Grumpy Old Fan | Robin, The Flash, changes and rollbacks

by  in Comic News Comment
Grumpy Old Fan | Robin, The Flash, changes and rollbacks

This is not necessarily another post about DC’s post-Flashpoint superhero titles. However, since we superhero readers must deal with a climate of perpetual change, I often wonder just how far DC could go in rolling back its big changes.

In a sense, the first big set of changes started in 1956, with Barry Allen’s debut as the new Flash. Barry’s introduction acknowledged explicitly that there had been a previous (albeit “fictional”) Flash, whose name Barry took and whose costume was Barry’s inspiration. You know the rest: new versions of Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, etc., followed; they all teamed up as an updated Justice Society called the “Justice League”; and they were joined by a number of new characters like Adam Strange, the Hawk and the Dove, and the Doom Patrol.

After that, though, DC’s Silver Age of the 1960s was exciting but uneventful, because (outside of a few marriages) its status quo was never really challenged. Accordingly, when the Doom Patrol was murdered (in September 1968’s issue #121) and Dick Grayson left Wayne Manor (in December 1969’s Batman #217), DC’s shared superhero universe moved into a new phase.

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By my count, there have been several such status-quo shifts since 1956. The first was the aforementioned Silver Age (1956-69). Next came the 1970s (1970-79), which began with such updates as Clark Kent’s television career, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World epic; and ended with Iris Allen’s murder in July 1979’s The Flash #275. For the most part these changes reflected ongoing developments in the lives of the characters, which while not insignificant (i.e., Congresswoman Barbara Gordon) still didn’t alter them fundamentally.

The work of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez bookended the Pre-Crisis ‘80s (1980-85), which got going in earnest with New Teen Titans #1 (November 1980) and finished up with Crisis On Infinite Earths. If we want to get really nitpicky, we can argue about whether this phase ended with Crisis #12, or with 1986’s “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?”; but I tend to think Crisis works better to put a period on the shared universe (Multiverse, really) which DC had spent the past few decades managing. That aside, the first half of the ‘80s saw a number of significant changes to DC’s superhero line. A casual reader of 1984, surveying the books for the first time in a while, would find a new Robin (Jason Todd), a new regular Green Lantern (John Stewart), the Justice Society’s children starting their own costumed careers, and Batman leading the Outsiders instead of teaming up with the Justice League. Of course, Crisis brought its own set of changes and deaths, setting the stage for more radical revamps.

These were the hallmark of the Post-Crisis Period (1986-94), which saw Superman and Wonder Woman starting virtually from scratch, Wally West becoming the third Flash, and the Justice League embracing its global reach. If 1984’s casual reader popped back in during a fairly ordinary month like November 1990, she would find yet another new Robin, a very different Hawkman, new rosters for the (ex-)Teen Titans and Doom Patrol, and Justice League Europe. This period ended with the “soft reboot” of Zero Hour, which was facilitated by the apocalyptic guard-changing just a few months prior in Green Lantern.

In the Post-Zero Hour Period (1994-2004), the superhero line was able to build on all the changes wrought in the previous several years. Clark Kent married Lois Lane, the Justice League returned to its “original seven” lineup (including the current Flash and GL), and other super-groups like the Titans and Justice Society likewise went back to more familiar roll calls. There were still new faces with old names, like Jack “Starman” Knight, Hal “Spectre” Jordan, and Linda “Supergirl” Danvers; and there were new names in familiar roles (Impulse instead of Kid Flash, Young Justice instead of the Teen Titans). Thus, although this was a fairly stable time, it was significantly different from the DC of the ‘70s or ‘80s.

Next, in what I call the Crisis Cycle (2004-09), DC embarked on a somewhat schizophrenic strategy of “death and rebirth”: for example, Sue Dibny and Blue Beetle murdered, but the Green Lantern Corps and Jason Todd back in action. For me, Final Crisis — which, appropriately enough, featured the return of Barry Allen and the “death” of Batman — marked the end of this period.

Accordingly, we’re a couple of years into what I’m calling the Fifth Generation, personified by the fifth Robin, Damien Wayne. If we are at all interested in treating DC’s superhero history as a period of measurable time, then as a Robin, Damien is automatically significant, because his age is a direct clue as to how old his mentor(s) and predecessors are; and therefore how much time has passed since Bruce Wayne rang that fateful bell.

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Damien also represents the inherent impermanence of (for lack of a better term) the “sidekick identity.” This is a concept which, at least in regular continuity, arguably did not exist before Dick’s retirement as Robin. Starting in the mid-‘60s, the Earth-2 Robin was shown as Batman’s adult successor; but even in a gray-and-black costume, he was still recognizable as the former Boy Wonder. That Dick remained Robin until his death in Crisis, and throughout the ‘70s there was no real thought that the Earth-1 Dick would grow old any differently. However, the notion that “Robin” was portable opened up a whole range of legacy characters, enabling DC to perpetuate familiar names and costumes while switching out the folks who played them. In this context, the current thinking that circus-star Dick is actually “performing the role” of Batman brings a unique, almost satirical, layer of shading to the cape and cowl.

So Dick becomes Nightwing, Jason becomes Robin, Wally takes over as the Flash, Kyle carries on the GL legacy, and a whole generation of Justice Society kids steps into the boots of their parents. Occasionally there is backsliding: Jesse Quick briefly took up her late mother’s Liberty Belle costume, Guy Gardner and Hal Jordan both spent time away from the GL Corps, and Bart Allen went from a murdered Flash to a revived Kid Flash. It’s also not impossible — although I imagine right now it is unlikely — that Dick will be Nightwing again, or (not that I wish ill on Damien; far from it) that Tim will be plain-old Robin.

Indeed, many of the changes visited upon these characters over the years — even death — have since been rolled back. Iris Allen and Bruce Wayne weren’t really dead, just in other time periods. Clark’s TV career was over long before the 1986 revamp put him squarely back at the Daily Planet. Justice League International gave way to a new Justice League of America. Even the original Doom Patrol, for a while DC’s most prominent martyrs, has been brought back to life. (Too bad their book was canceled.)

Thus, part of me always wonders whether DC will pull the trigger on a real rollback — back to the status quo of its Silver Age heyday, when there were only the adult heroes and (where applicable) their adolescent sidekicks, when marriages were new if they existed at all, and when the stories were accessible because nothing ever really changed. Scipio at the Absorbascon practically dares DC to do a “universal reboot,” starting everyone from scratch a la the much-beloved “Timmverse” and/or the “Brave and the Bold” cartoon.

I don’t think that’ll happen, for reasons I’ve explained before. Besides, DC’s already started a from-scratch universe called “Earth One.” It’s only one (published) book old, but a Batman book and the second Superman installment have already been promised. Before that there was the All-Star line, which apparently was the victim of office politics.

It’s not that rebooting would be hard — just pick one of the 52 Earths no one seems to be paying any attention to — it’s that at some point, you have to decide whether some changes are inevitable. Chief among these changes are the careers of Dick Grayson and Wally West: either they grow up to be Nightwing and the Flash, or they don’t. Granted, that’s assuming you start with a sort of Silver Age-ish, hero-and-sidekick status quo. If the sidekicks never grow up, you risk losing readers who want at least the acknowledgment of time passing. If the sidekicks do grow up, though, you risk the same kind of legacy structure the reboot probably sought to avoid.

Regardless, the thing about Dick Grayson is that he’s managed to transcend his original sidekick role. A lot of armchair psychology has gone into analyzing Batman over the years, but a good bit has been directed at the junior partner too. Wolfman and Pérez clearly enjoyed using Dick in New Teen Titans, so much so that they found a way to separate him (almost literally, in fact) from the red vest and green briefs. That, in turn, opened the floodgates for the proliferation of legacy characters from the mid-‘80s forward. It also encouraged DC’s creative teams — for good and ill — to focus more on the people in the suits than on what the suits represented. Thus, Dick’s motivation to “play” Batman is vastly different from Bruce’s (although I would argue that Bruce also “plays” Batman); just as Tim’s initial motivation to be Robin was different from Dick’s. As temporary as some of DC’s changes may be, this is why I don’t see them putting Dick back in the short pants permanently, even if he’s a teenager again as part of some grand global reboot. “Robin” may have been created as a way for Dick to cope with his parents’ deaths, but it has become the transitory role of Batman’s partner. Likewise, because it represents Dick’s independence, the Nightwing identity is as inevitable as emancipation itself. Dick may go back to being Nightwing (even as part of Batman, Inc.), but he can never go back to being Robin.

To me, this is a big part of what worked about the Wally West Flash, as well as what many fans seem to resist about Barry Allen’s return. While each of DC’s major characters got some psychological tweaking over the years, much of that — at least, much that fans and professionals pay attention to — came in the past twenty-odd years, when Barry was out of commission. (I hesitate to say that the most radical, if not the only, change to his character resulted from Iris’ death; but that may not be to far off.) Indeed, during this time Barry became “DC’s patron saint,” the bland, square, crewcut-coiffed speedster who fought goofy bad guys and spent the end of his career as a criminal defendant. By contrast, Wally grew up as one of the most powerful Teen Titans, went through some puberty-related problems with his superspeed, and spent his early Flash career perpetually trying to do right by Barry’s memory. Sometimes he was a womanizer, sometimes he was rich, sometimes he was living with his mom. Through it all, though, he was never dull — but readers were reminded frequently that Barry was.

If that sounds somewhat unfair to Wally and his caretakers, it’s not meant to be; it’s just a byproduct of a status quo they probably thought would last forever. Now that Barry’s back, however, he can’t afford to be compared unfavorably to Wally. He must justify his existence, whether that’s through the retconned tragedy of his parents, or merely by demonstrating that he wasn’t all that dull to begin with.

The point is, it’s not enough anymore simply to say “Here are Batman and Robin fighting bad guys,” or “Here is the Flash obliterating a tornado.” Readers want to know the people in the suits. Many readers have spent the better part of their own lives watching the lives of these fantastic others unfold. I don’t want to be That Guy — that “you’ll pry my continuity from my cold clammy palms” guy — but rolling back those lives, even for the laudable goal of accessibility, isn’t automatically the answer.

That said, I do agree with Scipio that DC shouldn’t treat every comic as if it were someone’s last. Thankfully, a number of titles have been doing fairly self-contained storylines, from the year-long arcs in Superman, Wonder Woman, and Action Comics to the more compartmentalized arcs in Batman and Robin and Detective Comics. Newer series like Zatanna, Xombi, and THUNDER Agents exist in their own little corners of the superhero line, and at the other end of the spectrum (see what I did there?) you’ll find the ever-evolving Green Lantern epic, whose roots go back at least to the 2004 relaunch.

Admittedly, all this could change come September, but I remain hopeful. DC’s great strength is in its willingness to experiment with different approaches to storytelling. If the big changes open up the superhero line in those ways, I’ll be happy. Otherwise — well, I’ve been grumpy before …