Saturday, June 12, 2010

Real Death in Comics -- John Byrne’s Superman & Batman: Generations (Part 2 of ?)

Last week I started discussing John Byrne’s Generations series and we covered the first 25 years (1939 through 1964). Let’s get started on the next 20 years…

1969 (G1#2, part 2 – “Changing Times”)

The story opens with the Justice League (Superman, Batman [Dick], Wonder Woman, the Flash [Barry or Wally] and Green Lantern [Alan Scott]) in the oval office with President Nixon. Nixon is being hounded by demonstrations outside the White House and he wants the JLA to intervene in the Vietnam War like they did in WWII. The group refuses since the “bad guys aren’t so clearly defined”. As the heroes depart, we learn that Superman’s son, Joel Kent, is already fighting over there (still trying to prove himself) and that Bruce Jr. is refusing to let his father’s influence get him out of serving too.

Back in Gotham City, Bruce Sr. is visiting the gravesite of Alfred, who died in 1967 at age 88. He’s talking to Alfred’s ghost or perhaps, as Bruce believes, it’s just a hallucination – a way for him to sort out his thoughts. We learn that the public at large believes Batman to be the same individual under the mask and that Alfred was instrumental in convincing Bruce to retire. Their exchange is really an insightful commentary of the times. Bruce laments that Batman ceased to be scary (“a few too many charity balls and library openings”), but Alfred replies, “More than enough in the world for them to be scared of, Master Bruce. What the people need now, more than ever, is a rock they can depend on. Which is why they needed a young and vigorous Batman.”

Meanwhile, BJ is on his last case as Robin before heading off to Basic Training. He and Batman are trying to get leads on this new criminal, Joker Junior, by questioning the original Joker (who has started to lose his hair) in prison. The Joker claims that “the kid is not [his] son” (I really wish there were musical quotation marks sometimes).

Although this is primary a Batman tale, we do get an update on what’s going on with the Kent family. Lois has just learned she has cancer and Joel has become a really harsh soldier. He leads his men (outside the ‘Nam borders) to attack an innocent village of people. He’s about to murder all the witnesses, when his men decide to FRAG him.

Back to the Batcave, Robin is shown to have a Batman uniform that can expand from his utility belt (like the Flash’s costume in his ring). He also has the Batman voice down pat. Robin will keep an eye on the Joker, while Batman investigates the Gotham Diamond Exchange – Joker Junior’s next target. Dick has researched the building’s schematics with the Bat-computer and learned of some new security systems that may be unknown to JJ. When Robin visits Joker’s cell, they find that he has escaped, possibly to help Junior. However, when Robin discovers some makeup and another set of plans for the Gotham Diamond Exchange (different from the one’s Dick researched), he knows that “Batman is in deadly danger.”

The trap has already been sprung as Batman falls down a shaft. Only this shaft is covered with sharp blades, which are also laced with a hallucinogenic drug. Batman is ripped to shreds with some cuts going down to the bone, before he gets to the bottom to the awaiting Joker Junior. JJ reveals that he purchased the building ten years ago, which is four years longer than “Junior” has been active. He uses a sliding floor to dump Batman into some giant cream pies, but these pies contain machine guns.

Robin crashes through the sealed building with his motorcycle and searches for Batman. This allows the police to come inside and capture Joker Junior, who doesn’t resist arrest or hide the fact that he’s really the original Joker. He boasts that he’s just killed Batman. However, Batman appears carrying a lacerated and bullet-ridden Robin whose cape is draped over his face. “He didn’t kill Batman. He killed Robin.”

At the funeral for Dick Grayson, Bruce Jr. has decided to use his family’s influence to stay out of the war, so that he can continue to be Batman. He also has to postpone his plans to marry Kara Kent (Supergirl) for the time being. The Kents arrive home to find a telegram indicating that their son has been killed in action.

This is a magnificent story and you really mourn the death of Batman. Ironically, it was Joker’s belief in the illusion of the original Batman still being active that helped him change his tactics, which enabled him to succeed. He knew he was getting older and he couldn’t stand the fact that Batman was still young. Also, this story appeared with the silly Bat-Mite/Mxy story from 1959, illustrating the dramatic shift in comics over the course of the Silver Age.

1975 (G2#2, part 2 – “Troubled Souls”)

Set in the era of Ghost Rider, Tomb of Dracula, and Werewolf by Night (at least in the Marvel Universe) this story is appropriately a supernatural one. Supergirl and Batman are visiting Arkham where the straight-jacketed Joker is highly agitated even while under heavy sedation. When they review the surveillance tapes, it looks like the Joker is shouting at someone, even though no one is there. The attendants claim the Joker says “Batman” on an audio tape recorded in the van that transferred him to the rubber room facility. Supergirl is able to make out what he said when she listens to the tape in the Batcave. “Get away from me Batman! I killed you!”

Supergirl and Batman enlist the help of Doctor Occult, visiting him at this office (where there is a pair of creepy red eyes peering out from under his desk). Doc Occ deduces that Bruce is really the third Batman and concludes that the second Batman (Dick Grayson) is haunting the Joker. The Doctor summons Deadman from Nanda Parbat to his office, where he is visible to everyone. Their plan is to have Deadman enter the Joker’s mind.

Upon entering the Joker’s mind, Boston Brand exclaims, “It’s like Salvador Dali threw up!!” It is truly a bizarre landscape and in his mind’s eye, the Joker is his youthful self again. Then the giant Bat-corpse shows up. It chases the Joker and then grabs him. The Joker is about to be crushed to death, when Deadman intervenes and manages to get Dick to drop him. Outside in the “real” world the Joker’s body is in great distress. Deadman enters into Supergirl and tells Batman what’s happening. “It’s real bad in there. Nothin’ I can do. But if we don’t do something that other Batman is gonna be a murderer!”

Bruce Sr. visits Alfred’s gravesite again and talks to his ghost. Back at the asylum, Batman gets the doctor to counteract the sedation drugs in hopes that it will somehow make Dick more rational. Inside the Joker’s mind, Batman is about to kill him when Alfred’s ghost shows up. As he reasons with Dick, the Bat-corpse is restored to health. He convinces Dick that it’s okay to let go, since the Joker is now old and feeble. “It is time…for both of us…to rest”. As the two embrace, they fade away.

Batman (Bruce Sr. with only the black bat emblem) goes to visit the Joker, who is better, but still dying. The Joker begs Batman to let him see behind his mask, so that he can die happy. Batman refuses. “You’ve come to the wrong place if you’re looking for serenity. You’re the last man on earth I would ever want to see die happy!” Bruce Sr., Bruce Jr., and Kara gather around Dick’s tombstone (He was 39 when he was killed). They feel like he is finally at peace. Bruce Jr. wonders what Thomas Wayne would say if he knew that his death led to the Batman legacy. Bruce Sr. (now completely gray) confesses that he feels he did somehow know it was going to happen (we’ll see how this is possible in 2019). Bruce Sr. also tells them that he won’t be able to talk to Alfred again.

This story also introduces Hal Jordan as an aging test pilot. He’s considering retiring from the “jet-set” and embarking on a new career (ala John Glenn). It’s really just a set up for stories later in the G2 series.

1979 (G1#3, part 1 – “Twilight of the Gods”)

Whenever they get around to publishing a retrospective of John Byrne’s greatest works – THIS story needs to be included. It should be required reading for ALL comic book fans. It’s by far my favorite of the series and you’ll know why soon…

“The Story of the Century and Nobody Knows!!” pronounces an elderly Lois Lane from her hospital bed. She’s referring to the announcement in the newspaper that Kara Kent is marrying Bruce Wayne Jr. Clark is at her bedside also looking quite his age as well. They meet her specialist, Doctor Holurt, who thinks that he can keep her alive at least through the wedding, if not longer. Clark leaves and heads for the roof, where he changes into Superman – a much younger looking Superman. He files over to the Daily Planet, where he’s now the EIC, ducks into a store room, applies some makeup, and walks out as elderly Clark again. He devised this disguise so that he could “grow old” with Lois.

Just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, Supergirl and Batman are on Brainiac’s ship. Batman is tinkering with the computer system and Supergirl is smashing some hunter-killer missiles. Brainiac is changing into his Gil Kane silver robot form and when the “mecha-morphosis” is complete he’ll be able to start taking over the galaxy. Batman directs Supergirl to push his ship out of orbit, because when Brainiac activates his systems, Bruce’s sabotage should have a dramatic affect. This is not an easy task for Kara as she only has half the power levels of Superman. She’s successful, but then Brainiac’s ship starts collapsing into a miniature Black Hole, which threatens to suck in the Bat-Shuttle. “Hang on, Honey! Having you compressed to subatomic size would really wreck our wedding plans!” She’s able to pull against the gravity long enough for Brainiac’s ship to reach the compression threshold (whatever that is) and it all ends in a spectacular atmospheric display. Clark and Jimmy Olsen see it from out the Daily Planet office windows. Jimmy is soon to retire and Clark muses that Kara’s wedding is “a bright and shining beginning.”

Meanwhile, Bruce Sr. has finally reached Ra’s Al Ghul’s remote mountain headquarters, where RAG offers him a proposition involving the Lazarus Pit (and if you read Gwen’s comment from last week you already know what’s going to happen.) : )

Bruce Jr. is now standing atop his penthouse balcony when Kara arrives as Supergirl, removing her wig as she lands. Although, they were going to maintain “tradition” and not see each other before the wedding, she now has “a better idea”. Given the passionate way she whisks him up into the sky and the fact that she drops her uniform back down on the penthouse floor, leads me to believe that this could be the first time they are intimate together (or maybe I’m just naïve). While I don’t necessarily like the timing, it is a beautiful scene.

Cut to a helmeted figure in an armored “Luthor” suit, whose face is completely obscured. His wife, Mei-Lai, is imploring him not to leave. Unfortunately, the rage in his heart is too strong to stop him from his mission of vengeance.

It’s time for the wedding, which is outside, and we only get to see BJ’s reaction as Kara appears in her wedding dress, before we switch to just after the ceremony. Lois’ specialist is in attendance and he’s definitely glad to be there for the show. As Kara and Bruce are doing their “first dance” together, suddenly the armored figure flies up and attacks Clark with a bolt of intense Krytonite radiation. Kara cannot see through the armor, but she’s sure Luthor is involved somehow and she quickly dons her Supergirl costume. The masked figure buffets her far away and then flies after her.

The crowd (including Jimmy) are in disbelief that Clark is Superman and Kara is Supergirl. BJ tries to help Clark, but Clark, Lois, and her doctor are now within a force field bubble. Clark urges BJ to stop Luthor and he rushes off, but then Lois’ doctor, removing his disguise reveals that he is really Lex Luthor. He approaches Lois and abruptly snaps her neck, killing her. Helpless and broken, Clark promises to kill Luthor. “Save your breath, Superman. Today is not your day to die. I want you alive, to see your whole family perish! And now that your wife is dead it is time for your daughter to join her!”

The armored figure arrives to the spot of Supergirl’s impact and she promises to “mold that suit into the bars of [his] cell”. However, he shows her that the power isn’t just in the suit, shattering the metal armor and revealing himself to be her “dead” brother Joel (in the purple and green Luthor uniform), now with super-powers. He explains that a Vietnamese girl nursed him back to health after his men shot him in the back. She became his wife after he was able to contact his “true father” Lex Luthor. The battle is fierce as Joel vents his rage at Kara. He tells her that Luthor not only told him that his father was Superman, but that Superman had exposed him to Gold-K so he would be powerless. In what is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in all of comics, he kills her.

Batman arrives on the scene to find her lifeless body and draws his wife close to him as he weeps in the pouring rain.

Back in Luthor’s lair, Joel is starting to die from the powers he received from Luthor. Clark had always told Joel that he could never find a way to give him powers without killing him. “A…lie. The...first of…so many..he…” “Well, no, not precisely.” Luthor gloats. “You see, my poor, foolish, gullible boy…Your father has never lied to you. While I, on the other hand, have always lied…” Superman arrives right at that moment and by the time he reaches Joel, he’s already dead. He rushes at Luthor, but it’s just a hologram.

As tragic as this story is, Byrne gives the reader a glimmer of hope as Mel-Lai shows Superman his infant grandson. However, it only intensifies his grief, since this child would be powerless too and possibly suffer some of the same problems as Joel. Batman arrives (now is a black cowl) and promises to raise the child as his son. “We both lost everything today. Everything that matters…Yet, in this child, perhaps, we can build a true union of our family and a hope for a better tomorrow!” The young child grabs Batman’s finger and smiles.

I’ve read this story several times over the years and it always seems to affect me. Reading the series in chronological order this time made it especially powerful. I really like these characters – they seem so real. Maybe having real death in comics makes them that way.

Well, I can tell by the number of pages that I went a little longer than I expected this time, so I’ll try to resume with 1986 next week.


  1. I enjoyed the generations stuff a lot and wish DC would do a hard cover of this material. Of course Byrne seems to be persona non grata in the comic world.

  2. A hardcover would be incredible, especially since Byrne could easily add in a few chapters to increase the page count.

    Mr. Byrne seems to be doing well over at IDW with his Star Trek comics.