This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on April 28, 2016.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
In 1997, The Flash was Wally West, Green Arrow was Connor Hawke, Green Lantern was Kyle Rayner, and Superman was electric blue. DC Comics had become a publisher willing to challenge and change their roster of characters in a way that Marvel Comics has/had never really attempted. Why?
While I suspect some people may see this question as being oriented towards the classic battle of “Marvel Vs. DC”, one that we kicked off this column with, I don’t really see it that way. Sure, there’s plenty of interesting conversation to be had about where these characters originate from and how they function best, what assets each publisher has cultivated over the years and where their unique strengths lie, but that doesn’t explain 1997. No, in order to explain 1997, you have to go a full decade into the past. You have to start with what happened after Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Crisis is something we’ve covered extensively at Comics Bulletin, and I’ll just leave it alone as the tire fire with some very nice Perez drawings that it is. However, what it provided DC Comics with was a clean-ish slate to start telling new stories. While Legion of Super-Heroes and the various Hawk-people at DC would never really find a defining continuity or hook in the aftermath of this mega-event, it’s where DC Comics began to flourish in many ways. Beyond the obvious examples, some of which have aged well like “Batman: Year One” and others not so much (*cough* Byrne *cough* Superman *cough*), there was a bastion of experiments occurring at DC Comics.
In addition to reinvigorating all of their most iconic characters, the company wanted to create new ones and popularize B- and C-listers as well. This effort began in the follow up event to Crisis in 1986-87 called Legends. WhileLegends itself was nothing to write home about, it spun out some of the best series ever published by the company. The two most notable series beginning in 1987 being the Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis Justice League (later renamed Justice League International or JLI) and John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and Luke McDonnell’s Suicide Squad. Others like a new Flash, Wonder Woman, and Shazam title are all notable, but often became more significant as the years advanced. Justice League and Suicide Squad were perfect launching pads from their very first issues.
While these two series focused on opposite ends of the spectrum of DC Comics characters, the heroes vs. the villains, the big-time vs. the low-life, they accomplished remarkably similar things. Both incorporated lots of characters that had previously been relegated to supporting roles or were completely ignored, while helping to create enduring new identities as well. They cobbled together unlikely teams into books that would last more than five years each in consistent creative runs, ones continually focused on these characters rather than headline-grabbers like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Both of these series grew new characters from a place of quality rather than market-oriented content too. They featured big action, excellent illustrations, and a dynamite sense of humor. The stories were being told by some of the absolute best talent in the DC Comics stable of the day, and they were telling stories that mattered to them. Even almost three decades later, these series are still regularly championed and reprinted, with dedicated fan followings born well after they debuted. It’s the quality of these series that ensured so many of their characters would become lasting fixtures within the DC Universe.
Without Justice League Guy Gardner never becomes the lovable boor and mainstay in a sector packed with far too many Green Lanterns. The Blue and The Gold never become a standard duo and the high-watermark of superhero bromance that still make fans thrill at the thought. Fire and Ice barely even exist as characters, much less ones making regular appearances in animated series. And the greatest Justice League member of all-time, the Martian Manhunter, never receives his defining role as the heart and soul of this team forever more (no matter what Geoff Johns has to say about it).
As much as I love that Justice League though, I think the accomplishments of Suicide Squad are even more remarkable. You only need look at a handful of characters from this vast team to recognize its impact. Let’s start with Amanda Waller a.k.a. The Wall. While she technically debuted in Legends #3, The Wall is really an original character of Suicide Squad. It’s here that she was defined as the most unexpected anti-hero in superhero comics of the 1980s and 90s. A squat, middle-aged, professional, black woman, The Wall ran roughshod over a group of the meanest, ugliest, and toughest supervillains around. She’s a woman that stood up to Batman and made him back down (see: Suicide Squad #9). Not only was she a great character, wonderfully presented over the course of the series, but she’s shown remarkable staying power. She has been played by different actresses in a total of four live-action adaptations to date, in addition to various animated series and many comics appearances since Suicide Squad concluded in 1992.
The second most obvious example is Floyd Lawton a.k.a. Deadshot. Unlike The Wall, Deadshot had already been around since 1950 when Suicide Squad finished the job begun by a much needed costume redesign in the 1970s. It’s here that Ostrander and Yale created a rich background and troublesome internal life that would transform Deadshot from one-trick pony to one of the most compelling anti-heroes in the DC Universe. He has appeared regularly since then in a variety of mini-series as well as in plenty of adaptations. People have long since ceased to think of him as a gimmicky Bat-villain and begun to consider Deadshot one of the great villains of this universe on par with Deathstroke or Black Adam.
You can continue down the list looking at Vixen, Captain Boomerang, Count Vertigo, Rick Flagg, and so many others to see how good creative talent and faith in new or unpopular characters led to a potential goldmine of IP for DC Comics. It’s these discarded characters that are now the backbone of a major blockbuster picture on which Warner Bros. seems to be hanging their hopes after the box office debacle that is Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Focusing on comics again though, the success of these series and other down the road continued to creep into the consciousness and working philosophy behind DC Comics. Future successes, like James Robinson and Tony Harris’Starman and Mark Waid’s The Flash, that played on the legacy and inventing new characters in familiar or sort-of-familiar roles, only emboldened the company. Now you may want to stop and point out that Wally West, the one crystallized in Mark Waid’s work, was part of your portrait of DC Comics in 1997. Except Wally West as The Flash was nothing new in 1997. By then he had been The Flash for over a decade having been passed the role in 1986 during Crisis on Infinite Earths. As much as series like Justice League and Suicide Squad paved the way for this more innovative, legacy-driven, and changing look to the DC Universe, so did the existence of Wally West as The Flash.
While 1997 may appear to be a flashpoint in retrospect, it was really the result of a decade of proud work being done in a genre that is much maligned during this decade. But while the X-Men titles were churning out infinite crossover and holographic covers led to a dangerous speculator market, DC Comics was producing some of the most exciting and innovative shared continuity, superhero comics ever. The world of Connor Hawke and Kyle Rayner and Red/Blue Superman, these icons with new faces, was built on the success of Amanda Waller, Booster and Beetle, Jack Knight, and most importantly Wally West.
These characters and the very talented creators who told their stories during this decade made it clear that the superhero readership didn’t need to grow stagnant. They showed that these shared universes could keep moving forward, growing more diverse and telling a wide array of stories, without losing readers. It was a great time for superhero comics, one that may very well have have peaked in 1997 or soon after.
Now, we could go into why things reverted the status quo in the decades to follow, but that’s another question for another time.