It may not seem like so at first, but everything is broken in Alan Brennert and Jim Aparo’s Interlude On Earth-Two. The Batman of that parallel world is long dead, as is his wife, Selina Kyle. His adopted son Dick Grayson is still privately grief-stricken, his old ally Batwoman worn away by sadness and regret. Even the walk-on supporting player that’s Starman in the tale is carrying his arm in a sling, the result of a disastrous if noble attempt to deal with one of the fallen Dark Knight’s most formidable opponents. Finally, even nature herself appears to have turned, as a “fierce unrelenting storm buffets Gotham City”, but, for all of the immediate jeopardy which that establishes, the truth is that Brennert’s Earth-Two is really a world which is silently and painfully collapsing from the inside-out.
Interlude On Earth-Two belongs to the tradition of superhero parallel-universe stories which focus upon character and emotion far more than upon the sturm und drang of it all. It’s a comic book about unexpressed and even unrecognised sorrows, about those burdens of regret and loss which are so overwhelming and yet so unavoidable that we’re almost crushed without realising it beneath them. The Batman has been murdered, and yet life has gone on without him. It’s a premise that’s made all the more disquieting to experience today because it underplays the modern-era expectation of how comic book alternative universes and timelines should play out. The cosmos isn’t fracturing, time isn’t being destroyed, and Earth Two’s no holocaust of devastated cities and slaughtered populations of mostly familiar super-people. In that, Brennert’s script quite sidesteps the now wearisomely familiar spectacle of yet another Earth being buried beneath yet more angst, horror, and Meta, and in doing so, it illustrates how constantly pushing that dial way past 11 adds little if anything at all beyond a shriek of white noise anyway.
Alan Brennert only plotted and scripted 8 tales for DC in the ten years from 1981 onwards, but they stand as one of the most remarkable collections of superhero stories that there is. The majority of them are Batman tales, and there he proved himself particularly adept at the parallel Earth story. In the justifiably famous To Kill A Legend, from Detective Comics #500, the Batman is given the chance to save the Thomas and Martha Wayne of another Gotham, a set-up which first allowed Brennert to use Bruce Wayne to discuss the crippling effects of grief as well as the potentially life-transforming influences of chance and inspiring role models. In Interlude On Earth-Two, the author presents the Batman of DC’s then-mainstream continuity with a vision of an exceptionally familiar and effectively future-world in which he himself has died. It’s an askew look at his own life and likely fate which eventually inspires Bruce Wayne to re-evaluate the way in which he expresses his love for those closest to him. It’s simply impossible that this Batman could ever devolve in the taciturn and monomaniacal Dark Knight of Frank Miller’s work. For all the undoubted value of Miller’s take on the character, Brennert’s Batman is a far more endearing, inspiring and human individual. When he tenderly and unexpectedly kisses the Batwoman of Earth-Two at the story’s conclusion, there’s a delicacy and a joy for living in the whole business which is shocking in how feasible and exhilarating it is.
Every one of the leads in Interlude On Earth-Two has buried to one degree or another the loss of an individual who was once entirely central to their lives. Robin’s still grieved by the murder of his mentor. Batwoman regrets not just the loss of a partner in crime-fighting, but the fact that the Batman of her world took another woman as his bride and never discussed the matter with her. Even the book’s antagonist Hugo Strange has been left isolated and diminished by the Batman’s passing, for who is there left that he can war with now that the time for his own personal Gotterdammerung has arrived?
And “unnerved” by the situation that he unwittingly finds himself in, the Batman of Earth-One, who has himself seen the Batwoman of his Earth-One murdered, attempts to work his way through this underworld of repression and loss without doing any more harm than he must to those he’s fighting with. As he always has been, he’s set on keeping his mission distinct from his personal life, what little there is of it, and yet that’s quite impossible here, given that the people around him are in so many ways the men and women that he’s shared his own life with. To Robin and Batwoman, who get one more chance to stand beside a Batman when this caped crusader arrives on their world, his presence offers the opportunity to “remember … not just the bad times, but the good”, while for him, there’s a rare moment not just of comradeship, but of intimacy and inspiration. He too has avoided opening up to those he loves, and although the Kathy Kane that he once cared for is now gone, he can at the very least remember how important she was to him, and, in doing so, celebrate her existence.
In Brennert’s restrained and yet always moving script, there’s a remarkable lack of melodramatic excess, and the reader’s attention is always kept focused on the surface mechanics of what can at first appear to be a bog-standard superhero tale. All the appropriate tropes of the sub-genre are here. The dramatic donning of the costumes in the face of a sudden and life-threatening crisis, the gathering of the heroes in the face of disaster, the apparently unstoppable menace of the contemptuous and brilliant super-villain. Indeed, having remembered the story as being an almost uniquely touching one, I was surprised to note how kinetic and dramatic it is. All but three of the story’s pages are marked by action, by Panther-jets and robot dinosaurs, giant tops and Whirly-Bats and Batman robots, and there’s never a moment when the story runs out of plot and falls back upon a space-wasting indulgence of any kind. This is lean, focused and fast-moving storytelling on the part of both Brennert and his collaborator Jim Aparo, whose work here is perhaps the finest of his long and estimable career, and it puts a lie to any idea that the superhero comic is faced with a choice of either sticking to its absurd traditions or attempting to express something other than banal and childish concerns.
Last week, I attempted to discuss the possibility that some of the choices we might consider making at the beginning of the New Year aren’t truly choices in any traditional sense at all. Still, fingers and just about everything else crossed, the great majority of 2012 will – hopefully – for most of us involve matters which to a greater or lesser degree we can influence, if not control. In that, Brennert and Aparo’s Interlude On Earth-Two strikes me as being the perfect comic book to read at the turning of the year. His superheroes share jeopardy, they trust to each other’s competencies and decency, but they’re not in the habit of accepting their own feelings as well as they might, and they’re certainly don’t express themselves to those they respect and love as well as they ought to. They’ll be time enough, they’ve all despite themselves assumed, and yet, in the end, there really wasn’t. And though it’s not as if Brennert’s characters indulge themselves at the story’s end in any of the sentimentality and hysteria of oh-woe-is-me psychobabble, all of them finally allow themselves to recognise and express something of their loss and their love. Even the Batman is shown starting to smile in an untypically unguarded and fond way, in memory of the Kathy Kane that he once knew, although he does perhaps tellingly have his back to his fellow cast members when the aberration first occurs.
Everyone in Interlude On Earth-Two, and that even includes Hugo Strange at the moment of his own terrible end, is an ultimately reserved and private individual. Robin, for example, can still only just manage to call the Earth-One Batman “Bruce” as he wishes him farewell. In an age in which the default character setting for a great many adult superheroes is one marked by the emotional maturity of a dysfunctional early adolescent, these characters are, for all their costumes and super-abilities, distinctly experienced and mature individuals. And in Brennert’s tale of regret and redemption, they’ve all unexpectedly shared a bleak and demanding experience together, and at its end, they’ve become something of an accidental community who are able to express, in that awkward way which most of us share, their affection and respect for both the people they’ve lost and the folks around them too. An obvious moral, you might think, and you’d be right, but one so often disregarded in practise too. How strange, that by wrapping around it this tale of super-people and their super-conflicts, the moral becomes suddenly fresh and compelling again. All that way out there into the absurd worlds of the fantastical, and then, there it is, the very thing that we all ought to have remembered when we first stumbled out of sleep this very morning.
today, I’ll be celebrating Jim Aparo’s splendid contribution to “Interlude on Earth-Two” and attempting to highlight something of how well he and Brennert worked together. You’d be very welcome to pop over if you should have a free minute sometime.