On History: Byrne's Generations Review

By | Tuesday, February 21, 2017 4 comments
Superman/Batman: Generations #1
A couple years back, I found a collection of 5,000-6,000 comics on the curb. Mostly Marvel and DC books from around the early 2000s up through about 2010. I've been plenty busy, and haven't read most of them, but I did take some time to read through John Byrne's three Generations series from several years ago that was in that collection.

The basic idea, as Byrne originally posited, was: what if the DC universe aged in real time? So Batman still debuted in 1939, but instead of remaining perpetually in his 20s, he grew older and had to essentially retire around 1960, with the now-adult Dick Grayson assuming the Batman name, and Bruce Wayne's son stepping in to become Robin. Likewise, all the other characters would grow old as well -- Commission Gordon dies in the 1950s, Lois Lane in the late 1970s, and so on.

The overall stories are broken down into discrete time periods. Each "chapter" takes place in a different year, with at least a decade having passed since the previous chapter. (In Generations 3, this extends to a full century between each chapter.) Add in some flashbacks and a bit of time travel, and there's a lot of potential to confuse the hell out of readers. But Byrne proves that he's a consummate storyteller, and the there's absolutely no problem following along anywhere in these three titles. In fact, at one point I accidentally skipped over a page that critically pointed out Superman's trip to the future got screwed up and he accidentally landed in the past, and I still didn't have much trouble figuring out what happened.

Taken at face value, the stories are fun and entertaining. Obviously, there are lots of nods to previous stories from the past century and knowing those makes for some nice points of reference, but even without a strong knowledge of DC lore, everything runs smoothly and, as I said, is fairly entertaining. The first series, in particular, as it has a more light-hearted tone overall. The second series is a little darker, and the third series is about as dark as I've ever seen Byrne get. (Which, granted, is still not as dark as some creators are, but it's noticeable shift from the first and second series.)

I did have two problems with the series, though. The first, and relatively minor, issue is that these are all inked by Byrne himself. Despite being a solid storyteller, inking isn't his strong suit and there were more than a few places where I found the art somewhat lacking specifically because of his inking. I've seen him ink decently before, but typically, as we see here, it's surprisingly rough and unnuanced. Line weights don't vary as much as they could/should. There's a lack of elegance to the finished product because of that. It doesn't hinder the story itself, but it's not doing any favors either.

The bigger problem I had was a conceptual one. Byrne is very clear, with prose piece in each #1 issue, that we're supposed to be watching Superman, Batman, etc. age in real time. How would things be different if they couldn't carry on superheroing forever? Which is an interesting idea, but that's not what Byrne actually presents. He defines Superman as functionally immortal as one of his super-powers. OK, fine, that's kind of/sort of established for the character. But so is Wonder Woman. And Martian Manhunter. And the New Gods. And the Ultra-Humanite (who's one of the main villains). And then Byrne makes Batman literally immortal. As well as Batman's son. And Green Lantern. And Lex Luthor. And Lana Lang. Not to mention all of Superman's kids and grandkids. So despite the first two titles spanning a century each, and the third covering ten centuries, the cast remains pretty static. We do see a few characters grow old and die, but most of the primary ones do not.

And that's fine for the story, but that's not exactly what it's presented as. Instead of showing Superman and Batman growing old and aging in real time, we get basically what's already going on in the comics -- where the characters are fighting for truth and justice in perpetuity. I fully expect to be able to buy a Superman or Batman comic decades from now, and see the current superhero formula more or less the same, and what Byrne is positing through his story is that is exactly what will happen. It's almost as if the concept of these characters aging is so incomprehensible that Byrne literally cannot think of how that might actually happen. Superheroes, he seems to say, are eternal EVEN IF you try to present them as mortal.

Which, I suppose, is an interesting angle in and of itself. But by making much of his entire cast immortal, he's diluting that message. Had he left only a couple characters immortal, and other heroes rotating in and out of the story (like he and Roger Stern did in the more-or-less contemporary Marvels: The Lost Generation) that notion that the superhero concept is unending, even if the costumes change, would have been stronger, I think.

Like I said, the stories are entertaining and made for some nice, light entertainment this past weekend. I'm just a bit disappointed that it was basically just another Elseworlds story that says even if everything is different, it's all pretty much exactly the same.
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Steven said...

Wait. You found 5k comics in the street? I had dreams of that happening when I was a kid.

Yeah. Was walking my dog on trash night, and saw what looked like 6 long boxes on the curb. I opened them up and they were filled with comics! I ran home to get the car and picked them. The next week, another six boxes. Two weeks later, six more boxes but somebody else got to them before I did. Two weeks after that, five more boxes.

Everything was in good condition. Mostly newer stuff from around 2000-2010. Mostly Marvel and DC. Nothing especially valuable. Probably 3-4 boxes of stuff I already had, but still... free comics! :)

Steven said...

Trash night will clearly never be the same in your neighborhood

Daniel said...

I've seen other people make the same comment as you in regards to not liking Byrne's inking. Maybe I'm in the minority, but I actually prefer when he inks himself. He brings a fluidity and a boldness to his inks (especially in his work from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s) that other inkers never quite capture.