Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
[Last week I started a look back at DC’s ongoing series in a post-Crisis environment of annual line-wide events. Thanks as always to Mike’s Amazing World Of DC Comics for its invaluable data.]
The second half of the 1980s was, to put it mildly, a transitional period for DC. Beginning with the watershed Crisis On Infinite Earths, most high-profile titles were relaunched, book by book — not just to take characters like Superman and Batman “back to basics,” but to open them up to new creative possibilities. Building on Crisis’ success, the publisher also tried to launch new titles from line-wide events. By the early ‘90s, however, the speculator market was imposing its own will on the superhero books. …
PHASE IV: POLLENATION
1992: Eclipso: The Darkness Within. Perhaps poking a little fun at Armageddon 2001, which centered around which hero had villainy in his future, this annual-sandwich event centered around a villain turning heroes evil (not permanently, spoiler alert) — and actually led to said villain getting his own ongoing series (19 issues). The events of E:TDW also enabled Lar Gand, who the 20th Century called Valor, to branch out into his own ongoing series (23 issues). Frequent Eclipso opponent the Spectre got a new ongoing too (63 total issues), but I don’t think that was explicitly connected to the event.
As always, spinoffs were plentiful. The three-issue Guy Gardner Reborn gave Guy a yellow power ring, which he used for a while in the pages of Guy Gardner (47 total issues; later Guy Gardner: Warrior). Team Titans (26 total issues) featured a group of youngsters from one of A2K1’s alternate futures, so I guess that event did end up leaving more behind than previously thought. Legionnaires (86 total issues) gave the Legion another monthly outlet, Catwoman (101 total issues) and Robin (196 total issues) spun out of “Knightfall,” and Justice League Task Force (38 total issues) began essentially as an anthology based around rotating team rosters. Hawkman (36 total issues) and Outsiders (26 issues) were relaunched again, and Peter David started his Aquaman work in earnest with the Time & Tide miniseries. The Justice Society’s ongoing series lasted only 10 issues, and the new Black Canary and Peter Cannon ongoings likewise went only 12 each.
However, 1992 and 1993 had their share of original series too, starting with Hacker Files (12 issues) and Keith Giffen’s Heckler (6 issues). Darkstars (39 issues) was something of a Green Lantern Corps alternative, and Scarlett (14 issues) was about a vampire hunter. Clearly Darkstars lasted the longest, but DC’s attempts to go beyond spinoffs were still commendable.
1993: “Bloodlines.” This one is easy: Hitman (62 total issues, plus a subsequent 3-issue JLA/Hitman miniseries) was the longest-lived spawn of this summer-annual crossover. However, Hitman #1 debuted in 1996, well after Tommy Monaghan’s introduction in the 1993 Demon Annual. By that time, spinoffs Anima (15 issues), Gunfire (14 issues), Psyba-Rats (3-issue miniseries), and Loose Cannon (4-issue miniseries) had already come and gone.
While “Bloodlines” was designed expressly to introduce new characters, it faced a couple of unusual complications. For one thing, it lacked a proper first issue, beginning in May’s Lobo Annual and finishing with Bloodbath, October’s two-issue conclusion. More significantly, though, it had to deal with event-style storylines in both the Superman and Batman titles which were already introducing new characters and prepping spinoff series. Thus, while Anima and Gunfire were struggling, new ongoings Steel (55 issues) and Superboy (108 total issues) were finding loyal readers. Presumably, the latter series owed their success to the much higher profile of the Superman titles, particularly during 1993’s “Reign of the Superman.”
This is a good time to mention the “retirement/replacement/return/spinoff” cycle which moved, almost virally, through the superhero books of the ‘90s. “Retirement” involved some catastrophic event befalling the book’s main character. A “replacement” character then took center stage while the “retired” lead recuperated; but of course the replacement was just temporary, and the retired character soon returned. The replacement was then honored with a spinoff title. This played out across most of DC’s high-profile books, starting with the “Death of Superman” arc. For example, Superman was thought dead after an apocalyptic battle, was replaced by four understudies; and when he inevitably returned, Superboy and Steel each got their own titles. (The Eradicator got a three-issue 1996 miniseries, as well as membership in the Outsiders.)
The other ongoing series introduced after “Bloodlines” each followed introductory miniseries: Lobo (69 total issues), The Ray (30 total issues), and PAD’s Aquaman (82 total issues). Even Ray’s relatively modest run is decent next to others from the period, and the others speak to the characters’ enduring popularity.
1994: Zero Hour. The funny thing about Zero Hour is that it was supposed to combine Hal Jordan’s new Parallax role with Dan Jurgens’ time-travel characters, serving as a sequel to Armageddon 2001 while retooling both DC’s past (the Justice Society) and future (the Legion). Nevertheless, none of the new series launched in its wake had anything to do with those developments. Most of those titles lasted less than two years (Fate got 23 issues, Manhunter 13, Primal Force 15, and R.E.B.E.L.S. 18), with the unqualified standout being James Robinson and Tony Harris’ Starman (85 total issues). ZH also facilitated another Legion reboot, albeit without new first issues.
Several new ongoings debuted in the year or so after Zero Hour ended. The long-lived Azrael (105 total issues) and Impulse (93) were, like Steel and Superboy, more spinoffs from “death and replacement” storylines. The Batman Chronicles and Superman: The Man of Tomorrow were quarterly gap-fillers, published in the year’s four “fifth weeks.” A Nightwing miniseries signaled the character’s return to the Bat-office after fifteen years as a Titan, and yet another New Gods relaunch yielded 15 issues. Otherwise, Black Lightning got a revival (13 issues) and The Power Of Shazam! (49 total issues) followed Jerry Ordway’s graphic-novel relaunch. The period’s remaining ongoing series was Chris Claremont’s creator-owned Sovereign Seven, which lasted a respectable 39 total issues.
PHASE V: WHO NEEDS EVENTS?
1995: Underworld Unleashed. Part of Zero Hour’s gimmick was making August 1994 “Zero Month,” when every superhero title used its “zero issue” for some new-reader-friendly purpose, usually an origin story or something equally informative. Thus, while ZH tried to launch a handful of books, it also sought to reinforce the existing lineup. By contrast, Underworld Unleashed was all about the existing titles, and specifically about making existing villains more threatening.
The year between UU and the next crossover did produce three long-lived series: Nightwing (156 total issues), Peter David’s Supergirl (84), and the aforementioned Hitman (62). Dan Jurgens’ from-scratch revamp of Teen Titans lasted two years (25 total issues), and the spinoff Superboy and the Ravers got 19 issues. The other four ongoing series from this period were done within a year: another Mister Miracle (7 issues), another New Gods spinoff Takion (also 7 issues), the still-obscure-to-me Firebrand (9 issues), and Grant Morrison and Mark Millar’s pet project Aztek (10 issues).
Also of note during this period were the first couple of Birds Of Prey projects, namely the original one-shot and the follow-up miniseries Manhunt; and the Justice League revamp A Midsummer’s Nightmare (which segued from eclectic rosters into Grant Morrison’s A-lister lineup).
1996: The Final Night. This disaster-movie miniseries about snuffing out the Sun also had little interest in launching new series. Instead, it provided closure to Parallax and facilitated the Electric Superman storyline. Meanwhile, the twelve months afterwards saw a nice mix of revamps and original titles. Chief among the revamps was Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA (130 total issues), followed by John Byrne’s Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (20 issues), Marv Wolfman’s Night Force revival (12 issues), and Keith Giffen’s take on Book Of Fate (12 issues). Challengers of the Unknown (18 issues) wasn’t quite a revamp, since it took a new team on “X-Files”-ish adventures.
None of the original books lasted terribly long, but for a while there were a lot of them: the monsters-in-a-rock-band Scare Tactics and the Christopher Priest/ChrisCross creator-owned Xero (12 issues each), the horror/humor mash-up Gross Point (14 issues), the fondly-remembered Major Bummer (15) and Young Heroes In Love (18), and the marginally-more-successful cult hit Resurrection Man (28 issues). All were set in the DC Universe, as far as I remember, with Resurrection Man even getting a good bit of attention in a later crossover. The crowded marketplace probably helped doom the others, although later looks at Scare Tactics and Gross Point suggest they might not have been that well-received to begin with.
1997: Genesis. And speaking of not being well-received, Genesis tried to tie all of DC’s supernatural energies, from green Oan plasma to Superman’s new energy-based powers, back to a “Godwave” originating in the Fourth World’s “Source.” If that makes no sense, rest assured — reading the thing didn’t make it any clearer. Like Millennium and War of the Gods, it aimed to stir up interest in its parent title (here, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World) while giving the rest of DC’s books a new plot element with which to play. However, it had almost no lasting effects on the superhero books, launched no new series, and didn’t do a whole lot for JK4W.
The post-Genesis year was similarly quiet on the new-series front. The highlights were Chase (10 issues) and Chronos (12), a couple more short-lived cult favorites; and (following the World Without Grown-Ups miniseries and the Secret special) Peter David and Todd Nauck’s teen-sidekick team book Young Justice (57 total issues). Birds Of Prey had two more one-shots during this period, and the anthology Legends of the DC Universe began its 41-issue run. Otherwise, The Creeper got a revival (12 issues), thanks to writer Len Kaminski and artists Shawn Martinbrough and Sal Buscema.
PHASE VI: PERENNIALS
1998: DC One Million. This line-wide event is one of my favorites, and I think it holds up well, especially in the context of writer Grant Morrison’s other DC work. Like its predecessor, it was a weekly done-in-a-month miniseries spinning out of an ongoing title (Morrison and Howard Porter’s blockbuster JLA), and it too had no real interest in launching new series. (Hourman debuted a few months later and ran for 25 issues, but the character had already been appearing in JLA.) Instead, DC1M was basically an extension of JLA, using the success of the latter to gin up interest in the rest of the superhero line.
JLA also had a more direct influence on new ongoing series in 1998-99. Just as the League was built around its seven founding members, so the new Titans (51 total issues) was the first adult-Titans series to reunite the five original Teen Titans. Because every other Justice Leaguer had at least one solo series, here came Martian Manhunter (40 total issues), from the Spectre team of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake.
Perhaps building on the successes of both JLA and Starman, DC revived the Justice Society as JSA (88 total issues) while also launching Stars And STRIPE (co-created by one Geoff Johns). The latter (15 total issues) was advertised more as a Starman spinoff, since young Courtney Whitmore initially used a cosmic-converter belt very similar to Jack Knight’s cosmic rod. James Robinson and David Goyer were JSA’s initial writers, but Johns took Robinson’s place, yadda yadda yadda, the rest is history.
Finally, the Birds of Prey ongoing (127 issues) began during this period, as did fellow Batman spinoff Anarky (8 issues). Vext (6 issues) was Keith Giffen and Mike McKone’s humor series about the “god of misfortune” — insert “misfortune of cancellation” joke here, I suppose.
(For the sake of completeness, I’ll also mention The Kingdom, a seven-issue bookend-and-one-shots sequel to Kingdom Come, which played indirectly off of DC One Million to introduce the infinite-realities concept of Hypertime. Other than that, though, it had no lasting effects on DC’s cosmology, and Hypertime itself is all but forgotten.)
1999-2000: Day Of Judgment. Geoff Johns wrote this weekly done-in-a-month event, about the Spectre being possessed by JLA villain Asmodel until new host Hal Jordan can take over. It led to a three-issue Hal/Spectre arc in Legends of the DC Universe, and from there to a new Spectre series (both written by J.M. DeMatteis). It was also DC’s last line-wide event for a couple of years.
Meanwhile, the Batman titles had been dealing with their own line-wide crossover. “No Man’s Land” started in late 1998 when an earthquake devastated Gotham City. Before too long, evil forces had conspired to isolate Gotham from the rest of the country, leaving everyone inside to fend for themselves. Protecting this post-apocalyptic wasteland-in-miniature were Batman and his allies, with occasional appearances by Superman, Green Lantern, and the Justice League. “NML” proper played out in real time, from January 1 through December 31, 1999, with Gotham rejoining the United States on January 1, 2000. Thus, the Bat-books all got makeovers with the new year (cover-dated March 2000), with Batman: Shadow of the Bat cancelled in favor of the new Batman: Gotham Knights (74 issues). New Batgirl and Harley Quinn ongoings (74 total issues and 38 issues, respectively) also came out of the characters’ debuts within “NML.” Otherwise, DC’s only new ongoing series in 2000 was another Fourth World relaunch, this time Walt Simonson’s Orion (25 issues).
2001: “Our Worlds At War” and Joker: Last Laugh. These two crossovers almost overlapped. “OWAW” was a massive alien-invasion arc with roots in the Superman titles, unusual in that it took place in ongoing series, plus a series of similarly-titled specials, and had no “core” miniseries. Along the way Aquaman was lost and Hippolyta was killed, and Superman adopted a black-highlighted costume for a year. “OWAW” was also the victim of extremely unfortunate timing, since the issue of Adventures of Superman where Superman surveys damage to LexCorp’s twin towers came out immediately after September 11.
Not long afterward, the Last Laugh weekly crossover combined many elements of its predecessors. It was rooted in the Batman line, it featured a common alteration (a version of Joker venom) to a broad category of characters (supervillains), and it didn’t seek to launch any new titles, preferring instead to goose sales generally.
As it happens, many of 2001’s new ongoing series were revamps of previous relaunches. These included the DeMatteis-written Spectre (27 issues, with art by Ryan Sook and Norm Breyfogle), the Kevin Smith-written Green Arrow (75 issues, pencilled by Phil Hester), the Keith Giffen-written Suicide Squad (12 issues), and reclaimed from Vertigo, Doom Patrol (22 issues, written by John Arcudi and drawn by Tan Eng Huat). 2000’s Legion Lost miniseries was followed by 2001’s Legion Worlds mini, which in turn led into another ongoing, called simply The Legion (38 issues). Towards the end of the year, Catwoman was relaunched under writer Ed Brubaker and artists Darwyn Cooke and Mike Allred (82 issues), and an ongoing Deadman series which picked up from the Dead Again mini netted just 9 issues.
Following Last Laugh, DC took a break from line-wide events for almost three years. Indeed, when the next “crossover cycle” started up in 2004, it did so almost unannounced. We’ll get into that, and finish this survey, in Part Three.
* * *
Before that, though, some summary thoughts on the 1992-2001 period:
The ten longest-lived titles launched herein were Robin, Nightwing, JLA, Birds Of Prey, Superboy, Azrael, Batman: Shadow of the Bat,Catwoman (1993), Impulse, and JSA. Six of those were Bat-titles, and four of the six were written initially by Chuck Dixon. To me this speaks both to the Batman line’s consistent selling power, and to Mr. Dixon’s central role in the ‘90s Bat-books. None of these ten books were rooted in any line-wide crossover, although Superboy, Azrael, and Impulse came out of “replacement” storylines in their parent titles. (Robin and Catwoman were launched in the wake of “Knightfall,” but Robin in particular had already been marketed for a couple of years through miniseries.)
In fact, the longest-lived “event-launched” title was 1994’s Starman, at no. 12; with the next being Hitman at no. 21. (1992’s Spectre series, discussed above relative to the Eclipso event, was no. 20.) No others made the top 25, the rest of which looks like this:
12. Starman (1994)
13. Supergirl (1996)
14. Aquaman (1994)
15. Catwoman (2001)
16 . Green Arrow (2001)
17. Batgirl (2000)
18. Batman: Gotham Knights (2000)
19. Lobo (1993)
20. The Spectre (1992)
22. Young Justice
24. Titans (1999)
25. The Power Of Shazam!
Shazam! also represents the last title which ran at least four years and/or 48 issues, giving us a good cutoff point for relative success. By my count, 50 of the remaining 67 titles lasted two years or less, with 22 lasting a year or less. Now, not factored into this analysis is the relative longevity of multiple-relaunch properties like the New Gods, Hawkman, or Doctor Fate, each of which enjoyed some measure of exposure throughout this period. Regardless, a new first issue in a multiple-relaunch situation is both an opportunity to lure new readers and a signal that the new series will be demonstrably different. Put another way, the longer a series goes without a new first issue, the more confidence the publisher probably has in it. (The most obvious exceptions during this period were the two Legion books, which were rebooted but kept their old numbering.)
There are a lot of spinoffs and revamps in that list, so much so that one might wonder why DC bothers with anything else. The answer may be in books like Starman, Lobo, Hitman, and even the relaunches Supergirl, Aquaman,Young Justice, The Spectre, and Shazam!. Each of those titles was identified fairly closely with a particular creative person or team (Peter David, Garth Ennis, James Robinson, Ostrander & Mandrake) which was then free to develop the books more or less as they wanted. They may not have been burning up the sales charts (Supergirl, for example), but they were sufficiently steady to last at least four years, especially in the turbulent ‘90s.
Certainly there are other factors, but you know what the music means — our time is up.
Next week, Crisis redux!