Angels On High

1Welcome all! The Four Color Opera has joined Open Letters Monthly, and I’m thrilled to wish us many entertaining trips together, over rooftops and under streetlights. Whether this is the first, fifth, or hundredth time you’ve visited, please know that this blog is about great comics and graphic novels, regardless of genre. But you’ll notice that my fingers dance the fastest for superheroes.

While visiting, ask questions, make requests, sass, and explore something new. I’d like to BRING IT to my new venue with two of the world’s most recognizable comic icons, Superman and Batman. In 2003, publisher DC began a modern team-up series featuring the pair, written by Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween) and drawn by visionaries like Ed McGuinness and Michael Turner.

Absolute Power, a five issue story arc drawn by Carlos Pacheco (Avengers Forever), is exactly the kind of lean, mean tale for which the series was launched. Loeb, who loves tailoring his scripts to the artist, went into this knowing Pacheco specializes alternate realities. His attention to costumes and physique (while re-imagining characters) adds stellar weight to his work, pulling us into mirages that may last one panel or twenty.

This tale starts much like the series did–with quick and deftly juxtaposed origins for Big Blue and the Caped Crusader. Each hero narrates his partner’s panels, so we get young Kal-El’s ship crashing to Earth alongside Batman’s scowling: “You know the story. Everyone who hears it can never forget.” Then, as young Bruce Wayne’s parents are mugged and shot before his eyes, Superman says, “What happened that night changed [him] and, in turn, effected the entire world.”3

This is classic stuff, done brilliantly for newcomers and compulsive readers alike. Loeb’s a gifted sculptor of tension, and his dialogue rings like a tuning fork when artists channels it properly. Here, on the following double-page spread, the indelible origin scenes are interrupted by three caped figures, identities unknown (though long-time readers might recognize their powers). Jonathan and Martha Kent are electrocuted while deciding what to do with baby Kal. Young Bruce watches bullets leave his parents’ bodies (magnetically) and rip vengefully through their assailant.

The sinis2ter trio then adopts the boys. One of them tells Bruce, “You understand that there is nothing left for you here. With our guidance, you will serve a higher purpose.”  Soon after, Justice League members like Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Flash are killed before their careers can begin. Whoever these villains are, they’ve struck the 21st Century like surgeons.

Though Loeb crafts wonderful mysteries (like Red Hulk), this story sizzles by inverting everything that Superman and Batman stand for. The question, “What if our greatest heroes took over the world?” has been done before. But it’s usually executed in a pocket universe where the stakes are nil. Here, Loeb insists on an epically-scaled, step-by-step dismantling of the actual DC Universe. And God, is it fun.

The villains are from the 31st Century. They are the Cosmic King, Lightning Lord and Saturn Queen–enemies of the  Legion of Superheroes. They’ve traveled into their past (using Time Bubble technology), intending to eliminate those who inspired the future’s heroes. This way they can, “Rule in Hell rather than serve in Heaven.”4

So. With Superman and Batman manipulated throughout their formative years, we wake up to New York, but no Statue of Liberty. Our heroes’ imposing likenesses guard the city instead, presiding over the phrase “Obey or Die.” Luckily, this world also has an exceedingly plucky Wonder Woman, whose Lariat of Truth tells her that reality isn’t what it should be.

She manages to seek out fallen heroes from a bygone era (like Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady, and the Human Bomb) to wage war against the fascist duo. And though the fighting is brutal–as icons graphically kill each other–this is when the narrative takes flight with Twilight Zone-exuberance.

Superman uses his heat vision on the Human Bomb and somehow rips time itself. We then jaunt through numerous shitty realities, all doomed because DC’s big two never properly defended them. One is “ruled” by Lex Luthor, and has the talking apes of Gorilla City running amok in Metropolis, high on religious scripture. Another reveals Western heroes shooting up the day-lit streets of Gotham City. The trip’s climax brings Bats and the Boy Scout to the hellish planet Apokolips, where craggy dictator Darkseid offers to help restore reality because, “To alter the Universe on such a grand scale is one only thing. Reckless. Or else I would have done it myself ages ago.”

You’d guess that these s5cenes are treat enough, but Loeb squeezes the medium for all it’s got. Once the rules of his madcap game threaten to stale, he sends the heroes back in time to enure that Saturn Queen and company don’t interfere. This accidentally results in a world where Batman never existed (and Bruce lived happily as a useless socialite, doting parents and all).

Pacheco, usually at his best when inked by Jesus Merino, delivers noble character moments and ballistic action. Younger readers might need to steer clear, for his violence is rather explicit, especially during the final act when a zombie Justice League faces the world-dominating Ra’s Al Ghul.

When all is restored, Superman and Batman remember the awful deeds and alternate realities. Absolute Power doesn’t linger at the exploitative end of the spectrum, but redeems itself in strengthening the icons’ cores. “I wanted you to know,” Superman struggles to tell Wonder Woman, “I need you to know, how much I treasure our friendship.” Batman, meanwhile, calls the time spent with his parents alive a gift. If I wasn’t already a lifelong fan, this might have done it for me.

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