somewhat misleading, but before we discuss these, take in the gestalt of this graph. It is a bleak state of affairs. Issue-for-issue sales have dropped as much as 98% over the past 65 years. This is a complete collapse.
Now, before looking for decades' worth of scapegoats, we should note the factors that led to the greatest part of that decline. First and foremost, the comic medium has faced increasing competition from other forms of entertainment. In 1946, printed reading material faced no competition from television or video games. As time passed, more entertainment options (besides playing outside) have emerged, and the decline seen overall in Superman sales can be seen in virtually any single entertainment channel when viewed over a run of decades.

In addition, the number of Superman titles per year has fluctuated. The frequency of publication for Action and Superman has varied, the number of other solo titles and titles containing Superman features has varied, and his team-up titles have also varied.

That said, the tale is still profoundly negative when we allow for the uncontrollable factors. If we compare Superman sales to a baseline comprised of four other DC titles (JLA, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Flash), we see a pronounced drop in stature as the years have gone by. In the Sixties, Superman's two titles, in terms of monthly per-titles sales, had 267% the sales of that baseline group. In the period from 2000-2008, Superman's fell to 102% of that baseline. Things have gotten far worse in the past three years, with Superman often absent from his own titles. From 2009 to 2011 Superman is down to 66% of the baseline.

Lest one believes that this collapse was somehow inevitable, or attributes this relative decline to the resurgence of JLA and Green Lantern, we can use Batman as a comparison. While Batman sales, relative to those four baseline titles, plunged from the Sixties to 1980 (in large part due to the loss of the bump that Batman comics experiences when the television show aired from 1966-1968), they subsequently rose, and have remained well above the baseline.

In a nutshell, one or many adverse factors have impacted Superman's popularity between 1980 and the mid-Nineties; in the same time frame, Batman's popularity surged, and then leveled off.

Given all of the ways in which Superman has trended over the years, largely by creative choice downward, which ones track the relative decline in sales?

Sheer physical power? No. Though I do not have data to track this, by all accounts Superman's sales did well for a decade after the Byrne reboot depowered him. Moreover, Superman's powers have been boosted over most of the last fifteen years, but his sales have dropped while his raw physical power has increased. Likewise, the de-emphasis of "Kal-El" and even the Superman persona relative to that of Clark Kent does not track the sales data. The most emphatic statement that the character really is Clark, not a Kryptonian superhero, came in Man of Steel #6 in 1986. The major sales collapse has come more recently.

Is it the tone of the stories? Superman's relationships? No – the darkest eras of Superman stories have sold just fine, and so have the lightest in tone. Bringing the Kents back to life did not hurt Superman sales. It is possible that his marriage to Lois Lane has been a contributing factor in decreasing interest, but that event happened in one issue, long ago, and Superman's sales have fluctuated both up and down since that time; if it has hurt interest by making Superman less macho, there's no real way to test that, and clearly the biggest fall in Superman sales happened well after the marriage.

Is it the increasing extent to which Superman has lost his initial encounters with enemies who match his power? Possibly. While Superman had glorious sales when this rarity became a cliché in the Sixties, it is interesting to track how consistently there has been an increase in the incidence of Superman being weaker when he first encounters an opponent. Taking as a sample the first page where Superman goes into action for one issue of Superman for each year, I coded his physical and personality traits as displayed in that page, counting the number of panels showing him at a physical advantage, or disadvantage, the number of panels in which he expresses confidence versus doubt or confusion, and so on. Then Superman's physical and personality toughness can be calculated by the number of "tough" traits shown versus the overall number of tough and weak traits. The following graph (click to enlarge) shows how those have tracked over the eras of Superman's history.

Some items of note: Superman was physically most dominant in the Fifties, with his battle outcomes declining sharply as his foes grew stronger in the following decades. Both his physical and personality dominance escalated in the Byrne era, despite his literal power-down: The self-doubt of the late Bronze Age was removed and replaced with a touch of farm boy disorientation but a larger helping of determination and confidence. And while Superman's personality was at a low in the late Nineties, his confidence rebounded in the 2000s.

However, one quantity that has steadily declined is the number of fights that begin with Superman taking a beating, with his victories just as inevitable by story's end, but those victories come later. In part, this is a reflection of stories that span multiple issues. In the 2000s as in the Fifties, Superman must struggle in the "Complication" phase of the story, but now that lasts much longer, potentially more than one issue. Page per page, Superman spends more time losing than he used to.

In my view, the greatest source of Superman's decline, though there are many to point to, has come from his relative decline in the DC Universe as a whole. His absolute power-down in the Eighties still left him more physically powerful than during the early years of the era of his uncontested dominance from 1938-1963. But as the post-Crisis era has gone on, Superman has encountered more and more situations where he is physically outclassed by recurring characters.

Consider Superman's first appearance in each JSA/JLA team series. In his only JSA adventure, he won an easy victory. In his first JLA action in 1960, he arrived at the end to mop up. In his first JLA action in 1997, he was immediately taken prisoner, and remained a captive while Batman began defeating the enemy.

Consider Superman's appearance in a 1977 issue of Flash. The speedster, running from a powerful energy fist, ran to Metropolis and led the fist into the back of Clark Kent's head, where it splattered apart. Superman's appearance in Flash Rebirth showed Barry Allen insulting Superman as he left the Man of Steel in his dust.

Consider Superman's easy dominance over his JLA teammates in 1963, and consider Captain Marvel decking him with a sucker punch in 1997.

Consider Superman's 1977 appearance in Batman, where his powers allowed him to laugh his way through a faked physical defeat while wearing the Batman costume with Superman's appearance in later Batman stories such as Hush and Frank Miller's Dark Knight stories where Batman manages to use his tools to beat up Superman.

Consider Superman mopping up a whole crew of White Martians in 1977's JLA #144 and his helpless captivity by White Martians in 2001's JLA #57 as well as the observation by J'onn J'onzz in 2006 that Superman is perhaps not even a rival to the Martian Manhunter.

Consider Elseworlds where Superman is tortured and killed by Gog, or left by Lois Lane for being pathetic and self-pitying when he loses his powers.

Heat flows from a warm body to a cold body. And DC writers, when they have another character's success to call their own, routinely use Superman as a punching bag to demonstrate that the other character is worthy of esteem. In many cases, as with Martian Manhunter, whatever is lost in Superman's stature is certainly not being made up for with the minor character's sales.

The single most important creative decision by DC is the one responsible for Superman's sales drop since 1980 and Batman's surge during that same time. In very simple terms, DC decided to make Batman stronger, and lo, Batman rose in stature. They decided to make Superman weaker, and lo, he sank in stature. While many separate stories oversaw this change over a span of years, the signature moment in that reversal of fortune came with Batman's eloquent dismantling of his erstwhile ally in The Dark Knight Returns. That moment alone, however, was not the unraveling of Superman's whole franchise, which still had a vibrant decade to come. But it was an inspiration to other writers who sought to steal heat from a warm body. Superman lost fights in the Sixties, to his own villains, but he always managed to prevail in the rematch. As he lost to other heroes, or saw his stature in the DCU otherwise diminished, that has been for keeps.

There was a time when Superman's name appeared on the company logo: "DC", "National", and "Superman" shared the billing. There was no question that he was the company's flagship character, distinctly above Batman, and incomparably above any other series. Since then, particularly in the past 15 years, Superman has been used like a bank, with creators making withdrawals from Superman and investing them in other characters. Sometimes, as with Batman, the loans pay back. Sometimes, as with the Martian Manhunter, the loans disappear. These unrepaid loans have spent Superman down out of flagship status, still strong in merchandising, but in comic sales, distinctly trailing Batman and Justice League, of late trailing Green Lantern, perhaps on trend to sink below the Flash. And that is how it stands coming into September 2011, with a new Superman #1 and a new Action #1 going on sale. It is up to the creators to decide whether there will be a #1 inside those issues or only on the covers.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Avengers Trailer

This week, a copy of the trailer for the upcoming Avengers movie was leaked to the web. Besides general issues of quality, the trailer is hard to follow for content as it has a frantic series of cuts between action clips. As I did with the Dark Knight Rises trailer earlier this week, I have tried to make things easier (if less fun) to watch. I have re-cropped, brightened, edited, and finally slowed down the clip. This is not as thrilling as the original trailer, but it lets fans get a better peak at what they'll finally see on the big screen.

I am not particularly knowledgable regarding the comic or film franchises, but I trust that others can fill in the blanks. There is nothing here that couldn't be seen by pausing the cruder copies, but I think it's a little easier to see in this form.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dark Knight Rises Trailer

A year from now, director/producer Christopher Nolan's third Batman film will bring the highly-successful series to a conclusion. It is clear from his comments that "conclusion" is a more appropriate word than "end." For creative reasons -- certainly not lack of audience response -- the third film marks Nolan's intended conclusion, with the legend being given an appropriate ending. As Nolan has earlier said:

"Without getting into specifics, the key thing that makes the third film a great possibility for us is that we want to finish our story. And in viewing it as the finishing of a story rather than infinitely blowing up the balloon and expanding the story... I'm very excited about the end of the film, the conclusion, and what we've done with the characters. My brother has come up with some pretty exciting stuff. Unlike the comics, these things don't go on forever in film and viewing it as a story with an end is useful. Viewing it as an ending, that sets you very much on the right track about the appropriate conclusion and the essence of what tale we're telling. And it hearkens back to that priority of trying to find the reality in these fantastic stories."

The same information is indicated by three taglines spread throughout the recently released trailer:


The scenes in the trailer speak in particular to that last word... the trailer begins with the voice of Liam Neeson (portraying R'as al-Ghul) delivering the same soliloquy heard in the trailer for first Nolan Batman film, Batman Begins. In those lines, he tells a younger Bruce Wayne (at the time, al-Ghul's protege) that he can make himself into something more than a man -- a legend.

The whole business of epics, legends, journeys, and ends points to something bigger and more traditional than what "epic" has come to mean lately. Nolan is declaring here that he intends to make his series of three films a finite account of Batman's career with a beginning, middle, and end. This stands in contrast to earlier media. Batman has usually been presented as a serial, with the next comic book, news strip, or television episode guaranteed to begin more or less where the last one ended, leaving the status quo fundamentally unchanged when each episode ends.

The business, however, of ending the Batman story is not a new proposition. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which obviously lent its name nearly verbatim to this new film, rocked the comic book world for, among other reasons, depicting a late-career Batman who returns from retirement to a more decisive conclusion. While this was not completely original, it was much more vivid and mature than earlier stories. The momentous nature of what Miller had done was received with admiration by star comic book writer Alan Moore, who in proposing a never-published story of his own, commented:

"one of the things that prevents superhero stories from ever attaining the status of true modern myths or legends is that they are open ended. An essential quality of a legend is that the events in it are clearly defined in time... in order to meet the commercial demands of a continuing series, they can never have a resolution. Indeed, they find it difficult to embrace any of the changes in life that the passage of time brings about for these very same reasons, making them finally less than fully human as well as falling far short of true myth... providing a fitting and affective capstone to the Batman legend... makes it just that... a legend rather than an endlessly meandering continuity."

So that is what Nolan is doing. How will he go about it? It is not clear how much time or how many events elapse between the end of the last film, the monumentally successful The Dark Knight, and the action in this film (or, for that matter, this trailer). We see Commissioner Gordon badly ailing, probably from injuries suffered in the line of duty, speaking, it seems to a Bruce Wayne whose true identity Gordon knows. Perhaps Gordon's injuries are owing to the absence of Batman in the fields of urban combat. Perhaps he was injured specifically to bait Batman and draw him out.

That last interpretation works with the comic book backstory of the villain shown in this clip, the villain Bane who literally and figuratively "broke" Batman in the 1993-1994 story called Knightfall. Bane first exhausted Batman by forcing him to fight many smaller battles first, then took the weary caped crusader down in single combat. The trailer illustrates a fight between Batman and Bane when the exhaustion has already taken place. Note the body language of Batman in this clip, slowed down four times from the original:

In the first frame, Batman's body is angled oddly to our left. Then he teeters his way back to the vertical, bouncing as though he is trying to summon what is left of his last reserves of energy. His mouth is open, indicating that he is breathing hard. He is perhaps on a nonstable surface -- despite the low ceiling and confining spaces, the ropes to the sides also sway as the two men move. A chant in Bane's native Spanish seems to beg Bane to kill Batman:"Matalo, matalo, Bane, Bane." It should also be noted that a third figure appears in the distance, and it seems as though he is filming the fight, no doubt for Bane to use the film to disgrace his physically beaten foe, adding literally insult to injury. We can be sure that Batman will fall, and then rise.

It is unclear if the conversation we see between Gordon and Wayne takes place before or after Bane has taken Batman down -- probably after. The "pep talk" quality of the speech is unmistakably like that between R'as and Wayne in the first movie and trailer and between Alfred and Wayne in the Dark Knight trailer.

Gordon: We were in this together and then you were gone. And now this evil rising. The Batman must come back.
Wayne: But if he doesn't exist anymore...
Gordon: He must, he must.

All of these pep talks go to the first movie's theme, perhaps far too simple, that Batman's story is at its core the lesson, "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up." It also suggests countless other stories before The Dark Knight Returns in which a warrior who has left the battle rejoins it to avenge a fallen friend. In a story no less epic than the Iliad, Achilles returns to the battles to avenge the death of Patroclus, and Achilles sets off at once to kill the very same foe who killed his friend. In the end, all three are dead.

If Nolan really has the power to kill the franchise, he might have the power to kill Batman in the final minutes of the film, giving the hero the sort of Robin Hood ending that Moore described earlier, and that Neil Gaiman scripted in a recent comic book story which related the story of Batman's death. Then again, unlike Patroclus, Gordon seems to survive his victimization. If Patroclus lives in this retelling of Western Civilization's first great epic, then perhaps Achilles does too.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Boy Wonder (5 of 5): The Second Workout

Special workout. Birthday workout. If this is my birthday. Or if yesterday was. The days run together. Light running, light lifting, too many sit-ups, not too many push-ups. And the surprise.

The grass is dewy. The sky is pale. The stars are gone, but I can still see Venus. It's important that to know that it's Venus, because one day on a rooftop, maybe, I'll see it and know which way's southeast, and maybe I'll know that there's a fire escape on the south side of the building, and in the middle of a tough fight, maybe, I'll jump south, and that knowledge will have saved my life. Take all those maybes, multiply them, and you get something almost zero. And then you add up all of the similarly unlikely situations, and you get something much bigger than zero. Add up all the improbabilities and you get Batman.

Bruce and Dick again, workout suits, stupidly expensive, except they make sure that we don't blister or chafe, and yes, it's all part of his master perfect vision. Bruce takes two cards out of a deck and hands me the deck. He holds up the cards. Ace of diamonds and ace of spades. I have no idea what this is about. Then he takes off running towards the wooden table in the grass, jumps over it, twists in two axes, and lands running backwards. The cards are standing on the table, leaning against one another. I didn't even see him do it. He jogs back with a toothless grin. "Take two cards," he tells me, then takes the deck from me.

"This is my surprise?"
He nods.
Insanely stressful.

I make the goofiest magician face I can and hold up the two cards, then run at the table. I know how to get my steps, so the launch foot is just the right distance from the table, and that gives me all of a quarter second to figure out how to do the totally impossible thing with the cards. I get the jump right, don't even touch the table, then my body creates a veritable hurricane that leaves all four cards lying flat. One of them slides off the table altogether. I see this as I run backwards. I got the jump and the landing perfect. So my grade is an… F. Bruce is loving this.

"Failure is my passion," I tell him. He hands me the deck. Without cards, he runs at the table, and jumps over. The aces are standing again, leaning against one another.

"You're very cool," I tell him. I take two more cards, make the goofy face, show him the cards, and run at the table again. As I fly over the tabletop, I screw up one card, but for a moment the one is on edge alone. Then it falls.  But the aces stay up. Bruce takes two new cards, shows them, runs, and leaves this pair standing. I take two, goofy face, run, and knock one of his pairs over. Mine fall. This goes on for a long time, no talking, not even me. Maybe the end of the deck is a deadline. I'll never know, because after eighteen tries, I get a pair to stay up. Sunlight has lit the tree tops, and when I get back to Bruce, he gives me a clasping high five and musses my hair. A dazzling orange light makes its first appearance at the horizon.

"When are you ever going to have to do that?"
"Whenever it is, you'll be there with me."
"What's the highest point in Sweden?"
"Who was born on July 20?"
"Gregor Mendel. Edmund Hillary."
I shake my head, disgusted.
"I'm thinking of a number between one and ten."
"Two," he says. I turn around and throw my hands up. Because it's funny to do that. But it was two.
I turn back.
"The cards?"
I knew that was coming. I name them in the order that they were drawn.
"You want to see a movie?"

This is as relaxing as training gets, to start The Godfather at 5:30 am, when we haven't slept all night. Bruce talks the whole time, pausing it to critique everything. Not the dialogue or the cinematography, but the tactics, the strategy, how everyone could do everything better. And he's the maestro. He compares the movie to the book, to other movies, to hostage crises and commando attacks. To lots of situations that he's been in. We're watching a movie, but it's still the mission, it's still instruction. And I love it. And he loves it.

If a fight walked into the room, he'd jump on it like a lion. His limbs look so powerful, resting but ready. His arms are propped behind him on the sofa, his legs crossed on the ottoman. I make my posture more like his. I'm not embarrassed to copy him. He's always right. He sits like Batman, eats like Batman, breathes like Batman, blinks like Batman. I'll copy it all.

I'm starting to nod off, delirious. I catch myself wondering if he'll notice. I must be sleepy to think for a second that he wouldn't. But it's OK. I don't say 'no' to anything that he suggests, and he doesn't judge my shortcomings. I have to nod and drift for a little bit.

In the resulting half-dream, a third person is there with us. I look over at the sofa, and there in his circus costume, it's my dad. John Grayson, smiling at me. I want him to see me like this. Not a skinny kid, not his little boy. But his, always. He carried me to bed once when I was up too late and fell asleep watching TV. I look at the TV. and know that I have made a tragic mistake in looking away, that that was the last time I will ever see him. I should have sat by him, hugged him, but now it's too late. I know that when I look back he won't be there anymore. I look back and he's not – Bruce is right where I saw Dad. If Dad can hear this, I have to say it out loud.

"He's got me."

Bruce looks at me and smiles. Does he know I said that to Dad? How could he possibly know? – the world's greatest detective.

Without knowing when, I wake up, and Bruce is at it again, or still, Mount Rushmore with muscles, old man eyes, half-smile, talking ceaselessly, what every gunman and victim and gangster did wrong. Bruce talking, talking, wise and powerful, an Greek god in his living room. Facts, wisdom, the secrets of life and death. All of this stuff will stick in my memory. After a century, the movie ends. Thirty hours awake. I'm free to go. Bruce, maybe he'll watch another movie, study new research in epidemiology, push avalanches back uphill.

I stand. I owe something.

"Bruce, the girl?" He looks.
I shake my head. "There was no way." I point at him.
He nods. Very slightly. Batman and Robin.

I'm back at the mirror where I met Robin last night, looking to see if my eyes are tired, like his, but they're not. At the door, Alfred's tap. The final act.

"Master Dick. According to the clock, your birthday has passed, but if we could pretend that it were still yesterday, I can still think myself a gentleman." He holds out the present.

"It's still yesterday. Or tomorrow. I think it's tomorrow." Dense, rectangular, Bruce would want me to know what it was before I opened it. But this is Alfie. It's a framed photo. Impossible to guess what it shows. Nobody could know what's in the photo. Maybe Bruce. Probably. The paper comes off. Heavy glass. I flip it over.

It's a boy, mop of brown hair, holding up a gold watch for the camera. Smiling like the morning sun. Joyous, proud, ecstatic. Nine years old? The watch must be a gift, probably birthday, Alfred being thematic. The boy loves whoever was holding the camera. That's all I've got. Who is this kid?

"That's a cheery boy."
"That was my life. The life of the Manor. Some sixteen years and a month."
Bruce. Little Bruce. Happy little Bruce.

"Now we talk about the past?"
"It pains me. He is teaching you how to read clues; it is written all over him for you to read." I'm blank. "How did he go through these trials that you are going through?" I nod. "Poorly. Tragically."
"I'm ahead of where he was at my age?" Alfie manners. "No way."
He stares, quiet, thinking.
"Death struck twice. A double funeral. The boy heals. A boy should. You did. He did not." Alfie's talking. Let it come. "You want to know how he learned his skills. How fast, how well, how young. How you compare. Master Richard, watching him mature was agony."
"Why?" He's suddenly near tears. He points to the photo.
"Because I love that boy! He was my charge, my light. And I lost him for Batman. That terrible phone call, the news about Thomas and Martha. And he never came home. The weekend wailing and pounding his fists," shaking his head, "it turned into something still more devoid of hope." But.
"He used it. He became Batman."
"He built a black coffin and crawled inside. And he named it Batman. And another façade 'Bruce Wayne', the gay to the grim. But never again my…" He wants to say "boy" but he can't. "Rope" yesterday. "All those years of training. Do you think I ever delighted in how well Batman fingerprints or performs jiu jitsu? I wanted him to come back. And every day that he did not has been my death."
Nothing to say.
"He was all dead eyes. A decade. More. When he actually started going out as Batman, it was the end of my hope. The training, at least it was wholesome. But going out every night, to them, the worst, making himself strong, that nothing might ever really touch him. I'd bring his meals and change his sheets, but his soul was out there. Lost in that sewer. I prayed for him. I wanted my smiling boy back. And then you came."
"I'm a smiling boy."
"Master Richard, I had a brief fantasy once, no more than a minute, that I might join him out there, sit in the car perhaps, be a spark of – perhaps not salvation but light." Head shake. "His mission is in places I cannot go. Vaulting over walls, scaling fences, jumping. I cannot leap from rooftop to rooftop." Very long pause. "But you can."
"I can leap. I can't, apparently, be help beat up one of six bad guys, but I can leap."
"Master Richard, did you see any indication that he has want of more weaponry, that he can't parcel out enough violence?"
"He's like a nuke."
"He needs Robin. During all those grim years of anguish, of course I wanted to dispense my wisdom and tell him that he had chosen poorly. But for so many reasons it is not my place to tell a boy who saw both parents die how he should react. I cannot tell him that. You showed him. You're stronger. And he follows. He knew that when he chose your colors. Your arrival in our lives gave him a new outlook on self-preservation. That's when he conjured up the mantra of five nines. He is on your back."
I point to the photo. "He looked just like that tonight, for a second. After he decked Two Face."
"And where was he looking?"
I don't want to take credit for it, to be that for him. For him.
"Well, slow and clumsy and useless out there, I'm glad I did something."
"You brought back the dead."

I look at my feet and Alfred's gone. He's gone so I can let it go, cry for the third time today. But I'm too tired. I speak to the air again. "See you tomorrow, Bruce."
And I lie down to rest on Napoleon's bed.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Boy Wonder (4 of 5): The Second Girl

I don't feel like the safest person in the world anymore. Not to point fingers, but the masked man doing 175 mph in a 35 zone is the main reason. I don't know why we're going five times the posted speed, but I suspect that it's pretty important. I don't ask because I neither have nor want his undivided attention. Let's keep Batman's eyes on the road.

When you slow from 175 down to 65, it's brutal. It feels like hitting a brick wall. Bruce has shown me film of astronaut training, a guy's cheeks pulled way back by g-forces in a centrifuge. That's the sort of thing that's happening here when we take a turn. I'm trying to do math in my head, kinetic energy varying with v-squared, just because it's more calming than what's going on with the jerking and the turning and the squealing. Even Batman's head is leaning way forward when we slow down. There are eight monitors on the dashboard, and he uses one hand to change views while steering with the other one. And it's terrifying that he does that. Has he suddenly gone rogue? Is his driving going to kill both of us in the next few seconds? I think about training, how he does everything perfectly. Whatever this is, he has to be able to do it without killing us. He always knows what he's doing. When we're done rocketing around the turn, we accelerate again, from 65 up to, yes, 175, and when nothing else can reassure me, I try squaring 175 in my head to find our kinetic energy, and then Batman interrupts me mid-math by grunting out a two-word explanation, "Girl killer."

When the acceleration is done, it's a more comfortable ride. We're on the expressway, doing 185. We're obviously going after the killer. Is Batman risking his own life and mine to get the guy? A calculated risk, ends justify the means? Five nines out the window? I'm in Batman's video game now. Where is this going?

We switch lanes to go around a car, and my head snaps to the right, then back to the left. We speed up some more; I see the number 195. Then Batman has time to think, so he talks, two words at a time, this chase straining even his mental abilities. The girl killer has a girl, who's probably in his car. The parents reported a license plate number, and Batman's camera network is tracking the plate as it moves through his private checkpoints. Batman sees on those monitors where the car is and where it's going, but if it leaves the grid onto a side street, we will lose it. And then the guy will have hours before we find him again. The sicko's M.O. has him raping and killing the girl during those hours. So I shut my eyes and think, "Go, Batman. Do this."

Unfortunately, we leave the expressway, another brick wall of deceleration, 195 down to 75. I hate the "squared" in the kinetic energy equation. Why does it have to be there? We squiggle side to side with incredible ferocity, then I'm slammed against my door and we accelerate again. I realize that the girl killer doesn't know that we're coming for him. He's driving past cameras that are giving us his position, but he has no idea that the cameras are there, or that Batman's watching him, and bearing down on him. We are going to catch him fast. Very fast. Less than two minutes. I don't know about Batman, or the girl killer, but for me it feels like two days. Probably longer for the girl, who thinks she is going to die, and is right to think that.

The morning Bruce told me about the second victim's grave, what the grave told him about what happened. The week before, he told me about the first victim's grave, and it was bad enough. But the second one was worse, which means this psycho is getting worse, and it's maybe better that the world had never existed than for this guy to get to do to the girl what he wants to do. He's evil in human form. A reptile. Just awful. And if he gets off the camera grid, he gets to do it. So go, Batman, go.

I grab the armrests and ask myself if I can keep from throwing up. I can't feel if my stomach is still down there. The buildings lining the street are a blur as we throttle down mercifully empty city streets. The pulse in my neck is getting in about two beats per block. I figure out what all of the monitors on the dash are for. Using his network of cameras, he sees the view down each side street, scrolling three intersections ahead so that he knows that the side streets ahead have no cars in our path. If he were to see an imminent collision, he'd have a few seconds to slam on the brakes. Which I hope does not happen. Or speed up, which I really, really hope does not happen. He also has to worry about the reactions of terrified drivers going with or against us, and I can't even guess what we'd do if someone freaked out and did the wrong thing.

When did Batman first think that this was a thing he might have to do? How did he practice? If this is what a Batman has to be able to do, then I'll never be Batman, at least not a Batman as good as this. I imagine future defeats, where Dick Batman will let some girl die because I'm not as good as Bruce Batman. Love the hard part. Is knowing that someone will die because of me the hard part I have to love?

Math is more comforting, until I discover the terrifying fact that we are going through red lights at over one quarter the speed of sound. I look at how Batman is processing those eight monitors and the view out the windshield, and it occurs to me that this is the hardest thing I've seen him do. This isn't a horror show. It's a miracle, a man driving at airplane speed to change the rule that says the killer with the girl in his car is going to get away. But this girl has Bruce Batman coming for her. He says, in a clipped tone, "Call the police." I grab the red phone, the direct line, and forget about the blur and vibrations. A man's voice answers, and I say, "This is Batman and Robin." I hear the brakes squeal as I wonder if that means that we've closed on our destination. Somehow Batman reads my mind and nods. I continue, "We are pursuing a criminal near the twenty-eight hundred block of Drake Expressway. Please send a patrol car for pickup." Did I say that right? I see a car ahead in our lane. The car we're chasing. The voice on the phone says, "Yes, sir," and hangs up. Batman flicks off the headlights and the brakes bite into our crazy airplane speed, smoking tires burning up the asphalt. Batman's like Neil Armstrong now, taking us to the lunar landing. This rocketship will soon be a car, a parked one, as the girl killer drives without knowing what's about to happen, and in that respect, I'm right with him. What will Batman do – flash gumball lights and ask the sociopath to pull over? Whatever Batman's plan is, I'll see it as it happens.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that we've already won. Catching the car before it went off-grid was the hard part (love the hard part). What could go wrong now – that Batman would lose the fight? It's over. The girl will live. But before it's actually over, the ride has to end, and we're still doing seventy, overtaking the psychopath, who only now senses that something's wrong, besides his twisted brain, as we pass him on the left. Then the braking gets very hard, and Batman steers into the other car's path, jamming my door (which is a sturdy door, I'm sure) against the left bumper of our prey, forcing it into a wild, sparks-flying contact with the guard rail on its other side. Whatever the girl killer is doing, the Batmobile's brakes are shutting down his intentions, and then with a lurch, we come to a total stop. My door and the guard rail have pinned the car in place as the girl killer opens his door, steps up and runs over his door and our hood, dreaming that he's going to get away on foot.

My perception is broken. I haven't even noticed Batman moving until I see him through the windshield, coming at the girl killer, who stops running (which is futile) and turns to face Batman (which is more futile). Batman could put this guy in the hospital by throwing an orange at him. The purple streetlamp lighting makes both of them look crazy, out of nightmares. But the girl killer didn't expect this, didn't prepare for it, while Batman, who did the nerve-jarring driving that left me shaken, is out there calm as always. And I know from past lectures what he's going to do and why. He's not furiously angry, at least, he's not going to wreck the guy's body out of anger. He'll wreck the guy's body because it will be a lesson to everyone who meets him in prison. It will intimidate them. The girl killer is about to become Batman's advertising, and it begins with this moment of intimidation, the inevitability that the girl killer can sense. The psychopath is short, dark-haired, hunched and baring his teeth. He's an evil, wicked animal, no challenge whatsoever for Batman, who is light on his feet, moving like a boxer, a matador, signaling "Come here" with eight fingertips, then moving in, bringing the five-mile chase down to one arm length, and then it slams into the girl killer like a runaway truck. Batman's right hook lifts the girl killer into the air. It doesn't look like the sort of blow that a human could deliver or the sort of blow that a human could survive. Batman gets in two more limb-breaking shots while the girl killer is airborne, and there's a sense of justice, a memory of the two dead girls, that makes my lips tremble and smile, and I feel compelled to say when the girl killer's short flight has ended on the pavement, "Get up." I'm almost crying, so glad that Batman can't see or hear me. "Get up and fight Batman." I wish he would, but he can't. He won't be standing up now or anytime soon.

For a few seconds I stare at the crumpled heap that has just had justice knocked into it. I wonder about the girl, and look to my right. She's in his arms, Batman's arms. He has her, in the same arms that held me this morning. It's going to be all right for her. She knows that now. He has her, like he has me, and the whole city, and I make a silent declaration that anyone who criticizes this man has to be told. Anyone who calls him a vigilante has to know what he just did, has to know that when a girl is in the girl killer's car, there isn't a single idea in the world that makes more sense than Batman. The world and all its rules had her tortured, dead, and buried, but now she's alive and all right, and if this were the only thing Batman ever accomplished, then his every action was worth it.

He's saying something to her, softly, the right thing, like he told me, "You can't bring back the dead." Whatever he's saying has to be right. I open the back passenger door for her, and he leads her inside. I shut the door and follow Batman's bull-horns gesture to the other seat, beside her. Batman's standing in the red and blue flashes of police cars, talking to the paramedics and the ambulance driver, and handing a digital camera full of evidence to the cops. The girl is much calmer than she should be. Whatever Batman said to her must have been perfect. And instead of being alone in the back seat of a scary superhero's car, she's sitting next to me, a minor hero, her age, which is hopefully comforting. She looks very tired, with smiling eyes half closed.

"Who are you?"
"Hi, Robin. I'm Emily."
"You're all right, Emily." She nuzzles into her seat.

The car's moving again. Batman's taking her home. Nobody says anything until we're in the East End, and I'm opening her car door. "Good bye, Robin." Her parents are on the lawn, running to her, deliriously happy. Her mother thanks Batman. I take my usual seat. Before the car starts moving, I say the things I wanted to say before the girl got into the car.

He looks at me.
"There was no way. There was no way she was getting out of that."
He looks through the windshield.
"She's OK. She's with her parents."
"Two aren't." Pure oxygen. Burning him up.

When we're moving, he picks up the phone and becomes someone else.

"Hi, Marty. Marty? It's Bruce Wayne. I know. I know! I just got a call, Marty, and it woke me up. Police. Of course. Hey, I wasn't alone, you know. Listen up, Marty. The police have a guy, the guy's who's been killing girls. Yeah. Name's Raul Castor. I want Danzig to help the D.A. nail this case shut. Starting at eight a.m., he should know right now, him and his team. Saturday, Monday, whatever, get them on it by sun-up. Call it pro bono, it'll be amazing P.R. It's pro-Wayne. One point six if he walks. Three point two with conviction. Yeah, that's wake up at five a.m. money, isn't it? Ha. Make the call and then get back to sleep, Marty. You're the best. I want you in my box at the NBA Finals. Bring sixteen. Write it down so you remember when you wake up! Ha, I bet. Make the call."

"Three point two. Million?"
"I have a lot more money than time."
"Who's Danzig?"
"Larry Danzig. He's the ace of spades."
"He could pin the Kennedy assassination on Castor?"
Bruce laughs. "He could pin the Lincoln assassination on Castor."

Some time goes by. It's getting light out.

"I've got a surprise for you when we get home."

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Boy Wonder (3 of 5): Two Face

Van Halen, covering a classic. Robin costume: boots, tunic, cape, gloves, and mask. Eddie Van Halen lets it rip and I'm stretching, crouching, punching the air. Mouthing along to the mirror, watching Robin mouth back, "You got me so I don't know what I'm doin'." My arms are huge, rested, ready. My air guitar is great. I wish Lori could see this, but then again, probably not. I face the mirror like a gunfighter. Robin and Robin. "I only want to be by your side." Punches. I'm very ready. Lori, wow, long blonde hair, gorgeous. "You really got me. You really got me. You really got me. Oh, yeahhhh." I'm out the door, in Wayne Manor's crazy wealthy hallway, walking past Impressionist masterpieces, and still nobody can see me, punching the air out, "You really got me. You really got me." The hard rock behind me getting thin and quiet as I walk.

I walk through a big clock and down the stairs into the cave. Bruce is all suited up. He's Batman. Holy cow. He's tinkering with some tiny video camera. My heart is loud enough to hear. He's not going to look up. "Dick," he says.

"Deeck? Who ees… theese… Deeck? I am Bonaparte." I roll my neck through a stretch, and kung fu punch the air several times. He's not even looking. Oh, well, that was for me. "Robin," he says, still not looking. Hey, that was funny.

For my benefit, Batman spreads out the blueprint of the building. Batman's all black, of the night. He points out how we'll enter from the roof and where Dent's gang is going to be.

Alfred brings us drinks and I tease, "Ah, Alfred?" I point to the table. "Tic Tacs." Alfred smiles, but this time Bruce doesn't. Bruce isn't even here. I pick up Batman's mood, real quick, right now. Tactics. He goes over our route and what will happen. Twice. Then I repeat it back to him twice. Then he says it two more times and ends with, "There will be no deviating from this." Couldn't Two Face's gang make us deviate from the plan? I don't ask. It became night outside because Batman wanted it to become night. I keep that thought to myself.

I wish there were music in the car, but there isn't, so there must be a good reason why not.

The doors of the car slam shut, sounding expensive and perfect. We're standing in a dark alley and it's history just that we're standing here, but no one is here to see. Batman and Robin. I catch myself staring at the car, Batman's car. We'll climb the closer building, go across its roof, and then enter Dent's building from its roof and move down. Dent's headquarters, Batman calls "The Target." The building we climb before going to The Target is called The Stage. That's Batman's language. This kind of thing is obvious to Batman. He's been doing it for years and he always wins. My hands are sweating inside the gloves as we climb The Stage. My feet are sweating. If I had a mustache, it would be sweaty. I'm actually really good at climbing buildings. But this is combat, action, live performance. I'm a superhero, or I will be in about one minute. I've seen the best gymnasts in the world, but the way Batman glides from the rope to his feet is a symphony. He's better at this than I am. Even this.

On The Stage's roof, we share eye contact before he turns and takes a few steps forward. He pauses to turns back and spin his index finger in a circle. That's a hand sign that means "Stay sharp." Then he moves like lightning, smooth like a walk, but fast like a run. He looks huge, bigger than ever, and supernaturally smooth, like a mountain on ice skates. I can't keep up. I want him to stop and take it easy, but he speeds up and jumps through the air, landing on The Target. I'm already in the air behind him when he lands noiselessly. And that moment in the air is the greatest moment in my life, and in the history of Gotham City. They should put a plaque here. "On this spot, Batman and Robin first went into action. May 6, blah blah blah." One day, when I have Bruce's money, I'll buy this building so that they can never tear it down. I land and make a little noise. I rise into my walk and he's already picked the lock to the staircase, way faster than could possibly make sense. Maybe I misunderstood the plan. Maybe he came here earlier so that it was already picked. Even he couldn't be that fast. His fingertip repeats, "Stay sharp," and he disappears inside. I go in next. Batman and Robin.

Walking down a dark hallway is the new greatest moment of my life. Somewhere ahead in the black is Batman. We could run into anyone, anybody, and win the fight. He'd win the fight, so we'd win the fight. Two Face's gang, a lion, the Russian Army, anybody. He'd win. At this moment, I am the safest person in the world: Robin, following Batman. I think about all of the things that we do in training, all of the things that he's perfect at, and in this darkness I smile thinking about what's about to happen. To them. Crooks. I don't care if it ever ends, this walk in the shadows. Because he's there, leading me through the darkness.

Then he's out in the light, and then I am, up a level above Dent and his henchmen. They could see us, but they don't look up. We make no noise – even I don't. Batman makes bullhorns of one hand to point to my mark. I have the noisemaker in my hand and hope that I don't mess up. My heart is going wild, and so is time. I imagine I can see myself, and I think I probably look cool. Blazer to superhero. Dress-up. Don't mess up.

This level is a catwalk over the floor below, where Dent and three tough guys are standing, talking. I'm right in the open, near the rail, looking at them. They would have to notice me pretty soon, except that the plan is about to happen to them. Batman runs around to the right, going into motion that won't stop until these guys are on the floor. He jumps the railing, which would be crazy if absolutely anybody else were doing it. I squeeze the noisemaker, which makes one loud metallic pop, and my job is done. Dent looks right up at me, the world's new number one smart-aleck. I'm smiling in my superhero costume while Batman is grabbing the steel pole, ten feet into a sixteen-foot drop, swinging by his left arm, at crazy velocity through a one-eighty in the air, right into the two guys who were just starting to look at me. And in zero time, those two are done. I have no idea what Batman did to them. He only has two hands; I guess he used both of them. Those guys are falling. Batman turns to make two fencing lunges at the third guy, then lets loose a big left hook. Three down. I want to enjoy this but it's happening way too fast. I wish Dent would look up to see me still smiling at his half-ugly face.

It's almost scary how much time Dent has to reach for his sidearm. If it weren't Batman, Dent would get the shot off. Batman walks just slowly enough to make it seem like Dent will get the shot off, but of course, Dent doesn't get the shot off. "Harvey…" Batman says with fake tenderness, like they're old friends, which they are, and then a right hook slams Dent, and that makes four.

Batman said there would be five, and I start to think that he was wrong when Batman cocks his head and hears the fifth guy who is just now walking in, below where I'm standing. The fifth guy is now one-on-one with Batman, which is neither smart of him nor lucky for him. This is the first time in the fight that I see Batman's face, the first time I see that evil demon scowl anywhere outside of a nightmare. It's one of a zillion things that Batman knows how to do to make his unfair advantage unfairer. The fifth guy has to know that he has no chance before he absorbs two punches to the face. So that was five. Gotham City has a lot of problems, but Batman winning fist-fights is not one of them.

Batman's the only one left awake downstairs now. He cocks his head again, and listens, and when he knows that there's no sixth man, he looks up at me and surprises me by grinning, a big stupid kid grin. That was Bruce, Bruce is here now, but I didn't know that he had that in him. The only surprise of the, oh, ten seconds that it took us (him, us, him) to defeat the Dent gang. It'd be pretty cool if Lori could have seen how I did that, how I clicked that noisemaker. Dress up, no mess up.

I jump the railing and land on my feet. Batman is showing me how to collect evidence when the police show up to take Dent's people away. Batman talks and the cops listen. I figure someone will ask Batman who I am, but people don't ask him obvious-seeming questions. Batman doesn't say the word "Robin." He refers to us as "we", then "we" jog up the stairs and disappear back into the dark hallway. His fingertip says "Stay sharp." Why?

On the roof of The Stage, we debrief.

"Robin. Who was the most dangerous person in the room?"
"Who else?"
He laughs. This is the best life anyone could possibly have. The answer is Dent, because he wasn't scared, because Dent's warped. But the important thing is that I said "Me" and Bruce laughed. And at no point did I mess up.

"Batman. Was that five nines?"
"Fifty nines."
"They had no chance?"
"No chance."
"What's the most guys you've ever beaten up at once?"
"Eighteen." Not bragging, it's just got to be true.
"Was that five nines?"
I thought everything that he did had to be five nines. I don't understand, but his tone cut it off. There must be something better for us to do with the rest of the night. Batman will lead me to it.

We rope down The Stage back to Batman's car, and when he's on the rope, I feel what nagged at me before, how it stings that Batman has replaced dad and how I enjoy that he's invincible. He's not going to die from this rope breaking, or from five guys with guns. Or from eighteen guys with guns. He's as big as Mount Everest and moves like a panther and paints Renaissance masterpieces with his left hand while defusing nuclear bombs with his right hand and solves riddles in his mind. He's everything that would have saved dad's life, mom's and dad's. And I'm so proud of Bruce's invincibility that it hurts that dad wasn't what he is. It hurts that I have to think about this. But that's not Bruce's fault, and it wasn't dad's fault. Now I'm on Bruce's rope, following him up, down, anywhere.

His feet hit the alley, and then mine do. Batman sits in the driver's seat again, reads something on the computer and says gravely, like we're in immediate danger, "Robin. Get in the car." He's actually upset. Something is more important than Dent. I'm in the car, which peels out and turns, pinning me against the door before I can get the seatbelt on. Batman's an extremely dangerous driver. Or maybe a really good one.

Boy Wonder, Part 4: The Second Girl