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A Brief History Of Time: Unpacking DC's Reboots, Relaunches & Retcons

DC 3.3: HYPERTIME

Meanwhile, starting with 1989's "Gotham By Gaslight," DC had found yet another way to tell parallel-world stories, by calling them "Elseworlds" and decreeing that they would have no effect on main-line continuity. Mark Waid, who had written 1996's "Kingdom Come" Elseworlds and its sequel "The Kingdom" (and who incidentally had edited "Gaslight") collaborated with "JLA" writer Grant Morrison on the concept of Hypertime.

Essentially a catch-all for any story DC had ever published, from "Action Comics" #1 to a Hostess Cupcake comic starring Green Lantern, was now deemed part of Hypertime. While Hypertime threads could manifest occasionally as part of the main timeline -- as in the "Kingdom: Planet Krypton" special, when Batman recognized a traditional, out-of-continuity Batwoman -- it wasn't that easy to travel through Hypertime at will. The Flash could do it with some practice, but a "Superboy" arc required some Apokoliptian technology powered by a nuclear explosion. While it was intended to re-expand the scope of DC cosmology, even hinting that the infinite Multiverse destroyed in "Crisis" was just a little corner of Hypertime, it never caught on.

DC 3.4: ROLLING REBOOTS OF THE EARLY '00S

A couple more series-specific reboots deserve some attention. In 2004, Waid and artist Leinil Yu revised Superman's origin for the first time since "Man of Steel" in the 12-issue "Superman: Birthright." Among other things, it established that teenaged Lex Luthor was friends with Clark Kent in Smallville (as was the case in the Silver Age and on the "Smallville" TV show) and crafted a fake-Kryptonian-invasion storyline to go along with Supes' earliest appearances. Around the same time, Waid and artist Barry Kitson relaunched "Legion of Super-Heroes" in what was later called the "threeboot." This time the Legion was more of a youth movement than a super-team, and the stories started with the group already fairly well-established. It lasted about four years before being sidelined in favor of an earlier version.

DC 3.5: THE CRISIS CYCLE

For 2005's 20th anniversary of "Crisis On Infinite Earths," DC turned to writer Geoff Johns and artist Phil Jimenez. "Infinite Crisis" brought back four characters from the original "Crisis," killed three of them, and turned the fourth into a nigh-irredeemable strawman. As far as reboots go, "Infinite Crisis" explained minor timeline tweaks on much the same level as a parent explaining thunder to a small child, only instead of "God is bowling" it was "an angry version of Superboy is punching an interdimensional wall." The sequel also set up a new Multiverse, whose existence was revealed a year later towards the end of the weekly "52" maxi-series.

The Multiverse got a lot of play over the next couple of years, primarily in the "Countdown" and "Final Crisis" miniseries. The ending of "Final Crisis" involved another cosmic restart, but this one was meant more to undo the damage from the miniseries than for continuity tweaks. Nevertheless, Johns and artist Gary Frank used the opportunity to produce "Superman: Secret Origin," the third and last major set of revisions in the post-Crisis period.

DC 4.0: FLASHPOINT AND THE NEW 52

"Final Crisis" ended in early 2009, but a little over two years later DC announced another line-wide relaunch. "Flashpoint" was a five-issue miniseries with its own dizzying array of tie-ins, each focusing on a different aspect of a horrifically altered DC-Earth. To set things straight, the Flash (Barry Allen, back since "Final Crisis") restarted the timeline as directed by the mysterious Pandora. The resulting New 52 timeline picked up five in-story years after the Justice League formed, and was a mishmash of total reboots (Superman, the Flash, Wonder Woman) and grandfathered continuity (Batman, Green Lantern, the rest of the Multiverse) thrown together with characters from DC's Vertigo and WildStorm imprints.

DC 4.1: CONVERGENCE

The last bit of cosmic card-shuffling came in 2015's "Convergence," which revealed that your favorite retired timelines were still out there, ready to fight each other, thanks to Brainiac. As near as I can tell, these weren't entire parallel universes, but slivers of time not unlike what the Time Trapper did back in 1987 to preserve the pre-Crisis Superboy.

"Convergence" produced three miniseries: "Telos," about Brainiac's number-one assistant, which almost no one read; "Titans Hunt," reuniting the New 52 versions of the classic Teen Titans; and "Superman: Lois & Clark," bringing back the pre-New 52 Superman, his bride and their son. "Titans Hunt" revealed that no one remembers the original Teen Titans, including them; and "Lois & Clark" revealed that the ex-Kents have been living in secret on the main DC-Earth since the New 52 Justice League first appeared. The "DC Universe: Rebirth" special picked up the basic plots of both miniseries, so they should play out in the new Superman books and the no-adjective "Titans" series. I feel compelled to point out that as far as I can tell, there hasn't been any sort of big cosmic change in the "Rebirth" books, but boy is it coming.

WHITHER DC 5.0?

Accordingly, by my count there have been four major versions of DC's shared universe:

  • Golden Age (1935-51)
  • Silver Age/Multiverse (1956-85)
  • Post-Crisis (1986-2011)
  • New 52 (2011-present)

Clearly this reflects only the most comprehensive reboots, not status quo shifts, continuity tweaks or changes in tone. It also glosses over the growth of the legacy structure and/or the demarcation of various younger generations, which I suppose could be seen as relaunches.

Nevertheless, within those four major eras are nine "softer" reboots, relaunches, what have you:

  • Superboy (1945)
  • The Multiverse (1961)
  • The Post-Crisis relaunches (1986-89)
  • "Zero Hour" (1994)
  • Hypertime (1998)
  • "Infinite Crisis" wall-punching and other early-'00s tweaks (2003-05)
  • The New Multiverse (2007)
  • "Convergence" (2015)

Since these sets of changes have been increasing in frequency, it's easy to see how DC got its reputation for tinkering.

What, therefore, might we expect from "Rebirth?" At the very least it seems like the basic New 52 setup will be expanded with ten more years' worth of comic book time. That could make some characters older, and give creative teams more room to develop them (even if they only do it by dropping in some pre-New 52 references). Still, it says nothing about whether a more comprehensive reboot will happen anytime soon.

To be sure, the "Rebirth" we have right now isn't really making the case for DC 5.0, even if it brings back older versions of characters. I'd classify a New 52-Plus-Ten-Years as "DC 4.5" up until the point where everything goes white (or blue, as the case may be). DC stopped branding its superhero books with "New 52" a year ago, but as much as it may want to say that era is over, it still can't chuck the whole thing just yet. As a practical matter, five years in DC is still fine-tuning the New 52.

What's your favorite DC era? Let us know in the comments!

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