The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Mining The Public Domain

Posted by BigWords on January 6, 2010

As I try to keep myself occupied with adequate levels of strangeness, it occurs to me that there seems to have been a shift in public opinion regarding public domain characters while I wasn’t paying attention. There used to be a sniggering, sneering attitude taken whenever people brought up the outmoded (and often laughable) characters and situations which had been abandoned by their creators, but these days it is hard to turn around without catching a glimpse of a famous character free from troublesome copyright problems. I guess it saves people the trouble of having to do the hard work. Or something.

Take a few moments to think of the number of revivals kicking around at the moment. The new Sherlock Holmes film, the Project Superpowers comics, the Robin Hood and Merlin series from the BBC… There are many, many examples kicking around now, which take the elements of the original characters and spin them off in new ways, and I’m wondering if this current fascination may have something of worth. Maybe there is redemption for the neglected characters nobody seems to want to take the blame credit for. Lets pick a good example from the Golden Age of comics… Hmmm. Captain Commando seems particularly pathetic.

Now, my first problem is the name. There’s no way anyone can write a character called Captain Commando with a straight face. I’ll simply use Commando from now on, if only to save myself from getting a migraine trying to take him seriously. And then I come to the costume. Were S. M. Iger and Alex Blum being incredibly lazy when they came up with this particular patriotic character, or did they know he was fated for the trash heap when they first cobbled together the (sparse) elements? There is nothing particularly memorable about him save for that awful, awful name – nothing to be proud of here, guys.

Do I have to point out the V on his costume? Considering that neither his real name nor his nomme de guerre (or even an affiliate organization to which he is attached à la Legion of Super-Heroes) contains the letter, it’s merely a visual distraction. That isn’t even the most obvious problem with the costume, because, given his military rank, he displays a lack of any insignia or other company identifiers. I’ve always liked the fetishism of uniforms (look at the Germans in the second world war for the prime example of military style), so there has to be something which looks like it is straight out of a war film.

That’ll do for now.

Next on the agenda is that belt. I like simplicity combined with automatically recognizable elements, though there is no way that damn V is staying. He’s the poster boy for the US war effort (in his mind, at least), so he ought to have something a little more patriotic than a letter – even that lame-ass Aquaman has a letter on his buckle, and look how his career turned out. Maybe a simple American flag would suffice. It’s clear from a distance, and the soldiers who watch him from a distance will know whose side Commando is on.

John Grayson (Commando’s real name) doesn’t really have an origin, which also points to the lack of care in crafting the character. There’s already way too many characters whose origins are clouded in Super Soldier serum / radiation / mutant DNA bullshit, so there really should be a more realistic take on the origin if he has any hope of being of use. Considering how many of the Stars And Stripes characters have been deconstructed and psychoanalyzed over the years, for the worse in many cases, I don’t want to use too much of the sub-Freudean hackery that passes for ‘depth’ in comics.

The first point which I have to make regarding superheroes is simple – you can’t have a character say the Nazi’s are doubling their garrisons all along the coast if the character isn’t at least Superman-level. It doesn’t work with Batman, so it sure as hell doesn’t work with the lame sonufabitch pictured above. The Nazi’s are – in all likelihood – wetting themselves with laughter at him prancing around in his red underwear. I’ll let that sink in a moment before hashing out a half-decent origin for you… A guy wearing spandex is not threatening. It’s one of the unfortunate hold-overs from the early comics, and it has to stop being portrayed as anything but camp.

My point made, I promised you an origin. Here goes:

The US military forces, sensing that their troops are being demoralized by the superior fashion sense, the awesome-cool supernatural trinkets, and the sexy baroness’s in tight-fitting leather which Hitler has been parading in front of their GIs, decide they need a show of force that will raise the spirits of the troops. The best way to get the blood up is, apparently, by having a focal figure which they can look up to and attempt to emulate. Nobody bothered to check the ways that this could mess up their fighting force, with mere mortals trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal. Great way to encourage troops to run into a hail of gunfire…

So, barring any of their men tripping and falling into a vat of radioactive-super-soldier-making-macguffin, they need to manufacture their hero. There aren’t any easy ways to get a regular guy to the state of battle-readiness that Commando displays, so slight of hand is needed. I suggest this could be done simply and without recourse to any of the tired and predictable superhero staples which make me despair for the state of writing in comics. First of all, a small unit (twenty men) armed with enough firepower to take out any number of enemies they encounter are deployed as quietly as possible. No witnesses – this is a really important bit.

These guys, hand-picked for their abilities, do all the dirty work and make damn sure everyone within the target zone is eliminated. With the area cleared, Commando is safely dropped into the middle of the battle to be picked up by a unit which has been ordered to go pick him up. As he is being transported back to a very visible base to be flown back to HQ, he busies himself bullshitting the troops about how he managed to single-handedly take out the enemy forces in the area. Suitably buoyed by his tales of heroism, the soldiers have their spirits raised and hope renewed.

Shower, rinse, repeat.

There ya go – one origin story just as I promised.

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One Response to “Mining The Public Domain”

  1. […] But the public domain? Gods, how I adore the public domain. […]

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