Saturday, June 05, 2010

Thru Time They Are A Aging -- John Byrne’s Superman & Batman: Generations (Part 1 of ?)

For most of the past week, Comics And has been commenting on the death of Ryan Choi, the most recent individual to take up the mantle of the Atom in the DC Universe. Some of the discussion centered on the idea of moving super-hero comics forward by letting characters age and changing the face under the mask. This all reminded me of the excellent Superman & Batman: Generations series by John Byrne. Actually, there have been three Generations series: Generations (G1) from 1999, Generations2 (G2) from 2001, and Generations3 (G3) from 2003. All told the epic clocks in around 650 pages and I reread the entire thing in the last couple of weeks (I told you I needed to catch up on my reading). Due to it’s length (and other reasons that will be revealed later), I’m going to divide this topic into two posts. Next week (Lord willing) I’ll cover G3, but this week the focus will be on G1 and G2.

G1 and G2 were both produced as a four-issue prestige format (48-pages each) mini-series. Each issue is divided into two stories. For Generations the stories jump a decade at a time starting in 1939. For Generations2 the stories jump 11 years at a time starting in 1942 (There was an editorial mandate that G2 include some of the other heroes in the DCU like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash). The final story in each mini-series is a flashback tale.

John Byrne provides a text piece in the first issues that explains the concept. Not only are the characters going to grow older and have children, but also each story will be written and drawn similar to the comics produced during that time frame. The characterization will reflect those times as well, meaning Superman and Batman start out as ruthless vigilantes and then become “never-killers”. Continuity is not fixed, since Clark initially was working for the Daily Star, before it was changed to the Daily Planet. I decided I wanted to reread these two series in chronological order, which meant I alternated between G1 and G2.

The best way to cover all the characters that are in this series is to provide a brief synopsis of each year, which are listed below:

1939 (G1#1, part 1 – “The Vigilantes”):

The Bat-Man and Superman meet for the first time at the 1939 Metropolis World’s Fair where they battle a giant robot controlled by the Ultra-Humanite. Both heroes are clad in their original uniforms (super-socks and bat-glider wings). “Ultra” looks like Professor X – bald and wheel chair bound (only really mean). He has a henchman with red hair referred to as “Ell”. There is a neat scene where Dick Grayson helps an unconscious Bruce Wayne from Ultra’s goons. (The Flying Graysons are performing at the Fair.)

Ultra has captured Lois Lane, who is doing her usual damsel routine only with a pack of cigarettes in her purse. When the heroes arrive, Ultra tries to escape by rocketing off in the Pyramax (the Trylon of the All-Star Squadron HQ), but Superman destroys the ship with the “rigged to explode” Hyperglobe (the Perisphere of the A-S S HQ). There is no attempt to save the villains from their fate, he could only leap to save them anyway. A red wig is seen floating in the falling debris.

1942 (G2#1, part 1 – “Battlefields”):

This is a WWII issue where we have the Justice Society of America (Hawkman, Blackhawks, Spectre, Alan Scott Green Lantern, etc.) attacking a giant Nazi war machine alongside Superman. After the machine is toppled, an escape pod is launched and when Superman tears it apart, he discovers a hooded figure that exposes him to Kryptonite for the first time. The villain shows Superman that he’s actually the Ultra-Humanite.

Later, Lex Luthor has captured Lois Lane and Robin. Robin unties himself and starts attacking Luthor’s thugs. One of them issues a command to Robin using the Bat-Voice (in a really neat Bat-shaped word balloon). Robin responds automatically before he even realizes what happened – then the thug removes his facemask to reveal a cowled Batman (short-ears). The dynamic duo quickly dispatches Luthor and his goons.

There is a nice sequence with Lois and Clark at the end, where we find out why Clark failed his Army Induction exam. He failed the eye test, because he “got a little too eager and read the eye chart in next room”. Wonder Woman also makes here Generations Universe (GU) debut in this story.

1949 (G1#1, part 2 – “Family Matters”):

Lois Lane has been captured again, but this time by the Joker (classic Dick Sprang version). However, Lois is also pregnant with her and Clark’s first child. Superman crashes in to save her, but then Joker pulls out some Kryptonite. While the Joker gloats over Superman’s body (juggling the Green-K like a ball), Superman gets up and suddenly grabs his hands, before being gunned down by Lex Luthor. Then in classic Scooby-Doo fashion, the Superman facemask is pulled off to reveal yet another cowled Batman.

The story rewinds 24-hours to the Batcave, where we see Robin in a more adult costume (long green tights versus short green pants). He’s just canceled his cab, so that he can have one more patrol with Batman before going off to college. The commissioner is now Jim Gordon’s son, Tony, who took over when his father was declared legally dead after disappearing.

Back to the dead Batman, we learn that Lex Luthor had rescued the Joker from a Soviet Slave Labor Camp to have him acquire some yellow metal for him. Superman arrives on the scene where Luthor explains that he had exposed Superman’s unborn child to Gold Kryptonite, so that he would not have super-powers (which makes him completely human). Batman revives (since Superman had actually melted the bullet with his heat vision before it hit him) and takes out the Joker. Luthor jumps into his escape rocket and Batman jams the launch pad with a batarang, so that it can’t take off. Too bad Luthor rigged the building to explode and Superman is still too weak from Green-K exposure to rescue him.

In what will be a very important plot point, Clark and Lois decide that it’s too dangerous for their son, Joel, to ever know that his father is Superman. Also, Bruce Wayne’s wife (whose identity is never revealed) now has a “bun in the oven” herself.

1953 (G2#1, part 2 – “Absent Friends”):

At the beginning of this story, Jim Gordon returns “back from the dead”. Apparently, he had gone missing while searching for “The Head of the Demon”. Here we get the first mention of his granddaughter, Barbara, who is curious as to why he visited Bruce Wayne before seeing his family. Bruce is now graying at the temples and Alfred is losing more of his hair. Dick is nowhere to be seen, probably still in school. Gordon reveals that he’s known that Bruce is Batman for quite a while.

Superman is powerless, trapped on a world with a red sun. He took the risk traveling to such an environment in hopes that he could find a cure for Perry White’s cancer. Superman with the help of some native aliens (I know that’s an oxymoron) manages to send off a transmission flare for help, which is picked up by Green Lantern (Abin Sur that is). This is the first encounter with an actual member of the GL Corps. He rescues Superman and takes him back to earth where he meets Alan Scott. Apparently, a fragment of the element that the GL Corps gets their power from was lost centuries ago and ended up in China where Alan Scott found it. Neither of them understands why Abin’s ring has a “yellow” weakness, but Alan’s ring has a “wood” weakness, especially if they came from the same source.

Wonder Woman is about to give birth. Unfortunately, her husband Steve Trevor has just been shot down over North Korea. Wonder Girl, a 3D holographic projection of a teen-aged Diana (explaining WG is never easy), travels to Korea in the invisible plane and finds Trevor’s mangled body, intending to take him back to Paradise Island to be healed by the Purple Ray. Diana and Lois give birth to girls simultaneously (did I forget to mention Lois was pregnant again?). However, Diana’s birth is met with sorrow, since Steve Trevor died on the way to Themyscira. He was only 40 years old.

1959 (G1#2, part 1 – “Strange Days”):

In this story Batman battles Mr. Mxyzptlk and Superman battles Bat-Mite. Both imps are causing large-scale havoc – literally. Batman must ride a living warehouse like a bucking bronco and Superman has been turned into a giant Super-Frankenstein. Why have these two dimensional creatures switched heroes to torment? Well, they’re working for a couple of aliens who want to determine which hero is stronger, so that they can then enlist that hero’s help in saving their world. If that sounds totally illogical – IT IS!!! However, it fits with a lot of the Silver Age stories of the late 50’s, which makes it work. Superman and Batman manage to trick Mxy and Bat-Mite, so that the aliens will realize that the imps should be the ones to help them out.

Lois is looking a bit older now, I’m sure the incessant smoking isn’t helping. She’s surprised to learn that her six-year old, blonde-haired daughter, Kara, can now float above the carpet. She gives her a pendant that simulates red sun radiation to keep Kara normal for a while yet. Lois had worn the pendant during pregnancy to ensure Kara didn’t develop powers in the womb.

Batman’s son, Bruce Jr.(BJ), is wearing the original Robin costume and is training in the Batcave to be the next Boy Wonder, but his mother doesn’t want him to fight crime yet. Dick Grayson returns for a visit. He is now a New York Lawyer and isn’t quite ready to become Batman…yet (as Bruce still has a few active years left).

In the last chilling panel, Lex Luthor approaches Joel Kent, while he’s fixing his bicycle, to tell him something important about his family…

1964 (G2#2, part 1 – “Children’s Hour”)

Dick is now Batman and the costume has the yellow oval around the bat emblem and the “ears” are longer. On Halloween night, BJ is wearing the Robin costume again, but his mother is still refusing to let him partner with Batman. It looks like Bruce Sr. is retired and enjoying it.

In contrast, Kara is given permission to go public as Supergirl by Lois and Clark. She wears the original all-blue uniform, but uses a brunette wig to hide her blonde hair. Seeing his sister get the "super" treatment makes Joel very jealous, angry and bitter. The Kents have no idea how he discovered that Clark was Superman a few years before, but growing up believing a lie and then finding out the real truth totally changed the demeanor of this formerly happy child.

I know this from experience, although I was more sad than angry. My mother remarried when I was two and I grew up thinking my stepfather (now ex-step) was my “Daddy”. When I was four I got into an argument with my stepsister over “our” Daddy: “He’s my Daddy. No, he’s MY Daddy” – back and forth, up and down (we were both riding the same rocking horse). My mother then showed me the two wedding albums, one without children and one with children. I never called my stepfather “Daddy” again and I felt deeply betrayed. They were going to tell me, they just waited a little too long. This event really shook me up for years (I even had to go see a child psychologist after 3rd grade – all I remember from the sessions were the broken toys they had), but it also helped forge me into an honest person (to a fault some might say). : )

Joel uses a device that teleports him to Luthor’s lair. Luther has become a surrogate father to him, fueling his rage and hatred toward his real family.

Meanwhile Dick goes on patrol and enters into a high-rise apartment where he meets Batgirl (Barbara). The two playfully flip each other around until they decide to “work out” behind the couch (all you see is the couch and the clock showing the passage of time). The two shower afterwords before really heading out to fight crime.

Kara goes to visit BJ (still in his Robin costume) and she learns about his mother’s refusal for him to “wear the mask”. She whisks him away to Central City where they team-up with Kid-Flash and Wonder Girl (Diana’s daughter Stephanie) to fight Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, and Gorilla Grodd. After they successfully defeat the villains, they decide to form their own super-hero team, the Tee…Nope, the Justice League of America!

Well, it turns out I was a little too ambitious to think I could cover all of G1 and G2 in one post (I’m thinking it will now take three and that’s NOT including G3!). However, we’ve covered 25 years of continuity and plot already, which I think is pretty good. I hope these synopses (I won’t use the term “brief” this time) give you enough of an appreciation for these stories. So far I’ve focused on a lot of the plot points and characters and maybe you think it would all be too cumbersome, but really the stories are action packed and read really well. I think it’s some of John Byrne’s finest work. Next week, we’ll focus on the years 1969 to 1989 – it’s really the heart of the series and it’s FANTASTIC!!!


  1. It was great stuff and made me believe even more that moving heroes forward could work and be more interesting that having our heroes stuck in forever mode.

  2. I loved those books, I always thought the Ras Al Ghul solution to making Batman ageless was brilliant - because then the staple Batman stays around but it's not some 60-80 year old guy in a costume. At the same time all the other characters moved forward as well.