Echo Chamber Blues
DC Comics, 2014
But where are the superhero films from Marvel’s longtime print competition, DC Comics? Paddling against the green cataracts of capitalism, Warner Bros. has seen fit to plan exactly one film for 2016, tentatively titled Batman vs. Superman, followed by 2018’s The Justice League. Prior to the latter’s announcement, screenwriter David Goyer (who helped deliver 2013’s militantly overcooked Man of Steel) had said that “it’s too early” to discuss a cohesive cinematic DC Universe. Sure. And people in Hell need our winter coat donations.
For longtime comic book readers, DC’s dumbfounding negligence should be no mystery. Marvel has been known as “The House of Ideas” since the early 1960s, the era that saw writer Stan Lee, and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko create current Hollywood icons like Spider-Man and Thor. The company is aggressively creative, and likes packaging their products in an equally progressive idealism: Spider-Man began tackling racism and drug-dealers in the mid-60s, and Captain America questioned his own patriotism during the Reagan administration. DC, however, has been producing four color adventures since the late 1930s, and usually reacts to its audiences’ evolving taste like a kryptonite-impaired Superman—with agonizing slowness.
Take Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, for example. In 2000, after narrowly avoiding bankruptcy (through a merger with Toybiz), Marvel realized that decades of convoluted plots were shrinking its readership. To reverse this, they began a fresh, separate line of comics, using flagship heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men to woo new readers. These Ultimate Comics were youthfully hip and energetic (also, on occasion, desperately cynical), and they uniformly outsold Marvel’s primary line well into the next decade.
Worse, reading these younger, supposedly fresher versions of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can be a flat, underwhelming experience. In trying to please (and remain accessible to) everyone between the ages of ten and forty, the New 52’s biggest challenge isn’t a gigantic space starfish—it’s filling the black hole where its personality should be.
And yet, DC does employ some of the comic industry’s most brilliant talents. Geoff Johns, a superhero auteur who’s been writing for DC since 1999, has a galloping imagination leashed tightly to a keen emotional awareness of the characters. He’s a true fan, whose work gives back to the world he loves, enlivening the DC Universe with subtlety and respect–which doesn’t always happen when writers are simply paid to do it. Then there’s Ivan Reis, whose penciling combines the muscular weight of Jack Kirby’s figures with John Buscema’s sinewy grace; he’s been paired with Johns many times (Green Lantern, Aquaman) to thunderous applause from readers and critics alike.
Reis and Johns’ current run on Justice League is the thumping heart that keeps the New 52 upright. And since it’s “too early” for a Justice League film (that would ostensibly star Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc.) the next best choice for fans is “Trinity War,” the first epic storyline of DC’s retooled print universe. The “Trinity War” comics (released during last summer, emulating the blockbuster film season) have been collected in a sleek hardcover, and feature a crossover between Justice League, Justice League of America, and Justice League Dark—three distinct superhero teams, each capitalizing on a fictional niche (and if that seems like excessive branding, try keeping track of Marvel’s dozen Avengers titles).
From the fluttering of the first cape, “Trinity War” is entrenched in the grim Realpolitik and dismal shades of gray that characterize Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. After a serviceable prelude that introduces the red-hooded Pandora—and her golden skull box, from which the world’s evils have escaped—the story opens with the fortune teller Madame Xanadu giving a late night visitor a tarot card reading. Touching the distraught woman’s hand, Xanadu sees a vision of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (DC’s heroic trinity) watching Metropolis burn in the aftermath of some future war. Xanadu then flips a card and learns that a hero named Shazam is responsible.
Intriguingly, Shazam’s alter ego is a preteen named Billy Batson (who, after speaking the word “SHAZAM” transforms into a Superman-style colossus). The scene cuts to Batson in his foster home, where he decides to deliver the ashes of his nemesis, Black Adam, to the Middle Eastern country Kahndaq. “I’ll spread his ashes across the Kahndaq desert,” Billy tells his protesting foster siblings, “Because even ‘bad guys’ deserve to be buried.”
Next we meet Superman and Wonder Woman, who are an item, arguing about whether or not a villain will escape from a fortified cell and ruin their date night. Johns’ laser-guided characterization gives us this exchange:
“There’s a reason I don’t have a list of villains as long as [Batman’s], [the Flash’s] or even yours, [Clark]. When I deal with them, I deal with them.”
“I trust you’re not talking about killing them, Diana.”
“Only if it comes to that.”
“There’s no doubt innocent people have been put on death row.”
“Not if you have a lasso of truth.”
As the conversation proceeds, Reis’s panels zoom in on the steely glares that Superman and Wonder Woman trade. Pandora herself soon arrives and begins spooling the tension around her golden skull. She claims that only someone pure of heart can, by holding the box, return evil to its prison. But when Superman touches the golden skull, which has a third eye in its forehead, red energy crackles through him; he grimaces malevolently as a third eye opens on his own forehead.
Johns compresses an incredible amount of set-up into these opening pages. Cutting between dramatic spreads of familiar heroes, readers meet the Justice League of America, a team formed by the government and comprised of superheroes who will, should the need arise, counter the globe-trotting Justice League. There’s Martian Manhunter, a super-strong telepath who would handle Superman; Hawkman, an airborn bruiser meant to battle Aquaman; Catwoman, who might at the very least stall Batman; and, among several others, is someone named Dr. Light. Who he battles is beside the point. With his inclusion, Johns teases loyal readers who remember that, in the pre-New 52 Universe, Dr. Light was a rapist whom the Justice League decided to lobotomize. The very sight of him brings a shudder.
These quick-shuffling events build to a commandingly executed showdown in Kahndaq. Once Pandora manages to halt Superman’s corruption by the box, she enigmatically vanishes. Batman then informs his teammates that Shazam, whose strength nobody has tested, has breached Kahndaq’s airspace and will eventually face the nation’s military. What the Justice League doesn’t know is that they have a mole on the team who’s been relaying their movements to their government counterparts.
Lost on absolutely no one is the sad fact that this double-barreled narrative would make a stunning film. But it’s not so tragic that we can’t enjoy the charged fallout, with Reis and Johns helped along by three more of DC’s excellent creators, writer Jeff Lemire (Animal Man), and artists Doug Mahnke (Green Lantern) and Mikel Janin. They screw the many logistical nuts and bolts in place, from Superman’s voluntary imprisonment to the investigation as to who might be manipulating him.
Throughout, we learn that Pandora, along with characters the Question and the Phantom Stranger, form the Trinity of Sin. In this story, they’re cursed immortals, forever walking the earth. In the pre-New 52 DC Universe, they were fan-favorite characters not quite dynamic enough for their own comics, and so frequently guest-starred across the DCU in various key capacities. Here, as with most adventure stories involving artifacts (magical or otherwise), the golden skull essentially becomes a football. The Trinity of Sin characters goad the heroes into scrambling after it, coaching with cosmic urgency from beyond the veil; the Phantom Stranger warns Batman, “You need to find Madame Xanadu. She’s still alive. She knows the truth behind the box! She knows what it really can do and who is after it! We’ve all been tricked.”
Mikel Janin is a different sort of illustrator. His best work delivers slower narrative moments, with beautiful poses and portraits reminiscent of carefully arranged dolls. During action sequences, his methodical lines remain at odds with the energy assumed by the panels. Surely Janin realizes this, because he often emphasizes his action with heavy motion lines. He nevertheless orchestrates a fine penultimate chapter, which ends with all three Leagues converging on the skull. After Xanadu reveals that it isn’t a prison for the world’s sins, but a doorway, the trim villain replies from the shadows, “She’s right…and now it’s time to open it.”
Because “Trinity of Sin” is a self-contained mystery, I’ll tell no more specifics. However, in another bow to Marvel, this time to their current strategy of following one gigantic event with another (and then another), this epic radically changes the New 52 landscape and leads directly into “Forever Evil.” There are dark new players and rules to contend with, and the heroes have been all but vanquished. Marvel’s “Dark Reign” era did something similar in 2008-09, when Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, ran S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers. Marvel, though, had merely been doing their version of DC’s “President Lex Luther” era (2000-04).
To read and love superhero comics is to do so in an echo chamber. The strongest ideas are tempered by fiery geek judgment, and survive down the ages to be repeated in print, on screen, and in fond memories. Sadly, Man of Steel director Zack Snyder recently responded to criticism of his brutal film by saying, “Everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman.”
Of course we do. The point of Reeve’s Superman isn’t to show that, if he were real, he couldn’t save everyone. The point is to never forget that he would try. Today, the same charismatic idealism runs through Marvel’s The Avengers films. When DC eventually hears the echo, they’ll catch up in a blue and red blur.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.