The Many Worlds of DC - Part 2
Posted by Tony Ingram on Jun 24, 2008
The 1985 series Crisis on Infinite Earths had one purpose: to streamline and simplify the DC Universe. Unfortunately, the results were not quite as expected. What went wrong? Let’s find out…
On the face of it, the 50th anniversary reboot of the DCU should have worked. The principal reason DC continuity had gotten so complicated was because there was so much history! Reset it, simplify that history and remove the various alternate versions of characters like Superman and Wonder Woman, and it becomes much easier for new readers to understand and gives writers far less headaches.
Unfortunately, though, it could never be that simple. For one thing, several characters still extant in the new DCU had their roots firmly in the old. For instance Fury, of the super team Infinity Inc, was a principle cast member in that book but was already established as the daughter of the original Wonder Woman, a character now deemed never to have existed! Roy Thomas dealt with this in Infinity Inc #27 by simply having the telepathic Brainwave erase all memory of Fury’s origins from her, and everyone else’s, minds-no problem. Except, this didn’t stop the readers knowing there was a gap in her history!
Eventually, it was ‘revealed’ that she was actually the daughter of the ‘original’ Fury, a World War II era character created by Thomas in 1987 as a continuity implant. Power Girl meanwhile went from being the Earth 2 Supergirl to being the granddaughter of a wizard from ancient Atlantis! Already, things were getting complicated!
The Justice Society of America was likewise a problem. In the new continuity, there had been no Earth 1 or Earth 2, the JSA were simply the wartime predecessors of the modern day JLA (with all the pesky duplicate characters removed). But, there were still two Flashes, two Green Lanterns and so on in the DCU as a result, the then current versions and their aging forebears. Not a problem for the readers, but DC’s high ups didn’t like it, it was deemed too confusing.
An edict from above led to Roy Thomas writing Last Days of the Justice Society, a Special which supposedly wrote the team out for good as they elected to spend eternity in Valhalla, staving off the coming of the end of the world. In the event, eternity lasted until 1992 when a more relaxed administration permitted their return.
Then, of course, there was Superboy-a vital part of the history of the Legion of Superheroes, but the 1986 revamp of the Superman mythos by John Byrne—which had already contradicted several issues published post-Crisis—had established that Superman, now, had never been Superboy! Cue a complicated tale of the evil Time Trapper manipulating history by creating an alternate Earth in a ‘pocket universe’ where Superboy had existed, a Superboy who subsequently died heroically in battle. But hold on a minute-hadn’t the whole point of COIE been no more alternate Earths?
The problem was that, above and beyond these comparatively minor but necessary continuity fixes, both the writers—who wanted to exercise their imaginations—and the readers—who wanted to have theirs stimulated—actually liked seeing a different take on characters! The 1986 series Secret Origins was launched to reintroduce the heroes of the new DCU, but the first issue, as a tribute to the company’s history, retold the origin of the Golden Age Superman of Earth 2, a character who no longer existed (the original Batman soon followed), while the more or less simultaneous Batman: the Dark Knight Returns was about an aged Batman in a speculative future era! It simply isn’t possible to stifle creativity for the sake of simplicity, it appears.
In 1989, the success of ‘Batman: Gotham by Gaslight’, an out of continuity tale in which a Victorian era Batman battles Jack the Ripper, led to the creation of the ‘Elseworlds’ imprint, and a stream of stories in which DC’s heroes were transplanted to “strange times and places”, as the tagline went. Batman was a favorite of the Elseworlds line, re-imagined in various possible futures, as a hero of the American Civil War and even as a vampire, while ‘Superman: Red Son’ imagined what would have occurred if the infant Kal-El had arrived behind the Iron Curtain and the tongue in cheek ‘Superman: True Brit’ (part written by legendary comedian John Cleese) saw Supes raised in the English countryside!
Lesser characters were featured too, though. James Robinson’s ‘The Golden Age’ took us back to the end of the first wave of superheroes in the aftermath of World War II for a downbeat tale of disillusionment and betrayal, while ‘Kamandi at Earth’s End’ brought back Jack Kirby’s “last boy on Earth” in a slightly different form and pitted him against an elderly Superman. But hang on a minute… Wasn’t Kamandi written out in COIE because alternate futures were too confusing?
Other problems arose. Everyone agreed that the rebooted DCU gave writers the opportunity to reinvent characters and their histories for a new generation of readers, but no two writers seemed to have the same revised history in mind, and characters were revised at different times in a fairly haphazard manner. ‘Hawkworld’, a 1993 limited series, reintroduced Hawkman, but a later writer had to explain how the previous version of the character could have participated in stories published a few months before in JLA, resulting in the creation of a totally redundant ‘alternate’ Hawkman.
Meanwhile, the Legion of Superheroes were having their history rewritten seemingly every other month, since a new editorial edict meant that Byrne’s bogus Superboy, too, was now considered surplus to requirements and no-one could decide who had replaced him. Finally, in 1994, it became apparent that yet another house cleaning exercise was needed-less than a decade after the last one!
The result was ‘Zero Hour: Crisis in Time’, in which the insane former Green Lantern Hal Jordan tries to rewrite history for his own benefit (Hal, of course, has since redeemed himself, his temporary turn to the dark side for the most part forgiven and forgotten). The story ended with history reset again, and the Legion in particular given a chance to start over from scratch. But still, the writers could not be kept in check…
In 1996, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s supposedly out of continuity series ‘Kingdom Come’ proved a surprise hit, with its tale of second generation superheroes running amok in a nightmarish future. Readers wanted more of these characters-and they got ‘em, in 1998’s ‘The Kingdom’, a two part series carrying over into several specials, in which the characters from ‘Kingdom Come’ interact with those of the modern day DCU.
It was now clear that alternate futures, at least, did indeed exist in the post-Crisis DCU, and Waid got around the apparent contradiction of COIE by introducing the concept of Hypertime…which many readers nonetheless felt was just the old multiverse by another name. Subsequent writers have largely ignored Hypertime (which appears to have now been retconned out of existence), but ‘The Kingdom’ did have one major repercussion not necessarily fully appreciated at the time.
A two- page ‘bookend’ sequence showed Kal-L, the supposedly gone for good Superman of Earth 2, initially trapped in an extra-dimensional prison-and then discovering a possible way out! It would take him another seven years to manage it, but when he did, in Infinite Crisis #1, the eventual results were Earth shattering, and led directly to the re-establishing of the DC Multiverse!
Some ideas, it seems, just refuse to lie down and die…
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