I’ve been snowed in for the better part of the past week or two, which means I’ve been reading a lot. It also means I’ve kinda run out of new things to read, so I’ve been going back and re-reading stuff I already have.
For some reason, one of the things I have sitting on my shelf is the four-trade run of Superman/Batman by Jeph Loeb. Now, these aren’t horrible comics (though he’s definitely capable of creating those, as anyone who took a look at Ultimatum knows), but I’m certainly not proud they’re on my shelf. I bought these when I first started getting into comics a few years ago and I’d read The Long Halloween (which actually is quite good, though I think it has more to do with Tim Sale’s art than Loeb’s writing) and thought, “Hey, more stuff by Jeph Loeb? That’s probably pretty good!” Yes, Past Chuck was kinda stupid. By the time the fourth book, Vengeance, came out, I bought it mostly for the sake of completion than out of any desire to actually read the story he was putting together.
So let’s take a look, book by book, at what worked and what didn’t. Spoilers for those of you who haven’t and (for whatever weird reason) might want to read these books.
The first story, Public Enemies, is a basically an excuse to have Batman and Superman go up against a bunch of different heroes and villains. Oh, and to have a giant mecha punch a Kryptonite asteroid. Loeb, as those who follow his work well know, is great at developing stories that fit the artist he’s got; in this case, he’s got Ed McGuinness, who does big, kinetic action scenes great. McGuinness’s blocky, bulky character designs are great for this stuff, and it’s clear this is supposed to be a fun book. And it is, in a mindless, summer blockbuster sort of way. As a popcorn action flick of a comic, it works pretty well.
That isn’t to say the book is without problems; there are a couple of glaring ones, to my mind. First, Batman and Superman team up to find out whether or not John Corben, AKA the villain Metallo, was the man who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents. There’s evidence in the S.T.A.R. Labs’ databanks that Corben was the man who shot the Waynes, and both Superman and Batman suspect the information may have been planted to mess with Batman. But it’s never clear why Luthor (who was, at the time, President of the United States) did this, since he doesn’t know Batman is Bruce Wayne. Why would he think information on the Waynes’ murder mess with Batman if he didn’t know Batman and Bruce Wayne were one and the same? It’s a minor plot hole, since that was just the impetus for the two heroes to get together and things quickly move on to the giant asteroid on a collision course with earth, but it bugged me nonetheless.
The other big problem is what I like to call the dueling text boxes. We get both Superman’s and Batman’s innermost thoughts throughout the series in yellow (for Superman) and blue (for Batman) text boxes. They often contain parallel text, establishing the emotional and psychological state of our heroes. But…well, there’s just so many of them, first of all. It’s like reading a Silver Age comic with all the thought balloons, except they’re text boxes instead of thought balloons. They’re serving the same purpose. Rather than letting the characters’ respect for each other and admiration for each others’ abilities come out through the story or through bits of dialogue, we have to have all these text boxes. And it’s not like they’re telling us anything particularly interesting or important: We get a recap of each hero’s origin story, their sense of conflict about the Corben mystery, their frustration with Luthor and his machinations to blame the asteroid on Superman, and their rather overt bromantic relationship (yeah, I said “bromantic”).
Story #2, Supergirl, is about exactly that: the reintroduction of Supergirl to the DC Universe. We’re talking about Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin, here, a character last seen during Crisis on Infinite Earths back in the mid-80s. The biggest surprise here is that it took DC 20 years to bring the character back. Loeb is joined here by Michael Turner, best known for his drawings of women with impossibly-long torsos and very skimpy clothing. Thankfully (?), Loeb gives him plenty of scantily-clad jailbait and lots of Amazonians to draw. And the Female Furies on Apokolips. Again, Loeb seems to tailor the story to the artist’s skills and preferences, giving Turner lots of pin-up style poses to draw and plenty of women.
We’ve also got the dueling text boxes again, though this time they’re mostly concerned with how Batman doesn’t trust Superman or Kara and how Superman finally doesn’t feel alone anymore. There’s a lot of noise about accepting people and trust and family, but it all feels pretty flat. We also get Batman threatening to blow up the entire planet of Apokolips, which is kinda cool, I guess, but seems somewhat out-of-character. What really hurts in this particular story, though, is the dialogue. There’s a particularly bad exchange during the climactic battle between Superman and Darkseid after Darkseid’s used the Omega Beams on Kara (though not really. She was teleported out of harm’s way at the last second, but it does beg the question: what was incinerated by the Omega Beams if not Kara? They wouldn’t have just stopped, since their original target was Superman anyway and I’d think they’d have just kept going until they hit him) where Superman rattles off a laundry list of the things Kara will never get to do now that she’s dead (though not really. And another thing: after the battle, it’s indicated that Superman was in on the whole thing the whole time and knew Kara wasn’t dead, so why the hell was pretending she was? To trick Darkseid, whom he ends up shoving into the Source Wall and effectively imprisoning indefinitely? What’s the point?). It’s pretty pathetic. He talks about her smile, not getting a first kiss, blah blah blah, oh wah, generic teenagery stuff. And then there’s the final scene of the book, where he introduces Supergirl to a bunch of heroes like the JLA, the JSA, and the Outsiders, and she’s all excited about getting to meet them and they’re all excited about getting to work with Supergirl (whom they’ve just met, I hasten to remind you). It’s pretty cornball.
Story the third is called Absolute Power, and it poses a fairly interesting question: what if Superman and Batman were shifted from their paths at very key points and groomed to become despots instead of heroes? What if they ruled the world with an iron fist? It’s a clever idea, but sadly it devolves into random, “Hey, let’s visit other alternate DC earths! Look, it’s Kamandi! And the DC western characters, only in the modern day! Wow!” And then the whole thing breaks down into a by-the-numbers restore the timeline and rescue all of reality to reset the status quo story. It’s the best of the storylines in Loeb’s run, but that’s like being the fastest snail in a snail race.
The art this time is handled by Carlos Pacheco, who does an excellent job of rendering the heroes in an iconic fashion. His art isn’t anything spectacular, but his grasp of design and storytelling is solid and he does a good job with what he’s got.
Loeb’s big twists here – having to rely on Darkseid to help them reset the timeline, the villains from the Legion of Super-Heroes future being responsible, having to bounce around in time and space as the timeline attempts to correct itself, and Batman unmaking himself by saving his parents’ lives – are interesting but don’t really make for a coherent or even engaging story. It seems like he came up with a bunch of “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” moments and then threw them all together and hoped something stuck.
The final story, Vengeance, teams Loeb up with Ed McGuinness again. It’s easily the worst of the stories. It’s spiteful, cluttered, and relies heavily on Loeb’s run on Superman (collected as the Emperor Joker story) for one of its key plot points. The gist of it all is that the Joker retains some power from when he stole the powers of Mr. Mxyzptlk, and Mxy’s trying to get it back with a game. Superman and Batman – while still under the influence of Saturn Queen, Cosmic King, and Lightning Lord from the Absolute Power arc – swoop into an alternate dimension and kill a hero called Skyscraper because he killed Lois Lane. Except..well, he really didn’t, since Lois is alive and well and this was all made up by the Joker and Mxy for the game. Skyscraper was part of a team called the Maximums (Loeb’s thinly-veiled Avengers analogs; the Captain America proxy, Soldier, had a sidekick/son called “Lucky” who is essentially the only hero who never gets to come back to life, even though the afterlife seems to have a revolving door in this universe), and his death sets up a conflict between the Maximums (guided by a disguised Mxyzptlk) and Superman and Batman.
One of my biggest problems with this story – aside from its incoherence and utter disregard for decent storytelling – is its use of Bizarro. Bizarro is one of those characters people either love or hate. I hate ’em, probably because he’s so rarely used well (and the whole “Opposite Day” way of speaking just gets annoying and unnecessarily convoluted). I think the only use of Bizarro that I’ve actually liked was Grant Morrison’s use in All-Star Superman, but as discussed earlier, that’s one of the best comic books ever made, so…
Back to this comic. Loeb ends up creating another giant blockbuster-esque series of fight scenes for McGuinness to draw (and he does draw the hell out of ’em, you have to give him that), complete with no less than five Supergirls, a Superwoman, a Batwoman, a Tim Drake in the Batman Beyond uniform, and a whole host of Batmen and Supermen from across time and the multiverse.
But ultimately, how do we judge these comics? Loeb clearly wasn’t setting out to create a definitive story about Batman and Superman, but rather a fun, fairly mindless series of tights ‘n’ fights. While there’s nothing wrong with that (I mean, I enjoy a mindless action movie or comic), it doesn’t even always succeed at doing that. There’s plotholes, bad storytelling, and cringe-inducing dialogue. The art is usually pretty good (though Turner’s stuff is an acquired taste and McGuinness’s stuff is very cartoony), but the writing – especially those damn dueling text boxes – leave something to be desired. Would I recommend these books? Not so much. They rely on some fairly obscure continuity, so they’re not exactly new-reader friendly (especially Vengeance), and long-time fans of either character may become annoyed with some of the characterization. And, like I said, dialogue and plotting were pretty weak. The art’s pretty, though.