Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Comic Book Heroes: The Return of the Heroes

Chapter 5 of Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones' 1985 edition of "The Comic Book Heroes" began with Julie Schwartz mulling over more Golden Age reworkings of the long underwear set. The new Flash's positive reception earned him his own title in 1959, and he was soon joined by Green Lantern, "in a version departing much further from his inspiration than had Flash," becoming "Schwartz's mighty hero, his answer to Superman." The book applauded the creators' imaginative direction, which led from trial appearances in "The Brave and the Bold" to the securing of a "Green Lantern" series. An overview of the title's first nine issues was given, noting that writer John Broome stole the concept of the Guardians from a story he'd done in the early 50's for the Captain Comet strip. The authors detailed the creation of the Green Lantern Corps, Qward, Sinestro, Carol Ferris, Pieface, Star Sapphire and more within the first couple dozen issues. Of special consideration was Pol Manning, an identity assumed and resumed by an amnesiac Hal Jordan when he would be pulled into the future, Adam Strange style, by scientists to defend their world. This identity even came with its own love interest, Iona Vane, to keep Hal coming back for more!

"Such innovations made Green Lantern an instant hit. A straw poll of readers, published in Green Lantern 3, showed him to be, for the moment, DC's most popular hero, with 888 votes to Superman's 600; Flash followed with 521, Batman with 512." Schwartz followed the trend with another reworking, this time of the super-team concept, with the JLA. "This successor to the old Justice Society of America was Schwartz's most ambitious project yet. In this team he was entrusted not only with his own two heroes but with five from the stables of other editors: Weisinger's Superman, Robert Kanigher's Wonder Woman, and Schiff's Batman, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter, to be joined in issue 4 (May 1961) by a fourth Schiff hero, Green Arrow." Gardner Fox, creator of the Justice Society (among many other notions,) was tapped to write the book, both for his proven aptitude and as a nod toward the emerging mature fandom of the Golden Age comics. Jacobs and Jones went on to synopsis and critique the titles' early years over several paragraphs.

Gardner Fox took on another three revivals, though they fell short of the popularity of Schwartz's initial trifecta. Aside from adding sci-fi trappings and the undeniably equal role of his wife and crime-fighting partner, Hawkman returned to comics largely unaltered. "Although he sparked great enthusiasm among the older set, Hawkman apparently failed to enthrall the children who comprised the bulk of DC's readership. After a three-issue run in The Brave and the Bold, his sales were not quite adequate to justify his own comic. Schwartz, out of fondness for the character, gave him another three-issue tryout a year later... but again sales fell short." The authors seemed to cast the blame upon series artist Joe Kubert, who's history with the character dated back to the 40's, but whose style was more raw than the cleaner work from the rest of Schwartz stable. The debate among readers was "the first serious issue to rise in DC's letter pages." It wasn't until Murphy Anderson replaced Kubert and a greater emphasis was placed on the science fiction that sales took the necessary leap to progress to series.

Fox next reintroduced the original Flash, and by extension a second Earth housing all the rest of the Golden Age DC heroes, to excite among readers young and old. Following that fan service, Fox and Gil Kane went in an entirely different and contemporary direction with the reinvented Atom. The early issues of Ray Palmer's adventures "set a standard for ceaseless invention and variation on the theme of smallness that made them gems of children's entertainment." Fox "also gave us another tough, charming Schwartz heroine in the person of lady lawyer Jean Loring, and a twist on the usual comic book romance: in this case it is Ray Palmer who proposes marriage every issue, and Jean who puts him off for the sake of her career." Atom's "Showcases" stories sold well enough to launch him in an ongoing.

Gerard Jones' 1997 revision of "The Comic Book Heroes" streamlined most the above information, excising the lengthier issue synopsis in favor of more background information. For instance, it noted that except for Archie Comics, the comic industry held off on super-heroes until they saw how well DC's follow-ups to the Flash revival turned out. Jones devoted a paragraph to Gil Kane's career up to starting on Green Lantern, and the circumstances of his time on the strip (including his dissatisfaction with his inker.) "He was smart and opinionated, with artistic ambitions, the way Schwartz always liked his coworkers." Of writer Broome and the new Lantern concept, Jones opined, "The American mainstream then seemed comfortable with authority, and Green Lantern as a space cop serving a brain trust of self-appointed leaders suited America's kids well. In the Green Lantern Corps we can see a foreshadowing of the coming Kennedy administration, with its unelected Ivy League decision-making team and its Green Berets and Peace Corps. In the dark, fearsome aesthetic of the 40's, superheroes had blazed like beacons of justice in a world black with chaos; in the aesthetic of the new DC, rapidly establishing itself as the mainstream of comic books, the heroes were reflections of a well-lit and benevolent world order, the villains eccentrics or products of an alien system like Qward... Broome played on his authoritarian themes with a wit and fantasy that made his the most sophisticated superheroes scripts of his time-- or any time."

Such thoughtful analysis and insights are directed at the other heroes covered, including the boon offered the Atom by having a lawyer girlfriend that attracted "thieves, hoodlums, and spies to fight right off the bat... after years of DC pussyfooting with physical combat, editors were finally getting bold enough to let [Gil Kane] strut his gift for action."

You can buy the 1997 edition of The Comic Book Heroes: The First History of Modern Comic Books - From the Silver Age to the Present from

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