Thursday, November 03, 2011

Like a lot of good comic book stories, there was more to consider in the construction of Marvel versus DC than the in-fiction propositions of parallel dimensions at war. The cliché had a real-world truth to bare as the two biggest publishers in American comics submitted themselves to a set of true-blue competitive circumstances, which no doubt required delicate negotiation around some amount of ego.

The great heroes of comics are often servicing higher ideals than the simple test of one ability against another, but here, bonafide diplomacy was as much on the agenda as the previously established wills of man-gods and super-soldiers. An appropriate acknowledgment of status and expectation would surely need to be recognised to some degree, to the satisfaction of the corporate overseers and the fans, even if the ultimate victory would be decided by a democratic vote of five key seats. Selections would require thematic resonance, iconic representation, and an organization that didn't compromise the integrity of characters beyond their ability to cope.

With the conventional wisdom of most modern pay-per-view fight cards; DC vs Marvel promised a gradual escalation in battles, starting with an undercard of six independently contrived match-ups that would build tension toward the deciding results of the fan-voted five main events. The complete list, along with the most fleshed out incidental battles that occurred along the way, can be found in my somewhat sophomoric tenth anniversary summary, which you might have read before, if you've researched the subject. Five years on, I hope I can dwell on the subject a little more without repeating myself too much, in honor of the (belated) fifteenth anniversary [as previously mentioned].

All things considered, opening the contest with Captain Marvel and Thor was an unexpected stroke of genius. In the mid-nineties I personally wasn't thinking about these characters much at all, even though Captain Marvel was in the throes of Jerry Ordway's well received The Power of Shazam! series, and Thor's transformation into a slightly generic shadow of his former-self was probably part of an initiative intended to actually provoke interest from people. What ever the case, 1996 was not always the most assuringly definitive era for comics, and this otherwise very exciting match-up could have easily been occupied by something far more bizarre.

Playing cosmic mcguffin to the entire series' contest of champions were two cosmic, mega-monolithic siblings introduced on the final page of DC versus Marvel #1. Transcending sex, race and creed (in as much as representative red and blue allows), the two reawakening entities are uber-gods of the basic concept of conflict, in all of its ancient, mythic, polarized iterations. Representing the possibility of a cosmic 'one being' that shattered to create the idea of DC and Marvel universes, they add an interesting subtext to the persistent violence inherent in superhero comics, to say nothing of the moment when gods stopped to pray.

I suppose it's actually quite natural for Thor and Captain Marvel to pray, given that they're both agents of senior figures. Odin and the old Wizard Shazam are a natural council for the two to seek, given that the stipulations of the event require the losing team's universe be destroyed. If you observe the predominantly red and blue uniforms of the two, however, you might regard them as particularly fitting avatars for the two universes. The reversed red/blue motif manages to repeat itself in Flash/Quicksilver, corrects for Elektra/Catwoman, and gets all jumbled up when Superboy and Spider-man go at it, to a point of meaningless primary coloration, but in these two godly protectors, it seems special, cosmic, appropriate. Part of a newly discovered mythology, revealing string theory secrets that make the multiverse resonate a shared sense beyond its exclusive, officially trademarked reasonings.

I've always employed a philosophy of professional sports in elements of The Comic Book Fight Club format, and it's always fun to see that play out in the comics themselves. Like extras from the post-apocalyptic outskirts of cinema's The Running Man; Snapper Carr and Rick Jones do as they do best, representing the reader by making the follow along at home scorecard a sub-plot, taking bets on winners in opposing booths stationed outside the abandoned fairground setting for the first fight.

Crossover one-shots like Green Lantern/Silver Surfer immediately preceeded the four issue mini-series, and I have to believe that each of the fights could easily sustain their own over-sized special, if not a complete mini-series. Afterall, as already lamented upon, this kind of encounter doesn't happen every day. A generous perspective might say that the sudden nature of the interdimensional battles, and the rapid threat of their consequence, elevated an otherwise rote premise of heroes fighting within contradiction to a more intense level. Really, I think it was just a bit of a missed opportunity, particularly given the relationship between the two companies continued for more than a year, resulting in the "Amalgam Age of Comics" and a string of thinly conceived, co-published specials, (including the adventures of jointly created hero of both worlds, Access).

It would have been nice if the battles could have had some of the embellishment a one-shot or series might afford them. It's always nice when a superhero fight can provide something more than the simple slugfest, revealing detail about the characters, or a subtext relevant to the unfolding tale. I think it's healthy to forgive a comic like this for playing it simple and direct, but perhaps more of a sense of strategy and sport might have been appreciated. This was a decade before Ultimate Fighting Championship exploded into the mainstream and brought chess-battle Mixed Martial Arts fights into the family living room, but comics have always been capable of more than their most basic.

As the Captain and Thor go to blows for the fate of their universes [in the opening fight], there's certainly the expected amount of simplistic exchange of Herculean man-god punches, and Nordic hammer swipes. Fortunately, Peter David (with credited thanks to Ron Marz that, for all I know, includes the following) was able to reach a bit deeper than the machismo marinated bravado of Thor, (who none-too-subtly beckons for a merciful surrender from his opponent, who in turn figures destruction of fairground property for a better option), to find a poignant, if challenging gimmick.

Using his Greek inspirations to full effect, Captain Marvel hurls an entire ferris wheel like a deadly discus! An airborne Thor is well equipped to deal with such feats, contorting the iron amusement ride with a mighty swing of his enchanted hammer -- sufficient to return it to sender. Captain Marvel braces for impact, but finds himself pinned by the crumpled metals that sandwich him with the ground. Rather than waste time powering his way out, he instead resorts to the now classic, graphic convenience of simply reducing his size, shouting a magic world that returns him to the diminutive alter-ego of youthful Billy Batson! An act that highlights the resonant common theme between the two godly heroes and the destined undoing of Captain Marvel -- lightning!

I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable with the idea that the Shazam lightning bolt that transforms Batson into his superhero alter-ego can so easily be tampered with, but I suppose if we're given to think that the good Captain can dart out of its trajectory, quick enough to flash-fry an opponent with the "lightning ambush" attack made famous by Kingdom Come; I suppose there's margin for interference. Regardless of my feelings, Thor does indeed profess that it is "... only through my good graces that your power would reach you -- and I am not feeling especially graci--," whilst tossing his hammer Mjolnir in the path of the transformative bolt, interrupting its intended path of empowerment.

The resulting short-circuited "SHAZAAK!" delivers smouldering defeat to the helpless Billy Batson, making it 1-0 for Team Marvel. Restoring balance rather quickly, however, is the fact that the bizarre clash of mythologies has left Thor short one mystically enchanted hammer -- to be collected on the following page by Wonder Woman!

Wonder Woman's retrieval of Thor's hammer obviously lent an interesting footenote of trivia for the annals of comic book geekery, confirming that she is as true of spirit as you might think, and worthy of the power of Thor. It also chalked one up not just for DC's bruised ego, but also the Greek pantheon, who failed to boost Captain Marvel (S.H.A.Z.A.M) to victory. Wonder Woman, of course, is a proud Greek Amazon, and would be one of the feature players later in the series, matched up against Storm in one of the five key, fan-voted deciding fights.

Within the heirarchy of comicdom, Wonder Woman is understood to be a pretty big deal, on the level with Superman in the modern day feats of strength, and pretty much more than a match for any wind riding mutant. With the gentle negotiation of ego and expectation in mind, there was, of course, the small matter of the massive popularity the X-Men were enjoying in the mid-nineties. The cartoon had made Storm and her fellows household icons, a legacy that is still evident in the fetishized interest of people who've, at most, picked up a couple of floppys with their favourite X-Man on the cover, but mostly resigned themselves to writing internet fan-fiction and gushing on non-comics message boards.

In other words; Wonder Woman might have had Storm outclassed in the powers department and will probably always have more stroke for her significance to the aged DC catalogue, but perhaps needed a perception boost to help win the vote with the inclusion of the hammer? [I don't know, but I'm sure we'll speculate more when revisiting their fateful duel, in a later entry.]

In 2011, I suspect the result of a rematch would be much the same.

Arguments might be made about the gods and legends from which Captain Marvel derives his powers, or the magnitude of his feats measured against rivals, but that issue of character stroke weighs heavily on any cross-company encounter. Thor might have been fit for a curtain jerking opener with a gimmick finish in 1996, but in 2011, he's a multi-million dollar franchise, having just enjoyed success as a feature film that is key to the development of Marvel's Avengers movie dynasty.

I suspect any contemporary encounter would be more likely to pit Thor against Superman (as was the case in JLA/Avengers #1), to better reflect the stature of the character, while also meeting thematic expectations. The only drawback -- at least until Zack Snyder's Man of Steel hits theatres -- is that Thor might have the popular vote too well covered to be chanced in a democratic battle against comics' biggest, most significant icon. Then again, these days the nature of these characters seems to be increasingly fickle.

At the time of this writing, Captain Marvel (or something like it) has been announced to be primed for an overdue relaunch in a tangent mini-series from DC's "New 52," spearheaded by Geoff Johns, with visuals by Gary Frank. Johns was instrumental in restoring the Shazam dynasty to trendy main event status in the middle of last decade, starting with plotlines in JSA that unfolded to make Black Adam the t-shirt selling bad ass of the late '00s. By now, Geoff Johns will probably be best known as the powerhouse behind the Green Lantern franchise, but there was a time when his reputation was founded on a gentle, caring touch, which restored darling old characters to prominence with artful compromise for the times that were, and the times that are. One would hope this reputation for delicacy and genius will continue through to this latest reboot of the "Shazam" magic word, but the crackling uncertainty of the DC linewide reboot brings with it the potential for greatness, or yet more pointless, ugly costumed reboots that will be reviled until nobody remembers why and the same mistakes can be repeated.

A newfound mainstream status should protect Thor from a return to his gaudy '96 look, but it hasn't stopped the character entering -- what I'm told -- is his second death in under ten years. Fear Itself, a Marvel event series that has arguably been a fate worse than death, apparently featured the dramatic sacrifice of the Odinson in a story that lived by the high concept of 'everybody gets magic hammers' and died by the sheer boredom that the graduating new school, fronted this time by Matt Fraction, supplanted in the ideas place. Having been so utterly turned off by every conceivable mention of the slow-burn, seven issue horror, so as to not read it, I won't be too certain about the legitimacy of the death, which will be overturned, regardless. It does, however, potentially put the character back on equal footing with Captain Marvel, particularly if a reboot proves successful. Maybe. Sort of. Possibly.

I'm sure I could veer off into salivating criticisms of the present trends and how they would cripple any contemporary DC/Marvel crossover book far worse than the mid-nineties -- where even the worst story usually managed to make it through an issue with a bunch of sound and fury paced faster than a crawl, without the underming pretentions of straight-faced incohrrent coreography. I could, but I won't. I know how uncomfortable that makes you.

When next we meet, I will likely still be without scanner, but just as enthusiastic about talking more about the battles that were -- and the battles that might be! Lurking a mere four or five pages from Thor versus Captain Marvel are the exciting, pre-fab filler fights between Aquaman v Sub-Mariner, and Flash v Quicksilver! So, you guys get excited and introspective, while I try to fix my scanner.

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