Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Justice League of Arcana

We superhero fans love our supergroups. Our publishers know this and so they sometimes cobble together teams to satisfy our appetite that wind up being pretty unsatisfying. You ever go to one of those events where you think there's going to be a buffet, and what's actually offered is a variety of h'ordeurvres? That's how I feel reading the likes of Infinity Inc and Outsiders.

But that's not my point. I've always like the idea of a sort of "Mystic League of America", a supergroup of mystics formed along the lines of the JLA/JSA. I thought DC had this concept locked when they created the Sentinels of Magic, but they never ran with it. Even worse, they went instead with the Outsiders of Magic, the Shadowpact; on the whole, readers didn't go with them.

Why didn't/doesn't this idea fly? Is it because, unlike the spandex crowd, magician's powers are too vague and indistinguishable from one another? Too little interest in magic characters?

I picture a group very much like the Sentinels of Magic, but narrowed down a bit. More like the classic JLA rather than a JLU of magic (because perhaps early over-expansion of the Sentinels watered down the concept and hindered its popularity; a club to which everyone belongs doesn't have a lot of perceived value!). I'd even make sure there was a bit a parallelism going on, like so.

Dr. Fate, in for Superman
Phantom Stranger, in for Batman
Zatanna, in for Wonder Woman
Tempest, in for Aquaman
Blue Devil, in for Green Lantern
Deadman, in for Flash
Dr. Occult, in for Martian Manhunter


Rob Pugh said...

I get all the parallels except Deadman/Flash... why them?

Anonymous said...

Deadman and Flash go together because they are both jokesters.


Dogwelder said...

I understand you were going for the 'big 7', but how about Madame Xanadu in for Oracle?

plok said...

Deadman can travel pretty fast.

It's a nice, neat switch.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Occult for Martian Manhunter? How come?

Frank Lee Delano said...

Marvel super-teams are better than DC super-teams. This is because Marvel takes a bunch of characters that were created for solo adventures, and groups them together. There's naturally going to be a variety of dynamics that come out of this, because you have pre-existing concepts developed to be strong enough to support themselves. Sometimes, you get an interesting tension based solely on placing a character who clearly has no business being in a team amongst others.

DC on the other hand has traditionally created teams from whole cloth, typically comprised of characters incapable of generating interest on their own. Even in teams like the Outsiders, where half the team is at least semi-recognizable, the group is always rounded out by limp new characters and returning failures. Further, they keep returning to teams that have failed repeatedly to gain or sustain an audience, expecting a new result out of the same process.

The other problem for DC is that their entire universe revolves around Superman and Batman, with all other characters subordinate to them. It seems like DC at best tolerates success outside of those two characters, but will cut and run on all other properties as soon as they show fatigue. This is not conductive to team building.

As for the Sentinels of Magic, beyond the problems Scipio mentioned and I just addressed, who can you have them fight? And all things considered, are Enchantress, Ragman and Detective Chimp any more C-list than Tempest or Dr. Occult? What makes this group any better on paper than Night Force? Name recognition?

DC needs better teams, but in order to build them, they need a stronger universe from which to draw from. Until they can see beyond the World's Finest Golden Geese, any team other than the JLA will seem third rate. You can't be world class if you only fill a niche.

Anonymous said...

"I get all the parallels except Deadman/Flash... why them?"

Because both are desperately looking for a Hook to satisfy readers. ::rimshot::

Jacob said...

Neat concept.

Have to say I see Deadman in more of a Martian Manhunter role.

Like J'onn, Boston has his own inbuilt limitations when dealing with humanity. Thus I think he'd be the guy living for the team, like MM was the heart and soul and guy who pulled the most monitor hours of the JLA, Deadman would probably be that guy for the JLArcana.

Ajit said...

Marvel super-teams are better than DC super-teams. This is because Marvel takes a bunch of characters that were created for solo adventures, and groups them together.

Frank, how about the JSA? Or the JLA? Or the Teen Titans? Or the Law’s Legionnaires (Seven Soldiers of Victory)? Even Black Lightning and Metamorpho had books of their own long before they joined the Outsiders.

On the other hand, who had heard of Reed Richards, the Storm siblings, or Benjamin J. Grimm before Fantastic Four #1? Or of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Marvel Girl, or Iceman prior to X-Men #1? Come to that, Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler were created out of whole cloth for Giant Size X-Men #1 -- and even Wolverine and Banshee were little more than bit players at that point.

SallyP said...

Just as long as the Phantom Stranger shows up, I'm in. I love his hat.

Scipio said...

I get all the parallels except Deadman/Flash... why them?

Because when they're doing their job right, you can't see them. They are both hit-and-run characters.

Scipio said...

DC needs better teams, but in order to build them, they need a stronger universe from which to draw from.

Thanks, Frank; that gave me a good laugh.

Jonathan Burns said...

It's a good selection, I'd at least give it a try. But if it's magic, I would really like people to lighten up, and get past (a) the '70s Exorcist thing and ooh can we do vampires now? (b) Vertigo, (c) 1999 is it the Apocalypse yet? (d) Vertigo. Cause I'm Dark Towered Out and my suspense nerve has gone all numb. Abandon fun all ye who enter here.

Instead, what I'd actually grab would be a team of young semi-knowns, who would do for magic what the LSH did for pulp SF. They would do a lot of magic, and they'd come from places where a lot of magic is done. Here's my tentative list - who am I missing?

Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. For out-and-out fantasy, chromatic wizardry and crystal spires - a recurring decor, the equivalent of Ditko's Dimensions - and a continuity spine of inter-family power struggle.

A new Ali-Kazoom. Humour me. I see a city streetlife that isn't all thugs and drugs, a little tough, but as full of good as bad people, where magic keeps happening. The Shop of Impossible Pets. The Hex Tag Commandos. Another day's work for the kid in the top hat.

Brother Power, the Geek. Like, screaming past the moral center of the team, can anyone be this naive, and yet strangely inspiring. Brings rubbish to life, in good Arnold Drake / Bob Haney fashion.

Dorothy Spinner, and her ever-startling imaginary friends, and her ever-touching struggle for courage.

The new Ibis the Invincible. Nothing says magic like ancient Egypt - but we want a fresh take on ancient Egypt, that's not Doc Fated out. I read the boy's issue and I liked him.

The Shining Knight. We need an Arthurian hook as well; but again, why do the same old Arthur, when we can have Lady Ystine the Just and a whole new world of chivalry?

Mary Marvel. Old school, please. So we can get the classical history stuff, age of legends, thunder on the mountains, all that, and the simple pleasure of just whacking your problems over the skyline sometimes.

That would be the core. I'd add Klarion, but I wouldn't want the writers to be too involved with 7SoV. (Gee, Morrison added more magick to the DCU than the rest of them did in years.) Also, I'd like to have Cain and Abel lurking in the background. Perhaps the team can start with a smash raid on Vertigo and liberate the boys from the Depths of Concern With The Human Condition. (The allegories! They're closing in!)

Chance said...

I think the main problem is as you say, "magic" character can all pretty much do the same thing. The idea might work if there was one magician who --- for example --- worked in physical transformation like a Circe figure, another who warped time and space mystically, another had connection to black magic and the underworld, etc.

As it is, to me at least, there doesn't seem to be anything Zatanna can do that Dr. Fate can't, and who knows what the hell Phantom Stranger can do?

Deadman distinguishes himself in this pack, of course, for having "unique" powers.

plok said...

"The Shop Of Impossible Pets"?

Okay, where do I subscribe...

Allan said...

I have to admit I enjoyed Shadowpact quite a bit and wish it had been popular enough to last another year or so. That said, it's demise does offer up the opportunity for the Detective Chimp solo series we all know we secretly want more than anything.

And speaking as an acolyte of a great, late man once capable of amazing feats of elongation, I would prefer to see Ralph and Sue replace Boston Brand in your line-up, if only to give it that extra jolt of JLA Detroit glamour it so desperately needs. Heck, with all of those magicians around, surely they could get it together and resurrect a certain breakdancing latin hero we all once knew and loved....

Oh, and I want to thank Frank for writing one of the funniest comments I ever seen on this blog. I laughed so hard, I snorted some of the Tim Horton's Ice Cap I was drinking right out of my nose.

Jason said...

Actually, I agree with Frank to some degree. DC has a rich universe, but a lot of that goes unexplored in favor of pushing Batman and Superman. Marvel's been pretty good at juggling their properties so that the focus can switch from Iron-Man, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-men depending on whatever appeals to the general public at any time.

With DC, outside of the comics, it's "You're going to get more Batman and Superman and you're going to like it, dammnit". And it happens in the comics quite a bit, too. If we're LUCKY, they'll do something big with Flash, Wonder Woman, or Green Lantern - but they never really PUSH those characters like they do the World's Finest, and I think that's the biggest problem with DC comics (aside from Dan Didio, anyway).

Captain Infinity said...

Is it because, unlike the spandex crowd, magician's powers are too vague...

I think that's a big reason. Even after decades in print we still don't know what most of these characters actually can or can't do as it changes based on whoever is writing them at the time.

I really thought DC was going to establish some rules after Infinite Crisis with the whole new "10th Age of Magic" bit, but here it is a couple of years down the road and I'm still waiting.

Anonymous said...

wouldn't captain marvel be the superman of the group?

Scipio said...

Because, although magic is the source of his powers, he doesn't wield magic itself as a weapon.

That said, that substitution might give Cap a literary purpose, something he currently lacks in the DCU.

Frank Lee Delano said...

"Frank, how about the JSA? Or the JLA?"

Those are the models upon which the entire Marvel Universe was built. The thing is though, after the Golden Age, the JSA became a "whole cloth" team, because for fifty years the only way to enjoy the lion's share of its membership was in a team setting. Further, even on those terms, you had lengthy gaps between outings.

Then you look at the JLA, which has gotten the formula right for most of its existence, and been rewarded for it. The only flaw was that the JLA hogged all the contemporary talent, rather than allowing other teams to come into existence.

"Or the Teen Titans?"

Which has more loosely followed the template, and experienced more varied degrees of success. Also, I think Cyborg, Starfire and Raven were so strongly conceived that they could have supported solo series. That they were never treated as such shows a perpetual flaw in the DCU.

This also ties into another problem, that none of the sidekicks besides Kid Flash were ever allowed to stand as equals. Here you have the best selling book DC published in the early 80's, and they were simultaneously watering down the brand with two Robins and pilfering the talent for other projects.

Don't get me started on the prestige format relaunches of the mid-80's, which slit the throats of the Titans and Legion.

"Or the Law’s Legionnaires (Seven Soldiers of Victory)?"

That's a bit of a reach, in that they were the leftovers that Mort Weisinger had reign over in a bid to replicate the JSA's fortunes. Still, the model is sound, and that anyone remembers them is a testament to the premise more than the individual players. Same holds true for the Freedom Fighters, a solid line-up arriving thirty years too late.

"Even Black Lightning and Metamorpho had books of their own long before they joined the Outsiders."

I think I covered this ground in the initial post.

"On the other hand, who had heard of Reed Richards, the Storm siblings, or Benjamin J. Grimm before Fantastic Four #1?"

Which was the very start of the "Marvel Universe," so there were no other heroes yet. The Timely heroes weren't seen as viable after their failed 50's revival, though Johnny served as a Silver Age Human Torch. Also, three of four FFers were developed with greater care than most soloists of the time.

"Or of Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Marvel Girl, or Iceman prior to X-Men #1?"

The X-Men were a failure that limped along for years. It wasn't until the All-New X-Men that things turned around, as Dave Cockrum invested so much in those designs. Those were exceptional creations in an exceptional book, and like NTT, I expect most of them could have supported a solo series if Cockrum had gone that route.

Jason, exactly. I friend of mine's favorite hero is Iron Man, and he jokingly noted that no one cared about Tony Stark for "oh...sixty years." Now, that character's on top of the world, but he had fans like Dave able to read his under-appreciated adventures for decades. At DC, a character like Iron Man would be treated to a revisionist mini-series every time his trademark came up, then set back on the shelf.

This is the company that forgot they owned Plastic Man, and haven't written Jack Cole's character correctly since they bought him. Nevermind how mistreated Captain Marvel has been. DC sabotage themselves and sacrifice all to the World's Finest.

totaltoyz said...

So, would Prince Ra-Man be the Green Arrow of the group? And Dr. Thirteen the Atom? Maybe Sargon the Sorcerer would be Hawkman...

Anonymous said...

Dr. Occult for Martian Manhunter because ... the MM predates the Flash, the first hero of the Silver Age, and Dr. Occult predates the first super-hero, Superman.

CandidGamera said...

See, I wish we'd seen a group like this instead of Shadowpact, too. I would've called them the 'Seven Soldiers of Sorcery'.

totaltoyz said...

Talking about super-groups and Marvel, I have to mention where I think Marvel really missed an opportunity: The Champions. They had a really interesting potential group dynamic there. The membership included a nigh-immortal demigod in the world of mortals; a former Soviet spy finding her place in the Capitalist world; two mutants, as often as not hated by the very people they were sworn to protect; and a young man possessed by a demon as a result of a Faustian pact. Some very interesting stories could have been done with that dynamic; but it became just another hodgepodge of costumes.

Bryan L said...

I quite enjoyed Shadowpact too, and wish it had lasted longer. One good premise it had was defining each character's magical prowess, which is something sorely lacking in the DCU, as other posters have pointed out.

DC really needs to define its system of magic and (here's the rub) make it stick no matter what star writer is handling a character. Until that happens you'll always have problems with "What's the difference between Zatanna and Dr. Fate?"

I don't see it as terribly likely, though, since DC can't agree on what powers Superman has (does he still need to breathe or is that gone now too?), much less Phantom Stranger or Dr. Occult.

Nightwing Wannabe said...

Cool concept, but I am more of a brute force type of guy when it comes to my heroes...magic shmagic.

Give me Superman pounding on Lex, Batman beating on the Joker
Wonder Woman...well Wonder Woman doing what Wonder Woman does, can't question an Amazon.

I have never been one for the heroes of magic. They are great in team-ups but as a whole group, I would have to pass.

But that's just my little ol' opinion

Jacob T. Levy said...

Creeper: a spooky Justice League of America, maybe! We'd call ourselves-- I dunno-- The Creeper and his Spirit Squad!

Black Orchid: The seven of us? A team?

Mme X: All for one and one for all?

Phantom Stranger: Monthly meetings?

Blue Devil: Why that's...


Blue Devil "Summer Fun" Annual, 1985

Color me unenthusiastic. Real team superheroics require real power definition. And while it's ok to do that with Nightmaster, it'd do real damage to their long-term storytelling potential to tie down Dr. Occult, Zatanna, Dr. Fate, or (especially) the Phantom Stranger to a very well-defined set of powers and spells and so on.

They can have complementary sets of *knowledge*, as was the case in the original Books of Magic mini. But that doesn't really make for interesting heroics.


Thinking about complementary sets of knowledge: what are the clearly-established sources of magic in the DCU that one would want various experts on?

Heaven-Hell- JudeoChristian mythos
Order/ Chaos
the "Third World" divine pantheons (Greek/ Norse/ etc)
The Fourth World (arguably, though almost never referred to as magical in any way)
Gemworld/ Zerox
Elementals/ Gaia
Homo Magi
Nanda Parbat/ Rama Kushna


Frank Lee Delano said...

TotalToyz, I agree about the Champions, but in both form and execution that team just seemed like Marvel was throwing together everyone they had lying around that wasn't already on a team... which was what the Defenders already were, compounding the redundancy. Besides, Ghost Rider on a team is always a red flag in my book.

Jacob T. Levy, thanks for Blue Devil reference. I haven't read that story in years.

The Fortress Keeper said...

The problem with magic characters is that too many readers and creators feel the concept of "magic" has to be defined and categorized.

Why must there be rules, etc. etc. Just give me those old Golden Age Spectre and Doctor Fate (not to mention Lee-Ditko Doctor Strange) stories where heroes encountered weird monsters and zapped the @#$%^ out of them.

Accursed Interloper said...

Dr Occult as John Jones in a trenchcoat? Why not Crispus Allen in the same role?
Yeah, okay, maybe putting Dr Fate and The Spectre on the same team is something that can be gotten away with only once, and only when the medium is young, maybe so, but ...
Based on cape size, gravitas, alien-ness, and knowledge-based super powers, The Spectre is more of a Martian Manhunter counterpart. The Spectre knows who's guilty of what just by looking at them.

totaltoyz said...

Marvel was throwing together everyone they had lying around that wasn't already on a team... which was what the Defenders already were

When the Defenders started out, maybe that was true. But by the time the Champions came around, most of the active Defenders were new creations made especially for the group; most of them based on, or actually were, old throwaway Avengers villains. Valkyrie; Nighthawk; Red Guardian; etc.

Robot Devil said...

Call me a gothy Vertigo fanboy but you NEED John Constantine on the team. Some old comics blogger reckoned he could fill the Snapper Carr role in a new JLA but he's more like Batman. He's got no powers but he's SCARY and well-connected. And awesome. So yeah... swap in John Constantine. And put The Demon and Klarion in there too
ever read Neil Gaiman's original Books of Magic? its literally a tour through the occult DCU