3 bizarre superhero comic genre mashups
The problem with a continually published series is that there’s a certain status quo that needs to be upheld, meaning you can be sure that you’re basically reading the same damn Superman story that’s been told over and over again since 1940. Once, publishers got around this with their “imaginary stories”, which pretty much let them tell whatever nonsense they felt like, a lot of which seemed to be more of a way for the writers to work out their WW2-related PTSD than an actual attempt at entertainment.
However, as the Silver Age of Comics came to a close, imaginary stories fell out of fashion, since readers started to demand stories that weren’t just about Superman screwing with Lois Lane’s head for 22 pages. Instead, DC and Marvel decided to simply run non-canonical one-off limited series/graphic novels when they wanted to do awful things to their most beloved characters. Unfortunately, not all of these ideas were going to be winners. Here are three limited series that, while not necessarily bad from a storytelling perspective, don’t really mesh very well with the pre-existing characters.
1. Superman’s Metropolis
German expressionism is a style of filmmaking associated with masterpieces such as Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and M: films heavy on symbolism, surrealism, and all the other -isms you’d expect from a country where Nazism was in vogue. What it is not usually associated with expressionism is the cartoonishly goofy world of superheroics. Which is, of course, why DC decided that it’d make a perfect setting for reimagined versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Starting in 1997, DC released a trilogy of graphic novels starring their Big Three in a world based respectively on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Nosferatu/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and La Blue Girl/Dr. Mabuse.
The Superman story is basically just Metropolis fanfiction with Superman dropped in the middle of it, clearly inspired (if not quite justified) by the shared city name. The other two, set in the same world, make some very odd choices that don’t fit with the original characters or the expressionist aesthetic. Batman is reinvented as a kind of bizarre bat-cyborg and Wonder Woman as a genetic experiment, neither of which are concepts you were likely to find in German silent films from the 1920s (granted, those were mostly Hitler yelling at you and Max Schreck making faces at the camera, but still). Ironically, the villains fit in much better, with Lex Luthor taking the place of Dr. Rotwang from Metropolis, and Jeremiah Arkham as Dr. Caligari.
It’s not that you can’t make this blend work, or that you shouldn’t, but expressionist film is incredibly high concept, and trying to mix that with the over-the-top nature of superhero characters is like trying to perform heart surgery with a chainsaw: technically possible, but you’re more likely to end up with a gross mess and a mountain of lawsuits.
2. Marvel Noir
Speaking of ill-conceived mashups, let’s take a look at the Marvel Noir imprint. The Noir-verse was a series of books that reinvented several of the company’s most popular characters as pulp stories set in the 1930s. For the most part, this wasn’t a problem, especially for characters like the Punisher and Daredevil, who would basically already be noir characters if they didn’t live in a universe where running around in colorful spandex was socially acceptable outside the kind of night clubs that don’t have a sign outside.
And it was pretty good, at least for a start. Then, Marvel decided to try and insert the X-Men into the Noir-verse, and the drawbacks of trying to adapt modern characters to a form of storytelling that’s been outdated for over 50 years became rather noticeable. See, noir settings rarely have much in the way of superpowers, or if they do, not the kind of bright, flashy bullshit you see in modern comic books, which is a problem for the X-Men since their entire identity is based on their powers. So what could Marvel do that would serve the same role as the mutant concept and still retain the feel of the setting? Well, whatever you’re thinking of, they didn’t do that; they went with eugenics and mental problems.
Apparently, in the Noir-verse, Charles Xavier decided that the newly discovered diagnosis of sociopathy wasn’t a mental disorder, but a new evolution of the human mind adapted for the modern world (ironically, not nearly as awful as some commonly accepted theories of the real 1930s). So naturally, he decided to train his “students”, who are mostly a mishmash of criminal street urchins, how to be even better at all the crime and murder and whatnot, only now with the kind of guiding hand every teenage serial killer-to-be needs. Surprisingly, this didn’t go over all that well with society at large, and also, it turns out that putting a bunch of remorseless sociopaths in the same group really isn’t very productive in the long run.
So just to summarize, unlike the other noir properties such as Spider-Man and Punisher, which were at least recognizable, and in the Punisher’s case, pretty much the same thing but with a different war to blame his psychosis on, X-Men Noir didn’t have superpowers, acted nothing like themselves, and weren’t even the good guys of the series. Yeah, seriously, the closest thing to a hero in this series is Angel, a completely unrelated pulp character from 1939, who has nothing to do with the X-Man of the same name, who committed suicide before the story starts.
3. Batman/Dark Joker: The Wild
Moving back to DC for our final entry, this comic can best be described as a mix of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. I’m talking about Batman/Dark Joker: The Wild. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s likely because it’s this is one of the most nonsensical things DC has ever published; it’s less a comic book and more a cautionary tale about brushing your teeth with absinthe. It’s hard to know where to start because the story makes so little sense, but basically, in this universe, Batman is the son of a magician and his mistress who are murdered by their enemy, the Dark Joker, and Batman grows up in “The Wild”, which for some reason turns him into a were-bat.
The story constantly talks about “The Wild” and that the Dark Joker will destroy it, but doesn’t really go into exactly how, or why, or for that matter why any of the characters do anything they do. Dark Joker acts like a rejected Captain Planet villain who wants to wreck the Wild, because fuck trees, that’s why! He’s also got an army of fantasy bullshit working for him to make him even a slightly believable threat, because the second he’s actually forced to fight Batman in person, it goes exactly the way you’d expect when you try to fight a were-monster hand to hand. At least the regular Joker usually puts up a fight for longer than the 2 seconds it took for Were-Bat to tear this one to shreds, and that guy looks like all they feed you in Arkham is meth and Arby’s.
On top of that, the story also tries to add the usual angst about Batman’s parents, despite the fact that this version’s parents died when he was an infant and he grew up in the fucking woods like an angsty Tarzan, and thus would have no reason to give a shit about the two piles of bones he didn’t knew existed until like 5 minutes ago. It does try to add a long-lost sister to give him an actual reason to give a single shit about humanity, but he only knows her for like two days before the Joker offs her too. She only really shows up to tell him about the threat and do the whole “Me Tarzan, You Jane” routine to teach him to talk; otherwise, I doubt Batman would even have noticed there was a problem until the entire forest turned into a glowing parking lot.
Want more wacky, mixed-up superheroes? Check out painfully goofy early versions of supervillains or comic book characters whose superpowers came back to bite them in the ass.