Stunning sagas, alternate realities
Marvel tends to revisit its past with a specificity that DC doesn’t duplicate. In projects like World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!, What If?, the current X-Men Forever, and (apparently) the upcoming Clone Saga miniseries, Marvel not only spins new stories out of particular points in continuity, it attempts to give particular creative teams the second chances at closure which the fates denied them. Of course, DC does quite a bit of looking back itself, but most of the time it’s not facilitating such second chances. Still, there are certain points in DC’s publishing history which seem to ask for their own “what if” moments; so I’m going to talk about a few of those today.
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1. What if Jason Todd had “won” the phone poll?
Early in 1987, DC followed “Batman: Year One” (issues #404-07) with two projects: “Year Two” in Detective Comics, and “Did Robin Die Tonight?” in Batman #s 408-09. The former has been largely ignored, but the latter certainly wasn’t. Indeed, it might have been the beginning of the end for the character it was meant to rehabilitate.
For those who don’t know the background, here’s the short version. In 1983, Jason “Robin II” Todd was introduced as the son of murdered circus acrobats, just like his predecessor Dick Grayson. The similarities were intentional, because Jason was supposed to roll back the clock on Robin — to put the “boy” back in “Boy Wonder,” as it were, since Dick was already a college dropout. Regardless, after The Dark Knight Returns foretold his untimely death, and after “Year One” gave Batman a new coat of grit, Jason’s retro origin and vanilla disposition needed to keep up. Thus, Batman #408 (cover-dated June 1987; written by Max Allan Collins and penciled by Chris Warner) famously recast Jason as a street urchin who Batman caught trying to steal the Batmobile’s hubcaps. When writer Jim Starlin came aboard in issue #414 (December 1987), Jason acquired a certain antisocial attitude which apparently wasn’t that endearing. Unsure about what to do with the character, editor Denny O’Neil chose to let his readers decide Jason’s fate via a telephone poll. Some 20,000 readers voted, and the “kill him” choice won by 28 votes.
The rest is history: starting with “Year Three” in issue #436, writer Marv Wolfman set in motion the introduction of Robin III, Timothy Drake. Tim was pretty popular, headlining three miniseries (1990, 1991, and 1992), a feature in the Showcase ’93 anthology, and an Annual (a “Bloodlines” tie-in, but still), before receiving his own series in 1993. Although Tim’s no longer Robin, thanks to the new Red Robin series he’s still a headliner.
Without Jason’s death, though, none of that would have happened. A Jason who’d survived the Joker’s bludgeoning would have learned some valuable lessons, and might have been more palatable to the Bat-books’ readers. However, in the long run it might not have made much of a ripple, considering that Jason would merely have lost the sneer which Starlin had given him. Maybe Jason would have gotten a new costume made of tougher material, not unlike Tim’s original long-pantsed duds, but the big changes probably wouldn’t have gone much further. In fact, without Jason’s death, the Bat-team might have been more reluctant to replace Bruce Wayne in “Knightfall” — and since Tim’s first series was a “Knightfall” spinoff, the odds of Jason getting his own book would have decreased accordingly. Would a rehabilitated Jason have received the attention that Tim did?
Well … probably not. Judging by the relative indifference which greeted Adventures Of Superman #500 and Captain America #600, “returns” don’t seem to be as popular as introductions or deaths. Remember, not only was Tim Drake the new Robin, his debut as Batman’s full-time sidekick was teased for over a year while he got trained. Jason would have been back in action in a lot less time, and perhaps with less fanfare.
That in turn raises the question of whether a less-popular Jason/Robin would have affected the creation of other teenaged characters like Superboy, Impulse, and Wonder Girl II. I think those characters would have come along anyway, but their chemistry with Jason would have been different. For one thing, I suspect he’d be a few years older than any of them.
Actually, now I’m tempted to take back a bit of what I said earlier about “Knightfall.” In the wake of “The Death Of Superman,” I still can’t see DC turning down any of that filthy ’90s event-storyline cash. However, instead of Bruce’s back being broken, I wonder if DC wouldn’t have taken the opportunity to kill Jason at that point. A distraught Bruce would still leave Gotham in the hands of a replacement Batman, but in his lonely travels around the world perhaps he’d come across a new protégé, eager to learn and ripe for his own ongoing title….
2. What if Wally West hadn’t become the Flash?
According to the Crisis On Infinite Earths Compendium (the Absolute edition’s companion volume), Flash writer Cary Bates was told in May 1984 that the title would be cancelled with the next summer’s issue #350. Perhaps in recognition of his years writing Barry Allen, Bates was “given a chance to use the name and start all over again” (p. 9). At that point Wally “Kid Flash” West was effectively retired, thanks to the great pain which then went with using his super-speed. This left Barry with no obvious successor, and for a little while it looked like the next Flash would be a new character.
Regardless, a July 3, 1984, memo mentioned “cur[ing] Wally West [so that] he could possibly become the new, revised Flash” (p. 16). As Crisis penciller George Perez explained in Amazing Heroes #91 (March 15, 1986), making Wally the Flash “became almost an 11th hour decision after DC couldn’t quite come up with an idea for a new Flash. No one could think of anything without feeling like they were somehow insulting the name by giving it to a concept that had nothing to do with Barry Allen” (p. 50). Besides, Perez and Crisis writer Marv Wolfman had given Wally his affliction in the pages of New Teen Titans, so they didn’t have any problems taking it away.
While affection for Barry Allen’s legacy would have been understandable among the DC professionals who had both grown up with and worked on the character, it’s worth pointing out that Barry himself had no real connection with his predecessor beyond being a fan of Jay Garrick’s comic-book adventures. Thus, there was a precedent for the third Flash being someone unconnected to Barry. (However, according to Perez, such a Flash probably wouldn’t have been a woman, considering that Crisis was already introducing female versions of Dr. Light and Wildcat.)
If — and this is probably a bigger “if” than any of the other examples in this post — DC had gone with a heretofore-unknown Flash III, I think it would have had a huge effect on the company’s concept of superhero “families” and “legacies.” Wally was the standard-bearer for that sort of thing, at least until Jack “Starman” Knight came along. Additionally, Wally’s need to emulate Barry let his writers indulge whatever love they had for the Silver Age. Bill Messner-Loebs made the Rogues’ Gallery a bunch of avuncular goofballs, and Mark Waid used Barry’s reputation to inspire Wally to new heights. In fact, Waid’s work on The Flash is said to have inspired Grant Morrison’s JLA, so there’s another combination which might not have come to pass without Wally in the red suit. Overall, the Wally-to-Barry transition is widely regarded today as an excellent example of an older character given a dignified exit and his successor growing organically into the role.
At the time, though, the fans were not so happy; and fans of Barry were particularly upset at their hero’s death. (I specifically remember one angry letter to Amazing Heroes saying that Wally wasn’t fit to fill Barry’s boots.) If DC had gone with someone other than Wally West, the publisher might have gotten a preview of the spleens which would be vented upon them by Hal Jordan partisans in 1994. Fortunately, future Big Events would provide a few opportunities to switch out Flashes. Wally could have been “promoted” either in 1994’s Zero Hour or as a result of 2005’s Infinite Crisis. Failing that, surely Dan DiDio would have wanted to bring Barry back at some point….
3. What if Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden had finished Thriller?
At the end of his interview in the new Comics Journal (#298), artist Trevor von Eeden says he’s open to the idea of revisiting Thriller, the 1983-84 cult-favorite series which showcased von Eeden’s unique storytelling style. Von Eeden only penciled eight of the series’ twelve issues, and series creator Robert Loren Fleming only wrote the first seven. This resulted in a steep drop-off in quality. In the words of Thriller uber-fan David Allen Jones, the replacement creative team of Bill Dubay and Alex Nino “could never recapture the spark that the original creators had and the book limped to the finish line, mercifully killed.” Accordingly, I consider Thriller “unfinished,” and have always wondered what Fleming and von Eeden would have done with the title had circumstances not forced them off.
Since Thriller was one of the least conventional comics DC has published, it would be futile of me to predict any narrative specifics. Instead, I think that if Fleming and von Eeden had finished at least twelve issues, DC might be more amenable to collecting them, which in turn could have built on the book’s existing fanbase. The situation reminds me of the post-Jack Kirby Fourth World, which DC revisited in the mid-1970s with new creative teams, and which — despite big names like Gerry Conway and Don Newton on Return of the New Gods and Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers on Mister Miracle — Fourth World fans largely ignore.
Eventually, in the last issue of a miniseries reprinting the original New Gods, and in the follow-up Hunger Dogs graphic novel, Kirby produced his own conclusion to the saga. It’s not too late for DC to do something similar with Thriller, and I bet it’d make a dandy paperback when all is said and done.
4. What if DC had used Gerard Jones’ “Emerald Twilight?”
Attentive solicitation readers of the mid-1990s surely noticed that DC’s advance word on Green Lantern #48 didn’t quite match up with what was eventually published. The original solicitations for issues #48 and #49 promised dueling groups of Guardians, with the winners taking away the power rings’ weaknesses and appointing Sinestro the new head Green Lantern. As former GL writer Gerard Jones put it in the 1997 edition of The Comic Book Heroes (p. 358), the differences arose because his plot wasn’t “shocking enough.” To retool “Emerald Twilight,” Paul Levitz had “assigned [Denny] O’Neil, [Archie] Goodwin, and [Mike] Carlin to plot a new direction in one night.” As scripted by Ron Marz, this became the apocalyptic turning point which Green Lantern fans know so well.
The background for Jones’ “Emerald Twilight” goes back four years, to the beginning of GL volume 3. The first arc (issues #1-8) of this Green Lantern series picked up at a point where there was no Green Lantern Corps, the Guardians had gone off into another dimension to make super-babies with their female counterparts the Zamarons, and there were only four working power rings (Hal Jordan’s, John Stewart’s, Guy Gardner’s, and Ch’p the squirrel’s). By the end of that first arc, the Guardians had returned, but the one called “Old-Timer” (who had relinquished his immortality in the early ’70s, as a consequence of joining Hal and Green Arrow for their road trip) had gone insane. During the course of his GL run, Jones hinted that the other Guardians might not be entirely trustworthy either.
Appropriately enough, Jones’ original “Emerald Twilight” plot — which would have taken seven issues, #s 48-54 — builds on these hints, by introducing a second group of Guardians. The newcomers claim they’re the real deals, and Hal’s bosses are fakes who are guiding the universe into chaos. The Old Guardians counter that the new ones are really despots who will use the Green Lantern Corps to enforce strict, tyrannical order. However, the “new Guardians” (not to be confused with the short-lived New Guardians group) are also the parents of the Zamarons’ super-babies, who will supposedly be powerful enough to rule the universe. Therefore, the new Guardians’ claims look pretty solid, and most of the GL Corps sides with them. Nevertheless, Hal’s instincts and experiences tell him to trust the Guardians he knows, although it will alienate him from the Corps. This decision is especially painful because, thanks to the destruction of Coast City and his (latest) breakup with Carol Ferris, Hal’s decided to focus exclusively on being a Green Lantern, and the Corps is all he has left.
As a result (Jones explains),
Hal […] enters the [Central Power] battery to increase his power, fights the Corps and takes the Old Guardians into hiding as he seeks a way to convince his fellow GLs or beat the New Guardians. The stakes for Hal are high: if he’s RIGHT about the New Guardians, but they WIN, then the universe is doomed. If he’s WRONG in his gut-feeling and HE wins, then HE’S doomed the universe. If he’s WRONG and he LOSES, then the universe is okay but Hal is ostracized from the only group that means anything to him. The pressure is on him not only to win, but to be damn sure he’s right.
As Hal gathers his own army (other Earth superheroes, a splinter group of GLs led by Arisia, and Star Sapphire), the new Guardians reinstate Sinestro as leader of the GL Corps. Naturally, Sinestro’s program of “purifying” the universe includes things like destroying the Khund homeworld. Even so, the bulk of the Corps are either “wowed or cowed” (Jones’ phrase) by Sinestro’s leadership. Furthermore, the real power behind the New Guardians turns out to be Entropy (formerly Krona). If all that weren’t enough, Hal learns that the real Guardians arranged his father’s death.
And yet, Hal soldiers on, protecting the Guardians regardless of what they did to him. Entropy is beaten back, Sinestro is defeated, the Zamarons’ children wind up on the side of good, and the Corps is reunified. Hal, though, is tired of being manipulated by the Guardians, and quits the Corps. Using the powers he gained after going into the Central Battery, he strikes off on his own as “The Protector.”
Clearly, the eventual “Emerald Twilight” took quite a few beats from Jones’ original. Both feature Hal fighting fellow Lanterns (including Kilowog), both involve Sinestro, and both have Hal assuming a new identity after entering the Central Power Battery. However, just as clear are the differences in tone and effect. Jones’ “ET” only changed Hal, and left the Guardians and Green Lantern Corps intact. Ironically, from what he told Newsarama, his goals weren’t that different from eventual GL revamper Geoff Johns:*
… [M]y main goal was to restore Hal Jordan to glory. It didn’t exactly turn out that way. I was a huge fan of the John Broome-Gil Kane Green Lanterns of the ’60s and specifically a fan of Hal Jordan as they had conceived him, very sure of himself, even a little
arrogant, supremely competent, and I made say [sic] ‘simply heroic.’ I felt that character had [been] weighed down horribly with self-doubt and depressiveness and too many weird character turns, and the series as a whole had been choked by a too-complicated train-load of continuity that it always seemed to be dragging along on its back. I wanted to do a ’90s comic, with ongoing plots and continuity development, but with the cleanness and verve of those old Green Lanterns, and a more mature but equally admirable Hal Jordan in the center of it.
Because Jones also mentions bringing in a “new, younger GL,” a la Kyle Rayner, it’s hard to say whether he would eventually have returned Hal to the GL Corps. Since this was an early-’90s “replacement hero” storyline, and since the Corps itself would have made it easy for Hal and his replacement to coexist, it seems like that probably would have happened at some point. Accordingly, I have to think that DC could have saved itself (and the potential members of H.E.A.T.) a lot of grief by going with Jones’ original plot. Depending on the timing of Hal’s return to the Corps, the chemistry of Grant Morrison’s JLA might have been affected, but beyond that the ripple effects are harder to calculate.
One thing seems clear, however: without the “Emerald Twilight” readers saw, there would have been no need to rehabilitate Hal Jordan, and no need to restore the Green Lantern Corps. That would mean no Green Lantern: Rebirth, and from there the dominoes start to fall. As I remember, Jones considered the power rings’ weakness to yellow to be something the Guardians put in on a whim, and not an omnipotent creature which was the manifestation of fear. Thus, if there is no room in the GL mythology for avatars like Parallax and Ion, the whole “War of Light” concept is undermined … and suddenly DC has no Big Event for the back half of 2009.
Perhaps more significantly, Jones’ Green Lantern Corps was still basically the Corps of the Silver Age. Because the revised “Emerald Twilight” destroyed it and all but one of the Guardians, Geoff Johns had more freedom to recreate the Corps as he saw fit, giving the group a more distinct command structure and explaining the power rings more metaphysically. Although Hal had been around for thirty-five years before he turned bad, one could argue that he couldn’t sustain a title for more than about ten years at a time. Green Lantern vol. 2 lasted eighty-nine issues (including reprint issues) before being cancelled. When the book returned in the mid-1970s, it lasted about ten years (to issue #200) before being retooled into Green Lantern Corps. That version lasted twenty-four issues and gave way to Hal’s feature in Action Comics Weekly. Hal then went from ACW to GL volume 3, and there became Parallax in issue #50. Kyle then took over the title for the next ten years, until the book was cancelled to make room for GL: Rebirth and Hal’s current title.
Now, ten years is nothing at which to sneeze (from 1986-96, it seemed like the Justice League was being retooled every two years), but I have to wonder whether a kinder, gentler “Emerald Twilight,” with the status quo largely still in place, would have created enough interest in Green Lantern to sustain it without subsequent revitalizations. In other words, if Hal had returned to the Corps, say around issue #75, what would GL‘s handlers have done to shake things up? Would they have even felt the need to do anything? I suppose that, in one best-case scenario, Green Lantern would have been the same kind of Silver-Age-friendly book as Waid’s Flash, and it would have been popular enough on its own merits … but I am probably too cynical to see that happening. Some temptations are just too strong.
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Obviously these are not the only examples of creative teams needing closure.** However, each presented an opportunity to make radical (and perhaps arbitrary) changes to the existing status quo. Foregoing these changes therefore looks like the less risky choice, and I don’t think corporate-superhero-comics overlords want to be remembered as risk-avoidant (not in this sense, at least). Still, Wally West’s Flash lasted some twenty years, with Tim Drake’s Robin lasting sixteen and Kyle Rayner having Green Lantern to himself for ten. Indeed, those runs were themselves cut short to accommodate radical status-quo changes (even if the changes to Flash and GL were basically rollbacks). I suppose the most radical reinventions look routine, and the most conventional alternatives look risky, after enough time.
* [And they both have the same initials, just like Alan Scott and Abin Sur. Did I just blow your mind…?]
** [For instance, there's the news that Wolfman and Perez might actually finish the Games graphic novel.]