O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
(This starts out cynical, but it gets better.)
DC’s superhero line is essentially an intellectual-property farm. Every new issue cements the company’s hold on its existing characters and/or introduces new characters for future exploitation. If, by some chance, a particular story turns out to be Art, so much the better. The important thing is to maintain those property rights.
Accordingly, it’s rare that a character is “retired,” a la Jack “Starman” Knight or Tommy “Hitman” Monaghan, when his story has reached a stopping point. A little while back I wrote that maybe the New Teen Titans had reached their own peak at the end of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s original run. Originally I wanted to revisit that, and list a few more titles which perhaps might have benefited from similar retirements. Let’s do that, at least briefly….
High on my list was DC’s 1986 Captain Atom relaunch, written by Cary Bates and Greg Weisman and pencilled by Pat Broderick. This version boasted a nifty high concept: framed for treason and blasted 18 years into the future, Cap finds his worst enemy has become both his boss and his kids’ beloved stepfather. In fact, most of the world thought Nathaniel Adam had died in disgrace, so he was blackmailed into becoming both Air Force intelligence agent Cameron Scott and the latest all-American superhero. Accordingly, Captain Atom combined spy-flavored superheroics with multiple levels of intrigue, and for fifty issues it was pretty fun stuff.
However, Bates, Weisman, and Broderick’s successor Rafael Kayanan were all gone after issue #50, and the book was canceled with #57. If that’s where Cap’s story had ended, that would have been fine … but as most of you probably know, Captain Atom was supposed to become Monarch, the villain of 1991’s Armageddon 2001 crossover event. I’m glad that didn’t happen, because I like Cap as a character; but this is part of the reason I say DC might have left well enough alone after issue #50.
Following 1991’s Armageddon: The Alien Agenda miniseries, in which Cap fought the “real” Monarch, Cap became a semi-regular Justice Leaguer, splitting off eventually to form the much-mocked Extreme Justice. Several years and a handful of guest appearances later, he sacrificed himself to save the Earth in the first arc of Superman/Batman. Yadda yadda yadda, this blasted him into the WildStorm universe, he learned he was really Monarch all along, he came back, now he’s in Justice League: Generation Lost.
And I still like him as a character. I even bought that WildStorm miniseries. I think that when done right, he is a very smart, down-to-earth guy and a good reader-identification character. Nevertheless, much of what made those fifty issues of Captain Atom interesting has been rendered moot by that mega-story’s resolution. (Indeed, the short-lived Breach series was apparently a stealth revamp of Captain Atom, so much so that Infinite Crisis revealed that Breach himself would have been one of Cap’s multiversal counterparts.) Now Cap is a much more generic superhero, because by and large DC hasn’t found any new hook upon which to hang him. In hindsight, retirement might have suited him better.
That said, I do think that an espionage-oriented writer like Greg Rucka or Ed Brubaker could do wonders with Cap even under his current status quo. Rucka’s recent stint co-writing Cap’s Action Comics co-feature wasn’t really an indication of his fit for the character.
And that, in turn, reveals my own reluctance to let a favorite character fade away. Another title on my list was Doom Patrol, which I first knew as a title which ended with its stars martyred. For most of the 1970s and ‘80s, the original Doom Patrol was defined by its sacrifice, such that a Wolfman/Pérez tribute story in New Teen Titans featured the late Patrollers only as memories. Even after the New Doom Patrol debuted in 1977’s Showcase #94, they only had a few more guest appearances (1978 and 1983 Supergirl stories, a 1982 Superman team-up, 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths) over the next ten years. 1987’s Doom Patrol vol. 2 lasted 18 issues on the newsstand before being “canceled” (again, with the deaths or “forced retirements” of most members) in favor of a switch in both format and marketplace.
Therefore, I was going to make the case that the original Doom Patrol had been satisfactorily retired via their 1968 sacrifice … but I would have had to distinguish the original DP from Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s no-less-entertaining version which started in vol. 2’s issue #19. I would also have had to discount Keith Giffen and Matthew Clark’s work on the current Volume 4. Although I like it a lot, it’s basically the original four Patrollers plus, among others, a couple of Morrison and Case’s characters. Saying that DC shouldn’t have brought back Rita, Larry, and the Chief would have deprived me of some mighty fine comics, past and present.
Similarly — and speaking of Rucka — at first I wasn’t convinced that his work on Gotham Central flowed that smoothly into making two of its stars into superheroes. Both Reneé Montoya and Crispus Allen are in demonstrably different places today. Still, for the most part Rucka has guided both characters into new roles, and I think that has helped ease my skepticism. I am glad that Rucka and co-writer Eric Trautmann were able to bring their Checkmate characters to a nice stopping point (I didn’t read the Bruce Jones issues), and I’m glad that DC has (mostly) gone back to them when it’s subsequently needed Checkmate.
Thus, part of me wants to establish a hard and fast rule that some books belong to some creators, regardless of work-for-hire or the conventions of a shared superhero universe. I don’t want to say “only Gail Simone should write Birds Of Prey,” because for many years it was written by Chuck Dixon, and it’s now prepping for an arc by John Ostrander [see sheepish comment below]. (Justice Society and Teen Titans do seem to have floundered since Geoff Johns left….)
Again, though, the Doom Patrol shows us that there are ways to bring one era to a close without salting the earth for the next creative team. The Morrison/Case run was successful not just for its unique characters and plots, but because it was able to take a fresh look at the original team’s “freakish” nature. Odds are it is not enough simply to ape a previous creative team’s work. For a revival to be worthwhile, it needs to be justifiably different. There are exceptions — institutions like Checkmate, the GCPD, and the Suicide Squad, are part of the structure of the DC superhero universe, and are defined at least in part by their particular functions — but even those still leave room for new interpretations and new perspectives.
Finally, I cannot help but note the irony that for some of the titles and characters I’ve talked about, including Captain Atom, The Question, and Checkmate, their second incarnations are really my main reference points. The shared superhero universe can abuse its characters, but it can also offer them new opportunities and the chance to honor their pasts by building constructively on them. (Of course DC claims it does this unfailingly.) The question, as always, is one of proper stewardship; and whether DC will choose cultivation or exploitation.