Monday, July 15, 2013

Unearthed: "The Game" by Christopher Priest & Cary Nord

Heading back to 1999, we find the JLA 80-Page Giant#2 book, a potpurri of stories featuring members of the Justice League of America, some set in the past, some in the contemporary setting and one tale in the future (via their "One Million" scenario). I'd like to consider the first tale from this otherwise average comic book: "The Game," a Green Arrow & Batman story by Christopher Priest and the Great White Nord's own Cary Nord.

The story is narrated by Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, who is considering the person of Bruce Wayne; Queen muses how he despises the hypocrisy of people within his own social setting, people like Wayne; and yet, although he suspects there's something wrong with Bruce Wayne, it isn't to do with how he conducts his business affairs or his politics; Queen thinks he's seen a "gleam" in Bruce's eye which suggests Bruce Wayne is "one of the world's greatest liars." As this is narrated, we see Bruce Wayne crash his car into a snow drift; although bleeding from the crash, Bruce laughs from behind the steering wheel.

Stepping back in time a few days, we see Oliver Queen at a dinner party; he notices an attractive woman, Kelli, but Kelli is on her way out, fuming; she was stood up by her date Bruce Wayne, who came all the way from Gotham to Star City for the party, then failed to show. Just then, Queen's pager goes off, alerting him to a police emergency requiring Green Arrow; this being back in the Silver Age, Queen dons his classic Errol Flynn-themed costume and drives in his Arrowmobile to the scene of a crime, cursing himself for designing an outfit with short sleeves (and a car without anti-lock brakes). To his surprise, Green Arrow finds Batman at the scene.

Well up to the 1970s, Green Arrow was a poor man's Batman - Batman by way of Robin Hood. This tale acknowledges the similarities up front: "I'd heard Batman had a car. And a plane. And a CAVE. So guess what? Green Arrow had a car, and a plane and a cave. And he had about as much use for them as Greenpeace has for Big Oil. A cave. What the hell was I thinking? I guess I was thinking about HIM. About how nice it would be to actually BE him." Green Arrow arrives at the fight just as Batman is facing the last man; Arrow doesn't realize this crook has wired the roof of the building with explosives and holds the detonator in his hands, so the confrontation ends when the startled criminal drops the detonator, setting off his bombs.

Batman suffers a bad injury in the explosion and fall, breaking some ribs; Green Arrow catches Batman mid-air and gets him to the ground, then Arrow lapses into uncontrollable laughter: "an inappropriate nervous release," Queen believes. However, Batman isn't the jolly bloke Green Arrow is and disappears without saying so much as a word.

Returning home, Queen picks the glass from his hair while his sidekick Roy Harper watches on (the sidekick being yet another detail borrowed from Batman). Just as Queen begins to relate to Roy how the evening transpired, he suddenly recalls Kelli mentioning Bruce Wayne came to Star City, then stood her up. He begins to wonder; Queen quickly phones up Bruce Wayne and claims he has to visit Gotham on business, suggesting they play racquetball while he's in town. On the other end of the line, Bruce is being patched up by Alfred. Bruce is all too aware of Queen's rationale for the game - he wants to see if Bruce has the same injuries Batman suffered that evening. Alfred suggests bringing Queen into Bruce's confidence, but Bruce decides the only way to maintain his secret identity is to confront Queen directly.

And thus the titular game unfolds; as they play, Queen wonders about Batman and Bruce Wayne. "Far as I knew, Batman's only super power was arrogance." He notes how terrible Bruce is at keeping appointments and generally "useless." Queen intentionally hits Bruce with the racquetball, just to see his reaction; Bruce falls down and Queen suggests he give up, but Bruce refuses and resumes the game. And thus, Queen comes to his supposed epiphany; he sees the intensity Bruce places on winning the racquetball game and the facade Bruce maintains in stifling the childhood trauma of his parents' deaths and determines "no one so LOST could manage the things Batman does."

Following the racquetball game as Bruce drives home, he finally succumbs to his wounds, having used "zen techniques" to stifle the pain earlier. Losing control of his car, he crashes into a snowbank and, as we saw in the opening, laughs - the same "inappropriate nervous release" Green Arrow felt.

Thoughts: This exploration of the similarities between Green Arrow and Batman features one obvious aspect which - naturally - Oliver Queen doesn't comment upon - he and Bruce Wayne are both wealthy playboys, which is how their double identities can afford their sidekicks, lairs and gadgets. Of course, in this story Queen sees his wealth as a burden, forcing him into a society he'd rather not participate in; it's suggested his personality isn't terribly different whether he's in costume or out of it. On the other hand, Bruce Wayne uses his wealth and status to help disguise his identity at Batman, to the extent of making Bruce seem to be the "useless" person Queen sizes him up as.

At 10 pages the story needs a little more room to breathe, but Priest fit a lot of colour into this tale. I think the most potent idea Priest had was in how people who know about Bruce Wayne's past must think about the false persona he adopts. Queen describes it as, "a guy so full of HATE he had to INVENT Wayne the Party Boy just to keep from sticking his HEAD in an oven." In some ways, it points back to familiar ideas about Bruce Wayne being a mask while Batman is the character's true identity; here, Queen correctly surmises the grief-stricken child is the "real" Bruce Wayne but can't connect that buried identity to Batman.

We also have the "inappropriate nervous release" of laughter, demonstrating as with Batman: the Killing Joke, having Bruce/Batman laugh inappropriately is just a little creepy. In this case, I like seeing Batman withhold the urge to laugh while Bruce is the one who gives in to his emotions. In that moment, all "masks" are off.

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