Saturday, June 19, 2010

Getting Grim and Gritty – John Byrne’s Superman & Batman Generations (Part 3 of ?)

Last week, I was hoping to get thru 1989, but only made it through 1979. This week, I’ll make no predictions on how far I’m going to get (because it never comes out the way I plan). On to 1986, the year DC published Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, which led the way for mainstream super-hero comics to become more edgy. Our heroes in the GU (Generations Universe) are also turning darker (and after the last story I can see why)…

1986 (G2#3, part 1 – “To Hunt the Hunter”):

Superman (now slightly graying at the temples and with a thick black outline around his “S-shield”) crashes into Luthor’s lair. He’s been trying to find him for the past seven years. His rampage is cut short by a CGI recreation of his son Joel tearing out Supergirl’s heart on her wedding day. Superman quickly learns that Luthor isn’t even really there – it’s actually an interactive image, which reacts to his actions. The Luthor image mocks, “You’ll find me someday. When I’m ready for you to find me!” Superman slumps to the floor in despair.

In the Batcave, Bruce Jr. now wears an all black – almost armored costume. He’s working on a new Batmobile, which seems more like a battlewagon than a car. He’s surprised to see his son, Clark (biologically Superman’s human grandson) watching him, since he has forbidden him to come into the cave. “Mommy told me to come, Daddy.” Mei-Lei arrives and explains her actions (their exchange is entirely in Vietnamese). She’s hoping that Clark’s presence will turn Bruce away from his destructive path. Apparently sometime before, Mei-Lei had told Clark that his father was Batman against Bruce’s wishes. Her son loves Bruce and desperately wants a relationship with his father, but Batman has become too hard and too focused on his mission.

At the JLA tower, Wonder Woman (Steve Trevor’s daughter, Stephanie) is finally about to take action against Batman, who really went over the edge about four years prior. He recently “put six bystanders in the hospital, chasing Hyena” (kinda like a cross between Cheetah and Magpie). Alan Scott is still Green Lantern. Although he’s been using his ring’s power to give him strength, he’s not as good as he used to be. He had looked for a replacement a few years before, but the only reasonable candidate declined to pursue a political career. The impetuous new Flash (Wally West’s daughter, Carrie) has already gone to confront Batman ahead of the others.

Batman now patrols the city, wearing his fierce fright mask. The corrupt Gotham City police force considers him an outlaw and gives chase to the Batmobile. He disables their patrol car tires with spikes and does an “Evel Knievel” over some pedestrians to lose them. As he careens down an alleyway, a brick wall suddenly appears in his path with the words “Hi, Batman!” causing him to crash into it. When he exits the Batmobile, the Flash explains that it took her several “days” to construct the wall. She starts to circle around him at super-speed, but he knocks her out with a single “chop” to the back of her neck.

After securing the Flash in the Batmobile, Batman continues his hunt for the Hyena, finds her hideout, quickly dispatches her goons, and captures her. Suddenly, he too is captured -- inside an emerald energy jail cell, created by Green Lantern. However, Batman is prepared to deal with the Justice League and uses a device on the wooden floor that sprays sawdust all over GL, which causes the cage to fizzle out: one punch and GL is down for the count. Wonder Woman arrives with the still unconscious Flash in her arms (She tore the Batmobile apart to get her out). He comments on how she only has half the power of the original WW (a common “rule” in the GU universe where the powers diminish from generation to generation). Batman starts a smokescreen and then handcuffs her bracelets, which reduces her power.

In a typical old-school style super-hero slugfest, Batman and Wonder Woman “duke” it out, while talking to each other (something my local comic shop owner hates). The conversation is interesting as we learn that Stephanie lived 1,000 years in the past while only three years had past in “real” time. She and Kara had also shared a psychic bond, since they were born at the exact same moment. Mentioning Kara sends Batman into a frenzy, and when GL yells “Batman! That’s enough!” – Bruce snaps. “Enough?!? IS THERE NO CRIME LEFT ON EARTH? HAVE ALL THE MISERABLE SCUM-SUCKING MAGGOTS BEEN WIPED OUT? CAN DECENT PEOPLE WALK THE STREETS WITHOUT FEAR? IS KARA ALIVE AGAIN?? IS SHE? IS SHE?” All the while, Batman is nearly beating the elderly GL to death. Realizing what he’s done, he stops and quickly escapes – tortured and tormented.

At Wayne Manor Mei-Lei is watching Clark sleep in his room. From the hallway, Bruce calls out to her -- weakly. Shaken, his mask removed, he asks her for help. “…I don’t know…what I mean anymore…” He collapses in her arms and she tenderly holds him.

I love the ending of this story. The character of Mei-Lei is amazing. Although, she only appears in a few panels of only a few stories, her presence and influence is very strongly felt. She’s so compassionate, so loving, so loyal – first to Joel and then to Bruce. Yet, she’s also determined to speak her mind. To take an “enemy” (Joel) during the war and nurse him back to health and become his wife, to enter into a marriage of convenience to raise her son with the man her husband wronged shows an incredible strength of character. I can only hope that if she and Bruce had not consummated their marriage before this point that they did afterwards, starting a true partnership in earnest. If John Byrne ever returns to this universe, I for one really want to see more of Mei-Lei and her relationship with Bruce.

1989 (G1#3, part 2 – “Crime and Punishment”):

Having just witnessed a world-wide broadcast of Superman killing Lex Luthor, President Hal Jordan decides to access the one weapon capable of dealing with a rogue Superman – the last remaining piece of green Kryptonite on Earth. He travels (with his entourage) a mile below the White House and then about ten miles underground, before they don radiation suits to access the container (which looks like the Eradicator “egg” rocket). [Basically, Byrne is showing us that the G-K is really, really, REALLY well protected]. However, when they open it, the Kryptonite has been stolen.

“I really hated breaking into the White House like that…” says Batman as he flies in his Bat-stealth jet toward Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. After gaining entry, Bruce starts to blow-up some of Superman’s mementos to get his attention, including melting a wax figure of Perry White. However, when he gets to one room, he sees a model of Supergirl. He removes his mask and gently caresses the model’s hair. Clark punches him in the face, telling him to stop. The two fight for awhile, until Bruce realizes that his punches are actually hurting Superman, who is now powerless.

Superman tells Batman that five days ago, his decade long search for Luthor finally ended. After he arrived, Luthor, who was sitting in a wheelchair, began to show Superman what’s been going on while he’s been searching for him. Jimmy Olsen is killed in a mysterious blast. His widow, Lucy, is gunned down at the bank. Their son, Clark, and his family are driven off the road and die in a horrible car crash. Perry White’s son, who was mayor of Metropolis, is assassinated. Luthor was behind all of their deaths.

Superman lifts Luthor out of his chair, when pain shoots through his arm. Luthor was wearing Gold Kryptonite cufflinks. Luthor also reveals that he has always been since his defeat in 1939 really the Ultra-Humanite, whose brain was transferred into Luthor’s body. Now, Ultra has plans to transfer his mind into Superman’s body. He traps Superman behind an energy cage and explains that the reason why Superman could never find him is that he skipped the decade through time travel. So, it’s only been a few days (relative to him) since Superman’s family died. Using a piece of metal on the floor near him, Superman flips it into his hand and throws it into Ultra’s heart.

Although, Batman clearly believes Clark was acting in self-defense, Superman is uncertain and he pleads guilty before the court. “Years ago, I swore an oath against killing…but I hated Luthor – hated what he had done to me, to my family. I cannot be sure it was not that hatred which guided my hand at the last moment…I cannot be absolutely certain it was not cold blooded murder!” Due to all the good Superman has done in the past, the court only sentences him to a ten-year sentence. However, a powerless Superman would not be safe in a regular prison -- the solution is to use the Phantom Zone Projector.

Unlike a certain emerald archer who can get off on a technicality after murdering a super-villain, wrong actions have real consequences in the GU. Both Batman and Superman had crossed the line, both had lost their way (Bruce lost years of his family life and Superman lost years of being a force for good on the earth), but both are in the process of being restored.

While Superman does his time in the Phantom Zone, this may be a good opportunity to take a break from writing about this series (or not), even though, there are still a lot of cool story elements to mention. I know the plot summaries have been longer than I would like, but there are just so many threads and layers! I hope that if you’ve never read this series, you’ll check it out for yourself. Nothing can compare to the genuine article.

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