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Superman/Batman Annual #3

Posted: Saturday, January 24, 2009
By: Ray Tate

Len Wein
Chris Batista, Justin Gray & Jack Jadson (i), Richard and Tanya Horrie (c)
DC Comics
"Compound Fracture"

The Composite Superman stands out among the Silver Age villains. A living, breathing example of bilateral asymmetry, he was one of the more grotesque looking foils of that time. He was also, in my opinion, Batman's and Superman's deadliest foe. Gifted with the powers of the entire Legion of Super-Heroes, the Composite Superman nearly killed Batman and Superman. That was a rarity in the Silver Age.

In the original final battle between the villain and the world's finest team, an alien used the Composite Superman to set up Batman and Superman for execution. The alien, once finished with the weird rogue, reverted the villain back to his human form. The Composite Superman's alter ego Joe Meach only subconsciously resented Batman and Superman. During the transformation, that seed of pettiness grew to raw hatred. Ultimately, Joe Meach sacrifices himself to save Batman and Superman. He dies a hero. Stunned by Meach's death, Superman and Batman exhibit a spectacular ferocity unseen since their Golden Age days. Practically snarling, they beat the crap out of the alien murderer.

The Composite Superman in a drastically altered state returns to the DCU in the latest Superman/Batman Annual. Len Wein ignores the Composite Superman's history in favor of a tabula rasa approach. This proves to be a double-edged sword. The original Composite Superman drew his power from the Legion. The new incarnation feeds from the Justice League. The change allows Wein to confine the Composite Superman to the present. It also catalyzes a winning scene in which Batman confronts Professor Ivo and subtly shuts down his escape plans.

Though derivative of Bruce Timm's secret origin for Batman Beyond, Ivo's DNA scrounging is ingenious and pays lip service to science. However, the original origin is still more believable. It's more tenable in my opinion to suggest that when the Legion had the statues made through science that would appear to be magic to twenty-first century dwellers their essences--or quarks if you prefer--were transferred, making metamorphosis possible. The substitution is also questionable given that Superman's history with the Legion has been reinstated. Perhaps Wein thought to hedge his bets. After all the Legion of Super-Heroes is doomed to be rebooted every day or so, and every story associated with the Legion would also logically have to be reconsidered.

Joe Meach's motivation for malevolence was much more complex. Emotions that Meach didn't know he possessed were magnified through an accident. Meach atones for his crimes in the end. He makes a decision that he does not want to be this thing. He does not want to hate Superman and Batman. The new incarnation is merely an abandoned genetic freak and lack's the original's psychological depth. The creature in Wein's story cannot help be what it is. It didn't ask for life. It didn't ask to be a Composite. Its behavior is pitiable, and its actions are confused rather than evil or insane. It's, in a sense, a child. However, none of the characters feel particularly charitable or sympathetic. It kidnaps Lois Lane and Robin. It tries to act like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. Neither Robin or Lois regards the Composite Superman with anything but mockery. There's no attempt to reason with the creature.

The Composite Superman dies horribly at the end of Superman/Batman Annual. I'm not revealing that much. You can see the train coming down this particular track when Superman and Batman begin bullying the creature. Batman barely reacts when the creature dies, and Superman amazingly apologizes to Lois. Any feeling he may have for the Composite Superman is muted. This lack of heart in my opinion is the most damaging element to the story. Even when Batman habitually killed criminals, he regretted slaying one of Hugo Strange's Monster Men, The Composite Superman apparently warrants no such reverie. It's a thing. It needs to be destroyed. Let's gang up on it.

Putting aside these curious changes and a ball dropped so hard that you can hear the impact, Wein does well in characterizing Batman and Superman when they're presented alone. The opening gambit in which Batman confronts Firefly and Mr. Freeze feels like a Batman strategy. It's a move that nobody else could have made. Batman tosses a single batarang to trigger pure chaos among the villains. Wein elegantly conveys that Batman saw these steps in his head within an eye-blink. That's what distinguishes Batman from every other cape and cowl. That's why even villains that are familiar with the Dark Knight's presence still get nervous when he's merely in the periphery. Superman when pitted against the Atomic Skull tosses a car at his very powerful foe, melts the car using his heat vision and then for an encore employs his ice-cold super-breath to confine the criminal. The hot and cold treatment in addition parallels Batman's ploy to symbolize the heroes' differences and similarities.

Wein isn't so convincing when he puts the heroes together. Man of Steel separated Batman and Superman. It was Byrne's belief that as they were being presented Batman and Superman should not get along. That personal animosity mixed with mutual respect informed the Grant Morrison JLA and the Bruce Timm animated series, which allowed for a more natural friendship being formed by the two, indeed the seven. Quite frankly, continuity is so screwed up that it's difficult to ascertain when exactly Wein is setting this story. Ostensibly, the story's set in the past, but Batman and Superman were never friends in the past, unless one factors in Brad Meltzer's proposed longer history shared by the Trinity. To do that, however, means broaching another question: is this the mind-wiped Batman from Identity Crisis? He doesn't act like it.

I can say without a doubt that the pre-Crisis Batman and Superman have been friends ever since they learned each other's identities during a vacation that led to a diamond theft investigation. I can't say that about Batman and Superman in the Superman/Batman Annual. It's not the Bruce Timm Superman and Batman friendship. It's not the long standing pre-Crisis friendship. What I can say is that the friendship between Batman and Superman in the Superman/Batman Annual feels artificial. It's as if Batman is being portrayed by Michael Keaton throughout the adventure, until he's put together with Superman. Then, he's dubbed in by another actor.

Chris Batista's, Justin Gray's, Jack Jadson's and the Horries' artwork is just perfect. The artists make Batman look like Batman. The cowl, face and body bear Keaton influences. The Horries render Batman in his classic blues and grays, yet I can squint my eyes and see the Keaton black body armor, leathery cape and utility belt from the first film. Superman manifests powerfully without being bulky or ballooned. His face appears rugged, comparatively younger to Batman's weathered look, yet still having texture and a lived-in quality. The emotive face allows for some marvelous expressions: a sneer, confusion, smugness, relief. I can easily see Tom Welling becoming this Superman.

Together the artists make the art sophisticated but without being photorealistic or having a painted feel. This is old school work given extreme care. Batista's pencils translates natural body movement such as Superman leaning on the railing of a bridge while he waits for Batman. He and Gray creates notable scale and proportion. Lois Lane has the anatomy of a real woman, not a wispy waisted waif. She has toughness and muscle without being a ripped body builder. She compares favorably with Superman and Batman. Gray's inks give Batista's pencils even grater depth. Batista as I recall was more of an angular artist, but Gray smoothes out the angles and brings out the shadows for superb effect.

Len Wein does not convince me that his Composite Superman is superior or necessary. He also does not give me the Superman/Batman friendship I'm looking for, but then he'll just nail it with such scenes as Batman's decisive duel against Metallo. I gave up on the Man of Steel a long time ago when he started floating over wreckage and weeping. I'm not at all used to seeing Superman being so effective and tough, except on Smallville. It's these factors combined with the incredible art that forces me to recommend the book, however flawed.



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