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Realworlds: DC Comic Book Stories Set in Our World

By Edward Gross     February 24, 2000

Back in the 1950s and '60s, DC Comics devised a means of telling a number of fanciful stories that could never be pulled off in regular continuity (i.e. what if Batman had been raised by the Kents?, what if Superman lost his powers?, what if Superman had been raised by bad guys?, etc.) and deemed them 'imaginary' stories. Marvel picked up the mantle in the '70s and '80s with their 'What if...?' series, which raised some downright bizarre possibilities, before DC got back into the game with their prestige format one-shots, ELSEWORLDS. Now DC, like Monty Python, are trying something completely different.
REALWORLDS is the umbrella title for four one-shots that are set in 'our' world, and explore the impact that some of the company's more popular heroes have on every day people. Editor Andrew Helfer explains, 'I was working with a writer on a Superman idea that postulated the notion that Superman wasn't a comic book character. Instead, he was a role that this actor played on TV basically it was about George Reeves without really being about George Reeves. Then Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski came in with a proposal for a story about a guy who thought he was Batman. Then two days after that I got a proposal for a Wonder Woman story in which Wonder Woman was a character played by an actress in a movie serial. I turned both of those proposals down, saying I was working on a similar conceptsimilar to the extent that in both of those instances Batman and Wonder Woman weren't actually characters, but had inspired other people to do things. I felt that was too close to the Superman thing I had been working on. But then I started to think that maybe they weren't mutually exclusive. Maybe they could all fit together if the stories themselves were different from each other, but they all needed work to distinguish them from one another. So we went about trying to create REALWORLDS. Then the Superman thing fell throughwe just couldn't make it work. I started looking for someone to do Superman and talked to Harlan Ellison, but that didn't really work out. I never knew what Harlan was going to do, but I needed Superman to go with the Batman and Wonder Woman stories I had.'
The first issue, REALWORLDS: BATMAN, takes place in 1989 and focuses on a mentally challenged man named Charlie who is 37-years old but basically operates at the mental level of a 10-year-old. 'He plays Batman,' says Helfer, 'by putting on a Batman costume and running around the house. He fantasizes himself as Batman, imagines himself as the protector of his neighborhood and the people there all know he does it. They actually call him Batman. What the story's about is that after 20 years, he recognizes the woman who played Robin to his Batman when he was a kid and when she was a kid. He recognizes her coming into the super market and stealing a bottle of aspirin. He tries to build up the friendship with her again, discovers that she's with a bad crowd, and he's resigned to try to save her. He comes to believe she's been brainwashed by some super villain, and he has to rescue his Robin.'
Charlie, it becomes obvious throughout the story, has based his interpretation of Batman on the campy 1960s television series starring Adam West. The release of Tim Burton's darker incarnation in 1989, has a profound impact on him. 'He's at the end of his rope,' Helfer notes, 'and doesn't know what to do. The Batman thing is ineffective in helping him save this girl. He goes to a showing of the movie and gets that idea that this is what Batman has got to be: he's got to be the 'mean Batman.' He perceives this Batman as being mean, so he changes his code, as it were. It plays both sides of that. It's also an amazing looking story, and I'm so happy with the results. I think it's one of the most unique looking books I've ever worked on.'
Next up is the Wonder Woman issue, which takes place in 1948 and focuses on actress Brenda Kelly, who portrays Wonder Woman in the weekly movie serials of the same name. 'It's the tail end of the serial era,' says Helfer. 'She's in Hollywood and a senator is running for re-election in California on an anti-Communist platform. He sees Wonder Woman and thinks that she is such a great symbol of America and democracy, that he wants her to kind of stump for his campaign. He contacts the head of the studio, who thinks it's a great idea, and puts Brenda into the public eye to help boost her career and to boost interest in the Wonder Woman serials. At the same time this guy is campaigning, he's also working on the House of Un-American Activities, which is getting various Hollywood workers to reveal their Communist or potential Communist affiliations. Brenda's boyfriend, who is a Hollywood writer, gets accused of being a Communist sympathizer, appears before the committee and is blacklisted because of his refusal to name names. So what's going on is that Brenda is stumping for the guy who is accusing her boyfriend of being a communist. She has to figure out what to do. The studio is telling her that she has to do this, that she shouldn't be hanging out with people who are Commies, and her boyfriend is saying let's get the hell out of here because the city is so screwed up and these guys are ruining his life. I should also point out that there's a lot of action as wellthere's vendettas and vengeance and tough guys.'
The Justice League follows, though it owes more to the feature film THE BIG CHILL than the DC universe. As Helfer points out, 'In this story, there were a bunch of guys who used to play super heroes when they were kids. They have since grown up and gone their separate ways. Then, one day all of these people, who live in different places, get invited to a Halloween party and are sent the costumes of the heroes they used to play. So they all come to New York to find out who sponsored this party. Basically the idea was to do THE BIG CHILL with these people in super hero costumes, where they haven't seen each other in a long time and have an opportunity to discover themselves. At the same time, they discover each other and what they left behind when they stopped playing super heroes. Now they want to get some of that back again.'
The Man of Steel is the final REALWORLDS entry, although the concept is a far cry from the George Reeves-inspired idea that launched the concept in the first place. 'The springboard for this one,' says Helfer, 'came from three sources. One was the original poster for the LOIS & CLARK TV series, which showed Dean Cain holding Teri Hatcher, both wearing T-shirts and his shoulder is exposed and he's got the Superman tattoo there. The second springboard was a couple of pictures of Shaquille O'Neill with the Superman tattoo on his shoulder, and the third was a couple of photos of Jon Bon Jovi with a Superman tattoo on his shoulder. I thought, 'This Superman tattoo seems like a pretty popular idea. I'm not quite sure what it means, but what if a guy got a huge, life-size tattoo on his chest? What would that mean for that guy? How would that affect his life?' That's basically what the story is. This guy gets involved with these other street toughs in the '50s. One of the things we talked about is that if it took place in the present, people would say, 'Oh, that's cool,' and that would be the end of the story. So we set it in the '50s where tattoos had a slightly different meaning than they do today. At the same time, it's the Superman symbolwhat does that mean to kids? So the Superman tattoo on his chest changes this guy's life. It takes him in many, many different directions. Because people will judge you by the mark that you bear, it's a curse, but how can you make it a blessing?
'So we have four books,' he adds. 'They're all stories that explore the impact that these iconic figures have on the characters that we focus onhow the values of the super heroes are reflected in these real people. We took pretty big efforts to try and keep it real. A lot of stories and story angles got put down and thrown aside, because you're just exchanging one fantasy for another. We didn't want to get into the fantasy aspect of it. Basically our attitude was that these are stories that could happen to you.'
One would imagine that REALWORLDS will become an ongoing series if sales of the first four one-shots are successful. Helfer doesn't quite know how to respond to that observation. 'I'm fresh out of ideas,' he says with a laugh. 'I'm anxious to see what happens when these stories come out and whether or not people will say, 'Here's an idea.' I would love for it to become a franchise, because it's one of those things that kind of pushes the envelope. Super heroes are very much a part of these stories, but less so than in the last issue of Justice League or X-Men. I always find people to be as interesting as super heroes, if not MORE interesting. Obviously sales will be the factor to decide if it goes on, but it's something different and I'm always willing to do something different.'

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