The Multiversity Guidebook is the most recent of several publications to offer a summary history of the DC Universe. Similar, somewhat longer, histories have been published in the past, and are already somewhat out of date.
It’s not easy to write a History of the DC Universe (or Multiverse), and it never was. Before anyone cared to piece the logic and the timeline together, it was already complicated and full of contradictions. Sometimes, the creators have published a retcon to try to correct the contradictions, sometimes they offer silence and perhaps a shrug. Reconciling eighty years of stories into a logical whole would fill a book, but here I hope to offer some cogent history of how the DC Universe took shape, something that might best be called “The History of The History of The DC Universe.” One simple observation – perhaps surprising to many – that I'd like to convey is that DC continuity didn't truly begin for decades after the superheroes debuted. Unbeknownst to me at the time, DC had adopted a full-fledged continuity across its titles not all that long before I began reading them in the early Seventies.
Roots: The Golden Age, 1935-1951
From 1935 to 1952, there was, with minor exceptions, no DC Universe: Most features stood alone. Features were published in a single title, or sometimes, such as Superman and Batman, were popular enough to be printed in multiple titles, but by and large, there was no thought in anyone’s head that the assorted titles were part of an integrated whole. This may come as a surprise to newer readers, familiar with stories printed in later decades that imagine the Golden Age stories as an early DC Universe. But this was nothing one saw in the majority of those early stories themselves.
Three exceptions, however, are worth noting. The Justice Society feature in All Star Comics merged the worlds of over a dozen different features that had started off separate. I've earlier written about the origin of the Justice Society. What’s important to note is that although the Justice Society feature placed all of these characters into the same fictional world, this never carried over to the solo features. Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Starman, etc., in their own features never acknowledged that the Justice Society existed, and there was a distinct sense, often repeated, that each hero was the only hero in the world of his or her own feature. No police chief ever said, “I could call Superman or Starman. How about Starman?” Likewise, there was no indication that the Gotham City that Green Lantern lived in was the same Gotham City that Batman lived in, or that anyone on the Justice Society had ever heard of, say, Aquaman or Green Arrow. Later Justice Society stories placed the whole team in Civic City, with no mention of the heroes' respective home cities from their solo features.
Similar to the Justice Society feature was the Seven Soldiers of Victory feature in Leading Comics. This team appeared about a year after the Justice Society, also teamed up heroes who had been created as solo features, and also stood apart as its own fictional world.
One sort of tie-in which did link different features was the reference, in one feature, to another one as a comic book in the world of the other, an idea which was later used in the origin of Barry Allen, who was an avid reader of Jay Garrick comic books, and is a plot element in Multiversity. In the Golden Age, both Red Tornado and Wildcat were inspired by the comic book adventures of Green Lantern, and Batman and Robin interacted with Jerry Siegel, the creator of Superman. The early Justice Society stories, beginning with the very first panel, made Fourth Wall references to their own comic books, and even to the editors.
Many efforts in later years would tie DC’s Golden Age stories, and characters such as Doctor Occult, Slam Bradley, Speed Saunders, Superman, and his super hero successors into a unified continuity, but during the Golden Age itself, there was no unified continuity to be found.
The Justice Society went out of publication in early 1951. Just over a year later, as though to replace the team concept that had been extinguished, the first Superman-Batman meeting took place in Superman #76. In truth, Superman and Batman had previously appeared together in action and in many cameos in the Justice Society feature, but Superman #76 retconned that all away, and presented a story of their “first” meeting. In July 1954, World’s Finest began running a regular team-up of the two heroes, and their fictional worlds have been merged together, between and through reboots, ever since.
In the meantime, DC had several other superhero features, new and old, but for the most part, only Superman and Batman were part of a unified continuity. The mid-Fifties origins of Martian Manhunter and the Flash, Barry Allen, conspicuously avoided any mention of Superman as a part of their universe, something that almost certainly would have entered into the discussion at some point if he had existed in their worlds. The Fifties neared their end with DC Comics having one fictional world for Superman and Batman, with many other features that were presumed to be separate.
However, a story in early 1959 told the tale of Superboy meeting a young Oliver Queen, before he became Green Arrow. In late 1959, the origin of the new Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, mentioned Superman. These two stories began a process that would turn the Superman-Batman continuity into a unified DC Universe over the course of a decade.
In just a few months, the Green Lantern reboot and the first Justice League story turned DC Comics in a new direction. Now there was a feature that unified the worlds of a whole team of superheroes, and for the first time, their solo features were – at least in some ways – implied to be part of that unified continuity.
But by the end of 1961, the editors hadn't really commited to a unified continuity just yet. At the end of the third JLA story in Brave and Bold #30, an editorial note read, "With this issue, we close the case book of the Justice League of America! We'll be glad to re-open it – and continue the adventures of the JLA in a magazine of its own – if enough of you readers request it! Please write and let us know!" For about two years after the JLA was introduced, the Justice League members’ solo features made little or no mention of the Justice League, just like the Justice Society before it.
And then, that changed. In June, 1962, an appearance by the Flash in Green Lantern #13 made it the first crossover that put a JLAer besides Superman or Batman into another hero's solo title. Three months later, Green Lantern was a guest in Flash #131. Crossovers tying the heroes together remained rare, besides JLA and World's Finest. A story in Action #309 in early 1964 had "all" of Superman's friends with no mention of the Justice League besides Batman.
The years from 1963 to 1967 were when the idea of a unified DC continuity really took root. Brave and Bold began regular team-ups with an adventure starring Martian Manhunter and Green Arrow in issue #50 in November, 1963. The editorial voice is again instructive: "Here it is, fans – the magazine you've been asking for – two heroes from the DC Hall of Fame teamed together in a full-length spectacular adventure!" The implication is that fans' letter-writing was the impetus for the creative decision. Moreover, the phrase "DC Hall of Fame" is intriguing, being the concept they had in mind before a "DC continuity" or "DC Universe" had begun. Month after month, Brave and Bold tied two more characters' worlds together until it was devoted to team-ups with Batman in October, 1967.
By 1968, the Teen Titans had joined the JLA as a team that tied several older features together in one title, Brave and Bold had run over a dozen team-ups,
and many characters had made guest-appearances in other heroes' solo titles. By this point, it was natural for a reader to assume without question that most of DC's characters shared one continuity across all its titles.
Overlapping the same time frame that DC created a continuity around Superman, Batman, and the rest of the Justice League, they also developed the Earth Two concept to publish new content utiltizing Golden Age characters who didn't fit into the new Silver Age setup.
After the landmark meeting of Barry Allen and Jay Garrick in Flash #123 in September, 1961, almost two years passed before Barry Allen met the full Justice Society in Flash #137, and the first JLA-JSA meeting in JLA #21. In the same month that the third annual JLA-JSA meeting took place, in August 1965, the purely Earth-Two teamup of Starman and Black Canary was published in Brave and Bold #61 and #62, and later in the year, Alan Scott had a guest appearance with his younger counterpart in Green Lantern #40. This handful of stories established the Earth Two concept as a sidestage for DC, one that would later be developed into its own monthly series.
So, while DC continuity developed most actively between the Justice League characters who represented Earth One, it was at almost the same time that Earth Two became an integral part of that continuity, one that was separate most of the time, but could be bridged by the Flash or other cosmic events.
The Birth of Linear Time
The fact that DC’s Golden Age could proceed without an overarching continuity points to a more general truth: The stories of that era were simply not bothered with consistency of any kind. Retcons happened often, without apology, as though the creators simply hoped no one would notice. A feature that began in Detective Comics #1 started in San Francisco and suddenly jumped to New York. Superman went from working for George Taylor at the Daily Star in Cleveland, Ohio to working for Perry White at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. Hour-Man’s boss turned out to a criminal in one story and then was back as Rex Tyler’s boss in the very next issue. Note also that Hour-Man’s name told his enemies how to defeat him. Details like this were swept under the rug because it suited the creators’ in some way (Superman’s creators decided that they didn’t want to tie the character to Toronto or Cleveland), or because the creators themselves just weren’t concerned with details.
Going into the Fifties, comic book stories took place, primarily, in circular time. If you grab a random Superman story from 1943 and another one from 1949, you can probably read them in opposite order and not notice any inconsistencies. Nothing much was changing in the lives of these characters, and every story ended neatly to allow the next one to start with a fresh beginning. There were exceptions: Villains often returned after their first appearance, beginning in 1939 with the Ultra-Humanite and Doctor Death who returned to pester Superman and Batman, respectively, in the very next issue after their respective debuts. Immediate recurrences were also true for Luthor and the Joker when they arrived on the scene about a year later. Batman’s life changed with the addition of Robin and his butler Alfred in the early Forties. But, by and large, time did not move for DC characters in this era, just as it rarely did for many lighter cartoon features.
Nowadays, readers take for granted that the characters inhabit linear time in which, like the real world, changes take place in stories and then the changes carry over to subsequent stories. This transition from circular to linear time was ushered in by a few important events between 1952 and 1969.
First, the Superman-Batman meeting in 1952 “counted”, unlike their previous meetings in All-Star Comics. When they next met in 1954, their 1952 meeting was considered to have happened, and so both of their worlds had changed, in a shared continuity which accumulated new history from then onwards.
Second, the landmark Action #242 in 1958 introduced Brainiac, but more significantly, the bottled city of Kandor. Suddenly, a huge number of surviving Kryptonians joined Superman who had met only a few Kryptonians before this.
A third, important shift took place with the second introduction of Supergirl in 1959. A story one year earlier introduced a magical “Super-Girl” who died at the story’s end. The character was popular, so a permanent Supergirl, Superman’s cousin from Krypton, was created the next year. Like the case of the Superman-Batman association, the early story didn’t “count,” and was never mentioned again, but the newer one did.
Then several important events marking the transition to linear time happened in rapid succession in early 1961. Just as Supergirl was introduced twice – once not counting, the second time counting – Mon-El was introduced twice, once as “Halk Kar” in 1953, then as Mon-El in a very similar story in 1961. Halk Kar never appeared again, but Mon-El became an integral character in continuity. Also in early 1961, DC’s two superhero teams, the Justice League and Legion of Super-Heroes, both got new members for the first time in issues printed the same month, with Green Arrow joining the JLA, whereas the LSH was shown to have multiple members, beyond the three LSH founders who had been introduced earlier. Almost simultaneously, the Phantom Zone was introduced, which was a permanent version of the criminals-from-Krypton idea first explored with Mala, Kizo, and U-Ban in 1950 and 1954. As with Supergirl and Mon-El, an earlier idea that was subsequently ignored was given a permanent replacement. These four revolutionary events, published within only three months, switched the Superman and Justice League features from circular to linear time, and with this change, the continuity became much more fertile for accumulated history for fans to explore.
The revival of the Justice Society in Flash later in 1961 also indicated that time moved for the characters, as Jay Garrick and other JSAers were revealed to have retired and grown older in the years since their earlier stories had been published.
For Batman, the change to linear time occurred later than it did for the Superman continuity. The “New Look” Batman of 1964, besides putting a yellow oval around his chest emblem, eliminated more fanciful aspects of Batman’s stories, erasing the characters Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Mite, and Ace the Bat-Hound; for many years afterward, those characters were simply gone and assumed never to have existed at all. Then, in 1969, perhaps the most pivotal “linear time” change in DC history took place, with Robin – Dick Grayson – growing up and going to college. That same year, a JLA story bid J'onn J'onzz farewell, as the Martian Manhunter went on an indefinite leave of absence in space, and did not return to DC stories for several years.
Linear time brought life and death to the characters. The first stories with significant characters dying (temporarily) involved Lightning Lad in 1963 and Alfred Pennyworth in 1964-1966. Both of these plots unfolded over many issues, told as mysteries with subtle clues and misdirection intensifying the drama before Lightning Lad and Alfred were both resurrected. In 1966, the Flash married Iris West. In 1967, the Legionnaire Ferro Lad died and – in a first for DC superheroes – remained dead. Now, the DC characters were going through all the major changes in life. The reader could perceive the characters of the DC Universe growing older, acquiring new associations, making life changes, and moving on. The lives of the characters moved at a much slower rate than real world time, but the implication was that time did march forwards for the characters.
The shift to linear time went hand-in-hand with DC features crossing over and joining together in one shared continuity. Characters could meet, team-up, grow up, age, and die. There was a significant backstory accumulating all the time, and the casual reader might be a bit adrift picking up an issue of DC Comics, but devoted readers now had an ever-more complex continuity to learn and explore.
The Bronze Age
Thus, the Seventies were the first full decade where a shared DC continuity ruled by linear time was in effect. Things changed slowly, but they did change, opening up more complex narrative possibilities. DC's creators and fans could conceive of a full-Multiversal history. The past included the Big Bang, the Guardians of the Universe, the New Gods, and eventually the World War Two era when superheroes began on Earth Two. The present included the Justice League on Earth One, an older Justice Society on Earth Two, and many adjunct characters on those and other parallel universes. And there was a future including the Legion of Superheroes, the Reverse Flash, Abra Kadabra, Rip Hunter, and other characters. DC's titles followed dozens of characters on many teams, acquiring a stable of hundreds of villains on various planets, dimensions, in various eras. About twenty years after DC continuity had finally gotten up to speed, it would be perceived as cluttered and overly complex, and DC's editors made plans to sweep much of it away.
Further reading: History of the DC Universe 1986-2015.