Monday, June 6, 2011

Post-Pointal Discussion: The Atoms and the Justice League Satellites

...and the Justice League

In light of the line wide DC Comics relaunch/revamp, beginning with Justice League, I've been thinking about how the universe's super-heroes relate to one another. For instance, I was coming into comics at about the time the Silver Age line-up was being phased out. See,the public lost interest in super-heroes toward the end of World War II, and only a handful of major names survived going into the 1950s (the DC Trinity, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man and a few others.) Crime comics, horror titles and licensed properties from other media ruled for most of that decade. However, a popular campaign against what we would term "mature" comics today very nearly buried the medium. In need of something that could be published under the industry's stringent self-regulating code, editor Julie Schwartz revitalized super-hero comics at DC. Most of his "new" super-heroes were reworkings of Golden Age greats, with the Flash and Green Lantern leading the pack. Marvel Comics jumped onto the bandwagon, and super-heroes became all the rage throughout the 1960s. However, the fad wore off in the 1970s, and while Marvel successfully diversified, DC stood by their Silver Age creations when attempts to spread out tended to flounder.

While the Atom had a fantastic creative team and a dynamic costume, he never caught on in a major way. Personally, I chalk this up to a poor rogues gallery and shrinking not really being a wish-fulfillment type power. Still, Schwartz supported the character through his early inclusion in the Justice League, just as Golden Age Atom Al Pratt was a staple of the Justice Society. Ray Palmer lasted several years in a solo series, before having it merged with the equally middling Hawkman for about a year. Following cancellation, the Atom remained a highly visible Justice Leaguer, even marrying in the title, and had a number of back-up features in other books. Although he wasn't a headliner, '60s fans knew his comics and cartoon adventures well enough to keep him active.

As I said, I came in during the end of that period, when DC was in a pretty desperate place. After The New Teen Titans broke big enough to cross over to Marvel readers, DC made an effort to produce as many similar comics as they could. This included tossing most of the old Justice Leaguers off the team to remodel it in the image of the X-Men. By that point, the Atom was already gone, having found a measure of solo success with a series of Sword of the Atom special events. The book was a super-hero title only in the vestigial sense, as the Atom was basically a sword-swinging warrior in a savage land of six-inch tall aliens in the Amazon Jungle. An unexpected side effect of this modest success was to isolate the Atom from the rest of the DC Universe for most of the 1980s. When the Atom appeared anywhere else but his own annuals and mini-series, it was usually in the context of "where'd he go?" a theme that would be echoed a few years back in "The Search for Ray Palmer."

The Atom wasn't alone in this isolation. Hawkman was problematic because his "powers" were cumbersome artificial wings and a skill with antiquated weaponry. Katar Hol also came out of the gate already married, but I tend to see that as beneficial, because so many people prefer Hawkgirl to her man. After their ongoing series was canceled, the Hawks took many of the same routes as the Atom in the '70s, seemingly with even less success. The '80s saw an uptick with The Shadow War of Hawkman mini-series, which led to a special and ongoing. However, the basic premise of their book was that they were fighting members of their own alien race using a nigh-omniaware Absorbascon to counter all opposition in a global takeover. The only way the immune Hawks could help their adoptive Earth was to act alone.

Similarly, Green Arrow had managed to survive uninterrupted from the Golden Age, but only as a back-up feature. Ollie Queen saw greater success in the 1970s, through his critically acclaimed watershed pairing with Green Lantern under Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams. After their book was canceled, Green Arrow continued as a high profile Leaguer with co-features in better selling anthologies, until Green Lantern/Green Arrow was revived. The early '80s were comparatively fallow, as a 4-issue solo mini-series failed to take off, before he was dropped from Green Lantern, Justice League of America and Detective Comics. Once Green Arrow did return, it was in one of DC's first labelled for mature readers, direct sales only, costume hero titles. Oliver Queen was allowed to enter middle age, curse, and have "on screen" sex with the Black Canary. Adversely, he was restricted from involvement with most other DC characters, or any truly fantastic elements, played little to no role in crossovers, and his girlfriend very nearly lost her super-heroic identity entirely. Still, 'tis better to have been loved and lost than to be the Red Tornado, who never had much of anything besides a League membership.

The Black Canary had been created in the 1940s as part of the Johnny Thunder strip, and ended up eclipsing its lead before being swallowed up in the post-war super-hero bust. Dinah turned back up in the 1960s as part of the annual Justice Society of America get-togethers with the younger Justice League, and following the death of her husband, crossed Earths to take Wonder Woman's place on the JLA. The Black Canary soon hooked up with Green Arrow, and became his +1 for most adventures over the next twenty years.

One of DC's biggest success stories during their late 1980s renaissance was the serio-comic Justice League International. Even though it quickly became a bestseller, creators on more proper super-hero titles feared and hated the book, feeling it would tarnish the reputations of their characters. Because of this, the JLI became the home of characters from dying or deceased titles, including Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, and yes, Hawkman. Further, in the wake of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Flash's enthusiastically received revisions, everybody jumped on the bandwagon. No sooner had Hawkman rejoined the League than he became its biggest critic, quit, and then had his entire history rebooted from scratch. Power of the Atom's ad campaign directly referenced DC's prior hits as it restored the Tiny Titan as a super-hero. However, the Mighty Mite openly turned up his nose to the JLI, and when his new series failed, he was left homeless. Hawkman's continuity became a huge mess, and despite a brief return to the League in the mid-90s, the Winged Wonder's viability was in doubt. The Emerald Archer had dragged Black Canary into mature label limbo with him after she had seen some success on her own. Dinah was part of the initial JLI line-up, and acted as a "conscientious objector" to their increasing silliness. However, Ollie needed his woman, so she was assaulted and stripped of her powers, leaving any den-mothering to the Martian Manhunter when she tagged along with Ollie.

While all of the more august DC heroes were running from the JLI, Captain Atom hitched his wagon as soon as possible. The star of two Charlton Comics runs in the '60s, the character was a nostalgic novelty who turned up mostly in fan/prozines during the Bronze Age. After DC bought the old Charlton Action Heroes in 1983, they sat on them for about three years before using their integration into the line as a point of interest during the Crisis On Infinite Earths. Since Charlton had already failed with these heroes decades earlier, creators were given a free hand to offer dynamic, contemporary takes on the acquired characters. Captain Atom was placed in a blender of '80s tropes, which helped his solo series last nearly twice as long as Hawkman and the Atom's combined. The Captain joined the JLI in their first year, then led a spin-off team for a couple of years, and a second spin-off for yet another year. Despite being derailed by scuttled plans to turn him into a villain during the Armageddon 2001 event, Captain Atom's visibility remained high up through the mid-90s directly related to his embracing an association with the JLI.

The Satellite League had been gone for about a decade, and its mainstays were in bad shape. Hawkman was working on his third cancellation before being considered so toxic as to disappear from comics entirely for many years. Red Tornado's biggest blip was as a member of the short-lived Primal Force. Oliver Queen was killed off. The Atom was de-aged into a young adult and led a disastrous Teen Titans line-up. Only Black Canary seemed to thrive, having been retroactively turned into her own daughter and a founding member of the JLA when Wonder Woman proved unavailable. Birds of Prey was a team-up title of super-heroines, with Black Canary as the constant face of the group, which became one of the most successful female-fronted titles of all time.

By 1996, the Justice League itself was in desperate need of reinvention, and the way forward turned out to be going back to their founding line-up of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter. The Magnificent Seven swiftly grew, but by that point many of the Silver Age heroes had passed their legacies down, with Connor Hawke acting as Green Arrow, and Zauriel replacing the beleaguered Hawkman. The replacements' newness helped keep the JLA feeling fresh, so even when stodgy old Ray Palmer started showing up for guest appearances, he didn't make the place smell all geriatric.

Meanwhile, like an old administration tarred by the new, those most associated with the JLI were treated as harshly as the former Satellite League. Captain Atom became a true villain and had his continuity royally screwed up. While the Elongated Man saw some benefit from the JLI, I doubt his wife would have been seen as relevant enough to rape and murder if not for his association, and now both are dead.

In the last decade, a real effort has been put into refurbishing the old home Justice League. Green Arrow Oliver Queen was resurrected for a series of series, one lasting nearly a hundred issues. Hawkman finally made it better than half that length, a personal best. The Red Tornado was restored to a more recognizable form, and joined Brad Meltzer's Bronze Age heavy Justice League of America relaunch alongside the Black Canary. The Atom appears to be the only straggler stuck in the 1990s. While never much of a super-team family man, the Atom's "legacy" has been systematically demolished. Al Pratt's son Damage is dead. Ray Palmer's ex-wife was revealed to be a murderess, then a super-villain, and is now herself dead. The All New Atom Ryan Choi was murdered, with major blowback against Palmer as part of the perceived "whitewashing" of the DC Universe to a less culturally diverse time. The only other Atom-related character left standing is Al Rothstein, the Atom Smasher.

Captain Atom was part of the last several JLI revivals, all of which were fairly successful, whether a return to the fun times or more serious fare. However, the Captain will not be part of their ongoing series launch in September, instead receiving his own series, which again seems bound for the path of the corrupting influence of omnipotence. What's interesting about the JLI though is that with the exception of Batman, it consists of nothing but thoroughly failed soloists and "never were" team players. That book exists for the love of the team, not the individual players, and it's a brand that has held up for the better part of a quarter century.

The Black Canary will begin leading a new Birds of Prey line-up, without her partner Barbara Gordon (returned as Batgirl,) the Huntress, Power Girl, Lady Blackhawk, or even Manhunter Kate Spencer. Dinah's best writer, Gail Simone, has left with Babs. So much for that series.

The Atom, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Green Arrow and Red Tornado have all been excluded from advance materials related to Justice League #1. These prominent Satellite Leaguers have tended to keep their distance from the JLI, and have had limited acceptability as members of any JLA line-up since the '80s. It seems to me these characters (including Black Canary) have close relationships with one another, and function better as a unit than when tossed into other character mixes. I wonder why DC doesn't recognize that, with the ongoing demand for both a Magnificent Seven JLA and the JLI, rather than leaving this lot caught in the middle, they might make a finer third team in waiting than the latest Outsiders revamp. Throw in a few of the later Bronze Age arrivals like Firestorm or Zatanna, and you could really have something.

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