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Trilogy of typing: scary thoughts about superheroes

by  in Comic News Comment
Trilogy of typing:  scary thoughts about superheroes

It shouldn’t surprise you that I like Halloween.* I like it a lot. I’d like the whole month of October to be nothing but brisk, stark days and clear, blue-black nights, with gentle breezes herding dead leaves through the stillness, and the overall sense that something unseen can still see you.

(Actually, my idea of the perfect Halloween is probably best expressed — minus the revenge-killing, of course — in the classic “Night of the Reaper!” story from Batman #234 … but I talked about that last year.)**

Accordingly, every year I try to get as much out of the Halloween season as possible: horror-movie marathons, a jack-o’-lantern, candy, costumes, etc. However, when the time comes to tie that into a DC Comics-centered column, I tend to come up short.

Of course, DC has had a number of horror- and mystery-themed titles over its history, but for various reasons I have never really gotten into them. I mean, I’ve read Sandman and Swamp Thing, and I knew the Elvira’s House Of Mystery makeover didn’t go over well. I even bought most of the run of Wasteland, the unsettling anthology headed by writers Del Close and John Ostrander, which featured art from non-superhero folk like Don Simpson and Bill Messner-Loebs (back when he was known more for Journey than Flash). So, you know, I’m not completely ignorant of DC’s efforts in this area, but I can count the number of favorite House Of Mystery stories on one hand.

Therefore, once again I must go back to the superheroes for spooky fun. Lucky for me there’s a good bit of material.

MONSTERS

The traditional group of “Universal Horror” monsters — vampire, werewolf, Frankenstein’s monster, and mummy — have been fairly well-represented over the years in DC’s superhero books. Superman and Batman have fought vampires and werewolves, and not just in the Superman And Batman Versus Vampires And Werewolves miniseries. In a 1982 Batman/Detective Comics arc, Batman even became one of the bloodsuckers. Frankenstein’s Monster has also shown up in the Superman books, with “Bizarro Meets Frankenstein” from Superman #143 (February 1961) being particularly memorable. Although the Monster in that story was just an actor, the real creature showed up later in Superman #344 (February 1980) as one of Dracula’s henchmen.

Of course, in Jimmy Olsen #s 142-43 (October-November 1971), Jack Kirby gave us the movie-monster wannabes of planet Transilvane; and last year Trinity reminded us that DC had no shortage of were-creatures. (Anthony Lupus, the star of Batman #255’s “Moon of the Wolf!”, even got adapted into an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series.”)

Mummies are a little more scarce, but perhaps that’s because when we encounter DC’s ancient Egyptians (Nabu, Teth-Adam, et al.), they’re not in a position to be embalmed. Accordingly, going back to Superman, John Byrne combined a giant mummy with an ancient-astronaut theory in Superman vol. 2 #s 5-6 (May-June 1987).

There have been monster-themed protagonists too. Vampires include Andrew “I … Vampire!” Bennett and Dagon of the Team Titans. Bennett also turned Julius, former leader of the Primate Patrol, into the creature later dubbed “Primaul.” The Creature Commandos included a vampire, werewolf, patchwork monster, and Medusa, and were joined later by an amphibian creature and a mummy. The short-lived Scare Tactics series was about a band made up of a vampire, a werewolf, and a couple of mutated humans. Simon Dark is a Frankenstein-esque revenant, and Frankenstein and the Bride have steady work through the S.H.A.D.E. organization.

However, for its more sympathetic characters DC has tended to look outside those familiar types. Ghostly heroes abound, from the Spectre and Deadman to Ralph and Sue Dibny. The Demon and Man-Bat aren’t werewolves, but both are variations on the “creature within” approach. Being a monster (again, like in the “Universal Monsters” sense) comes with its own set of problems, and as we all know, DC has traditionally stayed away from superheroes with built-in flaws. Obviously it’s not averse to them; but it does make them harder to find.  Besides, it’s not like Scare Tactics or Team Titans really captured the public’s imagination.

COSPLAY

Now, in this category I’m not talking about the everyday wearing of skintight spandex. That would be too easy. Instead, on a few occasions our heroes have found themselves in the costumes of their colleagues. The Silver Age Superman and Batman switched outfits frequently, mostly to let criminals expose Batman to Kryptonite while Superman kept a safe distance. Likewise, the Justice Leaguers often posed as each other to avoid their particular weaknesses; and in an extended Legion Of Super-Heroes arc, the Legionnaires adopted entirely new heroic identities. The “I take up this mantle in honor of my mentor” thing is old hat by now too.

Nevertheless, what got me thinking about these change-ups was a rather convoluted story from World’s Finest Comics #s 248-249, involving Green Arrow, the villainous Hellgrammite, and John Deleon, the man who stole Oliver Queen’s fortune. In a series of events a little too complicated to explain here, Deleon announced to Ollie that he’d uncovered Ollie’s secret identity … and confronted him with a Batman costume.

Yeah.

Because Hellgrammite had captured Black Canary, Ollie had little choice but to don the Bat-suit and take out Hellgrammite’s goons with Bat-weapons from the utility belt. I’m not clear on why that particular suit, which was supposed to have been donated to a superhero museum, would have working gadgets. Anyway, when I was eight I thought it was pretty cool that Ollie could still do well with someone else’s gear, even though he was fairly awkward in the suit. However, I’m still not sure whether the sight of blond-goateed-“Batman” (drawn by Trevor Von Eeden!) is funny or horrifying.

All the original equipment was present when Wally West and Kyle Rayner switched costumes involuntarily in 1997’s Flash/Green Lantern: Faster Friends miniseries, but the fellas couldn’t use ’em, in part because they thought they were each other. This forced them to walk in each other’s shoes … and by “walk” I mean walk, because “Flash” didn’t have super-speed and “Green Lantern” couldn’t use his ring. Afterwards, there was much male bonding.

Naturally, DC’s superhero characters have donned other familiar costumes at Halloween parties and similar functions. As newlyweds, Clark Kent and Lois Lane dressed as Batman & Robin for a costume party; and in probably the most infamous example, Iris Allen was wearing a Batgirl outfit when Professor Zoom apparently murdered her. On the plus side, a group of Justice Society spouses had a fun adventure with Wonder Woman in a Times Past story from Starman #69 (September 2000). I would say that helped inspire Shiera Saunders to be a full-time Hawkgirl (supplementing her first Hawkgirl adventure in June-July 1941’s All-Star Comics #5), but I’m not sure where it fits into her history.

Then there’s the inadvertent assumption of another heroic identity, later exploited by a continuity loophole into a touching denouement. Of course I refer to the “Starman of 1951” story, which in turn took its cue from Detective Comics #247 (September 1957). In the older story, Professor Milo made Batman afraid of bats, so the Caped Crusader went adventuring as “Starman.” As the ’90s Starman series was winding down, this Starman’s identity remained a mystery. Issue #77 (May 2001) revealed that initially Ted Knight’s JSA teammate Charles “Dr. Mid-Nite” McNider took over as Starman, but that’s not the touching part. Ted’s time-displaced son David, murdered not long into his own Starman career, finally got a chance to be a big-time superhero. It was a nice bookend to a series about family.

We’re not so much concerned with emotional resonance today, though, as much as we are the immediate effect of wearing another person’s clothes. Clearly costumes, be they for Halloween or for scaring the superstitious and cowardly, are talismans which help their wearers internalize whatever they symbolize. You dress like Sarah Palin or Jaime Sommers because some little part of you identifies with, or at least wants to make a statement about, that person. Whenever modern superhero comics (and adaptations thereof) try to justify the costumes as anything more than visual shorthand, they run the risk of overthinking. Sometimes an “S” is just an “S.”

In the comics themselves, these talismanic functions are even more pronounced, because often the costumes “work best” only for their owners. It’s not just Wally West being unable to use Kyle’s ring. Green Arrow dressing as Batman is nowhere near as effective as Batman himself, and doesn’t make a good Green Arrow either. Obviously this is crucial to comics’ visual shorthand, because some random guy in a Batman costume really shouldn’t be mistaken for Batman. For fans, though, it reinforces the notion that such costumes are transformative. Paradoxically, I even think it helps to see them “not work” for other people in the comics. After all, in the comics, there’s only one Batman (at a time, anyway); but in the real world, we can each have our chance.

THE DECOMPOSING, BLACK-RING-WEARING ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

I’m a little surprised it took me this long to mention Blackest Night in a Halloween-themed post, especially since three installments of the frickin’ thing came out this week. Honestly, though, I have a hard time thinking of BN as horror. Not that it isn’t creepy, gory, or scary; but it’s about as much a horror story as Aliens was.

Now, the original Alien (which I watched earlier this week, along with its sequel, as per my holiday rituals) was very much a horror movie, full of suspense and shocks. I want to say that Stephen King (in Danse Macabre) described it as a haunted-house movie with outer-space trappings. By contrast, Aliens uses the characters and situations to dress up an action-movie storyline. When the aliens pick off the Marines one by one, they do so in force, with almost none of the subtlety (for lack of a better word) that the lone alien displayed in the original. Now that our heroes know how to destroy the Black Lanterns, BN is a lot like that: find enough Lantern Corpsmen, tell them to combine their powers, and repeat as necessary. I expect there will also be some commentary, and perhaps some new “rules,” about what death means to DC’s super-characters, but again, I don’t see that as horror.

And naturally, I don’t mean to insult either Blackest Night or Aliens with the comparison … but boy-howdy, does Aliens love to see its warriors (especially those gung-ho Marines) flex their muscles. I remember when the movie first came out and all my friends were quoting Hudson, Vasquez, et al., enthusiastically. What’s weird is that it’s possible to appreciate Hudson whether he’s the posturing egomaniac at the beginning of the mission or the “game over, man!” basket case from later on. At first you’re confident that these guys have the firepower to eradicate the alien colony as completely as wiping a window clean; but you know that’s foolish, because otherwise there would be no movie. Thus, the conflict in Aliens comes in making the monsters so much more than the heroes expect (how do aliens cut power or operate freight elevators, anyway?), so it’s that much more cathartic when the heroes finally get the upper hand. Thankfully, although we’re only halfway through Blackest Night, it looks like most of the pieces of the puzzle have been identified, and the problem has thus become one of scale.

Still, that’s not horror to me, because it’s a problem which can (and, inevitably, must) be solved. The malevolent parts of a good horror story are never really eradicated, just thwarted or postponed. It’s not the same as a superhero comic leaving, say, a grinning Superboy-Prime in an “inescapable” prison cell. That too is something which will be addressed, and therefore resolved. Real horror — the kind which sends a chill down your back on a moonlit October night — will always be out there, just waiting….

* * *

Of course, Halloween’s main attraction is the notion that all those shocks are, to a great extent, manageable. You know you’re not Batman under all that grey and black fabric, and by extension you know there are no monsters or demons coming to get you. It’s only a story, only a radio play, only a movie. If Batman and Robin really did show up at your costume party, tracking down a real murderer, well then … that line between fantasy and reality would look awfully blurry.

So as you go out this weekend to your own festivities, whether it’s a big shindig or just welcoming the neighborhood trick-or-treaters, remember: no matter how eerie things look in the moonlight, no matter what you think you hear in the unnatural calm, no matter how convincing that costume is; it’s nothing you can’t handle. Those kinds of fantasies are confined to the comic books…

… aren’t they?

+++++++++++

* [And by “Halloween” I mean the secular aspects of the holiday. I’m not here to tread on anyone’s religious beliefs.]

** [By the way, a certain Bat-artist/writer is treading on very dangerous ground in referencing “NOTR.” I’m not talking about potentially angering fans who might not want the story revisited, I’m talking about the wrath of Harlan Ellison, who was involved in its creation.]

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