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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Realworld: DCU

In 2000, DC released four one-shot graphic novels called "Realworlds,"stories that looked at ways that the DC characters affected the lives of people in the “real world” – our world. Sort of. See, it still isn’t our world because all of the stories are fictional, but they’re set in our world – there’s no real superheroes, no magic, no time travel, and no supernatural powers.

Four books were released: a Batman, a Superman, a Wonder Woman and a Justice League.

The Batman story sees a mentally-challenged man, Charlie, have trouble separating fiction from reality when he pretends to be Batman in a story set around the premiere of the Tim Burton Batman movie in 1989. Up until this point, the only version of Batman that he’s familiar with is the Adam West TV show, so Batman’s a real hoot for him. Of course, an interesting parallel is drawn when Charlie encounters his old “Robin,” and she’s fallen into drugs and crime. His once-happy childhood must come fact-to-face with the reality of modern life, and so too must his happy, campy Batman "mature:" once Charlie sees the new Batman movie, he starts to adopt aspects of that persona – the dark, “grim ‘n’ gritty," “mean” Batman that has guns on the Batplane. Thus. he goes from care-free crime-fighter into dour avenger. But things are once again set right in the world when Charlie gets beaten up by a bunch of hoods, and it’s the people who befriended the “old,” fun, and friendly Bat-Charlie who come to his aid.

The Superman book is somewhat less inspirational. Eddie is a mild-mannered grocery clerk who crosses a couple of toughs in the fifties, who then proceed to get him drunk and tattoo a giant “Superman” symbol on his chest. Eager to get revenge, Eddie is arrested while breaking into the leader's apartment, and spends the next two years in jail. During his stay, though, he starts to believe that his “S” tat is symbolic of more than his inability to defend himself, and ends up running the local crime syndicate once he’s paroled. His new, stony exterior is broken when he a few kids he tries to scare into obedience see the tattoo as the symbol that they’re familiar with – truth, justice, and acts of kindness. What Eddie fails to see is that you don’t have to be an unemotional dickwad to be tough, and thus his new Superman mindset must come into conflict with his criminal life. When he fails to silence a man who’s to testify in front of a grand jury because he doesn’t want the man’s son to see Superman beat up his pop, the rest of the gang decides to take him out, beating him senseless. The aforementioned son of the man who’s to testify finds him and brings him into his basement, where his father keeps him safe – at least, until he testifies, where it’ll be easy for the police to find him. Not content to sit around and wait for arrest, Eddie goes out looking for revenge once more, but manages to stop a drive-by shooting that would’ve killed the informer by throwing himself at their car. Earning redemption, Eddie “dies,” to be reborn in witness protection as Ted Carson, until he dies of a heart attack while helping children in LA.

The Wonder Woman story – I was never able to track down. The Comic Book Database, however, tells me that it was about a woman who plays Wonder Woman in the movies, and that one’s a little too obvious for my tastes; I like the indirect, tangential qualities of the stories featuring Batman, Superman, and the best book to come out of this series, the Justice League.

“The Justice League Returns,” by J.M. DeMatteis and G.L. Barr, sees four friends being invited out by their billionaire buddy during Halloween, 1999, to relive their youth spent playing “Justice League.” He sends them out in New York City, all expenses paid, with costumes of their respective superheroes: soon-to-be-divorced, disenchanted Michael Riley becomes Superman; plastic-surgery-playgirl and lawyer Karen Steuben relives her Wonder Woman days; down-on-his-luck, also divorced, comedian Nick “The Stick” Dimarco is Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man; and TV producer and asshole Richard Barrison dons the cowl and becomes the Caped Crusader, Batman. Their billionaire host, Bernard “Barnyard” Epstein, disillusioned with his role as a powerful corporate titan, can’t see himself as a hero anymore, and throws out his childhood alter-ego, The Atom, in favor of the villainous Despero.

Every one of the friends has become entirely disenchanted with life, believing that they’re wasting their time, just trying to keep death at bay for another day. In short, they’ve become pessimistic old farts. Richard gets through the pointless days watching I Love Lucy reruns. Nick seems to have lost his only shot at a comfortable life when he was fired from a sitcom, and now suffers from a “terrible disease” that he believes will kill him in a few years. Karen had plastic surgery to make up for what she believed to be ugliness, but still spends her days playing a character, engaging in wanton sex and frivolity, but tearing up when she confesses to Michael that love is the “only thing that gives life any substance” – quite a confession when you can see that she’s eschewed all of that, preferring to follow the mantra of "style over substance."

Bernard has sent them out on a journey through the streets of New York in their costumes, getting them to “play” again until they reach Yankee Stadium, where, in a “Wonderful Life” moment, Despero/Bernard shows them the good that they’ve done with their lives, and all that their days playing “Justice League” has taught them. Although Richard’s a grade-A asshole, he’s created a show that’s optimistic and gives people hope for the future; Michael’s students say he’s turned their lives around; Nick makes people laugh when their own lives seem like crap; Karen works with battered women and helps kids on the weekends – the only person that’s excluded is Bernard himself, so I’ll fix that by mentioning the lives he’s improved with – well, whatever it is that his company makes.

Bernard helps them to remember what they once believed they would do, and that, although things may not have worked out to the point where Karen’s swingin’ around a magical lasso and Michael’s saving Lois Lane from Brainiac’s machinations, they’ve made the world all the better for what they did do.

There is perhaps a bit of creepiness in the book, as Nick, playing Ralph Dibny, is frequently referred to not “living much longer:” once in childhood, and then when he’s an adult when Bernard tells the group that Nick has a double-hernia – which, Nick points out, could kill him if he doesn’t get treatment, which he can’t afford. Although these were printed in 2000, which raises doubts that the DC staff were in the know that far in advance of Ralph's death in 52, it is a little unsettling.

"The Return of the Justice League" is nicely done – it’s a bit of self-congratulation for DC, and helpful for those who despair that they haven’t “done” anything with their lives. What those people forget is that they’ve done plenty simply by living their lives, that pursuing their goals and values have rippled outward to attain the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people. The businessman, like Bernard, makes products available easily and cheaply when he seeks to make money. The comedian, Nick, provides entertainment, allowing people to forget about their problems for a few hours a night. The lawyer, Karen, makes enough money that her weekends can be spent helping those who do not deserve their fate; the kids whose parents died or the wives who were abused. The producer, Richard, inspires people, like DC has through the Justice League, to create a future like that portrayed in his TV show, where ability is rewarded and justice is served without deference to skin color or sex. And the teacher, Michael, trains others to achieve their goals, to ripple out in turn to touch all other lives.

Inspiring stuff.

And The dialog is pure DeMatteis – it felt like I was reading “Justice League International” all over again. In fact, there were places where I almost considered Michael, the Superman, to be closer to a Ted Kord. There's even a few "Bwa-ha-ha"s to be had.

Anyway, "The Return of the Justice League" is great stuff, so if you can find it, give this curiosity a spin. There's a few used copies at Amazon, so get 'em while you can.

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