TOP

Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts

by  in Comic News Comment

Recently Dan DiDio told Newsarama that “a [new] History of the DC Universe [is] in the works … [and] will deal with the more generational aspects of the DC Universe.”

I’m eager to learn more about this project, with regard to both creative team and plot (if any), because DC could use something like Marvels to give its history a little structure. No matter how hard it tries to become unified, there is always something unfinished about DC’s shared superhero universe. It’s not the notion that ongoing serials can never really end, although that’s part of it. Instead, it’s the idea that DC’s beginnings have been lost in a fog of revisions, restarts, and outright obfuscation.

By contrast, the Marvel Universe has a fairly clear history from Fantastic Four #1 forward. Its milestones are probably familiar to most superhero fans: the FF’s first flight, Spider-Man’s TV debut, the coming of Galactus, the Kree-Skrull War, the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Phoenix, etc. The two Marvels miniseries, as well as the old Marvel Saga, reflect this “march of time” (however long it’s thought to have taken) which helps hold together Marvel’s superhero line.

This is not to say that DC fans haven’t tried to order various stories into a coherent continuity. Chris Miller’s Unauthorized Chronology and the timeline at DCUGuide.com are two excellent examples of these kinds of efforts. However, while it is valuable to know names, places, events, and dates, it’s another to derive a larger narrative from them.

For example, we know from John Byrne’s Man Of Steel miniseries that Superman first appeared in public rescuing the space shuttle Constitution after a small plane collided with it. We can try to harmonize that, and the rest of Man of Steel, with Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Seasons, as well as Mark Waid and Leinil Yu’s Superman: Birthright. Maybe Geoff Johns and Gary Frank will do just that in the upcoming Superman: Secret Origin miniseries. More than likely, though, Superman: Secret Origin will be a springboard for another epic Superman story, much as the “Secret Origin” arc in Green Lantern connected Hal Jordan’s early GL days to the current Blackest Night buildup. The past serves the present.

What’s missing, though, is an attempt to place these stories in a larger, more comprehensive framework. Right after Crisis On Infinite Earths, Marv Wolfman, George Perez, Karl Kesel, and Tom Zuiko produced the original History Of The DC Universe, two issues at 48 pages each which served more as a travelogue than a textbook. Wolfman tried to tie everything together with narration (by COIE‘s Harbinger) about the nature of heroism, but that ended up being not much more than “heroes come in many shapes and sizes.” Later, at the end of Zero Hour and in the back of various Secret Files specials, DC tried to establish timelines for individual characters and the overall universe, but none of those had a very long shelf life. Just three years ago, Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway’s “History Of The DCU” was 52‘s first backup series, but that included a history of the old Multiverse and therefore doesn’t really lend itself to a straight-line story. Jurgens (with inker Norm Rapmund) then produced a “History Of The Multiverse” backup for Countdown; but again, that doesn’t have much to do with DC’s current timeline.

For that matter, neither did Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, although it may be the closest thing DC has to a Marvels-type “historical fiction” epic. 2000’s fifth-week event Silver Age, a line-wide crossover with ’60s trappings spearheaded by Mark Waid, is probably a close second. Also noteworthy, but a little more limited in scope, is Waid and Barry Kitson’s JLA: Year One miniseries, which featured a team-up with the Doom Patrol and incorporated other Silver Age stalwarts like the Challengers of the Unknown and the Blackhawks.

JLA: Year One and its semi-sequel JLA: Incarnations are examples of DC being more interested in particular characters than in a bigger picture. This is hardly a bad thing — it’s produced a number of good stories, from “Batman: Year One” to Teen Titans: Year One — but the stories themselves don’t necessarily feel like they belong to a different time. This probably sounds nitpicky, because it is; but a comprehensive History Of The DC Universe needs to establish different tones for the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and today. Marvels transported its readers with slavish devotion to period details, and New Frontier did likewise with Cooke’s Jet Age aesthetic.

Since History 2.0 (or whatever it’s eventually called) will focus on DC’s four major character generations, it needs to establish that those generations are separated by more than just age. It must show the Golden Agers in their prime while making them immediately distinct from their successors. The original Teen Titans must be recognizable both as young Silver Agers and as the adult Titans of today; and today’s Teen Titans must look different from their predecessors. Although flashbacks to DC’s indeterminate past are not always period pieces, and don’t call attention to their characters’ ages, History 2.0 by definition must deal with such things. Each generation must be recognizable as representatives of a particular period; which means that the book must break DC history, visually and otherwise, into distinct, recognizable eras.

That, in turn, raises the question of how — or even whether — to do a Silver Age pastiche/homage when DC’s rolling timeline (as opposed to the others linked above) now places the first Silver Age stories in the early-to-mid-1990s. Teen Titans: Year One ignored the anachronism issue in favor of having its characters using technology recognizable to modern teenagers. Besides, a straight-up period piece would risk comparisons to New Frontier. More important for History 2.0 would be capturing the wide-open spirit of DC in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the superhero line (mostly under Julius Schwartz) reinvented itself without any particular obligation to its Golden Age roots. The Bronze Age of the ’70s and ’80s sought to build on the Silver Age’s successes, but it was hamstrung by the dictates of continuity and the desire not to go too far afield. Its chapter should reflect that illusion-of-change conservatism. I suppose the “present-day” chapter doesn’t need any special tweaking, since the rest of the book would deviate from it.

Finally, History 2.0 must decide what milestones deserve its attention. The Golden Age seems pretty straightforward: introduce the original Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, et al., bring them together as the Justice Society and relate how they fought World War II (or not, as the case may be); and yadda yadda yadda, in the early ’50s they’re forced out. The Silver Age is trickier, because Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman collectively steal the thunder of the real second-generation heroes like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan. Even so, it is tempting to treat the Silver Agers almost the same way: here they are individually; here they are as the Justice League; here’s the Doom Patrol, the Challengers of the Unknown, Adam Strange, etc.

To me, for an overview of DC’s legacy heroes, most of the important stuff happens in the Silver Age. The two most important characters (again, in this particular hindsight) are Superman and the second Flash. In the Golden Age, no character separated him- or herself from the rest of the pack. Not so in the revised Silver Age, when Superman becomes the world’s indispensable superhero. All the others are compared to him, consciously or not, and each comes up at least a little short. (Just to be clear, I like Superman a lot, but here I think I’m stating DC’s conventional wisdom pretty accurately.) Superman also benefits in this regard from not having a Golden Age precursor. Moreover, for the people who still remember the Justice Society refusing to unmask, Superman wears nothing which would conceal his identity.

Although the Flash might not be the first Silver Age superhero, he is still important to History 2.0 as the first legacy superhero.  While you might not be able to have Wally West without Barry Allen, Barry himself was clearly inspired by the comic-book adventures of the Golden Age Flash. Two Atoms in two different eras might be a coincidence, and the relationship between the two Green Lanterns is a little hard to see; but right from the start Barry is deliberately paying tribute to Jay Garrick.  It’s not just “Flash Of Two Worlds” which connects them.

Moreover, the Silver Age actually includes the seeds of the next generation, in the form of the Teen Titans and their peers. There were teenaged superheroes in the Golden Age, of course, but they weren’t organized like the Titans were. For purposes of History 2.0, the Silver Age might as well end with the original Titans becoming adults. Robin left for college in 1969  (Batman #217), Speedy was caught shooting up in 1971 (Green Lantern #85), and Kid Flash graduated high school in 1978’s Flash Spectacular, but these events can probably be compressed into roughly the same period of time. We can even include another teenager’s defining moment, “Snapper” Carr betraying the Justice League (in January 1970’s Justice League of America #77).

With most of the major players introduced, the Bronze Age is more event-heavy.  This era includes the New Gods’ arrival on Earth, Iris Allen’s murder, Tara Markov’s betrayal, and the original Justice League disbanding. It all comes to a head with “the Crisis,” a universe-spanning cataclysm which throws the laws of time and space out the window. After the dust has settled, no one’s quite sure what happened (or how), but heroes and villains from the Flash to the Bug-Eyed Bandit are dead.  The Bronze Age clears the deck for the present day, when the original Titans have bequeathed their sidekick identities to a fourth generation of superheroes, and everybody takes place in massively huge Events.

Now, in light of all that, it is very possible that History 2.0 will remain impenetrable to outsiders, or at the very least will read like a corporation’s self-serving annual report. The line between “loving tribute to bygone era(s)” and “shameless fanboy pandering” is probably thinner than any of us thinks. Obviously the book must be accessible to the uninitiated, but it must also be honest with its material. History 2.0 shouldn’t be yet another greatest-hits album, or a series of flashbacks disconnected from their proper eras. Instead, it should put everything in perspective.  Every era has its fans, but every era has had its problems too.

The real history of the DC universe is one of amalgamation, adaptation, compartmentalization, and consolidation. Unlike its crosstown rival, DC can’t trace its development back to a small Bullpen of writers, artists, and editors. DC’s characters have come from many different minds, and have become associated with each other sometimes only through real-world business dealings. A good History 2.0 will find a way to acknowledge the reality behind DC’s shared universe, pay tribute to its eclectic origins, and explore its common ground. There’s a worthwhile story in all of that, and I hope History 2.0 tells it.