The city of Hauptstadt, circa 1939:
Jimmy Olsteyn looked up at the sign at the front of the Folies Bergeres. The cub reporter for Tages Welt had seen and done many things over the last several years, but had always managed to avoid the city's seedier side. He wondered what his friends at the newspaper would have thought if they could see him now … or even his editor, Per Weiss.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned quickly to see Hugo Balling, wealthy man about town. "Good to see you, Jimmy," he said. Jimmy smiled in response. "You as well, Hugo. So, I hope the Folies are as good as you've told me."
Hugo laughed, "They're better." He tipped the doorman, and the pair of them entered the building. Jimmy's head was filled with the acrid scent of cigarette smoke and the sensuous sounds of jazz from the band in the pit. What drew his attention most, however, was the sight of an exquisitely beautiful blonde woman swathed in furs, undulating on the stage.
"Do you like her?" Hugo whispered. "Her name's Alraune. I have a private box at the club … let's get seated so you can watch to your heart's content."
Jimmy nodded, dumbly, and allowed Hugo to take him by the elbow to guide him. He could not take his eyes off the dancer, and stumbled until Hugo settled in safely in a chair.
Alraune moved across the stage with inhuman sinuosity, and it seemed to Jimmy that her glittering eyes were directed only at him, and the small metallic baubles which barely concealed her body called to his attention as well. He felt himself in a sort of daze, and he heard Hugo's voice, whispering softly into his ear. "Now, Jimmy, tell me everything you know about Ubermensch … and about Klaus Kent and Lois Laneoff."
Days later, Jimmy paced across the floor of his small apartment, all the while occupied with amorous thoughts of the exotic Alraune. He heard a footstep behind him, and turned around quickly, his mouth opening in surprise at what he saw. "Fledermaus!"
The man clad in red-brown and grey nodded, his expression grim. "So you recognise me, then?"
Jimmy narrowed his eyes. "Everybody's heard of the famous terrorist. What do you want from me? If you dare to harm me, you know Ubermensch will … "
Fledermaus approached the other man, his voice just above a whisper. "You don't need to mention his name. Yes, I know all about your ties to the 'Man of Iron'. Does he know about your family's background … and the Jewish taint in your blood?"
Jimmy turned pale, the anger evaporating from his face to be replaced by fear. "No. You … you wouldn't tell him?"
Fledermaus shook his head. "I have no intention of doing so, if you assist me. Or rather, help me to help you. You went to a Spielklub this past weekend, didn't you, and gambled away all the money you had? Hugo Balling took you there, didn't he?"
Jimmy's mind whirled. "Yes," he said, uncertainly. In fact, everything that took place that night after he witnessed Alraune's dance seemed to him to be in a sort of haze.
"You were cheated," Fledermaus said.
Jimmy furrowed his brow. "No, Hugo wouldn't … "
"I believe Hugo Balling is dead," Fledermaus said. "The man who has been masquerading as him, is none other than Gwynplaine."
"Gwynplaine? 'The Man Who Laughs'?" Jimmy's expression displayed his shock. "What would that psychotic killer want with me?"
"I don't know." Fledermaus stroked his chin thoughtfully. "He and I have crossed paths several times in the past. But I believe there is some sort of conspiracy against Ubermensch, and he has been enlisted as part of it. There is no love lost between Ubermensch and myself, but I would not find the likes of Gwynplaine to be preferable."
"How can I help you, then?"
"Just be alert if Hugo Balling contacts you again." He took a sheet of paper and a pen from Jimmy's desk and began to write. "This man … Baruch Wane … is an agent of mine. If you have any trouble, you can reach me through him." He lowered his voice once more. "That includes if you need an escape route for any … other reason, my friend."
Jimmy nodded, dumbly, and Fledermaus disappeared out the window into the night. The reporter's eyes scanned the page with its neatly written print, carefully memorising the information there, before striking a match and burning it to ashes.
The back rooms of ' Das Petit Casino' was filled with the sounds of cards being shuffled, dice being rolled, and the mechanical noises of the rolling gears of slot machines. The dark-haired man smiled as the roulette wheel turned once again in his favour, and reached forward to pull the increasing pile of chips towards himself.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. "You're doing well there," said a voice which seemed to hide some private joke. Immanuel looked up, to see a nattily attired man in a deep violet suit. "My name is Hugo Balling," the man said. "It's been a pleasure to watch lady luck so grace a man with her presence."
The man's smile broadened. "Rath. Immanuel Rath. Pleased to meet you, Hugo." The roulette wheel turned, and several in the crowd gasped as Immanuel's luck ran out, and he pushed several of his chips back to the dealer. "It seems you've put an end to my lucky streak. I think you clearly need to buy me a drink in recompense."
Hugo laughed. "So it appears. I suppose I'm sorry, but I will never turn down an excuse for a drink."
Immanuel collected his chips to cash them in. "A pleasant enough diversion," he said as he pocketed the deutschmarks, "and the beer they serve here is not so bad."
As they reached the bar, Hugo ordered a pair of lagers. "So what do you do when you're not frustrating the casino?" he asked.
"This that and the other," Immanuel shrugged. "I am idle much of the time and have money to burn. But I come here and the money only seems to multiply. I've been lucky, as you've said."
"When we're done here, you should come with me to the Folies Bergeres, there's a wonder there whom you ought to see, by the name of Alraune." From his waistcoat he slipped out a gold pocket watch attached to a chain. "There is still time before the next show," he said, and began to swing the watch to and fro in a slow arc. "The beer must be making you sleepy, though … "
Immanuel's eyes tracked the motion of the watch and his eyelids began to droop. Then he leaned forward, and his voice deepened into a hiss. "Perhaps instead I can escort you to a prison cell, Gwynplaine."
Gwynplaine's eyes bulged out. "Fledermaus!" he said, recognising his arch-foe's voice. With a sudden burst of insane speed, he tossed his lager into the other man's eyes. Fledermaus was only blinded for a moment, but in that time the disguised Gwynplaine had bolted for the door, filling the room with the sound of hysterical laughter.
Fledermaus took off in pursuit, but by the time he reached the streets they were empty. He grunted, and walked over to a nearby alleyway. He ran a cord from his utility belt and attached it to a nearby phone line, and then attached the other end to a compact headpiece. "Komissar Garten? It is I. I suggest you go to the Folies Bergeres and arrest a dancer named Alraune on a charge of larceny. She has been working with Gwynplaine."
He barely heard a displacement of air behind him, and he whirled around in response to a familiar tone. "What is this about Gwynplaine and Alraune you have been working on, then?"
Fledermaus narrowed his eyes at the man who descended from the sky. The man's bare chest was a solid slab, with a black swastika in a white square on his red belt which matched a pair of red wristbands. His jaw was an iron horseshoe beneath close-cropped blond hair, and blue tights and black leather boots seemed to complete the ensemble.
"Ubermensch," he hissed.
The other man sounded amused at his tone. "Is that any way to sound when addressing an old friend?"
"Yes, when the Star Conqueror came down from the skies, I was willing to join with Gudra, Sea Wolf and all the others as the JLAxis in order to defeat it … but do not be led to presume my ideals are your own."
Ubermensch shook his head. "It doesn't matter to me what your 'ideals' are. You spoke to my pal Jimmy Olsteyn recently. It seems he had a run-in with one of your arch-enemies the other day … and with Alraune as well."
Fledermaus' mask hid his surprise. "I just asked Komissar Garten to arrest her … you know the woman?"
"She's not a woman. She's an homunculus created by Ten Brincken, the same man who created that distorted, bottle-grown image of me called the Antihuman. I suspect the Kommisar will have more trouble with her than you anticipate. But that's not the purpose of this meeting. Olsteyn recalled more of his interactions with Gwynplaine than he had before. Apparently he was asking what Jimmy knew about me."
Fledermaus pondered this information. "I remember when Gwynplaine teamed up with your own arch enemy, the mad scientist Rotwang, as part of a ploy to bedevil us both. It's not like him to focus on you, personally, but he's so unpredictable."
"Ubermensch!" A woman's voice came from the street. Both men turned, to see a glamourous, dark-haired woman running towards them, her expression urgent.
"Lois? What's happened?"
"It's Jimmy. He's disappeared. I think he's been kidnapped!"
Buruch Wane, dapper as ever in his dark suit, glanced down at the programme in his hand. Professor Weltmann, a psychoanalyst, had been the last person to be in extensive contact with Gwynplaine.
Weltmann took the podium to scattered applause. "Thank you," he said. His keen eyes scanned the audience. In his hands were a series of gilt-edged notecards, which he glanced at occasionally, rifling through them or shuffling them in what seemed to be a nervous habit as he began his talk.
"I begin with an explication of a curious case," Weltmann said. "The beginning patient often FLEes away from the analyst's attempts to construct a new, more rational orDER to the patient's thoughts. "But the Mind has its own magnetic field … scientists have even detected the gAUSsian field of it … and it will draw the patient back to analysis." He smiled, "If you will forgive the scientific FLight of fancy. Now, if we look at a more involved example of DERangement … "
Weltmann continued his talk, the notecards flickering in his hands continuously. At its conclusion, Wane applauded politely, and travelled back to his home. Hours later, Fledermaus drove his red-brown automobile off an embankment.
It was only at the last moment that Ubernensch appeared, catching the vehicle in his iron hands and lowering it more gently to the surface. He snapped his fingers loudly, several times before the other man's face. "Fledermaus!"
Fledermaus blinked, and rubbed his eyes. He looked around him in dismay. "I … I went to learn more about Gwynplaine, but it appears I was anticipated. Gwynplaine's probably assassinated Professor Weltmann and taken his place."
"Alraune's been arrested," Ubermensch said, "I saw to that. But Gwynplaine managed to escape via the sewer tunnels. Where would he go?"
"His insane mind has developed many complicated plots which I have foiled in the past, but he's never been so accomplished in disguise before. He's had help." Fledermaus narrowed his eyes. "Zoltan's Wachsfigurenkabinett."
Soon, the pair had arrived at the waxworks at the end of town, famed for its collection of human-sized wax figures. Fledermaus effortlessly picked the lock, and they pair soon found themselves in a series of terrifying tableaux detailing some of the greatest villains of mankind's history: the Caliph 'Haroun-al-Raschid,' the mad Czar 'Ivan the Terrible,' the magician 'Rinaldo Rinaldini', the mass murderer 'Mackie Messer', the magician 'Cagliostro', the child-slayer they called 'M', the pianist with the murderer's hands 'Stephen Orlac', and the nosferatu 'Graf von Orlok'.
"Gwynplaine would feel at home here," Fledermaus mused. "If there is a secret passageway, he would locate it in this section."
Ubermensch nodded, scanning the area with his x-ray vision. So intent was he, that he barely heard Fledermaus' cry of warning before he felt the sharp edge of a blade across his chest. He stepped back in pain. "That's impossible," he exclaimed, looking up to see him and his ally surrounded, as the wax figures had begun to move.
Magic and vampirism and depthless cruelty faced the pair as they found themselves in a terrible battle. Their enemies seemed untiring, and the human Fledermaus began to wonder whether this plot of Gwynplaine's may have led him to his final battle.
His eyesight began to blur, a glittering golden bauble seeming to appear in his line of vision. He blinked, and his fist swung out, and he saw a wax figure of the nosferatu clatter to his feet. Ubermensch's eyes glowed red, and the vampire and the other figures melted down into puddles of wax.
"Robin!" Fledermaus said to the young, scarlet-clad woman before him. He smiled. "One of the many occasions in which I owe you my life."
"And Jimmy," Ubermensch said. "It's good to see you. What had happened?"
"Gwynplaine used his hypnotism and his skill with disguise to make you two believe the wax figures had come. Fortunately, Robin was able to free me, and we distracted you long enough to snap out of it."
"This is not Gwynplaine's usual mode of operations," Fledermaus said again. "Why the change? And why target Ubermensch?"
Ubermensch shook his head. "I believe your foe was not the true villain here. He may even have been another victim. This bears all the signs of Dr. Caligari … one of my own foes."
"Caligari and his somnambulist killers," Jimmy gasped. "I never thought we'd see him again."
"Robin, take Mr. Olsteyn home and then see what you can find out about Gwynplaine's current whereabouts. It may lead us to Caligari."
Afterwards, as the younger pair found exited the room, Fledermaus began to follow, when he felt an iron-hard hand on his shoulder. He turned to face his ally. "Yes?"
"I believe I can manage Caligari on my own, as I have in the past," Ubermensch said. "I wanted to speak to you. Something about a case of terrorism and sabotage, against railroad tracks carrying property of the traitorous Jewish economist Ludwig Von Mises. Would you know anything about that?"
"Funny you should mention that," Fledermaus said. He whirled around, and Ubermensch felt a sudden weakness assail him as Fledermaus socked him in the jaw. He fell to the ground. "What … how … " He looked up to see a glowing green ring on Fledermaus' hand. "You would dare?"
Fledermaus knelt down, and struck Ubermensch again, causing the other man to gasp in pain. "Yes, I would dare … a ring made from the same extra-terrestrial element as Mackie Messer's green knives. We will part on good terms this day … 'old friend' … but do not get in my way in the future." He rose to his feet. "Give my regards to the JLAxis at the next meeting," he said with a smirk, and vanished into the darkness, leaving Ubermensch very disturbed.
The plot harkens back to the original film, Mabuse the Gambler, with a touch of Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (The Waxworks) at the end.
Batman Chronicles #14 was the origin of Baruch Wane, the Fledermaus.
Animal Man #24 was the first appearance of the blond, barechested, pre-Crisis Ubermensch.
"Ubermensch" by Kim Newman provided much of the background for the character (his parents' names, for the record, were Johann and Marte).
Multiversity #7: Master Men provided additional background, although I used the name of the older team 'JLAxis' from 52 #52 on the assumption that the 'New Reichsmen' are their legacies (the pre-Crisis version was a member of 'Axis Amerika,' but I wanted to set the story in Germany).
Captain Confederacy issues namechecking Uberman provided the city name of Hauptstadt.
The Saturday Night Live skit "What If Superman grew up in Germany, instead of America?" provided the name of Superman's cast (Klaus Kent instead of Kim Newman's Curt Kessler or Morrison's Karl Kent, Lois Laneoff instead of Newman's Luise Lang, and Jimmy Olsteyn instead of Grant Morrison's Jurgen Olsen; Morrison's apparent equivalent of Lana Lang was named Lena).
I used the names of Roy Thomas' Wonder Woman and Aquaman counterparts from Young All-Stars' Axis America (rather than Morrison's) just for the sake of acknowledging one more Ubermensch counterpart.