After (rightfully) trashing two John Byrne stories in a row, (Sensational She-Hulk OGN and Action Comics #592/593) I almost feel compelled to review a story of his that I enjoyed, just to prove that I’m not simply biased against the man (yes, it’s true that I think he’s a jerk NOW, and don’t feel like buying any of his new stuff, but for many years he was my favorite writer/artist, so I’ve bought and enjoyed many comics of his in the past). So I picked this particular series, since I think it’s somewhat underrated, and tends to be overlooked, although it was successful enough to spawn a couple of sequels. This was originally a four-part miniseries published in 1999 under DC Comics’ Elseworlds Imprint, which is where creators could tell out-of-continuity tales featuring DC superheroes. The premise of this story (which John Byrne wrote, drew, and lettered, with colors by Trish Mulvihill) is that it begins in 1939, the year Batman debuted and one year after Superman debuted, and had them meeting for the first time. And then the series continued all the way up to the then-present of 1999 (& beyond), showing how their friendship developed along with the lives of their children and grandchildren and their effect on the world. Each issue was 48 pages long, and contained two 24-page stories, each set in a different decade.
I can’t really write about this without revealing some spoilers, but I will try my best to keep them to a minimum.
Book One begins in 1939 at the Metropolis World Fair. Bruce Wayne is in town with his fiance Julia (who is unaware of his dual identity) and they’re doing some sightseeing when a giant robot, operated by the supervillain Ultra-Humanite, goes on a rampage and almost stomps Julia to death. Luckily that’s when Superman appears on the scene, and destroys the robot. That night Bruce does some private investigating as Batman, and runs into Clark Kent and Lois Lane, who are also investigating. Eventually the two heroes team up, and even receive a little assistance from young acrobat Dick Grayson, who is in town to perform with his parents, uncover Ultra-Humanite’s plan and defeat him.
The second story jumps ahead to 1949. Lex Luthor and The Joker have teamed up to kidnap Lois Lane, who is married to Clark Kent and pregnant with their first child. Both villains know of Superman’s dual identity at this point, which is why they’ve targeted Lois. Superman enlists the help of Batman and Robin (18-year old Dick Grayson, who is planning to leave Gotham to go to college after this last adventure) to rescue Lois from the villains, who are armed with both green and gold kryptonite. In the end, after several dramatic twists, the heroes save the day, except they found out that the fetus inside Lois has been exposed to the gold kryptonite, which means that when it’s born it will be fully human and never develop superpowers. This is treated like a huge tragedy, as Lois and Clark worry that their son will feel inadequate having Superman for a father. I figure that can’t be any worse than people who have famous and successful parents in real life. A final scene in the issue reveals that Bruce Wayne’s wife is pregnant, too.
I should note that there’s a running subplot throughout the rest of this series that the name and face of Bruce Wayne’s wife is never fully revealed (when we first see her here she’s wearing a beekeepers mask). I’m not sure why Byrne chose to make that a big mystery. We did see Julia in the first story, and they’re engaged in 1939, but in 1949 Alfred mentions that Bruce has been married for 6 months, so it’s unlikely that it’s Julia as there’s no reason she and Bruce would have remained engaged for over a decade without getting married. So Mrs. Wayne’s identity is an ongoing mystery which is never resolved.
Book Two begins in 1959. Another premise of this series is that each story attempts to capture the mood of comic-books as they were published in those decades. So in this story Superman and Batman face a team-up of Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite, who use their interdimensional powers to wreck havoc. Only through teamwork and brainpower are the heroes able to come up with a way to be rid of these magic pests. We also get a glimpse into the personal lives of our heroes. Lois and Clark now have two young children, a boy named Joel (an obvious play on Jor-El), who is a normal human, and a girl named Kara who still has all of her Kryptonian genes and, in this issue, first begins developing super-powers. Bruce Wayne’s 10 year old son, Bruce Wayne Jr. (whom everyone calls B.J.), has been training and wants to join his father as Robin, but his mother won’t let him until he’s at least 18. Dick Grayson, who comes by to visit, has long retired as Robin and is now a lawyer in NY. In the end we see Joel Kent being approached by Lex Luthor…
The second story jumps ahead to 1969. We finally get a look at some of the other DC heroes, as Superman, Batman, Green Lantern (Alan Scott), Wonder Woman, and The Flash are in the White House, arguing with President Nixon about their refusal to intervene in the Vietnam War. Bruce Wayne has retired as Batman, and Dick Grayson has taken his place, with B.J. as Robin. Kara Kent as taken up the mantle of Supergirl, and she and B.J. are dating, while Joel is an army Lieutenant, leading a platoon in Vietnam. Tragedy strikes when The Joker sets a trap that kills Dick, which means that B.J. now fells compelled to take over as Batman. Plus Joel goes nuts in Vietnam, orders his men to attack a village full of innocent women and children, and of his own men decides to shoot him in the back and leave him for dead. Plus, Lois goes to the doctor and is diagnosed with cancer after decades of smoking.
Book Three is set in 1979. B.J. and Kara fight crime together as Batman and Supergirl (we see them defeating Brianiac) and are planning to get married. Clark is Editor-In-Chief of the Daily Planet, and wears make-up to make him look like an old man. Lois is still alive, but confined to a wheelchair. Bruce, an older man but still in great shape, has gone off on a secret mission and encounters Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia. And Lex Luthor has one last evil plan. We see that Joel is still alive, with a Vietnamese wife, Mei-Lai and infant son, but Lex has managed to turn him completely against his own family. During B.J. and Kara’s wedding Joel appears, with superpowers and attacks, and kills Kara, while Lex kills Lois. Afterward Lex betrays Joel and kills him too, and then disappears. When they find out about Mei-Lai, B.J. vows to adopt Joel’s son and raise him as his own, so the boy won’t grow up feeling resentful for just being human, like Joel did.
Then in 1989 Superman finally tracks Luthor and confronts him. All I’m going to say is that it ends with Luthor dead, and the world thinking Superman deliberately killed him. Batman (still B.J. but now wearing a suit of high-tech body armor) has to track him down and bring him to justice, which is an international court at the U.N., where he is convicted and sentenced to 10 years. The court has Batman send Superman to the Phantom Zone.
There’s lots of death and tragedy in this issue (more than I’ve mentioned here), which is somewhat of a downer. We get to see Hal Jordan, who never become Green Lantern in this continuity and is instead President of The United States in 1989, which is a neat little twist. Some things don’t quit fit, like Bruce going “missing” on his quest to find Ra’s (& is still missing, 10 years later). Couldn’t Superman or one of the other major superheroes have searched the globe and found him? I know Superman was preoccupied with searching for Luthor in the decade between 1979 and 1989 but, still, Bruce is his best friend…I’m just sayin’. I also find Superman’s conviction and sentence unlikely, under the circumstances. But I’m willing to just go with all of this, for the sake of the story.
Book Four is in 1999. Bruce Wayne reappears, still alive and young and vibrant, thanks to use of one of Ra’s Al Ghul’s Lazurus pits. He reunites with B.J. and explains what he’s been up to for the past 20 years, and why he allowed everyone to assume he’s dead. And then he asks B.J. to let him take back the mantle of Batman, and Bruce moves back to Gotham, where he promptly releases Superman from the Phantom Zone. Then they meet Joel’s son/B.J. adopted son, Clark Wayne, who used to fight alongside B.J. as Robin and is currently a costumed crime-fighter called Knightwing. This story ends with Superman deciding that it’s time for him to leave Earth, which has so many superheroes now that it doesn’t really need him any more. So he says goodbye and flies off to the stars.
The final story jumps ahead a thousand years to 2919. Batman and Superman, both somewhat immortal now, meet again in deep space, and reminisce about their first meeting, flashing back to 1929, where young Clark and young Bruce team up as Superboy and Robin. I know that probably sounds confusing but, trust me, it makes sense. And it’s well-done. This series ends on a high-note of optimism, which I appreciate.
So, like I said, some of the tragedies that happen in the middle of this series get to be a bit much, and Byrne also exhibits this weird habit where, instead of using thought balloons or narrative captions, he has his characters speaking out loud to themselves when they’re alone. But this series has some of his best artwork, and he writes this in a way that it feels like it’s larger existing universe, which I found very interesting. I definitely recommend this to any fans of Superman & Batman.