Grumpy Old Fan | The singularities of Earth-Two

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | The singularities of Earth-Two

This business about both Bruce and Dick being Batman (or “Batmen,” I guess) got me thinking about Earth-Two.

At the risk of being remedial — and some of you may want to skip to the next paragraph — Earth-Two was the home of DC’s original-formula superheroes, whose adventures took place roughly in real time. Superman first appeared in 1938, Batman in 1939, Robin in 1940, Wonder Woman in 1941, etc. It was the Justice Society’s Earth, where the Jay Garrick Flash had been around since 1940 before being “discovered” by Barry Allen decades later. Because the Golden Agers had all pretty much gone into semi-retirement, they had time to get married and raise kids. These children then became superheroes themselves. Earth-Two was retired itself in Crisis On Infinite Earths, but DC’s current Multiverse has its own Earth-2 (note the subtle change to numerals) which is very similar to the old one in most respects.

Anyway, I’m sure you’ll remember that on Earth-Two, Bruce Wayne retired as Batman around 1976 or so. His penultimate costumed appearance was in the 1976 Justice League/Justice Society crossover (JLA #s 135-37, October-December 1976). Considering that this was the original Batman, whose adventures dated back to Detective Comics #27, and who (among other things) apparently went through a “goofy ‘50s sci-fi” period with no trace of postmodern hipster repurposing, it was a rather blasé appearance. For one thing, he spent a good bit of time grunting through a jaw that had been turned to stone. On the plus side, he got to fight alongside the adult Robin (Dick Grayson, of course) one last time. He also got to drive what I suppose was the last Earth-Two Batmobile — not the classic “Batmobile of 1950″ with the big Bat-head, bubble-canopy, and giant single Bat-fin, but something closer to the ‘60s/TV show model. It wasn’t all bad, is what I’m saying.

Bruce next appeared as Gotham City police commissioner in the revived All-Star Comics, most notably in a 1977 storyline where the Psycho-Pirate brainwashed him into hunting down the Justice Society. Re-reading that arc, I was reminded of the “civilian” Bruce Wayne in the first couple of acts of Kingdom Come. In both cases I kept waiting for Bruce to stop scowling his way through scenes and put on the Bat-suit — but where Kingdom Come eventually delivered, All-Star didn’t.

Instead, the legend of the original Batman came to an end in the pages of Adventure Comics (February 1979’s #462), when an obscure criminal named Bill Jensen mysteriously gained enough super-power to take out not just Doctor Fate, but the rest of the JSA. Knowing that, once again, he was Gotham City’s only hope, Commissioner Wayne donned the cape and cowl of the Dark Knight Detective and sacrificed his life to stop Jensen.

(And that, too, always seemed like something of a cheat to me. More particularly, it never seemed quite appropriate that a relative nobody would end up killing the World’s Greatest Detective. Of course, since a small-time crook helped create Batman, in one sense it is eminently appropriate that another small-timer bookend his career.)

Anyway, the Earth-Two Batman died rather publicly, and in such a way that his secret identity was at last revealed. Not to worry — Doctor Fate cast a spell removing that knowledge from anyone who didn’t previously have it. This still left two graves in Gotham’s cemeteries, one for Bruce Wayne (next to his wife Selina, murdered by yet another petty thug) and another for the city’s eternally unknown avenger.

Purple prose aside, my point is that on Earth-Two Batman was dead with a capital EAD, and (Alfred’s imagination notwithstanding) with no “Batman II” waiting in the wings. Dick Grayson continued to fight crime as Robin, and Bruce and Selina’s daughter Helena (whose dad, in a nice bit of irony, never learned her secret) had already become the Huntress.

I say all that to note that this was nothing new for Earth-Two. DC introduced a number of second-generation superheroes in the ‘70s and ‘80s, almost all of whom adopted code names and costumes different from their “parents.” Dick didn’t take up Bruce’s mantle. Helena didn’t become Batwoman, Bat-Girl or Catwoman. Superman’s cousin Kara wasn’t Supergirl, but Power Girl. Wonder Woman’s daughter took the code name Fury, Hawkman’s sons were Silver Scarab and Northwind, and Green Lantern fathered Jade and Obsidian.

Now, it would be a bit disingenuous to suggest that we can compare Earth-Two to the current DC-Earth, because Earth-Two, like any number of rogue cops with good intentions, played by its own rules. Chief among them, I imagine, was the dictum that Earth-Two not be simply an “older” version of Earth-One. There were already characters unique to each Earth — for example, Earth-Two’s Doctor Mid-Nite and Doctor Fate, and Earth-One’s Martian Manhunter and Elongated Man. Similarly, although both Supermen had blonde cousins named Kara, DC already had a Supergirl.

This pattern of significant distinction (if not outright uniqueness) continued until the mid-‘80s and the debut of Infinity, Inc. Although the initial Infinitor lineup included one real legacy character, Brainwave Jr., the rest of the group was made up of “significantly distinct” members, including many named above. During Crisis On Infinite Earths, the team gained three new legacies, Doctor Midnight, Hourman II and Wildcat II. (The Crisis also took the Earth-Two Huntress and Robin out of the greater DC picture.)

Over on Earth-One, main-line legacy characters like Robin II (Jason Todd) and Black Canary II (Dinah Laurel Lance) were similarly rare. There had been a couple of varieties of Manhunter, as well as two Mad Hatters, two Killer Frosts, and (I think) two Two-Faces, but good-guy legacies weren’t often developed. Instead, multiversal counterparts took the place of straight-line successors.

With all that in mind, it’s a bit odd to see the ex-Earth-Two characters incorporated into various lineages. Silver Scarab went on to become both a Sandman and a Doctor Fate. Nuklon, godson of the original Atom, is now Atom-Smasher. Jesse Quick, daughter of Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle, briefly adopted her mother’s code name and costume; and Jade has been a Green Lantern, albeit in the Oan mode (once unique to the universe of Earth-One). Still, just as their uniqueness wasn’t unusual in the pre-Crisis days, so their legacy status has become common today.

I did like DC’s management of Earth-Two, though. Batman’s death-without-succession was a good illustration of the way time’s inexorable march affected Earth-Two’s development. None of the Golden Agers were getting any younger, and even Superman and Wonder Woman were going gray. If Batman could die, and if Robin was pushing 50, what would Earth-Two look like even in another ten years? Maybe it would end up being something familiar, even self-sustaining — let’s say the Huntress has a son, who first emulates Uncle Dick and then Grandpa Bruce — but maybe it wouldn’t … and that second possibility is, honestly, more exciting. It would be a world of superheroes inspired by DC’s Golden Agers without feeling any slavish obligation to imitate them. Eventually, names like the Flash, Hawkman and Green Lantern might only refer to myths and legends, honored in spirit by their children and grandchildren. I’m not sure that the old Earth-Two was moving in that direction, mostly because I think the real-time thing was starting to catch up, especially to the Infinitors. In fact, if 2008’s Justice Society Annual was any indication, the current Earth-2 seems to have adopted the more flexible timeline of the main DC-Earth.

That’s too bad, because I think DC needs at least one Earth where not everything is shaped and manicured into a form mutually acceptable to pros and fans. I wouldn’t have wanted Earth-Two to grow into an impenetrable copse of weeds and brambles, but it might have been nice to see where (absent the Crisis) the years could have taken it — even guided by Roy Thomas, a writer whose love for the Golden Age is unequaled. It’s perfectly reasonable for DC to focus on Silver Age characters with decades of proven track records, but I’d be thrilled to see some real experimentation too.  Not every Earth has to look so familiar.