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Grumpy Old Fan | Grandfathered continuity in the New 52

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Grandfathered continuity in the New 52

I’ve talked previously about the unwieldy nature of the New-52 timeline, but today I want to try and suss out some specifics.

There wouldn’t be as much of an issue — and perhaps none at all — if every character’s history had been allowed to reset. However, stating specifically that the Batman and Green Lantern families both came through the relaunch relatively unchanged, even as Superman, the Flash, the Teen Titans, and the Justice League generally each got new beginnings, was just asking for trouble. Still, the question then becomes how much of Batman and GL backstory has become crucial to the present understanding of those characters?

* * *

We begin with Batman. Pre-relaunch, Batman had built up a small army of proteges and associates over the course of a long career. In fact, said career spans at least ten years, because Damian Wayne was ten years old when he met Bruce Wayne, and his mom (Talia al Ghul) only sought out Bruce because her father had figured out he was Batman. Factoring in Dick Grayson’s age (between 18 and 20, depending on when you think 1987’s Batman: Son of the Demon falls in the timeline), and adding a few years for Dick’s early Robin career and Bruce’s solo debut (accounts vary) gives us a rough idea of how many years Batman’s been operating.

With all that in mind, here are some of the milestones of Batman’s pre-relaunch career.

“Year One”: Bruce returns to Gotham and Batman meets Jim Gordon. Around this time he also meets Superman, Wonder Woman, et al., and helps form the Justice League.

Dick’s parents are murdered (with the Drake family watching). Batman and Robin take down Boss Zucco.

— The 1950s, reimagined: in and around more mundane exploits, the Dynamic Duo have a series of weird adventures later set down in Bruce’s Black Casebook. Batman and Robin join the international Club of Heroes. Inspired by Batman, circus star Kathy Kane becomes Batwoman.

— Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad team up with Speedy and Wonder Girl to form the Teen Titans. Barbara Gordon becomes Batgirl.

— Dick goes to college. Bruce and Alfred move out of Wayne Manor, establishing a new Batcave downtown.

Ra’s al Ghul enlists Batman’s help in finding the kidnapped Robin and Talia, and reveals his ultimate plans for Batman and Talia.

— The original Teen Titans break up (as it happens, just before Bruce and Silver St. Cloud do).

— Batman discovers Zatanna has brainwashed Dr. Light, so Zatanna alters his memories.

— Frustrated with college and wanting independence, Dick leaves Hudson University. Not long afterwards, Raven recruits Robin into a new Teen Titans.

— Batman quits the Justice League and forms the Outsiders.

— Robin’s dealings with the grim Vigilante, and the Teen Titans’ teamup with the Outsiders, give Dick a new perspective on his relationship with Bruce.

— Bruce and Alfred move back to Wayne Manor.

— After Robin is shot during a fight with the Joker, Dick decides to quit as Batman’s sidekick. When the other Titans are captured by Deathstroke and Terra, Dick becomes Nightwing to rescue them.

Jason Todd becomes Robin II.

— Batman rejoins the Justice League. Dick and Bruce reconcile.

— Bruce and Talia conceive Damian Wayne.

— The Joker shoots Barbara, paralyzing her; and murders Robin II shortly thereafter. Barbara becomes the anonymous, omniscient Oracle.

— Debut of Huntress (Helena Bertinelli).

— Noticing the changes in Batman (and the lack of Robin), and having put together that Robin was once a Flying Grayson, Tim Drake sells Batman and Nightwing on the idea that he could be the third Robin.

— Batman meets Jean-Paul Valley/Azrael.

“Knightfall” /“Knightquest”: Bane breaks Batman’s back. Jean-Paul Valley takes over as Batman II. Robin goes solo while Bruce recuperates.

“KnightsEnd”: Robin and Nightwing help a recovered Bruce take back the Batman identity. Nightwing then poses as Batman briefly while Bruce finishes recuperating.

— Debut of Spoiler (Stephanie Brown).

— Nightwing leaves the Titans for Bludhaven.

— Oracle and Black Canary become the Birds Of Prey.

Big Bat-crossovers, 1997-2004, include “Contagion,” “Legacy,” “No Man’s Land,” “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?” and “War Games.”

— Cassandra Cain becomes Batgirl II.

— Batman learns about Zatanna’s mindwipe and creates Brother Eye.

— Stephanie Brown substitutes for Tim as Robin IV.

— Jason Todd returns from the dead as the Red Hood.

Infinite Crisis/52: Batman decides to be mellow, and takes a year off to find himself. Kate Kane becomes Batwoman II.

— Talia brings ten-year-old Damian to Gotham. Batman squares off against Dr. Hurt, and Darkseid hurls him back through time.

Musical chairs during Bruce’s absence: Dick becomes Batman III, Tim becomes Red Robin, Damian becomes Robin V, and Stephanie becomes Batgirl III.

— Upon Bruce’s return, he sets up Batman Incorporated, based loosely on the Club of Heroes.

While that seems like a lot of detail, I think it hits most of the high points. There’s not a lot to cut out, either, except for the Teen Titans’ role in Dick’s development. One could argue that Batman’s 52-related journey of discovery could be rendered largely moot by its very resolution: if the New-52 Batman was never that grim, he never would have needed to take the year off (and the New-52 timeline wouldn’t have given him the year anyway). The New-52 OMAC may also have erased Batman’s part in Brother Eye’s origin, and from there the whole “mindwipe” subplot may similarly fall away.

This sort of where-did-the-knot-go? streamlining is perhaps a bit unfair to those of us who followed those storylines as they unfolded, but for purposes of compressing decades of comics into “five years” of comic-book time, it may actually be close to DC’s intention. We’ll get into that a little more later.

Generally, the Batman timeline comes together in terms of characters and relationships, not events. The intertitle crossovers of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s each involved catastrophic situations which were eventually reset, from the killer virus of “Contagion” and “Legacy” to the devastating “No Man’s Land” and the more personal “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?” Even Stephanie Brown’s death (as one of “War Games’” big consequences) was explained away (after much fan outcry, but still). The event-based debuts of new characters, like Cassandra Cain in “NML” and Batwoman II in 52, don’t necessarily depend on the substance of those events. Therefore, if you can get around compressing all the Robins’ collective histories into a little less than five years’ time, the rest can blur together somewhat.

To be sure, there are good reasons for allowing each Robin to have a longer, more significant tenure; and most of them have to do with the special relationship — not like that! — between Batman and his number-one protege. While “Robin” can be an internship, it should center more around the unique bond forged by each sidekick’s particular circumstances. But hey, if that’s what you want, internship can work. Thus, under the New-52 Batman timeline, maybe Dick became Robin sometime in Year One, followed by Jason in Year Three, Tim in Year Four, and Damian in Year Five. We also know Barbara was shot in Year Three, and only recently healed. (Since everything started “five years ago,” I’m guessing we’re currently in Year Six.) We can tweak that a little — Jason at the beginning of Year Three and Tim at year’s end, maybe — to reflect the proportions of their pre-relaunch careers, but there’s not a lot of wiggle room.

* * *

We can analyze the Green Lantern timeline similarly, since the GL setup encourages the introduction of new characters. Moreover — and just to be blunt — not a lot of substance happens to Hal Jordan for much of the 1960s. Oh sure, he leaves Ferris Aircraft for a series of mundane jobs (toy salesman, insurance agent, truck driver), but none of those have much bearing on his GL duties. Even Guy Gardner’s debut happens in the context of a what-if story, where Guy never actually gets the ring.

Here, then, are my GL bullet points:

— Hal is recruited by Abin Sur. He soon meets the Guardians and various other Lanterns; and joins the Justice League.

— A Guardian “introduces” Hal to Guy Gardner.

— Hal, Green Arrow, and the Guardian called the “Old-Timer” begin their cross-country soul-searching. This may be where Hal’s susceptibility to Parallax starts.

— When Guy is injured, John Stewart becomes Hal’s deputy.

— Guy comes back briefly, but Sinestro puts him in a coma.

— After Hal spends too much time protecting Ferris Air, the Guardians exile Hal from Earth for a year.

— Shortly after Hal comes back, he quits the Corps in favor of Carol Ferris. John becomes Sector 2814’s main GL.

Crisis On Infinite Earths: Guy comes out of his coma, the Anti-Monitor attacks Oa and kills several Guardians, and one faction of Guardians reactivates Guy and Hal.

— The Guardians and Zamarons leave this dimension to spawn. A group of Lanterns relocates (with Hal and John) to Earth.

— The Manhunters (the Guardians’ old agents) strike at Earth’s super-folk, trying to destroy the superpowered “New Guardians.”

— The GL Corps is reduced to four (Hal, John, Guy, and Ch’p) after the Central Power Battery is destroyed.

— Hal sports grey temples. Hal, John, and Guy stop the Old-Timer from kidnapping the Earth cities he visited. The Guardians return and restore the GL Corps. John stays on Oa to oversee the “Mosaic” communities.

— Mongul destroys Coast City. Hal helps Superman stop Mongul. Hal then goes nuts, killing the Guardians and several GLs before giving in to Parallax.

Kyle Rayner becomes the last GL. Guy becomes Warrior. John becomes a Darkstar.

Zero Hour: Parallax tries to restart time. During a later battle between Hal and Kyle, Oa is destroyed.

The Final Night: Parallax sacrifices himself to restart the Sun.

— A younger, time-lost Hal teams up with Kyle for a short while, but of course Parallax puts a stop to that. Kyle is left with a power ring which can make other power rings.

Day of Judgment: Hal (still dead) becomes the Spectre’s new host.

Green Lantern Legacy: The Last Will And Testament Of Hal Jordan: Using a unique power ring, Tom Kalmaku rebuilds Oa. Soon afterwards (GL vol. 3 #150), Kyle expends his recently-acquired Ion power to refuel the Central Power Battery and bring back the Guardians.

Green Lantern: Rebirth: Hal is revived, Parallax is defeated, and Hal, Guy, and John become GLs again.

At this point we are into Geoff Johns’ run as GL writer, so I’m assuming everything from Rebirth forwards is still generally valid. This includes the Rainbow Lanterns, Blackest Night, and “War of the Green Lanterns.”

Looking at the timeline, it’s clear that the stage had been set for a new Green Lantern Corps, most likely with Kyle as headliner. From 1994 through 2002 (when Legacy and GL #150 were published), the proverbial earth had been pretty well salted against the returns of either Hal Jordan or the Corps. Hal spent five years as Parallax and the next five as the Spectre, and Kyle’s attempts to bring back the intergalactic Corps never really went anywhere. (However, he did make Jade a GL briefly, and he brought John Stewart back to active duty.) Therefore, when Johns took over Green Lantern, his real task was in sorting out Hal’s complicated journey from deranged ex-GL to omnipotent agent of God, and literally bringing him down to Earth.

However, in the interests of compressing and streamlining Hal’s history, it may make a certain amount of sense simply to eliminate Hal’s Spectre career. The Spectre does figure significantly in Hal’s restoration (helping separate Hal’s soul from Parallax’s influence), but depending on the Spectre’s status in the New-52 cosmology, some other means (a last burst of Ion-power?) might also do the trick.

Likewise, Johns used a few longstanding DC characters in his GL epics, including the Cyborg Superman (as the Manhunters’ new leader), the Anti-Monitor (as the Sinestro Corps’ “Guardian”), and Superboy-Prime (as a super-powerful Sinestro Corpsman). Each of these characters comes from other Big DC Events — “Reign of the Supermen,” Crisis, and Infinite Crisis — so their continued presence in the New-52 timeline suggests that those events (or versions thereof) remain valid. By the same token, though, none of them appears essential to Johns’ overall narrative, so it may be relatively easy for the New-52 to forget about them. Personally, I suspect a New-52 retelling of Crisis On Infinite Earths would be particularly strange and artificial, but that’s speculation for another day.

Ironically, Green Lantern’s continuity has become a victim of Geoff Johns’ own vaunted plotting skills. With Rebirth, Johns very cleverly reworked Hal Jordan’s convoluted fate(s) into pieces of a slowly-emerging puzzle which would eventually unlock the secrets of DC’s universe. It remains a masterful performance of continuity gymnastics. Nevertheless, at the time it depended heavily on those existing story elements. If the New-52 relaunch has erased some of those, the larger narrative integrity of Johns’ run starts to break down. I don’t think it’s broken irreparably, but it’ll be instructive to learn who’s still around and who’s never mentioned again.

Actually, the Anti-Monitor could continue to sponsor the Sinestro Corps, since he (and the Monitor) were originally associated with the moons of Qward and Oa. It could even be the case that the Crisis On Infinite (52?) Earths hasn’t yet happened to the New-52 — and wouldn’t that be a nice crossover…?

I digress slightly, but the point remains: the Green Lantern timeline has become more dependent on Big Events (Crisis, Zero Hour, Final Night, Infinite Crisis, and the various GL-centric arcs) than the Batman timeline. As such, it raises more questions about the validity of those events in the New-52 chronology. I don’t anticipate these sorts of questions being answered with any kind of specificity, so we may have to see what remains by implication.

* * *

When I started thinking about this post, I was reminded of all the characters DC revised in the late ‘80s, following Crisis On Infinite Earths. Hawkman may be the most infamous of these, since a whole new character had to be invented (shades of the Doombots!) to explain a big chunk of “his” appearances. Still, I keep coming back to Jason Todd, conceived originally as a rather obvious update of Dick Grayson, right down to the murdered-aerialist parents. Jason spent the better part of three years as a fixture of Batman and Detective, which in those days were interconnected in “biweekly storytelling” fashion. Readers got to know Jason — who wasn’t as obnoxious as his revamped version, but who was comparatively more bland — and got to see him develop relationships with Bruce, Alfred, and Dick. (Jason showed up in a few issues of New Teen Titans as well.) Regardless, when the combination of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and “Batman: Year One” set the stage for a grittier Batman, the more benign Jason went away. While Batman and Robin’s pre-COIE adventures probably still held together in terms of plot, Jason’s changes altered those relationships to various degrees.

Allowing the Batman and Green Lantern books to “keep their histories,” while the rest of the New-52 has its collective slate wiped, strikes me as the inverse of Jason’s situation. Just as re-reading the early Jason Todd stories in light of his personal revamp forces one to reconsider them, re-reading something like “The Sinestro Corps War” invites a similar, additional layer of analysis. However, reading current issues of Green Lantern or Batman offers some distance from the pre-relaunch stories, because they are presented as “of the moment.” They will probably also hold up in isolation (i.e., if you only re-read Johns’ GL), because as far as those titles are concerned, the New-52 relaunch had little, if any, effect.

Where this really hurts DC is in its attempts to cultivate a seamless superhero universe across multiple unrelated titles, and (I suspect) particularly when those titles are collected. You can’t go from Infinite Crisis to “Sinestro Corps,” Blackest Night, and the current Indigo Tribe storyline without adjusting your expectations at least slightly about the players. I’m even wondering about the status of a certain villain from the pre-relaunch Detective Comics suddenly showing up in one of the New-52 Bat-books.

I do believe that the New-52 titles are still well-suited to telling accessible stories which use continuity effectively.  Even the compressed timeline may turn out to be elegantly simple.  Still, watching it unfold has not been altogether smooth.  All the highlights of Batman and GL history may now fit into five years, but losing the details is giving me a bit of a headache.