Wednesday, July 8, 2015

History of the DC Universe: 1986-2015

My earlier post, History of the DC Universe: 1935-1985, breaks down how DC Comics became committed to a shared and (relatively) consistent continuity very gradually over a period from about 1952-1969. But once a shared universe began, inconsistencies from older stories were left unresolved and new ones were being made all the time. In 1981's Green Lantern #143, writer Marv Wolfman answered a letter from a fan who asked about why a character from Kamandi's universe had recognized Hal Jordan in a sprawling crossover in Showcase #100, but claimed not to in a recent issue of GL. Wolfman's answer acknowledged a need for some sort of clean-up wherein editorial powers would make it clear which past events were part of the main (Earth One) continuity and which weren't. At about the same time, some creators at DC began to perceive that the idea of a Multiverse was too confusing for new readers, and some features, such as Superman, seemed to be in need of a major overhaul. And thus, DC's first housecleaning event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was conceived. It would finally be published in 1985-1986, and created a new, simpler, better DC Universe.

But if a shared, moderately consistent DC Universe was only about 15 years old when Wolfman saw the need to simplify it, it took much less than that for the need to arise for another clean-up, event, which was followed by another, and another. The post-1985 history of DC Comics is most aptly summarized by recording these reboot events, and what effect they had. They are as follows:

1986: Crisis on Infinite Earths
1994: Zero Hour
2006: Infinite Crisis
2011: Flashpoint

Each of these events restarted or revised the timeline of the DC Universe, enabling them – in principle – to change everything. In practice, none of them led to a completely new continuity. COIE and Infinite Crisis performed radical surgery on the Multiverse, with the former reducing the number of alternate Earths from "Infinite" down to just one, and the latter event increasing the number from one up to 52. Infinite Crisis made a modest number of changes to the continuity of the main Earth, while Zero Hour performed some extremely limited clean-ups. Below, I break down in more detail the changes that each reboot ushered in:

Crisis on Infinite Earths

In principle, Crisis rebooted everything. A new timeline began, and the Multiverse never existed in this timeline. In practice, many features were rebooted with new origins while other features were affected only slightly.

• The Multiverse of many alternate Earths was replaced by just one positive-matter universe with a past history that consisted primarily of a modified version of the Silver Age continuity of the Justice League and other Earth One features in its recent past and distant future, preceded by a modified version of the Golden Age continuity in its World War Two era. A smattering of heroes from other Earths were added to the modern age of post-Crisis Earth.
• Superman and Batman lost their positions of prominence as among the first superheroes on both Earth One and Earth Two. Instead, the JSA era had no versions of Superman and Batman at all, and they became first heroes of the second wave, but reserve members of the JLA instead of founding members.
• Superman's history was completely overhauled, with the Byrne Superman constituting a significantly new version of the character.
• The original lineup of the Justice League became Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, and Black Canary. Superman and Batman existed at that time, but did not join as full-time members of any version of the Justice League until later.
• Wonder Woman was, in time, retconned to be two people: Diana's mother Hippolyta as a member of the JSA and Diana coming along much later as a member of the third lineup of the Justice League.
• Characters such as Captain Marvel of Earth-S, Blue Beetle and the Question of Earth-Four, and Lady Quark were added to the current era of superheroes.
• The Crisis itself became part of post-Crisis Earth's history, but as an attack by the Anti-Monitor on the one and only positive-matter universe. Barry Allen died in this Crisis, but Supergirl, who had never existed, did not.
• Many characters, including Donna Troy, Power Girl, and Hawkman, were eventually rebooted at least once, in an effort to provide them with histories that were consistent with the new, unified Earth.
• Because the new Superman had never been Superboy, the Legion of Super-Heroes were inspired by the Superboy of a Pocket Universe that was created as part of a nefarious plan by the Time Trapper. A sequence of timeline reboots taking place in – and affecting only – the Thirtieth Century created more than one new, distinct version of the LSH.
• Because certain features, such as Wolfman and Perez's own Teen Titans, were not rebooted, the post-Crisis continuity of these features was added on to pre-Crisis continuity, which eventually became very lengthy and complex.
• Justice League continuity eventually included six considerably distinct lineups: The Year One JLA, the Detroit JLA, Justice League International and Justice League Europe, the new Big Seven with Kyle Rayner and Wally West, and a new JLA led by "the Trinity" of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, which eventually turned into the Robinson JLA with Donna Troy, Starman, and Congorilla. This slate was wiped clean only with Flashpoint.
• The ranks of youths who served as Robin eventually included Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and Damian Wayne. This sequence of Robins has never been reset at any point from 1940 to the present.

Zero Hour

In principle, Zero Hour also restarted the timeline, and modest retcons affected some features, such as Batman, but no flagship features were fundamentally altered. A fold-out in the final issue included a timeline of the DC Universe.

Infinite Crisis

Infinite Crisis became the third event to reconstitute DC continuity. The villains' effort to remix pre-Crisis Earths to their liking was thwarted, resulting in a haphazard reordering of continuity of no one's design. A few major changes resulted:

• Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were once again made full founding members of the original Justice League lineup, replacing Black Canary in that capacity.
• DC once again had a Multiverse, rather than only one dimension. The new Multiverse, however, was not revealed for almost a year after Infinite Crisis ended, and has only 52 Earths rather than the thousand (or "infinite") Earths before COIE. These were initially identical, but tampering by Mister Mind made them all distinct. Many of these Earths were described only in very brief fashion until nine years later, when the Multiversity Guidebook provided an overview of almost all of them.
• In general, Infinite Crisis left more things the same than it changed, but it gave writers latitude to make modest changes that they could explain as having happened as a result of the event, or of Superboy Prime having altered reality while punching the walls between dimensions. Consequently, many small changes were revealed months and years after the event ended.

Flashpoint

Only five years after Infinite Crisis, Flashpoint changed DC Comics in more radical fashion. In contrast to COIE, which was published long after the concept was considered, Flashpoint apparently occurred as a matter of some urgency, interrupting many creative projects mid-stride. This was perhaps most evident in the Dark Knight title, which ran only 5 issues in a Volume 1 before being rebooted with a new #1. The New 52, as the post-Flashpoint DC Universe was called, made dramatic changes in the publication format as well as fictional, creative changes within the story:

• DC began distributing new comics digitally on the same day that print versions were released.
• Every title, new or old, was relaunched with a new #1, including the venerable Detective, Action, Superman, and Batman, which had not previously been renumbered since their 1937-1940 inceptions.
• Most flagship characters received a new costume, in many cases raising the collar, creating a 3-D armor look in place of skintight fabric, and eliminating the "underwear on the outside" look that had traditionally added an extra splash of color to the uniforms of Superman and Batman.
• The timeline of the main Earth, Earth 0, was rebooted in significant ways, although those have not yet been entirely explained. Most notably, the Justice League was rebooted with a new origin depicting the first meeting of most of the various pairs of heroes, including Superman and Batman, but not Flash and Green Lantern. New origins were told for many characters, including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but significant elements of their pre-Flashpoint history appear to be intact. The main heroes are now shown as almost a decade younger than in their pre-Flashpoint versions. Details of how much pre-Flashpoint history is still in continuity continue to emerge as new stories are published.
• Earth 2 was radically reimagined, replacing a version in the image of the Silver Age Earth-Two which had been seen only occasionally after Infinite Crisis with a new version stricken by bloodshed and catastrophe. A relentless series of attacks by Darkseid first eliminated the new Earth 2's versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, then almost the entire population, and finally the physical planet itself. The survivors now live on a new planet along with superheroes loosely based on the members of the Justice Society.
• The rest of the Multiverse is presumably unchanged since Mr. Mind created it at the end of 52. Most of this was seen rarely or not at all before Multiversity in 2014, so there was no creative reason to change any of the Earths besides Earth 0 and Earth 2.

Five Versions of History

In, all, DC has had about five major company-wide versions of continuity in their main storytelling world, and countless parallel worlds, alternate timelines, and lesser retcons. To describe the full history would occupy an encyclopedia, but a quick summary can be provided by listing some of the major superheroes of the era in approximate order of introduction, and the various incarnations of the "J" teams (Justice Society / Justice League). Other features, other reboots, and the tangled history of the future and past are beyond the scope of this summary. 

Golden Age (1938)
Superman, Crimson Avenger, Batman, Sandman, Flash, Hawkman, Hour-Man, Spectre, Doctor Fate, Green Lantern, Atom, Justice Society, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Seven Soldiers of Victory.

Silver Age (1952)
Earth One: Superman (first as Superboy), Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Atom, Hawkman. After many years, original JLA replaced by Detroit version.
Earth Two: Retroactively declared to fit the Golden Age stories, with considerable revisions made or implied. The JSA returned from retirement and younger heroes began another team, Infinity Inc.

Post-Crisis (1986)
World War Two era: Flash (Jay Garrick), Sandman, Green Lantern (Alan Scott), Wonder Woman (Hippolyta), Hawkman (Carter Hall), Doctor Fate, Atom (Al Pratt), Black Canary, Justice Society.
Second era: Superman, Batman, Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Black Canary (II), Justice League (with Black Canary but without Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman). Detroit Justice League. Flash (Wally West). Justice League International and Justice League Europe. Wonder Woman (Diana), Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner). "New Big Seven" Justice League.

Post-Infinite Crisis (2006)
This timeline inherited most of the Post-Crisis timeline, but with the original Justice League reset to the Silver Age lineup with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman instead of Black Canary. After Infinite Crisis, a new JLA lineup included several Silver Age JLAers along with Red Tornado, Black Lightning, Vixen, and Arsenal (Roy Harper). This later gave way to a JLA lineup including several former Teen Titans, Congorilla, and Starman (Mikaal Tomas).

New 52 (2011)
Earth-0: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg, Justice League.



Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Men 714: Person to Person

Don Draper dresses better, talks better, works better, and plays better than anyone you'll ever know. Paired with that blessing is his curse: He makes more and bigger mistakes than anyone you'll ever know. We knew that in Season One, and it's carried him through to the finish. We've seen him fall down, pick himself up, and fall again. It's a credit to writer-creator Matt Weiner and his team that the cycle could stay fresh enough that Don standing on a cliff in the show's final minutes could tease the possibility of a leap and turn into something completely different.

Everyone got their send-off. For some it was love; for others it was career; for Betty it was the grave. That plot seemed to set up Don's fate: If the Draper kids were going to lose their mother, maybe Don would become a full-time father. As Betty saw it, that's not a role the otherwise omni-talented Don Draper can fill. And so, his high-speed dash across the desert led him not East, to home, but West, to the house of the original Don Draper, whose name Dick Whitman stole. There, he found Stephanie, whom we last saw a year ago, pregnant and broke, sent packing to Oakland by a lie told by Megan. Stephanie was far from a major character on the series, but here she filled a particular role: Her abandonment of her child, and the shame she feels for that put a focus on Don having abandoned, at one time or another, absolutely everything. Faced with this, Don offered to become some sort of partner in her life, a ludicrous misplacement of the energy he'd withdrawn from all of his existing responsibilities. Stephanie runs from the resort (clearly filmed at, and representing, the not-named Esalen Institute) and leaves Don with a temporary transportation inconvenience and a hole in his conscience big enough to swallow him inside. Don's frustration ends with the outburst, "People just come and go and no one says, 'Goodbye.'" He's far too intelligent not to see his own sins in that line.

The title of the episode, "Person to Person," is a manner of billing telephone calls that no longer exists. The episode has six telephone calls, most of them showing modern technology as a way to keep people apart when they really should be together. The fragility of telephone conversations is demonstrated in the first call when Sally ends her call with Don and he can't do or say a thing about it. (Incidentally, a similar but more futuristic kind of "hanging up" victimizes Jon Hamm's character in the Christmas episode of the BBC's Black Mirror in which he starred.) Soon, Don – who placed a call to Peggy to try to make up for his own coming and going without saying "Goodbye" – inflicts the same punishment on her, cutting off their call and leaving her worried for his sanity and his safety.

That was the episode's fifth phone call. The one before that was one that ended a relationship, with Joan choosing to talk to someone distant, about business, and shut out Richard, who is present, about love. And so she loses him, for better or worse, for richer or poorer.

But the episode's final phone call goes the opposite way. Stan and Peggy start by talking about business, but soon, and stunningly (and probably with too little build-up) pledge their love for one another. Stan realizes the absurdity of a phone taking the place of human contact, and runs down the hall to kiss her.

In a show about modern media (print, radio, or television) blasting opinions unilaterally into people's brains, the telephone is an apt metaphor. It's another form of long-distance communication, although it works in both ways instead of just one. In that sense, the old landline more closely resembles its mobile offspring that have more completely taken over our world than anyone could have foreseen in 1970, mediating our interpersonal relationships as well as serving up corporate ads. The Mad Men finale may say more about the devices that keep us apart in 2015 than it does about 1970.

But Stan is twice the voice of reason in the episode. He also realizes that Don's flight and escape are temporary. "He always does this, and he always comes back," Stan tells Peggy. He's exactly right.

Steve Jobs was vocal about alternative forms of consciousness having enhanced his creative powers, and there's some of that in Mad Men's final two scene. Don, having shed the New York coat and tie for a meditation circle on the Pacific coast, hums "Om" the last time we see him. And then, the gut-punch ending is the 1971 Coca Cola television ad that anyone who lived in America in the Seventies saw countless times, and we realize that Don's epiphany along the Pacific was not an escape from work, but ultimately just an inspiration for his greatest success, as he went on to return to New York and write that ad, the single most prominent television ad of all time. Don Draper gets credit for the commercial, "Hilltop," that belongs in real life to an ad man named Bill Backer, and in so doing, achieves the fame that he always had the potential to achieve.


In the first episode of Mad Men, Don sits across a table from Rachel Menken and, en route to winning her as a lover and a client, tells her, "I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one." And now, the show is over, and for Don Draper, there isn't one.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Multiversity 2

Multiversity is a long and winding road, a story of stories, with multiple universes facing their doom, and a cast of characters so vast that the cameos and allusions stretch out numerous and almost invisibly into the far distance. The finale, Multiversity #2, has many of the hallmarks of a grand triumphant ending, big and chaotic, with the heroes more than matching in power and goodness what the villains offer in power and evil, until a final ceremonial victory celebration. As with much of the rest of the series, the finale is more than it seems at first glance.

Warring through a chaotic set of interlocking battles, a large number of heroes, some of whom have never been seen before, hurl themselves across the page, winning many small fights which are small only in comparison to the main battle, which is so large, it name-checks Darkseid as a side threat without bothering to show him.

With fights breaking out all across the Multiverse, it's the most humongous superhero battle of all time, which distracts from the most significant fact, which is that it's all completely real.

The reality of what's happening in Multiversity #2, as real as the stakes in the previous issue, Ultra Comics, is driven home at the beginning, when the font and second-person narrative speaks to us, literally to us, in a panel stylized as many pages, one after another, and an eye. The story goes on, with or without you. Whether we read or stop reading, whether it's from boredom or death that we stop, the story goes on. Last issue, this was Ultra's salvation and his curse, that his story goes on with or without us, forever. After we die, someone else will read Ultra comics, and someone else will read Multiversity and the comics that come after it. That's the first truth of Multiversity.

Later, when the overt threat of the bad guys called the Gentry have been defeated (Or have they?), and the Empty Hand makes an ominous debut and disappears, Superman of Earth-23, Cal Ellis, looks right at us as he refers to Earth-33, our Earth, and though he uses third-person, he's speaking to those around us in the real world, fans and creators alike: The source of all the heroes' troubles is really in our world, not theirs, and that's the fight that he and the Justice League of the Multiverse called Operation Justice Incarnate, must fight. Maybe Grant Morrison hopes that this team of alternate Justice Leaguers will appear in more comic books in the future, but that's not the real message. What Multiversity has been about since the beginning is the threat to comic books, the fact that its spirit and business wax and wane, and the things which sustain the industry could be corrupted or damaged critically in the future. The Gentry, a wave of unpleasant content, is defeated for now, by the idea of the Justice League and superheroes in general, but more threats remains.

And the bottom line threat is right there on the last panel. Cold, hard cash. If there's anything the comic book industry needs to survive, it's ultimately that. Even as movies and video games have made superhero stories more profitable than ever, the comics face a long-term existential threat to their business model. For now, the comic industry goes on, but the looming threat of The Empty Hand is always out there, to return when it chooses.

This is the multipronged message of Multiversity, and it drives the allegorical story from start to finish. A gothic miniadventure with a vampire Sivana invading the dark Earth-13 ends in victory for the heroes as the demon Etrigan patterns himself after Superman and a Zatanna-like curse produces the first of several laughs in the issue by making vampires crave coffee instead of blood. Then, the Marvels defeat Hannibal Lecter Sivana, and the story patterns itself around Crisis on Infinite Earths, becoming what comics have in many ways become, "an endless event." To the credit of penciller Ivan Reis, it's in this sequence that Earth-26's Lincoln Memorial with a cartoon-looking goat as the central figure becomes the issue's second laugh. Bizarro Adam Strange ("Adam Familiar") follows soon after.

The pivotal battle turns around Nix Uotan solving a Rubik's Cube, seeking, as seen in Final Crisis, a way to do it better than ever before, demonstrating the power of nerds to perform miracles. Now he's corrupted by the Gentry as he does so, and the greatest perversions of sweet, innocent characters take place. The Lil Leaguers are shown to be robot spies for the Gentry and Nix Uotan beheads Captain Carrot. If there's a place where the corruption of the genre would be more harmful, it would be in the variants intended for the youngest readers. The alternate Batman, Aquaman and Flash lead the charge, with Red Racer, the superhero who – like Barry Allen – is a comics fan, referencing both Crisis on Infinite Earths and stories in Morrison's own JLA series. Ultimately, the combined power of the alternate Justice League and the Marvel-Comics-inspired characters overwhelms the Gentry, and Nix is turned good, for now. The ambiguous victory with The Empty Hand fading away with a threat to return on his own terms gives readers the usual, formulaic win for the heroes while reminding us of Morrison's overarching warning: The comics face threats; if you love them, take those threats seriously.


Multiversity is sure to be collected and read by fans far into the future. Its best issues are of the highest level, and they alone would be enough to make it a classic. The guide to the Multiverse is likely to be a significant reference for many years to come. The heavy message yoked to those elements is Morrison's good-bye (for now?) to monthly superhero comics, and it's a message readers and creators will thus be reminded of long into the future. Will they heed it? Morrison is likely talking to himself, and of his own retirement, in the opening panel of Multiversity #2. The story goes on, with or without you.