Examining "Rebirth's" Treatment of Legacy & Promise of a Less "Grimdark" DC Universe
Catching up on various episodes of “Batman: The Brave And The Bold,” I was pleasantly surprised that one teaser (YouTube — careful!) focused on the Challengers of the Unknown.
Not having read their Silver Age adventures, I wouldn’t consider myself a Challengers expert, but I do like the basic idea. They’re straight-up adventurers brought together largely by a shared experience of cheating death, and because they live “on borrowed time,” they have decided to spend that time saving the world. First appearing in 1957’s Showcase #6 (just two issues after the Silver Age Flash’s debut in #4), and springing at least in part from Jack Kirby’s fertile imagination, the Challs are often tied to a pre-superhero Silver Age either explicitly (as in Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier and the recent Legacies miniseries) or as spiritual representatives of that time (as in Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett’s Superboy or Mark Waid, George Pérez, and Jerry Ordway’s run on The Brave and the Bold). Attempts to “update” the team, whether by aging the originals or creating new Challengers, haven’t gotten much traction, despite the best efforts of folks like Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, Steven Grant, Len Kaminski, John Paul Leon, and Howard Chaykin.
That may explain why the Challs don’t have a New-52 makeover like the Blackhawks, another group associated with a particular era (World War II) without being wedded to it. An ill-advised “superhero phase” notwithstanding, Blackhawk started off as a Golden Age title which survived well into the Silver Age (1944-68, 235 issues), and was revived in the ‘70s (7 issues), early ‘80s (23 issues) and late ‘80s (22 issues, including a 3-issue Chaykin makeover). The characters have never really gone away, and until the New 52 relaunch came along, the original-recipe team survived in the person of a time-displaced Zinda “Lady Blackhawk” Blake.
However, Blackhawk appears to be the exception. The Challengers and their non-super cousins like Cave Carson or the Sea Devils are too evocative of the era in which they were conceived.
Moreover, I’m not really here today to argue for a new Challengers of the Unknown. Instead, the more I wondered why DC wouldn’t give the Challs another shot, the more the Challs looked like symbols of the Silver Age. As they go, so it goes — and why indeed is the Silver Age so persistent?
For one thing, there are Dan DiDio’s comments from a few years ago about DC’s need to reinforce the most “recognizable” and/or “definitive” versions of various characters in order to make its superhero line new-reader-friendly. Because the Silver Age laid the foundation for the next few decades’ worth of superhero books, DC apparently imagined that those characters would, by and large, get the nod.
I remain skeptical of this approach. It is inherently conservative, seeking to preserve an existing take rather than moving forward with a character’s development. Along those same lines, the “most recognizable” version of a character is not necessarily the most creatively satisfying. Furthermore, terms like “most recognizable” and “definitive” are more subjective than they might look — and they don’t always match up, either — allowing pros and fans alike to argue for what they want while claiming fidelity to some Platonic ideal. Naturally, one person’s ideal is another’s corruption, and with DC’s legacy-character model, there are plenty of “ideal” candidates.
Of course, there’s always fidelity to the original intent of a character’s creator(s), but that can be problematic. Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ “Springsteen Superman,” currently seen in the New-52’s Action Comics, is meant to recall the less-powerful, socially-conscious hero of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s earliest adventures, but with its cobbled-together costume and younger Clark Kent, it’s not quite a re-creation. Indeed, Superman’s other New-52 appearances follow a more conventional interpretation, even substituting Kryptonian battle armor for red briefs and spandex.
This is to be expected: the Superman who could only leap an eighth of a mile, and whose resistance to damage was measured by a “bursting shell,” is now an artifact, occupying a niche. Likewise, the original Wonder Woman stories of creator William Moulton Marston and artist H.G. Peter are in their own niche, although apparently Morrison wants to return that certain “weird, libidinous element” to the Amazing Amazon, perhaps as soon as 2012.
Then there’s Batman, whose original conception as a grim, gothic avenger lasted just under a year before Robin arrived to lighten things up. Of DC’s Trinitarians, Batman’s current depiction is arguably the closest to the Golden Age originals, but it wasn’t always so. When Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams (and editor Julius Schwartz) reintroduced the “Darknight Detective” in late 1969, the character was about five years removed from the end of the “Sci-Fi” period, which had begun in the late 1940s/early ‘50s. Accordingly, although O’Neil and Adams sought deliberately to tell their versions of Kane/Finger stories, their interpretation was about as radical in the early ‘70s as Morrison and Morales’ Superman is today. Clearly it was not the most recognizable version, which at the time might well have been Dick Sprang’s or even Adam West’s. Regardless, O’Neil/Adams became the model for the Batman of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and (even if you think it’s been superseded by Frank Miller’s work) is still a powerful influence.
We can group another set of interpretations under a sort of hybrid approach, where original intent has become augmented by details accumulated from various sources. This is the “ideal aggregation” I described almost (yikes) four years ago, which holds that something like All Star Superman or the Christopher Reeve movies may be the most definitive versions of the character. No doubt there are other ways of gauging interpretive validity. However, let’s shift gears.
While it’s not really accurate to apply those analyses generally to DC’s shared superhero universe, I believe the publisher does something similar for each feature, especially the New 52 and their follow-ups. Thus, you have original-intent books like Action Comics alongside “most-recognizable” titles (Batgirl, Aquaman), updates like Blackhawks, and outright reinventions (Fury Of Firestorm, OMAC). Although each title has significant roots in the company’s past, at least in broad strokes the line doesn’t look particularly like any previous era. Instead, it’s an aggregation (idealized or otherwise) of what somebody — creative personnel, editorial, marketing, whomever — thinks DC Comics should be publishing.
And that’s fine, for what it is. It’s not a wholesale Silver Age revival, which I suppose is ironic considering all the contortions DC went through to bring back Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. That’s fine too — it doesn’t have to be, especially if dense Silver Age history gets in the way of accessibility.
However, the New 52 risks being so new that it loses the appeal of maturity, and that’s (part of) what bothers me about it. It’s one thing to say that the superheroes have only been around for five years or so, but it’s another to use that timeline to limit the kinds of stories you can tell. If All Star Western could move Jonah Hex to Gotham City, Men of War and Blackhawks could easily have kept their WWII settings (although Sgt. Rock was more grounded in reality than the Blackhawks). It would help distinguish them from the superhero books; and for whatever it’s worth, they would be DC’s only New-52 titles set primarily in the 20th Century. New seems to be working out pretty well, but retro ought not to be dismissed entirely. In that context, a period-piece Challengers of the Unknown could be a nice complement, telling the kinds of Eisenhower-era stories readers might expect from a company which reinvented itself fairly significantly back then.
So yeah, a Challengers revival would be nice. Maybe there’s one in the pipeline already. I just hope it’s faithful to the feature’s origins, not modern for the sake of being modern — and I say that not because I think everything’s gone downhill since the Silver Age ended. (I don’t think that, by the way.) The aggregation of qualities in DC’s main-line roster isn’t as ideal as it could be. It needs a little borrowed time.