Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Would You Like Less Pulp In Your JLA?

I have argued previously that the Justice League is a "clash of genres."

That phrase might not be perfectly accurate, but it's a good soundbite. Batman has some pulp roots (Zorro, the Shadow). The Flash and the Atom are science-heroes, powered by vaguely plausible experiments/accidents. Green Lantern and Hawkman are space-opera characters. Zatanna straddles the Vertigo line. The Elongated Man and the Martian Manhunter are different types of detectives; and at one point Booster Gold and Captain Atom were different kinds of "men out of time." The ones I would call "pure" superheroes -- for purposes of this post, "fantasy" characters -- include Aquaman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.

Therefore, I think it would be instructive to examine which Leaguers tend to fare the best over the years. If the Justice League is a sampler of DC as a whole, seeing which "genre" dominates its adventures might give us a clue as to the company's overall tone.

Regardless, I suspect that, despite J'Onn J'Onzz's presence in virtually every era of the team, Batman would be the go-to guy. Batman always has a plan; Batman always wins. Grant Morrison had Batman unmask the Hyperclan (and beat up three of them), outlast DeSaad, and outsmart Lex Luthor. When he wanted to show that Prometheus meant business, he had the new villain (who was an "evil Batman") first defeat the Darknight Detective.

It goes back farther. One could argue that Batman leaving the League and founding the Outsiders was the beginning of the "Satellite Era's" end. Likewise, Batman's return to the team (now based in Detroit) was an attempt to lend that League some credibility. Batman was a dominant force in the early Giffen/DeMatteis years, and showed up a few times in the Dan Jurgens/Gerard Jones/Ron Randall relaunches of the early '90s.

And why do people like Batman? Because he has no powers but he's real smart. (Also, the years of martial-arts training and discipline don't hurt.) So what does it say that, on a team composed of characters from different genres, that the most visible heir of the pulp heroes routinely gets the most deference?

Clearly the implication is that Batman represents the "need for realism" which has driven superhero comics for the past twenty-plus years (probably going back to his takedown of Superman in The Dark Knight Falls). Yes, those who look to Batman for "realism" are probably frustrated with his very involvement in the Justice League, but I don't see too many people claiming that Black Canary and Green Arrow are any more realistic. Indeed (despite GA's appearance in the Dark Knight Superman fight), conventional fan wisdom seems to hold that a bow and trick arrows are no way to stop, say, the Demons Three, or even a moderately well-armed super-criminal like Captain Cold.

Actually, now that I think about it, Kingdom Come also gave Batman's "talented-humans" team something of an advantage, in that they didn't have the drama of Superman's and Wonder Woman's Justice League. With that nuclear strike, the "regular" humans also end up settling much of the superheroes' infighting.

So what are we to make of this trend? Is it an anti-superpower bias? (Ozymandias even beats Doctor Manhattan, at least for a minute or so.) Or is it simply more interesting to have the non-powered, real-smart humans outsmarting the powerhouses?

I don't know that it goes that far -- and really, if it gets much farther, it wanders into the old "superpowered fascists vs. wild-eyed vigilantes" territory. Anyway, the Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Kingdom Come examples are all "good guys" fighting among themselves, which is ostensibly "more dramatic" than a run-of-the-mill super-fight. Talking about something like the Justice League, on balance it is probably more interesting to have someone with a lower power level save the day. (There was Steve Englehart's Willow/Mantis storyline, where the Atom was the hero; not to mention 1978's JLA/JSA team-up, where the Elongated Man defeated the Lord of Time.)

Still, what's the point of having a Justice League if you're not going to use the Supermen and Wonder Women? Well, in fact, the JLI teams got along pretty well with only a few powerhouses at a time (Martian Manhunter, Doctor Fate, Captain Atom, Captain Marvel). Guy Gardner was never really a world-beater as a Green Lantern, Wally West was stuck at the speed of sound for much of his JLI tenure, and Power Girl was de-powered as well. Even when the Morrison League brought together the "big guns" (for the first time in that continuity), Morrison tended to place the powerhouses in set pieces: Superman wrestling the angel, Big Barda fighting the future Wonder Woman, Green Lantern containing an exploding Sun. Morrison's Flash and Green Lantern were especially creatures of the Id; whereas the lower-powered characters (Huntress, Steel, Green Arrow II, and of course Batman) got to be smart.

I dunno. Again, maybe I'm making too much out of it. However, I can't help but think that the treatment of Batman over the past twenty years has rippled out not only through the Justice League, but into the wider DC line. It's created an attitude of cynicism that eats at the more fantastic titles (how great is Superman if Batman can beat him?). After all, Hal Jordan decks Batman in Green Lantern: Rebirth -- probably to help his street cred -- and then goes on to greater things via "The Sinestro Corps War."

This could be why I like Trinity so much. I got a huge kick out of Morrison's "JLA/James Bond Batman," and I even gave the fist-pumping moments of last week's
"R.I.P." conclusion a pass. Batman should be a world-beater, you know? However, there are times when he should also be surrounded by world-beaters, even taking a back seat to them once in a while. If these are superhero stories, pulp's most famous heir shouldn't be hogging the stage.

2 comments:

RAB said...

You're focusing only on relatively recent years here, but I'd say a big factor in Batman's usefulness to the JLA is the number of times he's changed since the character began. We've seen Batman fighting gangsters, Nazis, and Dick tracy-like villains; we've seen him with aliens and superpowers; dark gothic horror and gritty urban crime; fighting shapeshifters and cyborgs and gorilla mobsters. The character has been through so many shifts in tone and approach in his own books that there's almost no setting or type of story you haven't already seen Batman in. What could the JLA come up with to make him seem out of place when Bat-Mite or Rainbow Batman couldn't?

Tom Bondurant said...

The weird thing about the early-JLA Batman -- and I could probably do a whole other post on it -- is that he was the Bat-Mite/Rainbow character, who teamed up with Superman and fought aliens regularly. However, from what I can tell of those days, Justice League didn't focus on the differences, as it were. So yeah, I am cherry-picking a little, but I think it's justified.