Thursday, September 29, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Batman, the Return of Bruce Wayne

An odyssey for one of the most iconic figures in comics stretches from prehistory to the end of time, revisiting and reimagining Batman's mythology through a complex narrative. Writer Morrison and a team of artists pick up from the end of Morrison's Final Crisis and Batman: RIP. Bruce Wayne is lost in time after killing Darkseid, a godlike being of pure evil. Piecing together the memories of his past that he's lost and slowly realizing he's been turned into a human booby trap meant to destroy the universe by Darkseid, Bruce is pulled through eras of Gotham City's history that include confrontations with cavemen, witch hunters, pirates, cowboys, and 20th-century cultists. These adventures culminate in a return to the present where he must rely on his fellow superheroes to save him from Darkseid's curse. Morrison's story is designed to add to Batman's aura as a timeless, mythical hero, but the time jumps and Bruce's amnesia sometimes create an uneven narrative. The story also asks readers to possess a wealth of familiarity with the character's decades-long history, making the book not as accessible to newer fans. Different artists—all strong, colorful storytellers—give each time period its own mood.

From the product description of
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne

I had originally intended to review the graphic novel Final Crisis and "Return" back-to-back, but "Crisis" had such a vast scope and such a twisted plot to follow, that I felt that reviewing it would be an injustice. I didn't like it very well. It assumed that the reader knew just about everything there is to know about the DC Universe going back decades (although I actually knew about the Miracle Machine from the old, silver age Adventure comics (featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes). For the first half of "Crisis", I had no idea what was going on, if I was seeing events on different "Earths" or just different places on one Earth or whatever.

However, reading "Crisis" was necessary to get the background for understanding how Bruce Wayne ended up in the stone age in The Return of Bruce Wayne. I love time travel stories and I love time travel mysteries. I figured this was going to be good.

It was. But it had its flaws.

I hadn't intended to read it all in one sitting, but a bout of insomnia changed my plans. My review is based on going through all of the pages of Morrison's product well after midnight and, writing this the following evening on three hours sleep, I'm still a bit punchy. But I digress.

The storyline is much more straightforward than "Crisis" but it's not completely straight. There is the little "side-trip" to Vanishing Point taken by Superman, Rip Hunter, and a few other JLA members to try and figure out where and when Batman is/was. I must have missed something, but Vanishing Point was on the verge of being destroyed at the heat death of the universe, so there wasn't a lot of...time (yeah, I know...that's going to come up a lot) to investigate.

There was mention made of the clues in history Batman left behind but no mention of how the JLA knew even to look. As far as they knew, Batman was dead. Why suspect that he was really back in time and how convenient it would be to suddenly start finding suspicious cave paintings just after his disappearance into the past? It would have been cleaner if we were told how and why anyone thought to look for a time traveling Bruce Wayne and what told them that A.) he was capable to traveling forward in time and B.) that he was accumulating Omega Energy as part of Darkseid's plot to posthumously destroy Earth.

Of course, maybe that was in the book and I was just too tired to pick up on it.

I liked the stone age. I'm still wondering how the rocket ship (which did not contain Bruce's body but just his stuff) ended up in the exact time and place that Bruce's body did when zapped by Darkseid's Omega beams. I may have missed the connection in "Crisis", though. There was so much going on in that book, it was hard to keep all the details straight.

It was a little campy to have "Boy" of the Deer People become "Boy" (Robin) of the Bat People, but endearing nonetheless. I did find it really incredible to believe that someone who probably lived about 10,000 B.C. could have started a legend that would be remembered by a small tribe native Americans in 1640 A.D., but it was also kind of cool.

I kept wondering why Bruce took such a big leap in time at the first event, tens of thousands of years, and afterwards, jumped forward only a few centuries or a few decades? Of course, there was all that time in between when he wouldn't have had any sort of adventure and we do want to keep the action moving.

I enjoyed all of his time leaps, but my favorite was when Bruce "played" private detective investigating the allegation that his father murdered his mother (the man with her that fateful night wasn't supposed to be Thomas Wayne). Batman was originally created in the late 1930s, so pulp fiction dieselpunk is his natural element. I did have a tough time figuring out the year though, since there were video stores in existence, which would have placed him in the late 1970s or early 80s, but his grandfather was in an iron lung, which would have put it more in the 1950s.

Oh well.

When Bruce showed up at Vanishing Point and stole Rip Hunter's time machine, stranding Superman, GL, and the others just minutes before the end of the universe, I was definitely thrown a curve ball. It's all eventually explained, but I'm still trying to figure out who that guy Carter was, how he invented a time machine and why, if this was supposed to be in the 1940s or 50s, he was wearing a "Have a nice day" t-shirt, complete with smiley face.

A few things really bothered me. One was how many times Bruce came really close to death. If he was that easy to kill, he would have died a hundred times over just by being Batman. Of course, he didn't have his memory and he was way out of his element, but as the book says, Batman is a survivor. That's what he does.

The one thing I hated more than anything happens when Bruce steals Hunter's time machine and strands the JLA members in a force field (which turns out to be a time machine in the making). Superman panics. He has a real look of fear in one panel followed by him pounding impotently on the force field while practically wailing. No one else loses their cool, not even Booster Gold. Superman would not have panicked, no matter what. He'd be the one everyone else looked to for courage. I felt sorry for him.

I kind of liked it that a 17th century witch put an everlasting curse on one of Bruce's ancestors (and in this book, his ancestors were less than noble). It kind of explains why his life and his family is always in such a mess. He's got a lot to make up for.

Like the "Crisis" story, there's a bad guy and a worse bad guy. In this case, Wayne arriving in the 21st century and blowing it up isn't the only problem. There was also that evil thing in the Bat Cave in 1640 that passed on an "infection" of evil (hey, I don't make this stuff up). It definitely plays a part in why Bruce is so messed up when he finally reaches the present, mentally and physically, although I'm not sure how it ended up becoming the "bat-thing" Vandal Savage killed in the stone age right before Bruce arrives (and which becomes the basis for Bruce's first "costume").

"Return" is a book that assumes you know what's going on. Although it's still exciting and compelling all by itself, there are too many questions it raises if you don't buy 50 DC comic books every month for ten or twenty years in a row and memorize all of the details. In spite of what I just said, it's still more or less a "clean" story that contains most of the answers to the questions it raises. It held my attention and was even a page-turner when all I wanted in life was to get a few hours sleep.

There's a lot I left out of the review, but if you haven't read "Return" yet, you'll need to get a copy and find out about the other connections that have now become part of the Legend of the Dark Knight. Despite all of my "complaints", I really liked it. I'm glad it was at my public library and it's a shame I have to return it. On the other hand, I have to give the next person a chance to experience the dilemma, the mystery, and the anguish of "the Return of Bruce Wayne."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Superman: The Man of Yesterday

I frequently see updates on the filming of both The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Superman: Man of Steel (2013) in my twitter timeline. Most of the time, I cave in and have a look at the latest spoilers and set shots, but occasionally I get a spine and resist, out of the desire to let the films surprise me by what they are as finished products. Having every little tidbit and nugget about the making of each film crammed down my throat on an almost daily basis is a kind of death.

I think Christian Bale's interpretation of Batman has made the transition into the 21st century quite well. Both Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) have done extremely well and avoided the terrible curse of campiness to which many past superhero films have given way.

Then I think about Superman.

Please don't take this the wrong way, but I've always been disappointed with the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Granted, the first film was released in 1978, but it wasn't the lack of CGI or 3D technology that was at fault but the attitude of the film makers. Superman was played completely for camp. There was some taking him seriously in the first film but with each sequel, he became more and more silly. Here's an example.

Remember the first appearance of Superman in the original film? Lois's helecopter is disabled, the pilot is knocked unconscious, and Lois is suspended a hundred stories over the streets of Metropolis, hanging only by a seat belt and screaming for her life. Clark makes his magical transformation into Superman and lifts both her and the falling helecopter back to the safety of the roof of the Daily Planet building. Afterward, Superman gives Lois a supportive talk about how air travel is still the safest way to fly. Boy Scout as always, right?

The gag is, as Superman turns away from Lois and as he's walking out of the scene, he gets the biggest grin on his face. The whole Boy Scout speech was just an act. He's totally having her on (she passes out a few seconds later).

Cut to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1981) which was horrible and total anti-nuke propaganda. Superman narrowly prevents a total subway disaster which would have killed hundreds. After the rescue, he gives an impromptu speech to the passengers he just saved about how Metropolis's subway system is still the safest in the world.

The problem is that here, he's totally serious. The campy "mask" he wore in the first film became his real "face" by the last movie. Superman became a clown in a cape. It didn't have to be that way. But what went wrong?

Part of it was that Hollywood never took comic book heroes seriously and it showed in the writing and directing. The actors did their best, but you can only work with the script in hand and those scripts made superheroes seem like...well, comic book characters. If you actually read a comic book from 1978 or before, they really did sound campy and sappy. The dialog could be terrible if said outloud in real life. Comic books don't translate into reality without a lot of massage work. Christopher Nolan was willing to take a completely different approach with his Batman films and it paid off magnificently. Let's hope Zack Snyder can pull it off with the next big screen incarnation of the last son of Krypton.

There's another problem, though.

Both Superman and Batman were originally created in the context of the 1930s. They both represent two sides of the same Depression-era coin. Batman represents the pulp fiction heroes popular during that time period and the darkness and dispair experienced by victims of street and corporate crime. The original Dark Knight had an almost "it takes a thief" approach to crime fighting, by becoming as menacing and as fear-provoking as the people he battled.

Superman was almost as "dark" in a sense. I once had the opportunity to read the first appearence of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) online (this was years ago and I'm sure it's been taken off the web by now). Superman was pretty heavy handed back then, extorting confessions out of crooked politicians by hanging them off the rooftops of tall buildings, threatening to drop them to the ground (sounds more like Batman). I understand that young, 21st century comic book Superman is doing similar things in the 2011 version of Action Comics 1. The original Superman fought rampant political corruption and criminal gangs by overwhelming them with his power. He was like everyone's big brother and protector. If a helpless person was victimized by a big, tough "bully", Superman was bigger and tougher than the "bully" and he'd beat the snot out of him. The victims were saved and they had someone who would always look out for them.

Times changed.

If you look at the development of Superman and Batman across the 1940s through the 1970s for example, you'll see their very natures and characters changed dramatically. Batman and Robin really were as corny as their 1960s TV show counterparts (it really wasn't Adam West's and Burt Ward's fault after all). The tough, action oriented, no-nonsense heroes of the 1930s became the clowns in capes of the 1950s and 60s. No wonder the movie Superman of 1978 acted the way he did. "Darkness" in comic books didn't return until the 1980s and 90s and certainly by the 2000s, it was time to try and take them back to their roots.

With Batman, that's certainly possible, but will it work with Superman? In 1938, there really were "great metropolitan newspapers" which were a force for "truth, justice, and the American" way. It was completely realistic for Clark Kent to work as a reporter to get the inside scoop on the latest emergencies and crimes happening in Metropolis and beyond. Today, newspapers are dying, and instead of being beacons of truth and information (OK, I'm exaggerating, there's always been "yellow journalism"), they're now (for the most part) propaganda machines, selling a single social and political vision of the world that hardly resembles the lives we really lead (kind of like "reality TV"). Who would Clark Kent be today, where would he work, and how would he act if we didn't have the model of the 1930s Man of Steel?

What would happen if we just tossed the 21st century into the trash can as far as Superman goes? What would happen if the next Superman film was set in 1938? Little Clark's spaceship would have crashlanded in a Kansas wheat field during or near World War I. Clark would have grown up in a world without the Internet, without TV, without microwaves, or iPhones, or Lady Gaga. In that place and time, his adoptive parents, the Kents, would have almost certainly been Christians, so Clark would have been raised with a specific set of attitudes. He would have grown up in a world where Chicago was completely dominated by the mobs. Tales of Capone and Dillinger would have been all over the news as would Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Joe DiMaggio.

The tough part for modern film makers would be to capture the essence of the era and the people living in it, including Clark Kent/Superman, without imposing 21st century politically correct attitudes on the movie. Superman would have to be a Superman who was completely a child of his environment. Who would he be like? The Superman of Action Comics 1, June of 1938? Certainly. But could we relate to him? Could we even stand him?

Maybe or maybe not. I love the time period and am a big fan of dieselpunk, so I think he'd work out just fine for me, but how about you?

Will Superman, the iconic image, the "greatest American hero", be able to survive, let alone thrive, in the 21st century and be taken seriously? We won't find out until 2013. I certainly hope so. I'm still hoping that someday the film studios will become bold again, groundbreaking again, and make Superman 1938. I think it would be a blast!