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DC as Deutero-Canonical

Robert M. Price


Recently I essayed the theory that, since DC Comics in the Golden Age was a pair of twins in the womb, All-American Comics and National Comics, with different staffs and different studios, it was not surprising that, within their combined hero pantheon one could detect the same sort of parallels and/or redundancies one otherwise observes between the pantheons of two different comics companies. Well, now I want to suggest a different sense in which DC has the look of two comics lines in one, and for a different reason. I am thinking of the great number of second-stringers, back-up features, etc. Kind of like a secondary list of not-quite-canonical scriptures, like Tobit, Judith, Macabbees, Esdras, Sirach, Wisdom, Baruch, considered "Apocrypha" by Protestants, "deutero-canonical" (forming a secondary canon) by Catholics. To me DC's back-up features and second-stringers are very much like the first-stringers of a second-rate comics company.

ááááááááááá One of the great blessings of the DC Archives editions is that they combine all the stories of the headline character from the various issues in which he originally appeared, cutting the back-up features. It might be nice if they would just publish books containing whole issues of a single title, that is, as long as one had unlimited money and storage space, as well as an infinite time to wait for the series to be completed (and face it: we'll never live long enough as it is!). But, as for me, I do not want to see pages of Mutt 'n Jeff resurrected. I don't even want to see Sugar and Spike. But between these extremes, between the Flash and Mutt 'n Jeff, you had a number of second-stringers, both in the Golden and Silver Ages. Nor is it difficult to rank these.

ááááááááááá The first string was, naturally, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, the Spectre, Dr. Fate, Hawkman, etc. But then there were characters who were intended to be big guns but never quite made it: the Guardian, Hourman, Star Man, Sandman. Next were heroes who seem to have been created to bring up the rear. And it is here I am saying it looks as if DC decided to create an in-house equivalent to some competitor's less inspired or derivative efforts. The proper second-stringers of DC would have been the heroes, just mentioned, who were aimed at stardom but didn't quite make it. But the back-up characters were made for the back pages, as if DC were carrying its own second-rate competitors' imitations in tow.

ááááááááááá Green Arrow strikes me (and I dare say, everybody else) as an imitation of Batman, as in that perfect scene in Mark Waid's JLA Year One series where Batman first sees the Arrow-Cave, the Arrowmobile, etc. and muses that he doesn't know whether it's flattering or just pathetic. The Martian Manhunter is a third-rate Superman. The Sea Devils was a rip-off of their own Aquaman, himself a second-stringer imitating Timely's Sub-Mariner. Poor Elongated man (not even a back-up feature, but an occasional guest star in The Flash) was a copy of Elastic Lad, himself a copy of Plastic Man.

ááááááááááá Yet there were also flashes of the imagination that led to DC features, again second-stringers, that created strips and characters that would have been the front rank in the line-up of any competitor. Adam Strange (essentially a latter-day Burroughs rip-off, though I'm not complaining) and Space Ranger (DC's Captain Future) were easily equivalent to Charlton's Captain Atom. The Doom Patrol, second-rank for DC, was parallel to Marvel's first-rank X-Men. Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown, distinctly second-string at DC, was close to equivalent to both Marvel's front runner the Fantastic Four (just without powers) as well as Harvey's Three Rocketeers (all Kirby projects, too!) The secondary character of the FF is reflected in the brilliant 80s parody of the FF in Superman, where a space crash gave suspiciously Fantastic Four-like powers and shapes to the four analogous crew members, Hank Henshaw (= Reed Richards) later becoming the Cyborg Superman. What made the FF so great was the unparalleled characterization, which redrew the rules.

ááááááááááá The Legion of Superheroes was pretty much another Justice League set in the future. As in all comics, the future is treated simply like another planet, with neatly drawn rules to prevent continuity-destroying stories: "You can't change history, no matter how hard you try!" So whenever Superboy flew through the Time Barrier (read, the Jump Gate) to the "future," it was really more like him going through the dimensional door to Earth 2, or better yet, into a crossover adventure with the heroes of another comics company. It was like Superman teaming up with the Fantastic Four (who were, again, directly inspired by the Justice League). It was as if DC's second-stringers were a secondary comics company carried along like a caboose. We can easily imagine Congorilla having his own title over at Charlton, Ultra the Multi-Alien at Harvey. Animal Man is, in my subjective opinion, a weak echo of the Jaguar from the Archie Adventure series, himself a copy of Captain Marvel, a copy of Superman. The Metal Men would be in the front rank somewhere else, like the THUNDER Agents at Tower.

ááááááááááá Speaking of the Legion, it provides us with a great example of the phenomenon we are considering as it functioned as a catch-all for one-shot rivals of Superboy in his titles. Some of these characters, Mon-el, Starboy, and Ultraboy, with their classic Curt Swann costumes, seemed too good to throw away at the end of the story in which they debuted, but they were also too much like Superboy to be kept in close proximity to him, so they transferred them into the future. But once there, they were still redundant of one another. So, to clear the logjam of Superboy clones, each of which would have been a fine Superboy rip-off over at another comics company, they tried to make at least one of them over into a different sort of hero. They changed Starboy's power to making things super-heavy, as if with the gravity of a star--what the hell? Of course, the only natural power for someone named "Starboy" would be the same one Sunboy already had!

ááááááááááá If the post-Crisis DC universe has trouble justifying two Supermen (Superman and Captain Marvel), two Atomic heroes (Captain Atom and Firestorm), two Blue Beetles (Ted Kord and Silver Scarab), two stretchy guys (Plastic Man and Elongated Man), etc., having appropriated parallel characters from defunct competitor lines, they already had similar troubles with their own first- and second-stringers appearing in the same title. I always wondered: why is Superman in the JLA alongside the Manhunter? Green Arrow, with his trick arrows, alongside Batman, with his trick batarangs? And of course the same tensions resulted from DC's revival of their own Golden Age characters alongside their Silver Age characters. Am I saying they shouldnta oughta have done these things? Heck, no! It's all great fun! But I have to admit that's not my better aesthetic judgment talking. I'm talking about a guilty fannish pleasure, the kind of speculation you spew out hanging around a comic shop: "Hey! What would happen if the Abomination fought the Destroyer? If the Absorbing Man tangled with the Juggernaut? If Jesus Christ battled Superman?" The same thing sometimes occurs to the creators, too, as when Robert E. Howard teamed up King Kull and Bran Mak Morn (in "Kings of the Night"). We can hardly believe it, though we rejoice that they did!

ááááááááááá And speaking of comic shop pontifications, I half-think it might have been better had DC segregated their back-up heroes into a separate narrative universe (like the Marvel New Universe launch back in the mid-eighties). This way, you could have had the Manhunter, Green Arrow, Congorilla, Adam Strange, the Doom Patrol, Elongated Man, et. al., in their own universe, not being constantly overshadowed even within their own stories by their better known prototypes.á  


Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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