Thursday, July 14, 2005

DC Strikes Back

DC invented the superhero. Their flagship character, Superman, was the original hero with powers. The following year they introduced Batman, the first comic book costumed detective (comic strip characters like the Phantom are older). Wonder Woman was the original super powered woman.

These characters started the Golden Age of comic books and Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were the only characters to survive it. Everyone else was cancelled. During the 1950s they expanded the franchise. The Superman family added Superboy, Supergirl, and a pack of super pets. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen each got their own comics. Even Superboy's teammates in the Legion of Superheroes got their own book. Batman didn't expand as much but he acquired his own supporting cast with Batwoman, Batgirl, Rex the Batdog, and Bat Mite.

When the Silver Age of comics started, it was built around these characters.

As the 1960s progressed, Marvel started eating away at DC's market share. Comic sales peaked and DC started looking for ways of winning back the customers they had lost to Marvel.

At first they were sure that there was some gimmick that they could tack onto their comics.

According to one rumor, DC felt that Marvel's artists were sub-par but they thought that this style was the magic formula. They went to far as to tell their artists to draw poorly in order to attract sales.

Spider-Man was Marvel's biggest seller. He was known for having problems and for his shaky relationship with the law. DC fixed on that. When the Metal Men's sales declined, they remade them into the "New Hunted Metal Men". They were also given human identities and oversized heads. It was a total flop.

They tried heroes with problems and created Metamorpho. He talked like a beatnik and was ugly. He could also turn himself into anything made from basic elements - sort of Plastic Man meets the Metal Men. And it had a distinctive (crude) art style.

It didn't sell.

There was the Geek - a lifeless dummy somehow brought to life to face discrimination. Failure.

In desperation, DC hired Marvel's two superstar artists - Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (just about everything else). Both would write and draw new characters.

Ditko created two books the first was Hawk and Dove about two brothers who turned into superheroes but spent most of their time arguing. It was the 1960s during the peace movement so the pacifist Dove got the book's sympathies although Hawk did all of the fighting.

The second book, the Creeper, was about a reporter who turned into a bizarre-looking hero. Creeper was not supernatural but played that he was to scare criminals.

Like Spider-Man, Ditko new heroes were wanted by the police and had personal problems. In addition, Hawk and Dove were in high school. Neither lasted a year.

Kirby hit the ground with four different books - Kirby's 4th World. He started by taking over Jimmy Olsen. To this he added, the Forever People, The New Gods, and Orion, the Worlds Greatest Escape artist. Kirby had been reading the Lord of the Rings and this influenced his new creations. All of his characters were part of the fight against Darkseid and his planet Apokolips. It had a huge fan following but none of the titles lasted two years.

Back in the DC mainstream, the big three got make-overs. Batman had already been given one make-over in the early 1960s when he added the yellow circle to his chest, traded in the Batmobile for a compact, and started fighting criminals instead of aliens. The rest of the Batman family - Batwoman, etc. - vanished. We later found out that they were from Earth 2 and the current Batman was on Earth 1. For good measure, a new Batgirl was introduced and added to the TV show.

During the heyday of the TV show, the comic book took on a campy tone. By the time the tv show ended, fans were sick of camp.

Batman became The Batman. Robin was packed off to college and Batman started fighting regular criminals instead of guys in costume. He was given a new arch-enemy - a guy who saw through his fingertips. He was not memorable. A better effort was Ra's Al Ghul - an international crime lord and the basic for the villain in Batman Begins.

A scientist gave himself bat

Superman got his own re-vamping. Most of this was editorial policy. There would be no more imaginary stories. Clark was re-assigned to TV and eventually became a news anchor.

Too many stories revolved around Kryptonite so they got rid of it. They also introduced some new enemies. The main one, Terra Man, was a high tech cowboy. He turned out to be as uninteresting as the guy with eyes in his fingers.

Both Superman and Batman quickly settled into formula stories and tight editorial control. Often the cover was decided on and a story written to go with it.

Wonder Woman got the biggest make-over. The character lost her powers and her costume. She took up martial arts and started wearing outfits inspired by Mrs. Peel from the Avengers (the TV show, not the Marvel comic).

Despite all of this flailing around, DC never got it. Marvel had a different approach to comics, one that the old guard at DC just didn't understand. It was not until a new generation of writers appeared at DC that they finally got it. These were people who read Marvel, not to see what the competition was doing, but because they liked it. They also crossed company lines and socialized together.

There was one Halloween that Batman, Thor, and the Beast were all in Rutland, Vermont in overlapping storylines.

Even with an influx of new blood, DC's editorial control tended to stifle innovation. It was not until the 1980s Crisis on Multiple Earths that they really shook things up. The post-Crisis heroes finally became Marvel-style.

I have to admit that to me, Superman is the pre-Crisis hero with unlimited powers. The guy in the cape now isn't really Superman.

But his stories are more interesting.

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