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.