Tuesday, May 21, 2013

One World

I like to read team comic books. I also like to read team-up comic books.

Sorry if this is a bit simplistic, like Dick and Jane: "See spot. See spot run."

The very first team comic book was the Justice Society of America making their debut in the Winter 1940 issue of All-Star Comics. They made their debut in the third issue. That first meeting was a bunch of masked mystery men having dinner together swapping stories of their individual adventures. The ice-breaker meeting. From then on, they worked together as a group. Since then, the Justice Society - like King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table that they were somewhat based on - has been the model for teams that followed.

In 1954, a new blueprint was developed by Japanese writer and director Akira Kurosawa. The film  was called Seven Samurai. It is the "story of a village of farmers that hire seven masterless samurai (ronin) to combat bandits who will return at the harvest to steal their crops." The story was Americanized as The Magnificent Seven; and adapted to comic books as DC Comics' Justice League of America an updating of the Justice Society.

There is nothing cooler than seeing a group of individual super-heroes in an adventure together as a team. It's like watching an all-pro or all-star game. Whether it's football, baseball, basketball or hockey it is pretty cool seeing athletes each at the top of their game coming together as a team. That probably why any team like that is called a "dream team".

Over the years, DC and Marvel have worked to perfect the "dream team". The Silver Age was an explosion of team books. Marvel developed the Fantastic Four, Uncanny X-Men and The Avengers. DC countered with the Doom Patrol, Challengers of the Unknown, Legion of Super-Heroes, Metal Men and Teen Titans.

What caught my attention was what DC was doing with their teams. The Justice League was very similar to the Justice Society. Apart from the "trinity" of flagship characters: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, DC had developed a second tier of The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Atom. All seven characters were part of both the Golden-Age Justice Society and the Silver-Age Justice League. The Teen Titans were the sidekicks of Aquaman, Batman, The Flash, Green Arrow and Wonder Woman. The futuristic Legion of Super-Heroes were teens from across the galaxy with native, cultural abilities that became strange and unique when they came together on Earth.

Team books became so popular that the Silver Age explosion was magnified in the Bronze Age of the '70's. marvel capitalized on The Avengers with The Defenders. The Uncanny X-Men became culturally and racially diverse and expanded into groups like X-Factor, Excalibur and Alpha Flight. Marvel's concept of teamwork was slightly different than DC's, though. Marvel had a single, unified, cohesive universe. It was not unusual for heroes to be guest stars in other comic books. Both teams and individual heroes would meet as a matter of course. It was not unusual to see the Fantastic Four in The Amazing Spider-Man comic book and vice versa; Daredevil and Spider-Man frequently met. Spider-Man faced The Incredible Hulk. The Avengers were guest-stars in The Uncanny X-Men. These meetings weren't considered events, but an opportunity to spike sales. It developed to the point with Spider-Man that a title was developed for him specifically to team-up with other Marvel heroes, called Marvel Team-Up. Another title was developed for The Thing from the Fantastic Four as a team-up comic book called Marvel Two-In-One.

In the Bronze Age, Marvel writer and editor Roy Thomas capitalized on World War II nostalgia bringing together Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner as the core of The Invaders. In the early '80's he walked across the street from Marvel to DC and expanded the Justice Society as the wartime All-Star Squadron. The All-Star Squadron encompassed all of DC's Golden-Age heroes, including  members of the Freedom Fighters and Seven Soldiers of Victory alongside the Justice Society and solo heroes. This was the ultimate dream team. He also created the direct next generation of the JSA, calling the team Infinity, Inc. These weren't sidekicks like the Teen Titans; these were their children!

DC has basically worked a core of flagship and tier characters. Their main flagship characters are what they call their "trinity"; Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Beyond that, they have a second tier of The Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Hawkman and The Atom.

Superman and Batman are DC's main flagship characters. The pair started as The World's Finest duo, teaming up for adventures together. They expanded to The Superman Family and The Batman Family titles; and both anchored team-up books. Batman anchored The Brave and the Bold, Superman headlined DC Comics Presents. It is ironic that a loner such as The Batman would partner with other super-heroes and have such a vast network of associates, aside from a kid sidekick. In the same way, it is almost laughable that the Last Son of Krypton would be anything but. His cousin Supergirl escaped the destruction of their native planet. So did the family dog, Krypto. Super-criminals were sentenced to the Phantom Zone and thus were spared a death-sentence. One of the Phantom Zone residents was a near-cousin Mon-El. Brainiac, one of Superman's greatest adversaries miniaturized the entire Kryptonian city of Kandor. And, while he basically kidnapped the people of the city, he also rescued them from destruction. That's a lot of Kryptonians!

The Silver and Bronze Ages were awesome because of these mind-bending concepts. But, apparently they were headaches for writers to keep straight and develop any fresh, original stories. DC's excess baggage was what Crisis on Infinite Earths was supposed to solve.

Right now, DC is trying very hard to develop one, singular world, like Marvel has done. Here is what I believe: DC is changing their characters so drastically to bring them up-to-date with the modern world that they have changed the basic nature of the characters and they are becoming unrecognizable.

One world. A single Earth, rather than an infinite number of them. A Superman that was a lone, single survivor of an extinct race.

I like the idea of one world; a single Earth. As a comic fan, I like the idea that I can bring together Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, The Thing and Wolverine along with other heroes from other publishers. Like Concrete, Ghost, X, The Mask and Hellboy from Dark Horse. The Crow. Spawn.

There is a website that I visit daily that helps me keep passionate about characters that I enjoy reading. It brings together every character from every publisher in nothing more than snapshots of what could be great and exciting adventures.

It started out as The Brave and The Bold: The Lost Issues, then switched over to Marvel Two-In-One: The Lost Issues. Currently, it is Super-Team Family: The Lost Issues.

It's just a cover, but you know what they say: "a picture is worth a thousand words".


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Here's what I believe: Crisis on Infinite Earths did more harm than good.

I'll try not to go all Jerry Maguire.

I'm a huge fan of Marv Wolfman and George Perez. At the time when Marvel was doing amazing things with writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne's Uncanny X-Men, DC relaunched the Teen Titans as The New Teen Titans, with writer Wolfman and artist Perez. Both are incredibly talented, but I have to admit that I followed George Perez's artwork a lot closer. One of the early comic books I'd read was his The Avengers 150.
Okay, so his work on the issue was pretty much a book end on either side of reprint material...

He spent a few years on The Avengers, part of classic line-up that included The Beast (Hank McCoy one of the original X-Men), Captain America, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Thor, The Vision, The Wasp and Yellow Jacket and Wonder Man (the leisure suit version).

Then he moved "across the street", as we say in broadcasting, on for a very short run on DC's Justice League of America.

The New Teen Titans debuted in September 1980. By 1982, Wolfman and Perez were laying seeds and Easter eggs for Crisis on Infinite Earths. The Monitor made his first appearance in New Teen Titans 21, in the summer of '82.

Now, the whole point of Crisis on Infinite Earths was to address "continuity". Putting all of the stories and characters in order. DC had amassed a huge number of characters and created several "parallel worlds". One of the most memorable events was the annual fall team-up between the Golden-Age Justice Society of America on Earth-2, and the Silver-Age Justice League of America on Eath-1. Earth-2 and the JSA had been designated as every thing that had happened up to and prior to Showcase 4. Earth-1, and the Silver Age started in 1956. For many years there were two Flashes, Jay Garrick and Barry Allen; two Green Lanterns, Alan Scott and Hal Jordan; two Hawkmen, Carter Hall and Katar Hol; and, two Atoms, Al Pratt and Ray Palmer. Even more confusing was that there were two nearly-identical sets of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Several other parallel worlds were created, like the one for the Shazam! Captain Marvel Family characters that DC acquired from Quality Comics. DC had also acquired the Charlton Heroes including Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Peacemaker and The Question, among others. The trick was to create a universe where all of these characters could co-exist at the same time.

One of the elements of the story was a conflict between matter and anti-matter. This allowed for sweeping changes and a quick elimination of characters and worlds as they were "erased" from existence by anti-matter. They disappeared into nothing, and ceased to exist.

I believe that this was the first time in comics history that a "hit" list or "death" list had been employed on such a wide scale. Editors and writers looked at the DC line of characters and decided which should be eliminated. Characters were created just to be eliminated in the twelve-issue storyline, that crossed over into every one of the DC comic books at the time. This was an epic, seminal story.

Unfortunately, there was no going back to a time before it.

Comics were fun. For the most part the stories were self-contained to a single issue or two. Very rarely was a story longer than a few issues, or did it crossover with another title. Characters were pretty well contained in DC comics. Marvel was more open about sharing characters. But, for the most part, DC was more strict. Batman appeared in Batman titles, World's Finest, The Brave and the Bold and Justice League of America. Villains very rarely crossed over from one title to another to face different heroes.

What Crisis introduced was the life-or-death struggle to save the universe, not just the world or some small part of it. Stories had been about catching the bad guy and saving the girl. Now the very universe itself hung in the balance.

What Crisis also introduced was a shift in publishing. Until 1985, DC just had one simple annual event, the JSA-JLA two-issue team-up. Post-Crisis, there has been an increase in "event" style publishing; stories that unfold over several issues and tie-in to other comic book titles. One event seems to tumble into the next event. The "sticker-price" of investing in any given current "event" published by either DC or Marvel is staggering. Any way you look at it the stakes have been raised all the way around. As far as story and price.

As a comic book fan, I enjoy a good read. Comic books are a unique form of entertainment. They are unlike movies, plays, or television programs. The only thing that comes close if video games or sports. I lost interest in sports when I started to suspect that athletes were playing more than just the love of the game. Video games have only been a temporary interest. The only thing closer is to say that reading a comic book is like reading a chapter of a novel. A very long novel.

Since I've become a dad - I have two boys now; Ethan (12) and Justin (11) - and a girl, Masha (13) on the way. My boys are very active in sports, so, I started looking at my comic book collection and what I'm going to re-read. Actually, what I'm going to have the free time to re-read. I haven't found a story that I've liked since 1985 as much as I've liked James Robinson's Starman.

I could read pretty much any thing he's written; from WildC.A.T.s, to The Golden Age, his run on Justice League of America, plus his The Shade twelve-issue series. His Justice League: Cry For Justice is a bit dodgy - okay, it's Green Lantern's version of Batman and The Outsiders mixed with Extreme Justice...

There are a few other comic book series that come close to it. Around the same time, I enjoyed reading Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man and The Batman Adventures. The Justice twelve-issue series by Alex Ross and Jim Krueger is something I enjoy re-reading frequently. John Byrne's Superman & Batman: Generations is an enjoyable re-read. the twelve-issue series of that had it's pros and cons.

I look at events like Secret Invasion, Civil War, Trinity, Infinity Gauntlet, Legends and Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I wonder how it's possible to re-read them, As a trade paperback, probably. Certainly not as individual issues. What was once much easier, is now proving to be a challenge.

I think I am finally finding my own taste. I think I'm developing my opinion.

I'll be happy to share it from time to time.