“Nice to Meet You, Big Guy”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 15

all scans are from 1998's Superman Adventures by Mark Millar, Mike Manley, Terru Austin et al

Continued from last week.

November 1998′s Superman Adventures #25 gave Millar one last substantial shot at depicting The Batman. Putting the overwrought misjudgements of the JLA Paradise Lost mini-series behind him, he returned to the conception of the Dark Knight that he’d laid out so precisely in 1997′s JLA Secret Files & Origins. Once again, Millar focused on deconstructing the myth of The Batman as a grimly possessed and perhaps even sociopathic vigilante. In doing so, he also took aim at the post-The Dark Knight Returns habit of portraying Batman and Superman as both uncomfortable allies and antagonistic rivals. The distance between both men’s means and ends were, according to Miller, nowhere near as profound as Frank Miller and his acolytes would have it.

Millar’s (Almost) The World’s Finest Team is set in the continuity of the Warner Brothers cartoon features which began with 1993′s Batman: The Animated Series and concluded with the final episode of Justice League Unlimited in 2006. Always the traditionalist when it comes to DC’s superheroes, Millar’s sensibilities sat well with the back-to-basics, mass market-friendly approach of the WB features. Having landed the scripter’s berth for the Superman Adventures tie-in title, he set out with the intention of producing a year’s worth of adventures, most of which would reference a classic aspect of Superman’s history. (*1) Doffing his cap to the decades-long tradition of team-ups between Batman and Superman had been part of Millar’s gameplan from the start. What had once been a regular feature of DC’s monthly schedule had, with the cancelation of the venerable and underperforming World’s Finest Comics in 1982, become an irregular business. By the arrival of the Dark Age, the two characters had tended to pursue quite separate lives marked by absolutely distinct methods of crimefighting. (In 1999’s No-Man’s Land event, for example, Superman would be absent from Gotham despite the city having been levelled by earthquakes and sealed off from the rest of the USA by its own government.) But for Millar, whose emotional attachment to the characters was grounded in his childhood reading, Batman and Superman were, and apparently always should be, part and parcel of each other’s everyday lives.

For all of that, Millar choose to homage the World’s Finest tradition with a tale that co-starred Batgirl rather than Batman. It was a choice that allowed him to discuss how the Dark Knight’s intimidating methods were perceived by one of his younger costumed acolytes. Casting Batgirl as a character who’d swallowed the myth of the Batman as a remorseless and immutably driven creature of the night allowed Millar to comment on the preferences of Dark Age fans. Forced by the Mad Hatter’s kidnapping of Bruce Wayne into working with the Man Of Steel, Millar’s Batgirl initially regards Superman’s methods as naive and, at the very best, unhelpful. Had Superman and Batman been teamed together according to Millar’s convictions, the essential similarity between their beliefs and approaches would’ve become immediately obvious. But pushing Batman out of the spotlight allowed Millar to appear to be standing with those who saw Kal-El as an emasculated relic. Only appearing in costume in the story’s closing scene, Millar’s Batman was then used to definitively puncture such preconceptions with his obvious regard for Superman as both a person and an ally.

Batgirl: “Personally, I get the feeling Batman doesn’t approve of Superman’s flamboyant, widescreen tactics in his hometown.”

Batman: “On the contrary, Batgirl … Superman’s methods are very effective in their own way, and there’s no denying Gotham seems a little brighter for his presence. I think it does us all good to look up in the sky …. every once in a while.”

The implications are clear; Batgirl has mistaken the myth that the Batman chooses to embody for  his own true character. Rather than being compelled for whatever cocktail of reasons to adopt his fearsome appearance and methods, Millar’s Batman is pragmatically following an approach to crimefighting that suits his needs and ambitions. As such, he’s an entirely rational creature who’s more than capable of respecting alternative approaches. Just as Batgirl has learned to admire Superman on his own terms, she’s now coming to grips with The Batman’s own supremely logical approach to his crusade against lawlessness.

By 1998, the relationship between the WB’s versions of Superman and Batman had overcome an initially contentious beginning, and the somewhat guarded if evidently sincere respect which marked their acquaintance was accurately reflected in Millar’s script. Yet he simultaneously stepped away from the cartoon’s continuity in his depiction of Batgirl, who he transformed from a friendly, thoughtful superheroine into an intimidatingly driven, wittily acerbic and vicious chin-breaker. Even given the character’s desperate need to find the captured Bruce Wayne before he’s executed, her hardboiled and brutal approach was hardly in keeping with her previous appearances. Even when compared to her depiction by writer Ty Templeton in the companion title The Batman And Robin Adventures, Millar’s Batgirl is an incongruously obsessed and inflexible character. (*2) Similarly, Millar portrayed Superman as an exceptionally naive do-gooder who, it appears, has never had to operate in the poverty-stricken disorder of Metropolis’s own Suicide Slum, let alone in the badlands of Gotham City. Both characters are bent to the purpose of Millar’s tale, transformed into the apparently opposing poles of sunny neighbourhood cop and results-fixated avenger.

If the process can seem to cast one as just too gauche and the other as unfeasibly fierce and inflexible, it also generates the good-humoured conflict which drives the tale. Though Millar has clearly subverted each superhero’s character in order to set up his story’s conclusion, the process does unexpectedly and wryly allow the Dark Knight to finally emerge as an embodiment of clear-mindedness and restraint. With Batgirl as the tale’s thesis, Superman as antithesis, and Batman as synthesis, (Almost) The World’s Finest Team functions as a top-notch odd-couple thriller.

It’s a mark of how quickly Millar’s skills had developed that his radical reshaping of Batgirl’s personality and approach jars so little. Conspicuous by their absence on the comic’s pages are the majority of the quirks and defects which had previously compromised even the best of his previous work. The script is swift-moving and yet never appears rushed. The panels remain unclogged by any excess of text. Where the art can deliver the detail of events, the text is kept sensibly free of redundant descriptions and word balloons. Plot-beats are constantly matched to visually compelling set-pieces. The tone of the piece is consistent. Spectacular scenes develop rather than slow the plot. Melodramatic excess is held in check. The dialogue is sharp, relevant and frequently droll. As a result, the tale barrels onwards with such enthusiasm and good humour that its problems with structure and continuity are almost entirely obscured. Though the story is seriously flawed by fundamental problems, its pleasures far outweigh its faults. Of course, it’s inconceivable that this reasonable, intelligent Batman hadn’t explained the difference between the myth and the reality of the Dark Knight to Batgirl. What kind of mentor would he be if that hadn’t been the first major piece of advice that he’d handed on? But without that conceit, Millar’s tale, and the sentiments it expressed, could never have seen the light. On the one hand, it’s a clear case of ill-crafted work. Yet on the other, it can’t be said that the script lacks a great many virtues or fails to deliver on the promise of its theme. Even if Millar wouldn’t always ensure that his work made a great deal of sense, he was at last able to mask the worst of his carelessness with a notable measure of hard-earned craftsmanship.

To be continued.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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