Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Man of Steel #3

One Night in Gotham City...

Written and Pencilled by John Byrne
Inked by Dick Giordano
Colored by Tom Zuiko (misspelled in the issue)
Lettered by John Costanza
Edited by Andrew Helfer
Cover by John Byrne
Cover Date: November 1986

One night in Gotham City, and a thug named Bull is on the run, chased by the Batman. Batman corners him in an alley, and questions him as to the next strike by his boss. Bull throws garbage in Batman's face and makes an escape. Batman gives chase, using his batarang to swing between the buildings, musing on the fact that Bull is more intimidated by his boss than he is by Batman. Suddenly, the batarang line start pulling Batman. He looks up to see that Superman has caught the line and is towing him through the skies of Gotham. Superman intends to deliver Batman to the police, calling him an outlaw, but Batman lets go of the line and escapes. Superman tries to find him, confused as the reports he had read suggested that Batman had no super-powers.

Batman reappears on the roof of a nearby building. As Superman moves in to grab him, Batman tells him to look at him with his inra-red vision. Superman does so, and discovers that Batman is surrounded by a force-field. Since reading of Superman's appearance, Batman had suspected that their paths would cross, and had come up with a failsafe to keep Superman at bay. Batman explains that the field will detect super-dense material, such as Superman's body, and if the field is penetrated then a radio signal will detonate a bomb in Gotham, killing an innocent person. Superman is shocked at Batman's tactics, but listens to Batman, who explains the latest series of crimes to hit Gotham. Over the past few nights, a series of jewel heists have occured, each one with a different and fatal twist that resulted in the deaths of several workers in the jewellery industry. Batman's investigations had led him to the goon named Bull, and he had just discovered the name of the lady behind the murders - Magpie.

At her base, Magpie is furious with Bull for not taking the opportunity to give misinformation to Batman. She needs Batman off her tail so that she can steal a collection of Fabergé eggs that are due to arrive in the morning. To punish Bull, she injects him with a paralytic poison, before placing a lit stick of dynamite in his mouth, a trick she calls the 'Happy Birthday'. The resulting explosion attracts Superman's attention, and he and Batman race across Gotham. Batman recognises the source of the explosion as the now-closed Museum of Antiquities. Magpie's goons pick up the approach of the heroes on CCTV, just before Superman bursts through the wall. The goons open fire, but Superman just shrugs off the bullets. As Batman moves in on Magpie, she breaks a glass vial, releasing a highly corrosive acidic gas. Superman inhales all of the gas and flies into space, releasing it. The gas freezes and Superman confirms with his microscopic vision that the crystals are no longer harmful.

Returning to Earth, Batman reveals that Magpie escaped during the confusion. He retrieves a fibre from the scene and analyses it with the computers in the Batmobile. Discovering that the fibre is over five thousand years old, Batman is able to trace her location to the Gotham Museum, home to a set of Egyptian mummies. There, they find Magpie having a tantrum and apprehend her. Batman unmasks her, revealing her identity to be Margaret Pye, an employee of the museum. Magpie has a mental breakdown, collapsing in tears. Superman feels sorry for her. Batman does too - she isn't the kind of criminal scum he normally deals with, rather a fragile woman with an obsession with collecting pretty things - but feels more sorry for her victims.

The two heroes watch the police arrest Magpie from a nearby rooftop. Superman concedes that Gotham is a very different town from Metropolis, and that different styles of crimefighting are required. As Batman makes to leave, Superman confronts him over the bomb. Batman reveals that the bomb was concealed on his person; Superman would be able to tell if he was lying about the bomb, and he was unwilling to place anyone else in danger. Superman leaves, promising to keep an eye on Batman. Batman muses that in different circumstances, they might have been friends.

The third step in the re-working of Superman for the post-Crisis world is to establish his relationship with the one other hero in the DCU with the iconic power of Superman - the Batman. It's not exactly the logical choice, certainly not when key elements such as Lex Luthor, kryptonite, and Superman's regular villains have yet to make anything other than cameo appearances. And yet, it's an important choice, and certainly the right one. For many years (1941-1986), Superman and Batman had shared a title called World's Finest Comics. Although it took them thirteen years and seventy-one issues to actually star in a team-up, once they had done so, they would continue to do so for almost every issue up to its cancellation at the start of 1986. For a large portion of that run, Superman and Batman were the best of friends, happy with each other's company, and perfectly fine with meeting up regularly to defeat dastardly villains. In fact, whenever I think of the pre-Crisis Superman and Batman relationship, it's illustrated with the cover to World's Finest Comics #3, with big smiley happy-faced heroes.

In 1986, a Frank Miller comic called The Dark Knight (now more commonly known as The Dark Knight Returns) was released. Featuring an aged Bruce Wayne returning to the role of Batman after a twenty year absence, the series was a big hit, and was one of the titles that heralded the Modern Age of comics. The final issue of this series featured a knock-down, no holds barred one-on-one battle to the (almost) death between Batman and Superman (with a little assistance from Green Arrow). Although later issues of World's Finest would introduce a less-cosy relationship between Superman and Batman, this was pretty much the first time they really went for each other, fighting not just for the sake of fighting but for their different (albeit future) ideologies.

Here, Byrne strikes a bit of a balance between the two extremes. Whilst not full of loathing for each other, Superman takes issue with Batman's methods and his position of being above (or at least outside) the law. The issue resists the temptation to wrap up their relationship nicely at the end; whilst Superman accepts that Gotham requires a different type of super-hero to Metropolis, he is concerned that Batman could 'spoil it for the rest of us' and promises to keep an eye on him. From Batman's viewpoint, he does not like being told what to do by a super-human, and is concerned that Superman could (and indeed attempts to) apprehend him without giving him a chance to defend his position. By creating the bomb scenario and actually presenting himself as more villainous than he actually is, he puts himself in a position where he can prove his skills without being handed directly over to the police. Perhaps the biggest turning point in how Superman views Batman is in the moment where Superman expresses pity towards Magpie, and Batman reveals his human side by showing his sorrow for her victims.

Magpie is a bit of a non-starter as far a a villain is concerned. On the one-hand, she's a Joker-styla madwoman, giving dynamite cigars to paralysed henchmen and setting complex, lethal traps to cover her jewel heists. On the other hand she's a fragile, mentally confused compulsive thief. The two sides are hard to reconcile, especially as it's never quite explained how a shy, retiring museum curator gained the technical expertise to synthesise an acidic cloud or create chess pieces that fire miniature razor blades. It's telling that the character is barely revisited in either the Superman or Batman titles until she is murdered at the start of One Year Later. However, by pitting Superman and Batman against a 'low-rent' villain, someone who isn't one of Batman's regular nemeses, the story is forced to focus more on the interaction between the two heroes, and makes Superman's experience in Gotham less black and white.

The Geeky Bits: The first post-Crisis appearance of Batman. Well, sorta... it's the first in the context of Superman, but Batman never experieced a definitive 'Post Crisis Begins Here' moment that Superman and Wonder Woman did.

Magpie's non-exploding-head henchmen are designed to look like Mark Gruenwald (the one with the Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses) and Mike Carlin (the one with the beard who cries 'Not "Happy Birthday!"').

Next on World of Superman: The first of many re-tellings of the first meeting between Batman and Superman.


  1. I think what gets forgotten perhaps is that Superman/Batmans relationship had soured for a good few years before the '86 revamp, I can't remember the exact reason or point but it came a good while before he formed The Outsiders.... it seemed to originate around the point of 'Worlds Finest' 289 as i remember and slowly deteriorated right up till the Crisis and the books last gasp with #325.
    The times had changed.

    Looking back on MoS here and your comments on the feebleness of these disposable villains highlights arguably the big flaw in Byrnes revamp - the fact that between MoS and the main titles around ten years has passed. Ten years that we have little or no knowledge of and is represented by retroactive waferthin villains like Killgrave and Barrage(?)....

    Nontheless Supermans initial meeting with Batman was well done on the whole, I always liked the fact Batmans physical and mental skill eclipsed Supermans in a very logical way, Superman wasn't a know all or infallible as he traditionally was and the comparisons between the two made perfect sense at that time.
    Byrnes talent looking back was extraordinary. His lines are sharp and clean and there's a prescision to his art you really can't fault.
    I've been a fan of his through thick and thin but lament the sheer laziness of a lot of his modern work, I really think it was Superman that burnt him out as after it he never had anything like the same success. Though furthermore he made a point to increasingly burden and stretch his time and energy by not only inking his own work but lettering it and there's no way one man can be an island like that!
    Maybe it was the 90s Image explosion that contributed as well given so many artists rose about that time who not only aped his style but went one better. Still, when his contemporaries such as Mike Grell, George Perez & Keith Giffen all enjoy successful mainstream work and are technically better than they ever were it makes me really sad he has apparently made himself all but employable. :(

  2. I've recently been re-reading Byrne's run on Action Comics, pencilling for Gail Simone, as well as his run providing art for the last arc of JLA Classified. It's very inconsistent. Byrne appears to have a problem with perspective, resulting in his characters looking just a bit too short for comfort (check out the cover for Action #827 for a great example). Byrne also appears to struggle with the characters he is, strangely, more familiar with drawing. In the JLA arc, his Superman just feels off-model, while his rendition of the John Stewart Green Lantern, a character he's very rarely drawn before, is actually rather good.

    I came very close to dropping Action Comics towards the end of the Simone/Byrne run. The stories Simone was providing didn't do it for me, especially the final arc involving the Queen of Fables, but the unappealing art from Byrne was very nearly the nail in the coffin. How weird that the man who created the version of Superman that I love and respect should also be the one to very nearly drive me away.

  3. Jerry Ordway heavily embellished John Byrne's penciled art with ordway's inking on the JLA arc, and John Byrne said on his website that he was intentionally drawing that Neo-Silver Age version of Superman in John Byrne's run as "art robot" for Gail Simone, with the slicked spit curl, the lean build, differently than John Byrne's own Modern Age version of Superman from The Man of Steel, Legends, Superman and Action Comics with the loose dry hair, and the bulky, stocky build.