Thursday, April 20, 2017

Button Part One Analysis: Batman #21

The opening scene of The Dark Knight Returns uses a sporting event – a car race – to describe in symbols all the major events of the entire story. The car (world) goes out of control and the driver (Batman) is the only one who can control it. It looks like he dies, but he escapes certain death.

Batman #21 begins with a similar sporting event, whose actual event (a hockey player dies in a fistfight) is probably not as significant as the symbolism that Tom King – almost certainly working under the vision of Geoff Johns – provides. The contest is between Metropolis and Gotham City with "two heavy hitters" confronting one another, and if you need to be told who those two cities represent, you've probably never read a comic book. If you still don't get it, the Metropolis team's colors are red and blue while the Gotham team wears black and yellow. And if you're wondering what the outcome will be, the Gotham team is named after a deadly weapon and the Metropolis team is named after an extinct species. And if this fight is meant to be prophetic, the Batman surrogate beats and literally kills the Superman surrogate.

We're not the only ones to get the symbolism. Saturn Girl, in Arkham Asylum, has privileged knowledge about the future, and she lets it slip that she's not talking about more than what we see in the hockey game when she says "They're going to kill him." Not the one person – "he" – that we see on television, but "they." Maybe the hockey game is tragic in its own right, but Saturn Girl sees something else – "Superman won't come. Our friends will die. The Legion will die." If the hockey fight represents a superhero calamity to follow, Superman will somehow be sidelined by Batman, and will therefore be unable to save the lives of the Legion and their friends (present-day superheroes?). Remember, Geoff Johns used Saturn Girl's fellow Legionnaire Star Boy in an almost identical fashion after Infinite Crisis, with the now Star Man taking over the role of the eponymous member of the Justice Society and providing ample quantities of foreshadowing along with mental illness.

These events are the kick-off to the big DCU / Watchmen crossover event that's coming, as symbolized by the hockey commentator's phrasing: "We're down to the final minute here, folks." (FYI, hockey overtime isn't one minute.) And then, "Here we go."

There are visual symbols galore as well, and if you're wondering why the Reverse Flash is involved in this story, one starting point is that his symbol – like the hockey visual in the first panel – looks like the Comedian's bloody button, for a big visual case of "Coincidence? I think not." (When Batman spits blood onto the Reverse Flash's yellow-masked face, it produces a mirror image of the same design.)

But there are important plot points, too. Reverse Flash remembers the Flashpoint universe in which Thomas Wayne was Batman, and he speaks to the no-longer-living Thomas Wayne in a mocking tone, enjoying how the elder Wayne died and how it hurts both Waynes when Thawne rips up the letter that Thomas sent to Bruce. The carrier of that message (a la the Roman god Mercury, who inspired the Flashes in many ways) was Barry Allen, so it's very appropriate that the message is destroyed by the Reverse Flash, un-doing something that the Flash did.

Like Saturn Girl, the Reverse Flash has information that allows for a very Johns-ian lookahead, and he tells us that some power resurrected him. This is undoubtedly for a reason and there are only so many possibilities. In this issue, the Reverse Flash beats the tar out of Batman, rips up the note from the Flashpoint universe, vanishes into a blue glow, returns speaking of God, and dies. And, I would caution the reader: We don't know if they actually occurred in the simple linear fashion that we thought we saw. If we take the events on their surface form, this Reverse Flash has come to this world from the world of Flashpoint, which makes him as well as the letter alien objects in this timeline, and if his purpose was to destroy the letter, and whoever revived him wanted to eliminate the connection between this Earth and the Flashpoint timeline then it's logical that Thawne needed to die after destroying the letter. It appears as though he did, but maybe something trickier happened. Reverse Flash was thoroughly splashed with blood before he vanishes, but when he returns, there is no sign of blood. Maybe he went through a physical experience that removed the blood (along with a fair bit of his own flesh), but maybe the timeline is trickier than it seemed, and the Reverse Flash who returned might be from a very different moment in his timeline than just a little bit after his fight with Batman. Otherwise, why make it so complicated as to have him disappear and reappear, instead of just burst into a blue flame and die? Note also that he disappears when the button is in his hand, but he returns with no apparent trace of it. Perhaps it just got lost in the violence of the moment, but given that the story is named after this object, it seems odd for it to be misplaced as a small detail.

There's another important reference/recurrence here: In Crisis on Infinite Earths, Batman sees a dying version of the Flash (Barry Allen) who is jumping in and out of time from later in the story. A dying Reverse Flash also appears before Batman here, which makes for the second reference to COIE, the other being Psycho Pirate's mask. All told, we have four objects from other timelines: The button, the letter, Thawne, and the mask. At the end of this story, two or three of these objects have been eliminated, leaving possibly just one. Clearly, someone is trying to eliminate connections between worlds, or at least certain connections. Perhaps the person pulling the strings is Dr. Manhattan, perhaps Mr. Oz (who also took Tim Drake "off the board" for presenting a similar threat). Perhaps the multiple, quick actions in this story were taken by more than one player, with someone wanting to get rid of the letter and someone else wanting to get rid of the button.

Whatever the case, more action is afoot in Superman #21, where someone who looks just like The Comedian deliberately summons up something that looks a lot like the giant cephalopod from Watchmen appears. Quite possibly, we have seen in short order, the handiwork of at least three major players from Watchmen, along with one artifact and one killer apocalyptic bio-weapon. If that many Watchmen characters are now in the DCU, it recalls the line:

At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do.
 -Bob Dylan

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Wonder Women

One of the first comic books I owned was Secret Origins #3 (1973), featuring the origin of Wonder Woman. The art puzzled me: While the cover's Wonder Woman was lithe like a Seventies model with long, flowing hair, the interior art, a reprint of the 1941 original, gave the Amazon a boxy figure and tight curls like Betty Grable. At the time, I could barely comprehend how art could show one character in such different ways. Now, it's easy to understand: Each era portrayed Wonder Woman as the ideal of the times.

But those were not the only two visions of Wonder Woman available at the time. In the very same year, the contemporary Wonder Woman was the white-suited non-powered version who followed her mentor, I Ching. Also debuting in 1973 was the Super Friends, which showed a Wonder Woman looking like the Sixties version and superpowered, but nowhere near the levels of Superman. By 1976, Wonder Woman in the comics had regained her powers, while the TV version played by Lynda Carter was set in the Forties – prompting DC's Wonder Woman solo title to tell wartime adventures set on Earth Two (but with Seventies-style art) – until the TV show skipped ahead, without explanation, to the Seventies – and the comic version made the same jump, to contemporary stories set on Earth One. In four years, fans were given seven or eight distinct versions of Wonder Woman; trying to juggle all the various versions was probably more complicated than understanding any of the individual stories. And in that era before the Internet, there was no guide to any of this; it was simply up to the fan to make sense of it.

Four decades later, the world once again abounds in alternate versions of Wonder Woman. In 2011, the post-Crisis version of Wonder Woman gave way to the post-Flashpoint New 52 Wonder Woman. Five years later, a tremendous multiplicity of Wonder Women burst upon the scene. The DC Rebirth gave us a new "main" Wonder Woman who is still trying to unravel the secrets of her past, which involves some medley of the New 52 and other elements. Then, within just a few months, DC published two distinctly different Wonder Woman origin graphic novels – the long-awaited "Earth One" from Grant Morrison, and Jill Thompson's Wonder Woman: The True Amazon. Between the publication dates of those two works, the monthly title began running Greg Rucka's "Year One" origin story; an astounding three origin stories were published/begun in under six months! As if that weren't enough, DC's cinematic universe introduced yet another version of Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot in Batman v Superman, as yet mysterious with her story to be explained in a 2017 solo film. All of this came on the heels of superb work done in 2011-2014 by Brian Azzarello, a refreshing take on Wonder Woman and her world that deserved to serve as a foundation for a decade or more to come – like Byrne's Superman and Miller's Batman – rather than be made obsolete after only a year.

As the character turns 75, a high degree of attention is fitting; it is harder, however, to explain why multiple, conflicting origin stories make for the right kind of attention. Certainly, part of the answer is that this bouquet of origin stories was unplanned; the movies and comics are not in sync, and Morrison's story was in the works and long delayed. Rebirth, like the New 52, is obviously a creative direction driven by business considerations. And there we have it: Multiple, uncoordinated creative voices led to multiple, uncoordinated versions of one of the best-known superheroes within a very short span of time.

The rapidfire shuffle of new versions serves as a poll of how the modern comics creator perceives Wonder Woman, and in this, we see one interesting consensus: Azzarello, Morrison, Thompson, and Rucka all speak to the sexuality of the Amazons in general or Diana specifically in a way that had not – probably could not have – been seen before. Both Azzarello and Thompson describe Amazons routinely using men from the world at large as a source of fertilization, with hints and a choice image or two of a domination fantasy. Meanwhile, Morrison and Rucka both give Diana female lovers in her past but leave her open to opposite-sex attraction once Steve Trevor enters her world. These new origins variously assert that Hercules and his men raped the Amazons, a violent horror unimaginable in 1941 comics, a modern extrapolation of Moulton's 1941 panels showing Hercules and Hippolyta lying together as he betrays her.

Morrison and Azzarello also agree to make Diana not a creature made of clay, but rather the direct offspring of Zeus, though Azzarello makes her the principal god's daughter of Zeus; Morrison, his granddaughter. Azzarello modernizes his gods by showing them in Las Vegas, posing as truckers. Morrison modernizes Diana's world by making Steve Trevor the descendent of African slaves, a real people with real history spent in chains like the imaginary Amazons.

Morrison and Rucka also agree by maintaining the Steve Trevor element in Diana's origin, while Thompson diverges sharply by making the young Diana a spoiled brat whose journey to man's world is penance for the sin of hubris and the tragedy it caused; it should not be lost on the reader that in departing from Moulton's original story, Thompson's is classically Greek – character flaws determine the future. A tragedy doesn't happen to a person; a tragedy is who they are. This is the great contribution of Thompson's version, and makes it welcome despite the certain overcrowding of recent origin stories. Thompson abandons the 1941 source material to emphasize in tone the vastly earlier source material of Greek mythology.

None of these stories disagree on one thing: Wonder Woman is wonderful. Nolan's cinematic Wonder Woman immediately wows Superman and Batman by battling Doomsday energetically and somewhat enthusiastically. Rucka and Morrison show the modern world pointing its cellphone cameras at Diana and snapping away, hashtagging her into social media immortality. She glows, indifferent to the attention, like a Forties movie star sipping a milkshake while the world adores her. She's beautiful, strong, brave, and brilliant; there is no depiction of Wonder Woman that doesn't agree on this.

For all these many versions, and creators, it is Rucka and the filmmakers who get to hold serve. Rucka has suggested a multiplicity of Wonder Women in his single version, with a composite past or composite memories of various pasts, with a Multiverse backstory that may involve the overarching Rebirth plot with Dr. Manhattan at the center. Perhaps he will make these alternate memories not "lies" surrounding one true backstory but disparate elements all partly true; this is akin to what Geoff Johns did with Superman in Secret Origin and Morrison in his Batman epic that asserted that all past eras actually happened to the one and only Batman. Wonder Woman is not the first superhero to get multiple, contradictory origin stories; hopefully one of them – and it would be Rucka's – has the chance to be left uncontradicted long enough to give a generation of readers a firm legend to believe in.

However many people read DC's comics, far more will see the 2017 movie, and this will become the "real" Wonder Woman for a generation. This Wonder Woman, we know from the trailer, rescues a crashing Steve Trevor and comes to man's world to stop World War One (not Two). Until the movie debuts, we can guess the details of the content, and one clue is a canny reply to the old stories. In 1942's All Star Comics #12, as the men on the team head off to battle the Axis, Wonder Woman, one of the mightiest heroes in the story, stays home, bidding the male heroes, "Good luck, boys – and I wish I could be going with you," after having agreed off-panel to be their secretary. In 2017, Steve Trevor introduces Diana as his secretary, and after we see her perform some wonderful heroics, he adds, "She's a very good secretary." After 75 years, we can poke fun at 1942's prejudices. Maybe after another 75 years, audiences won't be expected to find that funny.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Westworld and Superman

This post contains a very revealing spoiler for the first season of HBO's Westworld. Do not read ahead if you have not watched the season but intend to enjoy it later.

The premise of Westworld, a new series based on an old film, is that a high-tech (in fact, science fiction) theme park uses robots (in the series internal euphemism, "hosts") to let visitors have simulated experiences in the world of the Old West. The hosts are so realistic that the experience feels real, but visitors face no legal culpability for killing them in simulated gunfights and – perhaps – no ethical culpability for the sexual interactions they have with the hosts.

In any narrative with very realistic robots, a potential plot point is to have ambiguity about whether or not a given character is a real human – this is central to the plot of, for example, Blade Runner. Westworld, however, raised the possibility in a few scenes in the first two episodes, but always ended the ambiguity very promptly, before it became a true mystery. With Blade Runner in mind, I watched from episode #3 onward waiting for the series to slip a mystery like this into the plot, setting up a shocking reveal when we find out that a seeming human is actually a robot. By the fourth episode, I saw who this was – the senior technician Bernard, played by the incomparable Jeffrey Wright. Bernard had a seemingly-irrelevant backstory concerning the death of his young son. This seemed like the sort of planted memory that other "hosts" had, and this, indeed proved to be the critical clue – Bernard is a robot, and that memory was planted, and never actually took place.

Later, as Bernard confronted the unreality of that painful memory, I was reminded of another powerful narrative. In Alan Moore's For The Man Who Has Everything, Superman imagines a life that he might have lived if Krypton had not exploded. As the story narrates, he has a life and family, and is an ordinary Kryptonian instead of the god he became on Earth. But as he faces the fact that this fantasy is a weapon used to distract him from reality, he tears himself out of the story from within it, most painfully telling his fictional son in the story that he's not real.

And it was with that recognition that I noted that one of the writers of Westworld is Ed Brubaker, a comic book writer with credits for DC, Wildstorm, Marvel and others over the past 25 years. Brubaker has co-writing credits for one episode of the series, and he certainly must be familiar with the classic Superman story. Did he, or some other writer familiar with Moore's work, introduce the idea of a man saying goodbye to his imaginary son from FTMWHE to WW? Perhaps not. But the story in Westworld, excellent on its own merits, also brought back memories of Superman's imaginary life, and possibly lent another clue as to the nature of Bernard's memory of his son, which was an imaginary story. Aren't they all?