Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Multiversity: Ultra Comics

Ultra Comics is real. (I’m using italics very consciously to distinguish the character and the comic book.) Of all the superheroes, you've ever read about, this one, set on Earth-33, which is our world, is actually real. I was part of him, and when you read Ultra Comics, so are you. Everything that happens to him is real, and when you put the comic book down, he dies. When you pick it up again, he lives. Ultra Comics is in a time loop, like the ones Grant Morrison used in Final Crisis and elsewhere, but unlike those, this one is real, and when you read Ultra Comics again, Ultra Comics, the superhero, comes back to life. His death is so tragic every time the issue ends, how do you have the heart not to read it again?

Ultra Comics is in a trap, and it's real. It's an allegory for the comic book industry as a whole, but as far as it – he – is concerned, it's real. Made of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (just like all your favorite comic books), Ultra Comics begins majestic and pristine a few pages into the story, then quickly goes through the history of superhero comics, with four consecutive panels representing, roughly, the Forties, Sixties, Eighties, and 2000's. In this sequence, he goes from fighting crooks to fighting monsters plaguing a sexualized young woman, mourning a death, and then bloodily causing one.

Then, when Ultra Comics is sent on his first adventure, into what looks like the ruins of New York, his corporate creator tells us that Ultra Comics and all of us have been led into a trap, and readers who aren't going too quickly will notice that the man in a suit has the dark bat wings of the Gentry's Intellectron behind him.

As Ultra Comics examines the unpopulated ruins of New York, he finds a faded billboard showing the 1939 comic book character Ultra-Man, a character like John Carter of Mars who debuted, then appeared in All-Star Comics #1 before being cut from the series when the Justice Society took it over two issues later. There is a caption, incidentally, in the "Kryptonese" font, but this appears to be nonsense, deciphering as "ABC EDH G G K N." Soon, he battles an amalgamation of an evil Justice League and Ultra-Man’s original cast of villains set in the world of 2240 (three hundred years after they were written). It is because Ultra-Man was set in the future that he was, in essence, the first DC superhero who couldn’t join the Justice Society.

Ultra Comics soon finds, and saves, a version of the Newsboy Legion, but they're all twisted and sinister, and his namesakes Ultra-Man and Ultraa. It turns out that Ultraa, who debuted in JLA #153, is the dark leader of this band of cannibals. Ultra Comics is condemned by a jury of history’s (and comicdom’s) villains in a court led by the Devil in a scene out of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” They subject Ultra Comics to an apathy ray, and Ultraa takes a bite out of Ultra Comics' head, eating the crystal that gives him his greatest powers. All the while, captions representing fan opinions (and seeming very true to the spirit of them) complain about the quality of what we're reading.

This is true to the original Ultraa. When the Justice League visited Earth Prime, they happened to encounter Ultraa immediately after his public debut. Almost immediately, Ultraa, Earth Prime’s first superhero, was pursued by a supervillain. At the end of the story, he felt responsible for the existence of the supervillain, that his presence “infected” Earth Prime with superpeople, good and bad alike, and left Earth Prime for Earth One to save his home dimension from further trouble. In a later pre-Crisis appearance, he decides to rid Earth One of superheroes, and uses an apathy gun in an attack on the Justice League. This apathy weapons is used on Ultra Comics in Ultra Comics. Post-Crisis, Ultraa (whose home dimension, Earth Prime, no longer exists) is retconned as a resident of Maxima’s homeworld of Almerac, something he refers to as his origin in this story, too.

Ultra Comics apologizes to the reader just as Ultraa did to the people of Earth Prime back in 1978, for exposing us to evil. After he cleverly disposes of Ultraa, he faces the now-unmasked Intellectron, who also admits that he exposed us to evil, but isn’t apologetic about the fact. It is because corrupting influences have been disguised as something benevolent that Little Red Riding Hood is the central figure of the children: The comic book is her grandmother, but beneath its clothing is the wolf, images of destruction and bloody murder, sex and violence, and all of the corrupting influence that Ultra Comics was seen to have on characters in Multiversity. And in case we forgot that this story is real, Intellectron downplays the harm that he revels in, saying, “This is only silly comm-ix. Makes no sense. Only pretend! Go on – read on! What harm can come to yu?” And lest we forget who “yu” is, he goes on, “Earth-Prime. There yu are,” with his malevolent eye looking at us. This moment hits home powerfully when he looks at us again and says, “Kneel before yur new master. Turn the page. Do it. Slave.” And I did. You did, too, didn’t you?

Ultra Comics counterattacks in three ways: Readers ask for a happy ending and get a happy ending (or happy middle, in this case.) Noting that “Text is vulnerable to criticism,” Ultra Comics observes as realistic fan responses criticize the worthiness of Intellectron as a character. And, finally, Ultra Comics, though dying on the last page, knows that he’ll be reborn whenever another reader opens Ultra Comics, allowing him to be reborn, though bloodied, on the first page. And lest we feel too badly for Ultra Comics in his ever-recycling purgatory of existing and dying every time a reader opens this issue, remember that he’s going to outlive us. One day, I’ll die. So will you. But Ultra Comics will live on, and sometime after my death, and yours, some reader will open this comic again, and Ultra Comics will live, temporarily, after we’re gone.

This is dark stuff, and it’s powerful. It, like Flex Mentallo, discusses superheroes as fictional constructs, and like Superman Beyond, discusses the superhero’s power of having a positive, likeable idea at the core and being able to rejuvenate by coming back to be read about again, responding to death with, “To Be Continued.” Morrison has the voices in this issue articulate some very serious criticism of the darkness in comic books, and he’s not dismissing that perspective. He sees some real harm at stake here, and that’s what the Gentry has always represented, the infection of darker subject matter that we allow into our heads when we wanted a good time. And we may wonder if it’s coincidence that Grant Morrison is delivering this message now, as he effectively ends his run on monthly DC superhero comics, just as Alan Moore denounced the medium just as he wrote his final works in the genre. There is redemption for the genre, yes, as Morrison has said in interviews, and as he says in this issue, but the criticism sticks. The characters in preceding issues of Multiversity have been disturbed by what they read in Ultra Comics, and not without good reason. Maybe good and productive members of society have better things to do with the limited time we have on the planet than to read about zombies sucking the eyeballs out of people’s heads. The favorable response that readers had to Multiversity:Thunderworld is an implicit answer to that what’s worth celebrating in these stories doesn’t require all the blood and gore and rape that has become increasing common as the decades go by.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Retro Review: Batman: Year One

If there has ever been a modern Batman story more influential than Frank Miller's 1986 masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns, it was Frank Miller's 1987 masterpiece, Batman: Year One. It's remarkable that the same writer scripted two such extraordinary stories a year apart, but truly incredible that the two stories approach the character so differently and accomplish such different things. Yet, there is no contradiction between the two works: Year One depicts a young man who is about to leap, literally, into his life's work, while DKR stars an aging man who accepts that his mission is something he can never leave behind. But these two moments are so far apart that we can barely fathom that the same character's life contains them. Year One stands separate from DKR, not as a prequel.

Superman, Wonder Woman, and other DC characters were significantly redefined by post-Crisis reboots, but Year One leaves the facts of Batman's life much the same as before. Year One, rather, fills in small details during a legendary year; the time frame that Year One spans is covered by just four panels in an earlier origin story, 1980's The Untold Legend of the Batman. This gives Miller freedom to blend existing stories and new elements into a new work that feels familiar just often enough to make Miller's inventions resound.

Year One has a particular quality that is shocking to the reader, a quality that virtually all previous superhero comics had energetically rejected: Realism. Could Batman be real? Of course not. But could the Batman in Year One be real? Still, the answer is no, but many scenes play so close to real life that we feel like we've jumped right out of the superhero genre and into a different world. Year One shows Bruce Wayne going into action eight times, and three of them go badly. He is stabbed once, shot four times, beaten over the head once, and trapped by the police twice. True, he escapes both time he's captured, and the most unrealistic thing in the story might be that he heals well enough to continue as Batman, but for a while here and there, we forget that Year One's world isn't our world. This draws the reader into thinking about Batman's weapons and tactics on the practical basis that Batman's voice-over narration provides, and so the story works on a level that a Green Lantern or Flash story never could, and earlier Batman stories usually did not. Year One's realism has spun off a new "How To" subgenre of Batman story, with narration exploring Batman's training and tactics filling many pages in post-Year One stories and at least three entire published books. The practical details of being Batman show up in every Batman movie since 1989's Batman, and provides much of the basis of Batman Begins and was a major focus of a new title, Legends of the Dark Knight, which focused on key events early in Batman's career when his crime fighting approach was being shaped.

In addition, Year One introduced the organized crime family of Carmine Falcone, who, unlike many "disposable" mobster characters seen in Batman stories over the years, provided a substantial basis for future stories exploring the same era. Year One's take on the Falcones and a younger Harvey Dent recurred in The Long Halloween and other stories, building up a rich Godfather-like early history of Batman continuity. This created a timeline in which Batman faced more realistic, organized-crime opponents, rather than masked super villains, early in his career. While Year One devotes considerable time to developing Selina Kyle as a third focus, and mentions the Joker in the very last panel, the emphasis on realistic criminals further grounds the series in realism.

At the heart of Year One are two men: Bruce Wayne – who has the inspiration, on panel, to become Batman – and Jim Gordon, then a junior officer new to Gotham. The narration alternates between the two men with calendar dates in the captions, showing us a year in their lives as Wayne figures out how to fight a war in the streets and Gordon fights one at work and another one in his marriage. Both men are fiercely principled, physically tough, and in way over their heads. In time, they learn to trust one another, but not until the titular year reaches November. Along the way, they square off against one another, directly and indirectly, with Gordon gradually figuring out how to wrest himself from the clutches of the corrupt Gotham City police force that prefers its criminals to the new caped crime fighter.

Gordon is yet another element who grounds the story, even down to his Chicago (a real city) origin. It is his story that makes the narration work, filling in the blanks between long stretches of time (according to the dateline captions) in which we don't see Bruce Wayne at all. Between January 4 and March 11, we don't see Bruce Wayne do anything at all except return home and kick a tree trunk. What is he doing in the meantime? Certainly not "nothing." The blank spaces invite the reader to contemplate that question and imagine what elaborate preparations of Wayne's body and equipment must be taking place. But they are left unseen, while Gordon begins a long and difficult road to fight temptation in the form of an attractive female partner and a very dirty police department.

But when Bruce Wayne first goes into action, amid scenery right out of Taxi Driver, and fails badly, we find out that his unseen preparation wasn't nearly enough. Wayne barely escapes with his life and identity intact, and beats a self-imposed deadline – a literal deadline, in which his blood will run out of his body if he doesn't summon Alfred to save him – to devise a better way to fight crime, a way that comes to him in crashing glass and a vow to become a bat.

Nothing goes right for the new Batman on his first try, and not always on his second. Year One tells us succinctly about his dozens of encounters interdicting street criminals and focuses, instead, on showing us how he uses skill and brilliance to bring down the city's big criminals, some of whom were elected. He fights a many-front war against ordinary crooks, big bosses, and even the Gotham police. His victories ultimately break up the logjam of corruption that made Gotham "no place to raise a family." By story's end, Gordon is free to call Batman to help on a case. That is the story arc that Year One brilliantly travels, taking an almost plausibly real city and introducing Batman into it, giving us for the first and arguably only time, a compelling explanation for the set-up that other Batman stories have simply assumed, that a man who dresses like a bat is the police's ally (and their superior) in fighting crime.

Batman: Year One stays with you. You don't forget Batman's failures and successes, the new Selina Kyle, the struggling Jim Gordon, or the Falcones. Miller's plot and dialogue and David Mazzucchelli's art create a new world, and although many creators have tried to take us, we've never really gone back to that place since.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Retro Review: John Byrne's Superman

Now, decades after John Byrne’s six-issue Man of Steel was published, it reads like one of many alternative Superman origin stories that we’ve seen over the years. The details of Superman’s life have been malleable in the hands of DC’s creators, with various Supermen in alternate timelines and alternate dimensions encompassing multiple variations on a theme.

But in 1986, the decision to allow John Byrne to reboot DC’s flagship character was a radical move, a revolution on the printed page. Striking changes were made in the nature and tone of the series, but even more significant was the fact that the entire accumulated history of the iconic character was being erased, giving Byrne the opportunity to start a new history from scratch. This was welcomed by many fans, while reviled by others who denounced it as “Marvelizing” Superman, and saw it as eliminating and replacing their favorite character rather than as evolving the existing character into something similar but not identical.

Man of Steel is thus a revolutionary work, but unlike some of the other landmark comic book works in the mid-Eighties, it was a revolution in particulars rather than in form. But the particulars that changed were many, and include:

• Krypton as sterile rather than a high-tech utopia.
• Superman born upon his arrival on Earth rather than arriving as a toddler.
• Powers developing gradually over years instead of at the moment of arrival.
• Debut as a young adult and not as Superboy.
• No memory of or attachment to Krypton; identifies only as an Earthman.
• Adoptive parents remain alive into the present.
• Clark Kent persona tough rather than meek and mild.
• Ventures into outer space rarely instead of being a frequent space traveler.
• Smart, but not an inventor with knowledge far beyond Earth technology.
• Strength, speed, and vulnerability powers at much lower levels than pre-Crisis.
• Tense working relationship with Batman, and they are not friends.
• Not a founding member of the Justice League.
• Only survivor of Krypton.
• Lex Luthor is a Machiavellian businessman rather than a mad scientist.

These many changes are not haphazard or arbitrary in design: They all support one overarching aim, which is to humanize Superman, making his life and interactions more like an ordinary man’s life, and less a thing of pure science fiction.

Detractors of Byrne’s run saw humanizing Superman as counterproductive, as the concept of Superman was always intended to make him something far better than a real man, and being far better, he was also by definition removed and apart. Nonetheless, Byrne’s choice was to make him less removed. Nowhere is this more evident than in doing away with the Fortress of Solitude. The Bronze Age Superman owned a house in the Arctic (isolated), bigger and more wonderful than any real man’s house, housing a museum and a zoo of interplanetary specimens, for the sole viewing pleasure of Superman himself. Yes, it was wonderful, but it was in equal measure a fortress of solitude. The pre-Byrne Superman was a strangely lonely man, self-absorbed, twice orphaned, confiding his secret identity to not one person on Earth who wasn’t also a superhero. He said that he could never marry Lois or Lana, because that would expose his wife to danger, but in what was a major plot hole, he still identified his friends and girlfriends publicly. Byrne changed all that, making Lois a romantic interest without the puerile games around whether or not Superman could marry her. Byrne moved the center of gravity in Superman’s life away from superheroes and towards ordinary people. In this regard, he did more for the characterization of Superman than had been done in all the decades before.

But Man of Steel and Byrne’s run as a whole are not a literary masterpiece. It hits some nice notes at times, but the language is stilted and relies far too often on exposition. Superman often says and thinks things that nobody would say or think, in order to deliver an essay from Byrne to readers about how the character had been reinvented. These are often awkward comments about how the Byrne Superman’s world is different than what came before, and rejecting the truth that in storytelling, it’s better to show than to tell.

Perhaps the high point of Byrne’s run is in Superman #2, when Luthor’s efforts to probe Superman’s life result in beatings to the people he loves, and an explosion that callously kills two of Luthor’s henchmen right in front of Superman. Then, when the enraged hero confronts Luthor, he is exposed to kryptonite and mocked. The Silver Age Lex Luthor had to kill Superman to win. Byrne’s Luthor manages to stalemate Superman simply by remaining in business and hating him. It’s a dramatic shift in their dynamic and makes for far more powerful storytelling than the Silver Age Superman-Luthor war, which always came down to gadgets and pseudoscience.

Byrne began the run with a well-thought-out plan. He plants small clues that grow into major plots, such as the chunk of kryptonite that sticks to Kal-El’s rocket, and the stranger in the brimmed hat watching the site where the rocket came down. Small investments of this kind paid off later, with the serial taking on more complexity than the issue-after-issue formula of previous years. This was a Superman for a more grown-up audience than the Superman that came before, and that was precisely what the era called for.

Byrne’s era relaunched Superman, took him through a couple of major crossover events, and resolved the paradoxes of the post-Crisis Legion of Super-Heroes by introducing a Pocket Universe. John Byrne left the series after Superman #22, with Superman having executed three Phantom Zone criminals in the Pocket Universe. This event, and Byrne’s work as a whole, led into other creators producing some good and impactful work, with the fondly-recalled Triangle Era, Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday, and later his marriage to Lois Lane. With time, the stamp of Byrne’s work faded as more writers put their own touches on the feature, and it became something considerably different than it was when Byrne left in 1988. In some respects, the Byrne continuity is still with us in 2015, as at least some elements of the post-Byrne Superman are still in continuity after Flashpoint. The Byrne run was a bold effort, and it worked.