In the Hall of Mirrors with Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew

Somewhere between “funny-animal” comics and cartoons for children and the evolved animals of Planet of the Apes and other adult science fiction lies the semi-serious talking animal trend in comic books of the 1970s and ‘80s. Howard the Duck is a familiar example of a walking, talking humanoid animal interacting with mainstream costumed superheroes, but he was neither the first nor the last character of his type. I’ve always been intrigued by anthropomorphic animal characters: years ago I wrote a lengthy analysis of Howard and his creator, Steve Gerber, and if I can find it I might post it here.

I was similarly drawn to Jack Kirby’s post-apocalyptic series Kamandi for its mixture of science fiction and talking animals. Last summer I wrote about DC’s Showcase Presents the Great Disaster, a “phone book” collection of material peripherally related to Kamandi and including a healthy selection of not-so-funny-animal stories; now DC has released another Showcase collecting the core run of another hybrid series, the superhero/funny-animal adventures of Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew. Like Great Disaster, this volume was announced several years ago but was held up (reportedly by disputes over royalties) until now. In any case, it comes out at an opportune moment, as Captain Carrot has returned to comics as a main character in Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity, and the renewed popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shows that there is still an audience for wise-cracking, butt-kicking humanoid animals.

CaptainCarrot

Most of the Captain Carrot stories were new to me, although the character has made brief appearances in DC books since his introduction in New Teen Titans no. 16 (included in this volume) in 1982. Created by prolific writer Roy Thomas and cartoonist/animator Scott Shaw! (yes, the exclamation point is part of his professional name), Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew was tagged from the beginning as “Not just another funny-animal comic!” The tone is light and full of verbal humor and animal puns (Roger starts out in “Gnu York” and the team later moves to “Follywood, Califurnia”), but the adventures and conflicts between characters are firmly within the tradition of superhero comics.

Captain Carrot is the leader of the group: super-strong, tough, and blessed with super-hearing, as well as the ability to leap great distances (as with Superman, who could similarly “leap tall buildings in a single bound” in his early appearances, Captain Carrot would later be depicted as flying outright). Unlike his team, whose powers are constant, Captain Carrot gains his power from eating “cosmic carrots,” irradiated by the meteor that accompanied Superman when he visited from his own dimension. When the carrots’ effect has worn off, he reverts to his scrawny alter ego, cartoonist Roger (later Rodney) Rabbit, a secret identity with some resemblance to Clark Kent and Golden Age hero Hourman.

Rounding out the Zoo Crew are Rubberduck, who can stretch his form like Plastic Man; Yankee Poodle, a patriotic-themed heroine who can repel and attract matter via the stars and stripes she projects from her hands; Fastback, a turtle with super-speed; Pig-Iron, the tough guy; and Alley-Kat-Abra, a martial artist with mastery of magic, focused through her “Magic Wanda.” Each of these characters is an established type, and Thomas and Shaw! have made clear in commentary that they were conscious of the balance of personalities and powers that made up a good super-team, but none are outright copies of extant characters.*

Zoo_Crew

Most critically, Captain Carrot and his cohort are clearly established as living in one of the DC multiverse’s many parallel earths, a planet much like ours but inhabited by Saturday-morning-cartoon-style talking animals. The team’s origin is explicitly tied to Superman, who crosses from his own dimension to the funny-animal world, where he is viewed as a terrifying pink monster (with five fingers!): in Captain Carrot’s world, “men” are creatures of myth and legend. Changeling (aka Beast Boy) of the Titans and animal-themed villains Starro the Conqueror and Gorilla Grodd would also make appearances in the book, and many of the team’s subsequent appearances have been crossovers of one kind or another. Despite its obvious kid appeal, this isn’t segregated from DC continuity, as one might expect for a children’s title.

As noted, Captain Carrot and the other members of the Zoo Crew aren’t direct parodies of established superheroes. Although there are many winking references to human history and pop culture (particularly celebrities: Rubberduck’s civilian identity is movie star “Byrd Rentals,” and Yankee Poodle is gossip columnist “Rova Barkitt”—will readers younger than 40 even recognize the reference to Rona Barrett?), the Zoo Crew are unique individuals rather than being modeled after any specific character. This distinguishes Captain Carrot from Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, a similar parody of Marvel’s characters introduced in 1983 (a year after Captain Carrot’s first appearance).

In addition, master of minutia Roy Thomas built in many links to DC’s own funny-animal past: Pig-Iron was a transformed Peter Porkchops, a character who had appeared in DC’s Funny Stuff in the 1940s; Fastback was the nephew of another Golden Age funny-animal, McSnurtle the Turtle (who also moonlighted as a superhero, the “Terrific Whatzit”). Other characters from Funny Stuff were introduced as side characters, and in one story arc the team was split up and sent back in time to different eras, encountering characters such as Nero Fox (a jive-talking, jazz saxophone-playing funny-animal Roman emperor—in other words, a character who could only have been created during comics’ unselfconscious Golden Age) and the Three Mousketeers.

captain_carrot_009_full

Thomas’ obvious delight in making such connections and in capturing the essence of superheroic types brought to mind another creation of his: the Squadron Supreme, the analogue of DC’s Justice League of America that Thomas introduced in the pages of Avengers, and which has become a JLA stand-in in the Marvel multiverse. Intriguingly, while the Squadron very directly represents the JLA in the pages of Marvel Comics, the Zoo Crew actually strike me as a subtle reworking of Marvel’s character dynamic smuggled into a DC book. (Such are the differences between the two publishers that even parodying them requires a different approach: the Squadron Supreme is the JLA with a coat of paint, while the Zoo Crew mimics the contemporary soap opera feel of a Marvel book rather than specific characters.)

From the team’s first appearance, their stories are marked by squabbling and infighting, with the kind of character-based conflict that was a central ingredient in Fantastic Four, Avengers, and Uncanny X-Men. Captain Carrot is continually struggling to keep his allies focused on the mission, and nearly every issue includes one or more characters challenging his authority or the entire purpose of the group. Pig-Iron (most clearly modeled on FF’s Thing, pugnacious and blue-collar) wants to be left alone; Rubberduck and Yankee Poodle are accustomed to star treatment; Alley-Kat-Abra fights with Yankee Poodle over leadership roles and pines for the Captain’s affections. A great deal of the time, it’s not clear that the members of the team even like each other that much.

Consider another hero who is added later, the only member of the Zoo Crew to gain his powers through a source other than the meteor that entered their universe with Superman. Chester Cheese, a mouse, was a star basketball player whose father was a scientist working on the space program. Chester was approached by two goons working for a crime boss named Fatkat, who wanted him to throw a big game on which Fatkat had a lot of money riding. When Chester refused, his father was killed and Chester was locked in his laboratory. After eating a sample of lunar green cheese, he gained the power to shrink to small sizes, retaining his strength; calling himself “Little Cheese,” he enlists the Zoo Crew in an attempt to bring Fatkat to justice.

LittleCheese

On the surface, Little Cheese resembles other shrinking heroes like the Atom or Ant-Man, but his origin is a remix of Spider-Man’s, combining the drama of teenage life, super-science, and a parental figure whose tragic death leads him to use his powers for a higher purpose. (Not to mention that his nemesis, Fatkat, strongly resembles Marvel villain the Kingpin.) In short, Little Cheese’s story illustrates the Marvel habit of building stories around “little tragedies,” to borrow Chris Sims’ phrase. Tragic origins aren’t foreign to the DC universe, of course, but in combination with the personality conflicts and limitations placed on the Zoo Crew’s powers, it’s very much in line with Marvel’s modus operandi. In that light, Captain Carrot’s adventures are an overlooked example of what Sims calls “The Problem,” a decades-long desire on DC’s part to make itself more like Marvel.

It gets even more complicated when another funny-animal super-team is introduced, and this one is a direct parody: the Justa’ Lotta Animals, which starts out as the comic book that R. Rabbit illustrates as his day job, but which (naturally) turns out to be a real group from yet another parallel earth. The two-part crossover, “Crisis on Earth-C!” and “Crisis on Earth-C-Minus!”, parodies the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossovers in bringing the champions of two worlds together. This JLA consists of Super-Squirrel, Bat-Mouse, Wonder Wabbit, Green Lambkin, the Crash (a super-speedy turtle, showing there are only so many spins one can put on this kind of character, I guess), and Aquaduck (whom I almost forgot); when first encountered, only Captain Carrot is familiar with them, since he draws them for a living.

CptCt_14_GS

It’s a time-honored convention of comic books that when two or more superheroes meet for the first time, they fight each other (through confusion or a villain’s manipulation). The JLA/Zoo Crew match-up is no different, but even after getting the facts straight, inter-group rivalries persist. Captain Carrot has trouble adjusting to the idea that the fictional characters he draws are not only real, but have personalities and motives of their own, and both the Zoo Crew and JLA exhibit a territorial streak when it comes to another super-team in “their” world. A love triangle forms, as Super-Squirrel is immediately jealous and resentful of Wonder Wabbit’s interest in a fellow bunny (it’s really a love quadrangle, as Alley-Kat-Abra is also possessive of her Captain).

The “real” Superman and Wonder Woman weren’t romantically linked until recently, but this storyline uncovers subtext that was always present, if only in the minds of fans: just as Mark Gruenwald could have Hyperion and Power Princess consummate their love in the pages of Squadron Supreme, Super-Squirrel could give voice to feelings of jealousy and inadequacy that Superman would leave unspoken, if he felt them at all. (The Captain Carrot/Wonder Wabbit pairing can be read as a parody of all such “doomed romance” storylines, as they belong in two different worlds, but it isn’t treated as a joke: the story ends with Rodney drawing Wonder Wabbit for his comic book, ruefully acknowledging that he can’t even escape into his work to forget his loss.) As a fan of both funny-animals and pastiche characters, the whole thing is a fascinating chance to observe a diverse group of characters—some of whom stand in for entire mythologies**—bounce off each other. Captain Carrot isn’t just parody: it’s meta.

Jlanimals

* Behind-the-scenes commentary and information about the Zoo Crew’s creation is drawn from Alter Ego no. 72 (September 2007).

** Speaking of mythologies, I haven’t even gotten to the six-chapter Oz-Wonderland War, published as a three-issue miniseries in 1986, and a fitting culmination to the contents of the book, with more character development than most of the previous issues. The storyline draws the Zoo Crew into an interdimensional conflict based on the characters and settings of L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll (and includes a brief reunion with Wonder Wabbit), and includes some great artwork by Carol Lay, balancing the cartoon style of Shaw! with the illustrative styles of Denslow and Tenniel. It deserves a longer write-up, but as a blend of humor and reference (scripted by longtime DC writer and editor E. Nelson Bridwell, who had a reputation as a “continuity cop” himself) it’s a very pleasurable (if frequently downright weird) read.

Advertisements

Points of Connection, Part Four: Mirror Universes

One of my favorite scenes involving the Squadron Supreme is in Mark Gruenwald’s follow-up to the SS miniseries, the graphic novel Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe.  In Death, a mysterious growing blot threatens to erase the entire universe, a danger that brings former enemies together for the sake of survival.  Dr. Emil Burbank, alias “Master Menace,” who has been established as the Lex Luthor to Hyperion’s Superman (although his armor makes him look more like Dr. Doom—this is still a Marvel book, after all) volunteers to travel forward in time in order to develop a solution using the future era’s advanced technology.  (It’s one of many possible futures; as one character points out, the universe they’re in may not have a future.)  Nearly an hour after his departure, his time machine returns.  Burbank steps out, an old man: he has spent fifteen years of intense labor in the future perfecting his device.  Hyperion is shocked at the sacrifice his old enemy has made.  “At last he treats me with the respect one of my stature is entitled to!” thinks Burbank.

From Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe, art by Paul Ryan and Al Williamson.  Source: Comic Book Resources.  Brian Cronin was struck by the same scene as myself.

From Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe, art by Paul Ryan and Al Williamson. Source: Comic Book Resources. Brian Cronin was obviously struck by the same scene as myself.

It’s a little too on-the-nose, but it’s of a piece with Gruenwald’s interest in illuminating the relationships between comic book archetypes.  It’s also, in a way, a rare moment of understanding between two antagonists; comic book narratives depend on direct conflict, and have historically placed emphasis on action, not détente.  It’s clear that Master Menace is acting from self-interest as usual, but he also seems intrigued by the possibility of playing hero, if just this once.  If we accept the notion that villains are most compelling when they reveal something about the hero*, it suggests that what Hyperion and Master Menace share is both a higher purpose and a natural superiority to others (why deny it?), but in Burbank’s eyes only Hyperion has received the acclaim he deserves.  Burbank has had to work for his success, and has seen his ambitious visions thwarted (usually by Hyperion, obviously), but all Hyperion has to do is flex his muscles and punch a few bad guys and he is universally beloved.  What Master Menace really wants is to be seen as a worthy opponent instead of just another criminal, to have his greatness recognized.  I’m probably reading some of the shared history of Lex Luthor and Clark Kent into this scene, but isn’t that the point? (For a similar take from the villain’s point of view, see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.)

Although they aren’t cast as hero/villain, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) and Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) have a similar dynamic in the 1999 film Galaxy Quest.  Bound together by their roles on the long-cancelled television series of the same name, as “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart” and “Dr. Lazarus” respectively, Nesmith relishes the adulation of fans and the chance to relive his glory days as the boyish, heroic starship captain, while Dane mourns that a classically-trained Shakespearean such as himself has become trapped in a one-dimensional, prosthetic-forehead-wearing role defined by a single catchphrase: “By Grabthar’s Hammer. . . .”  To Dane, Nesmith is a hammy showboat; to Nesmith, Dane is a snob who needs to lighten up.

Galaxy-Quest-Lazarus

Of course, it’s immediately obvious that “Nesmith/Taggart” is William Shatner playing James T. Kirk, and “Dane/Lazarus” is Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, and indeed the entire setup, from the canceled cult TV show to the easily mocked conventions, is a pastiche of Star Trek and its real-life fandom.  An early moment in the film, when Nesmith lashes out at his fans, snarling “It’s just a television show,” is undoubtedly inspired by the well-known Saturday Night Live sketch in which William Shatner tells his fans to “get a life;” Dane’s self-loathing is a comic exaggeration of Nimoy, who was so famously ambivalent about his best-known role that he published two autobiographies, one called I Am Not Spock and, twenty years later, I Am Spock. Galaxy Quest gets a lot of story across in a short amount of time because we already know its premise and characters in broad outline, and the casting adds more layers to the joke. Rickman surely knew a thing or two about lending his theatrical gravitas to B-movie genre roles; Gwen DeMarco (the eye-candy communications officer Tawny Madison, whose job is to repeat everything the computer says) is played by Sigourney Weaver, Ellen Ripley herself; Sam Rockwell plays Guy, the unnamed crew member terrified he’ll be as expendable as Star Trek’s “red shirts;” my favorite is Fred Kwan (Tech Sergeant Chen), who admits Kwan isn’t even his real name, played by the Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub (himself frequently cast in Italian, Arab, or Russian “ethnic” roles).

It’s a testament to the strength of the performances and the attention to detail that the pastiche works as a commentary on Star Trek without descending into simple parody.  As the story unfolds, with the cast of the TV show mistaken for actual space explorers and drafted into an alien war**, there are stakes, and there is character growth; there are jabs at cheap sets, formulaic writing, and rubber masks, but they are, in a sense, coming from inside knowledge, an elbow nudge from one fan to another.  The writers and director clearly have an affection for the subject, and like fans everywhere have earned the right to point out the more risible aspects of the show without giving up the reasons they fell in love with it in the first place.

It’s also hilarious.  Based on the films that have already been made, it would seem to be difficult to make a humorous science fiction film, at least one in which the comedy and science fiction elements are given equal footing.  Sure, humorous elements have been present in written science fiction almost since the beginning, Fredric Brown being an early practitioner, but when it comes to putting fantastic visions on celluloid, there has historically been a divide between the self-seriousness of sci fi and the tendency of TV and movie comedians to deflate, to tear down artifice (or at least there was through much of the twentieth century; a balanced combination of comedy and genre elements isn’t quite the rarity it was in 1999).  Galaxy Quest finds a lot of its humor in the backstage bickering and self-delusion of actors, as well as lazy writing that amps up tension at the expense of believability (like the self-destruct timer that only stops at 0:01, or ridiculous obstacle courses that would be safety hazards in a supposedly utilitarian spaceship***).  The phoniness on display is that of show business in general, not science fiction specifically.  When the film finally turns its attention to cheesy special effects, usually the lowest hanging fruit for satire, it’s the deepest moment of pathos, a point of complete disillusionment.

One thing Galaxy Quest doesn’t do is so much as whisper the names Star Trek, Kirk, Spock, Enterprise, Klingons, or anything else that would tip us off; you either get it or you don’t.  Doing so wouldn’t just throw the pastiche into relief as a copycat (who would ask for Brand X when they could have the real thing?), it would rob it of the superlative element that, as I’ve said, is an important element of this kind of storytelling.  It’s one thing, for example, to create a fictional Senator, astronaut, car company, or NFL team, and have them mingle with real-life figures: in that case, they are part of a class, and adding one more doesn’t change things too much.  Cultural objects like television shows or books, however, are trickier: they generally occupy niches from which they must be displaced, not simply added to.  One would think this is obvious, but it happens all the time: Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes look at a distinctly Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, had a lot of problems, but an easily avoided one was constant mentions of Saturday Night Live. If, in the show, Studio 60 was such a groundbreaking program, what was SNL?  In Mike Carey’s ongoing comic book series The Unwritten, Tom Taylor is the unwitting star of a series of fantasy novels clearly based on the Harry Potter series, the success of which is an obvious point of inspiration.  The originality and influence attributed to the Tommy Taylor series is undercut, however, by references to Harry Potter and its author, J. K. Rowling.  It comes down to the old problem of a work-within-a-work having to live up to the claims characters in the story make for it: it’s easier to suspend disbelief if we can imagine the work standing in for something we already know to be successful, but if we’re confronted with both the original and the pastiche existing within the fiction, how can the pastiche not seem like a pale imitation?

Spock_(mirror)

Finally, Galaxy Quest connects to Star Trek through the moral division of its characters: Star Trek confronted this literally with the Mirror Universe (“Mirror, Mirror”), a parallel world full of evil versions of the Enterprise crew, very much in the spirit of the Crime Syndicate of America or Squadron Sinister.  In Galaxy Quest, the division is internal: the actors aren’t evil, but fallible, and the doubles they must face are the heroic characters they play and for whom they are mistaken.  Nesmith, who loves playing the hero, is forced to bear the burdens of leadership and consequences that real leaders face, and is forced by circumstance to admit that it’s all fake; Dane, who already feels like a fraud playing the one-dimensional Dr. Lazarus, comes to realize how much he has meant to his fans, and embraces his role.  Interestingly, it is the villain, General Sarris, who articulates the themes of theatricality most clearly: despite his reptilian appearance, he is more human in temperament than the literal-minded Thermians.  It is Sarris who immediately grasps that Nesmith and his crew are actors, and forces him to explain it to the Thermian leader “as you would a child.” The final role-reversal occurs when Sarris accuses the actors of “playing war,” and Nesmith, fully embracing the role of Commander, tells him “It doesn’t take a great actor to recognize a bad one.”  Ultimately, Galaxy Quest redeems its characters by showing that, as ridiculous as they may be, audiences believe in them, perhaps not literally like the naïve Thermians, but as ideals.  It’s that optimistic spirit that most closely unites Galaxy Quest to its model.

* Batman is generally thought to have the best rogue’s gallery because the villains mirror Bruce Wayne/Batman’s qualities in distorted ways: the Joker reflects Batman’s psychosis, and his reaction to tragedy is to use violence and pranks to unravel the social order Batman strives to uphold; the Riddler mocks Batman’s pretensions as the Great Detective; the Penguin is the plutocratic face of Bruce Wayne’s inherited wealth; Two-Face is as divided as Wayne/Batman, but in an unmistakably public and troubled way, and so forth. (These observations are indebted to Richard Reynolds’ Superheroes: A Modern Mythology and Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.)

** The element of mistaken identity in Galaxy Quest is a standard comic trope, of course, and the specific element of actors mistaken for the roles they play is as old in film as To Be or Not to Be. Galaxy Quest’s basic plot had already been used in Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life, but recognizing the similarity doesn’t ruin the enjoyment.  As with all the pastiches I’ve discussed (or Campbell’s monomyth, or any analytic framework that reduces works to an underlying recurrent pattern), the pleasure is in how the story unfolds rather than recognition of the universal pattern: we first attend to the surface, the specificity of this story, and can then proceed to the middle ground, where comparisons can be made between competing realizations of the underlying myth.

*** A trope still in use, by the way: “chompers,” or some variation, show up in the Star Wars prequels and in the revived Doctor Who series, to cite examples off the top of my head.

Points of Connection, Part Two: A is A . . . or is it?

What can one say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said?  Since its initial publication in 1986-87, more ink has been spilled about the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons than probably any other modern comic book narrative. It’s been named as one of the greatest (defined as most artistically accomplished, most influential, or most successful—take your pick) comic book projects in history, and even one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Novels, period.  Since the release of Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation and DC’s decision to publish the Before Watchmen prequel books in 2012, there has been even more commentary and debate. I don’t intend to add more to the pile of Watchmen verbiage outside of the narrow scope I established in my last Medleyana post: the use of doppelganger characters.* Alan Moore’s influence on the mainstream has lessened as his projects have become increasingly idiosyncratic in recent years, but it is impossible to discuss the reworking of characters and the exploration of archetypes without bringing him up.

Watchmen is probably the best-known use of pastiche on a grand scale in comics. Originally, Moore meant to write his story about characters from the Charlton publishing company, which had been acquired by DC; after DC decided those characters could be profitably relaunched within DC’s established continuity, they were off the table, and Moore chose to create new characters along similar lines: the Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, and so forth.

Here’s where it gets interesting: as established previously, an intertextual double (a misprision, in poetic terms) follows the same broad outlines as the original, but is a character in itself, independent of its source.  Points of connection between the two are also points of departure: in other words, the double is only beholden to the original up to the threshold of reader recognition (for purposes of commentary) or satisfying the needs of a given character type (for narrative purposes); after that, they are effectively a blank slate, just like any other original character.  The difference between an effective analogue and a ripoff, then, has nothing to do with “originality” (a much overestimated quality, and especially meaningless in such a codified genre as the superhero), and everything to do with the creator’s success in infusing him or her with convincing motives and actions.  If a character would live, it must have the spark of life: nothing else matters.  (I’ve alluded to the writer’s role in crafting a convincing character, and that is just as true for “original” characters as doppelgangers, of course.)  For Moore, whose entire purpose was to establish a psychological realism to a degree that had only been spottily attempted in the superhero narrative previously, the inner life was a given, but for the achievement to have impact, the characters would also have to resonate as plausible superheroes.**  The Charlton stable were important models, but Moore and Gibbons also drew on the broader common property of superhero archetypes and the visual tropes of costume, accessories, and even the illustration styles of pulp novels, comic books, and advertising art in order to create a convincing, lifelike world, divergent from ours but believable nonetheless.

To cite an example from Watchmen, I had little familiarity with Steve Ditko’s severely moralistic vigilante the Question, or his follow-up character, the even more stringent Mr. A (whose uncompromising slogan, “A is A!” was taken directly from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), when I first read the graphic novel.  Still, Rorschach is a clear enough character type: a vigilante with a moral code so strict that no one can live up to it, with equal contempt for criminals, their victims, and even other heroes if they aren’t willing to go as far as him.  The details that Moore invents for Walter Kovacs, Rorschach’s alter ego, speak to Watchmen’s interest in both the social problems and individual psychoses involved with superheroics: childhood sexual trauma, a connection to the infamous Kitty Genovese murder, and of course the horrific crimes that sped along Kovacs’ psychotic break.  One doesn’t need to know Ditko’s original characters to appreciate the drama, but it adds some intertextual depth (if anything, reading some of Mr. A’s cases show how little Moore had to exaggerate Rorschach’s ruthlessness and black-and-white morality).

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

The Question dons his mask; art by Steve Ditko

Origin of Rorschach's mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Origin of Rorschach’s mask; art by Dave Gibbons

Likewise, I was familiar with the Blue Beetle from his introduction into DC continuity rather than his original Charlton adventures, but I didn’t immediately connect him to Nite Owl when reading Watchmen: he too is a familiar type, a “gadget hero” like Batman (or, to a lesser degree, Iron Man).  Within the narrative, Dan Dreiberg is actually the second Nite Owl, borrowing his name and persona from a Golden Age model, Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl, representing both the ideals and the institutional memory of the original costumed heroes).  This pattern was true of the Blue Beetle, but also of characters such as Green Lantern and Hawkman who had very different Golden and Silver Age incarnations.

Watchmen also benefits from an important opportunity afforded by pastiche: the ability to replace the ad hoc jumble of origins and histories typical of established continuity with a streamlined history that both gives all the characters a common point of reference and allows for meaningful points of connection between them that goes beyond the simple “team-up.”  Although, as Geoff Klock points out, Moore has in many cases deliberately introduced the kind of contradictory history that plagues long-running comic book series into his original stories, in Watchmen he plays it straight, with his “real-life” costumed heroes taking inspiration from fictional comic book characters, and eventually supplanting them.  As for points of contact, in addition to the obvious shared history between them, there are subtle connections: the shape-shifting cloth which Rorschach wears as a mask, and from which he takes his name, is referred to as a spin-off of technologies introduced by Dr. Manhattan, the only truly superhuman character in the novel; other technologies and businesses mentioned are part of the empire of Adrian Veidt, the “self-made” superhero Ozymandias (and a major driver of the plot).

Film adaptations of superheroes often make connections where none exist in the comics in order to tighten up the plot, as for example the Joker/Jack Napier being identified as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman, or Ra’s al Ghul serving as both Wayne’s mentor and eventual antagonist in Batman Begins. Such circularity is more dramatically satisfying, and easier to establish, in a two-hour film or self-contained novel, although asserting such symmetries can be one function of rebooting or “retconning” an established series.  As an example from another narrative, when J. Michael Straczynski rebooted the Squadron Supreme for his 2003 series Supreme Power, he started from the ground up, effectively creating a “trope of a trope:” in Straczynski’s version, the escape pod that brought “Mark Milton” (Hyperion) to earth as an infant was part of an alien battle, the shrapnel from which also gave powers to the Blur (a trope of the Flash, replacing the original Squadron Supreme’s Whizzer, because really: the Whizzer?) and provided the “Power Prism” to Doctor Spectrum (a trope of Green Lantern, here reconceived as a special ops pilot nicknamed “Doctor” because of the surgical precision with which he executes his missions); some of the villains Hyperion faced were created through government experimentation with his own DNA.***  The reboot/misprision allowed Straczynski to focus on the elements that most concerned him: instead of the Squadron imposing its rule in the name of the greater good, as in Mark Gruenwald’s narrative, the Squadron are tools of a shadowy, not always benevolent government that doesn’t reveal its purposes to its super-military (as exemplified by Mark Milton’s upbringing by government operatives instead of Ma and Pa Kent), the expression of a twenty-first century anxiety that remains as relevant as ever.

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

The two incarnations of the Squadron Supreme by Alex Ross (l) and Gary Frank (r). Source: I love comic covers

Next time, I’ll examine a few examples from movies and television.

* But for the record, I liked Moore’s original “space squid” ending, and I think it could have worked on film if it had been reconceived in cinematic terms by a director more concerned with duplicating the feel than the look of the book.  How terrifying—and believable—could Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi have made that ending?

** Interestingly, Moore and Gibbons have stated that Mad‘s parody “Superduperman” was an influence on their approach, revealing depravity and greed beneath the slick costumes.  It’s not uncommon for transgressions that are comical to one generation to be taken seriously and developed in earnest by the next.

*** Marvel attempted something similar with its “New Universe” line in 1986, sort of the flip side of DC’s unification of its universe, and showing that it isn’t easy to build a compelling narrative world from scratch.

Points of Connection, Part One: the Many Children of Krypton

Hyperion.  Supreme.  The Sentry.  What do these characters have in common?  All are doppelgängers, or doubles, of Superman, and not just in the sense that all costumed heroes descend from the Big S, or in the debt they all owe to Philip Wylie’s Gladiator and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, nor even in their monomythic relation to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Rather, they are thinly veiled copies, different enough in detail to escape litigation (or avoid confusing readers) but readily recognized by key elements of their persona, history, and/or supporting cast.

The double, or pastiche, is a powerful fictional technique, in which an established character is effectively remade (and frequently repurposed); it’s especially common in comic books, where “copycatting” is an established (if not especially reputable) practice.  As an example, the core members of DC’s Justice League of America—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al—have been copied numerous times, individually and as a team.  It should be noted that I’m not speaking so much of identical twins or copies of the same characters inhabiting parallel universes, although those are equally common story-telling tropes. The doubling to which I refer is almost always intertextual, allowing a writer to tell a story including (a version of) a character owned by another publisher, or including story elements that would be unacceptable for a well-established (and ongoing) character.

Adhering to genre conventions is not enough: recall that National (DC’s parent company) sued Fawcett over alleged similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel, yet the elements the two characters have in common—super strength and other powers, colorful costumes, secret identities, and an ethos of doing good—are practically universal among Golden Age heroes, and in other specifics the characters are quite different.  Superman, orphaned son of the doomed planet Krypton, doesn’t have much in common with Billy Batson, who is given his powers by the wizard Shazam.  It is precisely those details that a writer can exploit, filling in the pastiche character’s backstory with variations that are functionally the same; sometimes it is as simple as changing a few names (Superman’s Krypton becomes Hyperion’s Argon), at other times a more thorough reworking is undertaken, but the connections are still apparent because of the overall dynamic of the story.  This goes beyond parody, although the line can be fuzzy: Mad’s “Superduperman” and “Captain Marbles” are clearly a joke, but one intended to reveal, among other things, the venality and absurdity hidden beneath the costumed hero’s civic-minded facade (“Once a creep, always a creep!”). Hyperion (from Marvel’s Squadron Supreme) and Alan Moore’s take on Marvelman/Miracleman (instantly recognizable as Superman and Captain Marvel, respectively) are largely dramatic in their treatment, but just as flawed.

The value of the double is summed up by Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, a study that looks at the evolution of superhero narratives through the lens of Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence:

The current character, though obviously in debt to its source, can often act as a powerful misprision [a reflection, or reinterpretation] of that original character, while the fact that it is not actually the original frees the writer from the constraints of copyright and continuity.

For example, earlier in his book, Klock argues that “Warren Ellis’s Four Voyagers [from the pages of Planetary] are a trope of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, which is to say that while the Four Voyagers are characters in themselves, they are also an interpretation/metaphor of characters that have come before” (emphasis added).

Such misprision is most useful when the writer has something to say beyond aping an already successful character: in Klock’s scheme, informed by Bloom’s statement that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem,” well-known characters stand in for their creators, so that one generation of writers can exorcise or assimilate the influence of the preceding generation.  (And obviously, the technique of parody allows the writer to zero in on whatever element of the original character they wish to critique, exaggerating it, sometimes to the point of absurdity–see above.)  One doesn’t have to agree with all of Klock’s conclusions to see the value of this dialectic approach, and in fact the finest realization of a pastiche character isn’t always written by the person who first created it.  Alan Moore took over Supreme, a character created by Rob Liefeld, and transformed him into a meditation on Superman; the resemblance was already present, but Moore brought it into focus.  As another example, Mark Gruenwald used the Squadron Supreme, Marvel’s trope of the JLA (originally introduced by Roy Thomas), to examine the relationships of the characters to each other, bringing out unspoken subtext or real-world concerns (such as the tendency toward paternalistic fascism inherent in the concept of super-protectors; the alienation of super-beings’ human friends and family; and the finality of death, as opposed to comic book characters’ typical return from the grave for shock value, marketing purposes, or narrative convenience) that would halt an ongoing series in its tracks if acknowledged. (Another version of the Squadron, effectively a trope of a trope, was launched in 2003; more about that later.)

Such concerns, when addressed at all, used to be the domain of the parallel universe or “imaginary story:” What if the Justice League used their power to oppress humanity instead of protecting it?  One answer was Earth-3’s Crime Syndicate of America; another was the Squadron Sinister, created as part of an unofficial “Avengers vs. JLA” crossover (since by Comic Book Law, when two characters meet for the first time, they must test their powers against each other in battle; the Squadron Sinister later, of course, became the Squadron Supreme). Later, such projects as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, and Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier would address many of these subjects using flagship characters in speculative settings outside regular continuity, but Squadron Supreme (1985) predates the more critical approach to characterization kicked off by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and by Miller himself, and the aforementioned projects benefited from the more fluid approach to continuity that became fashionable after the high water mark of Crisis on Infinite Earths’ obsessive attempt to keep things in fixed positions.

Time is short tonight, so I’ll save a discussion of Watchmen, one of the most prominent and influential reinventions of this type, for next time.