I've never liked Elseworlds.
They're like "What If?" without an understanding of what made "What If" work, namely, the entire fantasy of the story comes from one divergence from reality. An example of a good "What If?" premise would be, if Spider-Man had only been a couple seconds faster and managed to save Gwen Stacy on the George Washington Bridge, or if Professor X touched the Gem of Cytorrak in that temple in Korea instead of Cain Marko. We could see what happened after that one difference, so everything was extrapolated from that.
See? It's that kind of continuity-driven stuff that made What If? fun to read for big Marvel nerds.
Elseworlds, on the other hand, usually violate the number one rule of alternate history fiction: more than one divergence from reality, what S.M. Stirling once called "alien space bat" stories. With so many divergences, or worse, an improbable divergence…screw it, there might as well be alien space bats in there, too. (Stirling's exact quote, who's meaning changed thanks to the telephone game, was: "the only way Operation Sea Lion would have worked is if the Nazis had alien space bats helping them.")
In fact, Elseworlds were sometimes like those dumb episodes of the Simpsons where they redo Hamlet, only with Bart as Hamlet and Moe the Bartender as Claudius. It's usually either a straight up recasting, or slipping a hero into another story (as with Thomas's retelling of Fritz Lang, Superman: Metropolis) in a fanfiction-like way that doesn't comment on either.
Elseworlds are like poetry: probably a lot more fun to write than they are to read.
Despite all that, Superman Batman – Generations had a really irresistible concept: what if Superman and Batman aged in real time? Instead of always being in their mid-thirties and having their pasts roll up behind them, Batman and Superman showed up in 1939, aged in real time, got married, had children and successors that continued their fight.
Superman doesn't get older, but Clark Kent has to. Batman's successors, like Dick Grayson and eventually his own son, took a page out of the Phantom's playbook and pretend there's only been one Batman, to add to his aura of mystery. Some of Superman and Batman's older supporting cast die off, like Perry White, Commissioner Gordon, and Alfred. Alfred remains a presence in the books because he appears to Bruce Wayne as a ghost occasionally, continuing to serve after death.
The 1930s-set stories feature giant robots and autogyros, while the 1950s stories had some of the sillier aspects of comics at the time, like alien invasions and magical imps playing pranks. John Byrne, like me, can't commit to true silliness: his 50s comics feel more like Marvel monster comics, with a Twilight Zone style dark ending than like the game-playing in Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. He makes only passing references to transformations to give a sense of place; his focus is on that era's space opera.
In the 1960s, the series touches on how the heroes faced Vietnam, with Superman's mortal son serving in the army. The issue set in the 70s were the high point, due to the appearance of big-league scary menaces, an era when comics stopped messing around: Ra's al-Ghul, and the supercomputer version of Brainiac. By the 1980s, when comics got moody, Batman started to wear spiky armor and had a hostile relationship with the police.
The lives of the two heroes intersect in many ways, like how Batman's son and Superman's daughter fall in love in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, Batman's son raises Superman's grandson. By the end, you need a flowchart, but aren't all families like that?
World's Finest Team
John Byrne, with Generations, is the first person to ever answer the question to my satisfaction why Superman and Batman, heroes who have different spheres of influence (Superman is science fiction, Batman is atmospheric horror and crime) team up regularly and are good friends. I mean, in story logic, why ARE they buddies, anyway? Pairing up the two always felt like what it is: a gimmicky marketing stunt pairing together two very different big heroes to double their money.
Generations I is Luthor's Story
What makes someone your greatest enemy? It's not power, because if it was, Brainiac would be Superman's greatest foe, not Luthor, an alien supercomputer with near infinite resources to draw on. No, the reason Luthor is Superman's greatest enemy is because he has the ability to get nasty and personal. He can wound Superman's emotions in a way a computer wouldn't understand or attempt.
(This is also, incidentally, why I suspect the Borg were seldom used as bad guys in Star Trek: despite the fact they're so powerful and threatening, they are so alien you can't interact with them on the personal level needed for regular stories.)
This is not the "good guy on the inside" Luthor seen in Maggin's novels, who never wants to harm innocent people in his crimes, where it's a real tragedy he turned to crime, and there's hope he can be redeemed. No, this Luthor is a true complete monster.
With the intriguing outlier of Doctor Doom, who was portrayed as oddly noble, classy and honorable, Byrne typically has evil with a capital E villains who are sheer acid inside.
Superman/Batman: Generations is so completely Luthor's story that even in death, he is victorious: Superman kills Luthor. It's an accident, but it's broadcast all over the world and made Superman look like a killer.
"Well, It Doesn't Feel like an Elseworlds!"
The nicest thing I could say about Superman/Batman – Generations is, it doesn’t feel like an Elseworlds. It feels more like a particularly unusual and accurate adaptation into another medium. There was nothing about their characterizations that were changed for the sake of change; in Byrne's head, he's probably writing about the "real" Superman and Batman. It feels like a deliberately classic, "original recipe" take, like the intention behind the All-Star books. It's a characteristic of the best Elseworlds, like James Robinson's the Golden Age: they don't feel like Elseworlds.
I wasn't a huge fan of some of John Byrne's decisions in his Superman reboot Man of Steel back in '86, but he gets the classic, Schwartz-era incarnation. When doing Man of Steel, I think it went to John Byrne's head he was able to change things and go off-model, and he's even said as much. If he was placed to draw and script "classic model" Superman, he can do a decent job.
A lot of people blame Byrne for things he didn't do. He was accused of stripping Superman of a lot of imaginative baggage. Actually, the whole point of "Man of Steel" was, it was a skeleton framework, a story with many deliberate gaps set over the course of years. So if someone really, really wants to bring in Vartox or the Superman Robots, there's room in the back for it. (Byrne's Superman run was filled with traditionally weird Byrne tics that didn't help matters, like that unpleasant Metal Men team up where Superman tells them they're just robots and not real people at all.)
It's unfortunate Batman is defined by the high-concept draining Nolan movies these days. I applaud them for being great films, but all the same, they're movies I RESPECT, but I don't LOVE them. Does that make sense?
Knightwing had to be my favorite new character in the series. Raised by Batman's son, he's secretly Superman's powerless grandson (a sign of how oddly incestuous and interconnected the Superman and Batman family tree became towards the end of the series).
He had a funny idea behind him: eventually, as time went on, sooner or later, one of the family members of the Batman of the 1980s-1990s would be a Stan Lee-written, Marvel Comics style hero, an acrobatic, bold costumed athlete like Hawkeye or Daredevil, who unlike the serious Superman and Batman, taunts his foes with smartaleck comments. Like Captain America and Daredevil (but unlike Batman), he fights mainly superpowered foes. He's the kind of character Crackerjack from Astro City was created to comment on.
In Generations II, we even learn Knightwing fell in love with a woman he sent to prison for 10 years. I ask you, could that type of coincidence-dependent yet emotion-wringing complication BE more Marvel?
Johnny Redbeard has a rep for being nuts, but he has an attitude to comics I agree with. He doesn't buy the cynicism death doesn't mean death as long as a character's face is used to sell beach towels. (Forget Ra's al-Ghul's Lazarus Pits. The secret to immortality is merchandizing.)
This all but makes it inevitable his best work would be on non-canon side projects where dead means dead and change means change without affecting profits from action figures and lunchboxes.
There's a notion of permanence that makes everything feel more real. When people die, they stay dead. And interestingly enough, Gold Kryptonite shows up in this series more often than regular green Kryptonite does.
Generations II – DVD Deleted Scenes/Extras
The world in Generations was interesting enough to want more. So, here comes Generations II. Unlike the first Generations, Generations II doesn't have the spine of a unifying central story. It's a collection of unrelated things that happened, which often have zero payoff.
What's the difference between a story and a bunch of things that happen? A story has unity. Things that appear have payoff later. A story has a unifying central theme (theme is just a fancy sounding term that means what the story is about, what it has to say, the thesis statement), one that achieves resolution at the end.
Generations II doesn't achieve any of those things. Set in and around the original story, it answers questions like whether or not the Dick Grayson sixties Batman had a Batgirl, and what Wonder Woman was doing all through the original Generations. It even takes care of unfinished business from the original, like making sure Alfred's ghost moves on to his eternal rest. In other words, it's not a story or even a sequel, it's a collection of the comic book equivalent of DVD deleted scenes and extras.
In general, it's good supplementary material worth reading to fans of the original Generations....until the ending goes somewhere totally terrible.
Generations I had the occasional dumb ideas. The worst is that Bruce Wayne was Robin in his teenage years (say what?), but the really terrible stuff would have to wait until Generations II.
What comes next? Spoilers, but it's so dumb it should be spoiled:
Bruce Wayne's parents knew about their fate, but went to their fate willingly, knowing their sacrifice would create the Batman.
In the annals of disastrously immoral choices insufferably presented to the reader as a "heroic sacrifice," this, far and away, takes the cake. It's right up there with One More Day and Spider-Man giving up his marriage in order to save his aunt's life. Martha and Thomas Wayne consigned themselves to death to leave their only child an orphan, angry and filled with grief his entire life? To do what? Create a superhero and prevent him from living a normal life? Does that sound selfless, for a parent to leave their child an orphan? Does that sound like a choice any parent would ever make?
If you have children, I ask…does that sound at all like the choice YOU would make? (I might be wrong here, but I understand John Byrne is not a parent, but is a step-parent.)
The amazing thing is, it's not even true. You don't even need the Waynes to die to make Batman, at least according to Alan Brennert in only one of the most famous and often reprinted stories ever.
"You Didn't Say 'Simon Says!'" Morality
I don't think Byrne entirely understands the morality of honesty. A shocking number of plot points in this series involve villains forcing heroes to make promises, and then the good guys win by finding "fine print" ways to break their promises, like a scheming contract lawyer. I kept expecting Superman to tell Luthor, "ha ha, Lex, it doesn't count, because you didn't say Simon Says!"
How is playing "Simon Says" in any way moral behavior?
It's totally okay to lie to evil people to save lives, even if you're Captain America or Superman. Likewise, it's morally wrong to tell the truth if the consequences of that are way, way worse ethical breaches than just dishonesty.
Heck, there was one great Avengers story where competition junkie villain Imus Champion captures the Avengers and, unless they agree to face him on his terms, he'll unleash nuclear weapons to destroy innocent people? How did the Avengers save the day? Firestar used ants to get a message out to Hank Pym, who wrecked Imus Champion's equipment during the contest. Imus got angry that this wasn't either fair play or sporting because the Avengers called outside help instead of a fair contest, but the Avengers say, "we do whatever it takes to save lives."
Generations III – Skip This One
Generations III tries to weave a story over a thousand years, but it ends with an enraging "it was all a dream" finale that meant the entire series didn't matter.
Because centuries of time pass between the stories, essentially, everything important that happens, happens in between and we hear about it in flashback.
Like all terrible stories DC did in the 2000s, it involves the New Gods in a central role. Guys, this stuff is just not that cool.
I've never read a story in my entire life, where, literally almost everything that happens just ends up not mattering. Superman having children with Beautiful Dreamer, who Darkseid kills and are never brought up again?
Nobody seemed to know why this series was made, so why should we come up with reasons it should be read?
Things to Ponder:
- Who the heck is Bruce Wayne's wife? The book never reveals, except we know it isn't Talia, because we see her when the story gets to the 1970s.
- Batman's 30th Century starship (Batmobile? Batship?) looks like a Romulan Bird-of-Prey. Maybe the Romulans do custom jobs.
- Batman's silver-streak hair is so cool looking, it should be his permanent look.
- Johnny Redbeard really dove in deep into his Silver Age Imaginary Story collection to bring up the scenarios here. Batman got permanent superpowers in Generations III, and the possibilitron in Generations II came from an actual story about a future predicting machine of Superman's invention. It's like a window into an alternate universe where people actually remembered these stories happened and used them. DC has long-term memory loss issues with their continuity, especially compared to Marvel.
All in all, the first miniseries feels right because of one reason. It's amazing to forget Superman and Batman have been around for a really long time. Here's what the first Batmobile looked like.