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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Panel Vision - Trinity

Edited by Robert Beach

At the time of writing, the first reviews are coming in on WB/DC’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I haven’t read any of these, but judging by the critical consensus that’s slowly forming the word is…not good. We’ll see how that shakes out but if it’s any indication of audience reaction that could spell a major roadblock for the blossoming DC movie universe. Dawn of Justice isn’t just the first time Batman and Superman have met in live action, it’s also set to feature Wonder Woman making it the first appearance of the DC trinity in live action. 

The trinity (Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman) are the cornerstones of the DC universe and comics as a medium. They represent the oldest and most recognizable superheroes ever created, so having their opening debut fall flat would be a massive slap in the face for WB and DC. So as we all wait with bated breath, I thought I’d showcase my favorite vision of the first meeting of DC’s big three: Matt Wagner’s Trinity.

Trinity was a prestigious graphic novel trilogy produced by DC in 2003, a date that’s kind of important for all the context stuff that goes into these look backs. Previously, Wagner made a name for himself writing the noir-inspired Sandman Mystery Theatre, the objective best vision of Sandman, for Vertigo comics from 1993 to 1999. At the time, DC was farming Vertigo comics for great talent to import to the main line, hence stuff like crazy Doom Patrol and Animal Man scribe Grant Morrison being handed the reigns of power on Justice League. In Wagner’s case, he had always been more of an independent author. So rather than taking up a monthly comic, he took up a project making 3 graphic novels telling the story of how Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman first met. 

I’m not sure what people expected from this particular pitch at the start. Wagner’s most mainstream work at the time was a gritty ‘30s noir comic full of some really grimy crime fiction and barely any superhero elements. Conversely, Wager’s big independent book at the time was Grendel, another noir title only this time inflected with ninjas and copious amounts of violence. Given all that and the tone hovering over a lot of work in the early 2000s, no one would’ve expected Trinity to turn out to be a bright love letter to the core of these characters. They felt more at home in the bright lights and joy of the DC animated universe than the darkness of any of Wagner’s previous work.

The story at hand is superhero simplicity in its purest format. Ras Al Ghul is trying to end humanity to save the Earth from our degradation, pretty standard stuff from him. To accomplish his goal, Ras has recruited Bizarro, the failed Superman clone created by Lex Luthor thus drawing Superman into Batman’s investigation and raising the level of threat that Ras is posing. There are complications when Bizarro acquires a nuclear submarine for Ras and accidentally sets off a massive explosion close enough to Themyscira to impact the Amazons. That causes them to send Wonder Woman to investigate. With all three heroes drawn into the same hunt for Ras Al Ghul and his assembled weapons of destruction, the question becomes if they can get along long enough to stop Ras and save the world. 

Like I said, that’s about as straight forward a superhero story as one can possibly tell. The thing to remember, though, is that simplicity in superhero stories is actually a major boon to their storytelling.  There’s a tendency to view complexity of narrative as being tantamount to complex storytelling, that more plot equals more meaningful plots but that really isn’t the case. With superheroes, the impetus for meaningful and engaging stories has always been in the characterization. It’s not as important what the characters are doing so much as who’s doing it and how they feel and think about what it is their doing. In that case Trinity absolutely shines because it’s all about characterization.

The story is broken into three distinct parts, each one using a hero’s home town as a central setting and one of the heroes as the central lens for the stories events. The opening third is a Superman story, dropping us into this beautiful rendering of Metropolis combining the verve and life of ‘20s New York with the kind of Art Deco futurism that informed the early Superman cartoons. Everything is big deeds, big emotions, and big weirdness all filtered through the impetus of Superman’s actions and his very existence impacting people he’s never even met or been aware of. 

The second act drops us into Gotham City cut straight from the Batman animated series, police zeppelins and all. The entire issue takes place at night in murky shadows and scarred red skies with the super-powered elements feeling like weird outsiders to a foreign land. 

This sequence also features the book’s most brutal action sequence where Wonder Woman goes up against Bizarro, and we see just how terrifyingly powerful he is. Again, there’s the aspect of the universe darkening under Batman’s lens. And the showcase of the issue being essentially evil Superman, a parallel that becomes even clearer when Batman disables Bizarro with the most foreign thing in this universe: bright light.

The final issue drops us into Paradise Island as Ras tries to conquer it for super villain reasons. It’s an amazing contrast between the previous two segments, trading the gothic edifices of Gotham City or the gleaming towers of Metropolis for a vast marble culture cut into the living rock of the island. It’s a world of mythology and fantasy where nature itself serves as an ally of the Amazons, and we finally learn that Wonder Woman is also a princess. 

Aside from each issue being an individually excellent exploration of the character’s mythos and identity and how each of these different people could co-exist within such different worlds, the character interactions are just delightful. Something I really like about the series is Superman is the bridge character between Wonder Woman and Batman (both don’t get along). 

It’s a different take on things, but one that makes a lot of sense to me. Firstly, Wonder Woman and Batman are just inherently stubborn characters. Both of them come from worlds of extreme privilege and having to work their whole lives to maintain a level of insane perfection. 

Superman, on the other hand, has never tried to be better than everyone else. In fact, he has to work to be less than everyone around him as Clark Kent. As Clark, he can still be an impactful and well-regarded writer, but he can’t stand out as “the best in his field” for the very reason that helping others is more important than winning awards or recognition. Superman’s daily life is putting his ego to the side for the greater good.  

What’s more, he has to exist as both Superman (God among men), and Clark Kent (the most human person imaginable and a champion for truth). He essentially moves in both Batman and Wonder Woman’s world confronting the truth of humanity through his identity as Clark while also striding through the world of myth and madness as Superman. He’s the perfect equalizer.

Even putting aside all the great characterization and interpersonal relationships, this is just a really fun action-adventure story. The Ras Al Ghul stuff provides plenty of interesting team-up opportunities. And the fact Ras already guns for Superman means he’s always got an interesting plan to keep the Man of Steel busy if the story needs him gone to progress. What’s more, the action is really fun in a classic Silver Age type manner, including the highlight of Superman throwing Bizarro into a volcano. Speaking of the Silver Age, there are a handful of cool shout outs to early age comic stuff like that including brief cameos by Robin and Aquaman. 

The Silver Age connection actually ends pretty important overall to Trinity’s legacy. Though a sequel was never made, DC did produce a very similar series a few years later entitled DC: New Frontier.  New Frontier, by Darwin Cooke, is a lot like the sequel to Trinity that never happened. It emphasized the first meeting of various heroes filtered through the lens of Silver Age elements and DCAU levels of heroic ideals. Combine that with Cooke’s very similar artwork style to Wagner (big poses, solid lines, bright colors, sparse details giving everything a slightly cartoony affect), the two go hand-in-hand as explorations of the dawn of DC. 

Wagner himself went back to this particular well in two later instances with a pair of outstanding Batman mini-series entitled Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk. I’ll probably showcase them later on, but they’re stellar explorations of Batman’s early days without needing to resort to Frank Miller/Batman Begins/Long Halloween-style storytelling that tends to infect that particular era of Bat history. Rather, the books read like a look into “how Batman got weird” pitting him against hulking monsters and vampires with a background emphasis on the development of stuff like the Batmobile and the Bat Signal. 

As for Trinity, DC eventually produced a lavish graphic novel release for the trilogy that I highly recommend picking up. We still seem to be obsessed with origin stories even today, and this is one of the best told origin stories for the three most important comic book characters of all time (sorry Wolverine and Spider-Man.) 

It’s just a great showcase of Wager’s superb artwork and Dave Stewart’s beautiful coloring.  If you’re looking for proof it’s easy to have these characters meet, disagree, but still come together without needing to resort to Batman worship or immature fisticuffs like so many modern tellings do, this is it. 

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