By Todd Allen
Let’s start the new year out with a “what if.” Over the years, there have been a ton of early-to-mid-’80s rumors about various Marvel creators having proposals in to revamp the DC characters. Some of the stories involve Steve Gerber and Frank Miller pitching new versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as Crisis on Infinite Earths was being planned (and that The Dark Knight Returns spun out of said pitches). I’ve heard Howard Chaykin and Walt Simonson’s names attached to similar rumors.
We can confirm that Warner and Marvel were in talks for Marvel to take over publisher duties for the DC characters in 1984. Jim Shooter has posted documents and correspondence on the subject. It seems the deal fell apart in the wake of a (mostly) unrelated lawsuit from First Comics.
What would a Marvel-centric version of DC look like? Prior to 1984, DC’s biggest success was New Teen Titans, by Marvel defectors Marv Wolfman and George Perez. A fine series, but not one that necessarily felt particularly “Marvel” in its editorial approach.
For a “Marvel” approach to a DC book, I’d point you to 1982’s “Phantom Zone” four issue mini-series by Steve Gerber and Gene Colan. Phantom Zone is a classic DC book, with the classic DC silver age Superman mythology — but handled with a bit more realism and a darker psychological take on the villains. That is to say, Superman written a bit more like a Marvel book, almost Superman written more like an issue of Man-Thing, and drawn by a classic Marvel artist.
The Phantom Zone is about a group of Kryptonian criminals (Zod, Dr.Xadu, Va-Kox, Az-Rel, Nadira, Kru-El, Faora — old school Phantom Zone) getting loose and trapping Superman in the Phantom Zone. What really sets this apart is the sociopathic portrayal of the Phantom Zone villains. They’re homicidal. People die. On panel. And each one has their own little psychological flaws that drive their behavior. The evil is much more up front than you see in a silver or bronze age Superman.
On the flip side, the Superman narrative is a metaphysical journey through the Phantom Zone as Superman tries to find an exit and runs into magical forces. Superman has bumped into magic before and since, but the tone here is much closer to Gerber’s Man-Thing or Englehart’s Doctor Strange. Pre-Vertigo, if you must.
While Superman isn’t greatly changed, Gerber’s interpretation of Batman (breaking a criminal’s jaw as he first appears in the series) is a lot closer to what would become the Frank Miller interpretation a few years later. He’s a little scary and he’ll take it out on punks. Wonder Woman, who it seems Gerber would later pitch a reboot for, comes across as a much more regal persona than some other interpretations. Much more the dignified princess, who happens to be an Amazon warrior.
Gerber’s under-rated Void Indigo series from Epic (which doesn’t seem outlandishly violent today, though protests over such things put it in an early grave) is said to be a reworking of a Hawkman proposal that would likely have been pitched around the time Gerber was working on Phantom Zone (Void Indigo was published in 1984 and likely dates to 1982 or ’83). It isn’t hard to Void Indigo as Hawkman, with reincarnation and aliens co-mingling with barbarian weapons. A Vertigo Hawkman, if you will.
Whether Gerber’s darker takes on DC heroes would have been representative of Shooter’s Marvel taking over DC is subject to debate. Shooter cut his teeth at DC and may well have wanted to preserve the traditionally more upbeat mood of the DCU.
A well-regarded, but never reprinted series by two well known creators, The Phantom Zone might be a good choice for the DC Comics Presents treatment, possibly throwing in Gerber’s “farewell to the pre-Crisis DCU” sequel from DC Comics Presents #97.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.