Fatman and slobbin'

DC Comics places its superheroes in the RealWorlds

A mildly retarded man who works in a grocery store believes he is Batman, the Dark Knight on a mission to free Gotham City from the clutches of The Joker. An actress playing the role of Wonder Woman becomes a spokeswoman, then scapegoat, for the Commie witch-hunters working for the House Un-American Activities Committee. A man branded against his will with Superman's giant red "S" turns to crime when the weight on his chest begins to suffocate him. A possibly demented computer billionaire summons his now-adult childhood friends to a Halloween party, then strands them in the middle of New York City wearing nothing but tights and embarrassment.

To these people, superheroes exist only in the pages of comic books and in the minds of men and women raised on their paper-and-ink exploits. Charlie Duffy, the would-be Caped Crusader; Brenda Kelly, filmdom's Wonder Woman; Eddie, the Clark Kent look-alike who bears the mark of Superman; and Bernard Epstein, a would-be Bill Gates who never outgrew his comic-book obsession: They all walk among us, struggling to get by in the mundane day-to-day. Yet they do not exist. They do not know that like their heroes, they are trapped inside the panels, speaking in bubbles.

All four are characters in DC Comics' brand-new, limited-run series titled, of course, RealWorlds -- the latest in postmodern, self-referential, wink-wink pulp fiction. Intended for the inner dork residing within reformed comic-book collectors (that is, anyone over the age of 12), the RealWorlds series is by, for, and about the flesh-and-blood progeny of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League, all of whom get their own books under the RealWorlds umbrella. The series, which debuted last month with Batman and continues this week with Wonder Woman, is a thoughtful examination of what it means to be a comic fetishist -- how people can become so enamored of a fantasy life that they actually begin to live it, and how mere symbols (say, Superman's "S") can sometimes bear a devastating impact upon those who revere them.

Put simply, they are comic books about comic books and the people who read them, or, at least, used to, until Mom and Dad sold them off in a garage sale. Depending upon your point of view -- whether you live with a spouse or your parents -- the books either offer pointed narratives about the tangible influence of fictional icons or poke fun at those who never grew out of their Halloween costumes. DC, of course, likes to think it does the former. In truth, it does a little of both.

"These are stories about how people live in a world where DC Comics are just comics, but the characters who are explored are more than comic-book characters," says Andy Helfer, an editor at DC who assembled the RealWorlds series. "They're icons. I mean, you're not going to see a Flash book or a Green Lantern book, because those guys haven't transcended comics. Everyone knows what Superman means or what Batman stands for. They've integrated themselves into the souls of America."

Originally, Helfer was working on a one-shot book about an actor who played Superman on a television series when writers Glen Hanson and Allan Neuwirth brought in their Wonder Woman tale, set in Hollywood during the Cold War '50s. Then, Christopher Golden and Ton Sniegoski, regular contributors to a comic based on the Angel TV series, pitched Helfer a story about a murderer who likes to dress as Batman. Within a matter of weeks, Helfer had on his desk a handful of similar stories, all of which peddled a similar theme. "There's something in the air telling me it wanted to happen," Helfer says, "so I said, "Instead of rejecting these two ideas, why don't I try to come up with a way to bring them all together in this RealWorlds idea and break it into different characters?'" Golden affectionately refers to Helfer as "the weird magnet."

Batman, written by Golden and Sniegoski and drawn by longtime Batman cartoonist Marshall Rogers, is the best of the series, and it also has the greatest potential to be misunderstood by those who would insist RealWorlds pokes fun at comics fans. It deals with a learning-disabled 27-year-old named Charlie Duffy who works in a New York grocery store and believes, down to his rubber boots, that he is Bruce Wayne/Batman (especially the campy, benign version portrayed by Adam West on the old TV series). Charlie refuses to let go of his childhood, when he and his friend Clarissa would dress as Batman and Robin and free the neighborhood from the clutches of the Penguin. Only now, Clarissa is a petty thief, a crackhead, and a whore. Robin's gone bad, and it's Batman's job to rescue her from The Joker.

Charlie's apartment -- his squalid, one-room "Batcave" -- is littered with back issues of The Brave & The Bold, Joker and Penguin statues, Batman Pez dispensers, posters of "Gotham City." His bicycle is his Batmobile, complete with a Batman logo attached to the basket that dangles from the handlebars. Being Batman gives his life meaning, some importance. Without his "secret identity," he's but one more empty, pointless man adrift in New York City.

The book is set in 1989, days before director Tim Burton's brooding Batman arrives in theaters. Charlie counts the days until its release, insisting to anyone who will listen that it's "my movie" -- as though it's a documentary about Charlie Duffy, not a movie starring Michael Keaton. Charlie's fantasy life is indulged by his landlord, his boss, and his neighbors, who tolerate Charlie because he is sweet, a cherub who clings to a childhood daydream. But in the end, the harmless fantasy becomes a violent reality: Charlie replaces the benevolent Batman of his youth with the "mean" version depicted in the film, and he discovers how easily a superhero bleeds.

Sniegoski and Golden's original pitch to Helfer wasn't nearly as endearing. At first, they envisioned a book in which a madman believes himself to be Batman. Donning the costume gave the character the "right" to go out and commit murder, in the name of good. Much of the book was to take place in an asylum, and it ended with a sick, gruesome twist (which they will not talk about on the record, since it may yet appear in another title they're working on). The team pitched their story as a Taxi Driver riff, and DC, of course, scoffed at the concept of a serial killer idolizing Batman.

"After a long, long conversation with Andy, the idea came up to skew it toward a more sympathetic character," says Golden, whose novel Strangewood also deals with the concept of how thin is the line separating reality and fiction. "We talked about how the neighborhood would react to this other guy, and we asked each other, "What if it was someone more innocent, and what if we played off the innocence of the pre-Jack Nicholson and pre-Michael Keaton era?' And also, Tom knew a guy growing up like Charlie, who was mildly retarded and pretended he was a policeman. If you look at most of Charlie's dialogue, it's a riff on the kinds of things this guy would say."

Batman has been both celebrated and derided in the comics industry trades. Some find it "oddly touching"; others insist it takes place in an after-school-special world where resolutions are quick and tidy. And not a few have insisted that Charlie Duffy is meant to represent the comic fan as mentally stunted boor -- "The Caped Retard," as one character in the book refers to Charlie. One would think the audience for the Batman title would almost hate the idea of its existence: Imagine being mocked by the very company to which you've devoted a good hunk of your allowance and your life.

In the February 4 issue of Comics Buyer's Guide, the industry's weekly bible, one rather sensitive critic insisted Batman reduced the comic fan to nothing but a stereotype, "the social misfit" who never grew up and "envisions [himself] as incarnations of comic-book heroes in the real world." Helfer, Golden, and Sniegoski scoff at the criticism, insisting Charlie is nothing but a stand-in for Sniegoski's childhood friend -- a fictional, sympathetic character, and no more.

"The reviewer thought by our choosing to make Charlie retarded, the implication was people who like comics must be retarded," Golden says. "I thought that was the silliest, most reactionary, paranoid comment I'd ever read. I am 32 years old and read many comics every month, and I am not implying that I am retarded."

The RealWorlds series debuts at a time when the comic-book industry limps along like Superman dosed by kryptonite. Kids can't be bothered with comics anymore, not when they can burn their two bucks at a Blockbuster, renting PlayStation or N64 games, instead of burning brain cells by...what's that word? Oh, yeah. Reading. Last year, the comic-book business brought in $575 million, according to industry trade publications. Video games, says the Interactive Digital Software Association, were a $6.1 billion industry in 1999. Even a monkey could do the math: Syphon Filter is kicking Superman's tired old ass.

Just four years ago, the mighty Marvel Comics, home of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and so many other neurotic do-gooders, declared bankruptcy; only the X-Men could save it. The company still staggers along like some wounded, two-dimensional warrior. In 1993, Marvel dominated the comics market; now, its titles account for less than a quarter of all books sold. Stan Lee, legendary writer-editor at Marvel, has even packed up and taken his shop to the Internet. And just last week, Lee announced he would be doing a series for none other than DC, in which Lee offers his interpretations of Superman, Batman, and other DC icons. Perhaps they will be printed on the white flag of surrender.

DC Comics, on the other hand, has more than doubled its once-puny market share since 1993 -- mostly by deciding the best way to sell its wares is by going upscale, mainstream, and retro. Now, you can find comics in a Borders Books & Music near you. Farewell, teen geeks and rickety racks full of pulp fiction. How-do, coffee bars and yup-scale readers willing to dispose of a few dollars for a quick hit of glossy nostalgia. That's the audience for which RealWorlds is intended: These are comic books for people who no longer read them. With the $5.95 price and retro covers (Batman features the logo from the TV series, the first time it has ever appeared on a comic book), DC intends these comics to be read by adults who gave up comics for a life but maintain a nostalgic fondness for the icons of their youth.

"Comics are a much more mature medium than people realize," says Golden, who became a voracious comic-book reader when he was a child dealing with his parents' divorce. "I feel like even though he is a character who is mildly retarded, Charlie is a defense for me and Tom and every other guy who knows there is nothing wrong with this. It's obsessive, sure, but for Charlie, it's all he's got, and he's too simple to know there's something more out there. He has his home and his job, and he has Batman, and that's pretty much it for him. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

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