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Realworlds: Justice League of America & Batman

DC's Realworlds graphic novels are an interesting variation on their Elseworlds concept. Rather than placing the familiar icons in alternative fictional settings - Batman in Victorian England, Superman in the USSR of 50s - tell instead stories about how Superman, Batman et al impact us, real people, in the real world ... or Earth Prime maybe. ;-)

I've now read two of these - The Return of the Justice League of America by stalwart writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist G.L. Barr, and The Dynamic Duo! by Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski (writers), Marshall Rogers (who pencilled a legendary, pre-Miller, run of the Batman character in the 70s) and John Cebollero.

It's no surprise that both books play the cynicism of the adult, real world against the innocence of the make believe comic book characters, acknowledging the inherent silliness of the superheroes, especially those of the more innocent, pre-Watchmen age. (And even today, are superheroes any less silly, simply because they're grimmer? Something to ponder.) It's a device that's been used within the mythology of the comics themselves - never better than in Alan Moore's classic "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" So the concept itself is rife with potential.

The reason why the JLA book doesn't work has nothing to do with the premise, but with the execution. Simply put, the story - of a group of disconnected childhood friends rediscovering meaning in their wretched, soulless lives - is not well told; mainly because the ending falls completely flat. The problem is that their old buddy, now (literally) the richest, most powerful man in the country, swoops in like a fairy godmother, throws an elaborate party and then tells them that their lives are in fact worthwhile, despite what we've been shown - more dramatically - earlier. They never have the chance to discover this realisation for themselves through their actions. And then they live happily ever after. It's a bloodless, contrived, if obviously well-intentioned, story and - despite a couple of cute moments - a disappointing one. DeMatteis has done much better work, both dramatic and funny. The art is very nice though, reminiscent of Jon Jay Muth's Moonshadow (also penned by DeMatteis).


In contrast, the Batman story does work. There's something touching about the naiveté of Charlie's belief in the forthright, campy Batman of the 60s TV show. He is never so detached from reality that it becomes unbelievable and trite, but his retardation makes the nature of his fantasy life plausible. I suspect Charlie owes something to his namesake, Charlie Gordon from Daniel Keyes' classic Flowers for Algernon, and the effect he has on the other characters, and the reader, is not dissimilar.

The story neither looks down on Charlie, nor elevates him. It is non-judgemental, and all the more affecting because of it.

There's a nicely done sequence of Charlie seeing the new (ie first Tim Burton) Batman movie, and having its darker treatment change how his own Batman behaves.

Another is the neighbourhood community coming together, as the gang that picked on him earlier comes to his defence when a much worse breed of bad guy turns up.

Showing the pain and loss of Clarissa, Charlie's fallen childhood friend, Golden and Sniegoski aren't afraid to verge on the sordid, though all done within the restrained convention of an all-ages comic.

There's some awkwardness here and there, parts of the storytelling are perhaps too on the nose, but nothing that really detracts (and an exemplar of subtlety compared to the JLA narrative).

Marshall Rogers' characters always had a charm to them that perhaps didn't sit entirely comfortably with the Dark Knight, but here his pencils perfectly suit the story. Cebollero's inks - textured like a more sophisticated Richard Corben - serve to ground the art, again as the story demands.

The ending is bitter-sweet, but uplifting; a real ending that works within the context of the story, and as a commentary on the affirming effect that superheroes can have on us.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 10, 2006 5:21 AM.

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