By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
July 21, 2009 -- One of the most popular writers in fiction will be bringing the very first patriotic superhero to DC Comics – and no, the character isn’t who you think it is, and he’s not coming alone.
Brief history lesson: In January of 1940 – 14 months before Captain America debuted – MLJ Comics launched The Shield in Pep Comics
#1. The flag-draped superhero, secretly Joe Higgins of the FBI, proved pretty popular and launched a wave of super-types at MLJ.
Never heard of him? That’s because The Shield wasn’t as popular as another character introduced in Pep Comics
two years later: a red-headed kid named Archie Andrews. Archie took over the cover of Pep
by 1943, MLJ changed its name to “Archie Comics” by 1945, and funny teens kicked all the old MLJ superheroes out of their respective books by the end of the decade.
But this is comics, and nobody dies forever. The Shield has returned a number of times, and now he’s coming to DC in August, in something called the “Red Circle Event.” What makes this time different? The presence of superstar writer J. Michael Straczynski, creator/writer of Babylon 5,
who is just coming off a successful run at Marvel.
“[DC Universe chief] Dan DiDio came to me with the roster after they'd finished acquiring the rights,” Straczynski said, “and basically said, ‘Here they are if you want to play with them’.”
And he did, writing four one-shots, introducing updated versions of The Hangman, Inferno, The Web and, of course, The Shield. But why these four characters, out of the dozens Archie is leasing to DC?
“DC gave me total flexibility in which I chose to go with,” Straczynski said, “and I decided on those four characters that gave me the widest range, from the classic superhero (The Web) to the more supernatural hero (The Hangman), the very American hero (The Shield) and a mystery hero (Inferno). I liked the symmetry of that.”
The characters will be linked in a circular manner – a Red Circle, if you will, with one book leading to the next, one appearing each Wednesday in August. And if you remember these characters from other decades, you might want to look again.
With The Hangman, Straczynski crafted a tale of a Civil War doctor unfairly hanged, whose spirit has been walking the earth ever since to free the innocent and hound the guilty.
“That seemed to be the way to go with the character,” Straczynski said, “as the image of the noose was so closely associated with frontier justice and the Civil War period.”
The next book is The Web, about a spoiled, but brilliant, rich guy who is shamed by the death of his more heroic brother to create a battle suit to fight injustice.
Next up is Inferno, an amnesiac man who can burst into flame.
“Because Inferno started out kind of the least unique and sketchiest, I worked to make him the most unique hero in the bunch,” JMS said. “There are actually two people living in that space, which is why you see a change in appearance when he goes into Inferno mode. He's also living out a mystery: he doesn't know who he is, who this other ‘person’ is, or who's after him, and why. He's a guy on the run, with a mystery behind him that will gradually be resolved.”
Last, and least changed, is The Shield.
"There are some things you change because they merit changing, and some things you leave alone if they work, and much of The Shield's background worked,” JMS said. “One of the conscious choices made in bringing the character back was to set him in the military theater as an instrument of policy, rather than having him fighting in the streets, which separates him out from Captain America. … There aren't a lot of books out there that are set strongly within the current military.”
Two ongoing “split books” will follow the one-shots, with The Shield
co-starring Hangman, and and The Web
co-starring Inferno. And we may see more re-launches in the months to come, according to DiDio. The big man hints, for example, at resurrecting Black Hood, The Comet and Mr. Justice.
“These characters have a very long history,” DiDio said, “and we want to make sure we’re adding to that. … My hope is that this is not a short-term agreement, [but] something that will have a long-lasting effect on the DCU.”
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.