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The Superman/ Batman series that's currently published monthly by DC build upon the Worlds Finest series of comics that concluded a lengthy run in the mid-eighties. The stories in both these magazines partnered the Dark Knight with the Man of Steel in adventures that usually took both of the characters to new places and situations and in some cases were testing grounds for new characters that were elevated into the DC Universe through other series such as Justice League of America.
What Superman/ Batman use is the premise of alternate realities as a foundation of the story. Alternate realities can be a good thing if the story is well written and explains how this reality came about, for example if the lead character turned left instead of right. A prime example of this is the recent Doctor Who episode where Donna Noble turned right at a junction and lived another life without meeting The Doctor. The episode went through how different things would be and the path that this sole decision caused. In the world of Superman and Batman, the same rules have been applied to this story and the consequences have been blown completely out of the normal boundaries that we have come to expect from two of DC's greatest heroes.
The story revolves around Superman and Batman ruling the Earth as tyrannical dictators, gone are the characters we know to be replaced with a pair of tyrants with a quite scary sadistic side in nature. This includes managing any problems such as other heroes opposed to what Superman and Batman are doing. Both heroes have been raised together from childhood and think of each other as brothers, who will protect each other to the highest degree. When an uprising takes place planned by villains from the future, the timeline has been changed in a manner that has changed the overall destiny of the two heroes; this in turn has created this alternate reality that they currently reside within. In the story both Clark and Bruce are transported through time through various other realities in search of finding out whom exactly is behind the plan to de-throne the rulers of the planet.
This is a good story to read, and the way it has been written will capture the imagination. Although I felt it after finishing the book that it "borrowed" in part from shows like The Twilight Zone and Quantum Leap, especially with the actual manner of the time jumps. It is these that play a vital part as when one occurs it means that transportation to an unknown place will happen, although this helps build suspense it is never over used at all in the fabric of the plot and is pitched at the right level so that it won't actually get stale.
One down point for me was that the art and the cast of the book relies primarily on the reader being bang up to date with the happenings in the DC Universe, so even though there are a number of references that link across to other stories involving the two main characters, these may not be easily picked up by someone new to reading DC. Also the story is full to the brim with other DC characters; a good example is the inclusion of the vastly unused Jonah Hex, a character who some readers probably haven't heard of at all. It is also good to see Uncle Sam make a welcome return to a DC story as well, seeing two American icons in the same storyline as well as together makes a difference to the story and gives an additional depth as well.
The story was written by the now legendary Jeph Loeb, this is the man who also wrote for episodes of Lost and more recently Heroes. With a coy reference to the DC story called Lush that coincidentally involved both Superman and Batman, as well as writing a number of key DC stories such as Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman: For All Seasons. Loeb has taken the characters of the story and thrown them into places and situations that the pair never usually faces. The story is dark in nature and while this is out of tone for Superman, it is somewhat darker than normal even for Batman. Loeb has the knack of extracting the essentials from the characters and completely re-inventing them for the length of the story by adding a new dimension and freshness. Having read a lot of his stories in the past this is by no means a flat and boring story as it shows from the references and guest stars utilised that it has been researched fully. This certainly contains the originality that Loeb can deliver; he just seems to find a space that has been untouched and quite literally builds upon it, what I mean by that is that if this was a film, it would be produced on an epic scale like Ben Hur, Cleopatra or Gone with the Wind.
All the characters are drawn with style and elegance, very sharp and precise lines that define the uniqueness or each persona that makes them easily identifiable as to who they exactly are. What I personally don't like are the artists who draw the heroes like they appear in some animations, the wide shouldered implausible statures that don't really make sense. What artists Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino have done is deliver the art in a trusted style that shows all the cast involved in a vividly colourful yet bold and stand out manner. Then again the decision to do this is a correct one as the story is the stand out feature. The art compliments the story well and from each panel it is clear and concise as to what is happening and makes the story easy to follow. The nature of the colours used gives an appeal to the art that makes it stand out so that when something does happen such as bullets bouncing off Superman then the art has captured the rebound in such a nature that it elevates that specific piece from seen it before to seen it differently given the way in which it is presented to the reader.
Overall I enjoyed this book and enjoyed the manner in which the story was laid out, the pace is fast for a comic book and does take the opportunity to slow and catch up with itself when required. The unique selling point is that the heroes are taken out of their normal surroundings and placed in new settings. It is this setting that makes the story in parts quite chilling, bordering frightening, as to what the main characters are doing and how the Earth is a different place, guess this is due to the main cast being so well known with what is known about them. However it is how this has been written that makes the whole thing interesting enough to read for a second or third time. This is when I found things in the background standing out clearer to me, and things that I swear weren't there on my first read! Personally I am glad that DC are continuing the variation of the Elseworlds type stories, where characters are quite literally removed from their world and placed in a world the reader never knew existed, some would say removed from their comfort zone. With Absolute Power that is the basic requirement of the story, this also gives the chance for writer to go mental with the confines of the cast, which in this case is a very good example of how it can successfully be done as it has been done very well.
This is collected set of Superman/ Batman issues 14 to 18. This is available in both a hardback and paperback editions and is the third in the collected sets of this series.
Back in the 90s, DC created Elseworlds, which took some of their major characters and re-imagined them in eras, locations or situations different to the ones we were familiar with. Absolute Power is essentially, an update of that idea, imagining a world in which Superman and Batman were raised as brothers and became dictators, ruling the world with an iron fist.
It's an interesting idea - taking two of DC's best-loved heroes and essentially making them "evil" - and it's one which works very well. The basic plot proves immediately gripping, and it's fun to watch heroes behaving badly. There's a lot of fan fun from watching Superman and Batman kick the butt of people that, in other worlds or other times, we know are their friends and allies. There's still an air of continuity, though, as in terms of abilities, Superman and Batman remain the same, it's just their attitude and how they use those powers which has changed.
The danger is that such a plot only has a limited amount of mileage in it, but writer Jeph Loeb has some tricks up his sleeve to keep our interest. Once the initial excitement of seeing an evil Superman and Batman begins to pall, Loeb switches the storyline around. We start to see what happens when the more conventional timeline begins to try and reassert itself and the impact that has both on the world and on the two lead characters. Stories such as this always run the risk of becoming rather silly and unbelievable, but the excellent writing always gives the tale some kind of plausibility, no matter how outlandish it might sound. There's nothing hugely original about the basic plot, but it adds enough of a new spin to be entertaining.
Just occasionally, it does lose its way and appears to be meandering a little, almost trying to find a way to resolve the conundrum and get the heroes back in the normal time stream. In particular, there's a subplot involving a Bruce Wayne who never became Batman that is rather weak and unconvincing. But for every slight mis-step, there is a corresponding strong section, which makes it all worthwhile.
In particular, the middle segment, which sees Supes and Bats flitting between a whole series of different alternate realities that offer some interesting glimpses of what might have been. Some are so interesting; you feel they would be capable of supporting a full story in their own right.
The plotline is backed up by some excellent characterisation. Loeb is a seasoned writer of both Superman and Batman, and it shows. He subtly subverts some of their key characteristics so that they fit into the story, whilst ensuring they remain faithful to the characters we know. It's interesting to see how the characters fare as "evil". For Batman, the shift is less of a major change - he has always had a dark side. The impressive character change comes in Superman, who goes from being a goody two shoes into someone very nasty indeed. Personally, I found Superman far more interesting as a bad 'un than I ever have before. His transition to the Dark Side is convincingly handled and gives a whole new dimension to his character.
Credit too, must go to the excellent artwork. Throughout the comic, it's of a very high standard and adds a huge amount to the story. Artist Pacheco proves highly adept at drawing both the darker, grimier side of the DC Universe, and the more fantastical elements of the plot. His artwork shows a huge amount of imagination - particularly in the sequences showing multiple alternate realities. In many cases, he only has a couple of panels to show the new world before we are whisked off to another, yet he manages to convey the sense of a genuine world with just a few pen strokes. His artwork is dark when it needs to be - particularly the start and middle of the book - but captures a lighter tone when required.
The only problem I really had with the book was the ending - particularly the final page. This was a bit of a non-event and left me feeling a little cheated. Somehow the final panels weren't up to the same quality as the rest of the story. They had a somewhat tacked-on feel, as though they had been added an afterthought once the rest of the comic was completed, and their content and tone sits uneasily with the rest of the book. In addition, Loeb tries to tie the ending in with one of his own earlier Superman titles, and people who have not read this may be left scratching their heads with a slight air of puzzlement.
To date, I've read three of the Batman/Superman titles and have to say I have been impressed with them all. Probably the strongest of the three I've read is Public Enemies, but this one runs it a close second. Well worth a read.
Jeph Loeb and Carlos Pacheco
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© Copyright SWSt 2009