Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth

[3 December 2003]

By Michael David Sims

The More Things Change

He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.
— Harold Wilson

As we all know, people change. What started out as a lighthearted, giggling toddler can morph into a gloomy, brooding teen which gives way to a cutthroat, cunning CEO. Change is a way of life—change or die, as they say.

Oddly enough, we don’t want our comic book heroes to change. We want the same Green Lantern we grew up with twenty years ago, refusing to accept this fresh, young upstart who currently wields the power ring. The Flash isn’t the Flash—it’s his nephew. And who’s this kid calling himself Robin, and what did they do to that costume? It certainly isn’t the barelegged Dick Grayson we all remember. They’re all pretenders to the throne, and whenever there are major upheavals in our little four-color world, we shit a collective brick.

Ironically, when the characters don’t change, we grow weary of them. What we’re reading now is the same old things we read ten years ago, and ten years before that, and ten years before that. Comic book heroes don’t change; they recycle what’s already been recycled—leading to an eventual breakdown.

However, one character has changed repeatedly, yet remains true to the original concept: Batman—the second oldest superhero, only behind Superman.

What’s most interesting about Batman is not his “toys” (as The Joker put it in the 1989 Batman feature film), not the cave, or even Bruce Wayne’s money, but how open he is for interpretation. Unlike his red and blue Kryptonian elder, who cannot stray from his Boy Scout image, Batman can be whatever the creators want him to be—just so long as he remains a detective. No other book has illustrated this point more so than Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth.

We open as WildStorm’s Planetary (a group of superhero historians/detectives who’s job it is to uncover “the secret history of the [comic book] world”) descends on their Gotham City, not the Gotham City we all know. And, just like ours, their Gotham City has its very own Dick Grayson and Jasper—neither who have ever met Bruce Wayne/Batman (because he does not exist in their Gotham City), and therefore never became who we know them as: Robin and The Joker.

We learn that Planetary (Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, and the Drummer) is on the trail of one John Black, whose father was “one of a handful of survivors of the American secret experimentation camp Science City Zero.” The belief is that the senior Black passed on “some kind of superhuman capability” to his son. And indeed he has.

It would seem that John has the unique ability to warp reality, to open spontaneous gateways to other universes, and (if that wasn’t enough) he can merge them (and its inhabitants) into one.

Being the brave bastards they are, Planetary gives chase. Unable to control his powers, John and the unsuspecting team are all shifted to another universe—another Gotham City. This one, however, has its very own superhero detective: Batman, who glides from above, moonlight illuminating what’s used to shadows.

Jakita (think of her has Planetary’s Batman with a touch of Superman’s power and a cocky, dry wit that’s all her own) engages this enigmatic masked man as Snow and Drummer chase the fleeing Black. Despite her superior strength, Batman surprisingly (to Jakita anyway) holds his own. (Remember, this is a guy who’s gone toe-to-toe with Superman. There isn’t anyone in the DC Universe who’s a better fighter or battlefield tactician than this guy.)

As the duo battles, Black bends reality once more, turning Batman from a calloused creature of the night into… Adam West! Or at least the 1960’s Batman everyone remembers from the television series of the same name. Unlike the previous Batman Jakita had been trading blows with, this one exists in a colorfully outdated world where fighting women (even those of superior strength) was unheard of. To get around his curvaceous foe, Batman pulls out his trusty can of Bat-Female-Villain-Repellent.

It’s right about here we think we know Batman in all his forms—from his current persona to the campy TV version—but we’d be wrong, because as Snow turns to challenge the caped crusader, he comes face to face with The Dark Knight: Frank Miller’s seemingly seven foot tall, thick as a house, fascist Batman—one of the most violent representations of the man, with a tank, mini-Batarangs that pierce the skin, and exploding charges.

A brighter Batman emerges as reality is sent spinning again. This time it’s Neal Adams’ dark knight detective—some would say the perfect representation of Batman. He’s just, righteous, swift, and willing to listen to those around him, even if it means conceding once in a while.

But before Batman can hand Black over to Planetary, there’s another change. In what some might consider a break from all that Batman stands for, we see him with a gun trained directly at Black’s head, uttering, “Crime doesn’t pay. Crime mustn’t pay. Ever.”

Remember what this book is about: honoring all of Batman’s interpretations throughout the years, even those that seemingly don’t fit. The original Batman, like many costumed vigilantes of the late ‘30s/early ‘40s, carried a gun at his side, despite how his parents died years earlier.

Though this image of Batman lasts but a page, it’s a stark reminder of how much people change over the years. From a young boy filled with glee as he and his parents walked down the wrong alley one night, to the angst-filled teen who setout on an epic adventure to learn all the skills he’d need later in life, to the father figure he’d become to a tragically orphaned acrobat.

Depending on when you grew up, your idea of who Batman is will be entirely different than mine, and that’s what makes him an icon of the comic book world. Batman is no different than you or me: he adapts to survive in a constantly changing world, and there aren’t many superheroes out there who can boast the same.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/planetary-batman-night-on-earth/