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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dr. 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!
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.
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.
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
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.)
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?
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.