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Grumpy Old Fan | Prospective retrospectives

DCU: Legacies #4

I read with great interest Brian Cronin’s list of 75 Most Memorable Moments In DC Comics History, in part because I wondered how close I could come with my own list without totally ripping his off.  (Said with a smile and a great deal of respect, of course.)

First I thought about listing 75 key DC moments, drawn probably from both real and fictional history; but that list would be rather predictable as well — Action Comics #1 juxtaposed with Siegel and Shuster’s legal battles, etc. (Tom Spurgeon et al.’s list of “emblematic” ‘70s comics is close in spirit if not subject matter to the list I’d want to assemble.)  The other type of “75 moments” list I considered would be a highlight-filled timeline including events exclusively from DC’s fictional history — things like “first meeting of the Justice Society,” “debut of Superman,” and “Darkseid enslaves Earth.”  I didn’t quite like that because it too would be predictable, filled with first appearances and Big Events.

Ironically, though, DC has always seemed rather short on shared-universe-style events which define it as a superhero publisher. Marvel has the coming of Galactus, the Kree-Skrull War, the Secret Empire, and the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Phoenix. DC has comparable milestones, but they don’t come as readily to mind. Off the top of my head I might list “Flash of Two Worlds,” the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, and “The Judas Contract,” before getting into various Crises, disasters, and alien invasions. I think you have to dig a bit deeper into the DC titles to pull out things like a second Moon wreaking havoc (JLA #155, June 1978) or Trigon taking over the world (New Teen Titans vol. 2 #s 1-5, August 1984-February 1985). Therefore, while projects like the original History of the DC Universe and the current DC Universe: Legacies have their hearts in the right place, they must deal with DC’s scattershot approach to world-building.

Naturally, the scope of world- (or universe-) building varies with the scope of the particular book. An educated guess (and a quick glance at Chris Miller’s Unauthorized Chronology of the DC Universe) suggests that much of “what we know” about broad DC cosmology comes mainly from the pages of Green Lantern and New Gods, with bits of Vertigo, Doctor Fate, and the Spectre thrown in for good measure. The Unauthorized Chronology notes that the Lords of Order (13 billion years ago) and the Maltusians (10 billion years ago) could each claim to be the universe’s first sentient beings. The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago, “shortly” before the Maltusian named Krona attempted his catastrophic studies of the dawn of time. Krona’s peers subsequently left Maltus for the planet Oa, and I think you probably know how that relocation worked out. Not surprisingly, the Blackest Night crossover (actually, an issue of Green Lantern) recently expanded DC’s cosmology to include the development of various emotional-spectrum entities.  (Laura Hudson’s excellent analysis is here.)  I haven’t quite worked it all out myself, but apparently some of these revelations fit with established DC history better than others do.

Now, if you read Green Lantern, Brightest Day, or similarly-themed titles, that kind of knowledge might well be helpful, even if it doesn’t appear initially to make sense. (If the Earth is the source of all life in DC’s universe, how can the Maltusians’ achievement of sentience predate the Earth’s very existence by about six billion years? Just how reliable a narrator is Sinestro?) However, clearly you don’t need to know about the Emotional Spectrum to enjoy, say, Zatanna, Doom Patrol, or even Superman. Again, the history of the DC Universe looks different from the perspective of each different title.

One such perspective centers on Superman as the focal point of DC’s superhero history. This approach was a lot more simple in the pre-Crisis Multiverse days, when the superhero history of each parallel Earth started in earnest with Superman’s first public appearance. With the post-Crisis unified timeline, though, “our” Superman’s first appearance came several decades after the wartime Golden Age of superheroes had ended. Therefore, since Supes can’t be first chronologically, he must be first symbolically; and so conventional DC wisdom states that he is the purest example of superheroics … well, pretty much ever. It’s not an unreasonable conceit, but it does tend to affect the narrative flow of DC’s history. If everything builds up to Superman (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Silver Age generally), everything which follows must fight that much harder to keep a reader’s interest. Of course, the fact that DC’s current superhero history has no definite end-point doesn’t help.

This is not to say that DC can’t do meaningful examinations of its highest-profile characters. The year-long Trinity weekly series made Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman integral parts of DC-Earth’s development. That fit fairly well with 52’s conceit that “our” Earth, in Universe Designate Zero, was the key to the 52-world Multiverse. Indeed, Trinity gave DC the new “Earth One,” complete with its own Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

Put them all together and it is — surprise! — perhaps the most Earth-centric view of the universe since the Church put Galileo on trial. Okay, it’s not that bad; especially since any number of sci-fi/fantasy settings similarly find Earth so special. It does makes me wonder whether the “broken Trinity” might have affected Blackest Night in some subtle way; or whether the return of Bruce Wayne (which would restore the Trinity) has some role to play in Brightest Day. Probably not — right now Geoff Johns seems most concerned with building up Green Lantern, the Flash, and the other “revivees,” and Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are each going in different directions. Still, it seems like a story’s in there somewhere….

For now, though, the larger story of the DC Universe is apparently its self-perpetuation. Superheroes emerge in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, just in time for World War II. They choose up teams — the Justice Society, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the Freedom Fighters — and for about ten years they run around righting wrongs and beating back evildoers. Postwar paranoia does them in, though; and rather than take off their masks they retire. So from 1951 to “twelve to fifteen years ago,” the costumed-adventurer void is filled by various isolated groups like the Challengers of the Unknown, the Blackhawks, Task Force X, and the Justice Experience.

On a bright, clear day in Metropolis, however, it all changes. Maybe Lois Lane is falling from a helicopter, maybe she’s on the maiden voyage of a new space shuttle; but she meets the love of her life — although she might not realize it — and introduces him to the world as Superman. (See? There’s the historical narrative’s big dramatic moment.) Soon there’s Batman and Aquaman and Wonder Woman and a new Green Lantern and Flash and they’re all a Justice League and their kid partners are Teen Titans and there’s a group of weird Doom Patrollers and Metal Men and New Gods and a new crop of Teen Titans and the Justice Society comes out of retirement … and there’s a Crisis …

… and you can fill in the blanks, right? It’s not about the events at all — it’s about the characters. There is an historical record which informs history-minded books like All-Star Squadron and Starman, but for the most part it’s window dressing. Although Marvels was very careful to weave its plot out of threads from the comics themselves, Marvel has always been more conscious of its connectivity. Legacies is superficially very similar to Marvels, but it just can’t be as faithful to the comics, because the comics were never that faithful to each other. Writer Len Wein certainly understands how to draw good stories out of old continuity, having written (among other things) 1980′s needs-to-be-reprinted Untold Legend Of The Batman miniseries. However, modern DC miniseries like Legacies and Superman: Secret Origin, and the “Secret Origin” flashback arc in Green Lantern, are more like prospective retrospectives. They pick and choose elements from a character’s history — apparently without regard for longtime readers’ memories — in order to lay foundations for future stories. So Cat Grant shows up in S:SO despite “really” having come to the Daily Planet long after Clark Kent did; and the first arc from George Pérez’s Wonder Woman (co-written by Wein, in fact) gets moved a similar distance back in time.

If I sound snide or indignant about these things, I’m not — not really, that is. It’d be nice to see DC build on the immediate post-Crisis continuity I still remember from high school; but those memories are almost 25 years old themselves by now. Heck, Tim Drake’s first set of long pants turns 20 this fall. DC’s future is in selling its characters, not its past.

Although — speaking of “future,” I think there’s room for Legacies to take at least a couple of side trips to the 31st and 853rd Centuries, where the legacies of Superman et al. are honored daily. If Mr. Wein and his artists really want to write the end of the DC Universe’s story, the Time Trapper will likely be there waiting….

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What I had to do with DC’s books is look at different eras, and sometimes even single books, as existing in their own vacuum continuity. I love DC’s immediate post-Crisis books, like John Byrne’s Superman and Perez’s Wonder Woman. But parts of them have been retro-actively written out (much like the books they initially replaced) that to enjoy them fully, I have to draw a mandatory line from where their continuity ends and the next one begins (I’ve found Zero Hour to be a good cutting off point.)

It was the last two issues of Legacies that finally swore me off any more ‘histories’, ‘year ones’ or ‘secret origins’. My brain just can’t reconcile the shifts in continuity needed to make them work (I was especially flummoxed by the Wonder Woman time-line in Legacies; they want to keep the post-Crisis origin, but then throw in Wonder Girl and a Cheetah from pre-Crisis. Huh?!)

Year One’s are the worst. , though. It seems every time someone gets to write a Year One, they add small changes here and there, essentially creating a new origin. JUST.LEAVE.THEM.ALONE. The more a scab is picked at, the more it festers.

In my head, post-Crisis Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman started up in the mid-Eighties; every-time a new history is written, though, and the 10-15 year sliding scale thing is reinforced, my brain throws me out of the story. Oh, so Superman appeared sometime between 1995 and 2000? >FRIIIIIIIITZZZZZ<

I much prefer the stance Englehart took in that old Justice League story, where publication dates are inviolate, costumes and fashions change, but the characters never truly age. That I can get my head around.

I think everyone can agree that these histories are just ever-evolving things that will never work cohesively. As much as Marvel’s history might be more consistently portrayed than DC’s (the lack of Crises help), most of their modern stable of writers play very careful games of selecting what history works for them and what to ignore. Most of them are nice enough to reference even the stuff they don’t like (Spider-Man clones, for example) as tangential events that were as problematic for the hero suffering through them as they were for the readers invested in making sense of them.

I like that DC has a sort of grand mythology to it, and so while things tend to lose their flavour – or sometimes just change from strawberry to vanilla wholesale – over the years, it becomes easier to accept things as simply being revised myths. Superman’s origin is pretty much the same 99% of the time, and revising it usually just means updating him from 50′s gentle giant (Silver Age origin) to 80′s yuppie douchebag (Byrne) to some kind of weird anachronism in the 21st century (Johns).

When it comes down to it, if the story’s good, it won’t kill me to see these stories retold yet again when I’m in my 60′s, and to see how the next generation of writers (hopefully I can call myself one of them some day) reinterprets the myth for the generations of 3D television and palm-sized super-computers.

For me the ‘real’ JSA and Infinity Inc was on Earth Two and when Crisis placed them and the JLA in the same time line – erasing/replacing GA Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman – I just stopped collecting. Same with Teen Titans, same with Legion of Superheroes.

I understand and respect the need for the changes in Superman (and many other superheroes) – even collected all the Byrne issues but I stopped as more and more Silver Age aspects to Superman – that had been compared to ‘barnacles’ that had accumulated as the decades passed – came back but in a ‘revamped’ form. If they were so bad before WHY were they coming BACK?

Then as the damage to other titles and characters spread like a ret-con cancer no one – NO ONE – at DC ever truly fixed the harm the original Crisis did to so many titles. All they had to do was start ALL titles anew and not piece meal and then insult our intelligences like the infamous selling of the Bryne Superman as being ALWAYS the same Superman or the poster boy of how a clusterfrak of continuity can destroy a character – Hawkman?

On that note: The JSA is like a beloved pet being kept alive on life support (same with Power Girl who gets an ongoing after ongoing but odds are gets cancelled again) – if the so called sophisticated readers of today almost can’t handle iconic trappings like a superhero with shorts and a cape, one of these days just like the metaphorical kid that called out the Emperor on the nudity thing – this cynical generation is gonna finally scream to DC how can some of original members of the JSA still be alive when the war has been over (most of that generation dead also) and many of them should be in their nineties or hundreds!

Golden Age was one era – Silver Age – Bronze etc. are different ages for different readers and (like many other have already commented) let’s address this issue (or gorilla) get beyond it already.

Look, just as the longer you live the older you get, the reality is as long as people are willing to buy these titles they will be published. Each revamp, soft ret-con, new generation or just simple apathy will lose readers.

It’s a fact of life and the Big Two should stop fearing it and just embrace it and start working on building and staying with a non-continuity cluttered universe for the kids of today instead of the clingy, whiny ones of yesteryear.

Wasn’t Perez’s Wonder Woman run co-written by Greg Potter and not Len Wein?

I’ve always felt that CoIE was the worst thing to happen to the DCU. Why did they feel that all the Earths had to be combined? There seemed to be a train of thought that people weren’t buying DC books because the multi-verse was confusing. It wasn’t. Not even slightly. There were multpile Earths with histories that were close but not exact. If the average comic reader can buy aliens, gods, they can buy this concept. And about 98% of the stories took place on Earth 1 anyway, so generally we didn’t have to worry about the other Earths anyway.

Now the DCU is a mess. There are too many heroes. They really should be tripping over themselves by now. Three Flashes. Four or five Green Lanterns (that are human). And Gotham-how many non-powered super-heroes are there? Seven or eight?

With respect to the long-lived JSA (and the fact that they keep getting older while their kids stay the same age), I think DC could have come up with a much more elegant solution than the convoluted explanations they have going now (Wildcat’s 9 lives, Jay Garrick and Central City being forgotten, etc). After WWII and the McCarthy era, the JSA retired to protect their identities. Here’s the new part: they team up on one last secret mission and save the world from (insert bizarre Grant Morrision threat here) but as a consequence they all get hurled forward in time to “20 years ago” whenever that may be. If this was the 1990s then they arrived in the 1970s. In 2010, they arrived in 1990, whatever. The point is that “20 years ago” can always be moved around while maintaining the WWII link which is so key to their history but without them being 100 years old. So they arrive, the Cold War is over, and they decide to settle down and have kids, who will eventually become the Infinity Inc. kids. Then 15 or so years after arriving (ie 5 years ago) Superman saves a space shuttle/airplane/helicopter/corolla/whatever containing Lois Lane and the superhero boom is on. After a few years the Infiinity Inc kids take the stage and the JSA’ers (still looking trim and foxy-ish in their mid to late fifties) come out of retirement to mentor the young’uns. Clean, simple, neat.

Legacies is coming out four years too late- they should’ve written it in 2006 after Infinite Crisis altered reality in the DC Universe *yet again*. After all its purpose is to let everybody know how things fit together now, no? Maybe there would have been less contradictions -as with the Blackest Night revelations for example- if it had.

Note I don’t blame the writers for this- their job is coming up with stuff that will sell after all. It’s the editorial staff who are responsible to make their shared universe work together. Most of the big foul-ups in DC’s history have been caused by uncooperative or short-sighted editors (or their superiors). For example Hawkworld was supposed to be have been an Elseworlds story, not canon- but someone decided “heck let’s make that the new Hawkman!” which wasn’t bad in of itself- but they should have decided that BEFORE the post-Crisis universe had established that Hawkman already had been a member of the Justice League for years. No excuse there.

Keeping continuity isn’t that hard anyway- all you have to do is make sure any character that suffers an important change is restored to his or her personal status quo by the time you’re done with them. Most continuity foulups I’ve seen are results of one writer having to patch up together what someone else left hanging.

Crisis was DC’s attempt to make their company have a “universe” like Marvel–big mistake. Marvel’s main canon was created by three people: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko. Each of DC’s characters was created by a different person, and many were created for competing companies. Its hard for them to admit it, but Crisis made everything far more confusing.

Why do they need to earmark ‘earths’ ? Just publish Flash alongside Uncle Sam, and DON’T BOTHER explaining what “earth” its on. No one questions why ABC has one show with in ‘reality’ earth (Desperate Housewives) and another rules by lizards (V), so why does DC? Do they think comics readers are that stupid?

The simplest solution to the DC continuity mess:

Create a new event where DC’s realize they’ve been living in an alternate timeline since the Crisis, and then have them “return” to their respective earths and continue on their way. © me

This way, every story from 1986-2010 still “happened”, but it was part of a ‘sideways’ world that was artificially created by the Crisis.

So, Earth-1 continuity is restored. Superman is the first superhero, the competing companies’ characters have their own continuities, and the Justice Society is left to exist forever in World War II.

Seems so simple!

@ Mike-El: Sure, but if the lizards from V suddenly showed up on Desperate Housewives, viewers would want to know how/why THAT happened. Publish Flash, Uncle Sam, Sugar & Spike, whatever, but if you have them interact or crossover, or have (for example) Starman show up in Uncle Sam and Flash in the same month, people are going to want to know how it happens (which comes first, etc.).

As for myself, I try not to think too hard about continuity in general. I don’t always succeed, but I do my best. I agree with other posters who contend that DC’s continuity troubles REALLY started after CoIE. In fact, Marv Wolfman his own self has commented more than once that his original proposal included having DC END all of their series and start everything over with a #1, and telling stories as if NONE of the last 50 years had ever happened. That would have avoided a LOT of problems, including the Hawkworld problem…

Having said all that, I’m enjoying Legacies for what it is. If it doesn’t work exactly right, so what?

While DC does have a more organic history than Marvel, the development of a DCU was inevitable back in the thirties when they introduced the Justice Society in the third issue of All Star Comics and for that matter remember that the Justice League predates the Fantastic Four. DC created the idea of a shared super hero universe.

I started reading comics at about the time of the CoIE, and I’ve never been particularly interested in what DC did prior to that. Comics in general were getting more interesting at that point–e.g., the Dark Knight, the Watchmen, etc, and there was some innovative thinking going on at DC, in general. Some of it was going in a direction that would become Vertigo, but that wasn’t all of it. Trademark characters were re-invented, origins updated–there was a lot of creativity, a lot of newness, bringing things into the (then) present.

Twenty years later, what seems strange is not that the mythologies & characters are changing again–that would be fine–but that there’s a marked tendency to change back to the way things were over 20 years ago. For example, displacing Wally West for Barry Allen today would be akin to displacing Barry Allen for Jay Garrick in the late 1970s, but it looks like that’s what’s happening. Lex Luthor is no longer the ruthless corporate titan, but is back to being a campy crazed scientist. Bruce Wayne may be (temporarily) gone, but we’ve reverted back to what looks like a pre-Dark Knight Batman & Robin look for the comic. Give up on anyone else trying to be Green Lantern; it has to be Hal Jordan, even though other candidates have been lining up since the late 1960s.

This isn’t creativity. This isn’t offering new ideas to a new generation of readers. It looks suspiciously like a bid for the larger wallets and nostalgic tastes of readers over 30. If you’re going to jettison 20 years worth of history, at least do it for something new, something that belongs to 2010, not something dating back before 1990.

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