"U.S.Avengers": A Guide to Marvel's New Patriotic Superhero Team
Don’t ask me how I remember this, but it was just about twenty years ago that the first previews of Dan Jurgens’ Justice League began appearing. After five years, the “bwah-ha-ha” era was winding down, and Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis were leaving Justice League America. Giffen was also stepping away from plots and breakdowns for Justice League Europe, with JLE’s scripter Gerard Jones taking over as the book’s only writer; and Brian Augustyn replaced Andy Helfer as both books’ editor.
With a number of the New 52 titles changing creative teams before they’re even a year old, it’s too early to start talking about any long-lived, let alone definitive, runs on a particular book. Still, DC clearly hopes these books will be around for a while, even without the folks who launched ‘em. It got me thinking about past changes of the guard, and how they have followed some well-established interpretations.
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Let’s begin with the Jurgens League, which was a big part of a wider effort to establish the Justice League as a mini-franchise. In the spring of 1992, the League family included JLA and JLE, as well as the oversized anthology Justice League Quarterly. “Breakdowns,” an epic crossover between the two monthly books, left the two teams pretty much disbanded, only to reunite (with some newer, higher-profile members) in the one-shot Justice League Spectacular. Although the overall effect made JLA and JLE less wacky, the changes also tried to give the books more of a high-adventure feel, deliberately trying to evoke the Silver Age team. The covers of JLA #61 and JLE #37 each paid homage to early Justice League of America moments, with JLA’s copying Justice League of America #1 and JLE’s parodying the original team’s origin (from JLofA #9).
In hindsight, it was part of a cycle which should be familiar to longtime Justice League fans. As a response to the “Detroit League’s” lineup of lesser-knowns, Giffen, DeMatteis, and penciller Kevin Maguire had built Justice League International around veterans from the original team (Batman, Black Canary, Martian Manhunter), familiar characters with no previous League affiliation (Mr. Miracle, Dr. Fate, Captain Marvel), and those newer to the spotlight (Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Captain Atom, Guy Gardner, Dr. Light). For years the JLI was successful without the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, or Hal Jordan, mostly because it poked fun at the kind of omnipotent super-team to which they would belong. However, when Jurgens and Jones (and JLE’s new artist Ron Randall) took over, the two Leagues expanded to accommodate exactly those characters. Superman joined Beetle, Booster, Guy, Fire, and Ice in Justice League America, while Power Girl, Flash, Crimson Fox, and Elongated Man welcomed Hal, Aquaman, (eventually) Wonder Woman, and (for the first arc) Batman into Justice League Europe.
Strange as it may sound, this was a big deal at the time. After a few years of post-Crisis On Infinite Earths creative renovations, DC was starting to rediscover the Silver Age. Jurgens’ first villain was Xotar the Weapons Master, not seen since 1960’s Brave and the Bold #29, and his last big storyline involved Doctor Destiny and a twisted version of the Satellite League. Intervening was 1992’s “Death Of Superman” storyline, and since Superman was part of the League, Doomsday got to sideline Booster and put Beetle in a coma. There’s some metatextual hay to be made out of a Silver Age pastiche featuring self-referential post-Crisis characters being decimated by an early-‘90s stunt-plot built around killing one of the world’s most recognizable pop-culture figures, but in the end it was just a big mess. Jurgens’ JLA ended up with Wonder Woman, Guy Gardner, Maxima, the Ray, Black Condor, Agent Liberty, and Bloodwynd, and Jurgens left soon thereafter. When the JL books were reshuffled a year or so later, Gerard Jones was the new writer, and the cycle began anew.
As it happened, Jurgens also ended up taking over the Teen Titans from longtime writer Marv Wolfman. Of course, Wolfman’s association with the Titans went back to the late ‘60s, but he’d really made his mark in 1980, in collaboration with artist George Pérez. Wolfman stayed on New (Teen) Titans for some fifteen years, and by the time Nightwing put the book to bed with issue #130, there didn’t seem to be much more to do with those characters. Accordingly, Jurgens started fresh in Teen Titans #1 (October 1996), with a group of super-powered youngsters sharing a common origin. Leading the group was the Atom, stuck in the body of a 16-year-old following a temporal accident, and helping to mentor them was Mr. Jupiter, a figure from one of the original Titans’ other relaunches. Jurgens’ Titans lasted two years, although issue #12 featured the originals in the start of a four-part storyline and Captain Marvel Jr. joined around issue #17. The book ended with issue #24, but the original Titans reunited in 1998’s JLA/Titans miniseries, and one of Jurgens’ characters (Argent) joined the subsequent Titans title. Argent even appeared in the seminal JLA storyline “Rock Of Ages,” albeit as one of the last superheroes standing after Darkseid’s global conquest. With the Titans’ New-52 history uncertain, who knows when they might pop up; but for the most part, they made it through the past few crossovers relatively unscathed. However, DC hasn’t tried a completely-new Titans book since then (not counting the recent all-villains Titans, that is), and I would say the feature is subject to the same ebb and flow of big-name characters as Justice League is.
Speaking of ex-Titans, The Flash vol. 2 was lucky enough to have only a handful of writers during its twenty-year run. Mark Waid spent some six-and-a-half years writing (or co-writing with Brian Augustyn) Wally West’s adventures, most notably letting Wally come to grips with his place in the Flash legacy. Waid also gave Wally a distinctive, matter-of-fact voice appropriate to a character who’d spent most of his life with super-speed. Accordingly, when Geoff Johns took over Flash, he inherited a well-adjusted protagonist and didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken. Instead, Johns focused on Wally’s surroundings: breathing life into the blue-collar, hockey-loving Keystone City; offering new perspectives via detectives Chyre and Morillo; and famously focusing on the Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery. Johns stayed on Flash for five years, effectively wrapping it up in time for an Infinite Crisis-related relaunch.
So, can we draw some conclusions from these three disparate examples? I doubt there are any hard-and-fast rules, but I do have some observations. First, despite writing and drawing both, Dan Jurgens was asked to do two different things on Justice League America and Teen Titans. Essentially, JLA picked up where Giffen and DeMatteis left it, except that a) Jurgens tried to fold it into the Superman titles and b) Jurgens wasn’t nearly as funny. (His recent Booster Gold work was a lot better by comparison.) Conversely, Teen Titans was supposed to be something new (if grounded in the familiar DC universe) and turned into something pretty familiar when the new stuff failed to catch on. By contrast, the new stuff in Johns’ Flash was mostly new perspectives on familiar elements, like Keystone City and the Rogues.
We tend to forget it because Gail Simone was associated with the characters for so long, but Chuck Dixon was the original Birds Of Prey writer, guiding Black Canary and Oracle through various one-shots and miniseries before writing the first forty-six issues of the original ongoing series. (Terry Moore and Gilbert Hernandez each wrote a few issues in between Dixon and Simone.) Dixon’s BOP was a distaff version of his other DC work, which at the time included Nightwing, Robin, and Green Arrow. It was hard-nosed, no-nonsense storytelling; and although there were some relationship issues, the series was more action-oriented. Today, naturally, we remember Simone’s BOP for its characters: Babs, Dinah, Helena, Zinda, Charlie, et al. Again, like Johns, Simone took what Dixon left and gave it her own perspective. (I try not to sound like Paula Abdul, but there it is.) Simone ended up writing more issues of Birds Of Prey than Dixon did, and now she surely comes to mind more readily than he does. Still, the fundamentals of the feature didn’t change all that much.
Of course, other titles underwent more radical changes. When J.M. DeMatteis and Shawn McManus left Dr. Fate after two years, writer William Messner-Loebs and artists Vince Giaranno and Peter Gross changed casts almost completely. Stay with me, because this can get complicated: Dr. Fate was originally Kent Nelson, bearer of a mystic helmet which housed Nabu, an omnipotent Lord of Order. By the time DeMatteis and McManus launched their series, Nelson had died and Nabu was inhabiting his body, and Fate was a guy named Eric Strauss (magically aged to adulthood) and occasionally also Eric’s stepmother Linda. However, thanks to a series of events much too complicated to be summarized, the protagonists for Moore and Gross’s run were Inza Nelson (Kent’s wife) and Kent himself, back from limbo (or someplace effectively similar), with Kent’s original body now the home to a Lord of Chaos named Shat-Ru. Thus, different faces on comparable roles. Both DeMatteis and Messner-Loebs used Dr. Fate to explore broad philosophical questions, although each writer went in a different direction. Where DeMatteis was more concerned with larger issues of creation, destruction, and significance, Messner-Loebs had Inza transform her neighborhood for the better, literally removing evil impulses from her neighbors and behaving like a benevolent deity. It was an engaging run, although it only lasted a little over a year before the book was cancelled.
J.M. DeMatteis got another crack at a nigh-omnipotent superhero when he wrote Hal Jordan as The Spectre. Previous writer John Ostrander cast the Spectre as the embodiment of God’s wrath, but DeMatteis gave him a mission of redemption. DeMatteis’ Spectre series (drawn first by Ryan Sook and then by Norm Breyfogle) lasted a little over two years, and with Hal’s subsequent return as Green Lantern, may end up merely as a forgotten footnote to his backstory.
And speaking of footnotes, I felt compelled to hunt down every issue of Who’s Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes just to understand the references in early issues of the “Five-Years Later” version. Following Paul Levitz’s departure, writers Tom and Mary Bierbaum and artist/plotter Keith Giffen relaunched Legion of Super-Heroes in the fall of 1989, but set it in a universe five years removed from the glittering utopia Legion readers had come to love. (Not being a regular Legion reader, I thought this would be a good jumping-on point, but I ended up jumping into a fast-moving stream without a float.) Ironically, while this version of the Legion was grounded firmly in existing continuity, a big chunk of that continuity had been rewritten to accommodate post-Crisis changes to Superman. Even so, the 5YL Legion survived for five years (appropriately enough), until Zero Hour provided the opportunity for a more complete housecleaning.
Finally, there’s Firestorm, co-created by Gerry Conway in the mid-‘70s and guided largely by Conway for the next ten years. Firestorm, the fusion of student Ronnie Raymond and scientist Martin Stein, first had his own book, which lasted five issues before being cancelled. Because Conway also wrote Justice League of America, he soon brought Firestorm into the League and wrote the character’s contemporaneous backup series in Flash. Not surprisingly, when the ongoing Fury Of Firestorm debuted in 1982, Conway wrote its first fifty-three issues. Essentially, Firestorm was Conway’s baby until John Ostrander came along — and one of the first things Ostrander did was give Martin Stein cancer. That kicked off a whole slew of twists and turns and brought in a raft of new characters. It took both Ronnie and the Professor out of the picture for long stretches, leaving behind an affectless Firestorm who struggled to find his proper function. In fact, the Ostrander run delved deep into the mechanics of the character, laying the groundwork for how he’s perceived today. Ostrander’s Firestorm (drawn by Joe Brozowski, then Tom Grindberg, then Tom Mandrake) was a sweeping saga of hope, survival, and ultimately, transcendence, which took the character from relatively-mundane superheroics to Swamp Thing-style levels of cosmic responsibility. Firestorm was cancelled with issue #100, so Ostrander was on the book a little less than four years, but that was more than enough time to alter the character irrevocably. (It also made the character somewhat unrecognizable, but subsequent appearances got around that.) The Jason Rusch Firestorm revamp built on many of these ideas, and the current Fury Of Firestorms seems to be playing with them as well.
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Naturally, all of these examples would be more appropriate if we were still playing by all the old rules. (It feels more than a little strange to talk about “the old days” and mean “August,” but that’s about where the New-52 has left us.) There aren’t too many New-52 books with long-established creative teams. Geoff Johns has been writing Green Lantern for about seven years now, Paul Levitz has been back with the Legion for a while, and despite the book’s considerable hiatus I guess you could say there’s only been one set of writers on Resurrection Man. For all intents and purposes, we’re probably in the post-Grant Morrison era of Bat-books as well.
Otherwise, though, I don’t feel comfortable pointing to any given New-52 book and predicting a lengthy tenure for its current creative team. That said, I don’t think any of the Bat-writers are going anywhere, Morrison probably has a good bit to say about Superman in Action Comics, and Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire seem settled-in for the long haul on Swamp Thing and Animal Man. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the New-52 titles got a good couple of years out of their current creative teams — but I wouldn’t be surprised either if the superhero line looked significantly different two years from now. Maybe it’s because we’re only on the first week of Month 4, but the whole thing has a weird sense of impermanence, like it’s just a more normal version of Flashpoint’s altered reality.
Maybe that’s by design: for good or ill, these folks are telling the stories they want to tell, and when they’re done, they’re done — whether that takes six months, one year, or five years. That’s not a bad way to go. It’s basically what happened with Sandman, Hitman, and Starman, each of which is remembered for its singular vision.
However, not every book has that luxury. I wouldn’t want to be the writer following Geoff Johns on Green Lantern. I suppose the examples above are meant for that person, and I guess one of the big takeaways has to do with a book’s fundamentals. If those fundamentals are maintained, and you can offer readers some new insights into familiar elements, you’re probably set for a decent run. That sounds pretty basic, but these days, there’s more freedom to redefine those fundamentals and/or play with readers’ expectations — and that’s assuming the reader has some expectations. In that respect, Dan Jurgens had it easy on JLA: just add Superman to Giffen and DeMatteis’ comedic cast, and let the reactions write themselves.
Today, though, DC is presenting the New 52 largely on its own merits. Readers may have expectations about Justice League, Superman, or Batman, but they’re not necessarily comparing Duane Swierczynski’s work on Birds Of Prey to Gail Simone’s. Indeed, the New-52 isn’t old enough to encourage such comparisons. Rather, if I’m being charitable, the superhero line is still finding itself in these early months, and DC is figuring out what kinds of readers its New-52 books are attracting. We’ll see in a few years whether they’ve settled down with particular creative teams, and then we can apply these examples more accurately.