All posts by Darry Weight

Because NO ONE Demanded it! – “Armageddon 2001” and the Adolescence of the DCU

“Don’t be sad, Kal-El. Please. Earth raised you, but you’ve grown too big for it now. It’s time you took your place in a larger universe.” – Maxima

This August the Unspoken Decade is looking back at some of our favorite Alternate Realities. The most enjoyable DC crossover event of that period is probably 1989’s Invasion! by Keith Giffen, Bill Mantlo, and, at least for a little bit (as is his modus operandi) Todd McFarlane, but that is outside the purview of our endeavor so I would like to turn your attention to the much maligned, but equally informative, Armageddon 2001 from 1991.

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A House Ad for the series and the final page of the first issue. Was anyone going to be that upset if Monarch turned out to be “Hawkworld” era Hawkman?

Invasion! is in many ways the ideal crossover. Several different, established extraterrestrial militaries decide that Earth is no good. These obvious aggressors are then repelled by the vastly outnumbered, far more likable heroes of Earth. Panel space is even given to the everyday people of the world who rally behind them. It is cut and dry, a Grade School retelling of World War II and not the nuanced socio-political wartime drama of A Song of Fire and Ice.

Armageddon had narrator Waverider taking readers on a magic journey through a dozen or so “What If?” scenarios featuring the popular heroes of the day. He looked into each of their possible future to see which of them (he was sure that it had to be one of them) would kill all of their friends and conquer the world in the time between 1991 and 2001. Waverider is never revealed to be an unreliable narrator so this really is the story of a superhero who will murder the world.

Scripts are courtesy of Archie Goodwin and Denny O’Neil, the Old Guard. These are the guys the industry knew and who helped shape it during the preceding decades. It is penciller, and possible co-plotter Dan Jurgens (he usually receives credit for co-creating Waverider, golden-hued time travelers being his thing) who deserves special attention.

Not necessarily a newcomer (he had nearly a decade of professional experience at that point) Jurgens would act as one of the architects of the following year’s The Death of Superman story and penciled the comic you just imagined when reading the words “death of Superman.” It was a big deal and Jurgens was never shy about taking the reins of something he was passionate about.

Not saying that any of this was intentional but with phrasing such as that how can Jurgens not have subsequently turned Jimmy’s photographing Superman’s lifeless corpse into a plot point a year later?
Not saying that any of this was intentional but with phrasing such as that how can Jurgens not have subsequently turned Jimmy’s photographing Superman’s lifeless corpse into a plot point a year later?

Armageddon is a strange beast. It shows us sides of established characters that had to be, up until that time, considered out of character. There is a sense of hopelessness permeating our heroes’ potential futures. A mystery story (the identity of arch-MacGuffin villain “Monarch”) frames a series of “Imaginary Stories,” similar to the book-length ones from back in the day. Some are tragedies, some are triumphs, all are never mentioned again.

This series has a special place in my heart, it is the first crossover that I have any memory of. These annuals were the first I saw on the newsstand back when “2001” was closer to the present than it is now. It was a shock to find out, years later, that Waverider was not already an established superhero, peer of Superman and whoever it was they were calling the Titans at the time. I will be focusing on the three Superman annuals. Not to slight the others, but Superman was the only triple-dipper and considering that this was his last hurrah before the rest of the nineties, which were what could charitably be called “unkind” to him, maybe he deserves it.

Superman Annual, Action Comics Annual, and The Adventures of Superman Annual all had tie-ins for their third issues. The fourth “shield” book, Superman: The Man of Steel, (which would effectively make Superman a weekly character) was not yet around. All three stories deal with the inevitable death of Lois Lane, then fiancée to Clark Kent, and/or the Man of Tomorrow ruling the world. Apparently Superman is constantly walking a tightrope of not just doing everything for us regardless of the ethical or moral implications. Injustice was right! Who knew?

One of my oldest compatriots is dead? He deserved it! Anyone else getting a Howard Chaykin vibe from this art?
“One of my oldest compatriots is dead? He deserved it!” Also, anyone else getting a Howard Chaykin vibe from this art?

Waverider and Monarch are two bits of the story that were added to the canon of the DCU. You may have heard that Monarch was supposed to be one hero and ended up being another and that a few decades later DC editorial tried to repair that. None of this matters because honestly I would not recommend reading the core narrative. I am sure you can find a version of this story, which amounts to 1984: DCU, done better other places but the tie-ins are not without their charm. For a major crossover the first issue is surprisingly devoid of action or big name supercharacters. The story of a family man dealing with a government he does not care for is not quite the status quo changing shake-up that you would expect from a comic with a cover using that much shiny silver ink.

Matt Ryder (see what they did there?) is a salaryman with two grown daughters, a wife he loves, and the only spine left in his totalitarian, freedomless future. Because this is 2030 and not Apokolips this makes him the only man who can help the ruler of the world and not, for some reason, the first one gunned down in a hail of generic energy blasts. Matt has apparently cracked time travel and regardless of the fact that he is constantly hinted at having “anti-social” tendencies he is assigned the project leader to get Monarch what he wants.

None of this matters because as Waverider all Matt does is watch and wait. He does not interact with the world nor team with the Justice League (such as it was in the days before Grant Morrison) to deal with the threat before it arises. Part of this is because he does not know who to trust. This is an interesting angle as it was expressly within the text that one of our beloved heroes was going to become bad, and stay that way.

Waverider is essentially the main character from the movie
Waverider is essentially the main character from the movie “Brazil” except super-science makes his daydreams real. I think this may mean that Terry Gilliam should be appointed Executive Editor of DC.

This is an odd instance of growing pains that the superhero genre went through back then. Heroes and villains had routinely switched sides but here we have a Possible World where a good person, a hero, will eventually ruin things for everyone because if the world of the future is heroless then the King of High-Collars must have murdered them all. The identity of Monarch is eventually revealed to be Hawk. It was not Captain Atom, the already military themed, wound-too tight super solider who not only had experience time traveling but was constantly shown to be one more bad day away from just wiping out all bureaucracy, beginning with you.

Both Hawk & Dove and Captain Atom were created by Steve Ditko. Even Ryder has a similar name to Ditko character “The Creeper,” Jack Ryder. The villain of Armageddon is called “Monarch,” which is pretty close to “King.” Ditko was one of the founding fathers of Marvel along with Jack Kirby. Kirby adapted the film 2001: A Space Odyssey into a successful comic that spawned Machine Man. The identity of which hero turns out to be Monarch is unimportant because I imagine “Sturdy Steve” wearing him as a fiction-suit just so that he can beat the snot out of all the DC characters he never cared for. Kirby was the basis for most of the characters that have remained fan favorites while most of the time I have trouble separating the Question from his creator.

Monarch’s war, his crusade, to rid the world of other superpowered people is not only wildly successful (I always thought that he contributed more than a little bit to Mark Waid’s Empire especially the look of the primary antagonist) but it takes place during the 1990s. The story may be set in 1991 but by 2001 the world as we know it will be unrecognizable. A major part of the ensuing Superman stories would revolve around the, at the time, fictional 2000 US Presidential election (no, Lex Luthor is not shown to be a candidate, that was probably considered too outlandish).

One of two times Superman is underwater in these issues, but not the one where he uses sunken treasure to support the Gold Standard.
One of two times Superman is underwater in these issues, but not the one where he uses sunken treasure to support the Gold Standard.

The world may have been different if Ditko had donned super-armor and conquered the world but seeing as how the actual Presidential Election turned out in 2000 I am not sure we would have noticed. Armageddon would have little impact on the broader DCU but one thing it did do was introduce us to a major destructive force whose presence is continued to be felt today. Not Monarch, though. That guy does not make it through.

Dan Jurgens’ Zero Hour was DC’s defining, continuity rewriting event of the nineties. It had major implications up and down various timelines and features Hank “Hawk” Hall as the world’s most generic looking, nineties’ supervillain (Google “Extant” and tell me that he should not be fighting Ultraforce or Bloodstrike). He then wipes the Legion of Superheroes and the surviving members of the Justice Society of America from continuity. He takes the parts that do not belong and removes them from existence by absorbing Waverider into himself and acting as the Editor of the DCU publishing line.

When you consider this in the context of what was going on in the titles themselves (Reign of the Supermen, Knightfall, and the arrival of Ed Benes to name a few) it becomes apparent that whatever direction the people in charge at DC wanted for their comics was not what had come before. Much of this awkward, teenager-acting-out transition can be seen in Armageddon.

Superman needs a Hairy Chested Love-God phase. Blowing up entire starships with ease, closer to Sterling Archer than James Bond.
Superman needs a Hairy Chested Love-God phase. Blowing up entire starships with ease, closer to Sterling Archer than James Bond.

Goodwin and O’Neill’s names appear on many well-regarded classics and I cannot think of any horror stories I have read about them. They are not Frank Miller or John Byrne, they do not make you ashamed to enjoy and appreciate superhero comics. Even Waverider has an old school, ironic name. He has a family, he has built something that that has the trappings of a true tragedy waiting to happen. The fall of Captain Atom, or whoever it is that is “destined” to become Monarch, was never supposed to be about how it “cool” it would look if one superhero killed all the others. It is about the pressure put on each of our lives and how change is not only possible but inevitable.

Some of this is left is left unsaid as Hawk is revealed to be the Big Bad (a story I urge you to look up, imagine how impressive it was that such a colossal plot point was leaked in the days before the internet). Back to Superman, his three annuals, read in the order listed above, form a kind of single story, united by themes more than plot. Waverider continuously informs the reader (he is just thinking to himself but I prefer to imagine him more akin to Ambush Bug or Deadpool: He knows he is “fictional,” he just does not always know what that means) that no one should be able to remember the events he helps them see. Superman does. Twice.

Superman may not turn out to be Monarch (that name, really? I keep imagining pre-Hook Hand Aquaman going up against the Queen of England) but he proves that the rules do not define him, he defines them. Why is it so important that Superman be viewed three times as opposed to everyone else’s once? Because he is the greatest, most powerful, or overall best? Sure, but more than likely it was because he had three ongoing titles.

Ad from an issue of
Ad from an issue of “Armageddon.” Someone up the food chain knew the target demographic were old enough to be chain smokers.

Roger Stern writes the middle issue and it is the one I would recommend to you over the others. A former editor of mine, at a different site, steered me towards it many years ago and I never regretted picking it up. What would happen if Superman were elected President of the United States? Many weird things, apparently, including the world’s most tedious two page discussion of trade deficits. Reading these I had a better appreciation for why I would grow up believing this character to be so eminently uninteresting: He is constantly being portrayed as the only adult in the room.

In 1980 Stern scripted Captain America #250 where the character considers a run for office. It tells you as much about the modern national political system as it does Steve Rogers. This Superman issue could be considered its thematic successor except for the fact that here you see that maybe things actually would be better if an all-powerful alien being ruled over us. It goes to some strange places (Stern’s an Old Leftie and while Oliver Queen does not make an appearance there is a focus on international nuclear disarmament that swaps ICBMs for the Justice League of the World) but it helps me understand why Superman works, if and when he does.

Two other two? In one Superman bangs Maxima and in the other Batman murders him.

At one point this is referred to as ‘battle armor.’ Almerac really is a strange, alien world.
At one point this is referred to as ‘battle armor.’ Almerac really is a strange, alien world.

Louise Simonson wrote the former, Jurgens the latter. The industry was only a few years out from The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Marvelman, and anything else you can name that “forever changed everything.” These stories are about raised stakes and the dark paths that have apparently always been open but never walked by our heroes. The first inkling that the mainstream companies paid attention to what the new kids were doing but maybe did not understand it.

Crossover events, such as Armageddon, are unique to the genre of superheroes. Until maybe Marvel’s the Avengers they were unique to the medium of comics as well. What are they really? An excuse to shake things up, plug some holes in a month with an extra Wednesday, and hopefully raise the profiles of a few intellectual properties. A crossover event is a cross section of a given publishing line at a specific time. It is not a capstone, most if not all of what we are shown will continue. Reading 2001 in 2015 I can see where the other titles were at the time.

Imagine a tree, a big redwood, lying on its side with its stump cut off. Each ring tells a story. Imagine a core sample pulled from deep within the Earth. Geology and archaeology and the way it all fits together. Crossovers offer that to us. My favorite is probably Civil War. That has reality television and too much Government oversight as major plot points. You can easily see what was affecting the writers who pulled it together. The original Secret Wars? Someone needs more action figures and we want to sell them to you! What does Armageddon tell us about DC at that time?

I will never tire of seeing Guy Gardner as the Right Wing’s version of Green Arrow.
I will never tire of seeing Guy Gardner as the Right Wing’s version of Green Arrow.

A version of Superman that is not as well-oiled and put together as we would have believed a decade before. He has let Lois in on the secret and they want to be together. Except now they worry about the logistics of having kids, growing old together, and Ma Kent’s potential Alzheimer’s. This is a 2000 AD version of the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes except without the extra level of satire. Creators making heroes less iconic and more as what we have in our world.

Waverider only wants to save his family and free the world. He is granted, as people in comics often are, unfathomable power to do just that. In his case, he is destined to fail. Even if Monarch does not come to power in 2001 he will become Extant and cause the Legion to still have continuity problems two and a half decades later. Extant was the Superboy-Prime of his day except he took responsibility for his actions and did not allow for the writer to just blame the people on message boards. Much of what would come later, both culturally and technically, begins with Armageddon.

We see assumptions made about what the Man of Tomorrow actually wants (a world that runs with the efficiency of a watch) and we see fan reaction drive the people behind the stories to make a rash decision that ultimately shoots backfires (changing the identity of the main villain halfway through). We see Jurgens emerge as a creative force. Stories and characters were sometimes billed as “not your parents X, anymore.” Those stories are not directed at children, who have no problem with escape or adults themselves who have realized that they will never escape the crushing monotony of their lives, but teenagers. People young enough to not have the responsibility to do anything more than reject what they perceive as beneath them. Stories that are dark for the sake of it display powerlessness.

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This is literally the fight from “The Dark Knight Return” that someone is having a dream about (notice the scale).

I am not against any particular type of storytelling but when a character goes the bulk of his career being successful by being a good person (even with occasional instances of Super-Dickery) it is disappointing to watch him be slowly forced into a mold where he is actually one bad day from taking over. Superman perished less than a year after this story wrapped. That story provided the type of high that certain parties would be chasing, to the industry’s detriment, for longer than they should have.

I am not saying that Armageddon caused any of the dark tragedies that came after but it is the first time we see a major story change the nature of a headline character in such a way. It would not be the last. Except instead of the fundamentally disposable Captain Atom they will use someone more well-known, and instead of avoiding the spoiler they will just bake it into the advertising. The rules changed, bit by bit, so that no one noticed until it was too late.

Crossovers are a great way to check in with the way things were at a particular time. This one shows us the effect of numerous, smaller, much darker stories coalescing into one large continuity jump. What opens with a quest to save the world ends, in a roundabout way, with someone in charge thinking that it was within the bounds of the character to turn Green Lantern into Parallax.

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The Original Man in Black – James Robinson’s reinvention of “The Shade”

“A villain? Oh yes, it’s a badge I wear with some degree of pride. But not this hour. I must say it’s nice to play Errol Flynn for a change, instead of Basil Rathbone.” – The Shade

In honor of the MLB All-Star Game the Unspoken Decade has decided to take a look at a few of our favorite “All-Star” characters from our favorite decade. Being the contrarian that I am I have chosen to examine the Shade, reintroduced by James Robinson and Tony Harris during their historic run on Starman.

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I am not sure if this image is canon after the events of “Flashpoint” but really that is their loss.

Starman is one of the great success stories of comics during the nineties. Not only did it reinvigorate a property that had grown stale, it properly introduced the world to its creators, and, most importantly, did so from one month to the next.

Unlike many well remembered comics from that time Starman was not a limited series or a one-shot event. It was a “Top of the Pile” book that came out month after month and it got people to go to comic stores. It built community and told a long form story in a way few other titles have done up until, or since, then.

I am a fan of Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman. I would, at times, place this similar work of nineties’ long form storytelling ahead of Starman but I believe that I may be in the minority. Starman is a beloved series and if you have never had the chance to read it, or if you began but never finished, do yourself a favor and see it through. It is not the most readily available series but it is worth tracking down.

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Now that is an origin story. All silhouettes and reserved acceptance.

I enjoy, and appreciate Starman but rarely because of Jack Knight, the star and heir apparent to the legacy of Starman. He was never why I choose to reread the series long after it had concluded. For me it was all about the Shade.

Originally introduced by writer Gardner Fox, during the forties, to bedevil the Jay Garrick version of the Flash, the Shade (or Richard “Dickie” Swift as he was eventually revealed to be named) is an unlikely cult favorite. He is a British dandy from the 1830s with roots in the work of Charles Dickens as opposed to the pulp adventure or sci-fi stories of most supercharacters.

His abilities range from the generic “darkness manipulation” to the disturbing implication that he accesses a realm at the root of all evil, somewhere the Old Gods or Many-Angled Ones call home. When he is conjuring shadow-demons and blades I prefer to believe that he is accessing the same Darkforce Dimension that others have been accessing since before there was a name for it. From the Shroud and Darkstar, to Obsidian and Nightshade, and even Jackie Estacado.

If that is the case then why is Shade immortal? Why does he no longer age? Why does he appear to be haunting the background of the shared DCU as if he were no more than one of his own, ever present shadows? If you know anything about Fox, a devout fan of HP Lovecraft, the answer may be lurking somewhere deep beneath the surface.

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Her own shadow, above his bowed head, as she is committed to the pit by her own hand.

Before Shade, Fox introduced the very concept of the superteam with the Justice Society and was asked to revive the concept years later as the League. Have you ever wondered why the Justice League fought weird, mystical characters at the time that they were introduced? Tell me that Starro does not appear as if it should come from the same place as Cthulhu.

As a fan of “weird fiction” I assume that it informed most of Fox’s work, not just where the influences are explicit. You may not find much stygian darkness in the Golden Age stories as Shade is mostly a Green Lantern knockoff at that time. When fans were reintroduced to the character after the events of Zero Hour the disturbing implications seem to surface.

Darkness comes from him though he never seems to be distressed. He is not dark or mopey but always looking for the next adventure even if one is as mundane and revealing as a long walk on an autumn night. His powers take the form of living, murderous shadows or even cephalopod tentacles but this never means that he is a dreary man.

Shade could be keeping the darkness at bay with all of the blood he has shed, feeding it if you will, but I choose to believe that he simply accepts what he is and that having darkness powers does not mean that you need to be dark.

Shade haunts the stories of Starman. He provides context for the events going on in the Knight family’s beloved Opal City (a character as much as a setting) and introduces Jack to the unending weirdness of the DCU. Shade is a man of style who makes a point of commenting on how people dress and he aids in grounding the story to its time, including when he narrates a story set in the far past.

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Just think of how many Dibneys could have been saved if Brad Meltzer had read this before writing “Identity Crisis.”

Sometimes a criminal or a murderer, sure, but “Dickie” is never boring or without comment. He is unflappable and refers to “The Shade” as his stage name. You almost feel as if the going-ons of superherodom are just the distraction he needs from being something he fears.

He mentions having honed his abilities over his century and a half with them and acknowledges the readiness at which he disconnects from people. This last bit is a favorite of mine because when Shade does connect with someone it is not easily won by either party.

His friendship with former DC mainstay, the Scalphunter, is often referred to and at least once I found myself wondering if a simple hero had swayed Shade from being a greater menace to the world just by happening upon a situation where he could be nice to him.

In 1997 Robinson wrote a four issue Shade miniseries. Each issue featured a different artist though I am partial to the first issue’s work by Gene Ha. Issue two has JH Williams III but I am afraid that I am not familiar with the final two artists enough to speak to their work. It certainly seems as if Robinson also favored the earlier issues as there is noticeably fewer run-on captions featuring narration by the Shade though that could be because of the nature of the tale.

The Shade keeps journals. This is a fact crucial to his role in Starman and it is explored here as he tells the readers about the Ludlow Family, who has a longstanding, one-sided blood feud with him that he dearly wishes they did not.

Minor point, but if James Robinson happens to read this (Hi, Jimmy! I loved League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the movie.) please rerelease these issues without the fancy script font for the Shade’s scribblings. That gets tiring quickly.

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Not from the original series but literally the only full body shot I could find “in costume.”

We are presented with bits of Dickie’s origin though for more on that I highly recommend the 2011 Shade series, written by Robinson and featuring a variety of exceptionally talented artists during the course of its 12 issue run, including Cully Hammer, Darwyn Cooke, Frazer Irving, and a final issue by Ha.

For the most part we are shown how much of a contradiction the Shade is. This is, I would wager, much the same as with any real person. We do things we want and cannot always explain why. We may be afforded the time, and incentive, to attempt to understand them later on but often we fail to recognize that. Dickie is comfortable with his murders (which are primarily in self-defense or of bad men) but there is no finer connoisseur of food in wine in superhero fiction than he.

Few panels are wasted on explaining what Shade can do. He is the narrator and main character but the plot is put into motion by others. Shade is the threat, the boogeyman, and the excuse for superpower to enter into stories of familial betrayal and corruption.

For all of his stygian prowess Dickie is a surprisingly upbeat man with a desire to enjoy the life he leads at a pace of his choosing. His interactions with the Flash and Starman (of both eras) are presented as what he does because he chooses to do so. He is above the desires of petty villainy and is actually shown to be doing quite well for himself.

Could he be an arch-mage, foe of luminaries such as the Sentinels of Magic (another nineties’ concept no one ever did anything with), commanding an army of shadow demons in an attempt to revert the world to darkness for the glory of his own personhood? Sure, but you can only tell that story once and other have done a better job at it.

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This line needs to be uttered by Jon Pryce in a movie version before it is too late.

Shade prides himself on the quality of his coffee and technically had Oscar Wilde as a sidekick. He is the immortal who keeps the DCU in perspective, both for himself and others (hence all of the journaling) as opposed to measuring his worth by the influence he can have in directing the course of events throughout the world.

He is not Ra’s al Ghul, Vandal Savage, or any of the other long-lived, crazy people superheroes usually fight. Maybe this is because he was a content person before gaining great, poorly defined, superpowers and that did little to change what he wanted out of life. Maybe the trick to avoiding superpeople battles in the future is to only give powers and abilities to those who are already not hurting for their place in the world.

Dickie does not seem to concern himself with the future. When asked if the feud with the Ludlows is at an end he all but shrugs. He is not a detective, he is the mischief maker. He writes down his observations, his travels, and his adventures as he attempts to reconcile them. He takes thing slow and he enjoys all that he can.

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Lines such as this make me appreciate this character more than whoever it was that starred in “Man of Steel.”

He does not dwell because he does not have to. As far as he can tell he will be around forever. His immortality, more than any other attribute (including his penchant for dark clothes and smoked sunglasses), is what he relies on. What other character can boast an arch-rival as interesting and complex as the seemingly never-ending string of descendants from a perverted British family that predates the American Civil War?

Not only do the Ludlows lend themselves to the telling of a variety of different types of stories (most of which are at least hinted at during this series) but they prove to be the one aspect of the Shade’s life that he cannot take in stride.

They reappear from beneath the veneer of supposed friends and lovers, more often than not harming the Shade’s few friends instead of himself. For the man who only wants to enjoy life, seek thrills, and not be bothered with the moroseness that he should, by all rights, be enveloped by, it is something incredibly mundane (at least by comparison) that often hurts him the most: People raised to hate something they know nothing about.

Dickie outlasts Robinson within the DCU and has continued to appear. Maybe not having created him in the first place meant that he could not be put into the same “do not touch” box as Jack Knight and the other extended family cast members. Or maybe it is that no one has tried.

Either way, the Shade continues to haunt the periphery of the world that the superheroes operate in. He has yet to suffer a direct setback because of his powers. By that I mean that unlike other heroes, it has yet to be proven that his powers are killing him or the world he lives him. In all likelihood he will outlive the current crop of heroes and be around to remind the next exactly which struggles they should learn from and which they should put behind them.

What story is there for a man who takes almost no active part in the world? The beauty of the Shade is that the world he finds himself in becomes the story. Timelines, and bloodlines, can be played with and Dickie himself is quick to hint at untold tales and adventures that he played a part in but can only barely recall now. Or so he claims.

The Shade does not want your crossovers or your ridiculossness but business is business when it must be done.
The Shade does not want your crossovers or your ridiculossness but business is business when it must be done.

The Shade allows for worlds to be built and his callous nature means that more often than not he is at the center of attention of someone looking for retribution. He is not against involving himself and does so sometimes only to his own detriment. He also has a friend named Bobo.

I have no idea what the current state of the DCU is. Continuity, for whatever that word is worth, is apparently different after Convergence but I remember a time when a monthly book was allowed to shape an ongoing story more than what was happening in the books published alongside it. Starman was a semi-obscure character, out-of-publication for decades, who became one of the most well-regarded superhero comics of all time.

The Shade should never have been anything other than a rogue, trotted out to fight the Justice Society occasionally, but instead I rank him as one of my favorite characters. His name alone is one of the few that will get me to pick up a title, though hopefully that means Robinson is along for the ride because they certainly seem to bring out the best in each other.

NO ONE CAN BE TOLD WHO MATRIX IS – Roger Stern and the Unsung Supergirl

Jon Kent: “And so trusting… too trusting.”
Martha Kent: “Yes, and that can be just as dangerous as being too cynical.”

No theme this month, Legions of the Unspoken, so let us take a closer look at a character who has been in the limelight recently. You may have heard about the Supergirl show coming soon to the small screen. You may even have had a significant other asking which comics featuring the Maid of Might they should read. Hopefully you shrugged and pointed them towards Thunderworld because Mary Marvel is close enough.

Supergirl is an interesting character. She has been around for decades but I could not, for the life of me, tell you an interesting thing about her. Before I started reading comics Supergirl had been murdered during Crisis on Infinite Earths but, strangely enough, she seemed to be doing just fine in the halcyon days of the S-Shield numbered covers of the Superman titles. What happened? Did she get better with the reboot? Did Zero Hour kick her back into her prime?

No, of course not. Lex Luthor from a pocket universe cloned Lana Lang and the ensuing “protomatter being” helped John Byrne’s Man of Steel defeat General Zod before coming to the core DCU and promptly banging Lex Luthor while his mind was occupying his own cloned body and masquerading as his son to the world at large.

In case you were wondering, yes, that ginger chinstrap is genetically predisposed as it appears on a freshly baked clone with no indication of having been groomed that way.
In case you were wondering, yes, that ginger chinstrap is genetically predisposed as it appears on a freshly baked clone with no indication of having been groomed that way.

This Supergirl was not Linda Danvers. She never wore the white tee-shirt, had flaming wings, or was served a drink by Der Führer (as you Fallen Angel fans may recall). This Supergirl is Mae, short for “Matrix,” and she was the version of the character that ushered in the nineties. She is unique from what came before, and has been overshadowed by what came after. In true Roger Stern fashion her story was unique and worthy of your time.

In the early days of 1994 Stern, along with artist June Brigman (co-creator of Power Pack and one of the only woman I can think of to draw anything related to Superman) helmed a four issue mini-series that explored the backstory of the Woman of Tomorrow (I am coining that because typing “Girl of Steel” is going to end me up on a watch list) and her place in the DCU. It features Lex Luthor II prominently and does a fair job at tying that particular plot thread up. Not sure what your reading habits are but if you enjoy what you read here you can buy the series from “comiXology” (I love them but that branding has to go).

What would come to be defined as this era’s Supergirl mostly came later, from Peter David, until it was promptly overturned by Jeph Loeb. You may also remember Dan “The Man Without a Plan” DiDio telling a roomful of confused onlookers that Matrix had been stricken from continuity. I forget if this was before or after he told similar rooms of people that Stephanie Brown had never really been Robin or that he could not wait to kill Nightwing (I do not know about you but I will never forgive him for Beast Machines never mind his DC work).

Anyone else get a Kevin O'Neill feel from this art? If he ever gets tired of drawing Alan Moore’s Public Domain Fanfic it would be great to see a Supergirl story from him.
Anyone else get a Kevin O’Neill feel from this art? If he ever gets tired of drawing Alan Moore’s Public Domain Fanfic it would be great to see a Supergirl story from him.

The powers that be have done all they can to wipe away the version of Supergirl I first met. She deserves better. This was a Supergirl that had been as different from her former cousin as possible while also acting as a perfect reflection of the Superman brand, and superhero comics in general, at the time.

Mae is young. Very young. She is, at best, a teenager and that is if we estimate the comparable life experience that a protomatter being has compared to a traditionally defined person. She is energetic, curious, and prone to fits upon discovering that her trust has been betrayed. She is exactly the type of teenage superhero we have seen time and time again except instead of trying to be her own person she must grow in the shadow of Superman with little of her own light filtering through.

Mae can shapechange, telekinetically repel everything around her, and generally heal from any wound. She is fluid and not restricted to one thing or another, even gender, as she reminds the omnipresent doctors and scientists who serve as the perfect excuse for a bit of the old exposition. She has only chosen the form that we all know and love because it was Superman who rescued her from her own dying world and brought her to his, complete with the only type of life he could provide: A version of his own. She dresses like him, befriends Lana Lang, and is raised by the very-much alive, and surprisingly spry, Ma and Pa Kent.

I realize now just how much I never wanted to see Martha Kent from that position. At least Jonathan’s being heart healthy, despite that battle being unwinnable.
I realize now just how much I never wanted to see Martha Kent from that position. At least Jonathan’s being heart healthy, despite that battle being unwinnable.

She has been forced into this role and this life, her potential squandered. She could have been anything she imagined but instead she must settle for keeping the Supergirl copyright alive and well. Despite his manipulation, Lex at least asks Mae to question what she can do and how she can do it. There is a chance here to present a very different character than the one that came before. The previous Supergirl had to run and hide in an orphanage because her cousin thought that the world was not yet ready for a woman with superpowers to be helping him in his crusade to protect every man, woman, and child from increasingly insane disasters.

Mae is not burdened, as her subsequent version will be, with being a literal Angel of Heaven. She is not trying to accept her destiny but find her place in the world. She is the sole survivor of her world and literally the only one of her kind. Her struggle for identity is entirely separate from Superman’s. During the Silver Age he knew that he was not alone once he met Supergirl but Mae will never experience that. Her life is one of potential solitude but she denies it in favor of embracing the world around her. Installing the “Superman.exe” character model may have been the best way to save a few citizens from the Kryptonian criminals who destroyed her world but it also means that she will be best well known for impersonating Clark Kent after Superman “miraculously” returned from the dead.

The people who surround her remind her what a heel Lex Senior was and judge her for being with his “son.” The inevitable reveal of his shenanigans serves as a wonderful origin story but is squandered as well. Lex, unsuccessfully fighting the effects of Kryptonite radiation poisoning, has decided that the world cannot possibly live without him, regardless of the fact that it was his own hubris which brought him to the brink of this particular flavor of disaster, and does all he can to stave off death. This includes seeing if he can reinvent the process that his alternate version used to create Supergirl in the first place.

Ill defined, psychokinetic powers? Dark, nebulous appearance when enraged? This is why Supergirl fit well with the Legion of Super-Heroes, she was an X-Man.
Ill defined, psychokinetic powers? Dark, nebulous appearance when enraged? This is why Supergirl fit well with the Legion of Super-Heroes, she was an X-Man.

Mae’s journey in many ways embodies what a fictional character must go through. She began life as sentient protomatter, no more than a medium for ideas to flow into. Stern does a wonderful job at reminding us that Supergirl is not all powerful and does have the limits you would expect of someone still learning to control their abilities. Her appearance, gender, nationality, and superpowers were defined by those around her. Next comes the inevitable confrontation with copyright laws. Supergirl is a brand just unique enough from Superman to be separately marketed and sold on its own. Not in real life but this is true within the bounds of the DCU. Lex assures Mae that this is in her best interest and that none of the money will ever be used to fund a cause that she would not support.

Though not followed-up on in any specific way (this version of the character would not receive an ongoing series) Mae is confronted with funhouse mirror versions of herself that Lex has created. Each one comes from their artificial wombs complete with costume and defining characteristics. None of them look like Mae, exactly, but they do not have to. Lex owns the copyright of what she is so why would he check with her before going to market with versions he believes will do well? The protomatter that Mae is created from can form clothing and so some versions have chosen the less flattering wardrobes of the female superheroes of the day.

I hope this is scathing commentary on the art practices of the industry at the time because otherwise I have no idea what is being shown here.
I hope this is scathing commentary on the art practices of the industry at the time because otherwise I have no idea what is being shown here.

Supergirl is no stranger to having to prove herself against copies. She herself was created by Otto Binder, the same man who created Mary Marvel for Fawcett Comics and she was arguably surpassed in popularity by her Earth-2 counterpart Powergirl. Here she has the chance to prove to her aggressors that she is her own person and does so with “psi-blasts,” a power Superman never had. Mae is held back by needing to be as close as possible to the idea of Superman. That brand cannot be altered, as too much merchandising rests on its shoulders, and it forces Supergirl to stagnate. If nothing else, it would have been great to see a character who could shapeshift into and out of her secret identity without needing glasses, a slouch, and criminally unaware coworkers.

We see part of this potential in what comes next. Unlike Clark Kent, Mae has no way of dealing with the ills of the world. No moral compass was installed as part of the “raised on a farm” service pack and raw, righteous fury leads her to take the fight to Lex. Her shape changes, almost unconsciously, and all limitations leave her. Why should Lex Luthor, father or son, be allowed to continue committing such despicable acts? It is here that Superman makes his first on-panel appearance as he saves Lex and steers the story back into the comforting waters of what each and every reader unfortunately thinks of when they think of a Superman story.

Not that we need a Supergirl who murders anyone (David S. Goyer was still only writing “The Puppet Masters” when this comic came out) but here we are shown that she is not even allowed to express her own rage. Yes, Superman teaches her right from wrong and yes everyone involved would have regretted Lex falling from a skyscraper but part of me will always look fondly upon the time the version of Supergirl that I first got to know threw an awful, decrepit supervillain out of a building. I remind you that the man who once stole forty entire cakes was bedding a teenage (or younger) girl using a cloned body and purple turtleneck.

Yes, those are spikes on her arm, and no they are not adequately explained. It is as if she said her “magic word” but instead of the Wizard Shazam answering it was Rob Liefeld.
Yes, those are spikes on her arm, and no they are not adequately explained. It is as if she said her “magic word” but instead of the Wizard Shazam answering it was Rob Liefeld.

Matrix is one of those wonderful anomalies from the nineties. She made sense within the context of the cold, clinical Krypton imagined by Byrne and developed by others, including Stern, with characters and concepts such as the Eradicator. This was a time in Superman’s history when his unflinching morality seemed all the more impressive for being set against such an impersonal heritage. Mae was the supporting character that this version needed and she could have been a notable and complex hero in her own. Lex may hate Superman but no one will ever hate Lex as much as Mae. She returned recently in two-part Convergence story. If you read it, let me know how it is. Keith Giffen and Ambush Bug are a good time no matter what.