An "X-Force" To Be Reckoned With - Marvel's Mutant Militia Turns 25
This is going to be another “we liked it the old way” type of post. I take no particular pleasure in these, because there are only so many ways to rail against change, especially changes involving decades-old characters and concepts.
Nevertheless, the latest charges of Crimes Against Tradition are against the new Earth 2 and “Shazam!” features. The original Earth-Two came to represent generations of superheroes active since the late 1930s, but the current one is apparently “five years of supers, give or take”; and the new don’t-say-the-M-word “Shazam” is apparently also something called the Third Sinner. So yes, DC, I try to be open-minded, I will give these things reasonable chances to win me over, and no one has destroyed my treasured old comics — but wow, you don’t make it easy.
Therefore, today I want to look at why the old versions might still matter, but just as importantly why they still matter to fogeys like me.
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There are a few different ways to approach the idea of “Earth-Two,” and it’s worth a little history lesson to get into them. Originally, of course, there was no Earth-Two per se — there were just the superheroes published by affiliated companies which eventually came together as the DC we know today. Indeed, the foundations of DC’s shared universe were laid in no small part by the Justice Society stories in All Star Comics. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that when most of the Justice Society’s characters went away in the early 1950s, they took most of those shared adventures with them — because the characters which survived were already doing pretty well on their own. The collective staying power of Superman, Batman and Robin, and Wonder Woman made them pop-culture icons and cemented their places at the core of DC’s superhero lineup. In 1960, when the JSA was revamped as Justice League of America, the future “Trinity” was front and center. As for their old colleagues, though, the early ‘50s represented the first time the Golden Agers went away.
A year after the Justice League’s debut, “Flash of Two Worlds” formally introduced Earth-Two both as a repository for all those Golden Age characters and stories, and as a clear adjunct to the main line of superhero books. The Golden Agers weren’t really going concerns anymore, they were supporting characters relegated to living essentially in a storytelling device. Eventually, in the 1970s and ‘80s, there were regular series set on Earth-Two, but those characters never took back the spotlight from their successors.
Accordingly, the first way to think about Earth-Two is simply as that repository for Golden Age stories. There are some nitpicky problems with this, but for the most part it’s pretty easy to say that if a DC superhero story was published between 1935 and 1951, it happened that way at that time on Earth-Two. From that premise, fans and pros alike could extrapolate the future of those characters, and thereby create a timeline significantly different from the Silver/Bronze Age of Earth-One. That’s the second way to look at Earth-Two: as an alternate timeline where the Golden Agers grew old, married, had children, and in some cases, died.
Therefore, from 1961 to 1985, Earth-Two grew into a unique environment, both dependent on and separate from the Golden Age comics in which it was rooted. It was a way for DC to honor its origins while keeping its most familiar characters young (i.e., through their Earth-One counterparts). However, at the end of Crisis On Infinite Earths, Earth-Two was folded into the surviving single DC-Earth, and its course was altered irrevocably. The new DC-Earth inherited those Golden Age beginnings, and with them the idea of explicit “legacies.” Those legacies became the third way to perpetuate (the now-former) Earth-Two.
The idea of legacies informed DC’s superhero line for over twenty-five years, from the end of COIE in 1985 through the end of the old DC Universe last August. Books like Starman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Hourman explored the concept, as did miniseries like Kingdom Come and DC One Million. In this context, the JSA was relaunched as a multigenerational team, with a core of original members (Flash, Green Lantern, Wildcat, and Queen Hippolyta’s Wonder Woman — don’t ask) and a host of legacies (Black Canary, Doctor Mid-Nite, Starman, Doctor Fate, J.J. Thunder, etc.). JSA and its successor Justice Society of America ran from 1999 through last August, and inspired a couple of spinoffs (JSA Classified and the short-lived JSA All-Stars); and while it lost a lot of steam once Geoff Johns left, a lot of fans got to know the JSA as a big extended family, meaningfully distinct from the Justice League. Put another way, the JSA finally had a reason to exist which a) incorporated its Golden Age history and b) didn’t rely on being another Earth’s version of the JLA.
Meanwhile, though, the final issue of 52 (published in the spring of 2007) introduced a new-but-familiar Multiverse, composed of 52 parallel universes and including an Earth-2 which looked a lot like the pre-COIE one. In theory it was (almost literally) the best of both worlds — an “intact” Golden Age, as updated for the ‘70s and ‘80s, and brought further into the 21st Century. It also made its Justice Society another version of the Justice League, but that was beside the point. It didn’t need to justify its existence alongside the JLA, because once again it was at the top of the org chart.
While this Earth-2 got some play in Johns’ Justice Society, if it’s the same one we’re about to explore, it has probably gone through some changes since August. Now its characters — even the Golden Agers — all look fairly young, and the timeline seems to have been compressed radically. Still, there are legacies, specifically Superman/Power Girl and Batman/Huntress. It’s all superficially similar to the old Earth-Two, just without the sense that these characters go back decades.
In isolation that doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but it forces you to consider what’s so special about these characters apart from their history. Jay Garrick was a college student who dozed off during a late-night lab session and ended up a superhero. Alan Scott was an engineer who found a magic lantern and ring. Ted Knight was a physicist, Ted Grant a boxer, Kent Nelson an archaeologist’s son. As for the true alternates, their choices distinguished them: Bruce Wayne fought crime for a dozen years, then felt comfortable enough with his life to marry one of his old enemies; and Clark Kent lived for a year never realizing he’d been Superman, along the way also marrying his true love. Those details are crucial to those characters remaining vital, but at the same time those details are tied pretty strongly to their original era. Since 1986, DC has tried to find ways around that conundrum, even retiring the JSA a couple of times — and now it looks like the characters will be revamped free of that history.
This time, though, the problem is that if they’re just another alternate Justice League, they now have to compete with a revamped Justice League which itself is emblematic of the changes wrought upon the New-52-verse. With so much newness, it would have been nice for Earth 2 to go full-on retro, as both an alternative to the regular DC-Earth and a callback to Earth-That-Was. Instead, it looks like we’re getting New, But Different. (Or Different, But New — take your pick.)
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Like the Golden Agers, Fawcett’s Marvel Family (and related characters) found themselves waking up in the 1970s as residents of an Earth which existed in relation to DC’s main Earth-One. This time it was Earth-S (for Shazam!, naturally), and Billy Batson and everyone he knew had been trapped agelessly in “Suspendium” for some twenty years, pretty much since their final Fawcett Comics issues had hit newsstands in the early ‘50s. They “went to sleep” in 1954 and woke up in 1973, their Fawcett history preserved and their DC adventures ready to begin.
However, as with Earth-Two, COIE’s merging necessitated a relaunch. 1987’s Shazam! A New Beginning (written by Roy Thomas, drawn by Tom Mandrake) kept the basic details, but eliminated a lot of the whimsy and wasn’t particularly influential. More faithful was Jerry Ordway’s 1994 graphic novel The Power Of Shazam!, which led into four years’ worth of an ongoing series. Nevertheless, subsequent Marvel treatments had Mary Marvel go dark-‘n’- slutty and Captain Marvel Jr. promoted to headliner and renamed Shazam. Now, it seems, we’re back to Billy Batson as the main figure, this time called Shazam and sporting a slightly-redesigned costume.
That’s a quick and dirty summary, but a couple of non-DC events bear upon Captain Marvel’s development. First is the whole “Marvel” problem, created when Marvel trademarked the name for its Kree warrior, which prevents DC from using “Captain Marvel” in a book’s title. Almost forty years of relying on “Shazam!” seem to have convinced DC it’s not worth emphasizing the distinction between exclamation and name.
Second is Alan Moore’s revamp of Marvelman, Cap’s British counterpart, in the early ‘80s. Moore postulated that young Mickey Moran actually switched places with his superheroic counterpart, such that the inactive partner “hibernated” in another dimension until called for. Among other things, this meant that Mickey would only get older and more feeble, while Marvelman was functionally immortal; and, conversely, that Kid Marvelman could spend twenty-odd years growing more powerful (and more diabolical) while Mickey forgot he had ever been a superhero. Under Moore (and artists Garry Leach and Alan Davis), Marvelman became one of the seminal “deconstructionist” books of the 1980s. Brought to the U.S. by Eclipse Comics and renamed Miracleman (again, thanks to Marvel), it soon joined Swamp Thing and Watchmen in cementing Moore’s considerable influence on superhero storytelling. As a take on the Marvel Family mythology, Miracleman was about as dark and “realistic” as anyone would ever want. It featured the birth (every bit of it) of Miracleman’s daughter (issue #9), the depraved exploitation of Miraclewoman by the series’ arch-villain (issue #12), the apocalyptic destruction of London by Kid Miracleman (featuring the Thames choked with corpses, #15), and the ultimate ascension of Miracleman and his allies as the Earth’s new gods (#16). However, legal battles over the rights to the character have kept Miracleman out of print for decades, which may be why it hasn’t been particularly influential on its inspiration.
Or, you know, it could just be that DC never got the itch to age Billy Batson, marry him off, have Captain Marvel impregnate his wife, and then have Cap break Freddy Freeman’s neck after Cap Jr. killed millions in a murderous super-powered rampage. (Moore did have some disturbing things in mind for Cap in his Twilight of the Superheroes proposal, though….) Next to Miracleman, DC’s various relaunches look rather tame.
Still, that’s not the fairest of comparisons, either. DC’s more recent treatment of the Marvel Family is constantly at odds with the characters’ historical portrayals mainly because DC has had to reconcile their lighthearted setup with a world which includes the likes of Lex Luthor and the Joker. Indeed, even in the current 52-Earth Multiverse (where Earth-S has become Earth-5), Cap himself has been recast as the Superman of his parallel universe. By implication, then, the Cap of Earth-DC must justify his existence in relation to Superman, just as the JSA had to distinguish itself from the Justice League.
This is a big part of my argument that Cap and the other Marvels should get their own Earth, like they had in the old Multiverse days: because then they could play by their own rules without having to make such justifications. Having a parallel Earth isn’t merely a license to sow carnage, it’s an opportunity to present different storytelling styles and tones. Sean Kleefeld argues perceptively that DC has aimed the new Shazam at its core Direct-Market audience — or, perhaps more accurately, at the audience DC perceives is its most loyal — but again I have to ask why the company’s focus is so narrow? “Shazam!” will run in one of DC’s highest-profile books, so I doubt seriously that anyone would drop Justice League on the odd chance that Hoppy the Marvel Bunny might show up.
Now, it may well be the case that this particular version of Captain Marvel is so different because DC is waiting on Grant Morrison to finish the Multiversity miniseries, in which Cap is supposed to feature prominently. DC may also want to relaunch the traditional Cap as an all-ages book, picking up where the Jeff Smith Monster Society miniseries and its follow-up (Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!) left off. I have no idea what sorts of marketing moves DC could be planning.
What I see, though, are two examples of DC trying to fit a couple of familiar, fan-tested concepts into the New-52 aesthetic, apparently at the expense of what initially made them popular. Earth-Two and the Justice Society appeal naturally to longtime fans, and maybe to a lesser degree to curious readers eager to dive into a venerable, complex setting. The Marvel Family is about as reader-friendly a superhero concept as you’ll see — say a magic word and become the World’s Mightiest Mortal — so why complicate either of those things with cryptic hints about dark developments? To gin up interest in fans who’ll either be indifferent or hostile? Why not instead carve out a couple of spaces for doing things the old way? If it works, fine; if it doesn’t … well, these wouldn’t be the first New-52 books cancelled.
Look, I know there’s a good chance that “retro” simply doesn’t have the appeal I hope it does. There’s a part of any fan who sees the market’s rejection of a particular work as the failure of its patron to present it properly. What frustrates me is DC’s apparent refusal to try. The Multiverse gives DC dozens of options to do all manner of different setups, and I credit the New-52 for books like All-Star Western, Men Of War, and Demon Knights. I just wish it would do more.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman and a version of Queen Hippolyta, and John Byrne retroactively made Hippolyta the Golden Age Wonder Woman.
Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Robin was created by Kane, Finger, and Jerry Robinson. Finger also created Wildcat and, with Martin Nodell, co-created the Green Lantern (Alan Scott).
Gardner Fox co-created a number of Golden Age characters, including the Flash (Jay Garrick), with Harry Lampert; Hawkman (Carter Hall), with Dennis Neville; Starman (Ted Knight), with Jack Burnley; and Doctor Fate (Kent Nelson), with Howard Sherman.
The Black Canary (Dinah Drake Lance) was created by Bob Kanigher and Carmine Infantino. Doctor Mid-Nite (Charles McNider) was created by Charles Reizenstein and Stanley Josephs Aschmeir, and the third Dr. M-N (Pieter Cross) first appeared in an eponymous miniseries by Matt Wagner and John K. Snyder III. The seventh Starman (Jack Knight) was created by James Robinson and Tony Harris. J.J. Thunder was created by Grant Morrison and was based on Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt, who were created by John B. Wentworth and Stan Aschmeier. The android Hourman was created by Morrison and Howard Porter and was based on Hourman (Rex Tyler), who was created by Ken Fitch and Bernard Bailey. Power Girl was created by Gerry Conway, Ric Estrada, and Wally Wood. The Huntress (Helena Wayne) was created by Paul Levitz and Joe Staton.
C.C. Beck created Captain Marvel and the wizard Shazam. Captain Marvel Jr. was created by Beck, France Herron, and Mac Raboy. Mary Marvel was created by Otto Binder, Marc Swayze, and Mac Raboy.