WHAT WENT WRONG?
OR, HOW SUPERMAN AND BATMAN
This piece is the opinion of Rupert Griffin and does not necessarily represent the beliefs of Fanzing's management or staff. It is presented here as written and without edits. All feedback may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Vartox, staple character from Superman in the early eighties; drawn by Curt Swan. The costume - which looks extremely camp - is based on one that Sean Connery wore in the science fiction film "Zardoz".
Certainly, this Mad satire is right on target: comics have gone wrong. The question is, what, when, where and how did comics go wrong? To answer this, I'll examine the Bronze Age Batman and Superman and contrast them to today's. (When I say Bronze Age, I mean the pre-Crisis era from 1970 to 1986, which is how far back my collection extends - although I do own a few reprinted stories from the forties, fifties and sixties). This was the time of Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-3, Earth-Prime, Earth-X and Earth-S. It was also a time of when comic books were accessible and drawn, edited and written with care and attention. In those days, Mad magazine would have made cracks about the way superheroes wore their underwear on the outside of their pants, but they never would have attacked the stories - or the marketing strategies - themselves.
|Beautifully pencilled and coloured fight sequence from Don Newton, who certainly could draw.|
Batman has changed since the Bronze Age. Right up to the eighties, Batman solved crimes like Sherlock Holmes and escaped traps like Harry Houdini, every issue. That's right, every issue. Sometimes, the art and the writing was mediocre, but the reader knew what he was getting. And what he got was the best of Batman. For instance: the stories would exhibit an occult or weird side unique to the Batman books of the time; it was sometimes corny, sometimes terrifying, sometimes both. One bizarre crossover in my collection featured Batman, Sgt Rock and Easy Company, Deadman, Sherlock Holmes and Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness himself; Nero, Jack the Ripper, Bluebeard and Benedict Arnold guest-starred. Unfortunately, the issue number escapes me, but this story has to be read to be believed - it's frightening, strange, inspired and fun at the same time. And most of the other stories from that period were just as good: many were drawn by great artists like Neal Adams, Walt Simonson, Marshall Rogers, Gene Colan, Mike Golden, among others.
Even the worst of the Bronze Age Batman issues were written with sensitivity and respect for the pre-Crisis Batman tradition: Batman was Batman. Among other things, Bruce Wayne's personality dominated Batman, and not the other way around. (John Byrne and Roger Stern have recently devised a Batman clone called the Black Fox for the Marvel series 'The Lost Generation'; interestingly enough, the warm, easygoing and conservative Black Fox resembles the Silver Age Batman more than the current version. Which should come as no surprise: 'The Lost Generation' deliberately evokes a bygone age).
The Bronze Age Batman stories spanned a wide variety of genres: occult and horror; urban grim and gritty realism; brilliantly conceived detective stories like 'The Crime Olympics of '76'; science fiction in the Justice League books and the Brave and the Bold team-ups. Batman teamed up with a wide range of DC characters, too: Adam Strange, Hawkman, the Spectre, Supergirl, Green Lantern, the Flash, Mister Miracle, Kamandi, the Creeper, Black Lightning and Nemesis, among others, as well as the usual co-stars like Green Arrow, Black Canary and Batgirl. He also led his own team for a time (that's right, a team) called the Outsiders, which featured a colourful lineup (that is, more colourful than Robin III, Nightwing, the Huntress, et al, who all resemble one another in their abilities).
And that's something else which made those Bronze Age Batman stories good: colour. Even at their worst, the books were intended to be fun. Writers told snappy and exciting stories, were well-versed in Silver Age continuity, understood the character and his charms, and introduced some unusual villains and scenarios. (Batman travelled a great deal to strange and exotic locales. That was one of his personas: 'international man of mystery'). Now and then, the editor of a Batman story would include a diagram of the Batcave and the secret exits from Wayne Manor or the contents of Batman's utility belt. Small boys are obsessed by such details, because they make Batman all the more real. One of the reasons why Batman appealed to me as a child was that it seemed that I could become the Batman when I grew older; all I needed was the training and a few million dollars. To be Batman, I felt, was fun; many other juvenile Batman readers felt the same too (which was why we all dressed up in Batman capes and masks). Nowadays, I couldn't imagine any boy wanting to grow up to be Batman as he is now.
|Classic World's Finest team-up drawn by Jim Aparo, who drew hundreds of Batman issues in the Bronze Age.|
Many of the artists who drew Batman for many years - men such as Jim Aparo, Irv Novick and Don Newton - aren't at the top of anyone's fan favourite list: they were before the time of the superstar artist phenomenon, and besides which, Irv Novick was awful (in a good way) and Jim Aparo stuck around for too long, eventually drawing post-Bronze Age catastrophes like the Knightfall saga. All the same, these men pencilled some electrifying Batman stories. It's a thrill in these to see Bruce Wayne to change into Batman, tackle a dozen thugs single-handed, or escape a deathtrap, turn the tables on his opponents and terrify them; and, like the reader, the Bruce Wayne character feels the adrenalin whenever he dons the Batman costume - often he's itching to change to Batman and solve a difficult case he's working on.
And another side of him was his social conscience: Bruce Wayne ran something called the Wayne Foundation, which gave money to America's poor. In a Don Newton 'Unsolved Cases of the Batman' story called 'The Mystery Murderer of "Mrs Batman", Batman stalks a criminal who wanders in Gotham's seedy slums. After he returns to the Batcave, he exclaims to Alfred, 'Each night turns out to be another dead end! I've checked every flophouse and fleabag this guy's visited -- and the only crime in each is that people have to live in them! God, it's enough to turn my stomach -- and make me double my efforts to help rebuild those areas with Wayne Foundation funds! The stench The filth The disease--'. This is the realist version of Batman: not one who mopes, but one who cares for other people. (And here's food for thought: would today's Batman books even run a back-up series called 'The Unsolved Cases of the Batman'? The answer is no, because in today's Batman books, there are no mysteries to solve. Today's Batman follows story point A to point B, eventually winding up tackling Two-Face or the Joker or a gangster in a zoot suit and beating him to a bloody pulp. No mysteries there).
|Another Batman persona: international (dead) man of mystery. The Bronze Age saw the best Ras Al Ghul stories.|
What happened to Silver Age Batman? The answer is, Frank Miller. The sad thing is that 'The Dark Knight Returns' and 'Batman: Year One' were brilliant, but no writer at DC could take those story ideas any further without infringing on the Comics Code: Miller writes for adults, not children. DC responded to Miller's challenge by taking Batman in the same 'grim and gritty' direction; but they removed Miller's characteristic sleaze and cruelty and retained the old-fashioned, juvenile Silver Age themes and premises. The resulting hybrid resembles neither Frank Miller nor Bob Kane. DC has systematically removed all the characteristics which Batman had retained for the past 50 years. But today's Batman is grim and gritty, all right (if you think that gangsters in zoot suits are grim and gritty). The character has become another Punisher or Terminator: someone who pulls in adolescent male readers. Among the culprits who have presided over the destruction are Chuck Dixon and Denny O'Neil (O'Neil, ironically enough, wrote some of the best Batman stories in the sixties and seventies).
DC, the comic press and the fans (or I should say, fanboys) have ballyhooed the results out of all proportion. DC and the comic journals can be expected to do such things, but the fans? It's disturbing that today's Batman readers haven't read any Batman story written before 1987 and don't even want to. It's even more disturbing when longtime Batman readers don't even notice that a change (for the worse) has occurred. But a difference does exist: read the recent DC compilation, 'Batman: The Seventies' and compare it to any of today's Batman TPB of the order of 'Tales of the Legend of the Secret of the Bat'.
Nowadays, Superman is stumbling along. The shame of it is that the Superman book isn't as irritatingly bad (to Bronze Age fans) in the same way that Batman, the X-Men and the Titans books are: it's mediocre, not diabolical. And Superman hasn't been given a personality transplant, in the way that, say, Batman and Roy Harper have. To my knowledge, Superman as a character hasn't changed significantly since the 1930s - it's the Superman continuity which has changed. John Byrne's revamp after 'Crisis-' removed giant chunks of continuity. For instance, Byrne ditched (albeit with great regret) Superman's career as Superboy; and so Superboy's Legion career went down the gurgler as well.
|1982 issue which reprinted the destruction of the world's Kryptonite in 1971.|
Jim Shooter, Marvel's infamous editor-in-chief, sneered at Byrne's reconstruction of Superman's past. He pointed out that DC had attempted to revamp Superman in the late seventies: in one arc, the entire supply of the world's kryptonite had been transformed into a substance harmless to Superman. Also, Superman's absurd levels of strength and invulnerability had been toned down somewhat. These changes didn't alter Superman dramatically because DC kept Superman's continuity.
But by the time of the late eighties, DC publisher Jenette Kahn and editor-in-chief Dick Giordano ordered Byrne to throw all the old and new continuity out : the different varieties of kryptonite; the swarm of kryptonite meteors which had hit Earth through a space-warp; the plethora of "last survivors of the planet Krypton"; Supergirl; the Phantom Zone villains; super-pets like Streaky the Super-Cat, Beppo the Super-Monkey; Lex Luthor's green and purple armour; the new sub-plot of Clark Kent's and Lana Lang's budding romance; and so on. (The artists of the pre-Byrne period were Gil Kane, Superboy illustrator Kurt Schaffenberger, Alex Savuik, Vince Colletta and the legendary Curt Swan, who probably drew around two-thirds of all Superman stories since the war). In other words, the entire Silver Age and Bronze Age continuity, which, by the eighties, had segued together in a seamless whole.
|One of the many Krypton histories - which built on a large Silver and Bronze Age continuity.|
The Bronze Age Superman stories possessed a beginning, middle and an end - a compact, well-crafted plot structure. It wasn't uncommon for a story to be resolved in one issue. Because the superhero genre can get repetitious extremely quickly, the Superman writers stretched their imaginations to the limit: the stories were ingenious and inventive. Moreover, Metropolis, for all the crime (and the occasional poverty) was a safe, clean place; Superman was friendly, a humanist - he represented the best side of America and authority. (Half the time he seemed to be engaged building homes for orphans or rebuilding sewers). It was no wonder that the ordinary people of the DC universe loved him. Take, for instance, the excellent story 'Attack of the Micro-Murderer', drawn by Curt Swan and written by Cary Bates. In it Superman is stricken with a super-disease; he requires a massive blood transfusion to expel it from his bloodstream. He calls on the people of Metropolis to donate their blood, and they respond: 'Within the hour, every hospital in the city is jammed with eager donors'. Donors give their reasons:
'My son was badly wounded in Viet Nam -- He needed a critical operation within minutes! Superman flew the one specialist who could save him to his bedside!'
'I used to be a small-time thief Until Superman caught me and vouched for me in court! He got me a suspended sentence -- and now I'm working at a good job!'
'Both my parents were killed by the atom bomb that fell on Hiroshima! Since then, Superman has strived to convince world-powers to ban nuclear weapons!'
'My school burnt down last spring but Superman built us a better one!' [ ]
|The many faces of Lois Lane: bizarre Lois Lane Giant from the Silver Age. Can you imagine Roger Stern writing something like this?|
At first, when 'The Man of Steel' mini-series first appeared in the late eighties, I was tremendously excited: Byrne had reintroduced old Superman characters in an exciting way. The book looked fresher and slicker than it had in years. But after Byrne left the series, the quality of the books declined. The Superman books have struggled along; writers have relied on gimmicks, like killing off Superman, reintroducing four Supermen (Steel, the new Superboy, the Eradicator and the Cyborg), returning Superman to life, giving him a flashy new costume and electricity powers, splitting him into two, and then returning him to his "classic" form. (An ironic take on a classic Superman Red and Superman Blue story from the Silver Age, a reference which I, like many other readers, must have missed). A few of these stunts, to my faint satisfaction at the time, drew the attention of the media; but they didn't give the title the much-needed boost.
Compare these to Kirby's work on the flagging Jimmy Olsen title in the seventies: in a handful of issues, Kirby introduced Morgan Edge, the Evil Factory, Dubbilex the DNAlien, the Whiz Wagon, the Hairies and Darkseid, reintroduced the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion - and used the title as a springboard for the Fourth World titles 'Mister Miracle', 'Forever People' and 'The New Gods'. DC is still exploiting Kirby's Jimmy Olsen characters; in contrast, nothing of value has been contributed to the Superman series since Byrne's departure. That's because DC has tried to turn Superman into something he's not: a slick, nineties Image character.
|Superman veteran Curt Swan in action. Swan was the most prolific Superman artist of the Bronze and Silver Ages.|
Superman now flounders along in dull stories; and whatever can be said of the Superman books of the Silver Age, for instance, they weren't dull. Recently I discovered a book - edited by Mark Waid - which compiled Superman covers from the Silver Age. (Most of the covers were drawn by Swan, Neal Adams and Superman legend Wayne Boring). One favourite device was to show Superman as a villain, or better yet, as another supervillain in disguise. For instance, on one cover Superman would be x-rayed, and the uniform of "Evil Man" would be revealed underneath his Superman costume. Characters on the cover would exclaim, 'Great Snakes! Superman is really Evil Man, the new supervillain who's been terrorising Metropolis!' Superman would gasp, 'But it can't be!' The caption at the bottom of the cover would read (in "dramatic" lettering): 'What was the secret of the Evil Man costume? Find out inside!'
Testament to a lack of innovation: DC has recently revived the Kirby era Jimmy Olsen characters - Dubbilex the DNAlien, the Guardian, Newsboy Legion II - for Superboy.
What kid could pass up a comic book like that? At 25, I like to think of myself as reasonably sophisticated; even so, those covers filled me with a feverish desire to read those stories, which was the same emotion I felt as a child reader. Nowadays, as much as I like Superman, I need to force myself to open the Superman books in the comics rack; I know that I'm going to be disappointed. The stuff is bad - despite some good talents - and not even excruciatingly, hilariously bad, in the same way that the worst of the Silver Age issues were, when, for instance, Superman was once killed by a Super-gopher. (I kid you not).
What I've written here is debatable, of course. Fans will tell me, 'It's not true
|An issue of Jimmy Olsen from the criminally neglected Jack Kirby period. Note that another penciller has drawn Superman's face: DC felt that Kirby's Superman looked like a Kirby character.|
that Batman doesn't escape traps anymore: he picked a handcuff lock with his teeth in Detective #434'. They can be quite pedantic about it. I'm willing to admit that an issue of Batman or Superman today may show flashes of the Bronze Age, but these are only flashes, and the exception proves the rule.
I've been extremely negative in this article: I don't like to be negative, but I feel that it's needed. I'm disappointed by today's comics, as are many other fans, and we all need to be even more disappointed for things to get better. My reason for saying that is, all comic book companies only understand one thing - money - and when they lose money, they hurt. If enough people hold out from propping up the tired old titles, then the majors may begin to react, by changing the editorial direction of these books and restructuring the industry. (I may be wrong in this, but I don't think any other American publishing companies would keep printing titles which sell as badly as today's DCs and Marvels. The industry seems to be cossetted somehow).
A lot of this decline is economic, and I have my ideas on this. It seems to me that sales and quality alike began falling with the advent of the Bush recession, and despite claims to the contrary, the Clinton Era hasn't matched the boom of the Reagan Era. The eighties were a good time for comics: even the much-maligned Jim Shooter at Marvel oversaw work of a high standard, like The Secret Wars maxi-saga, the X-books and Spiderman, among other things. Comics do follow the boom and bust cycle of the economy: WWII, for instance, saved the American comic book industry; the classic Marvel books appeared in the boom of the Kennedy-Johnson years; and so on. It doesn't seem improbable that comics may pick up again. For this reason, I remain optimistic.
Now that you've read this piece,