Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | I forgot to remember to forget

Action Comics #500, an overstuffed Superman biography

Its outreach efforts notwithstanding, DC’s superhero line has a longstanding reputation as a warehouse of impenetrable arcana. Even before it boasted four distinct heroic generations, it featured multiple Earths, dozens of 30th-Century Legionnaires, and thousands of Green Lanterns. While that sort of thing is catnip for obsessive fans, those are not the only kind of fans DC wants to attract. Naturally, over the years it has tried to make the superhero books more accessible, even as it sought to honor that voluminous history.

Exploring the balance between being new-reader-friendly and old-reader-comfortable is nothing new. Still, when serial storytelling is involved, even the newest takes will accumulate their own intricate backstories. Accordingly, how much DC lore does one really need? Is all that history just dead weight? Should continuity have an expiration date, or at least a statute of limitations?

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We begin with Batman and Green Lantern, two characters ostensibly “left alone” (for the most part) by the five-year timeline of the New-52 relaunch. This ended up cramming the origins of at least four Robins and four Earthling G-Ls into those five years. That said, in fairness to DC, we can make the case that all of DC’s superhero stories from 1969 to 1986 happened in a two- to three-year span (specifically, from the time the original crop of Teen Titans left for college until they started turning 20).  Conveniently enough, this period saw the debuts of John Stewart as Green Lantern and Jason Todd as Robin, plus Guy Gardner’s return to active GL duty; and we still have two years to spare. Nevertheless, it seems needlessly restrictive to pin a quarter-century of stories to the hazy ages of a group of slowly-aging sidekicks — kind of like deciding to measure “Marvel time” by Franklin Richards’ growth.

Moreover, the real issue isn’t that Batman and Green Lantern (and their dependents) retain the rough outlines of their pre-relaunch histories. The real issue is the extent to which the details of those histories inform the current storylines.

Take last week’s Green Lantern #7, which began a new arc highlighting the Indigo Tribe. The issue included the return of Black Hand, last seen practically lobotomized at the end of Blackest Night in 2010. From that we can suppose, reasonably enough, that the events of Blackest Night which led to Hand’s current state have not been revised away by the New-52 relaunch. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of Blackest Night is still in continuity. Obviously, many of the story’s details depend on characters not currently in evidence in the New-52 (like Wally West, Donna Troy, and the pre-relaunch Green Arrow) and/or plotlines which the New-52 relaunch has rendered moot (including various deaths and revivals). It may therefore be sufficient for current Green Lantern issues to cite only as much of Blackest Night which bear directly on the Indigo/Black Hand storyline — but that, in turn, tends to devalue Blackest Night’s role in the larger Green Lantern saga.

Now, at the risk of being obvious, a story’s place in continuity has little, if anything, to do with its merits generally. Instead, what I find curious is the notion that an epic, detail-driven mega-arc like Green Lantern’s, which had been unspooling steadily over the course of seven years, could find some of its dramatic underpinnings called into question in midstream. Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern has always been focused squarely on Hal Jordan, but even when he took over as writer in 2004 that meant incorporating Hal’s not-uncomplicated history. For example, both GL: Rebirth and Blackest Night referred to Hal’s time as the Spectre; but in the New-52 timeline, it’s not clear a) whether Hal was ever the Spectre, b) whether Hal ever died, or c) whether the Spectre even exists as part of the New-52 universe (as opposed, for example, to the universe of Earth-2). Because it seems pretty clear that New-52 Hal still succumbed to Parallax, if the Spectre is no longer in the picture a substitute would be needed for the Ghostly Guardian’s redemptive role.

If you’ve been following Green Lantern happily for the past seven-plus years, you may well see Geoff Johns’ run as a big ol’ Hal adventure, starting with his revival as a GL and revealing (through Hal) everything you ever hoped to learn about the Emotional Spectrum. Although that run doesn’t seem close to ending, the New-52 relaunch has already had a profound effect on the storyline, by inserting a break from the continuity in which it was originally rooted. More to the point, by confusing continuity, the relaunch may actually discourage reading the pre-relaunch storylines, regardless of whether they’ve been grandfathered into New-52 history.

While it is easy to turn this into a “no-relaunches” diatribe, to me the underlying issue is still the amount of working knowledge a superhero-comics reader can be expected to possess. Using Black Hand’s glassy stare to ponder the existence of the Spectre is an extreme example (although it does suggest that DC doesn’t want readers to think too carefully about pre-relaunch books). The issue goes back at least as far as the start of the Silver Age — when Julius Schwartz famously decreed that readers would accept a new Flash, because it had been five whole years since the old one had been around. Today, of course, superhero serials demand longer attention spans. Johns’ GL tenure goes back almost eight years, and Grant Morrison’s been on the Bat-books for almost six. The “weekly” Superman titles of the ‘80s and ‘90s had frequent callbacks to earlier plot elements, especially in 1993’s “Reign of the Supermen,” which combined the Eradicator (introduced in 1989) with Hank Henshaw (1990).

Such practices can train readers to develop long memories. I once pooh-poohed 2007’s Superman/Shazam! First Thunder miniseries because it sounded too similar to a plot thread from 1992’s Eclipso: The Darkness Within miniseries, but after seeing a couple of scenes realized how different it was. Clearly, it’s not fair for me to compare the superficial similarities of stories separated by fifteen years, but sometimes it’s not easy for me to forget the older stuff.

Still, as asked above, how much DC lore does any given reader really need? For most of the New-52 books, I suspect the answer is “back to September”; but occasionally there’ll be something like the Huntress miniseries, teasing the alert reader with hints that this is not the Helena Bertinelli you might have expected. Those reveals tend to be few and far between, though. Especially in light of the relaunch, I’m guessing DC is more invested in telling new stories than dropping clues about the validity of old ones. Collections can bring readers up to speed on the Batman and GL arcs they might have missed, and those collections also tend to lessen the impact of “X years’ worth of comics.” Taking several days to read Johns’ Green Lantern from the beginning is obviously different from living with it, month in and month out, since George W. Bush’s first term.

Regardless, the information we learn from those stories doesn’t come automatically to the front of our brains when we open a new issue. I’m not thinking about Clayface or Ninja Man-Bats or the Penguin when I read Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, mostly because I don’t associate them with the Court of Owls storyline, but partly because I’m depending on issue #7 to remind me where #6 left off. However, when I see that the first page of #7 has callbacks to (MINOR SPOILERS) both “Batman: Year One” and maybe Batman: The Return, those fire up the relevant memories; and when I hear that a big secret will be revealed in the issue, the “lore” part of my brain goes on alert.

[Shameful admission: I was a psychology major, and I particularly liked cognitive psychology, but haven’t used much of that knowledge in over twenty years....]

The distinction is between that sort of readily-accessible situational awareness (Batman’s fate at the end of #6) and the more deeply-ingrained long-term memories (as of, say, Hugo Strange stories). A good example of satisfying both kinds of cognition (besides Johns’ GL and Morrison’s Batman) was 2006-07’s 52, which told a fairly accessible (and trivia-rich) story using C- and D-list characters. Again, though, with the New-52 DC has put the emphasis on what’s happening now, which can create a cognitive dissonance between what we longtime fans remember (or are used to) and what the current story’s actual resolution may be. It’s almost a question of creators “playing fair” with readers, except that neither side has necessarily agreed on all the rules.

So, do we need a bright-line rule past which certain stories are no longer automatically controlling? DC’s various wholesale housecleanings offer some guidance — I daresay you’re not likely to see references to specific Golden Age Wonder Woman stories anytime soon — but as with the Huntress miniseries or Morrison’s use of Bat-Mite, you never know what might be repurposed. We’re probably safe in saying that the work of a book’s current writer on any relevant characters is fair game, so that takes care of Johns’ Green Lantern tenure and Morrison’s various Batman titles (plus related subplots in 52 and Final Crisis). As well, when Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen take over Superman, I wouldn’t be surprised to see elements from their other New-52 work, like Justice League International and OMAC, show up in the Man of Steel’s title.

However, I’m more curious to see whether the New-52 books will be written for the “short-term” or “long-term” reader — that is, whether they tell relatively discrete stories, or whether they start laying the groundwork for multi-year mega-arcs. As a practical matter, the landscape probably favors the former, to make it easier to bail out if a new book (or new team) doesn’t catch on. As the superhero line stabilizes, though, I expect to see the seeds of those multi-year arcs planted. Obviously Snyder and Capullo have done that with Batman (and Snyder probably has similar plans for Swamp Thing), and I’m guessing Johns has at least three years’ worth of Aquaman in him.

I can’t leave this topic without mentioning the seminal comic of my high-school years, The New Teen Titans under Marv Wolfman. Usually it’s Wolfman and George Pérez’s Titans, but after Pérez left in 1984, Wolfman and the late Ed Barreto put the Titans through a pretty eventful few years. Starfire’s arranged marriage on Tamaran separated her from Nightwing, who left the group to look for Raven, who’d disappeared after destroying her demonic dad. Meanwhile, with Changeling and Cyborg off on their own quest, Wonder Girl reassembled the “original Titans” (Aqualad, Wally West, Hawk, Speedy, and Jason Todd) for an ill-fated confrontation with Cheshire. After fighting the Brotherhood of Evil and a twisted attempt to recreate the Doom Patrol, the Titans headed for a final battle with Brother Blood, who’d brainwashed both Nightwing and Raven. It was all very melodramatic, but the four weeks between issues were eternities. By the time it wrapped up (after eighteen issues and an Annual), Wolfman and Barreto had brought closure to some longstanding subplots, including Raven’s emotional well-being and Wally’s place in the world, and they’d literally put Blood out to pasture. Like the more famous “Judas Contract,” which was the culmination of the Terminator storyline begun almost four years prior, these issues were probably most satisfying for longtime readers, but at the same time they cleared the decks for new adventures. Although every jumping-on point is an opportunity to jump off, it made this longtime Titans reader especially eager to see where Wolfman and Barreto went next.

Being written with at least one eye towards collections, the New-52 books are particularly well-suited for such extended storytelling, and specifically for the kind of extended storyline which can come to a definite end. Johns did it with his Flash work, I expect him to do it with Green Lantern, and if he stays on Aquaman long enough, he’ll do it there too. Regardless of creative team, though, the New-52 books have a chance to establish their accessibility by using continuity judiciously. It’s probably too early in the relaunch to set an expiration date or statute of limitations (although eight years might be a good start), but depending on how the books are managed, the issue may resolve itself.

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Character creators:

Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman and Hugo Strange.  Kane, Finger, and Jerry Robinson created Dick “Robin/Nightwing” Grayson.  Finger and Sheldon Moldoff created Bat-Mite.  Gerry Conway and Don Newton created Jason “Robin” Todd. Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino created Wally “Kid Flash” West.  Marv Wolfman and George Pérez created Cyborg, Raven, Starfire, and Brother Blood, and put Dick in the Nightwing suit.  Steve Ditko and Steve Skeates created Hank “Hawk” Hall.  Arnold Drake and Bruno Premani created Garfield “Beast Boy/Changeling” Logan, and Premani and Bob Haney created Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy.  Paul Norris created Aquaman.  Robert Bernstein and Ramona Fradon created Aqualad.  John Broome and Gil Kane created Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner, as well as Black Hand.  Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams created Green Lantern John Stewart.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, and Siegel and Bernard Baily created the Spectre.  Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Franklin Richards.  Paul Levitz and Joe Staton created the Huntress (Helena Wayne).  William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman.

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14 Comments

Man, you start with the cover of one of my most favorite comics ever, then you have to go and give me a headache.

Just from what you mentioned — if Hal was still Parallax, did Coast City still blow up? Was it still blown up through the machinations of Cyborg Superman? Does this mean “Reign of the Supermen” still happened (and Doomsday “killed” Superman)? Then, where does the New 52-Superboy fit in with the one introduced in “Reign?”

And we don’t know Dick Grayson’s new 52 Titans history that once included now missing Wally, and Donna, not to mention a Cyborg that now joined the JLA five years ago, right after the accident that created him. (or did he spend time with the Titans in the five story years between arcs?) But if we had four Robins in five years, then I guess that Titans history is but a unimportant blip now.

Did Jason Todd still die? If not, what’s his story? Is he just the Robin who was grumpy (no offense, GOF)? Does that mean he was still brought back by Earth-Prime Superboy’s continuity punch from Infitne Crisis, or through some other means (such as the way it was handled in the animated “Under the Red Hood”? Or was that already taken retconned in Red Hood Lost Days, I forget now).

And the Shade mini-series? Does the Starman legacy exist anymore?

Ah well, It doesn’t matter, I dont want to read about a world where Mark Waid’s Wally West (and the first “Return of Barry Allen”) never happened,

Great article, but I too felt like my head was going to implode–literally turn in on itself, sucking in all around me and my laptop. One day I would love to see a long story told where the character ages; I dug that aspect of the recent Aaron/Dillon Punishermax–Frank as an older man with this whole history behind him.

First off, The Spectre does exist in the new52. He was mentioned by Pandora and the Phantom Stranger in JL #6.

@MrMGU
Dick Grayson’s Titan history is basically wiped out. He has teamed up with Arsenal and Starfire in the past, but not as official Titans team.
Death of Superman has not happened in the new52. Superman mentions dying and returning in Swamp Thing #1 but it’s vague. Superboy is created in the present time. Steel came out 5 years in the past (Action Comics). Cyborg and Eradicator are MIA.
Jason Todd still died and was mysteriously resurrected. No Superboy Prime reality punch.
Shade miniseries only mentions alien Starman. No mentions of Knight family.
Wally West is MIA (limbo) not dead or non-existant.

This is exactly why DC should have truly started over, instead of cherry-picking certain chunks of continuity and then setting a specific 5 year timeline. Once a few dominoes fall (like wiping out the New Teen Titans as we knew them or changing Superboy’s origin), it causes the whole damn chain to go. And we’re left with questions like the ones Tom and MrMGU bring up. Initially, they’re kind of fun to think through as an intellectual exercise, but ultimately they just give you a headache.

I’m one of those people who has been following Johns’ Green Lantern run since Rebirth, but at the end of #6 of the current run, I made the sad decision to pack it in, exactly because of this “some of it still happened and some of it didn’t, but we’re not going to address that speficially” mess. I might go back and check it what I missed at some point in the future, but right now I feel just have to let it go.

But Pandora and the Stranger show meta-timeline awareness in that discussion. It could be that the Spectre exists in the multiverse but not in Earth-nu ‘s history.

Pre-Crisis, the Stranger could run into the Spectre in the afterlife, but when he went back to the material world, he went to Earth-1 where there had never been a JSA or a Spectre.

I’ve ruminated about some of these issues myself, but fortunately, I’ve never gotten hung up on continuity. I’m very well-versed in DC history, from golden age to present, but I’ve always been in the habit of ignoring stuff I didn’t like and basically cobbling together my own personal “canon” for various characters anyway. Just because Dc says something no longer happened, that doesn’t mean we all have to go along with it. I kinda take the view with the new 52 that the pre-relaunch earth is still out there; we’re just spending time on a different earth in the multiverse now. As long as the comics I’m reading are fun, everything else can roll right off my back.

Uggh, DCnU’s retention of cherry-picked continuity seems to underscore that DCnU was all about marketting gimmicks… Blackest Night was still so hot-off-the-presses when DCnU was announced that excising Blackest Night would have led to heated fan reaction.

So, DC had to include Blackest Night.

And, thus the chain reaction began.

DCnU was a marketing tactic. The approach to continuity, in my opinion, is anything that doesn’t alienate too many existing readers. If the entire pre-DC continuity was wiped out, sales of TPBs and then-current series would have been hurt.

I don’t think there is any organized history. “Whatever slides, so long as justice League doesn’t drop under 100,000 sales / month.

@CagedLeo730:

Thanks for the info, but it hasn’t helped my headache. Dick Grayson’s Titan’s history is wiped out? That’s crazy.

Actually, I’m curious. Is there a site somewhere that provides such updates — an update of ongoing continuity changes, if not the new stories themselves.

@Drunken Fist:

I’ve tried to take that view, but it’s getting harder. It’s gone from not worrying about conitnuity to not caring about the books because nothing sticks. Comics were created to be disposable with high readership turnover, but that hasn;t bene the reality for years. Fans save their back issues and continue reading for decades, but superhero comics haver barely adjusted their storytelling style (other than writing for the trade).

I would’ve been more excited by a clean sweep like COIE (which I know wasn’t 100% clean either, but it was a better effort), or an Ultimate-like separate line, but this is more about making them younger, giving them high collars and taking away their outside underwear. So for me, it was clear jump-off point., and I’ll get some books in TPB. At the moment, the only thing I will definitely get is Scott Snyder’s run on Batman.

And Tom, I’ve been loving your column for years now, but I’ve noticed how much more pessimistic your columns have become over the last few months. You’re struggling to find the good in the developments, but it ain’t easy. The last solicitations and your accompanying column were very much a signpost of the changes. I’m starting to expect the day where you write, “you know what, this isn’t my DC anymore. I’m going to read my collections and back issues and leave the observations about continuity in the new DC to others. And get off my lawn!” I don’t hope for it, but I’m starting to expect it. And frankly, I wouldn’t blame you. :(

“the relaunch may actually discourage reading the pre-relaunch storylines”

This is why I expect to see a decline in sales for DC’s reprint collections. They have been written out of history and they don’t matter any more.

Tom, I believe you have given DC’s continuity more thought than anybody who actually works for DC. To me, the state of their continuity is utterly senseless. They’ve jumped the shark. They’ve totally lost it. No one is driving the bus.

@ Jake
You’re probably right that, overall, sales will drop on back catalog stuff because it has no bearing on the new stories. However, people like me might start putting their dollars towards reprints of old stuff instead of buying the new stuff.

And there are people driving the bus, it’s just that they’re trying to take the bus to a location they don’t know how to reach, and are refusing to pull over and consult a map. The whole relaunch has the stink of haste, and I’m guessing that’s why they’re playing it coy on details so far, because they don’t have them worked out yet (though later they’ll unsuccessfully pretend they did).

I’m with Drunken Fist. I don’t really care about what the current cannon is. I like the stories I like and thus they count for me. Because, really, the ONLY think any of these stories count for is enjoyment. By the same token, if what you enjoy is a solid continuity, I don’t blame you for not following DC. But I will say this: good luck finding anything outside of the real world that has a truly solid continuity.

Googam son of Goom

March 24, 2012 at 2:47 pm

I’m with Drunken Fist on this. It’s all fiction either way so trying to harmonize every detail of every story ever published is like asking “how many angels fit on a pinhead”

@ Rolando and Googam

It’s not that I need my stories to “count” (many of my all time favorite comics are out of continuity) or that I need everything to be perfectly orchestrated in my superhero universes (having multiple writers pretty much makes that impossible).

No, for me it’s more that DC had built up something beautifully complex in the past 20 years. It was far from perfect, but it was a living, breathing, evolving thing. The new 52 is seemingly aiming to keep that complexity without the blood, sweat, tears, and time that went into the original continuity. So it just feels forced and cynical to me. I wish they had started over and done something completely new. But, like Tom, I’m skeptical that the company has the fortitude to do it again, with writers keeping it surfacey and creative teams turning over rapidly.

Dan Dido is know for not caring about continuity. he did the same thing with beast wars.

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