Comics Review: Bizarro World

Elaine replacing her friends with “Bizarro Jerry,” “Bizarro Kramer,” and “Bizarro George” on Seinfeld, shows the hilarity that ensues when classic figures are seen just slightly askew. As in that episode, DC’s Bizarro World, is a compilation featuring familiar characters including Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern interpreted slightly differently from their archetypal form, by a series of independent and, often, unknown creative teams.

It is a strategy reminiscent of recent cinema history: use the vision of independent artists on big studios’ big-budget bonanzas. It is the career path followed by such well-known directors as Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to The Hulk), Brian Singer (The Usual Suspects to X-Men) and Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead to Spider Man 2), and one that often leads, interestingly enough, to comic book adaptations.

The parallel world of comic “studios” consists of Marvel Comics (house of Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America) and DC Comics (home to Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) and indies like Dark Horse Comics, Oni Comics and Fantagraphics Books.

For the mainstream comic studios, the poaching of auteurs serves two purposes: a technique to lure readers with a more independent sensibility, such as cynical college students, to characters they “outgrew” and as a look at the creators’ reaction to access to classic characters. These creators are more willing to challenge the dominant clichés of knock-down drag-out fist-fights that characterize much of mainstream comics. As might be expected from a work featuring such a diverse array of creators, the strength and tone of the stories vary widely.

Often the creators choose to take a sweetly mocking approach to the classic iconography, such as in “Batman Smells” written by “The King of Queens” vet Patton Oswalt and drawn by Bob Fingerman. The story elucidates a possible scenario behind the familiar rhyme “Jingle bells/ Batman smells/ Robin laid an egg/ Batmobile lost its wheel/ Joker got away.” The pleasure of this story is that it is funny, original, and totally accessible for younger audiences and non-readers, while still filled with familiarities for those devoted to the Bat-mythos.

“Aquaman,” by former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty and Danny Hellman, looks at the titular hero in a tone that dominates many of the book’s stories: the hero as the common, lonely man. Aquaman takes the train to an open mic night at a super-bar called the Sorceress of Follitude. He treats a skeptical audience to a love-ballad called “Mera,” trumped by the arrival of the charismatic bad-boy hero of the bar, Robin. Withering in dejection, Aquaman is picked up by a groupie who invites him back to her place. Soon after, he realizes she is a former Batman fan and inferiority replaces sexuality. The tale of extraordinary-looking beings acting ordinarily grabs its power from its illustrated form creating as legitimate an examination of characters’ inner lives as could be found in many a New Yorker short story.

My personal favorite is an adventure featuring The Spectre by Chris Duffy and Craig Thompson. The character, less well-known than many of the others of the book, is a cop named Jim Corrigan who was murdered by gangsters, but reincarnated to punish evil as God’s spirit of Vengeance (yes, comics occasionally acknowledge the theological conundrums posed by a world of Übermenschen). This story delves into what a police precinct would be like with one of the detectives secretly parading around as the Spirit of Vengeance: the supply person who forgets to order a three-ring hole punch has giant holes punched into his body; the guy wasting paper is changed into a giant tree that is cut down by the Spectre; and the whistling postman has his head turned into a giant whistle.

On one hand, the story is filled with events familiarly annoying from everyday life and thus accessible. Wouldn’t you just like to turn the bad-smelling kid from section into a giant bar of soap? The drawings also define the story. Without the pictures, there would be no way of seeing the underlying pathos to a seemingly funny situation. The embodiment of God’s wrath is unarguably pathetic as Corrigan is left alone to stare at his Rookie of the Year photo, while his police comrades go home to loving wives.

Many of the stories were less effective for me, such as the titular story, but this is partly a matter of personal taste. It is easy to see its appeal to another audience, particularly a younger one. “Lantern Sentai,” an attempt to adapt Green Lantern to a Tokyo anime style didn’t hit my spot, but Manga fans might rejoice at the Studio Kaiju production.

With thirty-five stories to choose from, there is something for everyone in Bizarro World, from someone who gets all the references in the Justice League story “Take Your Kids to Work Day” to the subversive romantic sympathizing with the dating travails of Deadman, a ghost that can briefly possess the living to the media satire of “The Red Bee Returns,” an attempt by a long-dormant hero to receive mainstream attention. No matter what your graphic novel baggage, the trip to Bizarro World is worth the ride.

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