Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Superman/Batman: Public Enemies"

Out of Superman and Batman, which hero better embodies the world of superheroes? I apologise to Marvel, but these two DC champions are simply more prolific. The only Marvel hero I could imagine might be equally well-known and representational of the superhero world is Spider-Man, and even that is a bit of a stretch. When people talk about superheroes, in the most general sense, the immediate examples which spring to mind are Superman and Batman, and I can see why having them team up for regular comic adventures makes a lot of sense in both artistic and business terms.
These days Batman is probably the most recognisable. His animated adventures have been on TV in one form or another pretty much constantly since the early Nineties and he's also never been too far from the big screen, becoming accustomed to success therein especially with the acclaimed Christopher Nolan Batman films. Superman, on the other hand, is more of a traditional icon. The first two Superman films from the Seventies are classics, he too got animated attention in his own series and alongside Batman in Justice League, and to your average person he generally represents "superheroes" in the popular consciousness. His many above-human abilities embody what we consider to be "superheroic" physically. Superman and Batman embody the two big ideas of superheroics: one, a protector who averts catastrophes and solves disasters beyond human means, and the other a detective and crime fighter who upholds the law where normal authority can't. My personal preference is for Batman, because I find him more interesting and his relative plausibility requires less suspension of disbelief, but I'm not averse to Superman either. They both have their place.
In "Public Enemies", the first storyline of the 2000s Superman/Batman line, Jeph Loeb gives a very effective examination of how these two most distinctive of superheroes function together. We're constantly shown how they're both eerily similar yet strikingly different. Their parallel narration of events permits us to see insights which, while on one hand coloured by Superman's optimism and faith, and on the other by Batman's cynicism and ruthless pragmatism, reveal to us how they're characters who function naturally as friends and allies despite their vast differences, because between the two of them what they achieve is balance. This balance gives them what they need for victory.
This gets us onto the plot. It's a bit silly, I admit. A huge Kryptonite asteroid is heading for Earth and Lex Luthor, currently President of the United States, blames Superman, putting out a billion dollar bounty on his head. Unfortunately, no explanation is given for why anyone believes Luthor's claim and although in an interview Lois mentions how there's absolutely no logic behind suggesting that the presence of this asteroid somehow makes Superman a criminal it seems a little implausible that Captain Atom and his team would be okay on just rushing out based on so little evidence. There is also some weirdness such as when a heavily Kingdom Come-inspired Superman from a post-asteroid future shows up in the Batcave and beats up Superman and Batman. While it's interesting to see Superman driven to such lows it comes across as rather odd. Similarly the young Toyman's giant Composite Superman-Batman spaceship is kind of absurd, although this is of course lampshaded for our benefit. There are some other odd moments too, like when the two heroes get the drop on Captain Marvel and Hawkman completely off-page and show up in their uniforms to trick Luthor with only a hasty explanation from Superman as to how it was achieved. It doesn't even seem to be for a particularly noteworthy reason either, mostly just for the sake of a visual gag. In the same segment a whole bunch of both Batman and Superman's young sidekicks show up and while I can recognise Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl and Superboy I didn't have a clue who the rest of them were. Apparently they're one of like four Supergirls and Steel's daughter. Whaddya know.
Nonetheless there's lots of chunky action and the characterisation of Superman and Batman is good. The art style, while rather exaggerated, is easy on the eye without being difficult to take seriously and the characters are all distinctive with the action quite simple to follow. I enjoyed the role given to Captain Atom, one of the more interesting second-stringers of the DC Universe, and while Luthor was very crazy his battle with Superman at the end where he is asked "When will you stop believing your own lies?" is rather disturbing. It's a rather harsh indictment of the state the US was perceived to be in at the start of the 2000s and of using scapegoats for aggressive and selfish policy. Despite the fact that it featured Luthor as the primary villain you never feel like Batman is sidelined and he and Superman work very well together as a team. It's all entirely plausible and you can see how, despite everything, writers like to depict these two as best friends. I wonder if, considering the perceived "trinity" of top DC heroes, how a Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman combined title would work. Anyway, it's a good little read although it's short length can seem somewhat unsatisfying. The plot similarly is a little rushed and can feel a bit confusing at times but regardless it's worth it for the Superman/Batman interaction and it's a good way to enjoy these two top notch heroes in a manner which is not only a good experience for the two characters but also a refreshing take on their distinctive personalities for the reader. Batman's still better, though.

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