MORE FLYING CARS, MORE PROBLEMS - Superman/Batman Annual 4

"Batman Beyond" ran from 1999 to 2001, envisioning a future version of the DC Animated Universe in which an elderly Bruce Wayne mentored a new Batman in a Gotham City influenced by "Akira" and "Blade Runner." Like those two classic works of dystopian science fiction it portrayed a future more troubled by social unrest and by corrupt corporate and political leadership than our own time. The kind of world that makes you think it wouldn't be worth having massive arcologies and flying cars if the tradeoff is living in a miserable urban wasteland rife with violence where any new technology quickly falls into the wrong hands. It almost makes you feel lucky to live in a time where evil corporations are merely grossly incompetent and uncaring instead of being genius criminal masterminds.Terry McGinnis's adventures as the Batman of the future in "Batman Beyond" gained a decent following for the character, and in recent years the "Batman Beyond" setting has been making several cameos in the DC Universe proper. There's a six-issue miniseries starring Terry coming out later this month, but this week DC's released a "Batman Beyond" feature in "Superman/Batman Annual" #4. Written by Paul Levitz with art by Renato Guedes, it's the first time the setting and its characters have had a starring role in a DC comic that wasn't a specific young reader tie-in to the animated series.

The extra-long issue picks up the series' continuity from Superman's last appearance on the show. After years under the control of Starro, Superman has disappeared from Metropolis. Mayor-for-life Lex Luthor has taken the opportunity to tighten his grip on power, including distributing kryptonite throughout the city to discourage any possible return of the Man of Steel. But when criminals in Metropolis begin to disappear and the rest start fleeing to Gotham, Metropolis' problems suddenly become Terry McGinnis's and Bruce Wayne's as well. And I guess the criminal element in Gotham's probably up in arms with anger about all these outsiders are coming in and taking their jobs, but that's just me inferring the impact on the larger criminal underground's socioeconomic status quo because I give way too much thought to matters like that for some reason. Anyway, as Bruce and Terry's investigation unfolds they discover what's become of Superman and what the former big blue boy scout, now dressed in black and white to match his hair, hopes to still accomplish.

Levitz and Guedes combine creative efforts to tell an entertaining story that stays true to the source material. At the same time they also take a setting that was already fairly mature and dark in tone for an animated series targeted at young teenage viewers and tell an even darker story of sadness, loss and rebuilding from tragedy. Saddest is Superman himself, as Levitz makes it clear that while Batman seemed always destined to be the cranky old man with naught but an angry dog he's become, this dark future is not one Superman is suited for. The fate of his Metropolis deeply troubles him, and all the losses he's suffered leave more obvious marks on him than on Bruce "I'm already dead inside and nothing you do can hurt me" Wayne.

Seeing Superman struggle with staying true to his core beliefs while adjusting to a changed world makes for the most compelling moments in the book, and he's the star here even if this is a "Batman Beyond" story. In some ways this comic is reminiscent of the best elements of Mark Millar's "Old Man Logan" arc, in that we're watching an aged hero who's lost too much continuing to fight in a world that's become more unjust than it was when he started. Guedes' art deserves praise for evoking the bright color palette of the original show while presenting it all in a more realistic modern comic style than the heavily stylized, anime influenced look of the source. And his cityscapes of future Gotham and Metropolis do a remarkable job of establishing the oppressive tone of the setting through images alone.

Which isn't to say that there are no problems to be found here. I do wish there was a little more time spent examining some of the morally gray choices made by the heroes to cope with the harsh realities of the future, because to be honest a few of them are gray bordering too closely on black. But on the whole it's a fun read, a complete story that leaves with a sense of closure and that I'd recommend to anyone with a fondness of the original series.

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