As you probably saw Russ write last night, Dark Horse announced that it had acquired the rights to the Gold Key and Valiant heroes. Yet with other comics history news — DC’s acquisition of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Marvel’s coup with the Marvelman franchise — you’ll find that comics archaeology is far from a new phenomenon. It’s a time-honored practice, digging into the past, because you never know which hero can get its second wind, even decades after they first hit the stands.
Probaby the first case of comics archaeology — defined as acquiring and refurbishing characters from defunct lines, not as legacy heroes — was DC’s final strike against one of their earliest competitors. Let’s rewind: with the creation of Superman, DC had a good thing going. In fact, it was such a good thing that it was only a matter of time before this Coca-Cola got itself a Pepsi — in this case, Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel, who began beating the pants off of the Man of Steel (magic is his weakness, at any rate) in sales in the mid-1940s. Yet this conflict didn’t end with heat vision or magical lightning, but with DC’s lawyers — and when the dust settled in 1954, Fawcett agreed not to publish Captain Marvel again.
But it is “Captain Marvel: no more”? As any reader of the medium would know, death is never set in comics. The Silver Age was setting the industry on fire, but Fawcett had its hands tied. DC, however, saw some prime potential in the Big Red Cheese, and licensed the character from the ailing company in 1973. Introduced on his first cover by Superman himself, Captain Marvel — or as the comic was called, Shazam!, in order to avoid any battles with Marvel, who themselves had a Captain Marvel comic — was revealed to have been in suspended animation, along with his family and that of villain Dr. Sivana. Eventually gaining a number of reboots within the DCU, Captain Marvel has since become a strong supporting character for the Keith Giffen Justice League, as well as Geoff Johns’ Justice Society of America.
Surprisingly, Captain Marvel wasn’t the only hero DC snagged in the last few decades. Quality Comics was one such company, who was run out of the race by increasing access to television as well as the anti-comics sentiments espoused by Dr. Frederick Wertham in 1954. Yet their characters lived on, as DC obtained the licenses in 1956 for characters ranging from Plastic Man to the Blackhawks to the Freedom Fighters. While many of these heroes have languished somewhat in the sidelines of the DCU, Plastic Man was resurrected in the 1990s by Grant Morrison as a member of his fabled JLA run. Meanwhile, Zinda of the Blackhawks became a supporting cast member of the Birds of Prey, while Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray took a crack at the Freedom Fighters, after many of them perished in the Infinite Crisis.
Yet that wouldn’t be the last time that DC picked up a franchise from a competitor. With the industry slumping in the early 1980s, Charlton Comics was one of the companies that had once seen better days. Those better days including work by Steve Ditko, who created Captain Atom and the Question. If you recognize the names, you see where this is going — with the comics company only three years away from dissolution, Charlton licensed a number of its characters — namely the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, the Question, the Peacemaker, Thunderbolt, Judomaster, and Son of Vulcan — to DC.
The first five of those characters almost ended up in a surprising place — as the protagonists of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. But DC proved to have surprising foresight, instead urging Moore to tweak the character archetypes to make the graphic novel we all know and love. Instead, DC began turning these characters around to create one of the biggest and larger lasting expansions of the DC Universe since the creation of the Silver Age legacy heroes: while Denny O’Neill created a noirish, philosophical thriller with the Question, the Blue Beetle and Captain Atom made their way to the Justice League. Despite later retcons and reimaginings of these heroes, they now make up a sizeable chunk of DC’s second features, whether it be in the pages of Detective Comics, Action Comics, or Booster Gold.
DC isn’t the only company that’s tried its hand at comics archaeology. In 2007, Marvel — which largely generated its heroes in-house, using new status quos, new teams, or What If issues to increase their ranks — tapped J. Michael Straczynski to write The Twelve, a series using 1940s heroes of Marvel’s distant past. Just as Stan Lee had pulled Captain America and the Human Torch from World War II to solidify the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, Straczynski used the conceit of suspended animation to bring forgotten heroes from Marvel’s earliest incarnation — Timely Comics — and put them in the 21st century. The project was largely a success, but has since tripped up due to increasingly hectic schedules of Straczynski and artist Chris Weston. Yet these comics are becoming more and more fodder for Marvel — Robert Kirkman recently brought back Mystic Comics star the Destroyer, in a bloody Marvel MAX Comic that showed the aging hero’s last stand.
Dynamite Entertainment is another company that has looked to the past for its future revenues. Not unlike the Twelve, Dynamite’s Project Superpowers brought together heroes from the public domain, including heroes from Fox Comics, Crestwood Publications, and Nedor Comics. While there were a few potential problems — including characters such as the Death-Defying Daredevil and the Blue Beetle — some slight name changes brought Dynamite into the clear. Project Superpowers quickly became one of the company’s best-known works, as Alex Ross and Jim Krueger told a story of heroes being shunted into suspended animation via Pandora’s Box, and their escape into a dark new world.
Over the past year or so, the comics archaeology battle has continued fast and furious. Last year, DC Comics announced the acquisition of several of the Archie Comics superheroes, including the Shield, the Web, the Hangman, and Inferno — a cast of characters who are now known as Red Circle. These heroes initially came out in the 1950s, and eventually faded into obscurity during the subsequent comics crash. In 1991, DC attempted to resurrect these characters with the !mpact line of comics, which was designed to be entry-level comics that hit as far as newspaper stands. Unfortunately, DC’s marketing department allegedly refused to promote the books, and they soon died on the vine. However, with J. Michael Stracyznski helming the project as his big debut to DC Comics, it’s looking like the Archie heroes will finally have their day in the sun.
What say you, Rama readers? Is there a particular bit of comics archaeology you’ve found fascinating? Sound off!