The Brave and the Bold!
|Written by Barbara Kesel, Matt Haley, and Tom Simmons|
Elseworlds is a now-defunct imprint from DC comics telling stories outside of the normal continuity. Most of these stories have a 'twist' or a setup that you wouldn't see in the normal DC universe and the Elseworld imprint was a place where creators could explore these unusual situations. Gotham by Gaslight pits Batman against real-world serial killer Jack the Ripper in a Victorian Gotham while Superman: Red Son shows a world were baby Kal-El landed in the Soviet Union, not only exploring Superman as a character but also the real-life dynamic between the Soviet Union and the US at the height of the Cold War. Before DC stopped with the imprint in the 2000s, there were many Elseworlds stories but aside from those two classics, I don't really hear anyone talking about them anymore.
That's why I've decided to, at the very least, take a look at one of the first Elseworlds stories I ever read and one that I still quite like, with Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl, a world where the Batman and Superman as we know them never came to be and where their female counterparts took over their role as the protectors of Metropolis and Gotham.
Let´s dive in.
The issue begins in Gotham, where the Justice Society make a public announcement: Lex Luthor, businessman, entrepreneur and main funder of the JS will open a new factory in Gotham to help promote the city slowly opening itself up to the rest of the world. When Lex is kidnapped by the Joker and a former associate, Professor Emil Hamilton, who got discredited by Luthor after he tried to tell the world the truth about the solar battery that gave him his fortune. Ignoring Batgirl's warnings about letting her handle it alone, Supergirl enters Gotham to find Lex, her friend and mentor. After a brief fight between the two, Batgirl reluctantly agrees to work with Supergirl to free Lex with Batgirl also interested in finding out the truth behind Lex Luthor.
Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl is a great book. It's well written, well drawn (for the most part) and above all, it doesn't fall into the same pitfall as many other Elseworlds stories do: it has something to say outside of its basic 'twist'. Many Elseworlds stories (and those similar to them) have a clever or at the very least half-interesting setup that the book explores, but fail to realize that it takes more than a clever setup to tell a story.
Catwoman: Guardian of Gotham, for example, has a, in my opinion at least, interesting concept by making Batman the criminal and Catwoman the hero of Gotham. This concept doesn't really go anywhere though and the book ends up being pretty bad partly because of that. Not here though. The writers, Barbara Kesel, Matt Haley, and Tom Simmons, use their setup to craft a compelling narrative with drama, stakes and fleshed out characters. The book places the characters, their dynamic and development, at the centre so let's dive a little deeper into each of the, what I consider to be, five main characters.
Let's start off with Batgirl, as you get to meet her first. In this continuity Bruce Wayne never became Batman and Barbara Gordon took up the role of the bat instead. There have been many stories recently showcasing, or at least posing the possibility, of what would happen if Batman went too far with his method or lost his way. This book explores a similar theme through the eyes of Barbara Gordon, but instead of making her 'a bat that kills' it instead shines a spotlight on her, and by extension Batman's, need to know and control. She has used here Oracle intelligence and security system to wall of Gotham and this decision ties directly into her character. She trusts no one (except Bruce), isolates herself from the world and is very brooding.
This is in stark contrast to Supergirl, who is portrayed as outgoing, jovial yet naïve. With Superman never ending up in Kansas, it's Kara who has become the world's foremost superhero it seems. She has joined the JSA and is treated as much as a superstar as a superhero. She loves Earth and its people and while Batgirl overlooks the world from her cave, she does it from the sky. She interacts with the world and other people more, mainly her comrades from the JSA and Lex Luthor but there's only so much you can learn from the world that way. You could say that she lives with her head in the clouds, both literally and figuratively.
|Batgirl and Supergirl have more than one confrontation in the book. This one's about who can make the weirdest face.|
In other words, both Supergirl and Batgirl are not really in touch with the world, just in opposite ways. The opposites and similarities between the two are what drives the book forward and the connection the two slowly build is at its centre. The book handles this all very well, but the payoff isn't what I'd call a home run due to the other issue the book has, but I'll talk about that more in detail later. Just now that, like the title suggest, these two are at the core of the book and that done very well.
Compared to his mainstream counterpart, Lex isn't really all that different. Without Superman to challenge him, Lex's more nefarious action and personality traits never came to light and he keeps up his benevolent persona very effectively. He might seem like a true heroic Lex at first, but deep down he's the same old Lex we all know, just without as many wrinkles on his face. The Joker is on the whole basically the same character as well, but with a few changes that frankly don't really work for me. The Joker has always had an obsession with Batman and this book translated this into a love-obsession with Batgirl, making that his primary motivation. Yes, instead of being an agent of chaos who just wants to see the world burn, the Joker is essentially a love-struck stalker of Batgirl and it's as uninteresting as it sounds. They've also made changes to his appearance, mostly because they wanted Supergirl to have a brawl with someone. He uses a kryptonite powered version of Venom and has the physique and fashion sense of a typical circus strongman. I understand the reasons for the change, but I don't think they really work and I'd say that this version of the Joker is one of the most forgettable once DC has put out over the years.
And then there's Bruce. In the book, he's essentially Barbara's version of Alfred. The man in the chair that supports Batgirl in the form of tech and helps her keep up her public persona. What is very interesting about him is his characterization. With his parents never dying in the alley on that fateful night he's mostly the playboy Bruce that he normally uses as more of a cover than anything else. Characteristics from his Batman persona, like his observation skills, still shine through though and I find that very interesting. They're elements to Bruce that are a part of him even without Batman and vice versa and this book understand that perfectly.
Earlier I said that book doesn't quite stick the landing when it comes to the relationship between its two leads and this is because the book suffers from one major flaw: it's too short. There's a lot of material stuffed inside the books 60+ pages, but there's just not enough time to properly and satisfyingly develop it all. As a result, the pacing feels off in places, there are more text and exposition than I'd like (show don't tell people!) and not every development feels earned at the end. I find the artwork, while qualitatively sound, a bit questionable. There's the odd expression here or there yeah, but what really irked me are the rather revealing outfits of some women and some very unnecessary boob-shots and 'showy' angles. The book was published in the '90s, so you have to keep in mind the standards on that sort of stuff were slightly different back then, but yeah. It's here, it is wholly unnecessary and I don't like it.
|I mean seriously Hawkwoman, forget bullets don't you ever get cold in that?!|
So in conclusion: Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl is a great book. It has a compelling narrative about two people with opposite worldviews coming together, having said worldview challenged and become better people as a result. It has good drama, a sense of real stakes and is overall a well written and also fun book. It has its problems, mainly that it tries to do a little too much and doesn't have time to properly develop everything as a result and the artwork is questionable at times, but that doesn't keep it from being a great story nonetheless. If you want to read some Elseworlds stories, I can highly recommend you pick up this book.