Monday, November 05, 2007

Perfect Storm

Every century or so, there's a confluence of forces that brings together the greats in one field. Under such circumstances did the greatest statesmen of their day create the United States; did the greatest scientists of their day harness the power of electricity and the atom; did the greatest generals of their day fight the Second Punic War.

And so it was in the previous century, when the greatest powers in music aligned to produce its greatest song, the pinnacle toward which the musical arts had been crawling ever since man first banged a hollow log.

As I'm sure you've already guessed, I am speaking of


Composed by the greatest composers in living memory, the Sherman Brothers. Performed by the greatest band in history, the Beach Boys. Sung with the signature sound of She Whose Voice Can Be Compared Only To That Of God Herself, Annette Funicello.

It's not just that each participant is the apex of their own art. They complement one another so well that the whole is, inconceivably, greater than even the sum of its parts. The sharp knife of Annette's voice cuts through the smooth Beach Boy butter and spreads its harmonies thick upon the hearty white bread of the Sherman's lyrics: "I'd live in a jungle gym / in order to be with hi-i-im / I love the monkey's uncle and I wish I was the monkey's aunt."

Sometimes I just sit and watch the record of it, marveling at what the gods hath wrought.

But then I grow sad, knowing there is no such Great Confluence for my beloved comic books.

I'm not even talking about putting the greatest artists, writers, and letterers together. I'm just talking about getting the characters together! Or, to put it another way...

Why is there no definitive Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman story?

Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman always were the three pillars of the DCU. At first it was an accident based on their popularity. But lately its an actual philosophical position at DC (although it strategies, particularly with regard to Wonder Woman, don't always follow through on that position).

What could be more natural than putting those three characters together? Well, lots of things, actually. Pillars, almost by definition, stand at a distance from one another; that's how they hold things up. It's very hard to get the Big Three together, and to figure out how they relate and what they should do. If you doubt me, read the World's Finest Showcase, where Batman and Superman were forcibly and awkwardly joined at the hip for decades. And that's just two of them.

  • Matt Wagner actually wrote a story for them called Trinity. Honestly, it bored me to tears, and I never finished it. Can you tell me that it was the definitive Big Three story?
  • Brad Meltzer tried it in JLA, where they did nothing but sit around a table and jibe at one another like Buffy's supporting cast.
  • Jeph Loeb's "Advent of Supergirl" arc in Batman/Superman featured by the Big Three, but I know of no one who thinks well of that story or how they were portrayed.
  • Keith Giffen is writing them in the Four Horsemen miniseries. Giffen's dialog ticks work for less well-defined characters, like the ones he played with in JLI, but in this comic it's so out of character it makes the mind reel. Not even Giffen can get away with having Batman say, "Shut. Up. You."
  • Mark Waid tackled them in Kingdom Come, but, frankly those didn't seem like Superman and Wonder Woman much to me at all.
  • Frank Miller? Well, the less said about that, the better.

One of the problems is, there's no historical precedent to rely on. DC's full of god-awful old stories that a creative writer can re-tell brilliantly. But there isn't one for the Big Three's first meeting. The original story of Batman and Superman's first meeting is STUNNINGLY imbecilic, even by Silver Age standards (they happened to be sharing a cabin on an ocean cruise; yes, really). I really don't think either of them had ever appeared with Wonder Woman until the first JLA story in 1960, where their knowledge of and friendship with one another was simply asserted as a preexisting fact. And, no, a panel or two in a JSA story doesn't count.

Is it possible that no single story could do them justice? Are the icons grown so large that no one write can have all of the in hand? Is it necessary that when you move the pillars together, the stories come crashing down around them?

You tell me.


Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I agree that a Silver Age story could be retold and I think Darwyn Cooke could pull it off. Not his New Frontier characters, of course. Maybe write a story with the background being an early JLA adventure and thestory centering on the three characters.

Theron said...

What about Alan Moore's "For the Man Who Has Everything?" Granted, it's mostly a Superman story, but it's the first thing that comes to mind when someone talks about stories featuring the Big Three.

Nate said...

You know how to get my attention when you bring up Merlin Jones movies. I taped that one off of the Disney channel back when I was a youngun and watched it over and over again. mmm...Annette....and that song was my annoying "couldn't get it out of my head song" for years. Gawd bless ya.

Now I may take some heat for this, but is it possible that we don't have a big three moment because it's really hard to fit Diana in with the other two?

The whole Trinity thing has always felt a little forced for me. Bruce and Clark make sense as friends, but why are they hanging out with Diana again? Is it just because DC needs to claim to have strong woman as a central character in the universe?

Jacob T. Levy said...

They really haven't been trying the Trinity shtick for very long-- no more than ten years, with Kingdom Come as the ur-text like Dark Knight was the ur-text for the post-Crisis Batman-Superman relationship. Pre-Crisis, Wonder Woman was sometimes depowered, sometimes booted from her own title in favor of the Earth-2 Wonder Woman, and sometimes boring and lacking in clear definition. Then post-Crisis, Wonder Woman took a while to integrate into the DCU, and not long after that Batman turned into an anti-social dick who didn't let superheroes into Gotham. Morrison could have written the definitive story in JLA, but Diana dying got in the way...

I kind of liked Trinity the miniseries, and I'm ok with the trinity concept when it's not overblown (as in Infinite Crisis or JLA #0). But we get much better stories out of any of the pairings-- Hiketeia and Gods of Gotham, or the post-Crisis World's Finest mini, or the post-Crisis Clark-Diana friendship. In the three-person stories, each character gets reduced to a caricature...

Anonymous said...

I am unable to formulate any thoughts in response to your question now that you have me singing The Monkey's Uncle out loud. It's the rarest of beasts - a song that the entire H family likes to listen to.

I will note that if there were a story that featured the Big Three and Annette Funicello, then you would have a definitive story. Surely you'll agree with me that if parts were written into Beach Blanket Bingo for the Big Three then a perfect movie would be the definitive movie.

Scipio said...

that song was my annoying "couldn't get it out of my head song" for years.

Why...why would you want to get that song out of your head?

I do not understand.

I have it on each of my Ipod playlists precisely so that it never leaves my head.

Anonymous said...

I have no comment on the comic book aspect of this post, but I do want to take you to task for posting a clip from a film yet to be released on DVD that is so wonderful I will spend many sleepless nights in my bed wondering when I'll finally be able to admire its wonderful perfection.

I have enough of those already, thank you very much.

P.S. Kirk and Funicello--Most Underrated Screen Duo of All Time!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Hmmm...well, this begs the question of what's to prevent the creation of a great Big Three story? Why do the attempts suck monkey uncles?


It'd have to have a suitably large framework with enough macro to make the Superman parts work and enough micro to make the Batman parts work. It'd have to figure out a use for Wonder Woman that did more than make her the female Superman. It'd have to define the relationship of the three in a way that felt believable. And it'd have to have a giant robot gorilla with sixteen caveman brains inside hellbent on enacting Neanderthal vengeance upon the world. It just would, dang it.

It could happen. Sounds tough to make it good, though.

Maybe make it a seven-part mini, with each "pillar" getting one issue, then three issues with dual pairings (Supes-Bats, Bats-WW, WW-Supes), and then a final extra-big issue with the Big Three? That way the individual characters would shine, the relations between the characters would have room, and giant robot caveman gorillas would grace seven delightful covers.

Anonymous said...

I just assumed that they were the best, and that was good enough. Friends or not, they team up because they're the best. At times there have been teamworking issues (specifically with Batman), but in the end I thought it was assumed that all three recognized the need for each other.

JLA is supposed to be the best, so the Trinity, being the best, are at the forefront. Scipio, I love your insight, but some things are too simple to analyze. A story isn't necessary to tie the three together because the reason for the team-up is the same reason the JLA exists at all.

And that reason is to make plenty of money, haha

Anonymous said...

I'd say both 'For the Man Who Has Everything' and Warren Ellis' 'JLA/Planetary' manage to do the job better than any of the stories mentioned.

darknessatnoon said...

Stories about the three of them don't work well together because they each work best in different genres. Superman is at his best in rollicking sci fi; Batman is the noir detective; Wonder Woman is at her best when involved in political and theological intrigue.

Scipio said...

"a film yet to be released on DVD that is so wonderful"

Sadly, it's a bad film. Oh, the irony. But it did have Tragically Wronged Tommy Kirk in it. I had such a crush on him; little did I know...!

Anonymous said...

Yes, but bad films are my absolute favourites.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps one of the problems is that any 2 of the 3 can/has been paired up quasi-romantically, causing the 3rd person to play the part of a gooseberry?

Oh who am I kidding. I only posted that so I could have an excuse to say how much I lurves me some Sherman Brothers. I almost wore out a VHS tape I made of The Slipper and the Rose when I was little.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the definitive story, but character interactions -

I really enjoyed how they interacted with each other in Garth Ennis's JLA/Hitman and also in Joe Kelly's JLA run.

I think they're written best when they don't quite see eye to eye with each other, at least not in all things, but in such a way that you see they respect each other as a matter of course. (None of those "Clark is an idiot." / "Bruce... Bruce is insane." / "Diana, you're being naive." vibes that sometimes come across.

Anonymous said...

How can there even BE a 'definitive' story at this point? The characters were legends almost two decades before they got together, and then they were teammates for over 30 years before they were defined as a 'trinity.' By that time, it had become mythology... so far upon a pedestal that any 'historical' telling of their first meeting would be certain to disappoint.

I'm sure we'd all be equally disappointed if we went searching for that 'definitive' meeting between Founding Fathers Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe...

Anonymous said...

What about Alan Moore's "For the Man Who Has Everything?"

Is that the story they used for that JLU episode with Mongul and the Black Mercy? If so then I agree, I was about to put that forward as a suggestion myself...while ostensibly a Superman story, it's really a story about their friendship and what makes them different and what makes them similar.

I agree somewhat also with darknessatnoon's comment....if you take them outside the JLA as a team environment, the three of them really have their own distinct type of story they're most suited for.

I don't think it should be so difficult to do though...I think maybe the problem with the stories that you quoted Scip, is that the authors treat the three heroes with so much reverence it comes off more like fan fiction a lot of the time than anything else. The reason I think that JLU episode works so well is that you know Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are the three big shots of the DCU already; if you start with the idea that people already know and accept that, then you can concentrate on writing an interesting story with three characters rather than wasting the whole exercise saying 'LOOK everyone, they're ICONS!!!'

Anonymous said...

I feel I must defend the grammatical honor of the Sherman Brothers and Annette - you quote her as saying "I wish I was the monkey's aunt," when she correctly uses the present subjunctive - "I wish I were the monkey's aunt." And, yes, I wish I were not such an insufferable pedant.

Your Obedient Serpent said...

I'll chime in my support for Moore's "For the Man Who Has Everything".

Other than that, it's hard to come up with a plot hook big enough to demand all three of the "Trinity", yet not quite big enough to be a full-on Justice League story.

Anonymous said...

I actually think Giffen's take is a really good one, the key fact being that this is how the characters would talk when nobody else is around.

Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all share slightly different burdens, but around the general public, and even most other heroes, they're A Big Deal. But among themselves, they're truly among peers - and while they respect each other, they also won't take any bullshit from each other. (For instance, Clark and Diana might be two of the only people in the world Bruce's "intimidation" shtick doesn't work on.)