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Grumpy Old Fan | Point/counterpoint on the singular Earth 2

by  in Comic News Comment

It’s been more than a year and a half — 19 issues and an annual — but the New 52 version of Earth 2 still feels like a work in progress.

The series began with the last battle of an Apokoliptian war that claimed the lives of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, which was followed soon afterward by the debuts of “wonders” (not “marvels,” no sir) like the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl. To a certain extent, each was meant to remind readers of the heroes of the original Earth-Two, where Superman and Lois Lane met in 1938 and married in the early 1950s, and where Batman and Catwoman saw their daughter Helena become a successful attorney. When everything started getting organized into a Multiverse in 1961, Earth-Two became the home of DC’s Golden Age characters, including Jay Garrick’s Flash and Alan Scott’s Green Lantern. Indeed, for more than 70 years Jay and Alan were part of DC’s first generation of superheroes, serving as inspiration for the many who followed.

Not so with the current Earth 2, where Jay and Alan are themselves inspired by the heroic sacrifices of that world’s Trinity. On one level, Earth 2 is a way to reintroduce those characters in a present-day context, breaking them down into more basic forms and building them up through a series of fiery trials. Talk about a “never-ending battle” — in Earth 2, war is never far away, whether it’s the reminders of past devastation or the dark portents of new tragedies. Originally I thought this might be writer James Robinson’s way to evoke the world-at-war atmosphere of the 1940s, but now I’m not so sure. Current writer Tom Taylor may simply want to put the “wonders” through a pretty rigorous series of tests. Now, that in itself has become a well-worn DC trope (Geoff Johns personified it some 10 years ago with his updated Reverse-Flash), and it’s not one of which I am especially fond. It has tended to emphasize the “testing” more than the eventual triumph, so it threatens to become a trial for the reader as well.

And yet, like Caleb appreciating the Taylor-written Injustice: Gods Among Us,I have looked forward to each new issue of Earth 2. It’s definitely not the original. Sometimes it’s barely an homage to the original. However, it needs to be its own thing, and this week I’ll tell you why.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for recent issues of Earth 2.

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Currently, the heroes’ main trial is emotional as well as physical. The new issue (#18) finds Superman himself — apparently not dead, but now an agent of Apokolips — inflicting more damage on one group of good guys, while Batman — a new one, as the original is apparently still dead — recruits another group to fight him. Naturally, this sounds like Injustice, where Batman fights against a tyrannical Superman, but in light of Taylor’s recent CBR interview, I suspect the similarities stop there. For one thing, Taylor seems to suggest that Supes’ relationship with his wife Lois — who was also thought dead, but who Taylor brought back as the android Red Tornado — will hold the key to ending his reign of terror. Taylor even calls Lois a “beacon of hope,” which is a nice way of encapsulating what she means to her super-hubby and relating it to what he meant to the world.

Issue 18 also brings new versions of established characters, including one introduced in the old All Star Squadron, and a very familiar member of Superman’s supporting cast. Another very familiar DC character makes his first (I think) and probably last appearance in the series, in a scene that distinguishes the new Batman from the original.

If that sounds like things aren’t all that happy-scrappy on Earth 2 … well, they’re not. Taylor told CBR that while things may get better eventually, right now “[i]t’s a very new world, but already it’s very established and already it’s broken…. It feels like an entire world of people that are reeling, just waiting for the next terrible thing to happen.”

Now unlike Caleb, I haven’t read any of Injustice, because its main plot points all seemed too, too dark — “none more black,” one might say — for me. Beyond the extreme melodrama of Superman being tricked into killing his own wife and unborn child, the things I heard all sound like tragedy for its own sake, and therefore not very enticing. Moreover, the Injustice series seemed to be of a piece with the perception that DC still needs to infuse its superheroes with “realistic” calamities so that yes, they’ll come out stronger in the end. That applies to Earth 2 as well, because it’s free to discard whatever Golden Age touches it no longer “needs.”

Indeed, I’d have been perfectly happy if Earth 2 had been the version glimpsed briefly at the end of 52, and in a JSA Annual written by Johns and penciled by Jerry Ordway (who drew the Earth-Two-centric All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc. ‘way back when). This would have appealed tremendously to my primal nerd instincts, since a) it would have grounded the New 52 more firmly in the Nu-Multiverse established by Infinite Crisis and seen in detail at the end of 52; and b) it would have allowed at least one New 52 book to draw expressly from the publisher’s Golden Age output, as Robinson did to great effect in Starman. Among the shiny streamlining of the other superhero books, it would have helped Earth 2 (and its companion Worlds’ Finest) stand out.

That said, although I’ve always liked the idea of Earth-Two, I find it hard to get into those Golden Age stories. Without getting too much into the nuts and bolts of the old Multiverse, suffice it to say that for someone who grew up with a lot of Earth-One and a little of Earth-Two, the latter was more of an alternate setting than an inspiration. Not that I haven’t enjoyed those characters or their adventures, or that I don’t appreciate their place in comics history, but to me, the Golden Age is a distinct thing — a collection of stories which someone like Robinson or Roy Thomas could shape into fertile soil, and harvest new tales therefrom. Earth-Two was the place where the first issues of Action, Detective, Sensation and Flash “really happened,” and where those characters could grow as old as their stories. Honestly, in that respect I was somewhat offended by the end of Infinite Crisis, since it featured fanboy stand-in Superboy-Prime beating to death a character who, for all intents and purposes, was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original Superman.

Still, that Superman was at least one step removed from the one introduced in June 1938. In fact, all the Golden Agers of Earth-Two were products of extrapolations which imagined what they’d look like and how they’d act 10, 20, or 50-odd years after they supposedly retired. Those creative teams had to deal with a pretty well-defined world, so I can see the appeal of starting from scratch with Earth 2.

And yet, even though it’s set up to emphasize the characters, in Earth 2 the world itself remains the star. While the old Earth-Two depended on a history that could be explored and farmed, the new one is still being formed. In comparing Earth 2 to Injustice, Caleb mentioned that the latter felt more like an Elseworld, or what DC used to call an Imaginary Story, even though it’s part of the regular New 52. Although I don’t really disagree with that, I will say that the Elseworlds and Imaginary Stories existed to make particular points about the main-line continuity: this is why Superman can’t marry Lana Lang; here’s an aging Batman coming out of retirement. Earth 2 is different because at some point, it’ll have to contend with main-line continuity. (Tangentially, it already does, in the form of Worlds’ Finest.) I don’t expect the “wonders” to be called the Justice Society any time soon, but I’ll be disappointed if that’s not in the works.

I’d even go so far as to say that Earth 2 could show readers the future of the main DC-Earth. Consider: for decades, DC has needed a flexible timeline to keep its characters perpetually youthful — but part of the point of the original Earth-Two was that those characters could age. Eventually, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman faded into the background, in favor of Power Girl, the Huntress, and the rest of their generation. Although Earth 2 was a little more drastic in removing its Trinity, the point remains: What do you do when your biggest characters are off the table? What happens when the Superman you knew no longer exists? If Earth-2 can function without those characters, maybe the main DC-Earth can as well.

While that’s not at all likely, Earth 2 can still be instructive. By the time these versions of the Justice Society meet their main-line counterparts, they might just be stronger characters for having lived through all this horror. The Golden Agers who teamed up with the Justice Leaguers in the pre-relaunch days seemed more mellow about their greatest-generation status, but they’d had more time to deal with it. Earth-2’s “wonders” will be different from Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and company not just in costumes and origins, but in perspective.

The knowledge that Earth 2 is free to “test” its characters a lot more rigorously — because they’re not the first-team anymore — does give the book a certain grim tone. It’s not that Robinson, Taylor, and penciller extraordinaire Nicola Scott aren’t respectful of these characters, but there’s no obligation to treat them as elder statesmen. That’s a bit hard for me to accept, since that treatment could also honor the creators who originally introduced these characters — but by and large, these characters have been separated from those creators for decades, and as much as I’ve enjoyed their post-Golden Age appearances, at some point they would have lived on only in period pieces.

In that spirit, I appreciate Earth 2’s attempt to detach the Justice Society from its mid-20th Century roots, and transplant the cores of the characters into a new world. The process hasn’t always been smooth, but Robinson, Scott, and now Taylor have made it entertaining. To a certain degree, the original Earth-Two was about sustaining an old world. Earth 2 has a chance to make something decidedly new.