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Superman & Batman: Generations

A long time I read a Superman "imaginary story", those tales set outside that all-important continuity allowing writers could indulge themselves, that was set in the future. Superman's wife Lois Lane, Superman's daughter (on the verge of growing into her powers), Superwoman (the rechristened Supergirl, when she wasn't being governor Linda Danvers), Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen and the big S himself appeared in a story set against Clark and Lois's wedding anniversary. This was well before they actually married in the comics of course. Well, other than on Earth-2 ... before Earth-2 was erased from continuity. Or is Earth-2's existence acknowledged again now? Hmm... and people wonder why comic book canon gets confusing. Anyway, it was a memorable outing - it must have been given how long ago I read it.

Since then DC formalised the imaginary story under the Elseworlds banner, dispelling some of the stigma of that "imaginary" tag. But let's face it, freed from the need to maintain the status quo, it's easier to tell an interesting story, as Alan Moore demonstrated in the best of these imaginary tales, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?".

Maybe that Superman anniversary story was the inspiration behind John Byrne's Superman & Batman: Generations. Or maybe it was Byrne's Batman/Captain America World War 2 era crossover a few years earlier (clearly, but not quite explicitly, set in Generations' own "imaginary" continuity). In the ending of that crossover we jump ahead twenty years (in order to execute a very clever epilogue) when Bruce Wayne has passed the mantle of the bat to Dick Grayson, and Wayne's own son, Bruce Jr, is the new Robin.

Comic book characters aging in real time is something I've been an advocate of for years ... not that it'll ever happen in these times where marketing-driven brand continuity is more important than creative latitude. So it was with interest that I started reading Byrne's well-regarded 1999 mini series.

Starting in 1939 and then jumping ahead a decade at a time, every chapter describes an event in the careers of Superman and Batman, and eventually their children and grandchildren. The stories themselves are fairly conventional and in the style of the period that they're set in. This is most obvious in the absurd chaos caused by Mr Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite in the 1959 chapter, slightly less so in the socially-relevant 1969 story, partly set in Vietnam, or the "grim vigilante" of the (post-Watchmen) 1989.

The "slice of life" approach means that a lot of significant personal events - births, marriages - happen between chapters, which is fine, but some of the chapter endings are abrupt. This is slightly disconcerting, but usually signal a dangling plot thread that will be picked up later on. Because there is an overall arc which plays to the central theme: the interplay between the immortality of the original legends (both cultural and literal) and the inherent mortality of people ageing and passing the baton.

Byrne adopts his art to the different periods, though never to the point where it feels like pastiche - it's still recognisably Byrne all the way through. The dialogue is exposition-laden and stilted ... classic "old school" comic book speeches and thought bubbles I guess. It's appropriate for the concept, but compares poorly to the more naturalistic dialogue of today's best writers, eg Brian Michael Bendis's. Though I guess Bendis is himself so distinct that in ten years time his Mametesque patterns could be seen as similarly anachronistic. Likewise, the plots seem hurried and overly-burdened with beats, compared to some of today's (yes, Bendis) titles where we can spend twelve pages on a conversation over lunch.

I still think Byrne was at his peak during his run on Fantastic Four, but suspect if I were to revisit those issues that they would feel just as ... old fashioned.

Still, overall Generations works.

The inevitable follow-up Generations 2 doesn't work as well. The personal thread that's woven through the first series doesn't really run through the new instalments. It seems like Byrne is going through the motions to satisfy the brief of bringing in a whole bunch of DC characters - various Flashes, GLs, Wonder women/girls etc - into his pocket universe. We've already seen most of the interesting generational events (who married who, who killed who and so forth) so the sequel can't exploit the concept as well.

The final chapter in Generations 2 does bring back the connection between Superman and Batman and retcons the Wayne murders in a way that's interesting.

By the time the twelve-issue Generations 3 rolls around I think Byrne realised that the concept had become tired and adopts a new twist. Rather than jumping through the decades of Superman and Batman's own publishing history, he leaps ahead one hundred years at a time, starting from 1925, setting each issue in his own take on DC's future history.

Hence, for instance, the little-known Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth is a major character in issue #3's 22nd century story. Issue #12 obviously will take place in the 30th century, the time of the Legion of Superheroes, given Saturn Girl travelled back to 1925 in the first chapter.

Unfortunately, while the device is clever, I found the story quite uninvolving. The need to have a coherent throughline means that more and more of the characters acquire some form of immortality. I understand the reason for this, it would be almost impossible to introduce a new set of characters every 22-page chapter. But the original Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and some of their family living for hundreds of years undercuts the central premise of Generations: that even legends are mortal and have to pass on their heritage to their heirs. Maybe I wasn't in the right mood, but I stopped reading after issue #4.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 19, 2006 4:42 AM.

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