Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Can you answer "The Captain Atom Question"?

The “Captain Atom Question” concerns the incorporation of characters from pre-existing literary universes into another, larger literary universe, once their original universe is gone.  The question is: can this be done successfully?

My answer is essentially “no”.

Among the various literary media, this phenomenon is pretty much confined to comic books.  Comic book companies go defunct for various reasons and their intellectual property—their characters—get bought by another company.  

Usually this company is DC.  DC, you see, is a compulsive hoarder; “I could use that character some day!  I paid good money for that!  It’s going to come back in style just you wait and see!”  Occasionally, it reaches Crisis proportions and there’s an intervention where some nice folks from reality TV come in, negotiate to get rid of DC’s old crap by enticing it with new living room furniture (“There’ll be room for NEW characters, DC, sweetie!”), and clean house.  Then DC immediately starts filling the house with crap again.  Repeat cycle.

This, by the way, is in contrast to Marvel. It’s not a hoarder; it’s an obsessive-compulsive that spends all its time putting things in order.  It writes guidebooks that tell it how tall everyone is and classifies them by how much weight they can lift, sketches out all possible permutations of its universe with “What If?” stories, (“What if… Iron Man had had EGGS for breakfast?!”) and insists that all of its stories are part of one big *ahem* perfectly organized consistent continuity (despite any evidence to the contrary).  If DC is Oscar Madison, then Marvel is Felix Unger.

Sometimes even they get confused, however.

So, every time there is a publishing yard sale, DC goes out bargain hunting with a reticule full of one dollar bills and snaps up collections of old characters as if they were beanie babies.  The Shazam family of characters, the Wildstorm stable (the Authority et al.), the Milestone properties (Static, Icon, Hardware, Xombi, et al.), the Quality characters (Plastic Man, the Ray, Black Condor, Manhunter, Phantom Lady, the Human Bomb, Uncle Sam, Doll Man, the Red Bee), the Charlton heroes (the Question, Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, and Captain Atom, for whom this question is named)—all these are characters the DC acquired by lot at going-out-business sales.

With one possible exception—Blue Beetle—DC has tried repeatedly to incorporate all these characters in the DCU…and failed.  That exception was mostly confined to using Blue Beetle as comic relief, and even that success was spotty at best.

Other attempts to use such characters as comic relief have been mostly....

As a general rule, these imported characters simply don’t “take”.  Like transplanted plants, they simply can’t survive well enough outside of their native soil.  Back in the heyday of the Multiverse, DC seemed to accept this fact. Rather than try to bring these niche characters into the searing sunlight of the superfriends’ world, full of its  Underroo trees and constant crossovers, DC recognized them for the hothouse flowers they were and kept them isolated in their own hermetically sealed environment of alternate earths.   If the Freedom Fighters made sense in World War II, well, then, DC gave them an earth where WWII was still going on.  If the Shazams required talking tigers and worms to thrive, then give them a world that has them.

"Segregation now; segregation forever!"

You can try to claim that “DC just didn’t try hard enough because they didn’t care about someone else’s characters”, but I’m not buying it.  DC has repeatedly moved heaven-1 and earth-1 to get its readers to care about Captain Atom and consider him part of its pantheon, to no avail.  

Batman does NOT salute.  Let alone salute Captain Atom.

To incorporate Shazam, DC has tried a host of solutions, from surrounding him with every possible shiny toy from his homeworld, to aiming him at kids, to giving him several grim’n’gritty make-overs.  

Whatevs, Billy *eyeroll*.  Not even Geoff Johns can make you 'cool'.

I say that, for whatever reasons--call it vibrational frequency, if you will--such imported characters cannot work. Like transplanted organs they require great pain and effort in the form of constant editorial doping just to keep the host universe from simply rejecting them. So, perhaps, more precisely, it's not that they absolutely cannot work, but that the energy and effort required to do so is well beyond the point of diminishing returns from the character.

You are welcome to try to prove me wrong.

DC sure hasn't.


MarkAndrew said...

The Question worked on the Justice League Cartoon...

And that's all I got.

John said...

I think of it as DC's approach to iconic status. They think of it as seniority at the company, not earned popularity or utility. So, the order of importance runs something like Icon (Milestone), Captain Atom (Charlton), Captain Marvel (Fawcett), Wonder Woman (All-American), and Superman (DC/National) way at the top.

Captain Atom and Blue Beetle never work for long because the lines to the World's Finest thrones are long. Ahead of them are Wonder Woman (who DC can also never figure out for long) and Dr. Mid-Nite. Mid-Nite is in even deeper trouble, because Green Arrow was at DC before him. I can't think of another explanation for Green Arrow's fame.

They could re-jigger Captain Atom and make him more about the fears and wonders of energy--a Duke of (Dr.) Manhattan instead of a Crown Prince of Metropolis--but...Firestorm has seniority in that position, and that's only because nobody ever considered Metamorpho for the role.

Consider Phantom Lady. She has an interesting history and a lot of potential, but there's already a fetish-costumed one-trick-pony heroine showing off her cleavage, and she is (usually) sleeping with the next in line to the Bat-throne, letting writers pretend she's not really from All-American.

Plastic Man? Not when Elongated Man is around, buddy. Just be thankful Olsen didn't make Elastic Lad a regular thing! A National's pal would obviously trump an All-American's pal.

All-American's stable hasn't fared well better than the rest, after all. The big success stories (Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman) have, in recent decades, become faceless cannon fodder. When Superman dies, it's a marketing stunt and he'll be good as new in a few months. When Hawkman dies, it's a palate cleanser between creative teams. And other than Wonder Woman, who else shows up?

It can be done, in other words, but an editor at DC needs to commit to something like Affirmative Action and make writers justify the use of Superman or Batman when another character would do just as well, rather than institutionalizing "discrimination" based on the character's company of origin. But since they know they can sell Batman and Superman, nobody's likely to take that risk.

And that's how Cyborg ends up in the Justice League...

(Incidentally, it's been good to see the blog active again.)

Scipio said...

Those are VERY good observations, John. Thanks for reminder us all that the All-American characters were once 'immigrants' in the DCU.

Nathan Hall said...

I really wish Dial H for Hero lasted longer. Its grasp on different and alternate universes would've given DC an easy out by spreading its cosmology across inter-dimensional phone lines. We could've had Fawcett in a universe, a Charleston universe, and a whole lot of different lines.

The result: Genuinely different universes with different characters who were analogues to each other. Phantom Lady could develop her own personality independent of Catwoman, Captain Atom could be a new angle on Superman, the Answer wouldn't be an "also ..." character anymore, Plastic Man could live in his own land of madcap zany misadventures ...

Compare that to Marvel's M2 or Ultimates, where the same characters got DARKER AND GRITTER GRRR and killed off so often we hardly knew - or cared - about them.

Alas, Dial H became merely another canceled concept of the New 52, instead of a potential hub of crossover and communication. I'm not saying the market is there for different universes under one company, but since DC cancels titles so often I don't think they know what the market is either.

SallyP said...

Well...since I love Blue Beetle with a white hot devotion, I have to say that I always liked how he was used...right up until they killed.

But as for Captain Shiny-Pants...I agree with you completely.

yrzhe said...

"Among the various literary media, this phenomenon is pretty much confined to comic books."

Au contraire, Scipio, I'd say this sad phenomenon goes at least as far back as Tristan, hero of one of the most famous medieval romances, who got awkwardly tacked into the Arthurian cycle because they're both popular, even though it did nothing but undermine his own story.

And then the French solved this by creating their own Mary Sue and giving him a better-integrated version of Tristan's arc, which further reduced poor Tristan into his modern role as "That guy with a big section devoted to his adventures which are utterly disconnected from the rest of Camelot and the Round Table other than functioning sorta-kinda as thematic foreshadowing for Lancelot and Guinrvere."

Mark said...

Blackhawk was from Quality too, wasn't he (them)? That was a pretty big comic for a while. Not any more of course....

Anonymous said...

The main DC Universe already has its structure, it doesn't have any core deficiencies requiring new heroes. A benevolent god makes sure good ultimately triumphs (Superman), man fights evil (Batman), and everything else has value to the extent that it is connected to one or the other.

I realize that's a heretical stance to take, but think about where the DC Universe would be without Superman and Batman. It would be chock full of second stringers without any core to draw readers in, sort of like the Charleton Universe. Oh they might try to cast that big green guy or that lady with the rope as the "benevolent god", but who would buy it? Supeman and Batman already exist; accept no substitutes.

Anonymous said...

Also, maybe we need to maintain perspective. Even if Captain Atom was the best character at Charlton, that means he was the best character at Charlton. That's like saying you have a shot at the NBA because you were the tallest guy at the bus stop this morning.

Granted, for all I know, Captain Atom was written amazingly well at Charlton, and I was too blind to see. But I imagine that, if the concept were inherently gripping, DC would have created their own Captain Atom ages ago. And in fact DC kind of did, with Firestorm; slightly different power set and it was an attempt at Marvelization, but it certainly fills the "nigh-omnipotent nuclear guy (yet still outranked by the benevolent god Superman)" niche.

As for Captain Marvel, maybe the problem with him is that he's not a superhero exactly? Sure he fits the basic outline of a hero, but when he works, it's because he's a weirdo in a land of weirdos. He's closer to Popeye than Superman in that regard.

Bryan L said...

I'd actually echo MarkAndrew's comment above re: Justice League Unlimited. Sheer brilliance compensated for the inherent inconsistencies among the native heroes and the transplants. As mentioned, the Question was genius, Captains Atom and Marvel worked just fine, the Fourth World was effectively integrated (I know you have issues with them, Scipio), Static fit right in, the BlackHawks and even Plastic Man worked (albeit offscreen in Plas's case).

I'm not sure I can identify why, though. I'd hazard a guess that the streamlined nature of the JLU universe allowed a better "fit". No convoluted continuity to appease. It also didn't hurt that some whimsy was permitted in the JLU. Finally, Dwayne McDuffie. The show only reached its heights on his watch.

It's no secret that I consider the animated universe the ur-DC, the iconic iteration that I judge all others against. So I'm biased here.

Anonymous said...

I think that the reason DC put its "imported" Characters in other dimensions was less because they were "hot house flowers" that couldn't survive in the rough & tumble "mainstream" DCU, as it was because so many of them were so similar to existing DC heroes. On Earth-S, Captain Marvel can be the World's Mightiest Mortal without a thought given to Superman. In a shared DCU, what should be perfectly good dimensional counterparts just become a chorus line of "imperfect duplicates", with Cap becoming "Painfully Naive Superman", Icon is merely "Black Superman", Apollo is "Gay Superman", etc. and lose most of what made them worth reading in the first place.