Man of Steel I: “Some time ago a friend asked me a question…”



            I say a friend… It was what you might call an interview of sorts, held once a week, often in the same room.  The walls of that room were half wet brick, half new stone and where they met dark pools stole the corners.  In an ocean of dark, in the middle of an impossible room, a bright white light fell in a spiralling cone onto a circular table from a cord lamp.  The long electric twine sneaked up to the ceiling, presumably…  Lost as it was in the dark and wrapped in a barbed wire of crisp dead leaves.   Below I sat patiently and immobile as always, as in front of me long, thin, white hands laid playing cards on the table.  One by one the cards went down, the bony wrists snaking purposefully from loose orange cuffs.  Within three cards the question was asked.

Chapter I

It was a question that had long trod many a scattered page of Action Comics #1 into the dust ground.
            “Batman vs Superman? Everyone says Batman…  why?! For the sake of argument, let us assume that Superman is not playing nice anymore…  Maybe Batman killed Lois to piss him off …  So we have, bloodthirsty Superman vs Batman ….  who’d win?”
            My response wasn’t circumspect in the swirling light.  The comic traditions are quite clear and I said it:
            “It’s Batman! It’s Batman! It’s always Batman!”
            I paused.
            “Look at Dark Knight Returns…” I continued, quickly rejecting the idea that Batman would kill Lois Lane to, er, piss Superman off – “The stories are more likely to show a dystopian tilt (or exacerbation) of the American state, sufficient enough to bring the two opposing super-ideologies to blows.”  I pointed out that Batman is “the most dangerous man on Earth” as a Jack of Diamonds was laid flat.
            In return I laid out some proof.  I referred to the late twentieth century JLA, a series that began with Grant Morisson’s freshening up of the Justice League.  Not only did this hark back to the League’s original line up, but injected reverence and hard sci-fi back into the League itself with excellently plotted and seminal stories.  It was particularly impressive as that run started out with the Transformed ‘Lectric Superman of the ‘90s, a storyline that was red, external, pants.

Chapter II

Early in that JLA relaunch, one story was the oft told tale of benevolent aliens who hide a sinister plan: New World Order.  It was simple and derivative to a point, but sold on its climax.  The powerful aliens’ takedown of the JLA was a great, concise reintroduction to the core League members: Atlantean Prince Aquaman and Amazon Goddess Wonder Woman, imaginative power ring wielder Green Lantern (at the time the inexperienced Kyle Rayner) and Scarlet Speedster the Flash , Enigmatic telepath J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter and of course heavy hitters Superman and Batman.  In New World Order, Having subdued the metahumans of the League, the villainous aliens dismissed the escaped Caped Crusader as a mere mortal, failing to abide Superman’s stern warnings to the contrary.
            Inevitably, the puny flying rodent man takes them all down with extreme prejudice.  Grant Morrison’s gleeful storytelling was realised in Howard Porter’s sublime artwork, and it just got better – typically deeper, mythic, sprawling and metaphysical.  Later stories such as Mark Waid’s brilliant Tower of Babel continued the good work on the Dark Knight, channelling Batman’s personality (disorders) through the centre of the League’s stories – an un-galactic, City focussed philosophy is not easy to reconcile with a moon-headquartered global superteam.
            Tower of Babel was recently adapted as the animated film Doom, where Batman’s measured but paranoid, pre-prepared defensive strategies to take down each of his team mates if they turn ‘rogue’ were stolen and used with devastating consequences.  It split the League in the comics (Divided they Fall) – and it’s that moral approach to life, the tension between the Alien, the Goddess and the Man (the trinity) that powers the Justice League concept.  That’s where Batman vs Superman originally comes from, two ideologies.  Two ideologies that often end in a punch up.
            This time the lean white fingers lay down a King of Clubs.
            And Batman often wins.
            “So there’s the answer,” I said. 
There’s a long history of Batman trashing Superman in the comics – Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is a key example.  The recent videogame Injustice: Gods Among Us brought the same argument into living rooms – and the result of Batman victorious brought disbelief, surprise, umbrage and bewilderment – but the fact remains that Batman does often win.  And he often wins because he cheats. What else is Batman but a cheater?  A cheater with good reason he may be, but a cheater he is.  “Supes may be the most powerful being on the planet, but Bats is the most dangerous human.”
            The lamp had stopped swirling, the hands had stopped moving.

Chapter III

Across from me, each white hand lay palm down to the table, sequential Royal Clubs laid out in front.   The hands’ owner had a follow-up.
            “I was hoping you’d have some argument for Superman but I suppose… It is Batman then.”  I had won, was it as easy as that?  No, of course not.
            “How about this – who do you like more …  Batman or Superman?”
            The opening line was loaded like a joke gun.  In the calming light I saw the hint of a spreading grin.  This I knew: Batman may be the most dangerous mortal on Earth, but Superman is still the one to which all superheroes aspire.  And with good reason.
            Superman, last son of Krypton is a multi-layered enigma that has gradually built up over 80 years…  A myth mist that defines him as the greatest and definitive invention in superherodom, but has also consigned him to an irrelevant, and unfashionable sometime box-office mope in the past.
            The first returns of Man of Steel seem to have washed away the cobwebs of apathy that have surrounded the figure for too long.  With a Nietzschean nickname hanging precariously over an overgrown boy scout persona – with a generally mainstream repellent ‘alien’ origin to boot – the 21st century hasn’t been kind to Superman.
            I was broken from my reverie by a white blur.
            A King of Diamonds had joined its cousins on the table.
            It was time for a change of location.

(to be continued…)

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