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A Weekend On The (re)Construction Site

It’s a game all superhero fans play, especially at conventions or other gatherings of the faithful: “How would you fix __________ ?”

I have my own pet theories about certain characters, and I’m sure you out there reading this have a list of your own. We all do it; I was in a comics shop last week and the owner was off on a rant about how Marvel movies SHOULD be made.

As it happens, the shop was closing… for good, which is how I happened to be there — everything was half-price. Or less. (It would be uncharitable of me, I suppose, to suggest that perhaps this business was going under because the owner would rather rant at his customers than sell to them… after all, I scooped up a longbox or so of stuff for my students at eight-for-a-dollar and he discounted THAT price. He’s a nice guy, for a spluttering over-the-edge fanboy. Just no business sense.)

Most of what I was picking up was manga and all-ages junk for the kids, but there were some items of interest in there for me too. A lot of them were failed “fixes” for superheroes, as it happens. Stuff I didn’t bother with when it came out but was worth a look at 13 cents.

Actually reading the books, later, it struck me how many different tries there have been to revamp or reconstruct some of the heroes… one short-run revival after another, and all of them ending up in the quarter boxes. There must be something people like about these characters. Why can’t anyone ever make them a going concern?

Here’s a classic example of one that DC keeps reviving — in different ways. He’s been in the cartoons, he’s been a high-profile team guy, he’s had his own book a bunch of different times… and nobody seems to be able to make him work.

For God's sake, he's even in the cartoons.

Dr. Fate should work. As a concept, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with him. He’s a sorcerer who fights evil; that’s a concept that has always had legs, whether it’s Mandrake the Magician or Doctor Strange or Harry Potter.

Dr. Fate started in the Golden Age superhero boom, but he never could quite carry a book; his feature didn’t even make it to the end of World War II.

Another relatively simple concept.

And even throughout the four-year Golden Age run the guy got revamped a couple of times. He went from being a vaguely scary otherworldly figure to just another crimebuster.

Sorcery might as well be a new kind of utility belt here.

But none of the fixes took, the strip was canceled and that was that until the Silver Age.

By the mid-1960′s, Julius Schwartz had perfected his formula for DC super-hero revivals. Take a Golden Age hero, polish him up and slap a veneer of science fiction over him, and give him a tryout. This modern chrome Camelot cars-with-fins approach works great for the Flash or Green Lantern, but it’s a gross miscalculation with a guy like Fate. Despite the JSA’s popular guest shots in Justice League, Fate’s two Showcase entries didn’t really set the world on fire.

The Schwartz sci-fi magic was woefully out of place here.

Nor should they have, to be honest. The story was pedestrian, and the art… as much as I love Murphy Anderson’s work on other stuff, he is so completely NOT the guy for Dr. Fate that it boggles my mind that Schwartz would think he was a good fit. Take a look at that cover up there and the pitiful excuse for a magical attack coming out of Fate’s hand. It looks about as threatening as a static shock off a doorknob.

And so that was that, again.

Fate got another tryout in the seventies. And this one really worked, on an artistic level anyway, and must have done pretty well because it resulted in another revival.

Smart, cool, open-ended. Why mess with this?

In doing their initial audition adventure for Dr. Fate, Martin Pasko and Walt Simonson had a tremendous advantage none of the others had — they could take a cue from Marvel.

Dr. Strange had been running for quite a while and that strip was pretty much a how-to for anyone who wanted to do magical cosmic superhero stories, it essentially created the genre. Everybody in comics who was doing “magical” anything stole riffs off Dr. Strange; whether it was the psychedelic visuals or just the mysterious tone, everyone from the Phantom Stranger to Zatanna got the mystical makeover. Even Gold Key’s Dark Shadows comic started to look a little Ditko-esque.

So Pasko and Simonson had the advantage of actually knowing what genre they were working in — mystic hero — and they had a decade’s worth of successful examples. That came with the disadvantage, though, of making sure that Dr. Fate wasn’t just a rip-off of Strange. This is the problem that I think every single incarnation of the character has had to deal with since then.

How did they solve it? A couple of ways. They emphasized the difference visually, by playing up the Egyptian motif and giving Fate’s magic spells and power bolts and so on an interesting geometric look instead of the flowing, liquid Dr. Strange version that we’d all come to expect. They emphasized the man inside the suit, Kent Nelson, a regular guy who had a wife, Inza.

And the most radical change of all, they made Dr. Fate a separate entity, inhabiting the helmet. Kent Nelson puts on the helmet of Nabu and suddenly becomes Dr. Fate, who is a completely different person. This created all sorts of opportunity for drama and tension, suddenly there’s a ready-made conflict there that Dr. Strange never had; after all, Strange was a volunteer. Kent Nelson was drafted to be a mystical champion.

That was fresh and it was different and it was well-executed. DC decided to run Fate as a backup in Flash and gave the strip a pretty big push. The stories were fun, well-written and looked great.

Big rollout, good work... what was the problem?

And yet… it still stuttered to a halt after a relatively short run, despite some terrific work from Pasko, Keith Giffen, and Steve Gerber. Part of it was timing — that was right around the infamous “DC Implosion,” as I recall, and titles were getting cut and canceled right and left. Still, that was a good start and a fair template for anyone to follow.

Here’s the catch — no one did. This is where the tweaking and the fiddling around starts to mess things up.

Let’s recap. What Martin Pasko & co. left us with was a solid premise for a character: a regular guy who’s occasionally forced to take on a sorcerous identity to fight magical evils, and this causes drama and tension both in his heroic life and his personal one. He’s the main magic hero in the DCU, and has worked with both the League and the JSA. That’s a nice open-ended premise. Lots of story fodder there. As our friend John Seavey would say, that’s a solid storytelling engine.

So why in the world, in the next revival, would J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen dump all that and start over?

First, we get 'put a new guy in the suit'....

I can think of a couple of reasons, none of them terribly compelling… but prevalent enough in comics that you could call it the Conventional Wisdom of the time.

First of all, and I am certain this was no one’s intent at the time of doing it, but Martin Pasko’s innovation of making the helmet the center of Fate’s consciousness opens the door to the idea that it doesn’t matter who’s wearing the thing. Any schmoe could put the helmet on and presto, it’s the new Dr. Fate.

And in the 80′s putting a new guy in the suit was THE sales gimmick to juice up a tired character or get fans to look at your book. Off the top of my head, I recall we saw it with Iron Man, Green Lantern, Marvel’s Captain Marvel, the Flash, Wildcat, Dr. Light, Hourman, Dr. Mid-Nite, Manhunter, Captain America, and in the early 90′s it ramped up to include Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and even the Green Goblin. If readers liked the new guy, you could stay with him; if not, it was easy enough to restore the original. It’s still being done every so often, as with the recent Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis, but in the mid-80′s it was almost a requirement.

Secondly, I think it was done to erase the perception that Dr. Fate was one of those “old guys” in the JSA. For some reason, at that time DC had a real bee in their bonnet about getting rid of the JSA; too old, too much your-father’s-Oldsmobile, I don’t know what brought it on. But it was a real prejudice back then. DeMatteis and Giffen really burned their bridges — well, as much as you can in a superhero comic — by killing off Kent Nelson in the same mini-series. (Thus throwing in an Event Death, too, although in fairness, they didn’t really milk it for the sales spike the way we’ve seen it done other times.) But anyway, the new Dr. Fate was a done deal. Eric and Linda Strauss were IT.

It must have done all right, because I think the Strauss-era Fate lasted the longest. I didn’t really keep track of it; I read the miniseries and wasn’t impressed, so I didn’t stick around. After reading up on those books while researching this, I have to say, though, it gets a little hard keeping track of exactly who it is under that helmet.

Getting a little confused...

Especially after William Messner-Loebs came on board and changed it up AGAIN.

A little less chaos would really help this concept.

Once again, everything readers liked and had invested in was overboard; suddenly it was Inza Nelson in the outfit. You start to sense a certain desperation about the whole enterprise. No wonder it didn’t last.

Now, what is the lesson we can take from all this? Don’t mess with a good thing? Don’t try and fix what isn’t broken? Or just that Many 90′s comics editors suffered from A.D.D?

I dunno, but even the last one doesn’t begin to justify the reasoning behind this revamp. (I’m not sure what the reasoning ever is behind a new version that deliberately tries to destroy all the accumulated goodwill and affection fans may have for everything that came before, but people keep trying it, so I must be missing something.) The Jared Stevens Fate is a classic what-the-hell-were-they-thinking moment.

Now we're getting a grim-n-gritty makeover AND putting a new guy in the suit.

And they tried it twice.

Can we all agree never to let Keith Giffen touch Fate again?

It tanked hard both times. After that, it’s no wonder DC was a little skittish about the whole concept.

There was yet another revival a few years later, in the pages of JSA, which in itself was a revival book. The Hector Hall version had some good ideas behind it — clearly, they were trying to rescue the baby from the discarded bathwater. At least the basic concept was back — possessor of the helmet is drafted to be a powerful otherworldly sorcerer, the A-list magic user in the DC universe.

But it was only a partial victory. A try-out miniseries didn’t do a whole lot, and it can be argued that part of the problem was the approach; the character had become loaded down with so much history, and people kept doing stories that referenced the history, that it was a hard sell. Especially since Hector Hall, the guy under the helmet, had his own ridiculously convoluted history as well, and two convoluted histories are not two great tastes that taste great together, no matter how heroically Geoff Johns tries to make it so.

Must be time to get back-to-basics...

But it also can be argued that maybe Dr. Fate just isn’t an A-lister. Maybe he’s just not a guy to carry a series. Maybe it’s just that (as comics editors often say) magical guys are too hard, their powers are too all-encompassing to create real drama or jeopardy.

Except I just don’t buy it, sorry. Especially that last wheeze about how you can’t do real adventure or jeopardy with a magical hero. In a world where Harry Potter is dominating the box office and best-seller charts, anyone still making that claim might just as well put on a dunce cap and sit in the corner, they certainly have no business editing any kind of adventure fiction.

As for the rest of it — there’s clearly affection for Dr. Fate out there. He has his fans.

Okay, I'm not as much of a fan as THIS guy, but still...

Hell, I’m sort of a fan; I’m predisposed to like magical mysterious-type books. Despite the various huffy editorial dismissals, I can’t believe that “the character just doesn’t work.”

Thankfully, Steve Gerber didn’t buy into that idea, either.

Finally, it's being done RIGHT... huh? What's that about the writer? ...oh, shit.

The new Dr. Fate in Countdown to Mystery has been great fun, especially since Steve Gerber had been doing a very workmanlike job of building, not just a story, but a workable series premise, from the ground up. It’s such a shame that his health problems caught up with him just as the series was really starting to cook. I hope that those who follow him are equally as invested in the idea of building something for the long-term.

I especially hope that they notice how he’s avoided all the pitfalls of what came before. Specifically:

1. He’s structured the story so that we are introduced to Fate’s world along with young Kent Nelson, and the history is limited to a couple of minor shout-outs that you can notice or not. It’s new-reader-friendly.

2. He’s kept the basic concept. Guy puts on the helmet, gets drafted into sorcery, defends our world from scary stuff.

3. He didn’t mess with the costume, keeping an easy point of identification and not throwing away fans’ affection for previous versions. Likewise there are nods to what came before without any tedious exposition. In short, he didn’t say “screw you fanboy!” to anyone who might be checking this out based on liking an earlier version.

4. He made sure to set up an open-ended premise. Dr. Fate isn’t defending us from one SPECIFIC menace, he’s not on a FINITE quest. (It amazes me how many ongoing series make this mistake. In television they call it “Gilligan syndrome” — solve the basic problem and your series is over.)

If you’re trying to build a storytelling engine that’s going to last, you have to do at least that much. Gerber hit most of those marks in the first couple of issues. Most modern writers take six or twelve issues to get there, and some of them never do it at all.

So that’s a good example. Let’s take a look at another bad one.

*

The poster child for this sort of stuttering false-start, constant-reboot is Hawkman. I’ve talked about some of this before but I thought of it again because there were so many Hawk books in the liquidation sale. That guy lives in quarter boxes. These, I cleaned up on; I have an irrational affection for the character’s adventures, at least if I can get them on the cheap.

Once again, we’re looking at a simple concept, one that should have legs: It’s a winged guy that flies and fights crime. And for some reason, no one knows how to make it go.

Back in the beginning, Hawkman lasted slightly longer than Dr. Fate, certainly; but he never was quite able to carry a book, either.

From the beginning, Hawkman was about the VISUAL.

Part of the problem is that the concept was a little too simple. Flying and fighting crime is almost generic. Hawkman, you have to remember, started basically as a Flash Gordon swipe.

Wow! That Gordon guy looks just like the JSA's Carter Hall! What's that all about?

So it was always all about the art, wowing the readers with the striking visual of a man with wings. The story is essentially an exercise in reverse-engineering — how do we explain this guy with the big wings carrying a mace?

Basically an excuse to do Alex Raymond swipes.

The original explanation, that Hawkman is a reincarnated prince, works okay if you don’t think about it too hard. It explains why his first instinct is to grab for a mace or a net instead of a .45, and it leads to lots of interesting, mystical story possibilities.

The downside is that, as outlined in the premise, Carter and Shiera Hall are doomed to reincarnate again and again and Hath-Set will be there to kill them each time. So there’s a problem: if the outcome is preordained, why bother reading the stories? Hard to get invested in a story where they tell you the ending first. (Though, certainly, it can be done. Titanic made a lot of money.)

But in the Golden Age, nobody was thinking about it that hard. The Hawks just flew and fought crime.

In the Silver Age, Julius Schwartz gave the Hawks the patented sci-fi makeover. Now they were winged policemen from the planet Thanagar.

The classic that Truman was trying to evoke. Did he? Not so much.

This is so wrong on so many levels, just conceptually, that I will leave picking dozens of holes in it as an exercise for the scholar. And anyway, it didn’t last. Once again it was a strip that was all about the visual, and though the Kubert-drawn issues are regarded as classics, the stories were still pedestrian gimmick stuff… and when Schwartz coupled that with a deliberately unglamorous artist like Murphy Anderson, he put it all on the writing to carry the book. And writing alone — especially writing based on a premise that makes no sense — can’t carry a strip like Hawkman. It has to have the imposing visual, too.

Normally, that would be it. You’d think the conventional wisdom would be, “Didn’t work, let’s drop it.” But the Hawks found a home in the JLA and they seemed to work okay there, so the Thanagar revision stuck.

But it’s what everyone has tripped over, ever since. The idea that you somehow have to make the science-fictional Thanagarian police angle work, that if you layer enough explanation on it then it suddenly becomes plausible. Tony Isabella took a really good swing at it in the 1980′s, but I’m afraid it was still only an “almost,” and once Isabella left the book faded fast.

Good effort, but where do you go with it when the war's over?

Probably the best effort at pulling it off was Tim Truman’s Hawkworld. Truman did a marvelously well-thought-out job of working backward from the Fox-Kubert stuff and did a really interesting prequel to the original Schwartz reboot.

Hawkman's turn for the grim-n-gritty makeover.

It was a bit grim, but it was, for once, plausible. And it was pretty to look at, it had the Kubert-esque rough-edges vibe to it that Hawkman always had at its best.

And it sold well. Probably set some kind of record, I don’t think the Hawks had done those kind of numbers since the 1940′s. So of course DC followed it up with an ongoing.

A bad idea, but in hindsight I have to say it was really well-executed.

And that’s where it went completely off the rails.

Here’s the weird thing. The book was good. At least the first nine issues I picked up last week for a dollar were good. Truman and Ostander were doing nice work, Graham Nolan was doing nice work… There was a lot going on there that was working. I especially liked the idea that if Katar and Shayera Hol were space cops, they would bond with other street cops here on Earth, not Commissioner Emmett. It was a fun riff watching them butt up against Earth-style due process: “The accused have rights? What kind of crazy planet is this?” And the villainous Byth got a makeover into a homicidal drug addict, which was again a plausible extrapolation from the original story.

So, going back, looking at the criteria I outlined up above for doing a successful superhero relaunch, what did they miss? Why did it end up as such a train wreck?

New-reader-friendly? Check. It was pretty easy to get on board.

Kept the basic premise? Yeah, pretty much. Space cops with wings, fighting crime. Check.

Open-ended? Yeah, cops fighting crime isn’t something that has an expiration date. Check.

Didn’t say “screw you fanboy!” to anyone who might be checking this out based on liking an earlier version? Oh, man, did they ever blow this one. I’d go so far as to say that it’s what sank the book.

And after all that plausibility and Thanagarian world-building, too. But they blew it big when they decreed that no, this wasn’t Hawkman: Year One, it wasn’t a flashback, it was all going on now. “The old stuff? Well, yeah, it still counts, it was just… uh… we’ll get back to you. The guy that was in the JLA all those years? He was… uh… somebody else. From, uh, Thanagar, yeah… he was only, uh, pretending to be a good guy, sort of…” You get the idea. Every new attempt at an explanation made it worse.

Even the people that wanted to like the book threw a fit over that stuff. Add to that the new look, a design that threw away the character’s biggest asset of the original visual, and it’s no wonder the thing crashed and burned. We saw one desperate revamp-slash-fix after another….

Okay, getting a little confused.... WHICH one was in the Justice League again?

…but nothing worked. Even the Zero Hour reboot — a hail-Mary from half-court if I ever saw one — wasn’t enough.

Call this the desperation, hail-Mary-throw-from-half-court Hawkman.

And it all could have been fixed so easily at the beginning. They could have just said, yeah, the first ten or twelve issues of Hawkworld are a flashback, and then jumped ahead to the modern era or something. Maybe tweak the costume a little but certainly not to the point of that blocky armored mess. Instead, they tried to have it both ways — they wanted the freedom of the do-over, but they wanted the cachet of the old history. Can’t have both, especially when you tell the fans of the old stuff that it doesn’t matter. A guy like Hawkman who’s always been a B-lister, you have to have the older fans on board at least long enough to get word-of-mouth going. There’s not a large enough readership left for superhero comics that you can afford to alienate a crowd of them for the sake of convenience.

That was that for a while, except there was one fun little prestige mini that I liked quite a bit.

I really enjoyed this book. It's worth it just for the art.

Mostly because it was just a straight old-school Hawk adventure without any attempt at continuity exposition and the art from Michael Lark was drop-dead gorgeous. But it was just a blip on the radar.

All of the above relaunch series, if you were interested, you could probably pick up the entire run for ten dollars. That’s total, not each. Like I said, Hawkman lives in the quarter boxes.

So a few years passed and Geoff Johns revived Hawkman in JSA. This was easily the most successful version ever. What did he get right?

First: he pretty much threw away Thanagar and went back to Carter and Shiera and Hath-set.

Second: He threw in enough Thanagar reference that there was no “screw you fanboy” vibe to it. So he got points there.

Find a successful book to launch FROM.

Third: He laid the groundwork in JSA, rather than doing a straight relaunch. Again, smart. (You have to give credit to David Goyer and James Robinson for doing such a great job with the way they got Hawkgirl in the book to start with, too. That was the real launching pad.)

Fourth: The new book was good and it had stunningly good artwork from Rags Morales.

MUCH better.

And yet… it fell apart again after a couple of years.

Even revamping it just a touch and getting top talent on it…

Why work so hard at throwing away the good stuff?

…tying in to a successful cartoon, even…

Of course, it helps to have a successful cartoon.

…wasn’t enough to save it.

Why not?

I dunno. I know why I lost interest in it — too much crossover stuff with Rann-Thanagar War and so on, and then the new One Year Later Hawkgirl seemed too hip and urban for my tastes. I thought the art was completely the wrong fit, especially. But that seems more like my personal thing than any failure on the creators’ part.

I know what I’d do if I was asked to relaunch the book, though. I’d get somebody good writing it who wasn’t so invested in DC history that they were constantly referencing it, but wasn’t so arrogant they ignored it. For the art I’d find somebody good at macho adventure, someone with the sensibility of a Joe Kubert or a John Buscema. I’d do stories that were about exotic adventure and mysticism and archaeology, Indiana Jones with wings. I’d decree that there was no DCU crossing over in the book for at least two years, except maybe a JSA cameo or two, and that science-fictional stuff was to be avoided at all costs.

Would it sell? I don’t know about that either. But those are the things that seem to work best. Maybe it’d end up quarter-bin fodder like all the rest. But I can’t help speculating. I suspect that the same speculation goes on in editorial offices as well… these guys teetering right on the edge of success, like Dr. Fate or Hawkman or any of the other B and C-list guys, you can’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe, you find the right combination of elements and you get the big win. That’s probably why we keep trying to figure it out.

That, and it’s entertaining to try. At least if you’re a fan.

See you next week.

48 Comments

You take it as a given that the Thanagar origin didn’t work. Why not? What was wrong with it?

“I’d decree that there was no DCU crossing over in the book for at least two years…”

This should be standard for every book in DC’s line right now, and probably Marvel’s as well.

(Well, Marvel shouldn’t cross over with the Marvel universe books. Obviously Marvel books aren’t going to cross over with the DCU but . . . you get the idea.)

Why not? What was wrong with it?

As presented? Pretty much everything.

* Katar and Shayera Hol are sent to earth to catch Byth, a shapechanging thief. They come in a spaceship, armed with rayguns and an Absorbascon computer that fills their heads with all Earthly knowledge, even the language of birds. They eschew all these advantages and spend the entire story chasing the guy with nets, clubs, and a bow-and-arrow. They’re not even NEW weapons, it’s stuff they’ve grabbed out of a museum exhibit that probably would break if anyone tried to actually use it. They finally beat the guy by punching him in the face while he’s in the form of a giant lizard.

* After all that, they decide to stay on Earth to ‘observe our police methods.’ Something that they never actually do, because they only go into action after our Earthly police have FAILED to catch any crooks. Also, our police use guns, deadly force, Miranda rights, and a whole bunch of other stuff the Hols never bothered with ever, because they never actually hung out with cops other than Commissioner Emmett. They did keep using the clubs and the nets, though, despite their ship still being in orbit.

…and so on. Really, it’s a mess. Check out the Showcase reprints if you don’t believe me. Even for the looser standards of the Silver Age, it was kind of goofy, and why it’s such a cherished tradition among fans I will never know. Why twist yourself into knots trying to make it work when you can just lose it and do the archaeologist/reincarnation Hawkman instead?

EDIT: If you mean the Thanagar origin as presented on the Justice League cartoon, you’ll notice they just skipped right over a lot of the logic problems I just laid out by omitting those points entirely: no liaison with local police, the mace was a high-tech weapon, etc.That’s a valid way out. But I still prefer the historic/ancient angle, it just seems like a better fit.

Tom Fitzpatrick

March 30, 2008 at 10:59 am

I was never really a fan of Hawkman, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the evolution of his character. I did noticed that he was re-vamped several times by various creators, such as Truman and Johns.

Dr. Fate, however, I liked the DeMatties/Giffen mini-series reboot, and the DeMatties/McManus series that followed thereafter as well as Pasko/Simonson mini-series.
The rest lost hold of me.

I do agree with you, tho’, that both characters never seem to stick around for too long whomsoever does the series.

The Doctor Fate back-ups in the FLash had some of the trippiest art ever. As a 11 or 12 year old kid it blew my mind.

The reason why Dr. Fate never worked for me beyond that was all the complications. All the changes. All the lords of order and chaos crap. Just make it a guy with a magic mask and the mask is alive. Forget the backstory.

I think the two or three pages of Dr. Fate in the Gaiman Books of Magic series did a lot for the character and made it a lot more interesting than it had been for years.

Truman’s Hawkworld mini was awesome. Whoever decided “let’s make it set during the present day” rather than years ago should have to hand write letters of apology to everyone who reads comics saying how sorry they were for making things such a mess.

Most of the problems deal with the “need” by DC and Marvel to continue with the publication of these characters. The DeMatteis/McManus Dr. Fate is absolutely brilliant – 24 issues of religion, what it means to be alive, love conquering all – but then DC “needed” to continue publishing it. That’s why some characters get screwed up. Fate sucked, sure, but it was certainly an attempt to do something different with the brand. I wonder if it would have succeeded a little better if it had just been a magical tough guy with no connection to Dr. Fate.

I just get frustrated that everyone feels the need to recycle these brand names ad infinitum. It will always lead to stuff like this.

What is interesting is how much both these characters have in common:
- Both are Golden Agers
- Both were originally Egyptian derived characters
- Both have a pair of married protagonists in MOST versions
- Neither really worked in the Silver Age/sci-fi context
- Both have had multiple radical revamps
- Each have had Keith Giffen and Walt Simonson do extensive work with them
- Both have had some real high points on the ART side, but few (if any) on the STORY side

Those last two are a bit inter-related. To the the extent that I care about Dr.Fate, it is really bound up in the fact that he looks really cool. Kent and Inza Nelson never really hooked me as characters, which is probably why they’ve been replaced so often. The same is true of Hawkman to a lesser extent. He is at least interesting as foil to Hawkgirl in some versions.

Ditching the core visuals is obviously a huge mistake. John Ostrander wrote a pretty good series, but look was too distracting in ‘Hawkworld’. However, building a compelling storytelling engine to match the visuals is what we are talking about. Given how similar they are, I’d suggest that cracking one would probably involve the solution to the other.

Most of the problems deal with the “need” by DC and Marvel to continue with the publication of these characters.

Well, yeah. That’s the job, isn’t it?

24 issues of brilliance is all very well but if at the end you’re left with scorched earth and no ability to go on from there, then to my mind, you as a writer are doing a disservice to your employer.

I’m one of those guys that draws a clear line between well-crafted commercial entertainment and capital-A art. If you are employed to create commercial entertainment and get bit by the capital-A art bug, well, you should work out the problem in such a way that you don’t crash the bus. That’s my feeling. It’s not the fault of the employer for wanting to keep their commercial properties commercial.

I’m all in favor of lit’ry capital-A art but I think trying to jam it into long-running commercial superhero comics that are designed to be perpetual motion machines is a moron’s jihad. The people that keep insisting we should have high art in superhero stories are best served by those that are doing it in special, one-off formats that are especially designed for it. Watchmen, Astro City, etc. Complaining about not seeing that sort of story in a DC ongoing is a bit like complaining that Schwinn refuses to make bicycles that fly.

The Hawkworld mini was great. I cared little for the Silver Age/Earth 1/etc version of Hawkman but I liked the Golden Age version–which is odd in a way–I prefer the original Katar Hol origin & premise to the Golden Age premise, but Carter was more interesting as a character.

Then Hawkworld came along–I saw it as a revamp of the origin–and that it took place in the past. Then the series came and it was in the present. I kept reading for most of the original run, but I made a mental disconnect with the rest of the DC Universe. If they had said the mini & the first issues of the ongoing were in the past–I’d have been okay with that–afterall they did that with more prominent characters than Hawkman.

So I agree with the assessment in that regard 100%

Ok.

‘Fixing’ a character is taking the bits and pieces that are pretty much unique and filling in the rest of the story-telling engine with stuff that makes sense in relation to the unique bits. That is my take at least. Dr. Fate and Hawkman have been reworked and re-booted, so the unique elements are scattered across versions. That makes pulling them all together and stitching it into a coherent whole that is accessible a huge mess.

Here are the unique elements of Dr. Fate:

Premise: A man and a woman drafted into a larger mystical struggle by the Helmet of Nabu.

Main Character: ?

Motivations and Back-Story: ?

Supporting Cast: Nabu and ummmm ….

Setting: An invisible tower outside Salem, MA

Antagonists: The Lords of Chaos

Tone: Mysterious with an Egyptian flavor

Seen this way, the problem is obvious. What do the utterly generic “Lords of Chaos” have to do with the Egyptian-themed visuals? Who are the lead characters? Why are they fighting for “Order”? What is the connection between Salem, MA (of witch trial fame) and the Ancient Egyptians?

Answer those questions and you start to get some limits on the power of Dr. Fate and stories start suggesting themselves. What if Kent and Inza Nelson had to be in the same room to form Dr. Fate? That creates peril when they are separated. What if Dr. Fate could only create Order and, therefore, not destroy anything with his magics? How does he stop a Giant Mummy without killing it? What if the Salem witches were part of a Nabu cult? Maybe it still exists.

Same deal with Hawkman and Hawkgirl:

Premise: A woman is approached by a strange man, who informs her that he is her reincarnated lover from ancient Egypt.

Main Character: Shiera Sanders and Carter Hall

Motivations and Back-Story: To prevent Shiera from being murdered by Hath-Set and avoid being reincarnated yet again.

Supporting Cast: Commissioner George Emmett; Mavis Trent, museum naturalist and diorama artist who flirts with Carter; Joe Tracy, the museum’s publicist; Thangarian Andar Pul; and a large red hawk named Big Red.

Setting: A museum somewhere in the mid-western US

Antagonists: Hath-Set, Shadow Thief, Matter Master, Lion-Mane, Kanjar Ro

Tone: Superhero action with an Egyptian flavor

Much of this work was done by James Dale Robinson, Geoff Johns and Davis S. Goyer. However, what is really interesting in the premise is the question of how the woman receives the news from the stranger of their shared destiny. It is, after all, a very strange thing to say on a first date. The dramatic tension comes from the “will they, or won’t they” dynamic that we all know from TV (i.e.- ‘Cheers’, ‘Moonlighting’, etc.) Once they are together, the story is a third over. In that sense, DC Universe continuity is your enemy. It is almost better as a movie, or TV series, that has lots of people coming fresh.

I would like to say that I really thought Palmiotti and Gray (I probably misspelled them both) did a great job picking up Johns’ ideas and running with them on Hawkman. In some ways, I enjoyed their take a little more because Johns did all the heavy lifting of sorting out the backstory and they just got to make it a fun super-hero comic. P & G were doing a good job of building up a decent rogues gallery for the Hawks (an aspect of hero popularity that I think gets overlooked quite a bit) and then, you are correct, the Rann-Thanagar stuff sent it off the rails. The one year later revamp was really not needed and, essentially, forced the sidekick (sorry, Hawkgirl, it is true) to carry the book. It was one of those “fixing what isn’t broken” moves that backfired on DC.

Quarter boxes? You guys are so lucky! I live in a remote part of Scotland, and the cheapest second hand comics I can get are on eBay, at about a pound a time including postage (i.e. $2 a comic). New issues start at double that.

A quarter. Wow! That’s what, about 13p? Amazing!

Sure, Greg, but as you make very clear, neither of these characters seems to have much commercial appeal no matter what incarnation they’re in. So why does DC keep trying to “fix” them? And, to be fair, they let DeMatteis “mess” with the character, and he did leave an out when he set up Inza as the next Dr. Fate. If DC didn’t want him to do it, they could have stopped him. If the character has no commercial viability, why not let the creators do something different with them?

The mullet-headed “Cable-Fate” of the 90′s makes me laugh so hard.

I wonder… how many characters went through bizarre distortions in an attempt to appeal to the early-Image crowd? X-FORCE and SPAWN and YOUNGBLOOD and all the rest not only tainted the landscape by their own existence, but also twisted other characters, as exemplified by your FATE covers above. It’s a good idea for a column, I’d say.

Also, I agree about the Hawkman and Dr. Fate revamps.

What I would really get a kick out of (in terms of character reconstructions) would be historically stupid Silver Age characters reborn in deliberately self-effacing and satirical stories. Take some of those old Legion characters or one-off Superman villains and, instead of trying to make them scarier and more horrifying than ever, embrace the stupidity and have a good hard laugh.

Andrew Collins

March 30, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Doctor Fate has always been a sentimental favorite. I don’t know why exactly, maybe it’s the Egyptian theme but I’ve always wanted to see a version of the character that would stick. I personally liked the Giffen/DeMatteis mini and the follow-up regular series from DeMatteis and McManus. It played like an extension of the good Doctor’s appearances in the early issues of Giffen/DeMatteis’ Justice League. It had magic, adventure, comedy, romance, philosophy, etc. and was just a whole lot of fun. But issues #25-41 where Messner-Loebs came onboard and where DC felt the need to mess with things again kind of ruined the character for me. It wasn’t until the Hector Hall version that I started liking Doctor Fate again (I even liked the mini for him, it had potential) and of course, DC screwed it up again. I haven’t read past the first issue of Gerber’s version, but I liked it enough to pick up the eventual trade. Now let’s see if DC can follow up on the new one and NOT screw it up…again…

Hawkman. Wow. I hadn’t really thought about how odd the whole Thanagarian cop bit is, but yeah, it is really incongruous with the original concept isn’t it? Truman’s Hawkworld is great if you just read it and enjoy it by itself and for what it was. Personally, I loved the Johns/Morales Hawkman series the best. They seemed to do the impossible and iron out some of the wrinkles that had formed on the character. Then…DC screwed it up again. The Gray/Palmiotti issues weren’t bad, but they seemed to ignore the first 25 or so issues of the series and I had a hard time following some of their chronology (so wait…when did Golden Eagle become a bad guy?…what’s this about his father being Hawkman?…and how is Hawkwoman around if we have Hawkgirl?…and oh god, my head hurts now…) and like you pointed out, the stupid (and I do mean STUPID) Rann/Thanagar war crossover got in the way of much of what Gray and Palmiotti were trying to do. The One Year Later reboot…well I have the utmost respect for Simonson and Chaykin…but what the $%&@! was THAT??? That was just BAD and highly unreadable. Now I’m back to not really knowing what the status of Hawkman is again. He’s in the JSA after being gone for awhile, so I at least feel comfortable knowing Johns is at the helm again. Until DC screws him up again, of course… :)

Predictably, I thought the Messner-Loebs Dr. Fate was the best since Pasko/Simonson — I liked DeMatteis/Giffen/McManus a lot, but for me it doesn’t make sense without Kent and Inza, they’re too perfect. Although (also predictably) I’m planning on loving Gerber’s Dr. Fate.

More than that I guess I don’t need to say: Dean’s already pretty much nailed it, in my opinion.

With Hawkman, I think it’d actually be pretty easy to unify the Egyptian and Thanagarian stuff — and let’s face it, you’ve got to unify them, because anything that crosses Egypt and superheroes is gold. Hey, in the DCU, what mythology’s more important than the Egyptian? Hawkman, Dr. Fate, even Metamorpho…probably others I can’t remember.

As to why these characters can’t support their own titles — who knows? Who cares? Not every character has to support a title, but then again after Sandman, if I was DC I’d be desperate to see if I could catch lightning in a bottle for a second time. This is probably not a good idea, though: once you’ve tried a couple of reboots and blown it, it’s time to relegate the character to guest-star for a few years, I think. Just let them simmer in some workable form, and accumulate a little status quo.

That’s the problem with the Big Two these days: no one wants to invest in any status quo for their characters. There’s no idea of what’s “normal” for them.

One thing about Dr. Fate that gets overlooked fairly consistently is that his original backstory was based on Babylonian mythology, not Egyptian. (Nabu is, in fact, the name of the Sumerian God of Wisdom.) It wasn’t until the 1975 Pasko/Simonson revamp that the backstory was changed. That’s really too bad because, while Norse, Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Mesoamerican mythology has been done to death in comics, very little has been done with that of the various Mesopotamian cultures. Changing Fate’s history accordingly would have the double advantage of opening new vistas for plots but also differentiating him from DC’s other Gyptocentric characters (Hawkman, Black Adam, Ibis, etc.).

Of course that would require actually researching Babylonian myths and we all know how much comics writers love doing research…

Vincent Paul Bartilucci

March 30, 2008 at 5:51 pm

Maybe it’s just my love for the character, but I don’t think that the Thanagarian Hawkman’s origin is any sillier than those of many other DC or Marvel heroes from the Silver Age. There are elements of a lot of character’s origins that you simply can’t think about for too long. That being said, I must admit, however begrudgingly, that the Golden Age Hawkman’s back story is infinitely more compelling than Katar’s.

And, as has been said by others here, I’d have much prefered if Hawkworld was the untold ‘true’ origin of the sc-fi Hawks. I even included that thought in my “Ides of March” list.

In general, it’s interesting reading the way some folks defend the various revamps of these and other characters. I angered a few people during a discussion at my local cs once by suggesting that readers who really dug the Peter David version of Aquaman couldn’t possibly have been fans of Aquaman prior to the harpoon and beard. Of course, I was shouted down – they all loved Aquaman since birth. And they loved this new direction, too. Still can’t get my head around that.

Here’s what I think should happen: DC should publish an anthology title, like 80 pages, quarterly, that stars all of these characters that have never been able to sustain an individual series: Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Aquaman, The Atom, etc. etc.

With 80 pages, each character would get plenty of time to shine and they could even, once a year, do an issue that features all of them in one big adventure.

I’d love it, but it would probably be too old school for most people.

Babylonian, right!

Damn!

Why do people keep insisting on putting “team players” into solo titles and hoping that they’ll sell? Hawkman/Hawkwoman, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Dr. Fate, etc, etc, work much better in a JLA/JSA setting than otherwise, so trying to force them into their own comics really just messes things up when you remove them from the teams and/or change them for the sake of pushing them as a solo act.

Okay, asked and answered. I never read the silver age stuff which sounds (typically) poorly thought out. But no moreso than the Green Lantern reboot. GL went through the same transformation as Hawkman. The original was a guy who found a old magical artifact, the new one was part of an outer space police force. GL’s origin, for years, was probably even more problematic. (Why does Abin Sur travel in a ship when no other Green Lantern does? If Earth was in his sector, how come he never saved any Earthlings? Who killed him and why doesn’t Hal avenge his death? Aren’t actual pilots demonstrably more fearless than test pilots?) But, you know, subsequent writers answered all those questions.

Thanagar definitely started making more sense when the Thanagarians became the bad guys, and Hols became, basically, refugees. And they made pretty good bad guys too– I just re-read Animal Man #7, which is pretty great.

But if you want to re-incorporate the egyptian stuff, JLU did a great job playing it both ways in a long storyline in the final season. I never read any of the recent Hawkman stuff in the comics, but I assume it was based on that. (Though Dini and McDuffy had a way of retelling comic stories so as to greatly improve on the original).

Buy Hawkworld 10-25 or so (before they got red costumes) and enjoy. Don’t think about how it all fits. Who cares, if the comics are good?

I know, a lot of people do. Bah. When slavish continuity gets in the way of good storytelling, ignore the continuity. As with Morrison’s X-Men, Hawkworld worked best when one didn’t worry about stories from the ’60s and ’70s and just read the comics for the stories.

I’m probably in the minority, but I thought Johns’ Hawkman was boring. Well-drawn, but I couldn’t get interested. I bought the “Return of the Golden Eagle” trade for $5, and found it somewhat entertaining.

It’s not the fault of the employer for wanting to keep their commercial properties commercial.

But if the writing on those titles isn’t good and people stop buying them, well, then they are not viable commercial properties any longer, are they?

I would rather have a character such as Hawkman or Doctor Fate be given a really good miniseries, or an ongoing series that ended when the creative team felt it was time to end it (i.e. Manhunter, Starman, Sandman, Preacher), thereby giving DC well-regarded, popular material which they can then reprint endlessly as trade paperbacks that sell well and never go out of print. In the long run, that is going to put more money into their wallets than producing 200 odd issues of mediocre stories that stretch a concept well beyond it’s natural life span with endless reboots & reimaginings that don’t work or interest readers.

I’m sure DC has made much more money off of the bazillion printings of the Watchmen trade paperback than they ever had with all the failed reboots of Hawkman and Doctor Fate.

It seems to me that something that would be a natural would be that the Egyptians actually were Thanagarians. I mean there’s all these Chariots of the Gods theories out there about aliens helping build the pyramids and such. Why not make the aliens Thanagarians? That would seem to make some sense as to why Hawkman and the Thanagar both have this bird fetish.

A couple notes after further thought:
1. I think characters that get revisited tend to have unique elements that really resonate with people. By this, I mean that they are neat metaphors for things that happen IN ADULT LIFE. For example, Batman is about grief in a very straight-forward way. To me, Hawkman and Hawkgirl are a great metaphor for a certain type of couple: the break-up/get-back-together one. Everyone knows how it is going to end, but that never stops them.

2. On Matt Bird’s point, the Thangarian origin just fits worse than the Sci-Fi version of GL. I agree that Morrison did a good job with them in ‘Animal Man’, but that is a unique talent. He is a tough person to repeat, like Alan Moore. The ancient weapons and the wings are more fantasy elements than Sci-Fi.

I know what I’d do if I was asked to relaunch the [Hawkman] book, though. I’d get somebody good writing it who wasn’t so invested in DC history that they were constantly referencing it, but wasn’t so arrogant they ignored it. For the art I’d find somebody good at macho adventure, someone with the sensibility of a Joe Kubert or a John Buscema. I’d do stories that were about exotic adventure and mysticism and archaeology, Indiana Jones with wings.

As far as the writing goes, you (or anybody, for that matter) should take a look at Beau Smith. He’s the poppa Hemingway of comic books in the sense that… if it’s MACHO, he’s already done it, washed his car with the T-shirt and is already on his third beer waiting for your ass to show up.

Buy Hawkworld 10-25 or so (before they got red costumes) and enjoy. Don’t think about how it all fits. Who cares, if the comics are good?

I probably will, actually. I really enjoyed #1-9. I’m just waiting for the next time I’m around a bunch of quarter boxes. Probably at Emerald City. I have this bet with myself that I can get every Hawk title between 1975 and 2000 for under twenty dollars total cash outlay. So far I’m at around $9 and I’m about 2/3 there.

And I tend to agree with your overall sentiment. If they’d stayed with the original screw-you-fanboy position they’d probably have been better off. What I object to is the sort of demented hybrid “we’re a do-over but here’s your continuity patch so shut up” story we saw every so often in the 80′s. Hawkworld suffered because of that, and don’t even get me started on Superboy and the Legion. (In fact, I thought about including the Legion — they’ve suffered even more than the Hawks from this sort of desperation — but that’s been revamped so many times it would take a book to try and cover all of it. Actually, now that I take a moment to consider, I think there is one.)

This is one of those times you just come across as a cranky old nerd Greg. “How dare they try to hip up my Dr Fate, damn hippies with their literature and their bebop music, where are my pills?” If you ask me, trying to force any concept into a “perpetual motion machine” of liscensing is the real “moron’s jihad”. When things don’t end when they’re supposed to we’re left with continuity wank for the terminally obsessive. Are you really suggesting that creators should not be allowed to tell objectively good stories if they “destroy” your favorite pet character’s continuity? How can you destroy a fictional character anyways? “Scorched earth” my fanny. They could write a story where they kill every single green lantern ever created and retcon batman’s origin so that his parents were a time travelling Joker and Harley Quinn and make Superman a dinosaur robot cowboy and you know what? Next month they could all be back to normal. They don’t even need to explain it. Its not real, so go nuts. I say if you think you’ve got a good story, tell it. If its good I’ll buy it, if its not I’ll mock it, but I’m not going to obsess over wether or not its true to some arbitrary ideal I’ve been formulating since the late 40s. Not everything needs to fit in neat little nerd boxes.

Anonymous, I honestly think that anyone posting on a comics web-site has minimal grounds to call anyone else a nerd (myself included).

The question that I think Greg raised is an interesting one, namely “what makes a character both interesting enough to get constantly re-visited and weak enough to get canceled repeatedly?” Neither Hawkman, nor Dr. Fate, have ever had the “neat little nerd box” moment of luckier characters. They are not going to show up in the top 100 runs, nor have movies made about them. However, a lot of people LIKE these characters and want an excuse to give them a chance.

An interesting twist in the Johns Hawkman revamp was that Carter Hall had been reincarnated MULTIPLE times between ancient Egypt and today. He had the experience of literally hundreds of lives to draw from. It even allowed them to include old DC characters Nighthawk and the Silent Knight as previous incarnations of Hawkman. Yeah, it’s continuity-oriented fanboyish stuff, but it was intriguing enough to get me to try the Johns/Morales version.

I could never get into the Hawkworld version largely because of that hideously unattractive armored costume. A character whose primary power is flight should have a graceful costume design, not something that looks so heavy and cumbersome. A large part of Hawkman’s visual appeal is that shirtless look. It mixes the visuals of a Tarzan or a Conan with the iconography of the superhero and makes him look like no other character out there.

This is one of those times you just come across as a cranky old nerd Greg.

I’ve never actually denied it. But moving on…

Are we even talking about the same thing? Do you really claim that there’s no qualitative difference between a well-done superhero story told as part of an ongoing franchise and an actual one-off attempt to do something literary?

Nobody wants BAD stories. I’m not talking about continuity. I’m talking about PREMISE. I thought I was careful to spell that part out and put it in bold type. I consider it an irresponsible act for a commercial writer to take a commercial property and drive it over a cliff so that it’s effectively ruined for the next guy to work on it. Are you offended because I dared to suggest that Superman and Batman and the rest of these corporate merchandised properties’ print adventures are being published on a for-profit basis to a schedule and not merely in response to someone’s creative muse? Come on. Is that really news to anyone here?

If you ask me, trying to force any concept into a “perpetual motion machine” of licensing is the real “moron’s jihad”.

Don’t tell the producers of the James Bond films. Or the Star Trek people. They’re doing pretty well out of it. So did Rex Stout with Nero Wolfe. And Edgar Rice Burroughs with Tarzan. And dozens of other examples.

The point that you seem to determined to miss is that generating a continuing series of adventures is exactly what ongoing series characters are DESIGNED TO DO. No, it’s never going to be capital-A Artistic. At best you have exquisitely-crafted pastiche… All-Star Superman, say, or something like that. But you are a bigger fool than you think *I* am if you think DC is going to let Grant Morrison destroy the company’s cash cow in the name of Art, or even that they should. I’m saying the folks that work on those properties should know that going in and act accordingly. This is hardly blasphemous.

And I’d add the corollary that if you have a series that’s tired, the best solution is to either retire it or get some fresh blood in there, as opposed to jerking the actual core concept out of it…. because when you do that you get the bad examples listed in the column.

Regarding the question of why DC keeps re-imagining these characters over and over, though they never sell, I think one answer lies in the bizarre set of rules that have grown up around what prospective writers are allowed to pitch. (Speaking as someone who’s pitched to a DC editor in the past.)

Whether you’ve worked for them in the past or just starting out, it’s considered bad form to go up to a DC editor and pitch yourself as a Superman or Batman writer. Or ANY super-hero who is currently successful. Why? Simple, because if that hero is popular enough to appear in a monthly book, then there’s already a writer writing that monthly book, and it’s uncouth to propose that they fire that guy and hire you instead. It’s ALSO uncouth to pitch an original character, which is considered too presumptuous. The result is that EVERY writer HAS to pitch a characters who is (a) pre-existing and (b) not currently sustaining their own book.

This is a weird rule. It means that DC is hearing HUNDREDS of Hawkman pitches right now and Marvel is hearing HUNDREDS of Dr. Strange pitches. And you know that each one of them is proposing not “the same thing that you cancelled a few years ago” but a RE-INVENTION of the character.

Remember a few years ago when DC simultaneously launched Bruce Jones re-imaginings of Warlord, Vigilante and, who was it? Deadman? They all belly-flopped, but I remember all those press released coming out and thinking: “Jesus! Bruce must have been awe-struck to walk into that pitch meeting with those three ideas and somehow sell ALL THREE!”

The result is that EVERY writer HAS to pitch a character who is (a) pre-existing and (b) not currently sustaining their own book.

Damn. You know, I KNEW that, and I completely forgot it. I think you must have hit it. Of course that’s where most of this is coming from. Thanks for pointing it out.

Now it comes clear.

Beta Ray Steve

March 31, 2008 at 6:21 am

Dr Fate and Hawkman reboots keep failing because they suffer from ‘why am I doing this?’ syndrome. Once writers are charged with reworking old heroes, the book turns into one long explanation, and noone wants to read a 22 page illustrated explanation. The heroes are stuck in adventures that explain their circumstance, but don’t move the character forward.

Greg, I hate to say it but you got your timeline massively wrong with Dr. Fate!

The Pasko/Simonson version appeared in First Issue Special #9 (1975). It was a one-shot in a Showcase-esque one-shot book. The subsequent backups by Pasko, Gerber and Giffen in The Flash started in issues cover-dated 1982 (but actually printed in ’81)– 6 years after the Pasko/Simonson effort.

The DC Implosion took place in 1978, and had nothing to do with any of it!

All of it were eventually collected in a Baxter reprint book (which you display) in the ’80s, which may be why you think they were one unified work.

I knew it was in First Issue Special, Graeme; I just thought the Simonson cover was more appropriate than the Kubert one on the actual book. I also did indeed know that there was a delay between that and the Flash series but I had thought it was a matter of a year or two. Serves me right for doing it from memory.

You know, and I say this with not some inconsiderable shame, the only time I actually wrote a letter to DC Comics in 30 years of reading comics was to object strenuously to the Hawkworld Annual. It’s the only time I’ve ever experienced fanboy rage in a real way. Kill off Robin? Does nothing. Reboot Superman? Love it. Mess with the Golden Age and Silver Age Hawkman continuity? Oh wow…I was furious.

The thing is– I’m not even a big fan of Hawkman. It was just all the messing with JSA continuity (which I love) and everyone else’s continuity (because Hawkman had been making appearances in everything even in post Crisis continuity at that point) to make this damn series fit. Even though– as Greg correctly says– the mini could have been treated as a Year One story and integrated into continuity.

Plus, they didn’t even do their research and coloured Carter Hall’s hair black instead of blonde. It was an utter mess. Really, really offended me.

Of course, seven zillion retcons later it doesn’t look nearly so bad. But I wish they had left well alone.

My pitch for Hawkman would have been a little from column A and a little from column B: A guy working at the Midway City museum as a curator (with a shadowy past) finds Katar Hol dead or incapacitated and takes the wings and mantle of being Hawkman and goes on wild earth-crossing adventures, Because I kind of think Hawkman should be Indiana Jones with wings and I think a Thanagarian Hawkman is kind of boring while an earthborn one using Thanagarian tech is interesting. I suspect Geoff Johns used similar math.

I was more concerned by your assertion that it followed by a year or two and was derailed by the implosion, which was not the case. But no biggie.

And I tend to agree with your overall sentiment. If they’d stayed with the original screw-you-fanboy position they’d probably have been better off. What I object to is the sort of demented hybrid “we’re a do-over but here’s your continuity patch so shut up” story we saw every so often in the 80’s. Hawkworld suffered because of that, and don’t even get me started on Superboy and the Legion. (In fact, I thought about including the Legion — they’ve suffered even more than the Hawks from this sort of desperation — but that’s been revamped so many times it would take a book to try and cover all of it. Actually, now that I take a moment to consider, I think there is one.)

I’d have to disagree with that last bit, Greg. In all of Legion history there has been some major revamps, but only a few that changed the Status Quo in some limited way or only for a short time. The original premise has stayed exactly the same for all of their 50 years of being published. Plus they were never rested in those 50 years and have almost continuosly been pubished in that time, (The longest break was for 6 months after their Action Comics run ended and before they started appearing as back ups in Superboy and that was because editorial didn’t like them, not because they were unpopular with the readers. During that six months they had there own reprint mini-series).

The Post-Crisis revamps such as the Pocket Universe and replacing Superboy with Mon-El/Valor never affected the status quo of the characters, or their popularity. The former left all their Pre-Crisis history intact, (Apart from Supergirl, but then her involvement with the Legion was very limited anyway, compared to Superboy’s) and the latter merely introduced a new character that became a fan favourite. All the Legion’s history, for the most part was still intact and the title was popular enough to add a sister title.

The first reboot didn’t have much effect, both titles were still popular enough to continue, at least until LOSH reached #100, but the thing after that that caused a dive in sales was the quality of the writing, not the origianl revamping. When the title restarted it was still exactly the same, there was no major revamp, with DC looking to give the creative team a new #1 and a name change to satisfy that strange urge to shorten titles that DC had a few years ago.

The latest reboot hasn’t been exactly a success and does support your point better because it appears that the main thing that people complain about with this Legion, their “convoluted history”, was what was revamped, jetisoned in fact. That history appears to be what people want however, if the sales of Action Comics are anything to go by.

Doctor Fate has always been one of my favorite characters. But he (or she, or he/she) has always suffered from the problem of being several degrees more powerful than Superman. When a character can resurrect the dead or travel to Hell and pimp-slap the devil, the reader must ask “Why doesn’t this character, with all these powers, solve the problems of the world?”

Writers have tried to address this question in several different ways, with varying degrees of success:

1). “Because Doctor Fate is too busy fighting magical villains to bother with anything else.” This approach has a limited lifespan, if only because battles between characters with infinite levels of power are not very interesting (see: Silver Surfer).

2). “Because Doctor Fate is new, and still has much to learn.” This was DeMatteis’ approach, and it worked well, I think. But eventually (one hopes), the inexperienced hero grows up, and then the writer is back to square one.

3). “Doctor Fate does, in fact, try to solve all the world’s problems.” This was Messner-Loebs’ approach, and it made for great reading while it lasted. Ultimately, however, Fate had to fail, or there would presumably be nothing left to write about.

4). “Because Doctor Fate has so many personal problems to deal with (including being Doctor Fate) that he/she can only take on the world’s problems on a limited basis.” This can make for some interesting character development — it’s basically the approach Marvel is taking with The Sentry. It doesn’t provide much in the way of escapist fantasy, though, and that’s something I’ve always enjoyed about the character of Doctor Fate.

And that brings up another question: does the fact that Doctor Fate is reinvented so often speak to the character’s weakness, or strength? Doesn’t the fact that the character’s core concept can survive so many transmutations say something about its staying power?

Addition to the above post:

Of course the other thing that should be mentioned is that any revamps that did happen to the Legion didn’t affect the longevity of their various titles at all.

The Pocket Universe was revealed in LOSH V3 #37 and the title continued for another 25 issues.

V4 lasted 126 issues and its companion title, Legionnaires, lasted 82.

Including the two mini series, DnA’s run lasted 56 issues and the current run is still well above the cancellation line at 40 issues, so it’s not like the concept is constantly stopping and restarting.

A closer example would be Teen Titans, who have had more revamps, cancelled series and “rest periods” than the Legion, though its popularity would still be considered greater than those of Hawkman and Dr. Fate.

Perhaps the Doom Patrol would be a better fit?

People say that continuity broke the Ostranger Hawkrun, but it seems to me that the patches were perfectly serviceable and left the way open for good ongoing stories.

But it went to hell quickly starting in the red costume era/ Flight’s End, then Zero Hour, the loss of Hawkwoman and Thanagar, and the terrible avatar implant– that stuff wrecked the book and the character entirely until Johns created the modern Winged Continuity Handwaving Wonder.

Quick update: as always, writing the column prompted a scan of online dealers just to see if there was any of this stuff out there for cheap. Scored the entire run of Hawkworld and the first year of the ’93 Hawkman that came afterward for $6, fifty-one books in all. Considering that I paid about $6.60 for the entire run of the 80′s Isabella-Howell version (including the Shadow War mini-series and special) we are now at $12.60 for everything up to Zero Hour. Remember, the stated goal was every Hawk book between 1970 and 2000 for less than $20.

That leaves about twenty issues’ worth of the post-Zero Hour, pre-JSA Hawkman, which I know almost nothing about except Steve Lieber worked on it and wasn’t that thrilled with it. I admit the covers look kind of cool.

But really, the question is — can I do it for $7.40? We shall see. I’m not normally a collector-type but this is an interesting challenge. Even Julie is interested, it’s awakened her thrift-shopping instincts.

It’s all a bias against egyptian characters. Dr. Fate, Hawkman, Black Adam, Moon Knight. America is not ready for characters who are based in egyptian mythology. Racists.

I’m kidding.

It occurs to me that if DC were to revive the anthology, similiar to the failed Marvel Comics Presents of the 80s, not only could we see the heroes that can’t really sustain a title on their own, but we could have a good place for new talent to get a public try out and see if the fans like them, as well as see some of the capital-A art stories that one of the commenters mentioned.

A nice 12 issue, 8 page story (which would be, what, 4 normal sized issues?) could tell a wonderful Dr Fate story that wouldn’t have to address a self-sustaining storytelling engine, or encompass all (or any) backstory continuity. It could just be a fun story about Fate, or Hawkman, or Atom, or whomever.

It wouldn’t even have to be in continuity with the other titles or the other stories. “Here’s a lost tale of the Batman from shortly after Dick Greyson joined him.”

I guess the big question would be: would it sell?

Theno

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