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DC's Double Pantheon

Robert M. Price


Today we witness one publishing house devouring another and another and another, till few remain and these have long, multipartite names (Bantam-Doubleday-Dell-Viking-Penguin-Vantage-etc.) reminiscent of the conflated gods of past ages (Osiris plus Apis equals Serapis; Narayana-Vishnu plus Vasudeva-Krishna, with theologians arguing over who gets top billing). We have, you've noticed, also seen something of the kind in the case of DC Comics. In the 1940s DC already bought out Quality Comics (and with it Plastic Man, the Spirit, Phantom Lady, the Ray, Black Condor, etc.). I was surprised to learn that Blackhawk had not only originally been Polish but Quality as well! I grew up reading the DC title. And of course DC sued the already-ailing Captain Marvel off the stands and subsequently acquired the whole Fawcett stable of characters as well, though we've seen precious little action out of Spy-Smasher or Ibis the Invincible. Black Adam has returned in greater than original glory, though, nor have we seen the last of him.

ááááááááááá Then, on the eve of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC assimilated the Charlton heroes, thanks to the nostalgia of Dick Giordano, DC editor and former inker at Charlton. In fact, we ought to understand the Crisis itself as an allegory for what happened with DC's assimilation of its competitors: once-separate (narrative) universes combined in a somewhat sloppy, occasionally cataclysmic manner. But the process was not finished. With DC's Impact Comics imprint, the wonderful old Red Circle/MLJ/Archie/Mighty heroes were in for exhumation (I won't call it a resurrection--they were already looking pretty green in the Rich Buckler version a couple of years earlier). Next was Wildstorm. And now DC has acquired the rights to the THUNDER Agents, with "updated" costumes I can't say I care much for.

ááááááááááá Whether DC is doing these great old characters any favor by doing other than reprinting them is a subject to be taken up another time. But for the present, let me share with you a little theory of mine, a mere speculation, but one I cannot get out of my head. Was the "original," that is, the Golden Age pantheon, already the result of the conflation of two parallel superhero pantheons? What I have in mind is that DC Comics was first a kind of united front of two distinct stables and staffs, a comic book Bosnia-Herzegovina consisting of National Comics and American Comics. The two cross-advertised and published together, again, like a commonwealth of states with internal autonomy but sharing a foreign policy and currency. Eventually they split, with American declaring its own independence. Shortly, unable to go it alone, they were bought out by National/DC. But at first All-Star Comics, the Justice Society of America, was then something of an ecumenical showcase, featuring second-tier characters of both studios. All-Star was an on-going crossover. When the two sibling studios split, American took All-Star with them and had to make fast changes on the current issue. Starman was erased and replaced with the returned Green Lantern, for instance. Wildcat and Mr. Terrific joined up out of left field.

ááááááááááá This twins-in-the-womb scenario seems basically similar to the more familiar, more recent Image Comics model, where you had an umbrella label and common apparatus for what were otherwise distinct studios, each with its own group of characters, often parallel to one another, though they often crossed over into each other's pages. And I think it accounts for a surprising degree of redundancy already in the early days of DC. The National pantheon consisted of Superman, Batman, Dr. Fate, the Spectre, Starman, the Guardian, Star-Spangled Kid, Hourman, Sandman, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Johnny Quick, and others. American's characters were Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Hawkman, Wildcat, Johnny Thunder, Black Canary, Dr. Midnight, the Atom, Mr. Terrific, etc. Consider some parallels, parallels we would not find if these characters had begun as part of the same comics-world.

ááááááááááá Superman is the powerhouse character at National. Wonder Woman is his American counterpart. Both are aliens, from Krypton and Paradise Island. Both have costumes with primary colors. Wonder Woman's patriotic design, however, goes to Star-Spangled Kid over at National.

ááááááááááá Green Lantern corresponds closely to Starman, each relying on an unearthly power instrument. Johnny Quick was National's version of the Flash in exactly the same way Aquaman was the counterpart to Timely's Sub-Mariner.á

ááááááááááá One can easily see Dr. Midnight as American's version of Batman, as witness Alan Moore's easy combination of the two in Supreme as Professor Night. Sandman became another Batman once he adopted the purple and yellow costume and the sidekick. No one can miss the Kirbyish parallels between Captain America/Bucky and Sandman/Sandy and Fighting American/Speedboy, and between all of them and Batman/Robin. It is hard to define, but it seems to me there was a qualitative difference between these sidekicks and the dreadfully unimaginative Kid Flash, Aqualad, and Speedy.

ááááááááááá áDr. Fate corresponds to Hawkman, both empowered by Egyptian relics (though Nabu is a Babylonian deity, he must have been worshipped in Egypt, too, as witnessed by the name of the priest who secretly fathered Alexander the Great, Nectanebus). Relic heroes form a sub-category that also includes the Blue Beetle (Dan Garrett), Metamorpho, Captain Marvel (sort of) and Thor. Notice that all these relic-heroes represent different companies (with Metamorpho replacing Hawkman as the DC character, once the silver age Hawkman became a space alien, not a relic-hero). And now, in the pages of the new JSA series, we find the circle closed, since now Dr. Fate is actually the son of Hawkman--and for that matter, before that, he was Roy Thomas's version of the Blue Beetle, Silver Scarab!

ááááááááááá Finally, we might regard the Star-Spangled Kid as the National counterpart to the similarly diminutive Atom over at American. Of course I'm talking about Al Pratt, not Ray Palmer, who corresponds instead to Quality's Dollman and Marvel's Ant-Man. You see, it's the fact that we can draw the same sort of parallels and redundancies between the American and National pantheons that we can between DC and Timely, Quality, etc., that gives my theory wings. So I look at them as already a fusion of two distinct pantheons of superheroes. They have, however, been merged more seamlessly than later creators were able to meld the DC heroes with the Charlton or Fawcett heroes.

ááááááááááá There are, then, several superhero categories that different comics publishers/creators will fill in with variations on the same themes. Speedster hero: Flash, Johnny Quick, Max Mercury, Quicksilver, Lightning. Stretching hero: Plastic Man, Elastic Lad (whose merely occasional appearance allowed him to yield to Elongated Man), Mr. Fantastic, the Shape. Powerhouse hero: Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Dynamo, Prime, Majestik, Supreme, Steel Sterling, Thor. Masked detective/inventor/gymnast: Batman, Iron Man, Black Hood, the Shadow, the Question. Shapeshifter hero: Metamorpho, Martian Manhunter, Chameleon Boy, Menagerie, Beast Boy. Energy hero: the Ray, Captain Atom, Firestorm, Dr. Solar, Nukla. Insect hero: Blue Beetle, Spiderman, the Fly, Scarlet Scorpion, Tarantula. Monster hero: Heap, Hulk, Thing, Brute. Robot hero: Robotman I, Robotman II, Cyborg, Bozo the Robot, Spartan, Vision, Red Tornado. Alien hero: Arka Destroyer of Evil, Silver Surfer, Mar-Vell, Martian Manhunter, Jemm Son of Saturn, Princess Topaz. Winged hero: Hawkman, Angel, Black Condor, Air Man, Zauriel (appeared when Hawkman was in limbo, retired once Hawkman returned). Patriot hero: Captain America, the Shield, Fighting American, Lancelot Strong, Star-Spangled Kid, American Eagle, Man o' War, Patriot, Commander Steel, etc. You get the idea.

ááááááááááá These are called actantial roles, narrative elements that are completely or partially instantiated in particular characters. A single character may play more than one actantial role, as in the case of Captain America, who is both a Batman counterpart and a patriot hero like the Shield or the Star-Spangled Kid. The Martian Manhunter is both alien and shapeshifter, etc. We can observe the same sort of thing comparing the various Star Trek series. Each crew must have an alien, a psychic, a young hero, a stratagist, a doctor, a techno-geek, an attractive female, an emotionless pseudohuman. These actantial roles may be shared or combined, so that Spock is alien, impassive, and psychic. In The Next Generation, these three actantial roles are distributed: Troy is the psychic and an alien and a femme fatale, while the primary alien role is that of Worf. Data is the emotionless one. (The aliens are often only half-alien so they may relate to the crew as a way of gauging their simultaneous difference from them. Spock is half human. So is Troy. So is B'lanna Torres. Worf was raised by humans.) We may combine the doctor with other actantial roles, so that Beverly Crusher is the beautiful doll plus the doctor, while the Holographic doctor is the machine striving toward humanity, like Data, as well as the doctor. Seven of Nine is the babe plus the emotionless robot seeking humanity. Kirk is split into Riker and Picard, one bold and decisive, the other strategically savvy. And so on.ááá

ááááááááááá But when DC absorbs the pantheons of competitors, we see just crude redundancies, not sophisticated recombinations of actantial elements. Plastic Man finally just made Elongated Man superfluous and replaced him in the JLA. This is also why Captain Marvel is so hard for DC to handle. The best job they did was in the 70s when they just reprinted his old adventures and got C.C. Beck, Kurt Schaffenburger, and others to come back on board to continue his adventures in the old style, and in his own separate narrative universe. When they tried to introduce Captain Marvel into Superman's continuity, what happened? For one thing, the humor didn't fit, so Captain Marvel became a funny man in a serious context, namely a Gomer Pyle among superheroes, constantly insulted by the likes of Guy Gardner. But the old Captain Marvel was the serious one in a funny universe back in his Fawcett days. (Plastic Man just does not fit into the Justice League for the same reason.)

ááááááááááá Once Captain Marvel came onstage with Superman, there was really only one way they could share the spotlight: by fighting. The old offstage (extradiegetic) rivalry of the two heroes' magazines across from each other on the newsstands became a fistfight once they were on the same page of the same magazine. This happened often enough in the 70s, but no less in the 90s, as in Kingdom Come and in Howard Chaykin's apocalyptic epic when all the heroes have lost their powers. Captain Marvel becomes the villain. What a surprise! Once you've got Superman, what else can you use Captain Marvel for?

ááááááááááá My point is that you could see the same sort of redundancy in the Golden Age DC: there was really no reason to have Johnny Quick if you already had the Flash--which National didn't. American did. If Hawkman was your man, and he got his powers from ancient Egypt, you wouldn't also have Dr. Fate tap the same source. But you didn't! They were (practically) as much different creations of different comics companies as the Blue Beetle and Thor were. One was American, the other National. And the redundancies are the result of a primordial merging of two initially distinct hero pantheons. 


Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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