Interlude: Talking to Myself

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When art speaks to us, it speaks in our own voice.

When I was first gearing up to start this project, I happened to mention it to Phil Sandifer. I had already come up with the approach of Near-Apocalypse and grappling with the authoritarianism inherent in the concept of the superhero, but Phil added the missing piece of the puzzle: a copy of his PhD thesis, on what I’ve taken to calling heroic trauma.

I latched powerfully onto that concept. Something in it spoke deeply to me, and I began playing with ideas taken from that thesis. They became a core element of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, as well as turning up in my panels and, eventually, Animated Discussions, where an extended discussion of trauma formed the second of the book’s three parts.

Meanwhile, throughout Near-Apocalypse, I’ve commented on how infrequently I show up in the narrative. My own direct involvement has appeared in only a handful of places–off the top of my head, I can think of two, the Adam West Batman movie and one of the Batman and Robin Adventures entries, though I suspect there are others I’m forgetting.

But the thing about exploring an ideaspace is that you are, inevitably, exploring yourself. That’s where ideas exist, after all: inside us. And unless you’re psychic (which you’re not), the only ideas you can explore are the ones in your head. Not, to be clear, necessarily ones that started in your head–we have this whole thing called “language” that exists to put ideas in other people’s heads–but in your head is where you meet them.

I get why Phil’s ideas about trauma and superheroes hit me so powerfully now.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Lego Batman Movie. Batman is isolated, I said. He cuts himself off from the world as protection from the pain and trauma he risks by connecting to people–but in so doing, he just puts himself in more pain.

I have acid reflux disease, and I get chest pains whenever I let myself get too hungry. If I eat something small, like a handful of dry cereal, they go away. That’s not supposed to work–it certainly doesn’t work when I get other kinds of reflux attacks, from eating too much or eating the wrong thing or sleeping at a bad angle.

Because they’re not reflux attacks, they’re panic attacks, I recently realized. See, in my teens I had a rare disorder called achalasia. I’ll spare you the details, but the short version is that I had serious limits on what I could eat, and frequently I was physically incapable of eating at all. I ended up malnourished, severely underweight, and the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I eventually had to be hospitalized and fed intravenously for several days because I couldn’t even swallow water anymore.

The achalasia was surgically corrected when I was nineteen–my acid reflux is actually a side effect of that surgery. But the panic attacks? I was terrified, hungry, and sick in that hospital, and in the years leading up to it. I struggled to keep food down, which made eating in public intensely humiliating–and guess what you have to do every goddamn day in high school?

(I am a fat dude who is triggered by being hungry. Literally triggered, panic attacks and all. Take your shots, people who find the concept of triggers amusing.)

I tell that story because it’s something I only figured out recently, but I was diagnosed with PTSD long ago. Mostly, it’s because I was abused and neglected as a child. A lot of other traumatic shit happened, too. A family member I was close to abandoned us when I was very young, my dad died when I was just hitting my teens, we lived in poverty for a big chunk of my childhood, I was a hostage once, I’ve witnessed a murder, the list goes on. (And if I seem to be making light of all this, that’s because I am. I have to, or else this essay and the all the others I need to write this month would never get done.)

But the big one is the abuse and neglect. Because of it, I’ve cut myself off from people my whole life. Always holding back, always keeping a distance, never trusting. I even justified to myself that I was doing it for their protection–so that they wouldn’t be exposed to whatever it was inside me that made people want to hurt me when I was a child. Everything I wrote about Lego Batman was a message to myself.

Everything I’ve written in the last two years about superheroes and trauma is a message to myself. It’s only now that I’m beginning to listen.


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Retroactive Continuity: Ms. Marvel vol. 1: No Normal

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing my Patreon, Shane!

We have talked a great deal of late about the secret identity as a metaphor for trauma, and in particular for the fragmentation of identity engendered by trauma. We’ve also looked at a couple of potential challenges to that model, most importantly Wonder Woman (and Wonder Woman).

Ms. Marvel poses another, distinct challenge to the heroic trauma model, namely that Kamala Khan’s origin doesn’t seem to be particularly traumatic: it’s depicted as being more like a superhero-themed mystical experience than the violence and chaos of seeing one’s parents murdered or becoming a refugee from a destroyed world. Instead, the comic deploys Kamala’s emerging dual identities as a metaphor for double consciousness.

Coined by W.E.B. Dubois, double consciousness refers to the way in which marginalization (and racism in particular) causes a fragmentation of identity, because the marginalized person is simultaneously forced to adapt themselves to a culture hostile to them, and excluded by that culture. For their own safety, they must predict how the hostile culture will react to them, and therefore must maintain moment-to-moment awareness of how bigoted members of that culture would view them, in addition to the natural self-awareness we all have. This dual self-awareness is double consciousness, and distorts the formation of identity, as well as forcing a degree of internalization of the bigoted attitudes that underlie the marginalization.

We can see this play out over the course of Ms. Marvel vol. 1. Kamala wishes to be seen as beautiful, but expresses this in terms of wanting blonde hair or looking like her more popular, white classmate Zoe. She wants, as many teens do, to fit in, but the ways in which she doesn’t fit in are racialized: her religion, appearance, and family are all targets both of Zoe’s passive-aggressive racism and Kamala’s own self-criticism. As a young teen, she is in the process of carving out her own identity as young teens do, seeking it in community and culture, but that process is disrupted by the racism all around her. The people she wishes to be like–Zoe and Captain Marvel both–are pretty blonde white women, because a part of what she has learned about herself is that her own appearance and ethnicity are considered less-than.

The reason her superheroic origin is not depicted as traumatic is because her identity is already fragmented. Kamala has an inner Zoe, constantly judging her for being “too Muslim,” “too Pakistani,” “too different.” She considers herself ugly compared to Zoe, yet as she herself notes, donning Pakistani clothing gives her “+5 bling.” When she is within a cultural context where she isn’t othered, she’s beautiful. The problem isn’t her; it’s Zoe and everything Zoe represents–and the internal voice of Zoe that Kamala has had to adopt to protect herself from the Zoes of the world.

And then Kamala gets the power to change her shape and appearance.

At first she has little control over the power, and manifests as a duplicate of Captain Marvel. This makes total sense in terms of the protector fantasy: double consciousness is a survival tactic, after all. Kamala’s internalized racism is her default protector, and so her protector identity is initially an expression of the very white European beauty ideals she negatively judges herself against.

But from the start, Kamala’s consciousness of herself as herself, as opposed to her consciousness of herself as seen by racists and Islamophobes, is pushing back. Her vision when she receives her powers is of an angelic Captain Marvel, yes, but it’s an angelic Captain Marvel reciting Urdu poetry. Kamala soon finds that trying to be Captain Marvel feels wrong, and instead becomes the new Ms. Marvel, making her own costume and sticking to her own face, her own hair. What kind of a protector could she be, if she othered herself, perpetuated one of the greatest evils of our culture against herself? (And it is our culture–she has as good a claim to it as anyone.)

For Kamala, then, becoming Ms. Marvel isn’t a fragmentation of identity. The fragmentation is already there. Ms. Marvel is a path to healing, to finding a way of protecting herself and others while embracing all of who she is.

And who she is, as it turns out, is an immensely likable and entertaining character.


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Imaginary Story: Kingdom Come

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Note: I published the Wonder Woman essay early. It actually belongs between last week’s essay and this one.

It’s been a while since we talked about the real-life near-apocalypse, the Cold War expectation that the world would end in a fiery conflagration. In the aftermath of a Cold War that ended with more of a wet fart than a bang, the 90s became a decade whose most pressing question was, “Now what?” The world was supposed to end, and it didn’t–but far from inspiring hope, this led to confusion and despair.

In comics, this took the form of heroes who weren’t–dark, violent characters modeled more after the Punisher than Superman or Captain America. “Maturity” became a codeword for characters who weren’t so much morally ambiguous as they were the kind of “angsty badass loner” that LEGO Batman so expertly skewered.

But as the 90s continued, tastes began to swing in a new direction. The letters pages of Batman and Robin Adventures and Superman Adventures are full of praise for those comics’ decision to buck the general trend to “darkness,” and 1996’s Kingdom Come is similarly an attempt to reject that trend, or at least move beyond it.

Indeed, Kingdom Come is sometimes referred to as the beginning of DC’s move away from the grimdark aesthetic of the 90s and toward the hybrid of Silver Age aesthetics with darker thematics–which is to say, toward the New Sincerity movement which increasingly characterizes present pop art. However, as we just noted, this combination was already present in the DCAU and DC’s all-ages Adventures lines, while if we restrict it to mainstream comics, a likelier starting point is a few months later, with the beginning of Grant Morrison’s run on JLA. (About which more in a future entry.)

Nonetheless, Kingdom Come is a significant work, albeit more for how good it looks than any real meat. Alex Ross’ watercolors (guache, technically) give the book a feeling of solidity and seriousness, probably because paint is a medium we associate with museums more than the flimsy, cheaply printed short magazines that comics are published as. That very portentousness is key to the book’s effect: we are tiny, looking up at the battles of godlike beings, desperately trying to stay out from underfoot, but also compelled to stare in awe as the fate of the world unfolds before us.

This is compounded by the book’s general distance from its characters: there are a lot of superheroes in here, and none of them have much in the way of interiority or positionality. This is not necessarily a flaw; the Book of Revelation, quoted repeatedly throughout Kingdom Come, likewise has no characters to speak of, only archetypal figures who exist to fulfill roles in an extended allegory. This is a generic feature of apocalypses, particularly the classical apocalypse genre of which Revelation is the most well-known example: as revolutionary literature, they employed heavily (yet transparently, for those who understood the references) coded language and stories of catastrophe in a mythic past or prophesied future to express hope for the overthrow of contemporary oppressors.

In the case of Kingdom Come, the catastrophic conflict is located in neither the mythic past nor the prophesied future, but a fictional present. Here, two groups of heroes collide. The first group is initially motivated by altruism, saying they’re working for all of humanity, but quickly slide into a more dictatorial mode, quashing freedom in the name of safety and putting their enemies into a place literally called the Gulag. The other group are motivated by self-aggrandizement and love of power for its own sake, claiming an individualistic freedom-to-bully that quickly deteriorates into chaos and, in spots, erupts into outright fascism. At its climax, this conflict threatens to spill out and engulf the world, bringing with it a threat of nuclear annihilation.

The allegory is heavy-handed: the old heroes are Communism, the new Capitalism, and their clash could be the apocalypse–but isn’t. The “Western World,” and especially the United States, entered the 90s with a general sense of unease and malaise, a feeling that the other shoe never dropped. It is natural, since the forces of good never showed up for the final confrontation, to wonder if that means there are no forces of good (which is almost certainly true), and maybe even no forces of evil (which is debatable). Just varying shades of gray, in a world gone grubby and dim.

However, Kingdom Come is ultimately not an attempt to find a way out of the gray world of grimdark, despite that it is often positioned as such. It provides no way forward; instead, it follows the beats of the near-apocalypse of the 1980s, right up until the verge of nuclear annihilation–and then has Captain Marvel, who has been positioned (both within the text of Kingdom Come and in comics generally) as the representative of the kinder, simpler, better Good Ol’ Days, sacrifice himself to save a handful of heroes on both sides.

Herein lies the problem: there were no Good Ol’ Days. The past is as full of horrors as the present, often more so, and the impulse to seek safety within it is a reactionary one, guaranteed to perpetuate the horrors of the present. But ultimately this is all Kingdom Come has to offer, as its hagiographic art suggests: that we little people should look to the powerful to turn back the clock to a time when things were comfortable for them. Its ending, in which Wonder Woman and Superman are having a baby which they plan to raise jointly with Batman, is straightforwardly dynastic; it is the flipside to the vision of Wonder Woman as revolutionary, inspiring, uplifting goddess, instead commanding us to kneel before the gods in the hope that maybe they won’t slaughter us in their battles with one another.

In terms of comics, this means perpetuating the Silver Age: at the end of the story, the violent antiheroes are a broken, beaten lot, studying at the feet of their elders, to be more like them. There is no pushing forward into something new and different, which might incorporate elements of the Silver Age without being a part of it–something like Morrison’s JLA–but instead a retreat into comics’ past, when “things used to be better.”

As it ultimately had to be; if the role of the superhero is to prevent apocalypse, as indeed the closest thing Kingdom Come has to a main character, Norman McKay, spends the book attempting, then it follows that a conflict between superheroes can only end in near-apocalypse. The closest thing to true revolution–the annihilation of both sides and liberation of the people beneath their feet–is the attempt by the allied supervillains to nuke the heroes, and that is precisely what the walking symbol of the Good Old Days sacrifices himself to prevent.

The present is dark and scary and violent, Kingdom Come warns; the past is colorful and vibrant and familiar (and violent). But regardless of efforts to hold it back, the future still comes, one day at a time; endings are inevitable. Apocalypse cannot be held back forever.

Indeed, it has already begun.


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Retroactive Continuity: The LEGO Batman Movie

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Sorry this didn’t go up yesterday. I just plain forgot to queue it.

Seeing as we are in the midst of Superman: The Animated Series, which at least in its first season positions itself as a lighter alternative to the (relative) darkness of Batman: The Animated Series, let’s talk about another work that functions as a lighter alternative to a dark take on Batman: The LEGO Batman Movie.Much like BTAS (the existence of which it largely ignores), LEGO Batman positions itself as a hybridization of and successor to multiple past interpretations of Batman, declaring this most openly in an early scene where Alfred calls Batman out on numerous past phases of brooding and loneliness, with direct visual references accompanying the release dates of Batman v Superman, The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Batman and Robin, Batman Forever, Batman Returns, the Tim Burton Batman, and the 1966 Batman. However, it is not only a distillation of live-action versions of Batman: obviously, the film itself is a spinoff of The LEGO Movie, in which Batman appeared as a secondary character, and there are references to several goofy Golden Age villains, so comics and animation are included as well.

As a comedy, however, it is the ’66 Batman which is the most obvious predecessor, and both take essentially the same route to achieving their humor, focusing on Batman as a fundamentally ridiculous concept treated as such by the story, but regarded with unwavering seriousness by the characters. In much the same way that the ’66 Batman film uses this approach to mock institutional authority, especially the police, LEGO Batman uses it to mock toxic, fragile masculinity, and particularly the “angsty, badass loner” character type.

The groundwork for this was already laid in The LEGO Movie, where gags like Batman’s declaration “I only work in black, and very dark grays” (referring to building things out of LEGO) or his songs (“Darkness! No parents!”) laughed at the degree of self-conscious cool (a contradiction in terms) implicit in “darker” depictions of Batman. LEGO Batman, however, takes this beyond a joke, and actually applies a degree of psychological realism to it. Batman is, as we have observed many times, a child’s protector fantasy; what LEGO Batman does is show, again and again, what it is that it’s protecting him from: human connection.

This is where the fragility and toxicity of masculinity meet. Batman says it himself: he has no emotions other than anger (that he is willing to admit to). All other expression is denied, because masculinity is so easily lost: to cry, to express empathy, to do anything associated with stereotypes of women (especially anything which might imply sexual or romantic interest in men), is to lose one’s man card. Masculinity is hegemony; to be anything less than supremely powerful, the untouchable lord of the city who is better than everyone than everything, is to cease to be a man, and therefore to cease to be Batman. Vulnerability, by contrast, is weakness, and therefore any need or desire for help or support, anything other than the grim exercise of power, is emasculating. And so, in his constant desperate attempts to protect his masculinity, Batman hurts everyone around him: telling Alfred he’s not a father figure, telling the Joker he doesn’t need him, exploiting Robin, ignoring, minimizing, and actively disrupting the work of Barbara Gordon. Hegemony leads to fragility, which leads to toxicity.

But the film does not stop there; it digs deeper to get at the real source of these behaviors: fear. Batman positions his behavior as ultra-masculine, but in reality that’s an excuse to push people away, which (as Alfred observes early in the film) he does because he’s so afraid of losing someone he loves that he refuses to love anyone. This is a very common behavior in those who have experienced loss, especially people who lost a parent at a young age. One becomes hyperaware that all relationships have a deadline, frequently literally: every relationship, of every kind, is absolutely guaranteed to end. You will lose everyone you care about, whether to death, gradual drifting apart, or sudden schism. Probably not all at once, of course; but the fixation on that inevitable ending, and the awareness that it’s impossible to know when it will happen, makes it difficult not to treat it as having already happened. In that light, relationships become pointless exercises in unnecessary pain, and pushing people away is therefore instinctive.

Less obviously, that fixation on relationships’ endings makes it difficult to hold onto the awareness that others care; since the relationship is always ending, the positive feelings of being cared about evaporate almost immediately. Asserting–either in words as Batman does to Alfred early in the film, or through actions as when he sends the rest of the Bat Family away–that “I don’t care, and I don’t believe you do either” is a way of reconfirming that others do care, at least enough to be hurt or angry in response.

For all that he attempts to seem like the badass, angsty loner, Batman cannot ever be anything but a hurt and frightened child–and LEGO Batman portrays that fact more clearly and incisively than any other Batman film to date. In doing so, however, it becomes the first to move beyond that premise; in a precise inversion of his Mask of the Phantasm arc, this Batman grows to be part of a family, explicitly learns to let others in and keep them there. He learns to accept the possibility of loss and let go the need for control.

And yet somehow he continues to be Batman. There appears to be a contradiction here. If superheroes are defined by trauma, shouldn’t he cease to be one once he finds healing? If Batman is a child’s fears turned outwards, shouldn’t he stop being Batman once he confronts that fear?

But that’s just it: LEGO Batman was never Batman. In The LEGO Movie, the entire world, Batman included, is revealed to be the creation of a child playing with his father’s LEGO collection. In LEGO Batman, meanwhile, guns don’t have sound effects; instead, every time they’re fired, the voice actor for the character using the gun makes “pew pew” noises. Like its predecessor, LEGO Batman is a child’s game, and therefore even if Batman grows up, he remains a figure of play, a toy.

The more we try to treat Batman–who, as far as the DCAU and therefore The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 is concerned, is the ur-superhero from which all others derive–as something darkly serious, the more like a frightened child he becomes. The more we treat him like a silly toy, the more genuinely mature he can be.


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Retroactive Continuity: SuperZero Vol. 1

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Over the course of The Near-Apocalypse of ’09, three central concepts–pillars, if you will–have emerged. The first is heroic trauma, the idea that superheroes originate from intense personal traumas which fragment their identities, with subsequent adventures repeatedly reflecting back on their origin traumas. The second is the protector fantasy, that when we imagine superheroes, we are not imagining a more powerful version of ourselves, but rather that someone in power might care for and defend us. Finally, the third is near-apocalypse itself, that part of the role of the superhero is to defend the status quo.

Few characters exemplify these pillars as well as Dru, the main character of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s SuperZero. A 19-year-old high school student (intelligent but poorly served by conventional schooling, she’s been left back multiple times) in a world devoid of superheroes, she is determined to become one, and hatches a series of increasingly elaborate plots to do so, based on the origin stories of Batman, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four.

Each of the pillars we’ve discussed is addressed in the early issues of SuperZero. Dru alludes to something all superheroes have in common, “that their home life isn’t great,” in converstation with her friend; using Batman as an example, she insists that his quest to avenge his parents is a superpower, “he has revenge in his blood.” Her friend, suffering from parental abuse, quietly counters that “I should be able to fly and shoot power rays already.” The link between traumatic experience and superheroes’ powers is essentially stated in the text.

Dru’s own fantasies of becoming a superhero may initially seem like power fantasies, but this is not entirely the case. Certainly they are fantasies in which she is powerful, but the comic takes pains to depict her life in ways that show what she’s really fantasizing about: she is listless and bored, underachieving and bullied, but she does nothing to change that. Instead, all of her energies go into her superhero project, which she bases on an elaborate mythology involving multiple past cycles of life on Earth, always ending with humanity self-destructing before emerging anew millions of years later. According to her, the Earth itself is sending signals into the human subconscious, trying to describe how to create a savior, and every religion contains parts of that signal, but “the most obvious thing ever created, the superheroes, well, the people that create these books have the most information.”

Just another conspiracy, except that here and there in the comic are hints that there is such a thing as the ability to subconsciously pick up subtle signals from somewhere, as when Dru’s father is somehow able to not only tell that Wax–the homeless veteran Dru hires to mug her parents in an effort to recreate Batman’s origin–is a vet, but what war he fought in, on sight, or Dru’s recurring dreams of herself as a hero dealing with an alien invasion, foreshadowing the final two issues. More importantly, this is Dru’s protector fantasy: that the world itself is watching out for her, that it will act to save her from her life. It is a power fantasy, but it is a protector fantasy as well, because she isn’t fantasizing about doing anything,  but rather that something will happen to her.

She also fantasizes about becoming the protector for others, being the savior the Earth is trying to create. To this end, she intervenes with her friend’s abusive father without consulting her friend; in real life, this is both incredibly invasive and an extremely dangerous thing to do, as there is a very high probability that the abuser will take it out on the victim. In the story, however, it works with sitcom-esque ease, ending with the father remorseful, the friend happy, and the family reconciled.

But then, that’s what superheroes do: they maintain the status quo. Getting the state’s child welfare services involved, or finding her friend a shelter, would be dramatic change, a permanent alteration of the power structures of her little world–which is to say, by talking to the father, she’s averted that local revolution, that mini-apocalypse. All this, along with her dreams, foreshadows the final issue, which is her true origin story.

Dru’s actual acquisition of superpowers brings together the three pillars. She is subjected to intense trauma–alone, helpless, betrayed by the people she thought would help her, in agony and expecting to die–which combines with and reiterates a prior trauma: the alien mentions her unusual reaction to their experiments is a result of “piperidine alkaloids” in her body. The compound being referred to is doubtlessly solenopsin, a piperidine alkaloid used as a toxin by fire ants. The table on which she’s strapped, the device scanning her, all echo the second issue, when she was bitten by fire ants while being x-rayed after being beaten by her classmates.

Faced with this experience, Dru decides to be a protector against impending apocalypse: she will destroy the alien spies and their ship, so that their species cannot use the intelligence they gathered to attack the Earth. She uses her newfound power–which even she doesn’t seem to realize she has until the last two pages, though she clearly demonstrates both superhuman strength and endurance–to protect the world, believing she is sacrificing herself in the process.

Dru is both a power fantasy and a protector fantasy; sadly there does not  appear to have been any continuation of the series published in the (as of this writing) nearly a year since the collected first volume came out, and so we are unlikely to see any exploration of how Dru would deal with the conflict between the two.


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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.


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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.


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