It’s years since I last bought a mainstream comic, as in a 32 page pamphlet with a glossy, logo-ed cover and 25 interior pages of art (or whatever the industry standard story-length is these days). Not since the final Final Crisis in 2008. What little comics qua comics-buying I’ve done, and there’s been precious little of that since the end of 100 Bullets, it has never taken me back into any of DC’s Universes.
But there have been a couple of series that were issued in serial form since those days, series that I wanted to read but, instead, ignored and waited. Waited for them to be collected,to be issued as Graphic Novels that I can buy, read and keep in a better organised, more solid fashion. Besides, there isn’t even a market on e-Bay these days for individual comics, or a run of them, and I can’t afford to pay twice any longer.
Thanks to e-Bay, however, I’ve gotten hold of DC Legacies: originally a 10 issue series published between June 2010 and March 2011, long a hardback GN, now available in softcover. It’s written by veteran writer Len Wein and drawn by a host of top artists, each taking a different chapter. And it’s very apt to an epilogue to The More Things Change…, because it’s obsolete.
It’s been obsolete for a year, obsolete in a way that old books don’t usually become, not when they present fiction. Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles were written a century and a half ago, about a world, a life that has long since ceased to exist, but they are implicit in every book published to this day. Though it might not touch upon times so far back, every book set in a contemporary idiom is set in a world where 1862 existed and where things that happened in the Barchester Chronicles happened in the history of this contemporary scene.
Precisely the reverse happens in mainstream, superhero comics. Each new comic is set in a shared Universe, where every action implicitly affects every person, and where the past is alive and well and kicking in every comic written and drawn, because the authenticity of the Universe depends upon complexity, upon connection, upon the ability of the past to crash into the present at any moment.
It’s completely unlike the sphere of books, where Trollope’s Barsetshire and Dicken’s London are both ‘real’ and in which both can draw on contemporaneous events, but where Oliver Twist will never have to depend upon the charity of Mrs Proudie, nor will Lily Dale ever find herself threatened by the presence of Bill Sykes.
If books were governed by the same imperatives as superheroic Universes, such clashes would be an immutable requirement: the possibility of meeting transformed into the inevitability of meeting, driven less by logic than by fear that if the wife of the Bishop of Barchester were NOT to encounter an angelic street urchin, then the ever-diminishing yet sustaining audience will find this world… unrealistic.
DC Legacies is a good book, entertaining, comprehensive, comprehensible, never less than professional. Wein, as he has gotten older, has put behind him his purple prose, and the artists for each section have been chosen with care and forethought, to reflect the differing areas in which the story takes place.
The story is the History of the Superheroic Age(s), seventy years of publishing, of fads, phases and preferences, of whims and responses to the shifting of the kids’ taste, organised into a history that touches base in all significant points, and which skilfully presents them as the march of time, each era growing out of its predecessor with all the logic we can see, looking back.
As is now common with any such overarching vista, the vehicle for the tale is an outsider: a civilian, a citizen, a common-or-garden man, one who sees all with understanding and compassion, but who can only guess (perceptively, of course) as to the thoughts and feelings of that very different breed that perform these acts.
Paul Lincoln, an old man in a retirement home, telling this story from memory that runs from a two-page vignette in each chapter into the high action of the issue, started out a street kid in Suicide Slum, vulnerable to the risk of falling into a gang before the first masked and trench-coated vigilantes start blazing head-on at crime. His growing awe at the superheroes leads him to become a Metropolis patrolman and, later, Detective, a witness to many familiar events and scenes.
Wein draws lines from one era to another. Some tales are redesigned, some are alluded to, some are happily quoted, down to the actual dialogue of the originals (the classic Superman 1 film line, “You’ve got me – but who’s got you!?” makes its appearance). It’s a synthesis of was and when, a spine, an instant and entertaining explanation of the major continuity of the DC Universe.
Which is why it’s obsolete. The DC Universe is dead: The New 52 Universe is a completely new place. Its history is unknown, except for one thing: it wasn’t like this. To return to the book parallel, it is as if for every contemporary book, the history of the world has been changed, officially, to insist that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had never come into being, that there had never been a Queen Victoria, and that the world in which all stories existed was one that existed as a consequence of a perpetually warring island of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tribes who never set a military foot beyond the White Cliffs of Dover.
That would make Barchester Towers and Oliver Twist obsolete. And Middlemarch, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Wuthering Heights.
That will never be the case because the history of the world in which such books were written remains unchanged, no matter how our perspectives on it may shift. DC Legacies has no such luxury. Its story officially never happened. Its history officially didn’t take place. The world has been remade and the Alan Scott who became Green Lantern in 1940 on what was later termed Earth-2 and the Alan Scott who has become Green Lantern in 2012 on what is officially Earth-2 in the New 52 have only the names and the blond hair in common.
Good as it is, DC Legacies isn’t a story. It’s an epitaph. An epitaph for something that never was, even in the peculiar life that is fiction.
But I’ll tell you one thing. Paul Lincoln’s story, long as it is, is a story he tells every night, in the same words, to the nurse who could by now repeat it word for word, but who knows it to be the fixation of an elderly old man who no longer understands reality. Only Paul knows it’s real, because only for him is it real.
It was never meant to be anything but an epitaph to something that wasn’t ever real.