This month, DC Comics launched a miniseries called Infinite Crisis, an event which, as the ad blurb would have it, “will define the DC Universe for the next generation!” While I stopped reading modern DC Comics some years ago, my understanding is that numerous long-standing superheroes died in the opening salvo of a seven-issue continuity makeover.
This is not the first time that DC has attempted to overwrite its complex cosmology. The title Infinite Crisis is a nod to 1985′s infamous Crisis on Infinite Earths, which replaced the company’s then-current string of parallel worlds with a single, allegedly-consistent reality.
It all began innocently enough.
Superman first captured readers’ imaginations in 1938, and soon a vast array of costumed crimefighters tugged at his cape, among them Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and the Spectre. Despite their growing numbers, team-ups between characters were rare. Most operated in their personal milieus.
That changed in 1940 when All-Star Comics brought together heroes from the affiliated publishers Detective Comics (later renamed DC) and All-American Comics to form the first super-team, the Justice Society of America. It was originally intended to showcase characters which didn’t have their own titles; Superman and Batman were only honorary members, later joined by the Flash and Green Lantern once they received books of their own. The concept proved popular, and other heroic groups followed.
Flash forward a decade. The comics boom of the ’40s had become a bust, and while Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were still around, most of the Golden Age superheroes had been retired. The Justice Society closed up shop in 1951.
In 1956, DC editor Julius Schwartz took the Flash concept and created a new, unrelated character with the same name and superspeed powers. The reborn Flash was a hit, spawning similar remakes of World War II-era heroes Green Lantern, Hawkman and the Atom, with revamped costumes and science-fiction inspired abilities.
Schwartz had been around during the Golden Age, and tipped his hat to that era by having his Flash, police scientist Barry Allen, inspired to adopt his costumed identity after reading an issue of the old Flash Comics. The echoes of that simple gesture continue to reverberate more than 50 years later.
Consider for a moment. The original Flash, Jay Garrick, had been a contemporary of Superman, et al, and had even appeared alongside them. But to the so-called Silver Age Flash, he was just a comic book character. All well and good, except that the very same Superman was still around and (within the context of Barry Allen’s fictional existence) very much real.
This cognitive dissonance increased when Schwartz took the next step of having the two Flashes meet in the 1961 story, “The Flash of Two Worlds.” It turned out that Jay Garrick existed as a flesh-and-blood person on an alternate earth which occupied the same space yet “vibrated at a different frequency.” (The Flashes, possessing super-vibratory abilities, were initially the only ones who could cross from “Earth-1″ to “Earth-2.”)
Soon, all of the original World War II heroes were found to be living on Earth-2, even duplicate versions of those such as Batman who’d fought alongside them. The Justice Society heroes began annual team-ups alongside their modern counterparts in the Justice League of America.
Of course, if there was an Earth-2, that meant that there ought to be an Earth-3. One was eventually discovered, this time populated by evil variants of the Silver Age heroes.
Other earths were added as DC bought out the intellectual property of defunct comics publishers, including Earth-X (Quality’s roster of Phantom Lady, Human Bomb, etc.) and Earth-S (Fawcett’s Marvel Family). Stories in which the comics characters came into our own real world and interacted with their own creators were set on Earth-Prime. Captain Carrot and his funny-animal Zoo Crew lived on Earth-C, and in a parody of what was now an established part of DC lore, soon crossed over to Earth-C-Minus.
Finally, in 1985, someone at DC decided that enough was enough. The cosmos was too complicated for new readers. (Though I never had a problem with the parallel earths and multiple Batmen when I was growing up and reading reprints of the ’60s stories.) Thus, the Crisis on Infinite Earths was born, a 50th anniversary storyline which ultimately demolished all of the extra earths (even Earth-Prime!) and condensed everything into one allegedly-consistent continuity. Histories were rewritten and characters were erased from existence.
Unfortunately, many problems remained. Characters such as Superman and Wonder Woman were rebooted and started over from scratch, yet other heroes were left more or less intact. Therefore, the Teen Titans had a Wonder Girl who somehow predated Wonder Woman, and the far-future Legion of Super-Heroes, originally inspired by the exploits of Superboy, were left without an origin when it was decided that Superman didn’t adopt his super-identity until he was fully grown.
Continuity buffs howled, and in 1994, DC responded with Zero Hour, which was supposed to fix all of the contradictions. It didn’t, as any Hawkman fan could tell you. Another 11 years later, it’s happening all over again with Infinite Crisis. What shape will the DC Universe be in by the time they’re done tinkering under the hood? (And who knows what happened to the Zoo Crew?)
While most continuity issues aren’t as extreme as the the case of Earth-C-Minus, they invariably raise their heads in any long-running serialized story. I’m sure that no one working on Superman in 1938 had any conception that we’d still be interested in him nearly 70 years later. Most stories have an end, but serials just keep spinning out new plots and adding complications. If they run long enough, many different hands are involved in the process, and may bring their own visions to bear, sometimes with little or no regard for the work of their predecessors. Sometimes, they don’t even care about their own previous work. Armies of Sherlock Holmes buffs have put far more thought into arranging Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “canonical” stories into a coherent chronology than Doyle himself ever did. (Doyle couldn’t even keep track of the location of Dr. Watson’s wartime bullet wound.)
Furthermore, serialized characters tend to resist the passage of time. Years pass, and while the changing seasons may be acknowledged, core characters usually remain approximately the same age as when they were crystallized in their current forms. For decades, Superman was said to be 29 years old, even though he’d be more than 90 as of 2005.
And yet, even that rule wasn’t always honored. Someone finally said, “Hey, why is Robin still a boy wonder?” Hence came Dick Grayson’s teen wonder years, followed by his eventual split from Batman and new identity as Nightwing. However, because Batman couldn’t be without a Robin, another young man, Jason Todd, took on the mantle in 1983 until he proved so unpopular that he was killed off by the Joker in response to a controversial reader poll. The third Robin is Tim Drake, but many will forever remember him as Dick Grayson. (It’s worth noting that when Robin was introduced to movie audiences in 1995′s Batman Forever, he was once again Grayson.)
The Golden Age heroes have their own age problem. Their background is firmly rooted in World War II, so DC’s editors have had to come up with an increasingly-improbable series of explanations for allowing them to remain alive and active 60 years later. They can’t even allow them to fade away, thanks to the legal need to retain the trademarks on their intellectual properties.
I bring all of this up to make a point. (Yes, I do have one.) Ralph Waldo Emerson said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and it’s long been my feeling that continuity concerns are the hobgoblins of serialized stories. If no one had worried about Robin’s age, there’d be no question as to whether he was still Dick Grayson. If someone hadn’t gotten their knickers in a twist about Earth-2, we wouldn’t still be picking the Golden Age Hawkman’s feathers out of our teeth 20 years after Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Star Trek fans had their own version of this. In the ’60s TV show, the alien Klingons were normal-looking humans with dark makeup and bushy facial hair, but when Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979, they’d been given crustacean-like foreheads. The producers’ explanation of this was simple enough: Klingons had always looked this way, but we didn’t have the make-up budget. Dissatisfied fans invented their own reasons, including Human-Klingon fusions and my personal favorite, the saga of the Northern Klingons and the Southern Klingons.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dealt with this conundrum in its own amusing way. When the crew found themselves transported back into the events of the classic ’60s episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” they were puzzled by smooth-headed Klingons and looked to their teammate Worf (himself a “modern” Klingon) for an explanation. Worf simply hung his head, and said “We don’t discuss it with outsiders.” It was a great moment; essentially, the producers said, “Yes, we know that they look different, and no, we’re not going to tell you why.” And frankly, that was all the acknowledgement I ever needed. That it was an embarrassment to the Klingons made it even better.
Unfortunately, the most recent spin-off, Enterprise, gave a definitive answer some 25 years after the fact. In fairness, it was a pretty clever explanation grounded in Trek lore: a failed experiment based on research from Earth’s Eugenics Wars resulted in a genetic virus that rewrote Klingon DNA until a cure was eventually discovered. Clever…but completely unnecessary. And knowing precisely why Worf was ashamed took the fun out of it.
In the end, I think that we fans (and the creative types who attempt to entertain us) do ourselves a disservice by demanding consistent adherence to a “canon.” Star Trek and Superman are modern myths. Did ancient storytellers worry about whether their version of “Jason and the Golden Fleece” was the same as the one they had been told? No, they embellished it with their own elements and removed bits that were irrelevant to their narrative. These legends evolved over centuries, and no one stopped in the middle of Jason’s arrival at Colchis to explain how events had transpired differently in previous tellings, or to massage them into a coherent whole: “No, you see, that was Southern Colchis…”
Which version of a story is valid? All of them. Just tell the story you want to tell. And don’t sweat the small stuff.