Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Earth-2: Society Annual #1 Review

Title: Earth-2: Society Annual #1
Story: Legacy
Characters: Huntress (Helena Wayne), "Dick Grayson," John Grayson
Publication Date: August 2016
Available In: Print | Digital

Summary: Helena Wayne has rescued John Grayson from Grief, the Ultra-Humanite's deadliest assassin. As John recalls the Huntress' fierce fight to liberate him from the Ultra-Humanite's control, he details to his father how the Ultra-Humanite exploited his fears and loss of family to turn him into one of his destructive agents. "Dick Grayson" then reflects on Earth-2's past battles and how they particularly resulted in the deaths of two Batmen: Bruce Wayne, the original, and his father Thomas. He also thinks about his place in that legacy and whether or not he actually deserves it.

"Dick" thinks about how all the Waynes have a natural skill and ability to them that he lacks, and questions whether or not he has what it takes to succeed them. He even thinks about whether or not he still needs Batman now that he has his son to live for again, and is no longer driven by rage or loss. Through words of encouragement from his son, "Dick" finds a new reason to continue on as Batman. If he no longer needs rage and loss to motivate him, desire to keep his son safe from harm is all that he needs to keep going. Deciding to put on the costume one last time, he joins the Huntress to attend an emergency Justice Society meeting to protect the fate of the world against the Ultra-Humanite. He doesn't know if he'll die in the process, but he knows he'll try to stay alive for his son.

Review: There's no dancing around the fact that this annual exists for the sole purpose of justifying "Dick Grayson" as Batman to the reader. If I'm completely honest, I'm not sure who DC is trying to sell this character to. As a Justice Society fan, I can safely say for myself that I don't buy Earth-2 or Justice Society comics for Batman. As a fan of the Earth-2 Dick Grayson from the pre-Crisis era, this placeholder of a character doesn't hold any candles to the original. A lot of that has to do with the fact that this artificial construct of a character lacks much of the original charm, character development, and history I associate with the pre-Crisis Dick Grayson.

As a female reader, I also can't overlook the institutional sexism that factored into DC's decision to rob Helena Wayne of her own story for a male-centric narrative that has as much originality as white bread. As a DC Comics fan, I feel particularly insulted that DC thinks they can just create a brand new character to fill the bat suit, and that I'll be instantly sold on him because he happens to share a name with Dick Grayson. But even if you put all of that aside, the story itself still fails to justify why an usurper character deserves to inherit the Batman legacy (especially at Helena's expense) because there is significant disconnect between believable character motivation and the character's established history in the current continuity. At best, the publisher relies on the reader's pre-existing knowledge of pre-Crisis Earth-2 history to be "sold" on the idea, but even then, it doesn't begin to produce the same flavour.

For context, let's talk history for a minute. With the pre-Crisis version of the Earth-2 Dick Grayson, it was easy for the reader to understand why it was important to him to take over the Batman identity following Bruce's death. From Dick's perspective, Bruce was like a second father to him. He took him in when he was orphaned at 8 years of age and raised him like a son. Though Bruce was never able to legally adopt Dick, he was still more than a legal guardian to him, and he was more than a mentor. This was the man who watched him grow up and taught him everything he knew. Bruce's influence throughout Dick's life made him the person he later became as an adult.

Dick's relationship to Helena Wayne pre-Crisis was equally important to him because she was the closest person he had to a sibling, and she was his last remaining link to the Wayne family. He later developed a bit of a romantic attraction to her in part because he realised that most ordinary people wouldn't be able to share his life style. He knew the same was true for Helena because he was aware of her relationship problems with her boyfriend, Harry Sims. As a superhero partner, he worked very well with Helena because she possessed many of the qualities and experience he needed in a crime-fighting partner. Though Dick and Helena had very different ideas about what Batman's legacy meant to them, there was still tremendous love and respect between them.

The original character developments and relationships the original Earth-2 Grayson possessed made him an interesting and different enough character from his Earth-1 counterpart, that there was literally nothing to fix. His original history worked perfectly for his character, and his place as a Batman legacy hero alongside Helena felt natural because of that existing history. The lack of history is everything that is wrong with the current version of the character that's appearing in Earth-2: Society because it changes too much of who the character is conceptually. It significantly changes his relationship and chemistry with Helena, it equally guts his character motivation, and it consequently compromises his legitimacy as a successor to Bruce Wayne in ways that not even a talented writer like Dan Abnett is able to logically justify. In fact, so little of "Dick's" character motivation makes sense in this narrative, Abnett has to largely rely on tired tropes and worn out storytelling devices to try and make it work. Even then, the reader is still robbed of a remotely compelling story.

In the opening pages of the annual, "Dick Grayson" summarises his life prior to the destruction of Earth-2.  On the previous Earth, he was an ordinary man who was happily married with a son, and held down a career as a journalist. He also confirms to the reader that he has never met Bruce Wayne (the original Batman) when he was alive, and did not know Bruce's father--Thomas Wayne--very well prior to his death. Yet, he summarises their personalities and history as though he knows them more intimately than he actually does. He similarly talks about Helena Wayne as though he knows her very intimately as well, yet he has only known her for the one year that they were rebuilding their society, and in that same timeframe, she somehow found the time to "get to know him" and "train him." He also says that she is only his "friend," and he never elaborates on his history with her for the reader to fully understand why Helena just allowed him--a random stranger from her point of view--to take over her father's superhero identity.

The latter problem is not helped by the fact that we are never given Helena's point of view in this story. We are only shown how exceptionally skilled she is as a crime-fighter and how "Dick" personally feels about her ability to take down foes who dangerously outclass her in terms of physical strength and power. We're never shown why she trusts this random stranger with her family legacy, or how she personally feels about him. We're just told that she "trusts" him, but no reason is ever established to make the reader understand Helena's thoughts or feelings.

At best, as a reader who has been following Helena's journey since the character's first appearance in All-Star Comics, I do know that her family's legacy is important to her. As such, for Helena to just "trust" a random stranger with that legacy doesn't make sense for her character. In fact, it feels very out of character for her. We are also reminded that "Dick Grayson" is "special," but again we're never shown why he is special, or why he stood out to Helena amongst all the other Earth-2 survivors who lost family in the destruction of Earth-2. He was just "angry at the world" for losing his wife and child, and his manpain is his only defining character trait. He literally has nothing else going for him.

Without any history with Helena Wayne explored, we don't know Helena's reasons for allowing this angry white guy out of millions of angry Earth-2 survivors to be Batman. Without a fully fleshed out character with an actual personality, we similarly have nothing to go on to even begin to piece together a potential reason for why Helena would allow this random guy to take over her father's identity. She just looks irresponsible for putting a potentially dangerous person in charge of New Gotham when he possesses neither her insight nor her level of experience. Without any history with the Wayne family at all, this creates the biggest the problem the Earth-2: Society annual fails to justify: why is it so important for this "Dick Grayson" to be Batman?

For most of the annual's story, "Dick" dances around the question of whether or not he has what it takes to be Batman, or if he even deserves the title. He doesn't feel competent compared to Helena, but he also feels that without Batman, his life lacks purpose and meaning. Still, he fails to answer the most important question: what does being Batman actually mean to him, and why does he feel that the world needs Batman when superheroes like the Huntress, Power Girl, Green Lantern, and the Flash already exist to protect the world? Why does he feel that Helena alone cannot carry on her family's legacy as the Huntress? More importantly, why does he feel that in her being the Huntress, she leaves the Batman legacy "vacant" when she is still Bruce's daughter continuing his work? Why is the legacy of Batman important to him when he's not even a member of Helena's family?

Within the current continuity, "Dick" never knew Bruce Wayne, so his emotional connection to Batman and everything that Bruce stood for does not exist for him. He also didn't know Bruce's father long enough for him to establish any kind of meaningful relationship to him. He just stuck around with him for a few hours before Thomas got killed in the events of Convergence. He similarly doesn't have an intimate enough relationship with Helena beyond casual friendship, which diminishes any significant emotional attachment he has towards her or her family for that matter. So why is being Batman important to him?

If his reasoning for taking up the mantle of Batman is a need to satisfy rage and find a new purpose in life as established in this story, why not just create his own superhero identity like all the other heroes did? Even Helena chose to develop her own identity instead of becoming Batwoman to carry on her family legacy, even though the Bat symbol does in fact belong to her. So again, why is it important for "Dick" to be Batman, when he could've easily created his own identity and still fulfil the same purpose? Why does he feel it's his business to continue a legacy that doesn't belong to him, when he didn't even know the first guy who developed the identity?

What all of this boils down to is that "Dick's" current history doesn't present him with a real logical reason to take over an identity that he frankly has no connection to. He just took something that doesn't belong to him for reasons that aren't really his business as someone who is not affiliated with the Waynes in the current continuity. He is by definition an usurper under the current circumstances and Dick's pre-Crisis history doesn't stretch far enough to even begin to compensate. Helena's part in all this is equally illogical and problematic because this strange man taking over her father's identity is not someone she shares any meaningful history nor relationship with in the current continuity. She's being written completely out of character just so DC can have a new marketing tool to call "Batman" for this series, which is a complete disservice to Helena.

The only saving graces of the Earth-2: Society annual are Dan Abnett and artists Bruno Redondo and Diogenes Neves who all try to make this story work. Abnett excels at characterisation and makes thoughtful creative choices, but without a logical narrative to work with, his efforts are sadly overshadowed by this very problem. I love the fact that he devotes equal page space to Helena, but I still wish she had more of a voice in her own story and had more of a meaningful presence than just showcasing her combat skills.

I equally appreciate the fact that Abnett acknowledges that the current "Dick Grayson" is a conceptually problematic character whose presence on Earth-2 robs Helena of her own story, and by extension, robs readers of a Batman legacy story that is genuinely diverse. It's a robbery because it trades a story about Batman's daughter redefining her father's legacy for yet another brooding white guy in a bat suit with manpain the size of Neptune, because apparently there aren't enough versions of that story already. (Bruce Wayne, Flashpoint's Thomas Wayne, Matt Murdoch, Frank Castle, TV's Arrow, anyone?)

Without full creative control of Earth-2's direction, Abnett can only acknowledge the fact that it is a problem. There's very little he can do about editorial mandates and the institutional sexism that led DC to favour a new Earth-2 Batman over Batman's own daughter taking over that narrative. Without any real authority over the publisher's overarching goals, Abnett has to work with the confinements he is given. Those confinements entail that he find some way to make this imposter Batman work, even if his existence on an Earth where Batman's daughter already exists is completely unnecessary and illogical.

On the art front, artists Diogenes Neves and Bruno Redondo are equally exceptional in their illustrations from layouts to character design. They both have a strong grasp of Helena's attitude, personality, and body language, and they successfully capture all that in their art. They even draw an amazing "Dick Grayson" and even make his ridiculous Batsuit look good. Their talents, however, are sadly wasted on an ill-conceived narrative that again defies logic and comes from a place of institutional sexism.

Overall, there's really not a whole lot to say about Earth-2: Society Annual #1 that hasn't been said already. The annual desperately tries to justify a character stand-in for both Dick Grayson and Batman, but fails to achieve either one in a way that feels authentic and instead robs Helena Wayne of her own visibility. Without an adequate (or in this case, logical) raison d'être for his character, there is equally no emotional hook for me as a reader. Instead, he ends up usurping a narrative that uniquely belongs to Helena, and is equally robbing the more established Earth-2 characters of page space. Without any existing (let alone believable) character development, he's basically taking up space in a comic he hasn't actually earned. Whatever plaudits DC is attempting to achieve with his character, it's simply not working for me as a reader because of all of the aforementioned problems involved. He very much feels like a forced inclusion that no one asked for. Judging by the overall reception of the character, plus a low sales turnout, I don't appear to be alone in that opinion.

If the goal of Rebirth is course correction, whatever becomes of Earth-2 and the Justice Society when they finally get included in the initiative next year, the Earth-2 Batman legacy needs major course correction from top to bottom. To start with, Helena Wayne needs to be reinstated and re-acknowledged as her father's legitimate successor by the publisher that owns her. She needs to be the character DC solicits and markets to readers as Batman's legacy on Earth-2, especially if they want to increase the presence of a female readership. She similarly needs to be given more visibility as well as stronger storylines that fit her character to help her achieve commercial success.

If DC wants Dick Grayson to be a part of that legacy, he needs to have his original history with Bruce and Helena Wayne reinstated. It cannot be done any other way. This annual literally shows that conceptually he doesn't work as a Batman legacy character without that history intact. It's too crucial to his raison d'être. On that note, DC needs to re-acknowledge that when it comes to the legacy of Batman, it is not the man in the bat suit that matters, but who Batman inspires to continue his work. This is what made the original versions of Helena Wayne and Dick Grayson huge successes in the first place. They took a familiar narrative and made it their own. They reinvented Batman's legacy by creating legacies of their own. In DC abandoning this concept for what's easier (aka "Batman sells"), they significantly limited their audience, and we ended up with very weak versions of Helena Wayne and Dick Grayson. That is not okay.

To avoid problems with sexism, Dick needs to be written as a partner to Helena with equal stake in that narrative. Helena needs to be the hero of her own story, not a supporting character in Dick's. Earth-2 equally needs more diverse staff to help prevent future problems with female representation. Dan Abnett is a huge blessing on the Earth-2: Society book, but without full creative control of the story's direction, he could definitely benefit from having a diverse editor (a woman in this case) to help keep these issues with diverse representation in check, and have some kind of authority if the publishers themselves decide to take the narrative in a damaging direction. The story and characters as they are feel more artificial than Red Tornado's robotic existence at best, and is conceptually sexist at worst.

★★★☆☆

1 comment:

  1. I'm just happy that the Huntress was front and center in this story. Do I wish it was ALL her? Yes, but it was better than a story with just 'Dick.' I wish they would've alluded to the current Dick and Helena having overwhelming feelings from the previous Crisis, almost like a 'past life' so she felt compelled to train him and give him the legacy, and plus he was the last person her grandfather spent any time with before he died. Helena didn't need a new Batman so much as she wanted to keep her own identity as Huntress AND continue the Batman legacy her father left behind. I think it would've been a much more convincing story if they said they felt remnants of their pre-crisis selves, especially since Rebirth is here. I loved seeing Helena in action and he described her in a way that totally gave her the description she deserves, but yes, Dick should've been supporting, not her, but Dan Abnett worked with what he had, and a lesser writer would've mangled this up because the editors didn't do the fans of the Huntress or fans of the former Earth 2 characters any favors by taking this random Grayson and making him the focal point of the story when it still isn't earned and in name only. At least they got one of the best writers on the job which gives me hope for a future where Huntress is the Batman legacy like she deserves. She did whoop that super guy's a$$ though, thoroughly and that was worth seeing.

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