By John Byrne with Trish Mulvihill (DC Comics)
The second instalment of John Byrne’s “imaginary story” trilogy, un-working the post-Crisis DC mythology he had been such a large part of re-forging in the mid-1980s, is a far smoother, less muddled beast than the first. The expansive saga even broadens the panorama to include many other icons of the company’s five decades of continuity.
After Crisis on Infinite Earths the myriad alternate Earths which had housed different eras of DC heroes and provided handy accommodation for the company’s costumed acquisitions such as the 1940s Fawcett’s Marvel Family and retinue or the Charlton Action Heroes line from the 1960s had been amalgamated into one bulky, homogenous whole, and the company took the opportunity to retrofit their major stars into the bargain.
Batman got darker, Wonder Woman was culturally re-cast and Superman had his charming Weisinger/Boltinoff/Schwartz additions to the original Siegel & Shuster concept jettisoned by John Byrne and associate writer Marv Wolfman. Out went the World’s Finest friendship with the Caped Crusader, the entire concept and career of Superboy and all the tenuous, wondrous baggage of fifty spectacular years.
And then, because we all missed it so much, he decided to bring it back…
In Superman & Batman: Generations, An Imaginary Tale, which was published under DC’s non-continuity “Elseworlds” imprint in1999, Byrne posited a world where the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader began just as they actually had in the dog-days of the 1930s and, by sampling all the eradicated material prior to Crisis, explored how the pair would have fared had they aged like us relatively real people.
Referencing that magnificent discarded continuity and spicing the mix with some intriguing speculative fancy through a more mature, modern sensibility the saga progressed in decade-wide jumps following the family and friends of the World’s Finest Heroes in an epic struggle spanning the years 1939 to 1999, with a punchy postscript set in 2919 whilst revealing a secret origin in 1929.
This second collection following the heroic dynasties of Batman and Superman, which first appeared as a four-issue Prestige format miniseries in 2001, proceeds in 11-year jumps – two per issue – and opens in 1942 with ‘Battlefields’.
Superman, the Blackhawks, Hawkman and all the stalwarts of World War II’s Justice Society are occupied crushing Nazi terror-weapons built by the old enemy Ultra-Humanite when a new factor enters the equation as the hidden Amazons of Paradise Island send their Princess Diana to assist the good people in “Man’s World” as the Wonder Woman. Meanwhile, on the Home-Front Lois Lane and the Dynamic Duo are tackling Lex Luthor’s latest sinister scheme…
‘Absent Friends’ focuses on winter 1953, with the sudden return of long missing Commissioner Gordon and a plot by eco-despot Ra’s Al Ghul. In this world the JSA never retired and while they convene to investigate, on a distant world Superman frees an alien race from slavery and makes first contact with a Green Lantern. And back in Metropolis, Lois Lane-Kent is about to deliver Clark’s second child…
1964 and ‘Children’s Hour’ finds Batman and Superman, elder statesmen of the heroic community, watch as their kids begin their own crusading careers as part of a young wave of heroes who will eventually become Teen Titans – if they can survive the concerted attack of Gorilla Grodd, Mirror Master and the Weather Wizard, that is.
‘Troubled Souls’ visits 1975, wherein an aging Joker looks to be finally incapable of harming anyone and veteran test pilot Hal Jordan finally hangs up his flight jacket to take up politics. As the second generation of cape and cowl crime-busters investigates the Joker’s breakdown they enter a new realm of experience courtesy of mystic Dr. Occult and ghostly guardian Deadman.
In 1986 Superman and Luthor meet for their final battle in ‘To Hunt the Hunted’ as a third generation of costumed heroes join the Justice Society to hunt the out-of-control outlaw Batman, whilst by 1997’s ‘Turning Points’ alien marauder Sinestro decimates the new Justice League of America. With Superman long gone and all Batmen hunted felons, it falls to aging politician Hal Jordan to put on a power ring and battle the alien terrorist.
In 2008 ‘This Ancient Evil’ sees Superman’s greatest enemy return, his brain transplanted into an unstoppable robotic body. Can even Knightwing, the Justice League and Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan stop the metal marauder’s rampage?
This volume ends with 2019: ‘Father of the Man’ as the vanished first Superman finally returns from exile and, reunited with the latest Dark Knight, views a portentous message from the past wherein long-dead Jonathan Kent describes the first meeting of his adopted son and the boy Bruce Wayne. This lost adventure of the World’s Finest Heroes ends tragic when the elder Kent reveals how he failed to save Bruce’s parents….
Intricate and engaging this epic is broad, not deep but for all that is still a hugely readable piece of sweetened fluff, magically engrossing and filled with the “what if?” wonderment of the earlier material it eulogises. A good, solid Fights ‘n’ Tights adventure yarn, Generations II, like its predecessor, might well act as a gateway tale for new readers and tempt fans to try the older material for themselves – and surely that’s no bad thing?
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