Totally Bizarro

Can superheroes and alternative comic authors really get along?

Originally, this was to be a story about how Stan Lee, the industry icon who ran Marvel Comics for decades and co-created Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, wound up remaking archrival DC Comics' most venerable heroes in his own image. The 12-part miniseries, Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating, was set to debut July 5 with a book starring a black Batman named Wayne Washington, who turns to crime-fighting after being accused of a crime he didn't commit. DC announced the project more than a year ago, and in an industry always looking for media attention outside such publications as Wizardand The Comics Journal(porn for fanboys), Marvel's kingpin going to work for the hated DC was Big News. But the title has been held up for myriad reasons--creative slowdowns, financial issues with Lee's own legally troubled, bankrupt Web site, you name it--and the buzz, for now, smells like a bust.

But in its stead comes a DC comic book--actually, a $30 hardcover book--that's causing a far greater rumble throughout the industry than Lee's (forever?) forthcoming series ever could have imagined. For the first time in the medium's 68-year history, a venerable comic-book monolith has invited troublemakers from the wrong side of the tracks to play with, and even break in half, its precious toys. With Bizarro Comics--a 236-page anthology that offers a completely different take on Stan Lee's Just Imaginepremise--DC has allowed some of the best-known and most obscure writers and illustrators from the alternative-cum-underground comics world free rein to revamp the company's best-known and most obscure heroes in their own image, more or less. What that means, for those of you who stopped cruising comic shops around the time you discovered real girls were better than Supergirl, is that people who hate heroes are now donning cape and cowl for a night out on the town, with DC footing the bill.

View askew: A scene from Ellen Forney and Ariel Bordeaux’s “Wonder Woman’s Day Off,” among the best tales in Bizarro Comics
View askew: A scene from Ellen Forney and Ariel Bordeaux’s “Wonder Woman’s Day Off,” among the best tales in Bizarro Comics

In a tale previously rejected by DC, Cowboy Wally Showauthor Kyle Baker imagines what becomes of an infant Superman's baby sitter; a few years ago, the company disapproved of a scene in which the tyke climbs into a microwave--it's all about context, one assumes. Ellen Forney, author of the Judy Bloom-obsessed autobiographical tale I Was Seven in '75, teams up with Ariel Bordeaux for two tales--one featuring Wonder Woman on her day off, as she attends a poetry slam; and another about two elementary-school girls, one of whom thinks she's Batgirl, who rescue dead bats from dissection. ArtbabeJessica Abel and Hicksvilleresident Dylan Horrocks take Supergirl and Mary Marvel out for a nice, quiet lunch. It's a book in which discarded sidekicks troll for work, Aquaman feuds with fish and winds up as bait, super-pets put the Man of Steel out of work, Batman and Robin fend off a rather unsuper-villain named The Eraser, Hawkman is the guardian of unhatched eggs, and Batman drowns his jealousy of Superman in a hot tub full of hot chicks.

Bizarro, so named for a silly villain who is Superman's total opposite, is a new Prada suit hanging in a closet full of polyester--the musty old emperor dressed in trendy togs as DC, like the rest of the comics industry, attempts to lure new comics readers without alienating the faithful. At its best, the book feels like a throwback to the old Madmagazines of the early 1950s, back when Harvey Kurtzman and the so-called usual gang of idiots poked loving fun at DC's icons: Superduperman, Bat Boy and Rubin, Captain Marbles and so forth.

But it's also a brave and bold move on DC's part to reconcile two disparate audiences that are rarely ever on speaking terms--the freaks who love their Green Lanterns and Martian Manhunters and the geeks who prefer their comic books meditative, black-and-white, tangible. (Those among us who fall into both camps prefer to be called "the beautiful people.")

"People who read superhero comics are imagining themselves being superheroes sorta, and people who read alternative comics are imagining that they could neverbe a superhero," says Sock Monkeycreator Tony Millionaire, who illustrates a Batman tale with book designer Chip Kidd. Their contribution to Bizarro, a send-up of a 1940s Batman tale, is among the book's best stories: It's at once anachronistic and anarchistic, a playful jab at a Dark Knight who must stave off a giant gorilla with a...well, bananarang.

"There's no way they could ever be a superhero," Millionaire continues, "so that's why they're looking at these stare-at-your-navel, introspective alternative comics. That's why I like the Bizarrobook: The superhero world is an entire world--they all seem to know each other--and looking at that world through another world is like looking at it through a weird, different pair of spectacles."

With rare exception, none of the 54 artists associated with the project has ever done a superhero comic. Their characters (usually themselves in thinly veiled autobiographies) live not in Metropolis or Gotham City, but in a very familiar here-and-now--a grimy, desolate place where people live paycheck to paycheck. Theirs are comics usually populated by the middle class, the lonely, the frustrated, the doomed--you and me, in other words.

At best, their love of superheroes is the product of vestigial nostalgia: They were weaned on Action Comicsor Justice League of America, but long ago swapped their tights for torn jeans and capes for old Converse All-Stars. And then there's someone like Seattle-based cartoonist-writer Ellen Forney, who never read comics at all as a kid; DC editor Joey Cavalieri, who instigated the Bizarroproject a year ago, had to send her a batch of Supergirland Wonder Womantitles just to let her fill in estimable blanks. Millionaire briefly read comics in his early teens but preferred Conan the Barbarian tales to those featuring superheroes.

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