"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Every week, hard as it may be to believe, I try honestly to offer something I think might interest the larger group of DC Domics superhero readers. However, this week I am invoking a personal privilege. For one thing, with Halloween on a Wednesday (when I usually end up writing these essays), the holiday will more than likely take priority.
The main reason, though, is that today is my birthday, and as you might have guessed from the headline, this year is my 43rd birthday. Therefore, this week I have pulled together an especially memorable DC story and/or issue from each of those years, 1969 through 2012. (Note: They may not always line up with the actual year, but just for simplicity’s sake, all dates are cover dates.) These aren’t necessarily the best or most noteworthy stories of their particular years, but they’ve stuck with me. Besides, while I’ve read a lot of comics from a lot of sources, for whatever reason DC has been the constant. Maybe when I’m 50 I’ll have something more comprehensive.
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A couple of weeks ago, I wondered whether we could trace the entire sidekick-derived wing of DC’s superhero-comics history back to Bill Finger. Today I’m less interested in revisiting that question — although I will say Robin the Boy Wonder also owes a good bit to Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane — than using it as an example.
Specifically, this week’s question has nagged me for several years (going back to my TrekBBS days, even), and it is this: as between Alan Moore and the duo of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, who has been a bigger influence on DC’s superhero books?
As the post title suggests, we might reframe this as “who won the ‘80s,” since all three men came to prominence at DC in that decade. Wolfman and Pérez’s New Teen Titans kicked off with a 16-page story in DC Comics Presents #26 (cover-dated October 1980), with the series’ first issue following the next month. Moore’s run on (Saga of the) Swamp Thing started with January 1984’s issue #20, although the real meat of his work started with the seminal issue #21. Wolfman and Pérez’s Titans collaboration lasted a little over four years, through February 1985’s Tales of the Teen Titans #50 and New Teen Titans vol. 2 #5. Moore wrote Swamp Thing through September 1987’s #64, and along the way found time in 1986-87 for a little-remembered twelve-issue series called Watchmen. After their final Titans issues, Wolfman and Pérez also produced a 12-issue niche-appeal series of their own, 1984-85’s Crisis On Infinite Earths.* The trio even had some common denominators: Len Wein edited both Titans and Watchmen (and Barbara Randall eventually succeeded him on both), and Gar Logan’s adopted dad Steve Dayton was friends with John Constantine.
There wouldn’t be as much of an issue — and perhaps none at all — if every character’s history had been allowed to reset. However, stating specifically that the Batman and Green Lantern families both came through the relaunch relatively unchanged, even as Superman, the Flash, the Teen Titans, and the Justice League generally each got new beginnings, was just asking for trouble. Still, the question then becomes how much of Batman and GL backstory has become crucial to the present understanding of those characters?
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We begin with Batman. Pre-relaunch, Batman had built up a small army of proteges and associates over the course of a long career. In fact, said career spans at least ten years, because Damian Wayne was ten years old when he met Bruce Wayne, and his mom (Talia al Ghul) only sought out Bruce because her father had figured out he was Batman. Factoring in Dick Grayson’s age (between 18 and 20, depending on when you think 1987’s Batman: Son of the Demon falls in the timeline), and adding a few years for Dick’s early Robin career and Bruce’s solo debut (accounts vary) gives us a rough idea of how many years Batman’s been operating.
Its outreach efforts notwithstanding, DC’s superhero line has a longstanding reputation as a warehouse of impenetrable arcana. Even before it boasted four distinct heroic generations, it featured multiple Earths, dozens of 30th-Century Legionnaires, and thousands of Green Lanterns. While that sort of thing is catnip for obsessive fans, those are not the only kind of fans DC wants to attract. Naturally, over the years it has tried to make the superhero books more accessible, even as it sought to honor that voluminous history.
Exploring the balance between being new-reader-friendly and old-reader-comfortable is nothing new. Still, when serial storytelling is involved, even the newest takes will accumulate their own intricate backstories. Accordingly, how much DC lore does one really need? Is all that history just dead weight? Should continuity have an expiration date, or at least a statute of limitations?
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We begin with Batman and Green Lantern, two characters ostensibly “left alone” (for the most part) by the five-year timeline of the New-52 relaunch. This ended up cramming the origins of at least four Robins and four Earthling G-Ls into those five years. That said, in fairness to DC, we can make the case that all of DC’s superhero stories from 1969 to 1986 happened in a two- to three-year span (specifically, from the time the original crop of Teen Titans left for college until they started turning 20). Conveniently enough, this period saw the debuts of John Stewart as Green Lantern and Jason Todd as Robin, plus Guy Gardner’s return to active GL duty; and we still have two years to spare. Nevertheless, it seems needlessly restrictive to pin a quarter-century of stories to the hazy ages of a group of slowly-aging sidekicks — kind of like deciding to measure “Marvel time” by Franklin Richards’ growth.
Before we jump into 2012, I have one last bit of business to take care of: toting up my 2011 predictions, and offering a set for the new year.
1. The Green Lantern movie. Last year I predicted that GL would be “more lucrative than Captain America, not as much as Thor. It ended up making $116 million domestically ($219 million worldwide), well behind Cap’s $176 million ($368M globally) and Thor’s $181 million ($449M globally). Also, it wasn’t as good. I liked it well enough (and from what I hear I may like the Blu-Ray version more), but apparently I was in the minority.
2. Superman and Wonder Woman after JMS. I just had questions for this entry: will Roberson and Barrows stay on Superman? (No.) Will Diana keep the jacket and pants? (No jacket, pants optional.) Finally, I asked “[w]ill sales improve once ‘Grounded’ ends?” Guess that depends on how you define “ends,” because “Grounded” closed out that Superman series; and the next issue of Superman was a New-52 No. 1 which sold almost 100,000 more copies than its predecessor. We may never know what might have happened to Superman without the New 52, but probably not that.
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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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At first I wasn’t especially excited about too much in DC’s February solicitations. However, the more I looked around, the more optimistic I became. Six months into the New 52, some connections are starting to gel, and their interactions (well, as far as what you can glean from the ad copy) seem more organic. As always, there were a few pleasant surprises in the collected editions, and some details from which to spin hopeful speculation.
But enough with the purple prose — let’s hit the books!
TO UNLIMITED AND BEYOND
The gee-whizziest news of the February solicitations has to be the digital-first format of Batman Beyond Unlimited. I have not been the quickest to adapt to digitally-conveyed comics, mostly because my personal technology level hasn’t caught up. However, I do read a number of webcomics, as well as newspaper strips online, and if the price were right, I’d gladly sample BBU’s features on my computer before picking up the print version. Having Dustin Nguyen and (yay!) Norm Breyfogle involved doesn’t hurt either.
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The New Teen Titans: Games is the latest in an ever-expanding series of projects I never thought I’d see — a list which includes 2001’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, 2005’s Englehart/Rogers/Austin Dark Detective, the various Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League International reunions, and of course George Pérez finally getting his bravura turn on JLA/Avengers.
In the waning years of the 1980s (so the stories go), New Teen Titans co-creator Marv Wolfman had an idea for a Titans graphic novel. Wolfman, Pérez, and editor Barbara Kesel conceived Games — basically a supervillain-caper story with an espionage/terrorism angle — as a one-shot spinoff of the wildly successful ongoing series. Pérez then drew some 70 pages before complications sent the project into the limbo of unfinished possibilities. However, as the years went by and the stars realigned, and that possibility of finishing Games turned into probability, Wolfman and Pérez were forced to rethink their approach to the material, both in terms of changed styles and changes in content.
Accordingly, the Games we have today isn’t quite an artifact or a re-creation. Although it is rooted significantly in Titans lore, it doesn’t seem inaccessible to new readers. It’s a continuation which, for various reasons, can’t be “official,” and it’s also a standalone story which offers another look at the pair’s signature work. It may well be their last word on these characters, but it’s hardly an ending. It’s what they would have done twenty-odd years ago, except that it works best when taken slightly out of that context. Take it from someone who grew up in the land of strong bourbon — Games may be one of the most potent distillations of the Wolfman/Pérez experience.
Naturally, all that requires some explanation, so here we go….
In many ways, for longtime DC superhero readers, this is the first week of the rest of our lives. This is the week the first batch of New-52 second issues come out, and as such, this week the New 52 stops being a September-specific gimmick. We all know the second issue is where the rubber meets the road. Accordingly, in conjunction with a look at December’s titles, here’s where I am after a month of first issues.
Back when the September solicitations came out, I listed 37 books that I was planning at least to try:
Action Comics, All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batgirl, Batman, Batman And Robin, Batwing, Batwoman, Blackhawks, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Catwoman, DC Universe Presents, Demon Knights, Detective Comics, The Flash, Frankenstein: Agent Of SHADE, The Fury Of Firestorm, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, Grifter, Justice League, Justice League Dark, Justice League International, Men Of War, Mister Terrific, Nightwing, Red Lanterns, Resurrection Man, Static Shock, Stormwatch, Supergirl, Superman, Swamp Thing, and Wonder Woman
I’m pretty sure every other DC-Comics blogger in the known universe will be doing this, but for me it is an imperative: from now through the end of the month, this space will give short, probably reactionary, and likely ill-considered reviews of all 52 new titles. Not surprisingly, then, this week is all Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1.
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I liked Flashpoint #1 pretty well. I thought it was a promising start to a story that — in a daring departure for a big event — could stand on its own without universe-altering ramifications.
Of course, that was in early May, a lifetime ago.
While Flashpoint #5 finishes that story, it does so in a way that feels maddeningly hollow. Not the epilogue, mind you — that sequence just manages to avoid mawkishness, and is a well-done counterpoint to the end of issue #1. No, my problem with issue #5 (and to a lesser extent with the miniseries generally) is the way in which writer Geoff Johns apparently just decides he needs to wrap things up.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for Flashpoint #5, and later for Justice League #1 …
One of the more precarious parts of DC’s New-52 relaunch is this notion that a whole lot of in-story history happened over just five years of comic-book time. So far, this comes primarily from narration in the new Justice League #1, indicating that the team was formed “five years ago,” when “the world didn’t know what a super-hero was.”
Now, this may not be an entirely accurate measurement of the relaunch’s age. Practically by definition, the Justice League consists of heroes with fairly well-established careers, so we have to think that its charter members had been around for a little while before teaming up. Furthermore, in the context of the New 52 specifically, we can infer from what we know about the new Action Comics — which will show him less-powerful and with a more mundane costume — that Superman debuted some time before the events of Justice League #1. (According to Comics Alliance’s account of Friday’s New-52 Comic-Con panel, Action initially takes place just a few months before Justice League.)
This is not necessarily another post about DC’s post-Flashpoint superhero titles. However, since we superhero readers must deal with a climate of perpetual change, I often wonder just how far DC could go in rolling back its big changes.
In a sense, the first big set of changes started in 1956, with Barry Allen’s debut as the new Flash. Barry’s introduction acknowledged explicitly that there had been a previous (albeit “fictional”) Flash, whose name Barry took and whose costume was Barry’s inspiration. You know the rest: new versions of Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, etc., followed; they all teamed up as an updated Justice Society called the “Justice League”; and they were joined by a number of new characters like Adam Strange, the Hawk and the Dove, and the Doom Patrol.
After that, though, DC’s Silver Age of the 1960s was exciting but uneventful, because (outside of a few marriages) its status quo was never really challenged. Accordingly, when the Doom Patrol was murdered (in September 1968’s issue #121) and Dick Grayson left Wayne Manor (in December 1969’s Batman #217), DC’s shared superhero universe moved into a new phase.
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In recent years, we’ve seen a boatload of comic books and graphic novels make their way to the silver screen, from Big Two stalwarts like Spider-Man and Batman to independent titles like Scott Pilgrim and 30 Days Of Night. Among the various adaptations, though, is an overlooked veteran who has fueled some of comics biggest successes on the big and small screen: Marv Wolfman.
With this year marking his 43rd year in the comic industry, Marv Wolfman has done it all: he’s been editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, wrote one of the defining event series of all time in Crisis On Infinite Earths and created memorable characters such as Blade, Black Cat, Nova, Deathstroke and the New Teen Titans. He pioneered the idea of inventory stories at the major publishing houses, and as a creator he was the catalyst for companies to start crediting creators by name in comics. He’s been one of the key figures in comics adaptations in video games and animation, scripting episodes of Teen Titans, Batman: The Animated Series, Transformers, Spider-Man, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs and even some non-comics hits like Jem and The Garbage Pail Kids.
Marvel’s first major Hollywood success came thanks to the Marv Wolfman & Gene Colan creation of Blade, and his work on The New Teen Titans was one of the pillars of successful Teen Titans cartoon. But with all that work out there, comics still has a lot of Wolfman gems to offer movie producers. Here’s a highlight of some natural born hits coming from the mind of Wolfman and his collaborators.
For most of us, it’s getting to be the middle of April. Everything is blooming and getting greener. Our thoughts turn to familiar rites of spring like baseball, taxes, and that new Green Lantern preview.
On Earth-Solicits, of course, it’s July. The greenery is withering in the heat, the tax refund is spent, and half the Reds are sick thanks to being downwind from the Proctor & Gamble plant. Nevertheless, the residents of Earth-Solicits are just bursting at the seams, excited to tell you all that’s been happening in their world …
… but they can’t tell you everything, because then you’d have no reason to visit.
This sort of fan dance is especially pronounced in the current crop of solicitations. When something like a third of DC’s superhero line is taken up with titles like War of the Green Lanterns: Aftermath, Brightest Day Aftermath, and especially the cottage industry which is Flashpoint — titles which jump off from endings readers have yet to see, and/or which go deeper into books yet to begin — it’s hard to get excited, because right now it’s all hype for hype’s sake.
Thankfully, that’s not all there is to the July solicitations, so let’s cruise on….
Many times we superhero fans talk about the “need” to read certain prior issues and/or storylines. Blah blah blah, every issue is someone’s first, etc.
Well, I’m here to tell you … if you’re a fan of Silver Age DC, or of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans, and especially if you’re a fan of NTT‘s Garfield Logan, you need to read the original Doom Patrol. Having just finished Showcase Presents The Doom Patrol Volume 2, which reprints the back half of the DP’s original series, I can say honestly that my eyes have been opened. I never really “got” the appeal of the Doom Patrol before I read this collection — but I get it now.
What’s more, those old stories shed new light not just on what the DP meant to its fans, but on what Wolfman and Pérez were trying to do with Titans.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for some decades-old stories …
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