Thursday, July 16, 2009

Scott on Remembrance of Comics Past (Formerly ‘From the Box’): DC’s Who’s Who

[After a hiatus, Scott returns to us with another entry in his series looking with fresh eyes at comics he read long ago].

I don’t know what the big deal about Morrison ‘killing’ Batman is, after all, the ORIGINAL Batman, the one who first appeared in Detective Comics 27, was killed off years ago. He had married Selena Kyle (the original Selena Kyle that is) and fathered the original Huntress (Helena Wayne) and “A year after the debut of the Huntress Bruce Wayne donned his Batman uniform for one final mission with the Justice Society, and laid down his life to save Gotham from a Super-powered Criminal.”

How do I know this? Did I look it up on Wikipedia? It’s entirely possible… but what was a comics fan to do twenty-some odd years ago? How could they acquire this information? They need look no further than DC’s Who’s Who: The Definitive History of the DC Universe (at least up to 1985).

Who’s Who may, in fact, qualify as DC’s first weekly tie-in event as it was originally published to coincide with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Given the massive cast of that crossover and the way that it extended to pretty much every corner of the DCU, this series, published on a weekly basis, served as a handy ‘dramatis personae’ to help readers familiarize themselves with the massive cast involved in that crossover. Of course, much of the entries mentioned in these pages would be rendered obsolete by the end The Crisis but, in many ways, it managed to serve as a sort of yearbook that provided a pretty nice bookend the previous 50 years of DC’s comic history (as I remember, the series was brought back in an ‘update’ format a couple of years later in order chronicle the population of DC’s newly streamlined universe).

Each character was featured in a pin-up style portrait (whenever possible drawn by the artist who made the character famous or vice-versa; for example Jack Kirby provides the art for most of the Fourth World Characters) with information provided under three categories: Personal Data (Which includes vital statistics like hair color, eye color, base of operations, first appearance, etc.) History (this gives a concise summary of the characters exploits… no small feat when it comes to a character like Batman) and Powers and Abilities. Going back to that Batman entry; I can tell you that Bruce Wayne was married to Selena Kyle (deceased) his initial occupation was ‘millionaire playboy’ but he later became police commissioner of Gotham city. This, of course, was the ‘Golden Age’ Batman who made his ‘Base of Operations’ the Gotham City of Earth-2. The ‘Silver Age’ Batman didn’t make his first appearance until Detective Comics 327 (which I’m assuming is the first appearance of the ‘new look’ Batman; this, of course, also begs the question of the first appearance the ‘Modern’ Batman. Is it Batman 401-the first issue of ‘Year One’-or is it The Dark Knight Returns?) I know what you’re thinking- aren’t these pretty much the same characters? How are they different? It’s all in the details my friends. You see, the original Batman’s father was shot by a criminal and his mother-who had a weak heart- died from shock at the sight of seeing her husband gunned down in front of her; it wasn’t until the silver age that both of young Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot by Joe Chill. It’s also interesting that both the Golden Age and Silver Age Bruce Waynes were later ‘raised’ by an ‘Uncle Philip’ who, as far as I know, even Grant Morrison hasn’t managed to resurrect yet.

Speaking of Morrison, with detailed entries on such obscure and often bizarre characters as Congorilla, Crazy-Quilt, Baron Winter, Ben Boxer and the Creature Commandos, I can’t help but think that he has a pretty complete Who’s Who collection that he keeps handy whenever he feels like finding a long forgotten character who is due for a revamp. I can just see Morrison salivating and thinking, “Oh, man, the stories I could tell about Chris KL-99!”

In fact, that’s something that I have in common with Morrison; part of my love for this series when I was a kid is that it introduced me to all of these characters that I had never heard of and I felt completely free to make up my own stories about all of these characters (also, when I would go on to make up my own characters I would create my own Who's Who pages based on this format... of course I couldn't get Jack Kirby so I just drew the pictures myself). Morrison and I are in good company, as there are also listings for Cain, Abel and Destiny who Neil Gaiman would go on to weave into the fibers of his Sandman mythology.

Other than being pretty important reference material (at least to my 8 year old mind), Who’s Who was also a lot of fun. As mentioned before, there are a lot of great, iconic renderings of classic characters by some of the greatest comic artist of all time (in addition to Kirby, there’s Curt Swan, George Perez, Neal Adams, Joe Orlando, Walt Simonson, John Byrne and the many rising talents of the time like Brian Bolland). There are not only individual entries for characters but, also, entries for various teams and their histories as well as certain important institutions (The Daily Planet, S.T.A.R. Labs) and, of course, there are complete entries on The Bat-Plane (a customized F-4 Phantom Jet), The Batmobile ( “A sleek high powered sports car possessing 4-wheel drive and off-road capabilities!), the Batcave (complete with detailed cross-section) and Batman’s Utility Belt (the two way radio is located in the belt buckle in case you were wondering). Some of the ‘Personal Data’ is pretty amusing to read. For example, for The Demon under ‘Known Relatives’ it lists “The Demons of Hell”, Bat-Mite’s Occupation is listed as “Troublemaker” while the same spot for Baron Winters lists “searches out evil for a fee” which are both pretty unglamorous when compared to Blackbriar Thorne who’s current day job is “Last of The Druids” or Captain Nazi who gets to list “Would Be World Conqueror” on his resume (Now that I think about it, an awful lot of the heroes listed occupation is “adventurer” which is, pretty much just a euphemism for “unemployed”; I guess Nightwing becomes a lot less cooler when you have to picture him collecting unemployment).

Geoff and I had an exchange not too long ago about how part of what he loved about comics was the idea of the universe full of characters and stories; DC’s Who’s Who definitely gave you real sense of that and, while I must admit that the 12-year-old me preferred the Streamlined, Post-Crisis Continuity, the 8 year old me definitely loved the gigantic cast of characters and worlds that Who’s Who exposed him to. In fact, my love of stories, my main motivation for wanting to be a writer and study literature, comes from comics and, some of the first stories that I ever told, were with the very characters found here in the pages of Who’s Who. So, in a very important way, these comics are the very reason that I am who I am.

Addendum

It’s also worth noting that Who’s Who managed to handle various explanations of the old ‘DC Multiverse’ with much greater economy and clarity than seems possible with the new Multiverse. Just take a look at this Wikipedia explanation of the new Earth-2:

“Based on comments by 52 co-writer Grant Morrison, this alternate universe is not the pre-Crisis Earth-Two. This different status between Pre-Crisis Earth-Two and Post Crisis Earth-2 was confirmed in Justice Society 2008 Annual and expanded in the Justice Society Kingdom Come Specials with other differences such as Rebecca Tyler as Hourgirl rather than Rick Tyler succeeding Rex Tyler as Hourman. Writer Geoff Johns specifically names the new reality as "Earth-2", Roman numeral specific, in Justice Society 2008 Annual as the title of the story.

Thinking that she has had her most longing desire fulfilled of "returning home" to her long destroyed source reality of Pre Crisis Earth-Two somehow by Gog, Power Girl arrives on the closest parallel of the current 52 Multiverse, Post Crisis Earth-2, which appears similar to the pre-Crisis Earth-Two. In this new reality, the Justice Society of America has merged with Infinity, Inc. and is now known as Justice Society Infinity. Initially, Power Girl believes she has returned home until the missing Post Crisis Earth-2 Power Girl reappears and declares that the other Power Girl is an impostor and has caused the disappearance of the Post Crisis Earth-2 Superman which results in the Post Crisis Earth-2 Power Girl and the Justice Society Infinity to go after the New Earth/Earth-Two Power Girl.

The Power Girl of New Earth recruits the Post Crisis Earth-2 Michael Holt, who is a physics professor and father, to help her return to her source Earth and has never become a costumed hero. Post Crisis Earth-2 Prof. Michael Holt constructs a device similar to the Cosmic treadmill used by Barry Allen to open a portal to New Earth. The Power Girl of New Earth returns home, followed by the Justice Society Infinity, who kidnap her and taker her back to Post Crisis Earth-2. During the confrontation, Green Lantern and Jade are initially confused when they see each other, as the Post Crisis Earth-2 Jade's father, Alan Scott, is dead, and New Earth's Jade is also dead. The JSI interrogate Power Girl for information on the Post Crisis Earth-2 Superman's whereabouts. The Post Crisis Earth-2 Power Girl assumes that the Superman the New Earth Power Girl said was dead was the Post Crisis Earth-2 Superman (rather than Kal-L who was killed by Superman Prime) and that the New Earth Power Girl had killed him. The Justice Society of New Earth arrives to stop her torture.

Starman reveals that the re-creation of the Multiverse also lead to the creation of a Power Girl and Superman native to this new universe, Post Crisis Earth-2 and that the Post Crisis Earth-2's Superman is still alive. The Power Girl of New Earth then returns home along with her Justice Society but with no apology from her counterpart or the Post Crisis Earth-2 Huntress for their actions against her.”


Now, was anyone else lost by the end of this?]

[I kind of GLORY in how little sense that makes -- Geoff]

9 comments:

pla said...

Man, did I love Who's Who. Arguably more than any of the actual DC comics coming out at the time. Marvel's version was good, but it was the all-inclusiveness of the genres that I always liked the best about Who's Who. The idea that Bat Lash and Balloon Buster and The Haunted Tank and Superman and Space Cabbie all lived in the same universe (but not, it should be noted, Atari Force, who got a whole lot of entries, all of which were explicitly excluded from continuity) made DC seem so much bigger than I could possibly imagine.

I know popular opinion has turned against Starman a little bit, but I think, even more than Morrison, Robinson was really trying to show readers that all of these disparate stories DC has published can all fit together, even without a multiverse.

James said...

I think the Starman referred to in the Wikipedia entry is Geoff Johns grown-up Legion of Superheroes character, rather than the Robinson thing.

Which... has popular opinion turned against it? I thought it was still pretty celebrated (with the hardcovers and all). I only read some of it recently myself. I found it fairly charming, but Robinson really has a tin ear for dialogue and narration, geez. He also seemed to think his ideas (which I quite liked) were a little more ground-breaking than they actually were.

Re: hilarious attempts to explain convoluted continuity, Matt Fraction pulled a fantastic Dan Didio quote for his twitter:
"Aquaman died in the Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis series after he had been transformed into the squid-faced mentor of the new Aquaman."

pla said...

I feel like I've read a fair number of comments over the last year that complain about Starman being dated and narcissistic. Clearly, there are people who feel positively enough about it to buy it in hardcover, so they may be in the minority, but, when I see people discussing it online, they seem less positive than they did five years or so ago (when there were enough people speaking positive about it to convince me to track it down).

scott91777 said...

Pla,

Yeah, there were quite a few Atari Force Entries in the ones that I have here...

My favorite is for the Babe character (a sort of big blue creature) who's occupation is listed as "Reluctant Adventurer"

Speaking of long forgotten comic book properties from the 80's: There's also a listing for Camelot 3000...

pla said...

Who's forgotten Camelot 3000? I remember that being pretty huge when it came out (apparently, it was one of the first direct market titles, which might explain why comic shops always had so much promo material up for it). Plus it's got nice Bolland art, which, I assume, is why the collection is still in print. I finally read it a few years ago, and it's all right, but not as good as I would have thought from the Who's Who entry that I was so fascinated by as a kid.

Atari Force never seemed to get collected, but they certainly pushed it very hard in Who's Who (Did DC have other licensed title, aside from the one-off Masters of the Universe thing?). I was always kind of fascinated by it, but never enough to pick up an issue.

I'm pretty sure Thriller got an entry as well (as one of the other "not in continuity" flagged entries along with The Minutemen and Watchmen), but maybe I'm misremembering (and don't really want to go dig around in the basement to check). Now, that one really ought to have been collected by now...

scott91777 said...

I don't remember Thriller... unless you're referencing an adaptation of the music video... Granted, once I SAW it i'd probably remember at least seeing the promos for it.

speedreeder said...

Ahhh, Thriller, I've wanted to re-read that for ages, it sounds pretty weird and out there. Bank Robbing Elvis Impersonators, a guy who kept his sword in his back. It rings of Golden Age Adventure comics, kind of like Doc Savage.

http://www.angelfire.com/comics/trinitybuilding/

Kyle said...

http://mightygodking.com/index.php/category/comics/whos-who/

for anyone who hasn't seen an entry or dozen

scott91777 said...

Kyle,

Awesome Link! I've spent the last hour on there. Everyone check it out, (Geoff, I think you, especially, will like it).