“Has our world become so twisted, so violent, that this is the kind of hero we produce?”
Lois Lane, in a different world, types on her computer a new story and reveals to the world her first encounter with the Batman. But they are timely words, for the comic industry of 1993. In the same decade of the rise of Image comics, bad-girl art, Superman’s death, and Batman’s paralysis, change was ongoing and stories were being reassessed. These developments were the fruits of the labor of revisionism, and the culmination of experimentation with tropes and longstanding characters from within the big two comic book companies on the block.
Superman: Speeding Bullets is a one shot comic, a single story line out of continuity playing with the origins of the Man of Steel. This had been done before. Only a year later would Batman be given a power ring and become the alternate Green Lantern instead of Hal Jordan. Mostly, these stories are gimmicks and cross-promotional fan service. Because these are one shots, despite reimagining the story to engage new character profiles, these kinds of narratives amount to nothing in the grand scheme of comic booking. Rather, they are dead-ends, what-ifs that are self-serving. I am guilty as much as the youth of yesteryear; I bought the comic because it had Superman in it. While DC is bold and noble for their arcs that attempt to grow and develop over time, such as the generational stories Grant Morrison utilized in his revolutionary run on the JLA (these propelled the industry into the current paradigm of comic booking), one shots can’t grow without completely overhauling the company line. With the implementation and development of the Multiverse concept, these one shots are only not becoming valuable avenues for narrative, but this is a long time in the making. Likely, these stories will disappear from memory.
Yet there is something remarkable about Speeding Bullets that makes its narrative profitable. Watching how Batman and Superman’s lives and experiences intersect thwarts the duality of their characters as they are realized now. In Batman: Hush, Batman survives his encounter with a brainwashed Superman, relying on Superman’s intrinsic code of ethics and morals that ground him. This puts Batman at a distance from Superman, but Speeding Bullets is apt to point out that it is Thomas Wayne’s intellectual curiosity that keeps Kal-El’s Bruce Wayne incarnation from degenerating into madness after his parents are killed in Crime Alley. Likewise, Martha Wayne teaches Bruce the sanctity of life and the value of all people regardless of socio-economic origin. Separating these values from the Kansas-born Clark Kent is a challenging task, as the mid-western incarnation varies slightly, but the difference is significant enough to be worthy of further insight. The Kansas Superman is a pastoral origin tale. The simplicity and virtuousness of working hard and producing honest fruit is the form of contrast that makes Clark in the city such a well-developed dichotomy. Whereas the city is a place of representations and impressions, some more disingenuous than others, the mid-west produces the kind of character that can only be evident from true actions. It is easy to fake one’s way into a city, to pretend to be something that isn’t the case. Kal-El’s Bruce Wayne variant is far more empirical and platonic. His values derive from principal rooted in Western Humanism. Martha is a philanthropist and Thomas is a medical doctor, one philosophical, the other a rationalist. Because Bruce Wayne is taught to love his neighbor in this way, this will propel the story forward to its natural conclusion.
The alley scene which depicts the birth of Bruce’s alter ego, the Batman, is the crux of the story, Wayne’s crucible that changes him from an outgoing, world-curious youth, into a darkly insular recluse. Superman, who doesn’t kill, indeed kills Joe Chill, albeit inadvertently. The guilt of not being able to save his parents places Bruce in a state of paralysis, until a group of thugs hired by Lex Luthor to scare Bruce further into isolation are thwarted and Bruce becomes aware of his Kryptonian origins. At this point the comic becomes an accusative narrative, excusing the Batman persona as a child-like manifestation of rudimentary (and possibly incomplete) justice. Lois Lane watches Bruce as Batman breaking limbs and burning flesh, fixed in horror. This is not the way justice ought to be served, and her words in the subsequent panels in which she writes about her encounter with the Batman appeal for sanity. DC’s J.M. DeMatteis’s editorializing is starkly clear, calling for the same altruism that, at the time, was absent from Image-era comic booking. Superman’s intrinsic character is an inspiration that overflows into Bruce’s life, which is demonstrable through Bruce’s love for the written word and populist means of inspiring people. Opposite of their relationship in regular continuity, Bruce is the person Lois falls for, not Superman/Batman, and their romance becomes the appeal for mercy to save the Batman from killing Lex Luthor, now a proxy for the Joker. Bruce Wayne’s connection to the media, justice, and advocacy, formalized by him starting the Gotham Gazette, is a recurring theme connecting Kal-El as Bruce to the injustice that must be abolished in the city. But this goes far deeper to Bruce’s core; since the death of his parents, he has collected the newspaper clippings of tragedy and catalogued the misery of the city. Bruce’s paralysis in being unable to do anything before his emergence as the Batman is compounded by his super-hearing, which intercepts the cries of the city from miles away. Just as he could not do anything for the wretched victims of Gotham’s seditious underbelly, he could not do anything to stop the murder of his parents.
In true platonic fashion, the story culminates with the unveiling of metaphorical masks. Batman and Lex Luthor both reveal their true natures. When Lois removes Batman’s mask, the act discards Bruce’s childhood trauma and frees his true self from the shackles of the past. Likewise, as Lex rips away a flesh colored mask, he reveals himself to be the incarnation of the Joker. The reveal is predictable but also nuanced and profound. A man of order, business, and professionalism, Lex discovering his “true self” to be an anarchist and force of chaos is a true transformation. All things being constant, Lois’s narration that has endured throughout the comic christens Bruce’s new persona, Superman, as a force for hope and redemption, invoking the populist appeal of the character both as a journalist (advocate of the vox populi) and highlighting Superman’s civic significance. The moral here, as much as in Grant Morrison’s own work, is “the world needs Superman.”
What otherwise is a work of compulsion, a marketing ploy and short term sales stimulus, DeMatteis’s narrative is poignant and an activist’s appeal to an industry’s return to form. Much like Bruce returning to head Wayne Enterprises, DC is being called to come back from the shadows and into the light. Despite the call for new, heartwarming comics and inspiring stories, which could otherwise be equally as damning for not undertaking any issues that have real world significance to the reader, DeMatteis’s wish was granted by Grant Morrison four years later. DeMatteis would also write again for JLA, allowing him to contribute to a comic devoted to idealism and altruism. It is very possible that the experience was particularly gratifying, but I can only assume the opportunity was relished, that DeMatteis could take part in the change of DC that he so envisioned only a few years earlier.