Man of Steel, Woman of Legs

Given how often Superman and Batman have been paired into dualisms ranging from “day and night” to “Apollo and Dionysus,” it’s surprising that in the second week of DC’s “new 52” they paired the Grant Morrison Superman reboot with not Batman but his feminine epigone Batgirl. But then, as scuttlebutt says that Batman will once again be spared excessive rethinking, both Superman and Batgirl are alike in being the subjects of very well-publicized makeovers.

Of the two, Batgirl’s retrofitting easily could have taken place within the framework of DC’s previous edition of “Dude Where’s My Continuity.”  The Batgirl Sometimes Known as Barbara Gordon appeared first in 1967, suffered spinal trauma in 1988, and soon reinvented herself as Oracle, paraplegic computer savant to the DC Universe.  Eventually she also became the mostly-behind-the-scenes leader of the superheroine team Birds of Prey, whose most notable run was written by Gail Simone.  During that period Simone tantalized the book’s readers on one occasion, hinting that Oracle might regain her powers of locomotion.  Now, as part of the “new 52,” Barbara Gordon does regain her old abilities and costume.  Simone does not waste time in the initial story as to whys and wherefores of her restored mobility, but immediately pits the heroine against such hardboiled antagonists as brutal home invaders and a new psycho-villain named “the Mirror.”

Simone and artist Adrian Syaf serve up a nice helping of violent adult pulp here, largely keeping the character in real time and resisting the Marvel-cliché of having the central character woolgather about her problems for umpteen panels.  To be sure Batgirl is explicitly haunted by her former infirmity, but this is certainly for the purpose of eventually unfolding the story of Barbara’s recovery.  The principle fault of Batgirl #1 is that as far as setting up the action Simone does take a little longer here than she did in the exemplary Birds of Prey, with the result that the issue feels a little on the short side.

Superman’s makeover, however, is more of a break from the character’s pre-52 past (though not so much a break that fans cannot mesh the two if moved to do so).  In Action Comics #1 Grant Morrison and Rags Morales return readers to the earliest vision of Superman as furnished by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, when Superman was an extra-legal crusader, often flouting the law in order to obtain justice.  This version lasted only about a year or so before (allegedly) DC’s Golden-Age editors discouraged this type of hero and pressured the creators to quit providing a bad role model for kids.  Once Siegel and Shuster were ousted from control over the character they’d created, Superman became the virtual mascot of DC’s respectable image, resulting in a character most often seen as a domineering authority-figure.

Thanks in part to the clout of the Grant Morrison reputation, readers become re-acquainted with a young, cocky Superman like that of Siegel and Shuster.  The hero’s not as powerful as his more mature avatar (though Morrison’s script hints that his powers are increasing as he grows older).  But this Superman cares little or nothing about the letter of the law, using his strength and invulnerability to scare confessions out of rich malefactors and intimidating wife-beaters—both ideas the hero’s creators had used.  This return to a “Robin Hood” heroic ethic makes for a pleasing fantasy; I for one wouldn’t have minded seeing this Superman elicit a full confession of wrongs from Dick Cheney, even knowing that such a confession would be (and should be) invalidated in any American court of law.  I feel sure Grant Morrison knows this as well, and am reasonably confident that he’s got more on his mind here than simple revenge-fantasies.

To be sure, even if Siegel and Shuster had possessed total control over the character’s fate back in the 1940s, it seems very unlikely that Golden Age Superman would have continued thumbing his nose at cops and other authorities.  Just as the familiar Robin Hood myth is predicated on the notion that someday Richard III will return and restore rightful authority, most serial heroes need such an order to defend, so that readers may feel as if some victory has been achieved.  In addition, an anarchist Superman faces the problem, even with his Clark Kent alter ego, of becoming locked in a continual pissing contest with cops and armed forces, which could lead to the series taking on the tone of The Incredible Hulk.  Amusingly, in Luthor’s first encounter with his superpowerful future nemesis, the evil scientist functions as a consultant to the armed forces.

Action Comics #1 looks superb thanks to the art of Rage Morales, with only a few problems where sequences become too “pose-y.”  On page 7 Morales has a solitary cop fire his gun at the hero, but the action is off to the side, failing to set up the next panel, where Superman blithely catches the bullet.  Morrison, like Simone, spends a little too long setting up a new cast-member, as Clark Kent takes an interminably long time to talk to his rather tedious landlady.  As a consequence, veteran support-cast members Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen appear in the final pages of the story and lack much in the way of characterization, good or bad.

I don’t imagine I’ll follow a lot of the line, but Action Comics and Batgirl gave me a reasonably good introduction to the “new 52” nonetheless.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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