On Superman #247 & Batman #239: 10 Key Superhero Titles From 1971/2: What Else Was Around When The Defenders First Saw Print? (2/3)

(Continued from here )

6. Superman #247 by Elliot S! Maggin, Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, John Constanza et al.

As a rule, the less continuity there’s been, the more continuity fascinates. In Must There Be A Superman?, Elliot S! Maggin set about tightening the little-explored connections between DC Comic’s various ‘cosmic’ stories. Referencing the Green Lantern and Justice League canons, Maggin’s story has the Guardians Of The Galaxy plunge Superman into what, in retrospect, is surely a highly unethical teaching scenario. (Without consent, they deceitfully implant doubt into Superman’s “sub-conscious” in order to make him question his role as humanity’s protector.) Sparked from the questions inevitably raised by a shared universe which had, as of 1971, rarely been explored as such, Must There Be A Superman? sketches out the relationship between the intergalactic police chiefs that are the Guardians and the Man Of Steel, who had so often been shown imposing his own off-Earth brand of law and order on the cosmos without reference to anybody else’s authority.

Maggin’s story also looks inwards to Superman’s own largely-self-contained continuity and, again, seeks to answer a question which mostly only arises when characters and stories are presumed to share a common fictional reality. When each individual Superman tale tended to exist in its own continuity, bound together by shared features and yet otherwise quite disconnected even from each other, it wasn’t really necessary to ask why Kal-El doesn’t simply eradicate as much suffering as he can from the globe. But once each and every DC tale is presumed to occur in an immersive and self-consistent cosmos, then the question of why Superman doesn’t just end world hunger while toppling tyrannies of all stripes demands answering.

“Nor is the depiction of the migrants, who are in effect being blamed for the continuance of the oppression they toil under, a sensitive and insightful one.” Most stories in the canon of late 60s/early 70s Relevancy tend to pursue left wing ideals, but Must There Be A Superman is in essence a profoundly reactionary tale. If the Earth were governed in a fair and decent manner, then the argument that Superman should stay out of politics might ring truer. But the idea that he should allow systemic oppression to continue for fear of stifling individual and cultural growth is one which the radical Superman of Siegel and Shuster’s first years might find … difficult to sympathise with.

There is a third aspect of Maggin’s story that says a great deal about the period’s superhero tales from DC Comics, namely, their use of the conventions of “relevancy” and the targeting of stories at an older audience that had hitherto been the norm. For in Must There Be A Superman?, the crucible in which Superman is taught about the limits he must set himself when it comes to interfering in human affairs is a Californian migrants camp. Here, amongst references of abuse and strikes, poverty and oppression, passivity and activism, individual and social responsibilities, Superman decides he must limit his interventions to disasters which everyday folks simply can’t defend themselves from. Everything else, he concludes, must be left for humanity to resolve, or indeed not, or individual initiative and freedom will be catastrophically stifled.

I can’t say I’m won over by Superman’s arguments here, let alone by the behaviour of the Guardians. Nor is the depiction of the migrants, who are in effect being blamed for the continuance of the oppression they toil under, a sensitive and insightful one. (In a great many ways, it’s a grossly insulting portrayal.) But as an example of how newly-developing storytelling concerns from continuity to relevancy could impact upon the super-book of the period, Must There Be A Superman? is essential reading even for those who might not agree with its ethics. It embodies a painful, and painfully sincere, tension in many of the super-people tales of the age between maintaining the traditional, post-Horror Moral Panic appeal of the genre and using it comment on real-world issues. In attempting to speak to a somewhat older and mature audience, the likes of Must There Be A Superman?, for all its virtues, threatened to leave behind young readers while failing to convince their elders. But the result of all these various artistic and commercial pressures is a fascinating moment in comics history, and to that, Superman 247 still testifies.

7. Batman #239 by Denny O’Neill, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, Ben Oda et al.

The done-in-one and entirely self-contained story has become rarer and rarer since the Marvel Revolution laced the super-book with soap operatic sub-plots and line-wide continuity. In the light of what was to become corporate cross-imprint inter-connectiveness, Silent Night, Deadly Night! can seem strangely constricted in its set-up. Not only does it evidence not an atom of DCU continuity, but it opts to avoid showing anything of Batman’s own mythos beyond a single mention of Bruce Wayne and a few panels featuring the Batmobile. No Alfred, no Robin, no Bat-Cave or Wayne Towers, no nods towards the Justice League or Teen Titans: nothing but a very human Caped Crusader and Gotham as a typical American city. There’s not even a panel or two of the likes of “Red Skies” to indicate the context of a broader immersive setting. Instead, O’Neill, Novick, Giordano et all deliver a story focused on a single criminal and a single span of darkness. Pleasant enough in its hopeful Christmas trappings, Silent Night, Deadly Night!, like Must There Be A Superman?, illustrates the tension that existed between the traditions of the superhero book and the challenges involved in continuing to reach out beyond an audience predominantly composed of pre-adolescents.

It’s a compelling enough tale, tightly plotted and compellingly paced, and the confection’s made all the more enjoyable by the sentimental pleasures of festival snow and a mysterious – perhaps even divine? – intervention. But there’s a dual challenge to believability here, in that O’Neill’s script seeks to both strip away the all-knowing, all-virtuous, uber-competent allure of the costumed vigilante while still allowing The Batman to continually take the law into his own hands. It’s one thing to show a superwise, super-competent cartoon Dark Knight Detective dispensing his own brand of judgement according to his own individual beliefs when he’s been placed in a one-dimensional fictional playpen. But here O’Neill presents a boldly vulnerable Batman, recast as so frail and fallible that he carelessly allows himself to be knocked unconscious from behind by an everyday crook wielding a table lamp. This is The Batman as a straight-forward everyman vigilante in a daftly distinctive costume, no more or less, rather than anything more formidable and even arcane. Stripped of a great percentage of his mystique, he’s in essence closer to Adam West than the moody panels of Novick and Giordano would otherwise suggest, although sadly entirely lacking West’s knowing deadpanning and more-sincere-than-sincere convictions.

“We’ll discuss your difficulties with the law next week”, declares Batman to Tim while letting him go home, despite the latter being guilty of at least seven counts of violent assault, six counts of theft, one count of unlawful imprisonment, one of breaking and entering and one of threatening behaviour.

It’s an undeniably interesting take, but it clashes with the relevancy of O’Neill’s story, in which one Uncle Tim violently assaults and robs half a dozen Santas in half a dozen separate attacks in order to fund his niece Betsy’s Christmas. Had the Batman of the Golden or early Silver Age then, as O’Neill’s does, decided not to drag Uncle Tim to jail, the Christmas sentiments evoked by the latter’s apparent seasonal reform could have passed for fairy tale justice. Broad strokes, after all, leave little room for subtle doubts and the likes of Bill Finger and Dick Sprang could have woven a sweet if facile tale of a good heart sourced by poverty and redeemed by empathy. But Silent Night, Deadly Night! isn’t quite a bog-standard child’s fairy tale so much as one injected with an uncomfortable measure of social relevancy. Into the mix O’Neill throws the innocent and charming young Bestsy threatened by destitution along with a wealthy toy manufacturer who laid off his workers in hard times and then never, as promised, rehired them. Complex matters – penury! capitalism! responsibility! justice! – are reduced to awkwardly broad symbols while events are depicted visually in a comics-realism style that suggests a measure of complexity and nuance. The result is a story that defeats itself, never quite simple enough to work as heart-cheering Christmas parable or sophisticated enough to ask useful questions about the matters at hand. In doing so, The Batman comes across as not just physically unimpressive, but ethically unstable, switching between old school sticklerism and liberal empathy at what feels like the drop of a hat.

There is a wonderful sleight of hand at the story’s climax, in which O’Neill sidesteps resolving any of the issues he’s raised by having the selfish capitalist collapse with a heart attack and the vengeful Tim supposedly redeem himself by trying to save his oppressor. It feels at first as if a nice emotional bow has been made of the story’s various threads. But the conflict between capital and labour, and between individual action and criminal responsibility, is barely explored at all and quite ignored at story’s end. (The capitalist’s refusal to care for the workers who’d once toiled for him, for example, is never explicitly judged according to values of either Right or Left.) That The Batman allows the repeatedly violent criminal Tim to go home with his niece rather than being herded to a police station in the climax only adds a further layer of sentimental confusion to the story. This is surely aiding and abetting on the part of The Batman, who appears to consider himself above and beyond those laws which bind the rest of us. So it has often been, and yet here, by adding just a pinch of realism and relevancy to The Batman’s mythos, O’Neill – despite the very best efforts of Novick and Giordano, who both buy effectively into the character’s post-camp creature-of-the-night visuals – made the character seem very much less impressive and very much more corrupt.

to be concluded

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