Monday, September 3, 2012

Building a Better World's Finest: The Man of Steel #3

The Man of Steel #3 (November 1986)
"One Night in Gotham City..."
John Byrne-Byrne/Dick Giordano

Doug: Would it be negative to begin our third installment of our six-part series by using the term "mixed bag"? Those of you who've been along over the previous two weeks know that Karen and I were only mildly enthusiastic about issue #1; last week our impressions made a nice rebound as we each found issue #2 to be a fun little ride. But this week -- well, we'll see how it turns out.

Karen: Before we get going here, I just want to say that while I think John Byrne draws Superman very well, I've never cared much for his Batman. Can't really say why, it just doesn't look 'right' to me.

Doug: I actually really like his depiction of the Caped Crusader here; if I recall (and the memory fades daily) I liked the Batman-Captain America team-up as well.

Karen: He's just too bulky for me. I prefer the long and lean Aparo version.

Doug: Our weekly tour begins with a hood on the run and a giant bat-silhouette descending on him. And then the violence starts, and here's where history steps in. I'll be honest -- when I read this as a junior in college I thought it was great. I was fully on board for the Miller-esque Batman revamp, was totally digging all of the changes at DC, etc. However, when I read this the first time (Karen and I each read a book at least twice when writing our reviews) a couple of weeks ago I was just blown away at what a total ass Batman was. Several months ago we ran an Open Forum about characterization and the modern depiction of "the G-D Batman!". Well, that fellow is on full display in Man of Steel #3. I guess I didn't notice it in 1986, but this Batman bears little resemblance to the Denny O'Neil or Steve Englehart Dark Knight of the 1970's. If you think the interrogation of the Joker in The Dark Knight film was something, how about these lines? -- "And I'll do a lot worse than that, Bull. I'll hurt you. And you'll stay hurt." "The only way one man can clean up this town is if all the low-life stay good and scared. And that means dishing out a few object lessons, once in a while. Too bad for Bull. He's quite athletic, in his own way. He's not going to like having to get around on crutches for..." And then Superman grabs the Bat-rope.

Karen: Yeah, I'm not a fan of Batman as jerk, or sadist. I don't recall how I felt at the time, but I can tell you re-reading this now, this is a characterization I could do without.

Doug: Superman, on the other hand, is portrayed as he's often stereotyped -- the Boy Scout. I think John Byrne almost went overboard in trying to paint these guys as opposites. Our heroes converse for several pages (egad, do you think this influenced Bendis??), and Byrne uses this as a stage on which to play out how dissimilar they are. Batman's paranoia is on steroids, as he's encased himself in a force field set to activate itself when in contact with "super-dense biological matter" -- or a Superman. Superman shrugs it off, saying he could get to Batman and put him behind bars before Batman could even move. But then the Caped Crusader plays his trump card -- he tells the Man of Steel that to try to touch him would cause the death of one innocent Gothamite. Batman claims to have planted a bomb in Gotham City that will detonate if the force field is penetrated!
Karen: I love how shocked Superman is by this. It's shocking to the reader too, although we eventually do get an explanation for it. I did enjoy how Batman was able to elude Superman, despite his super-senses.

Doug: Superman, now powerless in the presence of the Batman, has no choice but to hear out the tale Batman begins to tell. There have been a rash of burglaries and murders in Gotham lately, all involving the theft of precious objects and a most devious method of killing (little bombs, razors, etc.). All of this has been perpetrated by a woman named Magpie (for those not in the know, magpies are birds that have an affinity for shiny objects). We drop in on Magpie, and she's a real treat -- you think the Joker or Riddler are crazy? They got nuthin' on this dame! We see Bull having to explain why he didn't throw the Batman off the trail, but he's not got enough brain cells to formulate a decent answer. And since his loyalty (and smarts) are getting in the way of the smooth acquisition of pretty, shiny things, he's gotta go. A pin-prick of a paralysis drug and a stick of dynamite in the mouth, and it's no more Bull.

Karen: Magpie is ugly inside and out. Seriously, that character design is just awful! One thing I'm noticing with these books is how dated they feel, and it's mainly due to the fashions and hair styles. Much like our FF Annual a few weeks back, we are getting another horrendous Byrne hair-do. The gag with the dynamite in the mouth - "Oh no boss! Not 'Happy Birthday'!" - wasn't funny to me at all. Batman has already told us that Magpie has killed and maimed a bunch of people.

Doug: I guess on the re-read I was somewhat taken aback at how outrightly violent this story is. There really isn't much left to the imagination -- lots and lots of bad things happen on screen. And is it just me, or does Byrne have a thing for odd librarian-types? There are several gratuitous a** shots throughout this story. That wig and glasses would be enough to scare me away!
Karen: Yes, the violence -implied and otherwise -seemed amped up. I guess the Joker killed people too, but my recollection was that it was never played up. Here, there's no doubt that Magpie is a murdering psychopath.

Doug: Superman picks up the sound of the explosion, and it's off to the races for the World's Finest. Batman and Superman arrive at the Gotham Museum of Antiquities where Superman makes, shall we say, an entrance. One of Magpie's hoods pulls an automatic pistol and lets fly. The bullets just bounce away, until Superman steps forward and crushes the barrel. Meanwhile, Batman easily apprehended the last of Magpie's goons. The game's almost up, but Magpie reaches into her bag of tricks and throws some pellets that release a quite-caustic gas. She flees, but Superman is able to save Batman by inhaling all of the gas and then flying beyond the Earth's atmosphere to exhale it. Noting that even he cannot survive outside of Earth's oxygen, he quickly flies back to the surface.

Karen: Magpie's two hoods are named Carling and Gruenbach -sounds awfully close to Carlin and Gruenwald, don't you think? I think it was interesting that Superman still has some of his more goofy powers, like super-breath and microscopic vision, yet has been reduced in overall power, unable at this point to survive in space.

Doug: Superman uses his telescopic vision to find the Batman, who is by a rather non-descript black vehicle. He's at the trunk, and we learn that the car is equipped with "one of the most advanced ... labs in the state". Batman analyzes a strand of thread that must have come from the inside of Magpie's bag. He determines that it's 5,000 years old; Superman obviously isn't a detective himself, as he says aloud that Magpie couldn't be that old! Duh... Batman basically says to follow along, amateur, and leads Superman to the museum that serves as Magpie's HQ. She's inside alright, ranting and raving. Superman walks over to her from behind and grabs off her hair! In yet another incredible piece of cramming-something-under-a-wig/mask-and-who-would-ever-know-??, the gal has a full head of red hair. And her real name? Wait for it... Margaret Pye. Ugh. Shades of Batman, 1966 (which I like in spite of all of its dopiness). Ol' girl crumples to the floor; Superman feels pity for her, but Batman talks of Arkham Asylum, and thinks of the victims.

Karen: Superman does come off as a bit of a doofus there, doesn't he? Batman must be rolling his eyes and mumbling, "5,000 years old...right." But it serves to highlight Batman's detective talent. But it just doesn't seem right for him to be driving such an ordinary car! I had the same reaction as you: Margaret Pye? The henchmen, the silly schemes...I suppose this was a tribute to the Batman TV show but it just seems horribly lame.

Doug: Afterward, our heroes meet again on a rooftop to continue their conversation about methodology, morality, etc. Superman is floored to discover that the bomb of which Batman had spoken was actually on his person -- the Gothamite who would have been killed was Batman! Superman agrees to let Batman continue his war on crime, and as he departs Batman muses to himself, "A remarkable man, all things considered. Who knows? In a different reality, I might have called him "friend"." Was that an "out" for DC if the revamps didn't work? A Bobby Ewing shower scene?

Karen: Actually, I think it was Byrne the Star Trek fan quoting from the episode "The Balance of Terror," where a Romulan commander says the same to Captain Kirk right before he destroys his own ship. But who knows? DC wanted to change things. I recall at the time, people saying that Batman and Superman wouldn't 'really' be friends because their styles were too different. But comics are not real! I like the fact that the two characters are so different and yet have tremendous respect for each other and a solid friendship. This was really well handled in the Justice League cartoon. It seems like the two became friends again in the comics, at least by the 2000s, when we had the Superman/Batman book instead of World's Finest. But by then Batman's 'jerkiness' (I'd use a stronger term but we are family friendly) was deeply ingrained and he basically treated everyone like dirt.

Doug: I know I've been somewhat hard on this story, but I do want to say that it looks great. The Byrne/Giordano combination is really stellar -- as I said, I think here Byrne draws a great-looking Batman, and I liked then and still do now the use of the black bat as the Batman's chest insignia. The characters all look like individuals, and you can almost feel Byrne using some of the pointers in John Buscema's How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. The ordinary people are smaller-framed, while Superman and Batman are impressively filled-out. There are backgrounds aplenty, and there are places in the story where the coloring really enhances the mood. So overall, I guess I would assign a C+ or so for the words, but definitely an A for the pretty pictures.

Karen: I already expressed my distaste for the Byrne Batman, so that's where we part ways, but I think your grades are pretty much what I would give!


Edo Bosnar said...

Karen, your perspective as Byrne's Batman being "off" is interesting to me. I know my own view is colored by the fact that I'm simply an unabashed fan of his art, but to me Byrne - along with Alan Davis - is one of those artists who draws pretty much every comic book character perfectly. However, I entirely agree with your preference for Aparo's version of Bats: as I've said several times before, he is my favorite Batman artist.
As to the story, I entirely agree with you both: Batman's a jerk, Superman is kind of a stupid lug and yes, it is a rather needlessly violent story. I recall when I first read it, back in 1986, my reaction was basically, "whatever, at least the art's really nice."

humanbelly said...

That highly disturbing "Not Happy Birthday-!" sequence has stayed with me from the moment I read it. I'd forgotten, in fact, that it was from this Man of Steel series-- thought maybe it was in one of the rare Batman issues I'd picked up at the time.

I think this may be an early instance of editors being afraid to reign in a "supermegastar" artist/writer/creator when SURELY they must have had some trepidation about using this inappropriate sequence. It's not badly drawn or badly presented or badly laid-out visually-- quite the opposite. But, honestly, it's simply too incongruously horrifying and the fact that this horrible demise for Bull (who actually comes off as slighty, haplessly sympathetic-- even by Batman's harsh standards)is played for a cheap laugh by referencing a classic Warner Brothers cartoon made my skin crawl even then-- and I was certainly a more callous youth at that time. . . much more able to brush that kind of thing aside with a shrug. The Byrne/Giordano clean, crisp, very bright artistic style is even more incongruous with the gravity of the crime(s) being portrayed-- further cheapening the portrayal of the human cost of Magpie's actions. To put it more simply-- it completely pulled me out of the story, as I considered what the reality of that situation would have been like.

LIKED very much the Batman-the-Detective aspect. But this issue is so much about Batman and the Superman/Batman Philosophical Dichotomy that I'm left feeling like Supes is really little more than a supporting character in this issue of his own re-launch title. Story: C-minus. Art: A (what can I say-?)


Dougie said...

I hate to sound like a Byrne-Basher because I admire his art and character design but I don't like the sadistic and often sensationalist element in his work, such as "Happy Birthday" here.

Other instances range from explicit fantasy violence- the dissection of the Master and his subsequent disfigurement in "Alpha Flight" or Superwoman having her heart ripped out by her brother in "Generations"- to gruesome realism: the beatings of the naked victims in "Omac" and the torture device for Jasmine in "Next Men". Nasty stuff.

I'm probably going to be flamed on Byrnerobotics now...

humanbelly said...

If I might continue w/ Dougie's tangent here-- I hadn't really thought about that being a broader element of Byrne's work--- but I think you're absolutely right. Other examples come immediately to mind:

- In the She-Hulk graphic Novel, it is unmistakably implied that Jen/She-Hulk's "examination" at the hands of SHIELD inolved a sexual probe while she was restrained.

- The infamous full-page panel of a completely-dissected and laid-out Vision in WCA. This was a beloved, living character whose inherent humanity he chose, as a writer/artist, to reject out-of-hand. There's not a shred of difference between that and portraying an entirely dissected Peter Parker or Sue Richards on that table.

Boy, it's actually very much like the transgressions that we currently lay at BMB's feet, isn't it?

It's respect. . . or a lack of it, rather. Victims of the "Byrne Ward", indeed. (And I'm generally a fan who likes his work quite a lot, mind you-!)


William said...

I gotta say, you guys seem a little off your game on this review.

First, I can't believe that no one seems to recognize where Byrne got the "Not Happy Birthday! " gag. It is from an old Warner Bros. cartoon called "It's Hummer Time". JB was obviously just having a little a fun and referencing the joke. You can see the original scene at the following link.

Also, when Batman says "In a different reality, I might have called him (Superman) 'friend'." It wasn't meant to be some kind of "out" for DC in case the Superman revamp didn't work. It was merely Byrne's way to remind the reader that this is no longer the old pre-Crisis DC Universe where Batman and Superman were BFFs. That this is an ALL NEW DCU (a new reality, if you will) and the old rules and relationships no longer apply.

As for Byrne's version of Batman. Yes, he was a bit of jerk, but this was supposed to be "Year One" Batman where he was still learning the ropes on how to be a costumed crime-fighter. So, he hadn't quite perfected his "method" just yet, so he came off a little heavy handed. In future Byrne written stories where Batman shows up, he's not so hard core. And as for Byrne's visual depiction of the Caped Crusader, I will definitely have to disagree with Karen and agree with Edo in saying that Byrne pretty much draws every character perfectly, IMO, and Batman is no exception.

I personally was a big fan of this mini-series and of Byrne's version Superman, so I may be a bit biased, but I overall enjoyed this story myself.

Doug said...

Hi, William --

Thanks for the link to the WB cartoon -- it's not one I recall seeing before. And while anthropomorphic animals blowing one another up can be quite hilarious, the fact that they'll appear unscathed in the very next scene seems to me to be a line between that gag and how (if) Byrne chose to reference it in his adapted version.

As to being off our game, as I said above I simply didn't know about that cartoon. I'd add, as I often self-deprecate, that my memory isn't the greatest for such things. So even if I had seen it before, I've seen so many Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, etc. that it probably wouldn't have stuck. In regard to my opinion of Byrne's written portrayal of Batman, I'll stick by my reservations. Yeah, I understand that this was post-Dark Knight, Year One, etc. I just thought that Byrne was ramping this up a bit for a high-profile, still available at the supermarket, four-color comic. And I'll still say that the reference to "another reality" could go either way -- a break with the old, or an "out". Even in 1986, comics weren't forever. But I'll grant you that this was an exciting time to be getting in on this alleged "ground floor" at DC.

And I'll go ahead and argue that while Byrne can draw just about anyone perfectly, the latter issues of his FF run don't appeal to me at all. The characters are too elongated and his version of the Thing, sans Sinnott, is one of my least favorite. But when on top of his own game, yes -- he's among the best.

Thanks again for your comments, and the link!


Jonathan Stover said...

I'm pretty sure Byrne himself mentioned on his board that a lot of the Giordano inking was done by Frank McLaughlin.

Anthony said...

I missed two issues of the Man Of Steel mini and this was one of them but the follow up was fun. Action Comic Annual 1 in 1987 references this first post Crisis meeting and is written by Byrne but the artist is Arthur Adams. Superman and Batman still aren't best of friends but Batman does come off as less of a jerk than he seems to be in this issue.

William said...


I wasn't trying to be insulting. I was just surprised that not only were you and Karen not aware of where the "Not Happy B-Day" bit originated, it seemed that no one else who was commenting on the article picked up on it either. I just thought it was curious that on a web-site frequented by pop-culture geeks that no one else caught on to that and mentioned it, that's all. It was not meant to be so much a criticism as merely an observation.

david_b said...

I seemed to recall having this issue, but I liked how Batman was done here.. I really liked the smooooooth, sleekness of his cape and cowl, a bit refreshing and welcome change from the Aparo art of the 70s. The softness of the blue used was a nice touch.

It's interesting the idea posed here of Byrne's near-cavalier attitude towards depicting violent acts, having re-read the She-Hulk novel, and remembering the Vision dismantled storyline. I figured it was just how Byrne juxtaposed a sense of shock value to answer critics who probably dismissed his art as being 'too perfect', borderlining on antiseptic.

I didn't think it was necessary, or if that was indeed the idea, it certainly didn't come off well as perhaps intended, especially with Vish.

humanbelly said...

Heya William-

No, I got the reference the first time I read the book-- and briefly alluded to it in my first post above (although with the state of my verbosity anyone is forgiven for missing anything at all, believe me). That reference (to a TRULY hilarious, mayhem-rich cartoon. . . "and THIS time I DIDN'T forget the gravy. . . !") is part of what makes the moment even more gruesome to me. For pretty much the reasons Doug outlined. In the context of this comic, it simply wasn't funny-- and my gut feeling is that Byrne thought it was.


Doug said...

William --

You're fine... no insult taken. I was merely restating my case in response to your stated case.

Friendly argument, that's all --


William said...

Hey, humanbelly, sorry I missed your reference. I read your post, but somehow that tidbit escaped my notice. Not that I'm all that observant anyway. I pretty much have the attention span of a kangaroo rat. (Which I'm just assuming has a very short attention span).

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