O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned The Comics Reporter’s excellent list of “emblematic” ‘70s comics, and how I’d like to put together something similar. Thus, with help from the timeline at comics.org, I started putting together a short list of significant creators, books and characters that I thought defined ‘70s DC.
However, the more I thought about my list, the more it struck me as indicative of a company at odds with itself. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, DC boasted several successful long-term marriages of professional and property, including Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans and Pérez’s Wonder Woman, Steve Englehart and Joe Staton’s Green Lantern, John Byrne’s Superman, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, Doom Patrol and JLA, and Mark Waid’s Flash. In the ‘70s, though, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Writers like Gerry Conway and Cary Bates became synonymous with Justice League and Flash, so much so that by the mid-‘80s (and the Detroit League and “Trial of the Flash”) they had arguably stayed too long.
By contrast, the more fondly remembered runs were far shorter: Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books, Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ handful of Detective Comics issues, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter, Steve Gerber and Simonson’s Metal Men, Denny O’Neil and Michael W. Kaluta’s Shadow. Even O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern only lasted about fourteen issues (counting the story serialized as a backup in Flash). After teaming up initially in late 1969 with “The Secret of the Waiting Graves” (Detective Comics #395), 1973’s “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” (in Batman #251) was O’Neil and Adams’ last Batman story, and Adams’ farewell to regular Batman comics was 1974’s “Moon of the Wolf” (issue #255, written by Len Wein). Nothing against Gerry Conway and Cary Bates, whose work was obviously successful enough to keep their jobs secure, but they are emblematic of ‘70s DC in quite a different way.
So which is it? Is it fair to remember DC in the 1970s as the company of Kirby, O’Neil & Adams, Englehart & Rogers, or of Conway and Dick Dillin, Bates and Irv Novick? On the basis of volume alone, I am inclined to go with the latter. Not that long into the decade, DC was a place of effective, but conservative, artistic styles. It wasn’t too far from Dillin and Novick to Curt Swan, Ross Andru, Ernie Chan or Alex Saviuk. Some artists, like Jim Aparo, Mike Grell, Don Newton and José Luis Garcia-Lopéz, were instantly recognizable; but I couldn’t tell you who drew a given issue of (pre-Pérez) Teen Titans or Wonder Woman. Again, that’s not bad on its face, because I could rely on Swan’s Superman and Dillin’s JLA to be consistently good.
Nevertheless, such consistency may also have nurtured a certain “don’t fix what isn’t broken” attitude on the parts of both professionals and fans. Dick Dillin drew Justice League until he died, and Curt Swan drew Superman until Byrne took over. In both cases, readers were greeted with more dynamic interpretations of these characters. Dillin was no slouch when it came to big casts and cosmic threats, but Pérez’s JLA seemed still more epic; and Byrne’s Superman was arguably more accessible than Swan’s. But those changeovers took place in the ‘80s, so we’re getting somewhat off the track….
There is another way to bridge this gulf between “brief flashes of brillance” and “long runs of reliability,” and that is our old friend the shared universe. As I noted while discussing Secret Society of Super-Villains, the Fourth World characters weren’t quite staples of DC’s superhero line in the mid-‘70s, but neither had they been forgotten. Gerry Conway was largely responsible for post-Kirby New Gods follow-ups, which weaved their way through the eponymous revival series, SSoSV, Super-Team Family, and Adventure Comics, before bringing Darkseid back for good in those 1980 Dillin/Pérez issues of JLA. Similarly, Denny O’Neil stayed on Green Lantern for several years after Adams’ last story, and eventually collaborated with Grell (whose style I always thought was very Adams-esque) first on the GL backups in Flash and then on the revived Green Lantern. When GL got his book back, Green Arrow returned as well, sharing the spotlight for over thirty more issues. Speaking of Neal Adams, it almost goes without saying that every Bat-artist which followed him stuck to that “Darknight Detective” sensibility. ‘70s DC knew it had some good things going, and wanted to sustain them as long as possible, even after the original creative teams had gone.
‘70s DC was also experimental in a number of small ways, such as the Mad-like humor book Plop!, Joe Kubert’s adventure books Tarzan and Tor, Grell’s Warlord, Steve Ditko’s Shade, the Changing Man, and the eclectic superheroes of “Conway’s Corner.” However, the “DC Implosion” cut many of those experiments short. With the exception of survivors like Warlord and Firestorm (both of which, despite recent cancellations, seem perennially ready for revival), these properties may be remembered better as curiosities than as examples of truncated creativity.
It must be said as well that ‘70s DC saw its publishing diversity slowly erode over the years, mostly in the areas of horror, romance, and humor. Today, thanks to Alan Moore, we think of DC-style horror as the province of Vertigo, but we wouldn’t have Swamp Thing without the brief (of course) collaboration of Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. As they are today, Westerns and war comics were represented then mostly by Jonah Hex and Sgt. Rock; but back then, Jonah’s old book Weird Western Tales was still around, as were G.I. Combat, Weird War Tales, Our Fighting Forces, Our Army At War, and Star Spangled War Stories. Many of these books were casualties of the Implosion, and that in turn helped clear the decks for more superheroes.
Therefore, it’s tempting to see what we might learn from the 1970s as we evaluate the current state of DC Comics. David Brothers calls today’s DC a company in transition, “clearly trying to turn a corner and move away from their past in one way or another,” and to a certain extent I think that was true of DC in the early ‘70s. (Kirby and O’Neil/Adams are prime examples of that.) Before too long, though, DC found itself fairly comfortable with professionals whose work wasn’t particularly flashy, but who could be consistently effective every month. There it stayed until the ‘80s, when Wolfman, Pérez, and Moore arrived, breathing new life into languishing books.
Indeed, we always want to think of DC in just such an anticipatory state, don’t we? David predicts that, for reasons not entirely related to print publishing, “the DC Comics of 2011 will not be like the DC Comics of 2010,” and to a great extent I agree. However, I think DC has a good bit in common with its 1970s posture. It has two big-name writers, Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison, in the middle of multi-year, multi-title examinations of very familiar characters. It has given Superman and Wonder Woman to big-name writer J. Michael Straczynski, who has imposed (varying degrees of) “radical” makeovers on them. It has a stable of reliably-good writers, including but not limited to James Robinson, Gail Simone, Tony Bedard, Paul Dini, Fabian Nicieza, and Judd Winick, handling the more rank-and-file titles. Finally, it has established something of a house style among artists like Pete Woods, Jesus Merino, Jamal Igle, Joe Bennett, and Aaron Lopresti. In short, DC seems to be working diligently towards a productive mix of innovation and comfort,* which is sort of where it wound up thirty years ago.
I’m not sure where there’s the opportunity for the Wolfman/Pérez/Moore of 2011 to break out of the pack, though. With Johns, Morrison, and Straczynski on many of its highest-profile books, today’s DC seems a lot more top-heavy than it was then. Moreover, DC is where it is today in large part because of Johns’ breakout work on Green Lantern, so maybe the watershed moment has passed. Still, there’s plenty of opportunity for DC to explore and innovate, especially outside the realm of print periodicals. Maybe the New Teen Titans of 2011 belongs to a format we haven’t even seen….