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Grumpy Old Fan: Separate but equal?

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan:  Separate but equal?

The more I thought about it, the more pleased I was that DC will be publishing an ongoing Batman Beyond book. Sure, the series ended over eight years ago; and sure, the episode of “Justice League Unlimited” which served as an epilogue (helpfully called “Epilogue”) is also fading into the mists of history.

To me, though, a new commitment to Terry McGinniss’ alternate future signals — whether DC realizes it or not — a renewed commitment to the Multiverse. Remember, the “Beyond” future (or something remarkably similar) was officially made part of the post-52 Multiverse as Earth-12, and barring a radical departure from DC, Earth-12 is where I expect Terry’s adventures to remain. Put simply, the BB mythology is based on the continuity of DC’s various animated series, from “Batman” through “Justice League Unlimited”; and while that continuity isn’t radically different from the comics’, it’s different enough. Bruce Wayne’s caped career ends rather ignominiously, for one thing. (Also, no Jason Todd; maybe no Golden Age superheroes; and the histories of the Flash, Earth’s Green Lanterns, Hawkgirl and Hawkman, and Wonder Woman each diverge in significant ways.) Besides, if DC really wants to drop hints about how its modern-day characters ended up, it can always use the farther future of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Of course, like any good parallel universe, Earth-12 can offer its own set of cautionary tales to the main-line superheroes. I look forward to the inevitable crossover, the interactions it will inspire, and the questions it may answer (whatever happened to Nightwing Beyond, anyway?). Like the old Earth-Two, where a middle-aged Robin and eager young Huntress never really became a Dynamic Duo, Earth-12 offers a future where the traditional Batman is gone, so the legacy must adapt to endure.

I know I’ve said this a lot, but that opportunity for radical experimentation is a big part of what I like about a Multiverse. It allows DC (or whoever) to preserve its main-line characters on one Earth, while using the others to go nuts. Now, this can be taken to ridiculous extremes — you don’t want Regular Batman running through a Rolodex of alternate selves every time he lands in not-quite-familiar surroundings — but one or two (again, like the old Earth-Two and Earth-Three) are fine, and a few are probably manageable. The 2008 Justice Society Annual has already explored the new Earth-2, with its familiar Robin and Huntress, so Earth-12 may be a good complement.

But see, I am looking at this from the narrow perspective of main-line DC-Earth, much like I viewed the old Multiverse from the Silver/Bronze Age perspective of Earth-One. Already I am impliedly discounting Batman Beyond’s independent storytelling possibilities in favor of what can it do for the regulars? A Multiverse is a versatile narrative tool, but very easily it can descend into merely a curiosity farm. The infamous Countdown: Arena miniseries, a four-issue cage match for alt-history superheroes, is evidence enough of that. Even if the major parallel universes start off separate but equal, one always threatens to become more equal than the others.

Such a perspective has been hard-wired into the current Multiverse, pruned like a topiary so that only one version of its original, endlessly-replicated timeline remains. Thus, DC’s main superhero line isn’t just unique, it’s the model for the rest of the 52. From there it follows that what happens on the main DC-Earth matters — and what happens somewhere else … well, maybe not so much.

* * *

Conventional wisdom holds that the old Multiverse of DC’s “infinite Earths” was destroyed twenty-five years ago because it was too confusing for new readers. That has always seemed like a pretty thin rationale, but I don’t think DC was being disingenuous at the time. These days, though, DC has no incentive to do Elseworlds, or other such “alternate” standalone stories, because by definition they don’t matter. Where, for example, is the market for a Green Arrow Elseworlds which finds him on the run after killing a supervillain? Better instead to make that its own mini-event, running through Green Arrow and Justice League, thereby maximizing the shock values. Maim Roy Harper and kill Roy’s daughter on a parallel Earth, and the readers might not notice … but do the same on the “real” DC-Earth, and there are consequences.

I don’t mean to be snide or flip about this kind of thing. I was present at the introduction of Lian Harper in the pages of New Teen Titans, and the goofy sweater Roy wore as he held her still sticks in my memory. Still, I won’t try to put a value on her worth as a character. To me she existed mostly to show Roy’s domestication — “responsible single dad” naturally plays better than “ex-junkie” — but now, who knows what might have been done with her? I will also not attempt to place Lian’s death on some continuum of tastelessness (compared with, say, the Cylon No. 6 killing that child in the “Battlestar Galactica” pilot), because that strikes me as a futile exercise. I go back and forth about whether I think Lian’s death was gratuitous (although I’m inclined to say yes); but ultimately, as I argued a couple of weeks ago, what’s important is the story itself.

One could argue (and I haven’t read this week’s Green Arrow, so I don’t know if the argument has already been made) that the events of Cry For Justice #7 have a precedent in Green Arrow’s “urban avenger” phase of the mid-to-late 1980s. Basically, in the Longbow Hunters miniseries (and subsequent ongoing series), Mike Grell had Ollie ditch all the trick arrows in favor of the old-school pointy kind, mostly because they hurt a lot more. So this could just be the last gasp of that phase before Ollie goes back to his more happy-go-lucky, chili-cooking, unreconstructed-hippie self. (It could also mean there’s some movement on that SuperMax movie which supposedly sends him to supervillain prison, and DC is trying to get us used to the idea, but I kinda doubt that.)

The story, though, seems to me to be what would it take for Green Arrow to kill a guy? (Again, Longbow Hunters postulated that it would take Black Canary being tortured and probably raped, but that was a while back.) Okay, so now we have Cry For Justice, and for the next few years or so we will be dealing with the fallout from Green Arrow killing Prometheus. Never mind that we were finally putting behind us the fact that Wonder Woman killed a guy, and she even did it on TV. Now the story has become what happens after Green Arrow kills a guy? Well, I imagine there are two distinct outcomes. Either he goes to jail (or is otherwise punished), and Warners sees how well that SuperMax movie might be received, or he doesn’t. Personally, I don’t think Prometheus is dead, mostly because CFJ writer James Robinson was so effusive about the character that I can’t believe he’d say goodbye after one miniseries.

Anyway, Green Arrow’s 70th anniversary (November 2011) will be here before you know it, and I don’t expect DC will celebrate it with Ollie in the clink. One day, sooner rather than later, readers will look back on Ollie’s history and say “remember when he killed that guy?” By then it may be an integral part of his character — heck, it might even be reconciled with his political views — but it might also be so incidental that it could well have happened on another planet.

And that unsubtle transition brings us back to the Multiverse, where these kinds of questions can be asked and answered with more freedom than the main-line Earth can offer — and, not incidentally, can have consequences which last longer than an editorial whim. Maybe on Earth-41 Oliver Queen turned himself in, retired from crimefighting, and helped Roy rehabilitate his own superhero career. Maybe he went to jail for life. Maybe the real Prometheus ended up killing him, and Roy became Dark Arrow.

It feels transient and it seems like a cop-out, but a Multiverse can really put the focus on stories, because once you make those kind of definitive, fundamental choices, odds are you’ll have to live with them. After all, the point of a Multiverse is to make just those kinds of choices. This false conception of “what matters” is short-sighted and self-serving. Only the stories matter, and regardless of continuity, good stories endure. I suspect that’s why Batman Beyond is coming back, and why “The Fall Of Green Arrow” has its work cut out for it.

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