Talking to Cary Bates about the history of the DC Universe, one question comes to mind: Did our reality exist before Bates invented Earth-Prime?
It's those kind of sci-fi, twisted concepts that helped define the Silver Age of comic books, and Bates was right at the middle of it. Now he's returning to those concepts as part of DC's "Retroactive" event this summer, with stories about the '70s versions of The Flash and Justice League of America.
Bates started his comics’ career in the '60s as one of the youngest creators to ever work in the industry, having sold an idea for the cover of Superman #167 to DC when he was only 13 years old. Since then, the writer has shown a lot of diversity, working on everything from The Flash and Justice League of America to Fantastic Four and Vampirella. He was also an instrumental part in DC's early forays into television, and was even the screenwriter for a planned Superman V.
Although Bates has done much of his recent work in animation, the legendary writer recently re-entered comics to write the True Believers mini-series for Marvel and a Superman: Last Family of Krypton mini-series for DC.
Now the writer becomes part of DC's summer Retro event with DC Retroactive: The Flash - The 70's #1, featuring art by Benito Gallego, and DC Retroactive: Justice League of America - The '70s #1, with art by Andy Smith and Gordon Purcell. Both stories are being released later this month.
The stories will explore concepts like Earth Prime, Gorilla Grodd, Kanjar Ro and Adam Strange, in the Silver Age-y way only a writer like Bates could accomplish.
Newsarama talked with Bates to find out more about his issues, what he thinks of the JLA relaunch, and what he'd do with a movie about The Flash.Newsarama: Cary, let's start with the Retroactive Flash book. What's unique about this era of the Flash, and how will that be represented in your comic?
Cary Bates: What editor Julie Schwartz and I were doing for the first half of the Seventies could be looked at as a slightly tweaked extension of the Silver Age Flash that he, Gardner Fox and John Broome had so clearly established.
But toward the end of Julie’s run we began to throw in the occasional wild card (like the death of the Top storyline) that presaged the more radical story elements that would soon follow with other editors. So it’s in this context that I tried to represent both influences in my retro story.
Certainly it pays homage to the classic “funky science” concepts that Julie, Fox and Broome made such an indelible part of the book’s appeal, but it also pivots on an extreme plot point (Grodd and Iris parenting a child together) that might have been a bit outside Julie’s comfort zone.
Nrama: Yikes, that's certainly a crazy idea. Can you explain the idea behind the story?
Bates: It’s titled “Son of Grodd” and it explores the concept of fatherhood on two parallel tracks, one dealing with Grodd and the other with Barry. At the same time, you’ll be seeing a new side of Grodd as we find out what kind of father he might have made back in those days.
No one should be surprised to learn Grodd’s simian foray into fatherhood might take us into some extremely dysfunctional “Daddy Dearest” territory.
Nrama: Since you mentioned Iris' role in the comic, it points toward one of the pivotal relationships during your run on The Flash. The marriage of Barry and Iris played such an important role. Is that why you wanted to return to that relationship for this story?
Bates: Revisiting the Barry-Iris marriage from a 2011 perspective, I was struck by one obvious “elephant in the room” question: why didn’t they ever have kids? (Absent the Tornado Twins who were eventually conceived in the 25th century.)
Sure, there are those couples who choose not to have children… and then there are those unable to have them due to factors beyond their control. Which scenario applied to the Allens, or was there yet another reason? This is what I wanted to explore.
Nrama: Barry Allen and time travel are playing a central role in the current DC event, Flashpoint. How important has the ability to time travel been to the history of the Flash, particularly during your run on the book? And what made it work so well with this character?
Bates: Flash and time travel just always seemed to go together, just like Green Lantern and space-opera. During my run I certainly made ample use of future-era villains like Zoom and Abra Kadabra, as well as the cosmic treadmill that enabled Flash himself to time-travel.
And even before I came onto the book there was the controversial story Julie did with Bob Kanigher that revealed Iris was actually from the far future. And anyone who remembers the infamous Flash Trial storyline from the 80’s knows time travel played a vital role in Flash’s final days before the Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Nrama: Grodd is also being spotlighted during Flashpoint, and you're returning to him here in this story. What is it about Gorilla Grodd that makes him such a great Flash villain, and why does he work so well for this issue?
Bates: There was a period in the '50s to early '60s when DC would find any outlandish scenario or excuse to put gorillas on their covers because they boosted sales (or so the legend goes). So even if Grodd only started out as the Flash version of the DC ape-obsession, by the time I came on the book (thanks to Julie and John Broome) he had evolved into a major villain with his own unique back-story and supporting cast (Gorilla City, Solovar, etc) which has always made him fun to write.
As I alluded earlier, my retro Flash story explores the theme of fatherhood, and once I went down that road certain aspects of Grodd made him the go-to choice for the villain and counterpoint to Barry. To say much more might take us into spoiler territory.
Nrama: Warner Bros. has put together a treatment for a possible film version of The Flash. Have you ever thought about the Flash as a movie, and what are your thoughts on how it would work?
Bates: There’s great potential there, but in the two decades since the Flash TV series with John Wesley Shipp, audiences have been exposed to an array of super-fast characters (The Incredibles, Smallville’s “Blur”, No Ordinary Family, etc.) so one problem will be how to depict Flash’s velocity in a manner we haven’t seen before.They may need to come up with their own speed equivalent of the Superman film campaign “You’ll believe a man can fly.”Nrama: Let's switch gears to your Retroactive JLA issue. How did this story idea come about? Was it something you'd thought about before?
Bates: No. The deadlines for the retro books were very tight, so once I signed on I had to come up with the plots for both books within 24 hours. Though I didn’t write a large number of JLA stories in the ‘70’s, the best-remembered ones seem to those that featured either Earth-Prime or Adam Strange. So when it came time to tackle the retro story, combining those elements seemed a valid way to go.
Nrama: The fact that you're revisiting Earth Prime is pretty significant because you created Earth Prime and... wait, didn't you actually visit Earth-Two and return here to Earth Prime within the comics?
Bates: For the record it only happened twice: in an Irv Novick Flash story and in a JLA two-parter where I guest-starred alongside Julie and Elliot Maggin.
When I first created Earth Prime at age 19 (Flash #179,“The Flash: Fact or Fiction”) neither Julie nor I had any inkling the concept would become such integral part of the DC canon in decades to follow, up through Superboy-Prime and beyond.
Nrama: What can you tell us about those classic stories you wrote that were set in Earth Prime, where editors and writers were "influenced" by the real superheroes they write about? They mixed fiction with reality in a new way. What were the thoughts behind them?
Bates: Suffice it to say, I’ve always been fascinated by “meta” stories in any medium that play tricks with reality and fantasy. Such concepts have certainly made for some intriguing films over the years (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Last Action Hero, Stranger Than Fiction, etc.)
In comics, however, these stories usually posit the notion that superheroes are the ones being influenced by us real world writers. Over the years it’s been interesting to observe how malleable the Earth-Prime concept has proven to be. One example that comes to mind is Infinite Crisis, when a furious Superboy-Prime pounded on the so-called barrier of reality, creating “ripples” between universes as a way to explain a slew of various changes and retcons in DC continuity.
Nrama: Getting back to the story at hand, what can you tell us about this era of the Justice League you're writing about in the Retro JLA issue, and what makes it unique?
Bates: By the ‘70s, the book had begun expanding its initial seven-member roster, sometimes featuring as many as twelve heroes. Even so, more often than not, Superman and Batman were still on the sidelines, so they play no role in my retro story. Zatanna and Red Tornado do appear since they were among the newbies who came on board during the decade (along with Hawkwoman, Elongated Man, Firestorm, etc.).
This was also the era that ushered in the JLA satellite, so it features prominently in my story as well.
Nrama: Why did you choose Kanjar Ro as the villain for this story? What do you like about this villain, and what can you tell us about his role?
Bates: It seemed only appropriate to use Kanjar Ro, since he and Adam Strange both appeared in my aforementioned JLA efforts back in the day. Then or now, I don’t think any fans would dispute his rank as one of the top JLA villains of all time. (I believe a ‘70’s Kanjar story will be the book’s reprint entry). And because he is such a formidable villain, the JLAers stranded in Earth-Prime must find a way to even the odds… so they journey to the Seventies-era New York City to plot their counter-strategy with a Very Special DC Guest Star.
Nrama: Do you keep up with what's happening with the Justice League now in comics? And are you aware that their history is being rebooted in September? Any thoughts about it?
Bates: I can’t say I’ve followed the evolution of the JLA closely, but the fact that the series has persevered through so many iterations over the years (JLAs Detroit, International, Classified, Unlimited, etc.) demonstrates the universal appeal of a concept that continues to attract new generations of readers. I look forward to seeing what Geoff [Johns] and Jim Lee have in store for the book come September.
Nrama: Is there anything in particular you'd like to see the writers keep (or eliminate) about the history of the Justice League? Or does it matter?
Bates: Not so much for a book that’s always been in flux. Over the years, history has already shown how well the JLA has been able to adapt and evolve through numerous change-ups, both in creative teams and continuity/cast changes.
Nrama: Do you have any other work coming out that you want to tell your fans about?
Bates: I’m also writing an original maxi-series for DC that won’t be out 'til next year. It too deals with superheroes, but in all other respects it’s the complete antithesis of the retro stories and old school continuity. Substitute cop shows for comics and it would be like comparing Dexter or The Shield to Columbo or Kojak. Universes apart — literally. The series will have a Teen-Plus rating. It’s more than a bit twisted and quite unlike anything I’ve ever done before. It will subvert and redefine everything readers thought they knew about superhero mentors, protégés, and Dr. Fredric Wertham.
Nrama: Then to finish up, Cary, is there anything else you want to tell fans about these two Retroactive issues?
Bates: For me, the fun and the challenge was being true to the essence of the retro concept while finding ways to put a modern spin on classic elements that typified ‘70s DC comics. If I’ve succeeded, new readers unfamiliar with the decade will still find the stories very accessible. And for any of you out there who were actually reading comics back in the 1970’s… as well as any younger fans who may have become acquainted with the era via back issues or reprints… you might want to keep an eye out for the “Easter Eggs.”