This is the one-hundred and sixty-second in a series of examinations of comic book urban legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous one-hundred and sixty-one. Click here for a similar archive, only arranged by subject.
One patriotic-themed legend this week, for the Fourth of July, plus I address a legend people have been asking me to talk about for quite awhile (plus one more sorta topical legend to close things out!).
COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Mr. America beat the Shield to the rights of being the first patriotic hero.
Mr. Recommendation, John McDonagh, sent this one my way, and it’s an interesting dilemma that often shows up when people are doing reference work involving comics that they likely have not read (as they have not really been reprinted many places).
In the Wikipedia entry for the Shield, it states:
The Shield has the distinction of being one of the first superheroes with a costume based upon the American Flag, beating out Captain America by fourteen months. (Mister America, who later became Americommando was the first as he appeared at the same time as Superman in Action Comics #1, June, 1938, thereby beating Shield to the punch by some 16 months and thus beating Captain America by some 30 months.)
Here’s the problem, though – while Tex Thomson DID debut in the pages of Action Comics #1, he was just a standard adventurer.
Here, from the issue (drawn by Bernard Baily, written by Ken Fitch):
The Shield debuted in the pages of Pep Comics #1, in early 1940.
In late 1940/early 1941, Tex Thomson was thought dead when a ship of supplies to Europe was sunken by the Nazis that Thomson was overseeing (Thomson would routinely do assignments for the District Attorney). Since he was thought dead, Thomson took this opportunity to become a masked adventurer, becoming Mister America!
A little while later, he took the name Americommando (that’s him, on the far left of this Action Comics #52 cover).
So, yes, Tex Thomson DID beat the Shield into existence by a good sixteen months. However, he was not a patriotic hero until well after the Shield was introduced.
I get people asking me about Twilight of the Superheroes fairly often, and I usually reply that I just find it far too known to really term it a legend. Recently, though, an e-mailer argued with me about the point, and I guess his point is well-taken – just because I (and I’m sure a bunch of you) know the story very well does not mean that there is a whole pile of people out there who have NOT heard the story, and as seen from the time I did the Amy Grant/Doctor Strange one (another one I figured everyone knew), I sometimes seem to think these stories are a lot more well-known than they actually are.
SOOO, with that out of the way, what is the deal with the Twilight of the Superheroes?
In 1987, hot of the heels of the success of Watchmen (and the success at DC of Crisis on Infinite Earths), Alan Moore was takes by DC Comics to come up with an idea for a big crossover. Moore’s idea was called Twilight of the Superheroes.
The basic gist of the story is thus:
It is around the year 2000, and superheroes more or less rule the world. There are eight “Houses” which are made up of related superheroes.
The two strongest ones are:
House of Steel – Superman and his brood (including Superman’s wife, Wonder Woman)
House of Thunder – Captain Marvel and his Marvel Family
These two houses are about to join with the marriage of Superboy (the son of Superman and Wonder Woman) and Mary Marvel, Jr. (the daughter of Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel – yes, I know, that is a creepy pairing – Moore does not shy from the creepiness of it).
The other six are:
House of Titans – Made up of, yep, you guessed it.
House of Mystery – Various magic characters.
House of Secrets – The remaining super-villains who have not been captured/killed.
House of Justice – The remaining unaffiliated superheroes
House of Tomorrow – Due to a flux in time, all time travelers have been stuck at this point in time, so they all gather here.
House of Lanterns – Abandoned, because awhile back, Earth has turned on aliens and driven them all out (Superman being the notable exception, of course). They currently have a base on the moon, waiting to get back to Earth, planning an invasion along with New Mars, Rann and Thanagar.
Okay, so the whole story takes place in a flashback at the beginning of a framing sequence with John Constantine at a bar in late 1987, reading a letter. A woman asks him for a lgiht, and he flashs back to earlier in 1987, and that begins the story.
It appears that the John Constantine from the future somehow helps Rip Hunter (one of the time travelers stuck at that point in time) escape to the present (1987), where Hunter teams up with 1987 John Constantine to warn all the heroes about the future. Future Constantine has told 87 Constantine (through Hunter) that the world of the future is awful, and he needs to help change it.
So anyhow, Constantine and Rip Hunter go to various heroes and warn them – presumably, these would take place in the various titles of the DC line of comics.
Meanwhile, in the Twilight of Superheroes series, proper, the Constantine of that time is the readers’ guide to the world of the future. Constantine is his normal self, just older, but actually in a happy relationship with a woman he’s been with for some time now – which is a nice change of pace for Constantine. So Constantine makes his way through the grimy world of the remaining human characters, the ones who don’t belong to the various Houses. He meets Green Arrow, etc. One notable absence, of course, is Batman. However, Constantine seems to be making various plans and contacts with people here and there. He is obviously planning SOMEthing. He keeps having mysterious meetings with people we don’t learn the importance of until later.
In the end, there would be a whole series of twists and turns.
That’s what happens in the long finale (I’d imagine the finale would be so big it would take up at least two issues, maybe three) – first, all the remaining Earth houses attack the wedding of Superboy and Mary Marvel, Jr., because they want to prevent that union. Massive bloodshed, but the House of Steel and Marvel manage to survive more or less intact (while mostly wiping out the other heroes).
When the dust settles from that fight, though, we get the big revelation that that Martian Manhunter has been impersonating Captain Marvel Sr. for the whole series, as part of an alien invasion. The Green Lanterns, the Rannians and the Thanagarians all invade at once.
Big fight with the remaining characters, and in the end, the aliens simply have too much manpower (including the Daxamite Green Lantern).
However, this is when Constantine’s plan comes into play – Batman and a small group of human heroes attack using armor created by the Metal Man Gold (who disappeared earlier in the series) and fight the aliens to a stand-still, but when it looks like a stalemate, Constantine reveals his final trump card. He has contacted the New God Metron (seen earlier in the series, although not made clear what he was doing), and used his chair to travel to Qward, where Constantine has sold the secret of Boom Tube technology to the Qwardians, so while the aliens are on Earth, their home worlds are currently being invaded by Qwardians. So the aliens all leave, and Earth is left with mostly humans and non-powered superheroes, so the world is ultimately (in Constantine’s view, at least) a happier place.
We cut back to the opening, and realize that the letter Constantine is reading in 1987 is from his future self. He is learning via a letter from his future self (that Hunter gives to Constantine after they warn all the heroes) that the whole thing has been a con, and he was meant to warn the heroes of 1987 specifically so that this future WOULD happen. Older Constantine apologizes, but says, on the bright side, A. I conned you for a good cause and B. at least you’ll end up with the woman of your dreams. In fact, I’ll even tell you when you meet her. She comes up to you and asks you for a light at a bar at the end of 1987.
So yeah, you guessed it. The young Constantine is so angry at his future self that he tries to think of a way to hurt him, and all he can think of is, when the woman asks for a light, he replies:
“No. I’m sorry. I don’t smoke.”
She leaves, and the books ends with Constantine drinking himself into a stupor as he weeps uncontrollably.
Anyhow, for whatever reasons (and really, you could make a legitimate case that this story was way too dark for a company-wide crossover, at least in 1987), the project never came about, although DC paid Moore for the proposal.
I always thought DC passed, but thanks to the great Scott Braden, here is Moore on the subject:
“There were a few raised eyebrows over some of the character portrayals,” Moore remembers, “but I gather they were generally in favor of the idea at that time. Of course, I had my famous rile with DC that was ostensibly over the introduction of a rating system, but that was really a last straw in a number of things, including problems with Watchmen royalties. So I withdrew the offer of writing Twilight, and that was the last I heard of it. But again, I gather that they were pretty keen on it.”
If you want more details on the story, well, DC feels that since they purchased the proposal, they own the copyright to it, so you can’t find it anywhere officially, so I will not send you any links, as why get the links shut down? But if you search, I bet you can find somewhere where they post the entire Moore proposal – he gets MUCH more into depth (especially with some of the creepier aspects, like what happens to Doll Man over the years, and Moore’s twisted take on Billy Batson).
What I will quote you from the piece is two interesting parts of the introduction. First, Moore on the commerical aspects of the “perfect mass crossover” (note how kinda sad it is to see his optimism about the Watchmen movie deal):
Firstly, as I see the commercial side, taking into account what Paul was kind enough to pass on to me, the perfect mass crossover would be something like the following: it would have a sensible and logical reason for crossing over with other titles, so that the readers who were prompted to try a new title as a result of the crossover or vice versa didn’t feel cheated by some tenuous linkage of storylines that was at best spurious and at worst nonexistent. It would provide a strong and resonant springboard from which to launch a number of new series or with which to revitalize old ones again in a manner that was not obviously crassly exploitative so as to insult the reader’s intelligence. With an eye to the merchandising that Marvel managed to spin out of Secret Wars, I think it’s safe to assume that if it were possible to credibly spin role playing games, toys, “Waiting for Twilight” posters and T-shirts and badges and all the rest of that stuff from the title, then that would be a good idea too. Ideally, it might even be possible, while appealing to the diehard superhero junkie, to produce a central story idea simple, powerful and resonant enough to bear translation to other media. I mean, I know that I’m probably still intoxicated by the Watchmen deal, but it never hurts to allow for these things as a possibility, does it?
and, secondly, Moore on DC’s continuity of the time:
To explain what I mean, I should perhaps look at a series that I have read, that being Marv and George’s excellent Crisis on Infinite Earths. Although the motive was pure and the aim true with regard to Crisis, I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the line, in the attempt to consolidate and rationalize the DC Cosmos, a situation even more potentially destabilizing and precarious was created. Instead of a parallel Earth cosmology that was, if the reader was sensible enough to overlook obvious discrepancies as what they were (i.e. simple mistakes), relatively easy to understand, in the wake of Crisis and related seismic impacts upon the continuity such as John Byrne’s new Superman books we have a situation far less defined and precise. In the wake of the time-altering at the end of the Crisis we are left with a universe where the entire past continuity of DC, for the most part, simply never happened. While I understand that Paul is attempting to sort out the Legion/Superboy problems over in LSH at the moment, and that other writers are tackling similar discrepancies, the fact remains that by far the larger part of DC’s continuity will simply have to be scrapped and consigned to one of Orwell’s memory holes along with a large amount of characters who, more than simply being dead, are now unpeople.
I believe this is dangerous for a couple of reasons. Firstly, by establishing the precedent of altering time, you are establishing an unconscious context for all stories that take place in the future, as well as for those which took place (or rather didn’t take place) in the past. The readers of long standing, somewhere along the line, are going to have some slight feeling that all the stories that they followed avidly during their years of involvement with the book have been in some way invalidated, that all those countless plotlines weren’t leading to anything more than what is in some respects an arbitrary cut-off point. By extension, the readers of today might well be left with the sensation that the stories they are currently reading are of less significance or moment because, after all, at some point ten years in the future some comic book omnipotent, be it an editor or the Spectre, can go back in time and erase the whole slate, ready to start again. I myself felt something similar at the end of the first Superman film, when he turns time back to save Lois. It ruined the small but genuine enjoyment that I’d got from that first movie and destroyed all credibility for any of the following sequels as far as I was concerned.
So, anyhow, that’s Twilight of the Superheroes!
Thanks to the multitudes of people who have asked me to feature it over the years! You finally got your wish! I hope my summary made some sense (it’s a LOT of info to parse)!
Reader Jeff Durkee wrote me:
Now that DC and Matt Wagner are bringing back Madame Xanadu for Vertigo could you do a column on how Steve Englehart & Marshall Rogers took their origin of Madame Xanadu over to Eclipse Comics and changed the name to Scorpio Rose ?
I seem to remember reading this somewhere as a kid?
Jeff’s basically right, although I do not believe this was as blatant as Englehart’s previous efforts with Mantis.
The deal was, Englehart and Rogers had done a fill-in issue on the 1978 DC series, Doorway to Nightmare, which starred Madame Xanadu.
The issue did not see print, but in 1981, figuring Englehart and Rogers were now a star pairing, DC decided to use this older fill-in issue as the first issue of a brand-new series starring Madame Xanadu (note the prominent use of their names on the cover).
As you might expect, taking an old “done in one” fill-in issue and making it the first issue of a new series does not work too well, and the series ended with that first issue. However, while thinking of ways to extend the series into an ongoing, Englehart came up with some plot ideas.
These plot ideas were then taken over to Eclipse, and used on the character Scorpio Rose, who became a supporting character in Englehart’s Coyote.
So it wasn’t one of those “find and replace all Madame Xanadu and replace with Scorpio Rose, then print it” deals, it was close enough to that to count for what Jeff is asking me.
Thanks to Jeff for the question, and thanks to Steve Englehart for the information!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Thanks to the Grand Comic Book Database for this week’s covers!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you next week!
Have a happy Fourth of July!!