Grumpy Old Fan | Stewardship, Elvis, and developing a Universe

This is our fourth summer in Memphis, but we hadn’t taken the Graceland tour until this weekend. It helped that twenty-odd relatives came into town for a big reunion, and one of them had been jonesing especially hard for an Elvis fix.

As for me, not so much. I have always been curious about the King, mostly as an historical figure; and as my musical tastes have developed, I’ve learned to appreciate the profound effect his life had on the culture at large. Many years ago I read Peter Guralnick’s exhaustive two-volume biography, and I have a couple of greatest-hits CDs and the “Aloha From Hawaii” concert. (I was, however, somewhat disappointed not to hear Captain Marvel’s costume and/or Captain Marvel Jr. mentioned in the tour’s discussions of Elvis’ infamous caped jumpsuits.)

Anyway, the house itself was a pleasant surprise. Phrases like “Jungle Room” and “three televisions” can conjure some wild mental pictures, and I was glad to see the relatively-sedate reality. Graceland is basically a big house done up in mid-1970s style by a family that had maybe a little too much money and/or too few people urging moderation. The Jungle Room does have a waterfall, green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling, and a big barrel-shaped chair that looks like it came from the other side of Gilligan’s Island; but it also has wide picture windows which offer a generous view of the manicured back yard. Likewise, the “TV room’s” bright blues and yellows are suited more for a kid than a pop star approaching middle age, even if the TVs are perpetually tuned to “The Tonight Show” and Doctor Strangelove.

Of course, Graceland exists primarily to evoke an era which died with its owner in the summer of 1977. You don’t need to take the tour to see the continuing devotion of Elvis fans who decorate Graceland’s street-level stone fence with their names and messages. If I understood a gift-shop cashier correctly, every year before August’s “Elvis Week,” that fence is whitewashed, because the previous twelve months have seen just about every inch of it covered with affectionate graffiti. My dad (who did not take the tour) observed that my generation will be the last to remember Elvis as a living human being, not as some transformative, transcendent figure. From there he wondered whether Elvis’ popularity would diminish over time, as those fans are themselves (you’ll forgive me) returned to sender.

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As I pondered these weighty matters myself, naturally my thoughts turned to DC’s venerable characters. No matter who owns them, the vast majority of DC’s super-folk have been entrusted to writers, artists, and editors who did not create them, and who may be several steps removed from those who did. What, then, is DC’s responsibility to such a piece of intellectual property? For that matter, what is DC’s responsibility to the larger shared universe these characters ostensibly inhabit?

With regard to the first question, DC has basically three options. It can leave the character alone, whether that means retirement (a la the Jack Knight Starman) or just not changing the character in any meaningful way. Naturally, the other two options involve those meaningful changes. Some are secondary, or in the nature of updates, like expanding on the Justice Society’s post-Golden Age lives. (Revealing that Alan Scott has two children doesn’t necessarily change anything about his Green Lantern career, but it’s still a significant addition to his history.) Some, however, are more in the nature of wholesale revamps.

In fact, the Marvel Family has been through all three options. When new owner DC reintroduced them in February 1973's Shazam! #1, readers learned that ever since the mid-‘50s (when Fawcett stopped publishing their books), the Marvels and virtually all of their supporting cast had been frozen in the age-arresting element Suspendium. Not only did this take them out of circulation, it allowed their original adventures to be preserved practically inviolate. Needless to say, all this happened on the parallel world of Earth-S, so it didn’t bother the everyday continuity of the main superhero line. This was fine as long as Earth-S lasted, but when Crisis On Infinite Earths reordered DC’s cosmology, the Shazam! The New Beginning miniseries (by Roy Thomas and Tom Mandrake) pared the extended Marvel Family down to Captain Marvel and just a few other characters. This didn’t get much traction, so it was superseded in 1994 by Jerry Ordway’s retro-styled Power Of Shazam! graphic novel and ongoing series. However, the more recent Trials Of Shazam! miniseries has since put Freddy Freeman in the lead, with Billy and Mary Batson out of the picture.

No matter what is done to a character, however, the central question should be whether it is true to the creator’s original work. At its heart, the Captain Marvel concept is about an adolescent boy who transforms into a super-powered adult for light-hearted adventures. This makes it tonally inconsistent with much of the rest of the DC Universe. Accordingly, I believe that if the Marvels are going to be integrated into the larger superhero line, they need their own Brigadoon-esque setting, where Billy doesn’t have to worry about growing old too quickly, and where grim ‘n’ gritty is banished with extreme prejudice. Otherwise, Cap (or Shazam now, I guess) and company lose much of what makes them special, if they don’t get swallowed whole by more grown-up concerns.

We don’t have time today to cover too many more characters, but we’ll examine the big ones pretty quickly. Superman fans are well aware of the extent to which his mythology has developed since 1938, and I won’t go over all that again. However, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original work should always guide the Man of Steel, regardless of power set. Although William Moulton Marston’s lifestyle gets a lot of attention, much the same could be said for Wonder Woman’s original mission of social justice.

Ironically, much of what we associate with Batman didn’t come from Bob Kane. Bill Finger changed Kane’s original design -- a red costume with wings and a simple Zorro-style mask -- into today’s familiar gray-and-black batsuit. Indeed, much of the “Sci-Fi” period, in which Batman and Robin got pretty far from grim ‘n’ gritty, came out under Kane’s stylized signature (even though artists like Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, and Lew Sayre Schwartz contributed mightily to its unique look). Not many fans would argue that Bob Kane’s stamp of approval on those stories made them equal to that first year in Detective Comics. However, when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams went “back to basics” in 1969, they -- and practically every Bat-team since -- looked to that fairly short period of Batman history, rejecting decades’ worth of subsequent stories. Unlike his fellow Trinitarians, Batman’s character has been defined by his style: dark and mysterious, with room only for a select few relationships. We may say that Superman is driven by compassion and Wonder Woman by a desire for equality, but (outside of a general devotion to “justice”), Batman is more of a storytelling vehicle.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s made Batman wildly successful in multiple media for decades. However, it points up the need to adapt while still staying somewhat true to a creator’s original vision. Along those lines, both the “Sci-Fi Batman” and the O’Neil/Adams Batman may be seen as equally valid interpretations of the character, with the former reflecting the lightening-up of the feature which began with Robin’s 1940 introduction. (It didn’t get light too quickly, considering that the Joker was introduced not long after Robin.) Now, unless Grant Morrison’s influence leads to a wholesale revival of Sci-Fi Batman, which then lasts at least for a good ten years, the “Darknight Detective” reinvention which has ruled since 1969 won’t be challenged anytime soon. Still, in the early ‘70s, it was a radical departure from the Batman of just a few years before.

Because I’ve spent too much time on Batman (as usual), I’ll be brief about the Silver Age revamps. Although the Flash and Green Lantern had entirely new looks, new origins, and new identities under the masks, essentially they were still the same concepts: guy runs real fast, guy gets magic wishing ring. I suppose we could argue -- as fans, not so much as legal experts -- that they were different enough from their predecessors that the original creators’ intent wasn’t as controlling. Similar analyses would then apply to fairly-close relaunches like Hawkman and name-only relaunches like the Atom. Again, I’m no intellectual-property-law whiz, but the amount and kind of these differences may also make it easier for DC to do what it wants with the characters. Essentially, the “legacy” framework which grew out of the Silver Age not only lets fans speculate on What It Means To Be Hourman/Starman/Doctor Fate, it allows DC to have a certain amount of distance from the people responsible for those characters.

Of course, at some point or another, all of these characters were new; and that’s an area DC really hasn’t cultivated in several years. While there have been any number of new legacy characters, a creation which can stand on its own has become increasingly more scarce. Without getting into particular characters, though, let’s consider generally the relationship between DC’s shared universe and the features which populate it. In the late ‘60s, Steve Ditko created Hawk and Dove and the Creeper, each to tell distinctly different kinds of stories, but each able to interact with better-established peers. Not surprisingly, then, Hawk and Dove joined the Teen Titans, and the Creeper ran into the Justice League. In the ‘70s, the prolific Gerry Conway created Firestorm (with Al Milgrom) and the World War II-era Steel (with Don Heck); and Firestorm eventually joined the JLA, while Steel joined the All-Star Squadron. Just after COIE, Dan Jurgens introduced Booster Gold, a new Metropolis hero who acted like a counterpoint to Superman (and who soon joined ... oh, you know). Earlier in the ‘80s, Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn, and Ernie Colón produced Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, who started out in her own little corner of DC-dom, but who was eventually brought into the larger DC fold via Doctor Fate.

We can see by the disparate genres these characters represent that it’s hard to define a “DC sensibility,” at least not in terms like Marvel’s “world outside your window.” Not that there’s not such a sensibility; but that it is less restrictive. The early Marvel Universe had its share of different genres -- cosmic adventure, street-level superheroics, mythology, techno-flavored espionage -- but everyone had some kind of personal problem. Spider-Man was an outcast, the Thing and the Hulk were monsters, Thor pined after Jane Foster, and Iron Man worried about his heart. Even the Golden Age transplants, Captain America and the Sub-Mariner, reawakened under tragic circumstances. Not so with DC, where exploding planets, murdered parents, dying aliens, and deadly thunderstorms were just means to ends. Again, not that DC didn’t eventually mine those events -- and tragedy in general -- but certainly its history hasn’t relied so consistently on angst.

Instead, DC’s main line of comics has been a loose confederation of science-heroes, urban crimefighters, sci-fi- and mythology-flavored adventurers, Western heroes (and anti-heroes), war stories, and outright fantasy, often butting against each other to good effect. Rather than trying to harmonize these eclectic influences into homogeneity, for many years DC’s creative folk left each largely to its own devices (although it did let Batman team up with everyone from Sgt. Rock to the Legion of Super-Heroes). It is this give-and-take between the characters and the larger patchwork of the DC universe which ends up affecting both. Ultimately, that may be the key to the DCU’s sustainability: defining certain core values in the superhero line, developing characters which reflect those values, and making exceptions where creatively appropriate.

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I told my dad that I expected Elvis to endure mainly thanks to his place in history. While part of Elvis’ appeal -- and a big part of Graceland’s appeal -- is nostalgia, we certainly can’t discount the continued popularity of Elvis’ music, his style, and his eternal youth. Although he died ignominiously, and after a period where he’d let his health slide, he died young enough that the “Fat Elvis” couldn’t overshadow the earlier, leaner swagger. In fact, his death came in the midst of a summer concert tour, which had followed a successful Vegas career, which in turn had been sparked by the famous 1968 TV special. In that respect, Graceland freezes time, allowing fans (and the merely curious) to speculate about what might have been.

By contrast, the characters of DC’s superhero line may never be retired. Their future may paradoxically contain both eternal youth and perpetual change, as they adapt to a readership which is steadily aging and/or occasionally renewing. As their custodians, the people of DC Comics are charged with ensuring their continued viability. At the same time, though, DC has a moral responsibility to honor the values which originally informed those characters. It’s more than nostalgia -- it’s recognizing the core which has kept readers coming back. The publisher can’t simply freeze these characters in time, but neither can it make them unrecognizable.

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