So a couple of weeks back, we took a long, rambling look at the introduction to Alan Moore’s proposal for Twilight of the Superheroes, a 1987 DC Comics crossover comic that never happened. To be fair, our discussion was no more rambling than Moore’s own, but it still went on so long that we never quite got around to discussing the actual story he wanted to tell. Though I suppose we did give a hint:
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Moore’s proposal is sprawling, a fully thought-out dystopian future for the DC heroes that draws on decades of stories, with roles for everyone from Mister Tawky Tawny to Superman. It’s strong material that pushes all the right nerd buttons. But what made the proposal so legendary, I think… what made it survive in the wild so long… is Moore’s approach to the material. He does his world-building first, dropping important bits of plot as he goes, and lets it all build as he gets into the actual plot, saving the big twists for the end so that you experience the story the way you would if you were reading the comic. I don’t think that’s typical for comics pitch documents, but it’s effective. A kind of storytelling short-hand that makes for compelling reading. It’s no wonder this thing got passed around the way it did.
The other thing that strikes me about it, though, is how far Moore pushes the envelope in this thing. He was clearly drunk on the creative freedom of Watchmen, and the possibilities of introducing adult content into super hero stories, and so some of his plot elements here are downright sordid. He did the same thing in the original Watchmen proposal, when it was still going to be a story about the newly-acquired Charlton Comics characters, and they turned that down, too. But that story, at least, could be repurposed. This one relies far more heavily on its characters being the DC icons, and that just wasn’t going to fly. There are several ideas here that might have given DC editorial pause back in 1987, but I suspect that one in particular is what killed it. And ultimately, I’m kind of glad that particular idea never saw print. But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s follow Moore’s example, and handle the story as it happens.
Twilight of the Superheroes begins and ends with one of Moore’s pet creations, that eternal buttinski John Constantine.
Constantine plays a central role in the future story, and also in Moore’s present-day framing sequence. In that, the younger Constantine gets a visit from Rip Hunter, who’s come back from the future to warn everyone of potential disaster, a super hero Ragnarok that might be averted if the younger heroes heed his warning. There’s a bunch of stuff in here dealing with the Time Trapper, and some kind of time bubble that prevents anyone from getting in or out, but honestly… I don’t really care that much. It was necessary for some of the larger continuity issues this series was supposed to address, but 30 years and god knows how many time-and-dimension-altering stories later, it doesn’t really matter anymore.
What’s important is that Future John Constantine got Rip Hunter to send a message back in time, to get the younger Constantine to warn everyone of the impending tragedy. Some people listen to him, and some don’t, and through this device, we learn the story of the DC heroes’ potential dystopian future.
The Houses of Heroes
The basic idea here is that government and most other social institutions have broken down, and the super heroes were the only people with the wherewithal to step into the gap and keep society from crumbling. So we’re not dealing with an apocalypse, per se. Even in 1987, Moore thought the apocalypse was played out. He wanted to give us a different kind of dystopia, and once again I find his ideas fairly prescient to what’s happening now:
What I want to show is a world which, having lived through the terrors of the Fifties through the early Nineties with overhanging terror of a nuclear Armageddon that seemed inevitable at the time, has found itself faced with the equally inconceivable and terrifying notion that there might not be an apocalypse. That mankind might actually have a future, and might thus be faced with the terrifying prospect of having to deal with it rather than allowing himself the indulgence of getting rid of that responsibility with a convenient mushroom cloud or nine hundred. Following the predictions made by Alvin Toffler and other eminent futurologists, I want to show a future in which everything from the family structure to the economy is decentralizing into an entirely new form that, while it might ultimately be better suited to survival in the changed conditions of life in the Twenty-First Century, is in a constant and incomprehensible state of flux and chaos for those living through it, caught in one of those violent historical niches where one mode of society changes to another, such as the industrial revolution, for example.
The people of our world find themselves going through an upheaval more abstract and bizarre but every bit as violent, and as their institutions crumble in the face of the wave of social change, they find themselves clinging to the various superhero clans who represent their only anchor of stability in this rapidly altering world.
Now, this isn’t nearly as accurate as Moore’s predictions of the geek show that corporate comics has become, but there’s still a lot of truth in it. Our social and economic institutions are in flux, and people are reacting to it in all kinds of bizarre ways. Violence, nationalism, fundamentalism… Even the hippies are calling for purges these days. And while we might not have real-life super heroes to cling to, the genre’s continuing success at the box office says a lot about how much people are looking for something better to believe in. So I’d say the crazy old wizard got it right once again.
But, anyway. Back to the story.
America is now split up into fiefdoms that coexist in an uneasy truce, run by various “Houses,” groups of super heroes who’ve gathered together along team or family lines. So we get the House of Justice, ruled over by various members of the Justice League. And we get the House of Titans, made up of former Teen Titans members and run by a bitter, increasingly extremist Nightwing. There’s also a House of Mystery, made up of various magical characters, who don’t rule anything and have little interest anymore in Earthly affairs. Likewise, the House of Tomorrow, made up of characters stranded in time by the Time Trapper’s machinations, are mostly just trying to figure out how to get back home.
The House of Lanterns, meanwhile, is made up of (you guessed it!) Green Lanterns…
…and is no longer located on Earth because of an “alien purge” that happened sometime after the Houses came to power. The other Houses, concerned that aliens might try to take advantage of the unrest caused by the transition, banished all agents of alien powers from Earth (excluding Superman, who is of course quintessentially American). Starfire was killed in these purges (thus explaining Nightwing’s bitterness), and characters like Hawkman and the Martian Manhunter were sent into exile. So the House of Lanterns is located on a moon of Mars, and has become a meeting-place for the various alien powers who were expelled from Earth, from which they can keep an eye on things, and plot to keep Earth from unifying under “a pantheon of invincible gods–the space people fear that such an empire might soon set its sights upon [their own] territories.”
There’s also a House of Secrets, made up of former super-villains.
This territory “is just as well-looked-after as the places controlled by the heroes, whereby hangs some sort of moral.” Moore tosses that last bit out almost as an afterthought, but it really fascinates me. He’s long been a social anarchist, suspicious of governmental institutions (V for Vendetta is really one long, warts-and-all anarchist manifesto when you get right down to it). The greatest evils in Moore stories aren’t usually petty thieves and murderers (who he may show some sympathy for), but people who want to control other people. So what he’s saying here, that the bad guys do just as good a job running things as the heroes, could be the basis for an entire story unto itself. He’s ultimately got bigger fish to fry in Twilight, however, which we see as we get to the two most powerful ruling Houses…
The House of Steel
This House is run by Superman, who’s married to Wonder Woman (now calling herself Superwoman), and together they’ve sired two children: a gentle new Supergirl and a juvenile delinquent Superboy, who Moore describes as having sociopathic tendencies. Superman is troubled by the unrest in the world, but feels powerless to fix it. I kind of like that take on the Man of Steel. He rules to keep society from falling apart, but he doesn’t want to exert his will over people so strongly that he forces everyone to play nice. That suits him, I think; he’s always been a protector more than an ideologue. Of course, it might also explain why his son has become such a raging douchebag: sometimes you have to curtail a child’s personal freedom for its own good.
I’m less fond of what Moore’s done with Wonder Woman here. Which is to say, not much at all. Marrying her off to Superman makes sense in some ways, but come on! She’s not just “Superman With Boobs,” and that’s how this idea treats her. But her comic survived the Golden Age just as well as his did, so I don’t know why it’s so hard to figure out why that was, and to give her a heroic legacy of her own to lead. A House of Wonder, perhaps, based around Amazonian values. SOMEthing. ANYthing would be better than just making her a loving wife and baby factory. It’s hard to believe Frank Miller put more thought into this than Alan Moore…
…but there you go.
(An aside: Miller’s take has its own problems, of course. He neglects the “warrior for peace” aspect of the character, and boils her down to some kind of militant feminist version of Red Sonja. But at least his Wonder Woman is her own person, with her own unique world-view. And that’s far preferable to me than having her identity subsumed into that of a man. That’s just lazy, and I expect better of Moore. But I digress.)
The other major ruling house is the House of Thunder, presided over by Captain Marvel. He’s now married to Mary Marvel, but Moore implies that this is primarily a marriage of convenience, to counter the dynasty being forged by Superman and Wonder Woman. They have one child (Mary Marvel Jr), but otherwise Cap doesn’t show Mary much marital interest. Which is probably why Mary and Captain Marvel Jr are having a secret affair behind his back. I’m not sure he’d care that much anyway, though, because he has troubles of his own.
Cap’s just as worried about the state of the world, and his inability to fix it, as Superman. But he’s even worse off, because he still has a mortal identity to service. Billy Batson is a separate person from Captain Marvel, after all, even moreso than the other Marvels. They just become idealized versions of themselves when they transform. But Cap is a child who turns into an adult. Their minds are linked, but they’re not the same. And even though years have passed, the time-share nature of their existence means that Billy hasn’t really had the chance to grow up. That gives Captain Marvel a mental strain unique to himself. A mental strain that he’s not handling as well as he might. His behavior’s becoming erratic, and he doesn’t visit with Mr. Tawky Tawny anymore. Increasingly, Mary is worried that he may be ready to crack.
That’s a fascinating psychological take on the character, and expands on things Moore himself did in Marvelman. And while I’d hate to see someone do a full-on Johnny Bates with Captain Marvel, they could still explore it without violating the character’s essentially good-hearted nature. What would it be like to share mental space with a kindly god? One who thinks and feels things beyond your understanding? Would it make you a better person? Or just a far more insecure one?
Of course, I suppose it’s a moot point. Post-1987 takes on the character have given him Batson’s mind full time, so it’s not an avenue anyone’s done much with. And considering where Moore takes the idea, one wonders if the Twilight proposal is the reason why.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. In fact, now that I’ve come up for air, I see that I’ve rambled to the point that I’m not even going to have time to finish the discussion this week. Because there’s a good bit left to cover. Like what seems to be Moore’s favorite part of the proposal: the Super-Ghetto and its inhabitants, a bunch of third-string heroes on whom he expends a lot more mental energy than he does on the big important characters in the Houses. There’s also the role John Constantine plays in everything. And the one question that I presume has been on your mind every bit as much as it was mine when I was reading this thing for the first time:
WHERE THE HELL IS BATMAN?!