Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Stewardship, Elvis, and developing a Universe

Captain Marvel Junior, takin' care of business in a flash

This is our fourth summer in Memphis, but we hadn’t taken the Graceland tour until this weekend. It helped that twenty-odd relatives came into town for a big reunion, and one of them had been jonesing especially hard for an Elvis fix.

As for me, not so much. I have always been curious about the King, mostly as an historical figure; and as my musical tastes have developed, I’ve learned to appreciate the profound effect his life had on the culture at large. Many years ago I read Peter Guralnick’s exhaustive two-volume biography, and I have a couple of greatest-hits CDs and the “Aloha From Hawaii” concert. (I was, however, somewhat disappointed not to hear Captain Marvel’s costume and/or Captain Marvel Jr. mentioned in the tour’s discussions of Elvis’ infamous caped jumpsuits.)

Anyway, the house itself was a pleasant surprise. Phrases like “Jungle Room” and “three televisions” can conjure some wild mental pictures, and I was glad to see the relatively-sedate reality. Graceland is basically a big house done up in mid-1970s style by a family that had maybe a little too much money and/or too few people urging moderation. The Jungle Room does have a waterfall, green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling, and a big barrel-shaped chair that looks like it came from the other side of Gilligan’s Island; but it also has wide picture windows which offer a generous view of the manicured back yard. Likewise, the “TV room’s” bright blues and yellows are suited more for a kid than a pop star approaching middle age, even if the TVs are perpetually tuned to “The Tonight Show” and Doctor Strangelove.

Of course, Graceland exists primarily to evoke an era which died with its owner in the summer of 1977. You don’t need to take the tour to see the continuing devotion of Elvis fans who decorate Graceland’s street-level stone fence with their names and messages. If I understood a gift-shop cashier correctly, every year before August’s “Elvis Week,” that fence is whitewashed, because the previous twelve months have seen just about every inch of it covered with affectionate graffiti. My dad (who did not take the tour) observed that my generation will be the last to remember Elvis as a living human being, not as some transformative, transcendent figure. From there he wondered whether Elvis’ popularity would diminish over time, as those fans are themselves (you’ll forgive me) returned to sender.

* * *

As I pondered these weighty matters myself, naturally my thoughts turned to DC’s venerable characters. No matter who owns them, the vast majority of DC’s super-folk have been entrusted to writers, artists, and editors who did not create them, and who may be several steps removed from those who did. What, then, is DC’s responsibility to such a piece of intellectual property? For that matter, what is DC’s responsibility to the larger shared universe these characters ostensibly inhabit?

With regard to the first question, DC has basically three options. It can leave the character alone, whether that means retirement (a la the Jack Knight Starman) or just not changing the character in any meaningful way. Naturally, the other two options involve those meaningful changes. Some are secondary, or in the nature of updates, like expanding on the Justice Society’s post-Golden Age lives. (Revealing that Alan Scott has two children doesn’t necessarily change anything about his Green Lantern career, but it’s still a significant addition to his history.) Some, however, are more in the nature of wholesale revamps.

In fact, the Marvel Family has been through all three options. When new owner DC reintroduced them in February 1973′s Shazam! #1, readers learned that ever since the mid-‘50s (when Fawcett stopped publishing their books), the Marvels and virtually all of their supporting cast had been frozen in the age-arresting element Suspendium. Not only did this take them out of circulation, it allowed their original adventures to be preserved practically inviolate. Needless to say, all this happened on the parallel world of Earth-S, so it didn’t bother the everyday continuity of the main superhero line. This was fine as long as Earth-S lasted, but when Crisis On Infinite Earths reordered DC’s cosmology, the Shazam! The New Beginning miniseries (by Roy Thomas and Tom Mandrake) pared the extended Marvel Family down to Captain Marvel and just a few other characters. This didn’t get much traction, so it was superseded in 1994 by Jerry Ordway’s retro-styled Power Of Shazam! graphic novel and ongoing series. However, the more recent Trials Of Shazam! miniseries has since put Freddy Freeman in the lead, with Billy and Mary Batson out of the picture.

No matter what is done to a character, however, the central question should be whether it is true to the creator’s original work. At its heart, the Captain Marvel concept is about an adolescent boy who transforms into a super-powered adult for light-hearted adventures. This makes it tonally inconsistent with much of the rest of the DC Universe. Accordingly, I believe that if the Marvels are going to be integrated into the larger superhero line, they need their own Brigadoon-esque setting, where Billy doesn’t have to worry about growing old too quickly, and where grim ‘n’ gritty is banished with extreme prejudice. Otherwise, Cap (or Shazam now, I guess) and company lose much of what makes them special, if they don’t get swallowed whole by more grown-up concerns.

We don’t have time today to cover too many more characters, but we’ll examine the big ones pretty quickly. Superman fans are well aware of the extent to which his mythology has developed since 1938, and I won’t go over all that again. However, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original work should always guide the Man of Steel, regardless of power set. Although William Moulton Marston’s lifestyle gets a lot of attention, much the same could be said for Wonder Woman’s original mission of social justice.

Ironically, much of what we associate with Batman didn’t come from Bob Kane. Bill Finger changed Kane’s original design — a red costume with wings and a simple Zorro-style mask — into today’s familiar gray-and-black batsuit. Indeed, much of the “Sci-Fi” period, in which Batman and Robin got pretty far from grim ‘n’ gritty, came out under Kane’s stylized signature (even though artists like Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, and Lew Sayre Schwartz contributed mightily to its unique look). Not many fans would argue that Bob Kane’s stamp of approval on those stories made them equal to that first year in Detective Comics. However, when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams went “back to basics” in 1969, they — and practically every Bat-team since — looked to that fairly short period of Batman history, rejecting decades’ worth of subsequent stories. Unlike his fellow Trinitarians, Batman’s character has been defined by his style: dark and mysterious, with room only for a select few relationships. We may say that Superman is driven by compassion and Wonder Woman by a desire for equality, but (outside of a general devotion to “justice”), Batman is more of a storytelling vehicle.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s made Batman wildly successful in multiple media for decades. However, it points up the need to adapt while still staying somewhat true to a creator’s original vision. Along those lines, both the “Sci-Fi Batman” and the O’Neil/Adams Batman may be seen as equally valid interpretations of the character, with the former reflecting the lightening-up of the feature which began with Robin’s 1940 introduction. (It didn’t get light too quickly, considering that the Joker was introduced not long after Robin.) Now, unless Grant Morrison’s influence leads to a wholesale revival of Sci-Fi Batman, which then lasts at least for a good ten years, the “Darknight Detective” reinvention which has ruled since 1969 won’t be challenged anytime soon. Still, in the early ‘70s, it was a radical departure from the Batman of just a few years before.

Because I’ve spent too much time on Batman (as usual), I’ll be brief about the Silver Age revamps. Although the Flash and Green Lantern had entirely new looks, new origins, and new identities under the masks, essentially they were still the same concepts: guy runs real fast, guy gets magic wishing ring. I suppose we could argue — as fans, not so much as legal experts — that they were different enough from their predecessors that the original creators’ intent wasn’t as controlling. Similar analyses would then apply to fairly-close relaunches like Hawkman and name-only relaunches like the Atom. Again, I’m no intellectual-property-law whiz, but the amount and kind of these differences may also make it easier for DC to do what it wants with the characters. Essentially, the “legacy” framework which grew out of the Silver Age not only lets fans speculate on What It Means To Be Hourman/Starman/Doctor Fate, it allows DC to have a certain amount of distance from the people responsible for those characters.

Of course, at some point or another, all of these characters were new; and that’s an area DC really hasn’t cultivated in several years. While there have been any number of new legacy characters, a creation which can stand on its own has become increasingly more scarce. Without getting into particular characters, though, let’s consider generally the relationship between DC’s shared universe and the features which populate it. In the late ‘60s, Steve Ditko created Hawk and Dove and the Creeper, each to tell distinctly different kinds of stories, but each able to interact with better-established peers. Not surprisingly, then, Hawk and Dove joined the Teen Titans, and the Creeper ran into the Justice League. In the ‘70s, the prolific Gerry Conway created Firestorm (with Al Milgrom) and the World War II-era Steel (with Don Heck); and Firestorm eventually joined the JLA, while Steel joined the All-Star Squadron. Just after COIE, Dan Jurgens introduced Booster Gold, a new Metropolis hero who acted like a counterpoint to Superman (and who soon joined … oh, you know). Earlier in the ‘80s, Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn, and Ernie Colón produced Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, who started out in her own little corner of DC-dom, but who was eventually brought into the larger DC fold via Doctor Fate.

We can see by the disparate genres these characters represent that it’s hard to define a “DC sensibility,” at least not in terms like Marvel’s “world outside your window.” Not that there’s not such a sensibility; but that it is less restrictive. The early Marvel Universe had its share of different genres — cosmic adventure, street-level superheroics, mythology, techno-flavored espionage — but everyone had some kind of personal problem. Spider-Man was an outcast, the Thing and the Hulk were monsters, Thor pined after Jane Foster, and Iron Man worried about his heart. Even the Golden Age transplants, Captain America and the Sub-Mariner, reawakened under tragic circumstances. Not so with DC, where exploding planets, murdered parents, dying aliens, and deadly thunderstorms were just means to ends. Again, not that DC didn’t eventually mine those events — and tragedy in general — but certainly its history hasn’t relied so consistently on angst.

Instead, DC’s main line of comics has been a loose confederation of science-heroes, urban crimefighters, sci-fi- and mythology-flavored adventurers, Western heroes (and anti-heroes), war stories, and outright fantasy, often butting against each other to good effect. Rather than trying to harmonize these eclectic influences into homogeneity, for many years DC’s creative folk left each largely to its own devices (although it did let Batman team up with everyone from Sgt. Rock to the Legion of Super-Heroes). It is this give-and-take between the characters and the larger patchwork of the DC universe which ends up affecting both. Ultimately, that may be the key to the DCU’s sustainability: defining certain core values in the superhero line, developing characters which reflect those values, and making exceptions where creatively appropriate.

* * *

I told my dad that I expected Elvis to endure mainly thanks to his place in history. While part of Elvis’ appeal — and a big part of Graceland’s appeal — is nostalgia, we certainly can’t discount the continued popularity of Elvis’ music, his style, and his eternal youth. Although he died ignominiously, and after a period where he’d let his health slide, he died young enough that the “Fat Elvis” couldn’t overshadow the earlier, leaner swagger. In fact, his death came in the midst of a summer concert tour, which had followed a successful Vegas career, which in turn had been sparked by the famous 1968 TV special. In that respect, Graceland freezes time, allowing fans (and the merely curious) to speculate about what might have been.

By contrast, the characters of DC’s superhero line may never be retired. Their future may paradoxically contain both eternal youth and perpetual change, as they adapt to a readership which is steadily aging and/or occasionally renewing. As their custodians, the people of DC Comics are charged with ensuring their continued viability. At the same time, though, DC has a moral responsibility to honor the values which originally informed those characters. It’s more than nostalgia — it’s recognizing the core which has kept readers coming back. The publisher can’t simply freeze these characters in time, but neither can it make them unrecognizable.

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8 Comments

Best article i read in awhile.I think people tend to forget that these characters sometimes undergo changes to stay fresh.I recently picked up the Superman issue where all krptonite on earth is turned to iron.One of the last pages in that issue shows the changes in super-powers,location and supporting cast in the Superman family over the past years. Superman had already been thru tons of changes when that issue took place and that was when comics were 15cents.Im all for change with characters as long as at there core they are still the same character.

Jake Earlewine

July 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Another great article, Tom!

I agree in some ways, but not in others. I too, once used to believe that each character had to have a specific “status quo” that had to be respected and never changed, except temporarily in stories that you’d know would soon be reverted eg. The Death of Superman.

However, through the years I’ve come to understand not only the legalities of comics publishing but what the people on all sides of the equation consider fair or unfair.

A character or concept belongs to the company that owns it, not the person who created it (unless they are the same, of course). It doesn’t matter what Neil Gaiman, for example, thinks The Endless should be like, they’re DC’s characters and it’s up to them to reinvent them anyway they please. They can even have multiple different versions at once if they please eg. Death in the main DC Universe doesn’t have to be like the one in their Vertigo subline.

Of course, if you tamper with what the fans expect of a given character (and every character HAS its fans, no matter how few) then you risk losing their support (and their money) which at the end of the day is what matters to the publishers. So in a way, characters DO have a Status Quo to follow- but only as long as their owners feel they need to please their customers, not because of some perceived respect to a creator’s intentions.

Certainly, I don’t feel like the current DC regime respects ANY of their characters the way they had were for decades. Heck, if they could get away with making Superman Grim and Gritty, they’d do it. But he’s one the few exceptions, everybody else seems to be a complete throwaway, either free to be reinterpreted by the current popular writer (like Johns or Morrison) or victimized by the company’s intrusive plans eg. Green Arrow and his supporting cast ruined simply because they “would not sell otherwise.”

I’m not saying I agree with this approach. I’m saying it IS fair, if pretty dumb on their part. Especially when, if they had an “Ultimate Universe” like Marvel’s, they could have their cake and eat- publish multiple versions of their characters that appeal to different types of public, or at least as long as they sell well enough. Just dumping the universe that took them so much effort to make over the years in favor of a completely untested one? Not smart.

You did touch on a very interesting point which I hope you’ll explore in a future column: “retiring” a character. You mention the Jack Knight Starman. I never read that series myself, but I was fond of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake’s run on the Spectre which came out around the same time and also ended in a retirement of the character (or half of him, anyway).

Obviously, there are certain characters that can never be retired: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. However, I do wish DC would do more of this by being OK with the concept of a “mantle” that can be passed to successive characters to keep the idea, but not the person, fresh. They were oh_so_close with this in the 80s and 90s: Wally replaced Barry as the Flash, and Kyle replaced Hal. OK, the execution was off on the last one, and enough people grumbled nonstop until he came back. But Barry? His story ended on a very heroic high note in 1985. They could have–and arguably should have–let him lie where he did, save for the occasional time-travel story.

I’m rambling, but like I said: I’d like to see you discuss more on retiring characters in a future column.

We still dont know what DC will and wont be keeping after the relaunch,reboot,reimagining or whatever you want to call it. I dont think any of there characters will be so diffrent that we wont recognize them. I think this will be more like what the DCU looked like after crisis. and if thats so then im fine with that. Some characters will always posses certain traits and personalities and the more iconic the character then they are less likely to get a complete makeover.

Very nice article, good points. Maybe that’s why I feel angered by the whole relaunch thing.

You have said a mouthful, and provided a lot to chew on. The idea that worries me, and that I have to disagree with though is your statement, “At the same time, though, DC has a moral responsibility to honor the values which originally informed those characters.”

Unfortunately, corporations have NO Moral Obligations, this is practically enshrined in legal precedent, and proven by how often corporations have gotten away with defrauding the public, their employees, and our government. (The fact that our government has aided and abetted this won’t be gotten into here by me). Corporate entities have caused massive fraud, sickness, and caused murder in inadvertently and intentionally–I won’t provide examples, I shouldn’t have to and if I did, those who demand proof just wouldn’t believe it anyway.

If it served WB to turn Batman into a bloodthirsty murderer because more people bought the product, they would do it easily. If it made them more money, Superman could transformed into a Nazi.

I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

nice article. but sadly the dc characters are nothing but a way for warners to make money as product and movies . for someone could decide that superman no longer needed to be from krypton or batman leads the under wold of gotham and to some at dc it would just be using the character money maker. for the only way dc would retire any of its characters is a its no longer in the comic business or b they some how lose the rights to said character to the creators or estates.

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