Drew: Paper or plastic? Beatles or Stones? Smooth or crunchy? We love our false dichotomies, and while Marvel vs. DC may be the most obvious example in the world of comics, Batman vs. Superman is a close second. They’re presented as polar opposites enough to make it feel like a given, but are they really so different? Superman may draw his power from the sun, and Batman may draw his power from the shadows, but move beyond their color palettes and you’ll find that both fight for justice, both refuse to kill, and both have a penchant for wearing their underwear on the outside of their clothes. Of course, if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that their reasons differ on a fundamental level, growing out of their profoundly different psyches. It’s those differences, rather than the light/dark dichotomy, that Greg Pak sets to explore in Batman/Superman 1, and the result is a surprisingly fresh take on the pairing.
The issue begins “years ago” with Clark Kent tracking down Bruce Wayne in Gotham’s slummy East End. Bruce is in his Batman: Year One reconnaissance disguise, but he can’t fool Clark, who is hoping to get some answers about several Wayne Enterprise employees who were recently killed in Metropolis. Batman decides to investigate, but ends up terrifying the victim, which only confuses Superman when he finally arrives. They fight, but they’re cut short when the entity that had murdered those people (who was until now possessing Catwoman’s body) does…something to them. Clark comes to over Smallville, only it isn’t his Smallville — he encounters an older, differently dressed Batman, and it looks like pa Kent isn’t dead. Clark is on Earth-2, which opens up a whole can of worms I really wasn’t expecting from this title.
Briefly, lets unpack the mythology going on here. This apparently takes place before Batman and Superman “met” in Justice League 1, which doesn’t exactly make sense — especially given how much I suspect this ties in with that arc: I’m thinking the Catwoman-posessing, Superman-teleporting baddie here is the “daughter” we hear Darkseid refer to in Justice League 6. I know, I know, we’ve been thinking that might be Pandora (and I bet we’ll find out soon), but we don’t know of many beings capable of traveling from Earth One and Earth-2, and I can’t help but think that she must somehow be related to Apokalypse.
More importantly: Earth-2? I get that it’s a comic-y concept, but it’s also a pretty deep cut in the New 52 — very few titles have dealt with it directly, and almost all of those are C-listers (in fact, we’ve dropped all titles that featured its existence on any regular basis). My point is: it’s a weirdly “in” concept for this issue to pivot with — particularly because it comes out of absolutely nowhere. The issue is humming along as an interesting character study of both heroes when suddenly a supernatural villain is introduced, deus ex Selina, and we’re swept off to Earth-2 without any explanation.
I’m always a little upset when a narrative I’m enjoying suddenly veers off on a totally unexpected course, but it is particularly enervating after Pak handles the characters with such deftness. The opening scene between Bruce and Clark takes an unusual take on their outlooks, but is delivered with impeccable confidence. The scene finds Bruce standing by as a muslim child is picked on by a group of bullies. Clark, being Clark, leaps to the child’s rescue.
The treatment of Clark is typical of the character, but the notion of Bruce standing by to let someone protect themselves is a bit out-of-the-ordinary. Then again, it makes perfect sense. Of course Bruce would understand the importance of a child being able to defend themselves (and, perhaps more importantly, their loved ones, though the boy’s sister is never threatened). That kid is Bruce, and the thought of a big, strong protector looking out for him is downright condescending. We lowly humans can take care of ourselves just fine, mister Superman.
It’s a beautiful sentiment made all the more beautiful by Jae Lee’s stunning art. I’m particularly enamored of his treatment of Gotham — his snaky, vine-inspired designs out-Burton Burton, giving everything from benches to lampposts a dark, otherworldly feel — but his deco-inspired Metropolis is also gorgeous. Ben Oliver steps in to cover the Earth-2 sequence, and is a brilliant match for Lee — the difference in styles clearly demarcate the change between worlds, but isn’t so jarring as to upset the continuity of the story.
There’s a lot to love in this issue, but I’m still reeling from that Earth-2 twist. Scott, I’m curious to see how you felt about that, since I believe you haven’t read any stories featuring Earth-2. Did you have any idea what was going on there? Did it matter?
Scott: It’s definitely a disorienting twist, and I think that matters to some extent. I had to do some research in order to understand what was going on in that final act, and while that’s not Greg Pak’s fault, he better be able to back up a curveball like Earth-2 with a good explanation in the next issue. I don’t think it’s a problem that a high profile new comic is exploring Earth-2, but to disrupt a solid first issue with something that feels so out-of-left-field is a bold choice, and it’s too soon to really evaluate that decision.
Drew, you mentioned the fundamental differences between Batman and Superman, but what I find most interesting about this issue is Pak’s focus on the differences between Bruce and Clark. While the events that led to to each of them donning a cape are quite similar- as illustrated by the mirrored title page spread- those events shaped them into vastly different young men. I like that Pak chose to go back in time and show the first meeting between Bruce and Clark because we get to see how untrusting they are of one another, just as men. Knowing what we know about how their relationship eventually develops, it’s interesting to evaluate their first encounter in comparison to how they might act now. Bruce and Clark are such strong characters, I actually think the biggest change in their relationship is just that they learn to trust each other, not that either changes in any significant way- I still think Clark would chase away the bully and Bruce would let the kid handle it himself.
I appreciated that this issue featured Batman and Superman each traveling to the other’s city. In many ways, the two men are embodiments of their respective cities, and setting half the story in each place also helps to define and differentiate them. Lee’s moody art makes both cities look eerie, beautiful, and less inviting than usual, even for Gotham. As a whole, I think Lee’s art compliments Pak’s writing tremendously well- the introduction of supernatural elements into the story immediately struck me as a potentially awesome fit for Lee’s style, and he handled those moments with understated elegance.
I’m trying not to get hung up on the twist ending- this was a very promising first chapter for Batman/Superman. I’m curious to see if/how artistic duties will be split up in future issues, especially if the series lingers in Earth-2. Lee’s style is very hard to replicate, which makes it tough to divide pages with another artist, but I would hate to see this title move away from the style he has established.
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