So here we are, three parts deep in our coverage of Alan Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes, the great DC Comics cross-over that never was. In Part One, we discussed Moore’s thoughts on cross-over comics in general, and how prophetic his warnings about them have become. In Part Two, we looked at the story itself (a dystopian future where the super heroes have become the defacto rulers of society), discussed Moore’s take on the various iconic characters at the top of the heap, and took him to task for not putting more thought into Wonder Woman.
And I believe we closed out last time with a question that, if you’re like me, you’ve been asking yourself the whole time you’ve been reading:
Where the Hell is Batman?
Seriously. Where is he? You can’t do a massive crossover story without Batman! I mean…
Damn straight! He’s one of the major DC icons, surviving the Golden Age right along with Superman and Wonder Woman. He’s the normal man who stands alongside the gods! The dark to Superman’s light! Just from a thematic perspective, he’s huge. And you’d think that a dystopian future setting would be a natural thing to write him into. How would be deal with the new world order of the heroes’ rule? Would he fight it? Would he take over Gotham, turning it into an impenetrable city-state? Lots of possibilities there.
But, you know… Moore doesn’t seem to have any great affection for the character. The Killing Joke was pretty much all he had to say about him, and that was primarily about the hopeless dance of death he and the Joker are locked into. Maybe he avoided doing more because Frank Miller had already done the definitive Batman story for the era in The Dark Knight Returns. But it’s not a character type he’s revisited much in his later work, either. Maybe it’s a class issue; seen from one perspective, Batman’s a rich guy who goes around beating up poor people, and that seems pretty antithetical to Moore’s politics.
Of course, on the other hand, he does show a pretty good understanding of Bats in his discussion of Nightwing, who he says “has become every bit as driven and vicious as his mentor, but who lacks the depth of compassion and understanding that separates the Batman from all the other grim vigilantes.” That’s something too few of the writers who’ve followed Miller have seemed to grasp, and Moore hits it right on the head, in a discussion of his kid sidekick. So maybe that’s not it.
Whatever the reason, Batman’s just not around in Twilight. At the beginning of the story, nobody’s seen him for years. He’s disappeared. He may be dead. He may not be in this story at all. Or, you know…
He may have gone underground and formed a secret pulp hero alliance with the Shadow. And maybe not just the Shadow. As Moore explains it:
These two crime-fighters have joined forces in a clandestine bid to rid the Earth of the oppressive and dominating superhero Houses forever, so that mankind can get on with its own destiny. We won’t learn this until later in the series, although they play a big part in the ending. As an aside, are Tarzan and Doc Savage in the public domain yet? No big deal, but I’d really like a sort of secret council of the immortals: Batman, the Shadow, Doc Savage and Tarzan, all planning to start the revolution that will rid Earth of the super-people forever. Being basically more elemental forces than people, these characters have remained exactly the same, except they got tougher.
So that’s actually not a bad place for Batman to be. It does keep him off-camera to a large extent, mind you. He’s removed from the action, and doesn’t really get much discussion in the proposal (I’ve quoted almost all of it, in fact). But he’s conspicuous by his absence, and that seems fitting for a creature of the night.
(An aside: it’s really funny to me that Moore didn’t entirely understand DC’s use of the Shadow. They had the license at that time, and were producing a Shadow comic (a rather good one, in fact). But they didn’t own the character, and were careful to keep him removed from DC continuity. His question about Doc Savage and Tarzan maybe being in the public domain is pretty funny, too. I don’t believe the Marvelman rights debacle had happened yet, so he wasn’t as fluent in such issues as he would eventually become. And it’s also obvious that the seeds of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were planted long before the actual book ever came to be.)
Alright. We have one more major setting / group of characters to discuss, then it’s off to the actual story…
The Super Ghetto
Outside all the political machinations of the Houses is… everyone else. All the various second- and third-string heroes who aren’t important or popular enough to belong to a House. These folks are relegated to a sort of super hero ghetto, located (tentatively) in Gotham City. The center of the action here is a bar called Sandy’s Place, run by an aging Phantom Lady. Everyone filters in and out of Sandy’s Place at some point, playing roles both large and small. Moore seems more interested in these characters than anyone else, and they really form the human heart of the story, though most of them are pretty messed up:
Blackhawk often hits Sandy’s before cruising the leather bars to recruit a new squadron of hot young Blackhawks who’d at least be into the outfits. Plastic Man has backslid to his Eel O’Brien days, using his powers to keep up a youthful appearance and working as a gigolo, with Woozy Winks as his pimp. Uncle Sam has become a hopeless derelict, drinking himself into oblivion and rambling endlessly about how it’s all gone so horribly wrong.
Then there’s Congorilla, who’s turned to crime and become the new Gorilla Boss of Gotham City(!). The premise here is that Congo Bill got old, and the fear of death drove him to live full-time in the immortal body of the Golden Ape. But that means the Ape now resides in Bill’s decaying body, unable to die and filled with an ever-increasing hatred of his former partner. Cheery!
The most distressing of these characters, though, is Doll Man. Here’s Moore’s description of him:
What has happened, basically, is that the constant shrinking and growing, plus the effects of the square cube law with regard to size increase have taken their toll upon him. As the years passed, his bones became brittle and would break easily if he stayed at normal size for too long. Eventually it became easier to stay at six inches tall all the time, but this itself was not the end to the problem–remaining at a constant six inches, Dane’s body and brain began to adapt to their new size, redistributing their mass and aging their neurons for greater comfort and effectiveness. As a result, Dane has slowly changed shape into a horrible elongated insect man, still six inches high, whose bone structure has altered dramatically into something barely recognizable as anything that used to be human, although just recognizable enough to be disturbing. His brain has also had to change to accommodate drastically reduced brain size and capacity. He’s still intelligent, but it’s a non-human intelligence and he can barely communicate coherently with normal humans anymore.
So, yeah. Whoosh. It was the style of the day, I suppose. Moore and Miller’s legion of imitators hadn’t given “grim and gritty” a bad name yet, and neither man had begun to despair over what they’d wrought. So Moore was just running with it, heady with excitement. It’s stuff like this that most likely scuttled the book with DC editorial. Dick Giordano was in charge there at the time, and while he never instituted the kind of strict separation between the all-ages super hero titles and the “mature readers” stuff, there was still an understandable resistance to going too far with what were still considered primarily children’s characters. Still, these were minor characters, and Moore may have gotten away with it. Except for one outrageous idea that we’ll get to later.
It’s not all bad for the denizens of the super-ghetto, though. Green Arrow and Black Canary have retired from the heroing game, and now run a small radical left-wing newspaper. They have periodic violent arguments, but otherwise seem very happy. And, in keeping with Green Arrow’s tradition of making friends with political opposites, they’re close to The Question.
The Question now works as a private investigator, “a sort of masked Philip Marlowe who doesn’t make very much money and who usually ends up taking cases just for the interest or the moral necessity.” Of course, in keeping with the overall tone of this thing, the Question’s current case (which he investigates throughout the story) is “an impossible locked-room murder mystery involving a midget and a 6’6″-tall call girl into heavy bondage.”
Then, of course, there’s John Constantine.
The future Constantine lives in the Super-Ghetto, and operates out of Sandy’s. He’s settled down with a woman he loves more than life itself, happy and middle-aged, but still a magical con man, smarter and more wily than ever. He keeps his ears and eyes open, and has connections all over. He knows everyone, even if they don’t like him. And he’s getting ready to start pulling strings.
The Instigating Incident
So that’s the situation: the Houses rule the world in an uneasy truce, not really trusting one another but not wanting to move against each other, either. Everyone else lives their lives as best they can (which in most cases, isn’t very well). And the two most powerful men in the world are also the two most frustrated, wanting to pull society together, but not knowing how to go about it. But things are about to change. Because now they’ve announced the betrothal of Mary Marvel Jr to the delinquent Superboy in a super-wedding to unite their two Houses, hoping that together, they can set the world right.
This seems to be a sea change moment for the Houses of Steel and Thunder, the point where their desire to help the world leads them astray. Separate, there were limits on what they could do. The other Houses could, theoretically, oppose them. Together, they amass so much power behind a single cause that no one can stop them. And as the story unfolds, they (Superman in particular) become increasingly willing to cross all kinds of lines to make that happen.
That’s first seen inside their own Houses, because the wedding plans aren’t going all that well. Mary Marvel Jr doesn’t want to marry Superboy. And Superboy, for his part, is getting increasingly out of control. We don’t get much in the way of details, but considering what Moore did with Johnny Bates…
…it’s not too hard to imagine. It’s becoming harder for Superman and Wonder Woman to cover for his excesses, anyway, and the fact that they’re willing to cover for him at all, instead of shutting him down, speaks volumes about where their heads are at.
Meanwhile, the other Houses freak out at this announced consolidation of power. Batman ain’t too happy about it, either. And off in the Super-Ghetto, Constantine gets busy. He’s everywhere, plotting, scheming, recruiting people, gathering information, fomenting dissent… He’s running cons, encouraging the paranoia of the minor houses and negotiating with alien governments, all of it toward the end of orchestrating an attack on Steel and Thunder at the wedding, in hopes of stopping them before they can really establish their combined rule. The possibility that it’s all one big nasty con game on everyone looms large, as Constantine does some pretty questionable stuff along the way. At one point, in fact, he even meets with Captain Marvel, to warn him about what’s coming:
Constantine tells the Captain of the attack and asks him not to do anything to help the House of Steel in the thick of the battle. The Captain politely asks Constantine why he should do this when he is, after all, supposedly intent upon cementing the union between the Houses of Steel and Thunder. Lighting a cigarette, Constantine smiles and says that he thinks the Captain already knows what the reasons are. The Captain flinches back from the match as Constantine strikes it with a look of terror which passes, changing into a smile at Constantine’s cleverness. He agrees to go along with Constantine so far as it suits his own plans.
If you’re thinking the whole thing is starting to sound like a John Constantine story, you’re not wrong. It sounds so much like one, in fact, that Moore feels the need to point out that it’s not. He’s a central figure, certainly, and his plan is the key to how everything plays out. But the drama of the thing isn’t about him at all. He’s operating from outside, while the actual story is about everyone else. He’s more the connective tissue that holds everything together.
Still. Moore’s love of the character is obvious. He’s at the center of the action, taking a role that Batman might normally play in a story like this (albeit while being considerably nastier than Moore’s vision of Batman would allow). Before it’s all said and done, he has access to Boom Tube technology, and is flitting about on Metron’s Moebius Chair. Which is not something I could see the Constantine of the Hellblazer series doing. But that book was still in the future in 1987. And for the Constantine of Moore’s own Swamp Thing run, it seems apropos.
The Shit Hits the Fan
So, yeah. It all comes together at the wedding. Massive violence, all pretense to heroism and ideals cast aside in the name of survival and power. Superman kills. Over and over, it seems. Moore tosses that off in a sort of laundry list of casualties, and I suppose that after all the power games that have been taking place in the lead-up, it’s not really very shocking. But for me, it’s huge. Up to this point, I’d been thinking of him as the conflicted good guy, struggling with political power and not knowing quite how to handle it. But this reveals him as a fallen icon. He is straight-up killing people in combat, and not giving it a second thought. Power and crisis have changed him into a different person, and I suspect that crossed another line for DC editorial.
But, man, does the final battle sound epic. Everybody dies, pretty much. The fighting takes out the (un)happy couple, Wonder Woman, and most of the heroes in the attacking Houses (though, at this point, “hero” is a word without a whole lot of meaning). Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr decide to take advantage of the chaos and run off together, seeking a new life together in outer space. Supergirl goes with them, I assume because she found herself disgusted with her parents’ behavior. It’s a bloodbath, and it comes down to Superman and Captain Marvel, standing back to back, facing off against whoever’s left. Then the aliens attack, and we finally get to the big reveal. Captain Marvel’s secret, and the single idea that I think really killed this proposal dead on arrival at the DC offices. But, here. I’m just gonna let Moore explain this one to you in his own words:
Captain Marvel isn’t Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel has been dead ever since the story opened. It had all started with little Billy Batson and his problem. There he was, unwilling to give up being human, still spending a lot of time in a child’s body. The unfortunate thing was that though little Billy’s body didn’t age, his mind did. Trapped in a child’s body but afflicted with adult needs, Billy went quietly… well, bats, I suppose. A lot of the problems were sexual. Physically, Billy was not capable of normal sex and thus pretty soon began to experiment with more bizarre variations such as S&M, visiting the appropriate bars in clothing that made him look as grown-up as possible while he still had the face and body of a child.
At a certain club on a certain night, Billy had met a strikingly tall call girl who seemed to meet his every fantasy requirement. They went to a room upstairs together and locked it from within. Billy was tied up, and then agreed to be gagged. At this point the call girl began to melt and change shape, shimmering as if through a heat haze before Billy’s startled eyes. In the end, instead of a six foot six human woman, Billy is staring at a seven and a half foot tall green Martian man. It is J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, on Earth incognito using his power of disguise. Billy, being gagged, cannot say Shazam and turn into Captain Marvel. Nor can he prevent the Manhunter snapping his neck with one blow of his hand. The Manhunter then walks out invisibly through the walls and leaves a dead midget and an unsoluble mystery. The Manhunter has assumed the Captain’s identity, being able to convincingly duplicate his powers, in order to catch Superman by surprise when the alien invasion finally comes.
Yes, that’s right. Alan Moore had young Billy Batson killed by a dominatrix who was really J’onn J’onzz in drag.
That is just about the wrongest super hero idea I’ve ever heard. It’s also hysterical, of course, and kind of brilliant. I mean, how many Golden Age stories hinged on Billy Batson being tied up and gagged, unable to turn into Captain Marvel because he couldn’t say SHAZAM? A lot of them, as it turns out. And though Billy didn’t agree to it back then, all those incidents seem to have left their mark on his fragile psyche (though that’s my joke, not Moore’s). And the idea that people thought he was a midget, EVEN AFTER THEY FOUND THE BODY, really cracks me up. It seems improbable to the point of farce. But, hey. Hopefully, the Question at least survived long enough to find out the answer to his locked room mystery.
But, much as the iconoclast and the punk in me think that’s a great larf, I’m also really glad it never saw print. Superman turning into a well-intentioned dictator, I can handle. That can serve as a cautionary tale, and doesn’t tarnish the character forever. He can take it. But “Billy Batson: Murdered Midget Masochist” is the sort of thing that sticks with a character. Anybody who read that (and, holy crap, EVERYbody would have read that) would never forget it. Captain Marvel would never live it down, and that would be a shame.
At any rate.
It all falls apart from there. Martian Manhunter reveals himself and turns on his supposed ally. Superman kills him with his heat vision, then fights a horde of Green Lanterns and Hawkmen, and is eventually taken down. The aliens are driven off in turn by Batman’s Shadow Council, and a double-cross from Constantine guarantees they won’t be back anytime soon: he gave the Weaponers of Qward access to the Boom Tube technology he got from Metron and sicced them on the alien alliance, plunging all the space empires into decades of terrible non-stop warfare. Untold billions will probably die, but the Earth will be left alone. Which is an ugly deal, but you know…
Once all the super-people and aliens are gone, Batman and his buddies step into the power vacuum, and announce a restructuring of society. Smaller, more flexible local governing bodies will run things in some kind of anarcho-syndicate paradise that sounds utterly potty after all the realpolitik of the preceding pages. But that, as I said in a previous chapter, is Moore’s politics. He believed (and still does, as far as I know) that this was a better way to arrange things in the changing world he saw coming in the 21st Century. Like any utopian system, I have my doubts. It doesn’t take the bastards enough into account, you see. And in my experience, every good idea gets ruined by the bastards in the end.
But, hey. If you’re gonna write a happy ending for your future dystopia, you might as well write one that makes you personally happy. And I can think of worse hills to die on, I suppose, than Personal Freedom and Live-and-Let-Live.
Back in the present (to return to our framing sequence), Constantine the Younger is a bit confused. Some of the people he talked to listened to him, some didn’t. Some he couldn’t find. But overall, he feels like his mission just didn’t work.
But of course, it did. Future John asked Rip Hunter to give John the Younger a sealed letter once he was done with his mission, and in the Twilight epilogue, he does. In that letter, Future Constantine explains that he got the outcome he wanted all along, and his younger self was just one more cog in the machine. That’s how he knew so much about what was going on the whole time: he remembered the visit from Rip Hunter in his own past, and the story of the terrible future he brought with him. He knew that John the Younger wouldn’t succeed in changing anything. In fact, he might have worked to plant the idea in the heads of a few people who might have acted differently if they hadn’t spoken to him. It’s an ugly plan, and a rotten thing to do to your own past self. But it all works out alright in the end, he says, and he doesn’t want to leave his younger self without some sort of payment. So he tells him a bit of his future. Soon, he’ll meet a woman. And she’ll turn out to be everything he ever wanted. All he has to do is recognize her when she appears, and give her a light. And the two of them will live happily ever after.
John the Younger is, of course, pissed. Nobody hates being conned more than a con man, and his fury is only doubled by the fact that the person who conned him is in the future, and safely out of his grasp. Then the prophesied woman comes into the bar where John’s gone after reading the letter. Their eyes meet, and…
She is beautiful. He knows instantly that he could love this woman forever. Knows who she is, knows how happy him and all his future selves are going to be with her… and finally, perversely, he understands how he can have his revenge against his future self, how he can avert the circumstances that lead to Twilight by throwing a small but important spanner into the workings of destiny.
“Excuse me, have you got a light?”
Constantine looks at her and blinks twice before replying.
“No. I’m sorry. I don’t smoke.”
The woman shrugs, and after a while leaves the bar without speaking to Constantine any further. After she’s gone he sits, dead drunk at a dimly lit corner table, and cries his cold and cynical heart out.
Which is maybe the perfect Constantine ending. It makes so much sense for the poor bastard, and is perfectly in keeping with the self-crippling horror noir themes of the Hellblazer series that would follow. As a fan of that series, and that character, who read him consistently from his first appearance to his last, I’m here to tell you that you couldn’t write him any better than that.
It’s also a great way to end Twilight of the Superheroes. The whole point of this thing, Moore said way back at the outset, was to provide the kind of endless, exciting fan speculation that was already being engendered by The Dark Knight Returns. Was Twilight the future? Or just a possible future? Because Constantine deliberately chose to screw himself over, it’s not certain. And in that uncertainty lies the hook.
Which is perhaps an evil way to treat an audience. But all the best storytellers are evil at heart. And we love them for it. All of us funnybook fans have spent our lives reading serial fiction, and we’ve done that in part because we love that hook, and the anticipation that comes with it. We might pretend not to, but we always come back for more. And it’s not just us funnybook dorks. Really, when you get right down to it, all readers… all audiences… all consumers of story in any form… love the abuse. At heart, we’re all of us Billy Batson, bound and gagged and waiting for our storytelling dominatrix to deliver the killing blow.