Retroactive Crisis Story on Imaginary Earth Continuities: DC vs Marvel, Amalgam

Yes, you read that right. This is simultaneously a Retroactive Continuity entry, since some of what it discusses occurred outside the first year of STAS; an Imaginary Story, since it involves DCAU characters outside the DCAU; and a Crisis on N Earths, since it involves something entirely outside the DCAU or its characters.

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“Who would win?”

There is, perhaps, no question less worth asking than who “would win” in a fight between two fictional characters, for a host of reasons, starting that the question is fundamentally meaningless as it leaves out vital context: What are the victory conditions? What resources are they allowed access to–sidekicks, allies, secret lairs, equipment used in one “What If?” story 30 years ago? Where are they fighting? Why are they fighting? How well-rested are they?

Leaving out that context, however, is the point, because this question more than any other is where the juxtaposition between the collector mentality and toxic masculinity we talked about back in “The Main Man” can be found. There is no meaningful answer to the question, but for any long-running character with multiple interpretations (for example, any well-known superhero), there is an essentially endless supply of data to throw at it in pursuit of a meaningless answer.

The answer to the question is always the character for whose victory the conditions of the combat were designed, which means it’s really a question of who gets to set those conditions: who, in other words, is able to assert dominance. Generally speaking, this dominance is established by shouting increasingly obscure factoids about past stories at one another, which is to say, the contest will generally go to whoever has curated the greatest collection of such factoids.

So an entire event series built around the question (which the editors of DC vs Marvel assert it explicitly is in the second issue) of who would win in a series of fights between Marvel and DC characters seems like a terrible idea–and it is. Fortunately, even the writers of mainstream superhero comics circa 1996-7 aren’t completely incompetent, and so that declared premise is essentially abandoned a little past the halfway mark, as the event which is allowing the two “universes” to interact causes them to merge entirely–and, more importantly, causes the characters and their books to fuse. The result was a month in which “Amalgam Comics” published several #1 issues like Super-Soldier (which combined elements of Captain America and Superman), Amazon (Wonder Woman and Storm), and Dark Claw (Wolverine and Batman). In actuality, Amalgam was, as the name implies, a joint imprint, with half the comics published by DC and the other by Marvel. The next year, long after the event ended, they did it again, with significantly weirder (and, as a consequence, largely more interesting) combinations like Dark Claw Adventures (an all-ages comic spun off from the fictitious Dark Claw: The Animated Series), Lobo the Duck (Howard the Duck and Lobo, which is possibly the best combination of the lot), and Super-Soldier: Man of War (which “reprints” WWII-era Super-Soldier stories).

As a premise, there is far more to play with here. Sometimes it works: Green Skull, the villain of both Super-Soldier books, is a fantastic character, a fusion of Lex Luthor and the Red Skull into a weapons developer who tried to keep World War II running forever so he could profit off sales to both sides. Other times it doesn’t: the titular Spider-Boy combines Peter Parker’s motormouth with 90s Superboy’s insufferable “attitude” and even more insufferable jacket.

More important than what does or doesn’t work, however, is the inversion of how event comics had tended to work up to that point: as thinly veiled excuses to get characters who normally wouldn’t to punch each other. In DC vs. Marvel, the “vs” part is the thinly veiled excuse; the point of the story is a different kind of spectacle, a blurring of boundaries with the explicit goal of reassembling old elements into something new.

Much of the 90s in comics were spent catering to toxic masculinity and collectors. Characters like those in Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood–perhaps the most 90s of all 90s comics–are pure power fantasy, hence the degree to which they are essentially indistinguishable from villains. They exist to  hurt and punish, protecting no one. Meanwhile, gimmicks like zeroth issues, foil covers, and crossover events sought out a market of collectors–the former two by presenting themselves as objects which would one day be rare, the latter by presenting a challenge to the completionist urge.

DC vs. Marvel presents itself as an appeal to both impulses, being a crossover event based entirely on answering the question of “who would win,” but undermines those same impulses from the start. By making the outcomes of the battles subject to a reader vote, they denied the desire for dominance that is the root of the question. This confluence of masculinity and power is questioned in the text of the comic as well when, in one of its best moments, Wonder Woman sees Thor’s hammer, which had gone flying after Thor’s defeat of DC’s Captain Marvel, and reads its inscription. Her response: “‘…if he be worthy..?’ I don’t understand. ‘Worthy’ is an awfully subjective word. How does one determine worthiness to possess the power of [Thor?]” The last word is cut off by a burst of energy as she picks up the hammer, which is followed up the reveal on the final page of that issue, a full-page spread dominated by the image of Wonder Woman wielding the hammer, her costume modified to incorporate elements of Thor’s.

In the next issue, on encountering her opponent Storm, Wonder Woman immediately discards the hammer as an unfair advantage. There is an interesting contrast here: Thor, on realizing Captain Marvel’s powers were lightning-themed, used his hammer and its control over lightning to win the fight. Wonder Woman, on realizing Storm’s powers are lightning-themed, now discards that same hammer because it isn’t fair. The implication is that it would be wrong to keep the hammer, unworthy: her worth to wield the power of Thor lies in her willingness to throw it away. She is a reassertion of the protector fantasy over the power fantasy; it should be no surprise that this same issue sees the birth of amalgam, which replaces the question of “who would win?” with the far more interesting “how can we play with this?”

Whether the crossover or ensuing Amalgam comics are any good (they mostly aren’t) is not the point; the point is what this effort represents: a shift away from the shouting, hulking, murderous brute in the center of the story to the vastly more interesting things that can happen in the story’s fringes. Of course this is hardly new to comics; finding new things to say in the fringes of old stories and old characters is what Alan Moore did in Watchmen, Neil Gaiman in Sandman, and Grant Morrison in Animal Man, all a decade or more before Amalgam. But those were all “prestige” titles. Where Marvel vs. DC matters is that it marks the point where mainstream superhero comics finally, if only briefly, understood why those works are good, and tried a little of it on themselves.

Current status of the Patreon:

Last-Minute Otakon Panel Addition

Otakon asked me to do the Utena panel as well! So my full list of panels is now:

  • The Duel Named Revolution: Making Sense of Revolutionary Girl Utena: Friday 8/11 10:15 AM in Panel 4.
  • Break the World’s Shell! Apocalypse and Anime: Friday 8/11 4:30 PM in Panel 2.
  • Spiraling Back: Gurren Lagann 10 Years Later (new panel w/Viga!): Saturday 8/12 at 6 PM in Panel 8.
  • Fullmetal Alchemy: Saturday 8/12 at 9:45 PM in Panel 2.


Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin Adventures #11-15

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The issues of The Batman and Robin Adventures which coincide roughly with the airing of the first season of Superman: The Animated Series* together form a sort of study in unreliable narrators, always a pleasure to find in the more visual narrative media, given the unfortunate tendency of readers and viewers to treat images as more objective than words.

This study opens with the relatively straightforward issue #11, “Windows to the Soul.” A rare BARA story with no villain, it begins with Alfred seeing a “bat monster” in Wayne Manor and being condescendingly dismissed by Batman. As it turns out, Man-Bat–Langstrom, back on his serum–is living in the cavern system of which the Batcave is part. But his initial framing as a monster–both within the issue, and in his overall portrayal going back to the very beginning of Batman: The Animated Series–falls away to reveal that he is now fully in control of his actions, and has no intention of harming anyone. In his own broken words, he rejects efforts by Batman and Robin to “cure” him, asking what right they have to determine his shape for him. It’s a powerful moment that resonates to the present day: how dare any of us decide another person’s shape for them? What looks like a monster in one light may look innocent in another, and we cannot see through the eyes of the person we’re judging. Each of us is an expert on our own identity and cannot tell another who they are.

This theme is followed up in issue #12, “To Live and Die in Gotham City,” which follows Bane in the aftermath of his defeat by Batman, left for dead and suffering from Venom withdrawal. Much like The Batman Adventures‘ “In Memoriam,” the issue treats time nonlinearly; however, where that issue used sudden “jumps” to represent lapses in memory, this issue does the opposite, blending past and present together, with characters and scenes flowing into each other as Bane’s withdrawal-addled mind struggles to make sense of his surroundings and separate them from his memories. In the end his confusion leads to him rejecting everyone around himself–even the one man who helped him–as enemies, and he returns to the path of drugs and violence. But by showing us Bane at his lowest, through his own eyes, this becomes the “sympathetic villain” story Bane never got.

It also, fittingly, contains a moving tribute to Mike Parobeck, the same one printed in the Annual (the last project he worked on). Parobeck died in July 1996 at the age of only 31, from complications related to diabetes; his clean layouts and fluid, cartoony style helped define Batman Adventures and the early issues of Batman and Robin Adventures. In the letters columns of ensuing issues, multiple readers contrasted his style favorably to the “grim and gritty” style that dominated superhero comics, especially Batman, at the time. There are few characters who epitomize that grim-and-grit more than Bane, a character created to break Batman so he could be replaced by someone more in keeping with that aesthetic–and yet this comic for children presents Bane in a more complex, psychologically realistic way than ever before. Parobeck’s style helped make that possible, and helped point the way forward, out of the morass of adolescent, Miller-esque self-conscious edginess.

Like “To Live and Die…,” Issue #13 also sympathetically presents distorted thinking and hallucinations by letting us see them through the eyes of the sufferer.  In the case of “Knightmare,” that’s Batman, suffering from a combination of paranoia and terrifying hallucinations brought on by exposure to Scarecrow’s fear toxin. He becomes convinced that the attempted robbery at the beginning of the issue–which Batman and Robin prevented, though they failed to capture Scarecrow–was part of a bigger scheme,  one apocalyptic in scale. Neither Alfred nor Robin believes him,  insisting he needs to rest and get the toxin out of his system, but they are unable to stop him from returning to the site of the crime–where, it turns out, Scarecrow is about to trigger his scheme to plunge hundreds of millions of people into abject terror, in the belief that fear will unite the world and bring peace. Batman is the narrative center of the comic, and presented as a paragon of humanity; of course he’s still right, even when he’s raving under the influence of fear toxin.

But the result is, in a series–indeed, an industry–where “madness” is equated with evil, this is nonetheless an issue where the “madman” is right, and his “madness” saves the day. It’s a helpful reminder that there’s truth to the old joke: “Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean there’s no one out to get you.” Just because there was strong emotion attached to it doesn’t mean Batman’s reasoning was wrong: he’s right that Scarecrow has a history of large-scale attacks using television as a medium, that it doesn’t make any sense for him to bring an electronics expert to rob a television station if he was just after money, and that therefore it’s likely he was intending something else. But Robin and Alfred can’t see past his obsessive behavior and unhinged appearance; they judge him as being in bad shape and ignore the genuine logic of his words. But who are they to judge what shape he should be?

Issues #11-13 thus form a triptych of sorts, about judging others before seeing through their eyes. Issue #14 continues the interest in playing with point of view, but from a different angle: “Dagger’s Tale” is a story from the perspective of one of Gotham’s endless supply of small-time thugs, specifically the story of his tattoo. It’s not a complex story: he was captured by Batman, sent to prison, vengefully attacked Batman as soon as he got out, lost again and went straight back to prison. His is the realization that there’s always someone better, that he’s not the biggest, strongest kid on the block and can’t act like it. Dagger was, in other words, one of those villains who doesn’t want to tear down the hierarchy, but rather stand atop it, and he now realizes he never will. It is as close as anything in or near the DCAU ever comes to acknowledge that the pinnacle of the criminal  hierarchy of Gotham is Batman–that, as we have observed before, he stands above both the city government and its criminals, with the general population at the bottom. Tellingly, however, this story comes near the end of Superman: The Animated Series‘ first season: Gotham isn’t the world anymore, and there’s a bigger dog yet looming over Batman.

The final story in this block, “Second Chances,” plays with audience perspective by acknowledging that there are, broadly, two kinds of reader for an all-ages TV-tie-in comic: obsessive comics fans who devour entire lines, and relative newcomers who picked the book up because of the show. “Second Chances” presents Robin with a mystery that contains red herrings for both kinds of readers, as his old circus returns to town and he learns that they have a new acrobat to replace the Flying Graysons: Boston Brand. Someone has been stealing from the circus, and Robin investigates; there is immediate friction between Robin and Brand, and some circumstantial evidence leading the reader who doesn’t recognize the name to surmise that Brand is the thief. The more experienced comics reader, however, will recognize that Boston Brand is the civilian identity of Deadman, a circus acrobat who was murdered and came back as sort of ghost superhero; that reader’s assumption, therefore, is that the thief will kill Brand, giving us Deadman’s DCAU origin story.

As I said, however, both are red herrings: the real thief is trying to frame Brand, who is still alive at the end of the story. Both the uninformed and informed point of view lead to incorrect conclusions, as both lack critical information which Robin reveals near the end of the comic. It’s not a fair-play mystery, but then it never claimed to be. Rather, it’s a followup to “Knightmare”: not only do we need to not dismiss other points of view out of hand, we need to remember that our own points of view may miss or distort something crucial. There is no objective perspective, only varying subjectivities.

*October 1996 – February 1997. The series started airing in September 1996, but that issue–“Blood of the Demon”–fit in better with the prior group and so was covered there.

Current status of the Patreon:

Otakon 2017 Schedule!

I’m going to be presenting at Otakon this year, for the first time in more than half a decade!

My panels:

  • Break the World’s Shell! Apocalypse and Anime: Friday 8/11 4:30 PM in Panel 2.
  • Spiraling Back: Gurren Lagann 10 Years Later (new panel w/Viga!): Saturday 8/12 at 6 PM in Panel 8.
  • Fullmetal Alchemy: Saturday 8/12 at 9:45 PM in Panel 2.

I’m feeling particularly meta about that middle one–my first panel ever was a Gurren Lagann panel, with Viga, at Otakon 2008. We really are spiraling back!

I may also do the Utena panel if there’s a cancellation.