O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
One of the more precarious parts of DC’s New-52 relaunch is this notion that a whole lot of in-story history happened over just five years of comic-book time. So far, this comes primarily from narration in the new Justice League #1, indicating that the team was formed “five years ago,” when “the world didn’t know what a super-hero was.”
Now, this may not be an entirely accurate measurement of the relaunch’s age. Practically by definition, the Justice League consists of heroes with fairly well-established careers, so we have to think that its charter members had been around for a little while before teaming up. Furthermore, in the context of the New 52 specifically, we can infer from what we know about the new Action Comics — which will show him less-powerful and with a more mundane costume — that Superman debuted some time before the events of Justice League #1. (According to Comics Alliance’s account of Friday’s New-52 Comic-Con panel, Action initially takes place just a few months before Justice League.)
For now, though, the five-year figure is probably as definite as we’re going to get, so let’s start there. As always, DC wants to placate two different groups: hypothetical new (and/or returning) readers, and those of us who have been buying the books already. For the former, the relaunch promises new takes on familiar characters, including some familiar characters returning to their earlier roles. For the latter — and particularly for Batman and Green Lantern readers — comes the reassurance that everything important still happened. Perhaps the two goals collide most dramatically in the case of Barbara Gordon, who will go back to being Batgirl after recovering successfully from the assault that left her paralyzed, and who (as a recent college graduate) will be younger than she was when she was shot.
DC did something similar with the post-Crisis On Infinite Earths relaunches of the mid-1980s. Back then, characters big and small had their histories rewritten, although DC maintained that absent specific contradictions, the pre-Crisis comics were still valid. Still, those contradictions were pervasive, especially for the comics that weren’t supposed to be affected. Changes to Superman affected existing Justice League and Legion stories, and changes to Wonder Woman affected both JLA and New Titans. Young All-Stars (the follow-up to All-Star Squadron) even centered around a group of WWII-era “cosmic replacements” — strongman Iron Munro, mysterious Flying Fox, mythologically-based Fury — created explicitly as substitutes for the Golden Age Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
And not to digress too much, but I get the feeling that DC in the mid-‘80s was more concerned with preserving as much of the pre-COIE stories as it could. By contrast, the New-52 books seem, understandably, more focused on the changes, and inviting readers to discover what’s different.
In this case, those differences apparently come primarily from making these characters less experienced than they are currently. According to CBR’s coverage of that Friday panel,
[Dan DiDio] wanted to return characters to a younger, more exciting age. Barbara Gordon was used as an example, saying that she should be in her twenties but seemed to be in her thirties, while the Teen Titans sometimes “looked and acted like 40-year-olds.” [Jim] Lee also said this would create “a rollback of their experience, where it is more of a struggle,” such that heroes are still finding the level of their powers.
By itself, that’s not an unreasonable or unworkable strategy. Neither is streamlining a character’s history to include only the most important big-event storylines. The problem comes from trying to leave untouched a couple of major franchises (Batman and Green Lantern) while everyone else’s past adventures — and, for that matter, the Justice Society’s very existence — are in play.
Put bluntly, Batman’s history calls for the biggest suspension of disbelief, because it reaches into the histories of both the Justice League and the Teen Titans. In the current timeline, where Damian Wayne is a product of Batman: Son of the Demon’s night of passion between Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, one can argue credibly for a Bat-career of at least fifteen years, and probably more. SOTD was published in 1987, when Jason Todd was Robin and Dick Grayson had become Nightwing. If we presume that SOTD took place in the present (i.e., concurrent with 1987’s comics), Dick would be over 20 years old, having reached that milestone in early 1986.* Damian’s age therefore measures the span of time between 2011’s comics and 1987’s, compressing almost 24 years’ worth of stories into 11 (or, if you prefer, 10 years and 9 months). For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say that Dick turned 20 in the same year that Damian was born. That would make Dick 30 today, and would give him a superhero career of at least 15 years, mostly as Nightwing.** From there we can figure Bruce’s age, assuming (as “Batman: Year One” revealed) that he first became Batman at 25. If Bruce then took in Dick in Year Three,*** when he was 27 and Dick was 15, then the current crop of comics takes place in at least Year 18, when Bruce is 42.
To be sure, we can massage these numbers a little bit, but not much. Starting a superhero career at age 15**** doesn’t give Dick much time to be Robin (or, by extension, for the Teen Titans to go through a couple of incarnations). However, the younger Dick is when his parents are murdered, the older that makes Bruce today; and despite the small army of associates he’s accumulated, no one seems to want a Batman in his forties.
Now, it’s not like the timeline wasn’t already a little dodgy. Dick left Wayne Manor for Hudson University in December 1969’s Batman #217, probably around ages 17 or 18. Accordingly, all of Dick’s college-age adventures — which span over fifteen years of real time — could arguably be compressed into some 2-3 years of comic-book time. These adventures include the initial Rā’s al Ghūl stories, the original Teen Titans’ breakup and the group’s mid-‘70s revival, Dick’s retirement as Robin, and all of the first Wolfman/Pérez run on New Teen Titans.
Speaking of the Titans, Wally West graduated high school in 1978’s Flash Spectacular and turned 20 in the first issue of his solo Flash series (June 1987), so while he has a similar problem, he only needs to compress nine years’ worth of real time into 2-3 years of comic-book time. However, those 2-3 years also include some college, as well as his forced retirement from superheroics, and oh by the way Crisis On Infinite Earths.
Again, I bring this up not to argue that all of DC’s superhero output from 1970-85 must be crammed into the end of the original Titans’ teenage years. Instead, such an exercise reinforces the notion that very few stories can be incorporated into long-term continuity exactly as they were presented. In simpler terms, the story you read today won’t be quite the same story which is referenced later on — assuming it is even referenced in the first place. For example, Tim Drake deduced Batman and Robin’s secret identities after watching news footage of the Dynamic Duo, and seeing Robin execute a move which was part of Dick Grayson’s circus act. However, when later stories claimed that the Bat-family had always been urban legends, this detail was glossed over. Still, Tim’s introduction to Batman and Nightwing was predicated on his knowing their secret identities — so either he saw them on the news, he was somehow present at one of their adventures, or he was an exceptionally gifted adolescent detective. Because this is superhero comics, any of those could be true, but odds are the original story is no longer completely valid.
Where, then, does that leave the New-52’s five-year timeline? If it includes all the Robins from Dick to Damian, I’d say the timeline has already been FUBAR’ed. Actually, the Batman timeline itself may not be affected too much, because DC can trot out the “urban legend” theory. (Remember, an urban legend isn’t necessarily a superhero, so Justice League’s narration is still accurate.) In fact, Batman could have been operating in secret for some ten years prior to Justice League #1. He would have spent a good bit of those years training various red-and-yellow-costumed teenagers, but, you know, urban legend.
Anyway, one solution might have been simply to give the New-52 books a five-year backstory which reflected a less-eventful shared universe. For example, in the rough timeline we’ve been discussing, Dick would be at or the end of high school in Year Five, with Wally not far behind. Likewise, Bruce and his contemporaries would be in their late twenties to early thirties. Generally, it might resemble the development of DC’s shared universe as of the early 1970s, although it could be tweaked to allow for younger characters like Firestorm and the Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle. The big drawback to such a truncated history would be losing at least one additional generation of sidekicks: no Robins other than Dick, no Kid Flash or Impulse other than Wally, no Wonder Girl besides Donna Troy and no Batgirls besides Barbara Gordon (and maybe Bette Kane, although technically she was a hyphenated Bat-Girl.) I suppose the Green Lantern history could remain relatively intact, since there seems always to be room for another Earth-based GL.
By and large, though, I understand why DC didn’t want to turn back the clock that radically. Depriving readers of the younger generations would have alienated their many fans, and DC wouldn’t have wanted to gamble its relaunch on having to replace those fans. However, the New-52 relaunch may have gone too far in the other direction, overstuffing its cut-down history to the point it strains even superhero-comic credulity. A character’s relative longevity weighs significantly on its presentation. If no one is part of the old guard, such that Batman’s origin is only a few years removed from Firestorm’s, it deprives the characters of that source of conflict. Maybe that’ll be good in the long run, if it allows lesser-known characters to compete with the A-listers for readers’ affections. Nevertheless, books as diverse as the ‘70s All Star Comics, New Teen Titans, Justice League International, and the late-‘90s JLA each used rookie characters effectively in combination with the more-experienced members.
In one important respect, nothing has changed. As long as superhero comics come out in serialized periodicals, their stories will play out in an eternal present. When Detective Comics #38 introduced Robin in the spring of 1940, its producers weren’t plotting Dick’s destiny over the long term. They just needed him to fulfill a particular role in Batman’s adventures. Thus, for decades Dick Grayson was a high-schooler of indeterminate age***** simply because the stories wanted it that way. Dick’s transition to college, and his subsequent developments to Nightwing and Batman, each acknowledged that it was time for the character to embrace different storytelling possibilities. A character’s past informs his present, but does not dictate it. Indeed, this month’s issue is next month’s backstory, reduced to data points and added to the reader’s storehouse of narrative knowledge. September’s crop of new first issues will be no different. Like this week’s books, they’ll define DC’s superhero line all over again …
… at least, until the accuracy of Now fades into the haze of Then.
* [New Teen Titans vol. 2 #18 (March 1986).]
** [Since Dick was still Robin when he graduated from high school, and stayed in the short pants for some time afterwards, I presume he was at least 19 when he became Nightwing.]
*** [Flashbacks in the “Batman: Year Three” storyline from Batman #s 436-39 gave the post-“Year One” account of Dick’s origin. “Year Three” also introduced toddler Tim Drake and led directly into Tim’s modern introduction in “A Lonely Place Of Dying.” However, like its predecessor “Year Two,” no one seems to care about it much anymore.]
**** [In fact, Batman #437 established that Dick was 12 when his parents were murdered. This would have given him about seven years as Robin. Again, though, “Year Three” apparently hasn’t been considered authoritative for some time.]
***** [Michael Fleisher’s 1976 Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Heroes, Volume 1: Batman notes that “[i]t is not possible to establish Dick Grayson’s age with any real precision.” Still, Fleisher observes further that in April-May 1942’s Batman #10, “[t]here were fourteen candles on his birthday cake.” Rest assured, I am not going to argue that only three to four years of comic-book time passed between 1942 and 1969.]