O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
There’s a weird little sequence in the middle of DC Universe: Legacies #3 when the narration’s timeline goes all hazy and oblique, in order to move the story from sometime in the Eisenhower/Kennedy years right into the “X years ago” of modern continuity. Because Legacies tracks some sixty-five years of costumed crimefighting, this sequence bridges the gap between the Justice Society’s retirement and Superman’s debut.
“Hazy and oblique” are also good words for describing DC’s approach to long-term continuity. The history of the DC Universe is well-settled up to the early 1950s, but past then it becomes elastic. This is something we’ve come to expect: fudging the calendar keeps our heroes both as experienced and as youthful as they need to be. However, each passing year also widens the gap between the end of the Golden Age (early ‘50s) and the beginning of the Silver (thought to be 12-15 years ago). Through reader-identification character Paul Lincoln,* DCUL’s writer (and longtime DC favorite) Len Wein aims to put a human face on all those four-color adventures.
That sounds like the premise of 1994’s Marvels and its spiritual descendant Astro City. Really, though, any halfway-entertaining super-survey needs a narrator with a recognizable point of view. Even 1986’s History of the DC Universe, which was basically a series of George Pérez pinups arranged in chronological order, took its florid prose ostensibly from Harbinger’s meditations on the nature of heroism.
Here, then, is our Mr. Lincoln, would-be juvenile delinquent turned Metropolis cop, whose life is changed after an encounter with the Golden Age Atom and Sandman. Over the course of ten issues, Paul goes from street kid to nursing home, marrying his childhood sweetheart and becoming a father along the way, all the while constantly and steadfastly affirming his faith in DC’s costumed crusaders. As a protagonist, Paul makes a decent narrator; but Paul isn’t exactly DCUL’s main problem. It’s almost as if Wein isn’t confident in Paul’s ability to carry the narrative, so Paul is constantly distracted by various superheroic milestones. Moreover, either Paul is a classic Unreliable Narrator, or Wein and company are doing some serious rewriting of established DC continuity.
With that in mind — and with Paul’s unreliability as both our guide and our caveat — let’s look at Legacies’ account of DC’ superhero history. To save a little space, I’ll be skipping the backup features; but in a nutshell, I thought they were mostly pretty good, and sometimes better than the lead.
SPOILERS FOLLOW, of course.
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Issue #1: 1938ish-1940. Paul and best buddy Jimmy Mahoney are junior enforcers for Metropolis gangster Mike Moran. After Moran kills a merchant for failing to pay protection money, the Crimson Avenger busts up Moran’s hideout, with Paul and Jimmy inside. The boys escape, but soon afterwards new heroes pop up: the Sandman, Zatara, Hourman, Hawkman, the Spectre, the Flash, and the Atom. Months pass, and Jimmy convinces Paul to join him on another shady job. This time, Sandman and the Atom bust up the operation, and Paul’s warning saves the Mighty Mite from a gunsel’s bullet. The chapter ends with the newly-formed Justice Society of America on the cover of Life.
Re-reading this issue in the context of the entire miniseries made me want more with Paul and Jimmy in the Golden Age. Whether by circumstance or design, Legacies gets less personal as it goes on. Along those lines, it seems like Paul relates better to the Golden Agers than he does to the more powerful icons of the Silver Age. He marvels that Sandman and the Atom are, basically, just guys in gaudy costumes; and when he asks the inevitable “what would make them do this?” it comes from genuine curiosity.
Issue #2: 1940-1951. As the costumed floodgates open wide, Paul, now a paperboy, runs into Jimmy, who aspires to be part of Vandal Savage’s gang. Later, an encounter with the Newsboy Legion and their ally the Guardian (a/k/a beat cop Jim Harper) convinces Paul to become a policeman. Jimmy winds up with Savage, but after the JSA busts up the Injustice Gang, Jimmy goes into hiding. Paul and Jimmy’s sister Peggy begin their courtship, Paul graduates from high school, and the JSA retires during a Congressional hearing.
For me, the best parts of issue #2 involved Jimmy’s unseen dealings with Savage’s gang. At first he’s cocky and swaggering; but when Paul and Peggy discover him on the run, he’s wild-eyed, disheveled, and a little haggard. Those bookend scenes were effective at conveying the change in Jimmy’s character (caused in large part by the superheroes’ intervention) which informed the rest of his life. In the Paul-and-Jimmy-Tour-The-Golden-Age miniseries I’d like to read, we’d see more of that, and less superhero name-checking.
One relatively minor error/divergence in issue #2 involves the original Seven Soldiers of Victory. At one point a radio broadcast marks five years since the 7SOV disappeared. According to the well-sourced Unauthorized Chronology of the DC Universe, they disappeared in 1948, so the broadcast would have to be in 1953. However, the chapter ends with the infamous 1951 hearing.
Issue #3: 1950s to Silver Age, Part 1. Paul’s life story starts to take a back seat to the larger sweep of history. Perhaps as a result, it starts getting harder to tell just how old Paul is supposed to be. Last issue he graduated high school not long before the JSA retired, so presumably in the spring of 1951. Assuming he was 18 in 1951, that would have made him 7 in 1940, when the JSA formed (and when he was helping Jimmy unload contraband). I mention this because there’s an unintentionally hilarious image of Paul, decked out in leather jacket, pegged jeans, and white T-shirt, looking like Marlon Brando crossed with Jeff Conaway. I take it he’s supposed to be in his early 20s, but he looks like the oldest teenager at the sock hop.
A brief digression: I mentioned this issue’s hazy, oblique narration at the top of this post, and it’s here that Wein has a little fun with DC’s other comic-book genres. Many of the lesser-known Western characters wind up as ‘50s-style TV shows: Johnny Thunder, Matt Savage, Pow-Wow Smith, Tomahawk, Nighthawk, the Trigger Twins, and the Wyoming Kid. No sign of Jonah Hex, Scalphunter, or Bat Lash, though. In the real world, there were bands of adventurers like the Blackhawks (holdovers from the war, of course), the Challengers of the Unknown, the Sea Devils, and Cave Carson’s crew.
Anyway, when Jim Harper is shot and put in critical condition, it inspires Paul to get off his duff and enroll in the Metropolis Police Academy. (Parenthetically, we note the contemporaneous “Miracle [Rescue] In Smallville” and “Dr. Saul Erdel Found Dead” headlines. The Unauthorized Chronology places the latter in 1955.) Paul spends six months in the Academy, meeting the aloof John Jones along the way. If a banner in the background is accurate, Paul graduates in 1960, proposing to Peggy the same day. “Several months later,” Paul and John arrest Jimmy; and “six months” after that, Paul and Peggy marry.
As the hazy narration continues, “[f]or the next several months,” Paul and John encounter a series of what I am compelled to describe as strange adventures (wink wink), another clever nod to DC’s non-superheroic past. “Just a few weeks later,” though, Harper’s death coincides with John’s departure for the Littleton, Colorado, police department. John observes as he leaves that “Metropolis is going to be well enough protected without me.”
Sure enough, “a few weeks later,” the cry rings out: Look! Up in the sky! However, those looking for fidelity with Man of Steel, Superman: Birthright, or Superman: Secret Origin will be disappointed. Other than the common theme of rescuing Lois Lane, Superman’s debut is nothing like those accounts. Instead, its falling helicopter and “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” are taken directly from 1978’s Superman movie. Introductions of Batman (“a few months later”) and Wonder Woman (“a few months [after that]”) are more faithful to the source material. Batman’s exploits at a chemical plant could fit into the “Batman: Year One” timeline, and in a bonus, they (and his costume’s details) recall his first appearance in Detective #27’s “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” Likewise, Wonder Woman’s first Legacies mention refers to her first post-Crisis public appearance, fighting the monster Decay in Boston — in a story scripted by Wein back in 1987.
The Wonder Woman incident is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it follows the lead of 2006’s Justice League of America #0, which moved Diana’s early post-Crisis adventures (from at least the first several issues of Wonder Woman vol. 2) back to the start of the Silver Age, so that she could be a founding Justice Leaguer. Second, the fight with Decay happens on the same day Paul and Peggy’s daughter is born, and they name the baby Diana. Considering that Diana is an oncologist by the end of Legacies, this apparently establishes careers of 30 years and counting for DC’s Big Three.
I say “apparently” because I’m pretty sure DC doesn’t want those characters to be in their mid-50s today, and I don’t think Legacies wants it that way either. The Superman mention may be a key to Legacies’ orientation. Paul “choosing to remember” an iconic Superman debut — which is clearly from a non-comics source — indicates to me that Paul has begun to romanticize, if not idealize, his memories as they relate to the superheroes. Admittedly, romanticizing the details of your daughter’s birth seems a bit excessive, but all throughout the series Paul’s been a big cheerleader for the costumed set.
In any event, “a few months after that,” Paul watches news footage of Aquaman, reads an article on the new Flash’s debut, and sees the new Green Lantern on TV. “Six months later,” the Justice League forms, and the chapter ends.
Issue #4: Silver Age Part 2. As baby Diana crawls around, teen sidekicks abound: Robin, Speedy, Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl. Paul observes that there are so many supervillains, it’s like every hero has a personal Rogues’ Gallery. Meanwhile, Green Arrow and the new Atom join the JLA. At STAR Labs, the just-introduced Metal Men defeat the Royal Flush Gang** and in Midway City, the Doom Patrol debuts.
Paul’s next couple of memories probably take historical license. He cites a battle with Mr. Twister in Hatton Corners as the first appearance of the Teen Titans, but that story (from July 1964’s The Brave and the Bold #54) only featured the proto-lineup of Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad. The full lineup of Titans first came together in a tale untold until February 1978’s Teen Titans #53, when a creature called the Antithesis*** turned various Justice Leaguers evil, bringing the future Titans together to stop their mentors. Therefore, while I’m not surprised that Paul would avoid the hair-splitting, he might have either forgotten about the Leaguers’ brief evil spells, never heard of them, or chose to ignore them. Either way, the “real story” could easily have gotten in the way of Paul’s idealized memories.
Next, Paul recalls the meeting of Golden and Silver Age Flashes largely by describing the iconic “Flash of Two Worlds” guy-rescued-from-girder moment — but that, too, isn’t the whole story. As re-related by writer Grant Morrison and artists Mike Parobeck and Romeo Tanghal in August 1990’s Secret Origins #50, “FO2W” in the post-Multiversal Earth-DC involved Keystone City going into a kind of suspended animation. An accident of Barry Allen’s internal vibrations took him there, where he freed Jay Garrick. However, in Paul’s memory, Jay came out of retirement on his own, and just happened to run into Barry (ha ha) while both were going after the killer girder. Again, it is arguably better for Paul, with his Golden Age upbringing, to remember his Golden Age hero as being more proactive; but I may be reading too much into it.
As for the rest of chapter 4, Batgirl appears, the Justice Society comes out of retirement and eventually teams up with the Justice League, and (a “few years” after the JSA/JLA team-ups started) the Doom Patrol is murdered by General Zahl. Of these, I have a slight problem with the first JSA/JLA team-up, but that’s because I don’t think the JLA would just show up at the JSA’s brownstone and ring the bell for help with the Crime Champions. Again, though, there’s Paul’s idealized memory at work.
Issue #5: 1970-1985. Paul opines that the deaths of the Doom Patrol marked the beginning of a “dark” phase for the world and its superheroes, citing the Joker’s new-found viciousness, the Spectre’s ironic and gory punishments, and even Green Arrow’s “goatee and leather look” as further examples. Meanwhile, the Lincolns have moved to Midvale (onetime home of the Earth-1 Supergirl, who makes a Crisis cameo) and Jimmy Mahoney is out on parole.
The rest of chapter 5 is dominated by DC in the ‘70s and ‘80s: the debuts of the New Teen Titans, Firestorm, and the ex-Charlton characters; Batman forming the Outsiders; first appearances of Blue Devil and the new Doom Patrol; and Trigon taking over New York City. These are all presented roughly in chronological order, although Firestorm and the new Doom Patrol both preceded any of the others. None of it has much to do with the Lincoln family, and in fact a Superman/Chemo fight, unique to this story, ends with the Man of Steel making a dumbstruck fan out of cynical old Jimmy.
After a brief discussion of the new Robin, though, it’s Crisis time. The chapter ends with Paul on duty in the thick of things, while the rest of his family waits out the red, stormy skies back in Midvale.
Issue #6: 1985-88. Paul gets a couple of shocks early in this chapter, first from the Flash’s macabre apparition during the Crisis, and then from the new Guardian (cloned from the old, with all his memories, but Paul doesn’t know that, at least not at the time). Back in Midvale, debris collapses on Jimmy, wrecking his spine and putting him in a wheelchair. In Metropolis, though, things are looking up: one minute the Anti-Monitor dominates the skyline, and the next, everything’s back to normal. I have to admit, something like that would go a long way towards completely justifying my faith in superheroes.
“In the months that followed,” though, Paul is dumbfounded by Justice League Detroit (which actually appeared well before Crisis On Infinite Earths, and participated pretty heavily in it). Seeing the new League in action “several months later” against Darkseid’s minion Brimstone, Paul admits “they gave it their best shot,” but as we know that was pretty much it for the Detroit League. Fortunately, Legends (which Wein scripted) plays out with the debut of the next, soon-to-be-international Justice League. Paul and his superhero-skeptical partner are promoted to detective, just in time to learn the Joker’s shot Barbara Gordon.
Issue #7: 1988-1993. Tragic as the events of The Killing Joke were, for both the residents of DC-Earth and its real-world fans, the first page of this issue gives the Joker’s booking number as “OU8127734.” At the risk of being too basic, that’s a Van Halen album plus “hell” spelled on an old calculator — not quite what I associate with psychopathic acts of carnage, and certainly the wrong place for a joke.
As for more pertinent matters, this chapter confuses its historical background pretty well. It starts by mentioning the debuts of Aztek and Takion, characters who wouldn’t appear for about another five years. It then describes how everyone’s talking about the new African-American Green Lantern, despite the fact that a) he’d already been seen in the backgrounds of the past two issues, and b) by this time, he, Hal Jordan, and Guy Gardner (shown in issue #6’s Legends sequences) had already been operating in various combinations, including with a handful of other Lanterns, out of a California headquarters. (Similarly, Legacies shows readers the new Flash without explaining that he is, in fact, new.)
Furthermore, in Paul’s memory, the events of 1993’s “Knightfall” happen pretty much simultaneously with Doomsday’s 1992 cross-country rampage, ignoring their real-world publication schedule. As with his previous lapses, I can understand Paul combining these horrific defeats in his own mind (and also for storytelling efficiency), but it takes me out of the story. As it happens, the chapter’s big revelation is that Peggy Lincoln has cancer, and Paul has to leave in the middle of a family discussion to help fight off Doomsday in Metropolis. Again, watching Paul empty his pistol into the monster makes me think the issue didn’t need to intercut “Knightfall” with “Doomsday,” because the latter affects Paul’s life more directly.
Issue #8: 1993-94. In order to focus on the fallout from “Knightfall” and “Doomsday” — and much to the chagrin of my colleague Graeme McMillan (or so I imagine) — Legacies skips over many of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s crossover events, including Millennium, Invasion!, Armageddon 2001, War of the Gods, Eclipso: The Darkness Within, and Bloodlines. I guess nothing happened to the Lincolns during those calamities (not that anything should have, of course).
Anyway, after brief updates on the returns of Batman and Superman, it’s time for Diana Lincoln’s high-school graduation, marking some 17-18 years since Wonder Woman defeated Decay. I said it already, but I can’t believe DC would stretch its modern timeline that much. The chapter ends with Hal Jordan’s nervous breakdown and the birth of Parallax.
Issue #9: 1994-99. Taken at its word, this chapter would start by practically eliminating two years’ worth of stories. It places Kyle Rayner’s debut as Green Lantern (spring 1994) right before the start of The Final Night (fall 1996), thereby jumping over Zero Hour, Underworld Unleashed, and the biker-shorts Wonder Woman, among other events. I suspect the juxtaposition allows Wein to tie Parallax’s sacrifice at the end of Final Night to his subsequent role as the new Spectre in 1999’s Day Of Judgment. (Not to worry, fans of Genesis and DC One Million: your favorite events could have happened in the intervening months.)
All things considered, this chapter is pretty Hal-centric, not quite to the exclusion of Paul and company, but darn close. It’s not an unreasonable narrative choice, but it’s the kind of jump one expects from a story without a central character like Paul — especially when Paul’s biggest observation about Hal is that his hair’s darker than his predecessor’s.
Issue #10: 2004-05. This chapter skips ahead pretty far, to the point where Diana Lincoln is now an oncologist at Metropolis General. That’s about thirteen years’ worth of education and residency spread over eleven years of comics, so while it is kind of close to real time, see my previous statements about stretching the chronology. Otherwise, this final chapter contrasts public reaction to Sue Dibny’s death with the private matters of Peggy’s cancer and Paul’s mourning. The conclusion comes when Jimmy (now a wheelchair-bound STAR Labs security guard) uses experimental battle armor to stop an OMAC, and dies in the process. Evaluating all that his police career has cost him — including, I assume, all those missed moments with his family — Paul retires from police work. Nevertheless, as we see him in the present, in a rest home, telling the same stories night after night to an understanding caregiver, we know that the superheroes have helped get him through life’s highs and lows.
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DC Universe: Legacies closes with a backup feature spotlighting the second Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, as he meditates on his heroic career while sneaking into Max Lord’s Checkmate headquarters. It’s a downbeat ending, at best made bittersweet by issue #10’s “make the most of life while you can” theme. I’m not sure it really pays to look for a much deeper meaning in the issue, or for that matter in the whole miniseries. On the whole, DCUL strikes me as a travelogue through the superhero line, meant neither as serious exploration nor scholarly chronology. It hits many of the high points, but it omits a lot too: the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories,**** the Wally West Flash, Jack Knight as Starman, the Hyperclan unmasked as Martians, etc. While these are not invalid or unreasonable choices, what results is a guide to how the current DC Universe came to be — not a comprehensive history text. Thus, Hal gets more attention than Wally does; and Black Adam is the focus of a backup while the heroic Marvels are reduced to cameos.
As a (somewhat abridged) guide, though, Legacies is pretty successful, thanks in no small part to the art. Andy Kubert and Joe Kubert draw the first two issues, José Luis Garcia-Lopéz and Dave Gibbons draw #3 and #4, George Pérez and Scott Koblish tackle #5, Pérez and Koblish ink Ordway on #6, Ordway inks Dan Jurgens on #7 and #8, Jesús Saiz and Karl Story draw #9, and Saiz and Tom Derenick pencil #10, inked by Story and Robin Riggs. J.G. Jones, Gary Frank, Walt Simonson, and Brian Bolland are just a few of the artists for the backups. The series looks terrific, and the various styles are similar enough to blend together while being different enough for the different eras. Again, I found the Kuberts’ work on the first two issues quite compelling, although I’m certainly not complaining about the others. Paul’s idealized visions of DC’s past sure are pretty.
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Like any work of historical fiction, DCUL has a certain responsibility to get its “facts” right — even if said facts are subject to the tantrums of a petulant super-teen or the dreaded editorial fiat. Regardless, what I found interesting was the ways in which DCUL chose to be wrong. Surely Len Wein has written, edited, or read enough DC books to know when he’s strayed from the source material; and he’s done so here in order to reinforce Paul’s idealized flashbacks.
At the end of Paul’s reminisces, his caregiver gives a good-natured chuckle, comparing him to another elderly resident who swears he survived the Alamo: “Just because you have all the clippings, honey, doesn’t mean you were there.” Still, she doesn’t demean Paul’s stories, because clearly they mean a great deal to him. (Also, Paul still has that calling card from the Golden Age Atom.) Therein lies Legacies’ all-purpose disclaimer — that the emotional impressions of events are at least as important as their historical veracity. Maybe Paul’s daughter was named after the Princess of Wales, not Themyscira, and he’s just innocently confused. Maybe Paul’s clippings got out of order and he can’t see the dates that well anymore. Maybe this is the history of Earth-42. What matters — or, more accurately, what DC hopes matters to its readers — are the good memories associated with a lifetime’s worth of superhero comics. DC Universe: Legacies isn’t quite accurate enough to be continuity porn, but it is borderline propaganda.
At least it’s nice-looking propaganda, with enough fuzzy trivia to keep us fact-checking longtime fans busy for a good long while.
* [Somewhat surprisingly, Paul Lincoln is apparently not related to Dave Lincoln, friend of Orion the Hunter, who first appeared in New Gods vol. 1 #1 (February-March 1971). Dave shows up in issue #8’s New Gods backup feature.]
** [Someday I will chart the Royal Flush Gang’s appearances to see just how often they’re used as a measuring stick. Whenever a writer needs to prove how tough his new hero/team is, the RFG always gets beaten up.]
*** [In fact, the Antithesis was later revealed to be Brom Stikk, a/k/a Mr. Twister, in 1989’s Secret Origins Annual #3, but Paul wouldn’t have known that. Of course, Paul wouldn’t have known a lot of other superhero-history details.]
**** [Yet another reason I think Paul’s an unreliable narrator: one of John’s first acts as a GL was to save the life of a racist Senator, certainly a newsworthy act even without two Green Lanterns involved.]