More Complaining About Superman (and His Unimpressive Death)

So, I picked up a couple graphic novels at the library over the weekend so that my girlfriend wouldn’t feel so self conscious about the mountain of manga, cds and dvds she borrowed. Normally I wouldn’t want to add more to my already extensive list of books to read, but I figure that graphic novels are slightly more acceptable, since they don’t slow down my progress on my main reading list by more than a day or two.

One of the two graphic novels I picked up was the Death of Superman. I’d read this one once before when I was a kid so thought I’d relive one of those ‘turning points for comics’ from my childhood. I’ve never been a huge Superman fan, partly because he’s dangerously boring in the wrong hands. Either he’s so powerful that nothing is a challenge or he’s been turned into an invincible and invulnerable weenie who can’t actually fight very well despite having nearly unlimited power like he was in DCAU. Drama for Superman exists only when he experiences loss. Superman cannot die, but things he loves can be taken from him. Death of Superman tries to flip the script by invoking the drama of a world losing Superman. This can be incredibly powerful if you’ve got a deep attachment to the Man of Steel. Unfortunately for Supes, I don’t, and I won’t be clapping my hands hoping to bring him back to life.

What I remembered from my childhood reading was that Doomsday just shows up, beats the hell out of the Justice League, and then he and Superman punch each other several times until they both finally die. And, uh… That’s how it plays out. What struck me today that did not occur to childhood me was the shallowness of Doomsday and the shallowness of Superman’s death at his hands.

I’m told that Doomsday has some explanation that happens later. But not here. So, he’s just a big unstoppable monster sue that is introduced to kill Superman. He punches his way out of the ground, across Ohio, through Pennsylvania (ostensibly), through New York and to Metropolis. In Ohio, he tears apart a Justice League B team to illustrate how tough he is, and oh, man! The combined laser beams of Superman plus the Justice League B team (you can’t tell me that Fire, Ice, Stormwynd, ex-Lantern Guy Gardener, Blue Beatle, Booster Gold and the crazy warrior lady whose name I already forgot are A-listers) can do nothing! One of the best lines in the comic is the reporter noting that the battle has ravaged the better part of the US. Yes, the better part of the US comprised of Ohio, the part of Pennsylvania around Erie, and middle New York.

Interestingly, Doomsday beating the Justice League B team was much more powerful to me now than when I was a kid. A team with various powers and problem solving skills can’t solve this problem! So a guy with one power and no problem solving skills is going to fare better? Characters, including Supes, have to remark that Doomsday is the most powerful foe Superman has ever fought. Because otherwise, we wouldn’t really know. One big punchy monster is the same as the next big punchy monster, right? Only way we know is by having Superman say “ow” when he gets hit. And Superman being Superman, he has no strategy other that punching and hoping he can outlast his opponent.

I found myself thinking “Superman got killed by Doomsday because he fights dumb against a villain that plenty of other DC characters could have handled better” which translates to “Superman got killed because an Exec said he had to die for publicity and the writers did it in a really lazy way.”

Any character that had the ability to teleport others could’ve thrown him into space. Characters who had the ability to pass through matter could’ve kept him distracted. One of the DC sorcerers could’ve banished him to the distant future where he and Vandal Savage would’ve been the only living things on the planet. Doomsday’s main traits are virtual invulnerability and infinite strength. Going toe to toe with him is like a boxer who goes toe to toe with Vitali Klitschko. You’re going to get hit lots of times, very hard, and you will be lucky if you live.

So, when Superman was lying there dead, I wasn’t thinking so much “poor Superman”, I was thinking “Maybe you should’ve just tried to hold the line until Martian Manhunter showed up?”

The next major killing/crippling an A-lister that DC did was the Knightfall arc about two years later, and I’d like to think that they learned a bit from Doomsday. While Bane is pretty much tailor-made by the universe to want to kill Batman for no logical reason, at least he has a strategy. While Superman just gets punched a lot across 3 states and 5 or 6 issues, Batman’s fall is painful and drawn out. We see Batman beginning to lose his grip after several close calls rather than be told “Ow, his punches actually hurt harder than other times I’ve been punched!”  Bane showing up in Gotham and immediately breaking Batman’s back prior to breaking everyone out of Blackgate would’ve felt as lazy as Death of Superman.

The other graphic novel I got was the Risso Batman Noir collection. I think it gave me nightmares. I really think that Ventriloquist is the scariest Batman villain. Can you imagine how horrified and cowed his henchmen must be to put up with Ventriloquists *ahem* eccentricities to follow the orders of Mr. Scarface? Those first few (several) times, people must have laughed. And must have died truly horrific and violent deaths (Scarface is fond of knifings) to leave an impression on the underworld that the old man with the puppet is not a person with whom to mess.

The Search

Thanks to Midtown Comics and my own local Comic Book store, I’ve got all but the last two uncollected chapters of Knightsquest: the Search.

Justice League Task Force. Obviously, this is a Justice League title for the inclusion of D-listers, so I can understand why the comic store guy said they’d banished them all to the $.50 boxes because ‘we just couldn’t move them’. The art is pretty bad; I know Bruce is supposed to look a bit rough after being beaten by Bane, but here he’s drawn like Dustin Hoffman dying of AIDS in Midnight Cowboy. The cameo of Tim Drake makes him look like he’s in his 40s; now, I know how Tim is drawn is hella inconsisten throughout the various titles, but this is the worst I’ve seen him look. The coloring was pretty bad, too, with the villain’s mustache being brown only half the time and fleshtone pink the rest. Bruce was obviously here to raise awareness of a mediocre new title before continuing his story in higher quality lines.

The Shadow of the Bat arc with the Hood, however, is pretty great. In fact, I’ve come to learn from the Knightfall Omnibuses that Shadow of the Bat is a consistently high quality title, and SotB interludes in the main story were often high points. The Shadow of the Bat: Bruce Wane mini-arc is no exception. The art and writing were far superior to the JLTF portion. The villain is pretty WTF evil. Cripple Bruce is cane-wielding faux-british badass, though I’ll admit that I would’ve never thought the dude with the mutton-chops on the cover was the same guy as Batman.

I’ll probably start the Quarry once I get the last two issues of Legends of the Dark Knight, which have proved somewhat more elusive. How good the QUarry is will determine a lot of my feelings for the Search. The JLTF was lousy, the SotB was great, so my opinion hangs in the balance! I do have a feeling that it will make me appreciate the Crusade a bit more. Because Abattoir and Tallyman were both pretty good villains. It’s just nice to have the full story.

Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m going to go all out on “modern” Batman stuff. I figure checking out all of the ‘important’ stories and arcs from between Crisis and Flashpoint gives me a reasonable 25 years of stuff to choose from. If anything, I can be thankful that the “New 52” gave me a nice hardline cut-off point, where I can say “And after 2011, I can stop caring, because that’s not the Batman from my childhood anymore.” Thanks, Dan DiDio!

Christmas Reading pt 2: Knightquest & Knightsend

Also over the holidays, I finished reading Knightfall. By which I mean the Trade Paperbacks of Knightquest and Knightsend/Prodigal. It had been so long since I’d finished volume 1, I’d forgotten that Azbats had soundly thrashed Bane. I’ll get ahead of myself and point out that Bruce beating Azbats was not quite the closure that Bruce beating Bane would’ve been. I’m sure that happens later. In another trade.

Knightquest was rather tedious and I’d even say skipable. We know Azbats is an asshole, we know he’s crazy, we know he is the edgy 90s New Coke that needs to be smacked down and replaced once and for all by Classic. There are a few good bits, particularly the development of Gordon as he questions his relationship with vigilantes, and Abattoir IS a really creepy villain, as is Tallyman. But the inevitability of Azbat’s fall hangs over the whole story. Which, if Azbats were the real protagonist, would be deliciously tragic. But he’s not. Bruce’s Batman is, so Knightquest is just killing time until real Batman comes back.

Unfortunately, “the Search” is omitted from the Trade, meaning that Batman’s part of this story of Batman is missing. Apparently since VERY BAD THINGS happen to the only non-white girlfriend Bruce has ever had in this arc, it has been stricken and hoped forgotten. I don’t know how bad it is, but I’d rather have read the story of how Bruce was cured with psychic magic than watch Azbats flail. As collected, Bruce disappears at the end of Volume 1 to go on a wheelchair-bound adventure and reappears at the beginning of Volume 3 walking, all “Man, what an adventure I just had!”

One thing that is interesting to me is the Batman morality that is justified to reel in Azbats. The mayor has pointed out that since Azbats took over, Gotham’s crime had gone down by 42%. Considering how crime-ridden Gotham usually is, that’s an astronomical number of crimes that have not been committed. The line Azbats crosses is when he lets Abattoir die, which means that his hostage dies before he can be found. Azbats fails to save 1 and allows another to die. Forget for a moment that Batman lets Quigon die in Batman Begins ; that hasn’t happened yet. The point is that an innocent died because of Azbats. Here is where we’re again faced with the question “Is Batman morally culpable for the lives taken by criminals he leaves to the Gotham justice system that perpetually fails the people?” The answer (we’re told) is no. It’s always no. It’s not Batman’s fault that Gotham’s liberal justice system has a revolving door prison/mental health system and does not believe in the death penalty for capital offenders and terrorists. Batman is doing his job; it’s the rest of the system that’s failing. Still, that Bruce would let it go that Shiva murdered some dude to kickstart his training to re-Batman up is kinda screwed up.

I don’t really have the time to go too deep into Prodigal, but it was probably the best part of second two volumes. Yes, it’s an epilogue, I know. But while Knightquest was biding time and Knightsend had a feel of doom and inevitability to it, Prodigal was a delightful bit of introspection in the the characters of Tim Drake and Dick Grayson, how they relate to one another, how they relate to Bruce and how those relationships affect how they identify with themselves.

Bane: a three-fold villain.

Recently, Campaign Mastery wrote a series of amazing posts on creating truly amazing villains to use in your games. These included the Combat Monster, the Mastermind and the Character Villain.

I’ll only describe each in a nutshell, because Mike does such a great job that I couldn’t possibly do them justice.

The Combat Monster is self-reliant, a brutal force of nature, with ambition, cunning, and an array of flunkies.

The Mastermind has a plan, a goal, bides his time and resources to execute his plan and any necessary contingencies.

The Character Villain is someone who is diametrically opposed to the ideology and character of the heroes.

Now, I’ll go ahead and inform you that I’ve been reading Knightfall, which has recently been collected into new trade paperbacks. In the Animated Series, Bane was kind of a ‘meh’ villain, a roid-rage assassine in a luchador mask hired by the mob to kill batman. Yawn. But in the Chris Nolan movie, Bane is transformed into an idealogically driven villain who demagogues populist nonsense while actively destroying society (something which many people pointed out had great political relevance here in the US). It made me rethink Bane as a villain, but not to the extent that actually going back and reading the comics has.

The comic puts Bane out there as Batman’s greatest threat ever; the comic does not oversell this, because Bane manages to be a Combat Monster, a Mastermind and a Character Villain at the same time. If Bane had ONLY been one or two of these, he would not be convincing as a threat to the Batman. Batman already has villains who are Combat Monsters (Killer Crock), Masterminds (any of the mob bosses), and Character Villains (The Joker, Two-Face).

With Bane, we have a villain who is incredibly physical and unstoppable in hand-to-hand combat, complete with his crew of flunkies to wear down anyone who’d want to face him one on one. He’s also a mastermind: his two-fold goals, destroying Batman and making Gotham his, required great patience, resources and planning. While he could have taken his chances hand-to-hand with Batman from the get-go, unleashing all of the criminal element from Arkham to sap the resources of the police and the strength of Batman created a scenario where he could muscle in on organized crime by his ability to bring order to the chaos he created while he could count on the police and Batman to focus on the more random elements which would’ve been out of his control (such as Joker and Scarecrow). Lastly, Bane is set up to be Batman’s opposite, while still complimentary. They both use fear and strength to achieve their goals, however while Batman fights to create order from chaos, Bane unleashes chaos like a hurricane.

If I had weeks and weeks, I’d go through each of the points that Mike made in his three posts, cross referencing, etc. etc., but for now, I just encourage you to read his original posts yourself.