Action Comics no. 1 All art, images and characters depicted in this essay are (c) DC Comics Inc, and are depicted for purposes of critical discussion only.
Plus sa change…plus sa même chose or, for those who do not have the French, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is one of those times when they did not.
In August 2011, DC Comics re-booted their Universe. It wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last time such a thing happened, but it was the one that ended my life-long interest in mainstream comics. I have been reader and fan through five different DC Universes, but I cannot bring myself to feel an interest in their Sixth World.
But I’ve been reading this crap for nigh on fifty years now: I’ve been through Crisis on Infinite Earths, through Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, through Infinite Crisis: what gnat made me strain at accepting The New 52? For, yes, it was indeed a gnat, and not a camel that was the final burden. A scrap of red did it.
Let’s go back forty six years, to the spring of 1966, when I was ten. I don’t remember the first American comic I ever bought: encouraged by my Junior School Headmaster, my parents didn’t try to stop me avidly reading comics, since I was equally avid to read books as well, but they drew the line at American comics. But just as they were keen to keep me from wasting (their) money on cheap, garish, overpriced rubbish, I was equally keen on reading the adventures of these gaudy creatures in their bright costumes. Something had to give, and even the most docile and rule-abiding boy will win out in the end.
It was probably Superman, at first, or maybe Batman, and it was never going to be a regular thing, but I was allowed American comics from time to time, and I experimented with different characters: The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman, and then the Justice League of America, where they all got together.
But this was before the comic in question.
In the early Spring of 1966, I sat the last Eleven-Plus Exams to come out of Manchester Education Committee, to determine what school I would enter in the last year before the Comprehensive System. No ten year old realises when he’s going through a life-changing experience, but from those exams that, being ten weeks outside the cut-off date, I should not have sat, the whole of my life has flowed.
Little did anyone know it, but completing my final Eleven Plus led to another life-changing experience. It was a sunshine March Friday afternoon, walking back from the distant School where we’d been sitting the Exams, elated that they were over. Like a dutiful child, I would only cross Ashton Old Road at a zebra crossing, but if I went as far as the second one, I could walk back up the other side of the road to our Newsagents, look at the American comics in his window: I’d finished my exams and Mam and Dad would buy me a comic on the strength of that.
Justice League of America 37 was in the window. I have it still, forty six years later, signed to me by its legendary editor, Julius Schwarz, but I don’t need it before me to recall the cover blurb: “What?! Not a single member of the mighty Justice League on the cover of this comic? Why are the superheroes of the legendary Justice Society battling the menace of a living lightning bolt in – ‘Earth – Without a Justice League!’”
And there was indeed a giant, human-faced, malevolent-expressioned pink Lightning Bolt (Pink?) on the cover, fighting off a half dozen heroes, none of whom I recognised. But the truly weird, impossible to resist thing about it was that they had all the right names! The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman. But none of the right costumes. And two more great looking figures I’d never seen before, Doctor Fate and Mr Terrific.
I had to have it. I had to know what this was about, who these people were, how they came to have names I knew yet not be the characters I knew. One of the most important facets of my character was being born in those moments of fascination.
As soon as I got home, I brought it up with my Mam. And again with my Dad when he got home from work. And on Saturday morning, once or twice, in case they had forgotten through going to sleep. The completion of my exams was mentioned in this context: I was owed something.
So I got it. On the way to Granny and Grandad’s for Saturday Dinner, which we’d done all my mortal life, we stopped at the newsagents. I took Dad inside, identified the comic from the window, and took it gratefully after he’d handed over the all important shilling. But I couldn’t read it yet: you weren’t allowed to read in the car because it was bad for your eyes, and I was already wearing glasses, and arrival at Granny’s and greeting everyone was a non-stop preamble to Dinner on the table at 1.00pm sharp, and Granny’s home-made Apple Pie for afters, and all in all it was gone 2.00pm before I was allowed to leave the table and go off into my private kingdom of the Parlour, array myself in the proper comics reading position – flat on your tummy on the floor – and start.
Justice League of America 37
It seemed that there was an Earth-2 that had a Justice Society instead of a Justice League, and that Johnny Thunder had at last been invited to a meeting again. Johnny’s superpower seemed to be the ability to summon and command a disappointingly normal-sized pink lightning bolt, not to mention distracting himself into going to Earth-1 to meet the Johnny Thunder of that world. This was a mistake, as the Earth-1 version didn’t have a Thunderbolt because he was evil, as evidenced by his purple check sports jacket and his inability to pronounce his “ths”.
So Thunder knocked out Johnny, took control of the ‘Bolt and sent him off to do a payroll robbery. Which was interrupted by the Flash: the real one, in the all-red costume. Which gave Thunder a bright idea.
And suddenly, what had begun as a slightly tedious and not-very-funny attempt at a humour comic took off into the biggest, most grandiose concept that I had yet come across in my short life: Thunder told the ‘Bolt to travel back in time and change the entire world by preventing every single member of the Justice League from ever becoming a hero. Over the next two-and-a-half pages, the ‘Bolt criss-crossed in time; intercepting the lightning that struck Barry Allen’s laboratory and transformed him into the Flash; changing Krypton’s fissionable uranium core to lead, stopping it exploding and removing the need to send baby Kal-El to Earth; intercepting the yellow radiation that crashed Abin Sur’s spaceship and keeping Hal Jordan from receiving his Power Ring; smashing the white dwarf star fragment that Ray Palmer would not now use to create the Atom’s size-changing controls; shorting out Dr Erdel’s robot brain before it transported the Martian Manhunter to Earth; and dropping into the very first panel depicting Batman, from 1938, to help the thugs beat the shit out of him and Bruce Wayne’s stupid notion of becoming a crimefighter!
The details of how the JLA’s other four members were deflected from their courses were glossed over in a single montage panel, but it had happened: in the space of a very few pages I had been introduced to the idea of there being another Earth, identical but not quite to our own, and the notion that history could be manipulated to change everything we know.
It was decidedly heavy stuff for a 10 year old, and there was still the Justice Society, and these strange other-versions to get to know, as they followed Johnny to Earth-1, beat his gang, magically disguised themselves as guess-which-six JLA members, beat up the ‘Bolt and drove Thunder to another outlandish brainwave: the ‘Bolt would take six members of Thunder’s gang into the origins of the eliminated superheroes, giving Thunder a Lawless League of his own with which to face down the Justice Society.
Continued Next Month.
In it’s own way, that had more of an effect upon me than the contents of the comic itself. American comics didn’t continue next month. They knew that us in Britain couldn’t get consecutive issues, so every story was complete for that reason. But now they had cheated. They had drawn me in with half a story, knowing I would never see its end. They had seduced me with unfamiliar familiar heroes and left me dangling, ignorant of how they got out of it.
Ignorant for about six months, as it turned out, until I discovered my mate Steve had JLA 38, and was prepared to swap, though only for three comics (at ten, I had not discovered the idea of the poker face). At last I got to see how it ended.
The Justice Society, as veterans, easily whipped the novice Lawless League. They survived the combination hurricane/tornado/earthquake Thunder threw at them. They tracked him to the Moon, where he’d fled, to create three monstrous monsters who, between them, took out five of the six heroes, only for Doctor Fate to overcome all the monsters single-handedly. Then Fate entered into a knock-down, drag-out magic fight with the ‘Bolt, only with Thunder in the middle, getting him from both sides, until he finally cried out his last instruction – to make it all as if it had never happened, and he’d never seen the Thunderbolt at all.
Well, it satisfied me.
Whatever happened, I was hooked on superhero comics, and on the Justice Society in particular. They were my private possessions: when everyone settled for the Barry Allen Flash, I had the Jay Garrick one, and the vision of an Earth where anything was possible, because it was similar… but different.
I continued to read comics until the beginning of the Seventies. Time and changing tastes led me to discover football, in 1968, and football weeklies very quickly thereafter, I discovered pop and rock in 1970, and the rock press in its wake. My enthusiasm for comics diminished, although I always kept my eye open for the annual Justice League/Justice Society two-part team-up. There were a handful of comics in that last, awful week when Dad was dying, a similar handful in rain-soaked Ulverston in a week’s break taken after his death, just to get away, and then no more.
Three years passed, during which I accumulated O and A levels and went to Manchester University. Late in 1973, Charles Shaar Murray, the best rock writer of the decade, wrote a fanciful, but well-argued article in NME comparing the development of rock’n’roll with that of (American) comics. Comics: I used to read those! It was interesting to read about my old enthusiasm, and what had developed in the years I’d been gone, and equally so when Murray followed his initial piece with more in-depth looks at Batman and Captain America, though The Murray Age of Comics ended at that point, with no further explanation.
Come late January, the new term started. I needed a haircut so, on my way home after Uni, in the early evening sodium dark, I got off the bus at the barber’s, a mile from home. After my trim, I popped into a newsagents for a Mars Bar, to restore any physical weaknesses induced in Sampsonian fashion. Having picked up my confectionery, I was confronted by a queue at the counter.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a rack of American comics. Recalling the Murray articles, in an amused moment I decided to have a flick through what they had: a brief flirtation with nostalgia, look at a few covers, remind myself of the comics I’d retained, buy the Bar, get the bus home.
Earlier, I described buying JLA 37 as a life-changing moment. How true that is, and not just an amusing speculation with which to entertain my former wife, I’ve debated often with myself. There were years of comics ahead of me, at an age where I was openly impressionable. I would have discovered the Justice Society at some point, been awakened to the thrill of the possibilities they represented, wanted to learn everything I could of these figures whenever it had happened. So was JLA 37 really so important?
Until a reliable device, that meets current Health and Safety standards, is created to enable us to examine parallel worlds and our alternate lives, that can never be determined. What is absolutely certain is that that passing whim to browse American comics one last time unequivocally changed my life.
They had a Justice League of America comic, no 107. It was the first half of a team-up with the Justice Society. That, and only that, was the only comic I would have bought, would have had to buy. And because I bought it then, which I have yet, signed by its author who, when I told him it was responsible for getting me back into comics, shied away and refused to accept the blame, because of that one book being in that rack, I have read immeasurable comics, spent colossal sums of money, been influenced and drawn in ever so many directions, had long and earnest and hilarious conversations, launched a writing career that escaped my notebooks and made many friends.
On Earth-2, that issue wasn’t in that rack. The Earth-2 Crookall finished flicking through, shrugged, bought and ate the Mars Bar and caught the bus back home, never to look at another American comic, or a newspaper strip, in his life. Poor bastard.
Here on Earth-1, I still only had the first half of the story, just like almost a decade earlier. But, racking my brains, didn’t the newsagents at Lane End, halfway home from here, also sell American comics? Maybe they might have the other part? Instead of the bus I walked the two stops to Lane End and, yes, they sold American comics and, yes!, they had JLA 108. No six month waits this time.
So I walked home, adopted the traditional comics reading position on my bed, and read them.
The art was neater, sharper (obviously, with Dick Giordano on inks), the writing more colourful (Len Wein not being as overbearingly purple as he too often was) and my old Justice Society heroes, even if there were only three of them, were as good to renew acquaintanceship with. A few nights later, at the Lane End newsagents, I thumbed through the rack, determined on another purchase. It followed from there.
What then was so different about comics, aside from my older, more thoughtful and analytical perspective? Looking at my collection now, it’s not as if I have more than a handful of Seventies comics. Indeed, the Seventies as a whole was a drab, dull let-down compared to the Sixties in the same way that music was (Murray’s thesis was obviously right).
But there were obvious differences. Rather than being interchangeable cogs in a complicated plot, with identical speech patterns, the heroes now spoke with a range of voices, and I would be able to describe the entire plot of JLA 107-8 in about half the space I needed to explain the plot of JLA 37 alone. My curiosity was aroused, and within three months it was once more an enthusiasm.
There’d been a Golden Age, practically the whole of the Forties, of which I still knew virtually nothing, and the revival of the superheroes in their new guises, starting with the début of the Barry Allen, not-yet-Earth-1 Flash had opened what became known as the Silver Age. It had ended only a handful of years before I thumbed nostalgically through that rack, though no-one had yet started terming this new period as the Bronze Age.
But there had already been a change of Universe: unplanned, unrecognised, bolted together out of bits and pieces, unclear and undefined. The Golden Age had taken place in a Universe, but both the Silver and Bronze Ages occurred in a state where there were at least two different Universes: even if one Flash didn’t meet the other until 1961, demanding the existence of Earths 1 and 2, there had still been two parallel worlds since Barry Allen first stopped trembling from the shock of having electrical chemicals soaking him.
However, once you propose the existence of two parallel, similar-but-different Earths, you concede the possibility of a third; a fourth; an infinity of them: a Multiverse.
Earth 3 appeared as early as the second JLA/JSA team-up, and Earth-A came and went with the evil Johnny Thunder’s wishes. Then there was a bizarre story involving Barry-Flash breaking into another parallel Earth, where the Flash was a comic book published by National Periodical Publications, better known as DC, where his only hope of escape was with the assistance of the comic’s editor, Julius Schwartz.
But it was in the Seventies that DC began, deliberately, accidentally, unintentionally, to multiply their Earths. JLA 107-8 had actually taken the heroes to another parallel world, where the Nazis had won a World War 2 that lasted until 1966, and a group of heroes originally published in the 1940s by Quality Comics were the last defenders of Earth-X (it was going to be Earth-Swastika, but Schwartz refused to have that in any of his books).
Some Earths were conjured into being to accommodate other groups of defunct figures from long-bankrupt companies. Others had to exist to make sense of a story from a continuity perspective. One was identified by fans as the only possible explanation for stories from one editor who would disregard anything established or consistent about a character if it filled another page of story: Earth-B (for Murray Boltinoff) is now a recognised part of the DC Multiverse.
By the early Eighties, one intrepid and patient fan drew up a list of no less than twenty DC Earths.
At this time, DC had reached the lowest point in its history. The Seventies were a period of rampant inflation, as the OPEC countries flexed their muscles. The 12c comic book jumped to 15c in 1970, but after that increases came thick and fast. In between times, both DC and Marvel, who had taken a near-unbreakable grip on market share, tried to slow the price rises down by cheapening the package: reducing the story pages, cheaper inks, cheaper, thinner, nastier paper, plastic printing plates that confined clear lines to the first half of the print run.
Nothing worked. By 1978, with a price rise from 35c to 40c inevitable, the standard 32 page comic book contained only 17 pages of art and story, maybe two of letters and editorial material, and the rest advertisements. And these ads were no longer bought by the top companies of a decade before.
DC, under a new publisher, Jeanette Kahn – not merely the first woman publisher, but the first to come from outside the industry as it had been for the last forty years – came up with an ambitious plan to get ahead of the curve. Instead of the awkward chunk of change of 40c, the price would leap to a single coin, 50c. But the package would be worth it: instead of 32 pages, DC’s comics would jump to 40 pages, and all those extra eight pages would go to art. Some titles would expand their story count to 25 pages, others would introduce back-up features. Unused characters could be revived, new characters could be tested out. There was a buzz of anticipation surrounding the much-trailed DC Explosion.
Perhaps the name was too much of an open invitation, a red-and-white hooped bullseye asking for the Gods to visit their usual punishment for hubris. Maybe the timing was just shit out of luck. But the week the Explosion was launched into thicker comics, the sales figures for the line arrived at Warner Brothers, DC’s owners, who reacted with horror and swift instructions.
A curt order was given for DC to pull its horns in, to can this nonsense about new titles and higher prices: go to 40c, stick to 32 pages, stem this haemorrhage. Counting newly scheduled titles that were cancelled before even appearing, half the line was killed in a day. It was, naturally, immediately termed “The DC Implosion”.
Morale was staked through the heart: a writer at Marvel named Marv Wolfman advised people to get out: in five years time, there wouldn’t even be any comics.
But of course there are still comics, and we are thirty four years past that point. I include that quote from Wolfman because the records show that the Gods deal not only in the shattering of hubris but also the workings of irony.
Something else happened in comics in 1978: after five Editors-in-Chief in the space of eight years, Marvel Comics appointed Jim Shooter to the role. Shooter had entered the comics industry at the age of 13, writing well-regarded stories for DC, under the highly stressful and deeply unpleasant editorship of the legendary Superman editor, Mort Weisinger, the man who had wrested control of Superman away from his creator Jerry Seigel.
Marvel was in a mess. Unlike DC’s practice of having several editors each with a stable of titles to oversee, at Marvel the Editor-in-Chief edited everything. It was, of course, impossible. Writers worked at cross-purposes, followed their own instincts, blew deadlines all over the place. Steve Gerber’s famous Howard the Duck was introduced under Roy Thomas’s editorship: the first Thomas knew of this new character was when he saw the finished art just before it went to the printer: very nice, he is reported to have said: now kill him off next issue.
Matters were further complicated by the fact that, as each Editor-in-Chief stepped down, he became a Writer-Editor, responsible only to Publisher Stan Lee, and beyond the control of his successor. The same status was granted to Jack Kirby when he came back from an ill-fated move to DC, and to Gerber when he proved to be a (justified) right royal pain in the ass over the resurrected and cultishly famous Duck.
Having been brought up under Weisinger, and having perhaps absorbed more of him than was good for any human, Shooter was not going to have any of this. If he was going to be Editor-in-Chief, then he would be in charge. There would be no Writer-Editors unable to defy Shooter’s directions for the whole Marvel Universe.
One way or another, all those Writer-Editors had the second part of their tag removed. One accepted it with equanimity. The rest transferred to DC. This included Marv Wolfman.
His long term friend and associate Len Wein had preceded him there and had been appointed editor. DC wanted a revival of The Teen Titans, a series built around a team of everyone’s teenage sidekicks. Wolfman thought the idea sucked, that the series would fail like ever other attempt at the concept had, but as a professional, put his back into the job of making it as successful as he could.
Wolfman and Wein had begun their careers as fans-turned-writers at DC a decade before but had established themselves at Marvel, with its melodramatic and soap opera approach, featuring heroes-with-problems in a single, overlapping continuity, in which what happened in one series was perpetually having a dramatic effect on others. DC, in contrast, was historically more staid, more conservative, more restrained, more sclerotic. More dull.
Though Wolfman had always had his doubts, his meticulous, thoughtful writing on The New Teen Titans, accompanied by the highly-detailed, lush art of George Perez, was DC’s first step back from the Implosion. Sales built quickly, especially amongst the specialist Direct Market. New Teen Titans was DC’s first genuine fan hit and, with more ex-Marvel writers and artists unhappy at Shooter’s dictatorial approach, the creative pool was there for others.
The series’ success meant that people took Wolfman and Wein’s ideas more seriously. And there was one idea that was a bugbear with them, since the day they came back from Marvel: the Multiverse.
DC had a Multiverse of multiple Earths and multiple characters, some duplicated in all but tiny details, others in name only, some who moved from one Earth, some who were created because someone couldn’t remember which Earth they should have been on.
Marvel had a Universe with a tight (!?!) continuity in which everything fitted together without overlap, and twice the market share.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were some event, some gigantic, colossal, Multiverse-threatening danger that would boil everything down to Earth-1 and the bits DC wanted to keep from everywhere else? A Universe, in fact, just like Marvel: one single continuity to puzzle at and absorb, and incidentally get rid of every silly, goofy, illogical, impossible, nonsensical and stupid story that had supposedly happened.
It was three-and-a-half years in the making, a grandiose gesture, the ultimate comic book series that would not merely threaten the Universe but rather an infinity of Universes, in which the status quo would, defiantly, progressively, not be maintained. Its preparation involved hundreds of opinions, decisions on every level, negotiations as to who would make the cut and who would be brushed aside, the revivification of the Big Three and the creation of a new playing field. It was the biggest story there had ever been, twelve monthly issues in itself and crossovers rippling up and down the whole DC line. “Worlds will live, worlds will die.”
Pity it was such a bodge.
Crisis on Infinite Earths
DC can perhaps be excused its failure with Crisis on Infinite Earths: no-one had ever even imagined doing something of this magnitude before, and nobody ever will again because nobody who takes this step will let fifty years pass before acting. Nobody knew how to do it right, and so many things were done wrong – not least the failure to tie the whole damned thing together. Major reboots to Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t even start until months after the Crisis was over and one of the crossovers, unfortunately but significantly, involving the nearest equivalent to the Justice Society of America, was still crossing over with itself long after the thing itself was done and the DC Universe was a fixture.
Reducing Crisis on Infinite Earths to its essentials, it began in cosmic mode with the Dawn of Time, the Primal Atom, awaiting that shattering force that would expand it into the Universe but instead suffering an intervening act that split it into an infinity of inherently unstable, vulnerable, parallel worlds.
Flash forward to the present day and a blank white wall is sweeping through the Multiverse, destroying world after world for ever. It is of anti-matter, generated from the Anti-Matter Universe of Qward by one of two beings created at the Dawn of Time: brothers and inherent enemies: the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor.
The former had been plotting for the last year, observing all the superbeings of everywhere so as to use them to preserve positive matter. Unfortunately, he doesn’t succeed, but his death in issue 4 did preserve the last five Earths (1, 2, X, S and 4) by powering up great machines, which the Anti-Monitor will now seek to destroy.
In order to convince the sceptical that they were being serious about all of this, DC had decided to kill not just a string of unwanted, unneeded and often inconvenient characters, but also two big heroes, two who would have real ‘yes-we-do-mean-it’ impact. First was Supergirl – Superman’s cousin, his last true relative, but also the symbol of the cluttering up of the Last Son of Krypton legend – and immediately afterwards The Flash – Barry Allen, the first hero of the Silver Age, the symbol of the created Multiverse. One dies in public to preserve her cousin, the other alone, unseen, to save reality.
Barry Allen’s sacrifice forced the Anti-Monitor to go to the Dawn of Time, planning to make his the nebula-sized hand that released stars into the void in a particularly impressive mid-60s issue of Green Lantern that I’d long owned. Instead he was confronted by all the heroes, though at the last only the Spectre, the most powerful of them all, could stand against him. And their struggle shattered all of existence. The Multiverse was destroyed before it began. It had never been.
Originally, the final two issues of Crisis had been planned to feature the (new) History of the DC Universe, a series of pretty pictures laying out how everyone related to each other now. In keeping with a series that was still being made up as it went along, these were jettisoned in favour of two more issues of mayhem, calamity and destruction.
So, in a well-presented reverse of page 1, the Big Bang that once created an inherently unstable Multiverse was repeated, only this time to become a single, whole Universe. No-one remembered the Multiverse, except for the entire superhero community who were all fully aware of the incredible slaughter they’d just experienced and who, of course, would not suffer any psychological damage as a consequence, especially not in keeping it hidden from their loved ones who, not having been to the Dawn of Time, have no idea this has happened and that they’d all died and come back to life.
After that it was just a knockdown, drag-out, slambang battle until the Anti-Monitor got knocked down one too many times by the elder Superman, he who was once of an Earth-2 that has vanished, and who was now a greater outcast than the Last Son of Krypton could ever be. And he was rewarded by being spirited off, with his ageing Lois Lane and a couple of other characters as redundant as you can imagine anyone being, to some paradisial dimension to live in peaceful retirement from which he will never be able to return. What a pity that the word ‘never’ is meaningless in superhero comics.
There’s no other honest way of describing it: it’s goofy as all get out. But a lot of people loved it. A lot welcomed it. A lot examined it very critically. And a lot of people resented the hell out of it for changing the status quo upon which they had grown. Though the old comics that everyone had, in different measures, loved had not been burned or anything, were still perfectly readable – I still have comics I bought in the Sixties, and DC have done a sterling job of reprinting the entire 1940s Justice Society of America stories, in hardback – they had been robbed of significance in these people’s eyes. What happened in them had no longer ‘happened’ – or, at least, it had not happened until DC published a new story that confirmed it did.
In theory, everything was up for grabs. In reality, nobody was going to change Superman’s costume, decide that the Joker had never existed, or turn Wonder Woman into a black lesbian (certainly not the latter. Not in 1986, at any rate). But they were going to clear away the crap, even if in many cases the ‘crap’ was brought back, in a modernised, rejuvenated and considerably less silly way than it had first occurred.
Superman was updated. Multiple forms of kryptonite, super-breath and heat vision were gone and, in the single most gloriously right change of them all, Jonathan and Martha Kent had not died of a mysterious space disease shortly before Clark Kent moved to Metropolis, but were still alive, to give Superman an emotional base he had never had before. That humanity would be a stronger and more meaningful form of weakness than Red Kryptonite ever could be.
Batman stopped being a slightly more serious version of Adam West and began his metamorphosis into Christian Bale by the simple expedient of removing Joe Chill: the man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents was never identified, never killed by his fellow crooks for bringing the Bat down on them, and the hole opened in Batman’s soul was never closed even a tiny fraction.
And Wonder Woman was reborn along with the Amazons – the re-embodied souls of women killed violently by men, Diana herself born from the unborn baby of her slain mother – with a closer tie to the Greek Gods, with ‘her’ Steve Trevor now a mature Army Colonel some thirty years older than her, and no silly ‘human’ identity. For the first time – EVER – Wonder Woman was good: not goofy, not sloppy, not underpinned by a bizarre sexuality, just plain old very good indeed.
The Justice Society were gone, however. They were no longer the heroes of another world, but instead the heroes of another generation, which opened up some very interesting story possibilities. Except that DC hadn’t spent all that time and money clearing its continuity of all those duplications and anomalies only to let other versions of Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman hang around.
So the world’s first superteam were shunted off into limbo, literally, in a truly awful story whose only merit was that it was an archetypal comic book killing off: they’re still alive, we can bring them back any time the bosses let us…
Thus there was a unified Universe, old names suddenly available for new takes, slates that, if not clean, had had the ground in parameters smeared to greater or lesser degree, and next there was Legends. Now DC had a single, all-in, Universe, they would have stories that demonstrated that there was such a thing as the DC Universe.
I don’t propose to offer up any detail on Legends. Its only glory was in being the first: next year came Millennium, then the year after Invasion, after which War of the Gods, Armageddon 2001, Eclipse: the Darkness Within, Bloodlines… Each time, the DC Universe was never the same again, and a bunch of new series, which never lasted too long, were launched. Listen carefully, and you too can hear the Law of Diminishing Returns not so much setting in as building a bungalow and developing 100 acres of prime real estate for commercial and industrial use.
I welcomed the Universe. It was fresh, it was bright, it offered an inherently familiar overstructure in which fresh possibilities burgeoned: fresh possibilities that showed more than an influence of ‘realism’ – or that equally implausible aspect of it that was sparked into ‘grim’n’gritty’ life by the twin successes of Frank Miller’s driven, obsessive, brooding Batman of The Dark Knight Returns and the tour de force that was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen.
But, because of Watchmen, I didn’t spend too much time in the DC Universe. Watchmen had ripped so many scales from my eyes that I found it next to impossible to get involved in superhero comics of a more conventional bent. Add to that the fact that, since the start of the Eighties I had been having my attention deflected towards the newly-appeared Independents market (i.e. not Marvel/DC) which offered stories aimed at an older audience, or a variety of different subjects, and which bypassed superheroes entirely – or maybe disguised them a lot better.
Between genuinely individual and different series such as Dave Sim’s Cerebus, well-disguised hero stuff like Howard Chaykin’s all-too-short-lived American Flagg! and a general post Watchmen trauma that had suspended my suspension of disbelief, I wasn’t reading too much of DC. But there was always the Justice Society of America to draw me back in.
It was a make-work project, something that needed to be organised rapidly. A pool of artists had been commissioned to work on a large scale project that, inevitably was running late. Something had to be found for these artists to draw, for, without pages, they had no income, and would have to get jobs elsewhere that would make them unavailable. Two editors decided to think about possibilities overnight, and both came back with the same idea – the Justice Society.
It was an eight issue story, designed schematically to provide four solo issues, each drawing in a different JSA member, two team-ups, one foursome and a special treat in the final issue as a past JSAer throws off his retirement to help defeat the villain.
It was the first time the JSA had appeared in a comic under their own name, it was set in 1950, a time in their continuity that had never been explored outside the original stories, and it told a story of no significance whatsoever, except that it was a good, fun, superhero story that set out to entertain. And, in complete contrast to the era of dysfunctional teams that had arisen from Alan Moore’s contention that the kind of extreme personality necessary to put on a costume and fight crime would not sit down and play quiet with the nice boys and girls, the JSA acted like grown-ups: mature, professional, friendly people who trusted each other implicitly.
The story was not only a delight, it sold. In numbers enough to support an ongoing title as well. So a cheap limited series was got up to release the JSA from limbo (whilst putting an unwanted hangover from the Crisis in their place), and the boys were back.
And so was I. Enough time had passed since Watchmen for me to rediscover the pleasure of a good superhero story, and there were enough good, or enthralling, titles around to keep me involved again.
Onesuch, in the enthralling category, was the famous Death of Superman. It got massive publicity in advance, especially with the special sealed-in-black-plastic and including a black armband issue in which it would happen. I bought it: for the event, for the ‘rarity’ value, for the curiosity. They weren’t going to kill Superman, nobody believed that, did they? Not the Big Blue Boy Scout, not the Great Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs. But they did.
At this time, Superman was appearing in four monthly titles, all devoted to him, and scheduled on a different week of each month. What’s more, these titles didn’t tell separate stories as they used to: under strict editorial control, with close-knit artist and writer teams, Superman was and for some time had been America’s first ongoing weekly series (for 48 weeks of the year).
It was the oldest impulse for reading that ever existed: what happens next? Superman was dead, killed, no more. I mean, he wasn’t going to stay dead, no-one who knew anything about comics doubted that, but in the meantime he was, well, dead. And with teams rotating as we moved through the publishing month, for the next thirteen weeks the story dealt – fairly realistically – with the aftermath of that death: upon loved ones, friends, colleagues, enemies and everyone from Government on up who wanted to get hold of that body and, well, experiment.
Then they stopped. All four titles just… ended. No Superman, no series. For three months, until Easter (and there could be no significance in the timing of the story that saw Superman’s father, his Earth father Jonathan, not his genetic donator, Jor-El, enter the realm of death, could there?). And all four titles exploded back on the same day, each one featuring the appearance of a resurrected Superman: four of them.
And the story continued, week after week, as the four possible Supermen played different roles – Cyborg, Kryptonian, Teenage clone and Soul Brother – one per title, showing different levels of concern as to which of them was the real Superman. Because, ultimately, none of them were, but four new characters were added to the mythos.
It was great fun again, heading for the comics shop every week for the next instalment of this crazy story, having to know what happened next, and picking up other stuff each time.
It’s funny how, looking back over the near half-century that I’ve read these things, how enthusiasm has come and gone in waves, how periods when a gradual disinterest always ended with a profusion of new things to read, to become involved in.
But Superman’s Death and Rebirth was a digression from the main subject of this essay. I’ve listed above a succession of annual crossovers with which DC exploited their new Universe in the years after shaking things up so fiercely and fundamentally in order to create a coherent continuity. Just as with Crisis itself, they’d blown it.
There were inconsistencies and holes everywhere. DC’s sales might have started picking up, and their greater willingness to offer creators as an equal attraction to characters (as opposed to Marvel’s rigid insistence that it was Spider-Man who sold, not whoever was writing or drawing him) had increased their audience and their profile, but the Universe worked even worse than the Multiverse and, only nine years on, something had to be done about it.
So 1994’s crossover series was to reboot the Universe all over again.
Zero Hour: Crisis in Time was a considerably less ambitious, and logistically far superior successor to the Crisis. It consisted of five, instead of twelve issues, published weekly and contained to a single month, with all the crossovers taking place in that single month, simultaneous with the event. Ingeniously, it began with issue 4, and counted backwards to 0: and at the end of issue 1, the Universe was again destroyed, this time as the entropy moving forward from the Dawn of Time and backwards from the End of Time finally met in the middle, erasing everything. Everything. In every issue of that week, the final page faded into blank pages for the rest of the comic.
The villain was Hal Jordan, once the Silver Age Green Lantern, now Parallax, a figure corrupted by loss and power. His motives were, ostensibly, noble: now the Universe is gone, he will recreate the Big Bang, restart time from the beginning, only this time he will monitor it, and unmake all the disasters, all the bad things, reshape the Universe into a Utopia and undo the total destruction of his California hometown of Coast City, during the Superman Rebirth sequence.
The last remaining heroes, there to bear witness, kept him from his scheme. The Big Bang was recreated and the Universe came back into existence, but nobody would monitor it, nobody would control or shape it, and so it would reform in more or less the same way it did before, give or take a few details here or there.
And so the DC Universe was reset: same as before, only with an excuse to straighten out all those messes. And that wasn’t all of Zero Hour (which would have been a feeble waste of time, if that’s all it did), because next month, EVERY title DC published, not just the half dozen new ones being spun out in by-now traditional manner, published its issue 0. Zero Month, an entire month of resets, as every creator of every title got the chance to lay down their marker as to the direction their title, their character(s) would take henceforward.
I admit it, I fell for it. I bought every single one, just to see. Just to learn, to get a map of where DC meant to go with this repeat reboot. A couple of them made very good use of this opportunity, and a couple of them I started following. And now, if you’re counting, we were into the fourth of DC’s Universes.
Yet again there was no Justice Society. The 1990 revival had led to the team’s return into an ongoing series that was cancelled after only 10 issues. Its writer, burning his boats at DC down to the last canoe, announced that it had not been cancelled for lack of sales, but as a political gesture. A bunch of popular artists had split from Marvel to set-up their own imprint, publishing comics for the kids today, leaving Marvel publishing their Dad’s characters, and DC their grandad’s.
Was there any truth in this accusation? Well, the editor supposedly responsible for this dismissal edited Zero Hour, in the middle of which the JSA took on the seeming-villain. And were devastated. Three members dead, two more incapacitated, everybody’s various immunities to the passage of time removed. And the survivors resigned. You tell me.
I’ve already spoken of peaks and troughs, but the years following Zero Hour would be a contained peak as I found myself avidly following four titles. Four series, each published on a different week of the publishing month so that, just as during the Death and Rebirth of Superman sequence, I was visiting the comics shop weekly. I might only be coming out with one or two comics, or on an exceptional week, three, but the weekly progression kept me in touch. I no longer read any fanzines, but I absorbed more than I read.
A late marriage, a deflection away from what was, by then, a busy unpublished writing career: in short, a life, did not end my continuing enthusiasm for comics, but with a family of five and a wife going back to University to support, the need for economy began to impose upon my growing separation from the everyday superhero comics.
The JSA were back, naturally: they are an idea that it seems impossible to kill, but this latest revival was a revivification indeed. Instead of simply bringing the old team back, the new JSA was spun as a family and a training group, a team of legacies, featuring first, second and, now, third generation characters: heroes taking on the identities of JSAers now gone, inheritors of all kinds.
Unfortunately, at a very early stage the series came under the control of a writer rapidly rising to the top at DC, a very popular, very clever, very controlled writer, who has produced very smooth and readable work of enviable complexity, but who has never convinced me. His name is Geoff Johns, and he is now DC’s Chief Creative Officer, the first the company has ever appointed, or even thought it needed.
His job is to direct the DC Universe, in cahoots with new Publisher, previously Managing Director, Dan DeDio, a frequently controversial figure.
But that is to jump too close to the present day. At the time of which I was speaking, the (actual) Millennium had passed, the post Zero Hour Universe had been in operation for six years or more, and there were still holes all over, slips, contradictions, little reboots slipped in there with overall disregard for the supposed tight continuity of the Universe. Fewer people cared, beyond the obsessive fans. DC’s writers and editors pretended the Universe worked but the evidence showed otherwise.
The Post-Crisis success of British writer Neil Gaiman’s horror/fantasy/mythological Sandman, coming on top of Alan Moore’s previous transformation of Swamp Thing, led to the creation of a separate imprint, Vertigo Comics, aimed at a more sophisticated, adult audience. Sandman ended gloriously before it could transfer to Vertigo, but Swampy, Animal Man, Black Orchid and Shade, the Changing Man moved sideways. Technically, the Vertigo Universe was merely a darker corner of the DC Universe, but the difference in tone, subject and execution made the Vertigo characters completely incompatible.
Johns was writing JSA (as the new series was titled) and I was getting the very same vibe as I got with Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron twenty years earlier. That title, pre-Crisis was set on Earth-2 at America’s arrival into World War 2, featured all the Golden Age characters of the time, not merely the Justice Society, and was Thomas’s private playground in which he could re-write/adapt/invent stories that fitted in with the contemporary tales, that segued between stories never meant to go together, tied up loose ends, gave reasons for unexplained things and were generally the product of a mind that had forgotten about the audience.
Yes, some stories were clever, even good, but most of them were clunky and forced and, to me, their failings were that they weren’t stories: weren’t written to entertain, to excite or amuse, but to provide a gloss on something that had ‘happened’ forty years ago. They might have been what Roy Thomas wanted to read, but that obsession showed itself too clearly. For the first time, I stopped reading a JSA series.
Johns was doing something very different in fact, but almost identical in practice. Each story, each arc was about nothing more than retrofitting the new Justice Society for life in the modern era. Where Thomas fixed up the past, Johns fixed up the future. Every character and situation he turned his hand to – such as Hawkman, whose personal continuity had gotten so inextricably tangled that a ban had been placed on using the character at all – was rebuffed, polished and given a twist-round that made them viable to go out and tell contemporary stories about, but Johns seemed incapable of telling a story that just exist to get the reader involved, or even say anything about the world.
This isn’t a digression, but rather a piece of background that soon will become relevant. It explains how, after Starman ended, and Johns became the new writer of The Flash, things had dropped back into mundanity again. But it was about to get interesting, for the last time.
After the Millennium, DC dropped formal summer crossover events until 2004, when New York Times Bestseller Thriller writer Brad Meltzer, a lifelong fan who’d just written his first comic in a six-part Green Arrow tale, was commissioned to write Identity Crisis. This was a seven part series that, though drawing in the whole DC Universe yet again, featured no cosmic crisis, no Earth-threatening menace, no drastic rearrangement of reality: not on the surface, that is. But the DC Universe really was never going to be the same again, this time.
Identity Crisis was, and still is, a very controversial series. Though I’m very conscious of its flaws, technical as much as conceptual, I remain an admirer of the series. It did what only an outsider could do: where Watchmen had introduced a level of reality as to what the rationale, practice and effect of people putting on costumes and fighting crime to an enclosed and separate Universe, Identity Crisis now did to the mainstream, suspend-your-disbelief-here, DC Universe.
It said, loudly and clearly, that if you want to read about people with superhuman powers fighting and committing evil, you have to accept this as an absolute consequence.
The story began with a event of sadness. Ralph (The Elongated Man) Dibny, a stretchable superhero and a detective second only to Batman, went on patrol to keep a protective eye on the much younger and less-experienced Firehawk. He’d only done so to allow his beloved wife Sue (the Dibnys are 40 year veterans, created early in the Silver Age) to plan a birthday surprise for him in their annual tradition. Ralph knew what was going on but would die rather than spoil Sue’s fun. But even he doesn’t know the ultimate surprise she has for him – that she’s pregnant.
Whilst Ralph’s narration counted down twenty five minutes until Now, it was intercut with scene of heroes doing many different, mostly domestic things, at different times after Now, until each receives bad tidings. The older reader is already saying, inside, “please, no, not that. Not her.” Because Now came when Sue was attacked, in an apartment protected from entry by all the most advanced security of the DC Universe, and Now was Ralph arriving too late, to find her dead.
To us veterans, it was a moment of shock and dismay. The Dibnys were good people, devoted to each other: sweet, decent people. The Elongated Man had always been played for laughs, a lightweight character to whom seriousness and depth could not be attached.
Identity Crisis was about Who Killed Sue Dibny? The whole community came out on that one, because they wanted to avenge someone all of them had liked and respected, but also because if Sue could be killed, behind all the levels of protection they had created for family, loved ones and themselves they had to know who and how: because everybody’s loved ones were in danger.
It would happen again. The Atom’s ex-wife, Jean Loring, was attacked, saved only by her former husband at the last minute. And Jack Drake, father of Tim, still reeling from learning that his son was the new Robin, was attacked in his own home. He killed his assailant, but not before receiving a fatal wound, with his son, and Batman, hearing all on the radio of a Batmobile racing to the scene from just too far away.
But that wasn’t what Identity Crisis did to undermine the whole Universe, and leave it in pieces that not all the King’s Horses and Men could ever put back together again.
Dr Light, a light-employing villain, had been around for decades. Mostly, he was an idiot, a bumbler played for laughs. But seven Justice Leaguers thought he was the man responsible for Sue Dibny’s killing. Those who, even after nearly twenty years of grim’n’gritty still maintained a belief in comics as escapism, were horrified as Meltzer opened a piece of history.
There’d been a time when the then-competent Dr Light had invaded the JLA’s satellite base. He’d found Sue alone, unprotected. And he’d raped her. The JLA had stopped him, but after Ralph had rushed his darling to the hospital, seven JLAers had confronted a villain who understood exactly how much damage he’d done, and how much more he could do.
So the Justice League wiped his memory of what had happened. Interfered directly with his mind. They did more. They tried to ‘alter’ him, remove that part that drove him to rape – and ended up giving him a partial magical lobotomy. Hence the buffoonery.
Nor was this the only time the League had done this. Meltzer presented it as an optionless decision: if someone as dedicatedly vicious and psychopathic as a supervillain gets to know your identity, what other choice do you have if your loved ones are not, one day soon, to be tortured to death?
But it broke the spell. It broke the illusion of trust. Interfering with someone’s mind might well be the necessity Meltzer stated it to be, but after that, how could you call the perpetrator a hero? How could you trust them again? How could you trust anything again?
Especially as it transpired that the seven heroes had not limited themselves to playing God with the minds of enemies. Because it was Sue Dibny, the ever-over-committed Batman, who’d helped take Light down before rushing off to his next case, came back. Came back, wouldn’t tolerate what was being done – and had his memory stolen as well.
The cat was firmly among the pigeons now, and DC were determined to chew.
Identity Crisis was the springboard for, literally, years of story, a constant thread, a chain of event and response, planned from above and riding hard over everything that was published in an unbroken wave of editorial planning. And I lapped it up.
It began with DC Countdown, a one-off, one dollar special that, on the day of its release, appeared as Countdown to Infinite Crisis, progenitor to the twentieth anniversary sequel to the original Crisis. In the world of paranoia and suspicion engendered by Identity Crisis, the Blue Beetle – a lightweight, happy-go-lucky non-powered superhero – discovered a trail of theft and robbery that lead him to a base in the Swiss Alps from where a great conspiracy was emanating. No-one believed him, no-one took him seriously enough to assist him, but Ted Kord uncovered a vast conspiracy: a very far-advanced conspiracy aimed at all the superheroes, headed by a figure who everyone had thought was a good guy, a part of the joke Justice League era, just like Ted.
But Max Lord had always been striving to regain control of the world for humans from superhumans, and keeping the JLA funny and disrespected had served his cause. Ted’s refusal to turn coat bought him a bullet in the head.
The story continued into the first of four six-issue mini-series, each foreshadowed in the one-off, each working off different strands of the growing tide of darkness enveloping everything. One of The OMAC Project, Villains United, The Rann-Thanagar War and Day of Vengeance would lead directly into Infinite Crisis itself.
Meanwhile, crossover stories started to flow through many DC books as the Universe started to shape itself towards a single end.
Geoff Johns wrote Infinite Crisis, for once with an eye to what was happening rather than what it could set up, because, just as in the original Crisis of two decades earlier, the whole of reality was going to change again. The new story was to last seven issues, spawn crossovers galore, feature a host of intertwining stories, and start things over again for another generation.
Not because it was necessary, even though the same old failings and flaws and continuity errors had been recurring again and again (an explanation was given for this, but nobody could take it seriously for a second), but because it was expected. Shake it all up, given a new generation of fans a new jumping on point, be big and dramatic. Plans were already in place for what would follow.
The link between the old and the new series were the four people who were saved from Crisis, the four rewarded with an eternal retirement in peace: the Earth-2 Superman, the original from Action 1, his Lois Lane, Alexander Luthor of Earth-3, and Superboy-Prime, the Superboy from a world without superheroes, the boy who hadn’t, and never would, grow up.
In the fast-darkening time of post-Identity Crisis paranoia, this quartet, who had sacrificed everything, came to the conclusion that they had made a mistake, that when the Universe had been created on the template of Earth-1, the wrong Earth, a failed, corrupted Earth had been chosen, and that the Universe had to be undone and remade, this time on the template of the cleaner, nobler, purer Earth-2.
I’d have gone for that, for a complete overhaul of the DC Universe, and a balance tilted back some ways to the original, idealistic, fun element of superheroics, but then I was just turning 50, and I remembered such times, and it was not the same world.
So instead it turned out that Superman and his Lois were too naïve, that the true villains were Alexander Luthor and Superboy-Prime, the one a cold manipulator who planned to first recreate the Multiverse, then refine it to build the Perfect Earth, by combination of varying worlds, the other an increasingly hysterical, petulant screeching boy who wanted HIS Earth back and to get rid of anyone who tried to stop him.
The upshot was New Earth, a self-selected mixture of alternate Universes combining to create yet another new Universe (Fifth, and counting). This one came with continuity of memory, so once more the past was shaped like the past had ‘always’ been, subject to whatever changes would now be made to take advantage of the Earth being New.
The other upshot, and one that the highest at DC seemed to see as a daring, dramatic conclusion that showed them to be reaching out, forever forwards, was the death of Superman. The real death, this time, no returns, of the original Superman, the grey-templed Man of Steel. Bereft of power. Beaten to death. By a blubbering, hysterical, petulant sham of a latterday version of himself.
Truly had the past been replaced by the future.
A future that DC had planned for in detail. No sooner had Infinite Crisis revealed its explosive conclusion than two new, Universe-encompassing events replaced it. There were One Year Later and 52.
One Year Later was every series. Every comic that appeared in the month following Infinite Crisis 7 had jumped twelve months ahead. A year of events had taken place, there were changes all around, and no explanations were being given. The readers had to pick up for themselves what had happened, from such clues as were being given. It was a brand new playing field. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had disappeared for a year, and now they were back. So, what the hell had happened?
Which was where 52 came in. 52 was the story of the missing year, told in 52 weekly issues, conceived, plotted and written by a quartet of DC’s top-rated writers. Each issue covered seven days, the series taking its name and concept from the obvious source, TV’s bull-goose looney thriller, 24, aka the Jack Bauer torture hour.
I read 52. It wasn’t bad. It got me into the comics shop every week, even if I came out with very few other titles. It had its clever moments, its spinal stories. It told you what you needed to know, more or less. Of course, despite having been plotted in advance to dovetail into the One Year Later surprises, no-one foresaw that having the end of the story known in advance might depress its dramatic impact, nor that four writers with massive egos trying to collaborate but also outdo each other might not have new ideas during the twelve months the story ran.
But there was a big reveal in the final chapter of 52, as the story reverses through time to week 0, to the height of Infinite Crisis, where the energy that creates New Earth is not dissipated by such creation but goes on to create no less than 51 copies of New Earth, all of which immediately have different parts of their history ‘eaten’ during a mad hellride by a post-pupation superworm (don’t ask. Please, just don’t ask) turning all 51 duplicates into alternates with different histories.
Yes, that’s right, the Multiverse was back. All 52 worlds of it. Including one that looked intriguingly like Earth-2.
And having brought the Multiverse back, in this sequence of editorially driven events that has, even yet, still not finished, what has DC done with it? Virtually nothing, in seven years.
What they did do was Countdown. This replaced 52 as a weekly title, intent on running 52 issues, with the neat twist that, after the 52 logo was incorporated into the cover art, the same design is incorporated into the Countdown cover art, starting with 51, and counting down, one every week.
And what, you are doubtless asking, were we counting down to this time? All was revealed at issue 26 when the title was changed to Countdown to Final Crisis: another one, only three years later.
To spare a lot of time and to reflect my slowly-dying interest in any of this, I shall jump to the end. Countdown (under either title) was a mess. So too was the eight part Death of the New Gods which, like Countdown, was supposed to feed into Final Crisis. Grant Morrison, the Glasgow-born writer of the latter, had explained what he needed established but his instructions were either not passed on, misunderstood or just plain ignored, since continuity between the three series was impossible.
And Final Crisis was indeed final. To me. I read it, enjoyed its technical proficiency but couldn’t feel any involvement in the succeeding issues, although they read better as a continuing story, up to issue 6. The final issue was, to me, an incomprehensible mess, its final straw being the appearance in one panel of the ultimate vampiric menace to the Universe, and its being blown apart in the next.
This time the Universe was not changed, only me. If there was a representative moment, it was the return of Barry Allen.
Barry – the Silver Age Flash – was the first saint of the DC Universe, the hero who sacrificed everything, alone and unobserved, to save it all. He’d gone into death and never come back, the one for whom it was real. His place had been taken by Wally West, his nephew, once Kid Flash: the first teenage sidekick to grow up and fulfil the implicit promise of the role: that one day you succeed, you get to be the one out in front. Wally had done that, and proved himself.
But a new Publisher and a newly-designated Chief Creative Officer had other ideas. DeDio and Johns were wedded to the Silver Age, the age when they’d discovered comics, and things had to be put back. I disagreed: some things had moved on, had had to move on, and should not have been wound back. However, they were in charge, and I wasn’t.
So, quietly, unnoticed, I slipped out. The events continued to pile up whilst the room for individual writer’s visions dwindled quite as much as the audience for this ever-inward-turning art form. Johns remained the master of the kind of hyper-detailed, Universe-spanning, sweep aside all in their path event-stories that, when they reached their conclusion, were only set-ups for the next one.
But I kept in touch, maintaining an awareness of what was happening, reading what turned up in the library in the Graphic Novel section. Never getting involved in the mainstream flow of things, though every now and then an unpretentious, genuinely enjoyable, written because the writer had a great idea story would turn up, and I’d be reminded of all the reasons I’d been reading this stupid, florid, unrealistic stuff for all these years. Mostly though, my comics reading was elsewhere.
So why did I like this stuff for all that length of time?
Mostly, because it was good fun. I started by liking the art, until I reached the point where good art, even great art, was insufficient if the story wasn’t worth my time. I used to read mostly SF or Fantasy, in which lights the superhuman events were palatable to me, and believable, to a given value of belief.
And there was the soap opera effect or, rather than that, when the standard of writing got high enough, the serial effect. Where else could you get serial fiction? Where a story, many stories, would advance over such broad periods of time, where the shared background of the Universe, with its multitude of locations, characters, conditions and cultures, would constantly surround you, immersing you in the impression of a complex environment.
Where swift action, high emotion and deep thought circled each other. Where you could enter a world that was nothing like your own, that you would never voluntarily reside in, but in which you could explore in perfect safety, and in which your own dilemmas might any week be reflected back at you in an elemental form of decisions and demands that had to be taken.
Where you were constantly given, month in, month out, week in, week out, that ultimate, fundamental thing without which no story can survive: What Happens Next?
So now we come to the gnat at which I strained. Or rather didn’t strain at, because I didn’t even try to take it in my mouth, let alone swallow it.
DC was in its Fifth World. It was going to change again. You may not have realised it, but through each change, even through the most massive of them all when Crisis on Infinite Earths thrust fifty years behind it, there was a continuum. The details differed, but the thread continued to be woven into the same pattern. Behind each reboot was a wealth of accumulated knowledge and story that allowed the next world to be both understandable and instantly complex.
Then came Flashpoint, a five issue series, culminating in August 2011, in a week when it was the only comic DC sold.
Once again the Universe changed: the Fifth World was replaced by the Sixth World. But the Sixth World was different. Radically different. It had no history.
In the newest Universe, post-Flashpoint, superheroes have only been around for five years. It was hard enough to squeeze the multitude of stories that were accepted as canon into the ten year sliding scale of the Universe and the New Earth Universes, but five years is impossible. And this was DC’s intent. This time, we no longer were in Kansas, and a new audience had a truly new jumping on point.
Almost twelve months later, has it worked? I don’t know, nor do I care. This time I have truly been left behind. Too much that was an integral part of my enjoyment has been uncreated. The New 52 has no Justice Society, because there is no longer any history in which a Justice Society could have existed.
(It is true that a new Earth-Two title has been created, written by a writer who was responsible for some of the best stories of the post Zero Hour Universe, stories that no longer ‘happened’, in which a new JSA is being created on a new Earth-2, but this JSA is like all the latter-day Dan Dares: they’ve got the name, and nothing else. I will never read them).
But there was that gnat. A silly thing, too trivial to even think about. Throughout my association with comics fandom, there were always people, obsessed people, people who never quite understood the point, who would call for a change that would immediately mature comics, remove that one thing that kept them from being taken seriously, stop them being seen as fit only for children: Superman’s knickers.
If only DC could be persuaded into changing it so he wore them under his tights instead of outside them!
And now he does. It was announced, ahead of the New 52, that Superman would no longer wear his pants over his tights. And in that small detail, that piece of trivia too tiny to think of, I saw just by what extent the Powers That Be had missed the point of change, and of refreshment.
It’s their Universe now. I still have the one I shared in. The comics still exist. Jack Knight still reluctantly takes his old man’s Cosmic Rod and, intending not to look for trouble, finds that he has to grow enough to understand what the Life demands. The Justice Society still exist in all their myriad forms. Wally West still outgrows the need for a mentor, Animal Man still gets the biggest, most ridiculous yet tearjerking ending of them all, to wake up and find it was only a dream, Swamp Thing still learns how to understand the Way of the Wood, and stop trying to be human. The fun is still funny, the drama still dramatic, the stakes are still higher than any sane person can believe in, but belief is still suspendable.
And Superman wears his knickers outside his tights. Who could want it to be any other way?