If you’re a completist, you’d really need to read James Robinson and Nicola Scott’s “The Price of Victory”, the opening issue of Earth 2 before reading Worlds’ Finest #1. But if you do, you might miss some of the magic of this issue.
In a very real, very clear sense Worlds’ Finest and Earth 2 are both stories about walking back out of a disaster. But whereas James Robinson explores the same territory as writer Ian Bremmer, a kind of G-Zero world (albeit a fictive one of superheroes), Worlds’ Finest regular writer Paul Levitz explores the more personal aspects. By now it’s no secret. Five years ago on Earth 2, a literally world-shattering event took place. Paul Levitz, along with artists George Perez and Kevin Maguire, flesh out the story of Earth 2’s Robin and Supergirl who now find themselves refugees on Earth Prime, the parallel world on which the New 52 has been playing out these last 9 months.
Before you get anywhere near the story, take a moment to just stand in the cathedral of “wow!” that is the opening page. George Perez really produces some of the finest comics the New 52 has seen in just this single page. It’s nothing really, nothing at all. There’s no crimefighting occurring here, no leaping of tall buildings, no headlong rush into danger, not knowing if you’ll live past that surge, no dying moments of a life given to something greater than yourself. Instead what we encounter is the simple act of dinner. Our two leads, Helena and Karen are enjoying a meal in a Tokyo restaurant. Helena, the former Robin, burns up a fake ID while she runs her finger through her dessert.
And George Perez offers the most beautiful framing of this, perhaps the most one of the most lucid sequences that has you deeply involved in the ordinary and the everyday. It’s a painstakingly vivid homage to the postwar neorealism movement in Japanese cinema. This is the diligent beauty of Ozu, the drama of a woman pouring water, rather than bellicose magnificence of Kurosawa’s nationalism where samurai bestride the silver screen like cowboys. And in many ways this painstaking beauty that George Perez captures is essentially the core drama of Worlds’ Finest. Worlds’ Finest is about these women, and their relation to the ordinary, lived experiences of the everyday world.
Not to say that there isn’t any superhero action. Things quickly degenerate as Karen and Helena are forced into a confrontation with a corporate saboteur, unable to escape the devastation he brought on a Starr Labs R&D facility. But the core of the book is something else, something deeper. It is the exploration of the hell these characters escaped five years ago on Earth 2. And the five years of safe and happy and good they’ve experienced on Earth Prime since they’ve gotten here.
If anything, Paul Levitz offers a deep and meaningful examination of both the psychology of the refugee, and the psychology of luxury goods. In the context of the ongoing debt crisis both here and in Europe, this is just a sublime move on Paul’s part to work in these themes. And in the context of the generic conventions of a superhero comicbook, Paul’s fixation on finding the inner psychological motivations of the characters, and crafting a drama from those is just genius. The real work being done here, is the work of reexamining the limits of the comicbook storytelling format.
Things shouldn’t be clearly as good as they are for Helena and Karen. They shouldn’t have survived, they shouldn’t have flourished. And yet, here they are. The choice to bring in a second artist to visualize the past five years Helena and Karen spent on Earth Prime is an important one. It is a clear message that the story has entered a different mode. But specifically the choice of Kevin Maguire, he of the bright, vivid worlds filled with fresh, expressive faces, is almost definitive of this book. As definitive as the pairing of Paul Levitz and George Perez is.
It’s Kevin Maguire’s visualization of a radiant world, filled with the lead characters looking happy that really adds in a touch of sunshine noir, not at all alike Rand Ravich’s secret masterpiece, Life. Maguire’s style emphasizes that the drama to be found in this phase of the story is an inner, psychic one. It is the wrestling with survivor’s guilt, and the wrestling with material things. Robin’s first instinct is to do what perhaps any Bat-family member would do. To secure funds (from Earth Prime’s Bruce Wayne no less), and to rebuild her own life. Adopting the identity of the Huntress, Helena uses her share of the liberated funds to build up an arsenal of equipment and take down one bad guy at a time.
Cooly self-confident, Karen does exactly the opposite. She forsakes her identity as Kara, forsakes her identity as Supergirl and instead becomes Karen Starr. He knack for rooting out lucrative investments allows her to become a celebutante billionaire, a kind of cross between Paris Hilton and a Christine Lagarde. It’s the events of this issue, and of recent weeks and months of backstory yet to be revealed, that pushes her to adopt a new superhero alter ego, that of Power Girl. And it’s in this way that Paul Levitz reclaims a lost moment in comics from Alan Moore.
It was in his story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow…?” that Moore effectively disavowed the premise for Superman. After being outed as Superman by Prankster and Toyman, and facing down a final conflict with an alliance of his two greatest enemies, Luthor and Brainiac, Clark Kent finally surrendered the Superman identity altogether. In pulling Karen back into being a superhero, Paul Levitz captures the idea of why the superhero genre is still vibrant and vital.
In the end, perhaps it’s easiest to say that Worlds’ Finest comes with the highest possible praise. This is a book that simply deserves to be read.