DC Comics' Fascinating Tangent Before The New 52

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The New 52 has arrived, where reality mutates and the DC universe is changed forever. It is interesting that DC comics has long embraced such frequent universe revamps in a way that, say, Marvel has not. There was Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, and numerous other reality-altering cross-overs. Heck, this started all the way in the late 1950s and 60s. When the Silver Age of superhero comics was beginning, Marvel created a pantheon of mainly new figures (such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four), while DC instead revamped old characters (such as Hawkman and Green Lantern), and gave them a new universe to live in.

Perhaps the most fascinating of DC's character revamps was done back in 1997 under the Tangent Comics banner, when the company published a series of one-shot comics with familiar titles: “Green Lantern,” “Atom,” “Flash,” etc., but filled with totally new characters. This was a new universe in which almost everyone, everything, possessed a familiar DC name, but it was applied to them in a totally different way. Perky superheroine the Flash fights villains with her control over light while police officers of New Atlantis, armed with their Terminator guns, hunt the crazy heroine Joker, who has numerous weapons hidden in Impulse pop machines all over the city, oh, and the highly-evolved psychic Superman is taking over the world. It's like a party game where you keep drawing names and deciding what's the best idea you can use the name with, as long as it's not something that has been used before.

The best creations are when the names are applied to people totally different from the normal DC ones, but still worked perfectly, as if the names were first created with these individuals in mind. Green Lantern is perhaps the most engaging member of the group. She's an enigmatic woman whose origin is shrouded in mystery (the vengeful spirit of deceased archaeologist Lois Lane? The repentant soul of evil magician Zatanna?) and who carries a glowing green lantern that has the power to resurrect the dead for 24-hours to allow them to solve the one thing that stopped them from sleeping well in their graves. A compelling figure whose lantern is an imaginative and potent symbol and is totally unlike the power battery of a galaxy-wide police force.

Among the other figures who stand out are Dollman and Big Barda (a tiny gangster and his statuesque super-strong girlfriend), Superman (the product of a genetic experiment, whose highly evolved brain grants him vast psychic powers), and the Metal Men (a black ops US strike-force whose codename comes from their ability survive any mission). All of these creations are great either because they cleverly turned a name that is literal in mainstream DC into something metaphorical (“Metal Men” who are flesh, but seem as invulnerable as steel) or they reinterpret its meaning in a new, yet logical way (a person's mind can be “super” instead of his body).

Equally as engaging is all the various elements of the world that are given DC names. There are so many characters in the the DC universe that there is a multitude of names to draw upon. Security guards drink Impulse cola while listening to Karl Ferris' talk show and checking their Terminator guns. World's Finest and Teen Titans are two of the most popular magazines, and Zoo Crew snacks are enjoyed by many. Everywhere you look, a name's being dropped in the Tangent universe, which means each page is full of delightful Easter eggs for DC fans.


Sadly, some of the characters aren't as successful. For example, Batman is a knight's animated suit of armour that wears the Bat Signal as a coat-of-arms, a figure that fails on two Tangent counts: the new character does not really capture the name in a new way (how do knights really fit in with bats?) and the character's general feel is too similar to the original (a dark avenger flashing his symbol before smashing through a window and terrifying superstitious criminal scum).

Likewise, Wonder Woman is an alien being armed with a “bahtarang” and with the super-power of “wondering” (if she disbelieves in something, she can erase it from existence), an alternative meaning for her name that ends-up being confusing and goofy. The Atom, meanwhile, is the world's greatest superhero, a flying powerhouse who can transform the atomic structure of objects, and comes off as being very similar to another DC character with a very similar name, Captain Atom, thereby giving the impression of familiar territory when the main point of Tangent is to be fresh and new.

Still, it would have been surprising if all of the Tangent ideas were bullseyes and ultimately the good ideas definitely outweighed the bad.

As it was a totally separate universe, Tangent's revamp had very little effect on the rest of the DC universe. This gave the line a lot more freedom, but also meant that it came and went with very little fanfare, unlike, say, The New 52. Still, Tangent remains a fascinating experiment and I wonder if DC will ever return to it, or if Marvel might end up trying something similar. Certainly there are numerous ways in which the archetypal superhero names can be interpreted, or indeed the names from any prominent cosmology, be it fictional or mythological. It is a compelling thought exercise and something I've extensively explored myself at Cloudscape. It is amazing the sorts of characters you can come up with.

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