A traitorous act, or a unique, one-time experiment?
The name Stan Lee is, for many, synonymous with Marvel Comics. As well it should be, seeing as Stan Lee was the face of Marvel Comics for decades. His vision and talents revolutionized the comic book industry and propelled Marvel to the top. But what if you were told that Stan Lee, the iconic patron saint of Marvel across media, once crossed enemy lines and wrote a series for rival DC Comics? It’s true. Over the course of one year, DC and Lee released the Just Imagine… 13-issue miniseries, a series that saw Lee reinvent the legendary heroes of the DC universe.
Stan Lee's first issue in his series' with DC Comics launched in September 2001. The idea for it came from film producer/comic book writer Michael Uslan, who approached Lee with the concept of re-imagining DC's characters with a group of A-list comic artists, like John Buscema and Jim Lee (no relation). It wasn't a hard sell. Lee saw the opportunity to work with the "distinguished competition" as a fun exercise and a chance to pay tribute to the characters and their original creators (fun fact: Lee was a good friend of the legendary Bob Kane, creator of Batman). The series had the elements that Lee was known for: alliterative names (Wayne Williams, Mary Maxwell), racial diversity, and more. Reviews were mixed at the time, but the years have been kind to the unique series, with the characters inhabiting Earth-6 in the DC Multiverse and getting a new set of stories with the upcoming release of Tales from Earth-6: A Celebration of Stan Lee. With Stan Lee's 100th birthday rapidly approaching, let's look at how Lee placed his stamp on the renowned heroes of DC Comics.
Lee's take on Superman retained the fact that he came from Krypton (but as law officer Salden), took on the name Clark Kent, and Lois Lane was his agent. That would be the only connection, apart from the hero names, to DC canon. Stan Lee literally took the 10 DC heroes he was working with and started from scratch. Wayne Williams, Batman, was a wealthy, African-American professional wrestler. Maria Mendoza, Wonder Woman, a Peruvian activist. The Flash's real identity was Mary Maxwell, a self-confessed comic book fan that was suffering from a fatal disease. Famous fashion model Joan Jordan became Catwoman, and marine biologist Ramon Raymond became – you guessed it – Aquaman. No Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, Dick Grayson or Barry Allen to be found.
A few of the characters retained the powers for which they have always been known: Batman is still a person with strength and smarts, Superman can do Supermanny things, and the Flash is a speedster thanks to an injection of hummingbird DNA (yes, you read that correctly). Others, most notably Aquaman and Shazam, had their powers reimagined altogether. Aquaman gained the ability to turn into living, hard water, and when Robert Rogers says the word "Shazam" he transforms. Not into a Superman-like character, but rather into a big, hairy, winged, red creature with fangs and a necklace made of bones (think Hellboy with wings). Robin and Catwoman, traditionally without powers, were given some in Lee's interpretation, with the latter and her cat being struck by green lightning, imbuing Joan Jordan with a cat's speed, agility, physical skills, and a mind link with Ebony, her cat that gained human intelligence.
Lee's "fun project" included collaborating with some of DC's best artists on the look that would match his new takes on the characters. The results varied. Catwoman looked identical to her DC canon counterpart (except for her fingernails that extended into long, white claws, very similar to a certain Marvel mutant from Canada), and Batman was given a costume that looked like a real bat (think Man-Bat or Batmanuel's (Néstor Carbonell) costume in The Tick), neither of which were particularly imaginative. Characters like Wonder Woman and Superman were given new suits, each of which one could see the canon characters wearing, and Green Lantern was green from head to toe (and weirdly, didn't have a lantern). Truthfully, there was only one costume that was truly unique and bold: The Flash's. Mary Maxwell wore a stark, all-white bodysuit, with an array of colorful ribbons in her hair, leaving a rainbow trail wherever she ran (by the way, she could run so fast that she could catch up to herself before she had even started running).
Going in, Lee had an overarching storyline that bound the one-shot issues together, one that wouldn't be fully revealed until the final issue, Just Imagine: Crisis. Throughout the run, there are three common threads. First, each of the heroes, with a few exceptions, take up their mantles to right a wrong, like the death of a loved one. Thematically, it plays into the immortal "with great power comes great responsibility" that colors much of Lee's work. Secondly, each of their origins involve a mysterious green mist. For example, Len Lewis being thrown into the green mist that surrounds the Tree of Life in Africa, turning him into Green Lantern (or, more appropriately, Green no-Lantern), or astronaut Larry Wilton (look, ma – no alliteration!), who drifts into the green mist that has covered the planet, waking up in a dream world as Sandman. Finally, there's the Reverend Dominic Darrk and his Church of Eternal Empowerment, the antagonist that has a hand in each hero's individual conflicts, directly or indirectly, and who sets up the arrival of a being known as Crisis (that looks remarkably like the Anti-Monitor from DC's iconic Crisis on Infinite Earths series) for the climactic ending of the series.
It isn't until the final issue that the crafty storyteller reveals his hand: Just Imagine has hidden an eco-friendly message through the whole thing. Lee reveals that the Earth itself is sentient, and the green energy mist that played a piece in each of the hero's origins was purposeful on its part, seeking and creating champions to protect the Earth from the incoming Crisis. Crisis, Darrk, and Darrk's Church cronies, then, are those things that impact the Earth negatively, a purple energy in direct contrast to the protagonistic green. Crisis overpowers the heroes, but Robin, who is Crisis' grandson, becomes a vessel through which the energies combine to make a powerful being, Atom, who snuffs out Crisis' threat with a wave of his hand, a sign that in order to save the world, the forces of industry and eco-activism need to work together. With the threat negated, the group of heroes recognize they must somehow form a family, and that's the way they all became
the Brady Bunch the Justice League of All. And with that, Lee returned home to Marvel, leaving DC with one of the most creative and fascinating events in its historic legacy.
'Nuff said. Excelsior!
Lloyd 'Happy Trails' Farley: the man, the myth, the legend. He is a master of puns, with one pun book – Pun And Grimeish Mint – already released and another – Pun And Grimeish Mint II: The Empire's Spice Rack – in development. A devotee of B-films (Ed Wood in particular) and Calgary Flames hockey, Lloyd also holds fast to the belief that all of life's problems can be answered by The Simpsons, Star Wars, or The Lion King.