I read with great interest Brian Cronin's list of 75 Most Memorable Moments In DC Comics History, in part because I wondered how close I could come with my own list without totally ripping his off. (Said with a smile and a great deal of respect, of course.)
First I thought about listing 75 key DC moments, drawn probably from both real and fictional history; but that list would be rather predictable as well -- Action Comics #1 juxtaposed with Siegel and Shuster’s legal battles, etc. (Tom Spurgeon et al.’s list of “emblematic” ‘70s comics is close in spirit if not subject matter to the list I’d want to assemble.) The other type of “75 moments” list I considered would be a highlight-filled timeline including events exclusively from DC’s fictional history -- things like “first meeting of the Justice Society,” “debut of Superman,” and “Darkseid enslaves Earth.” I didn’t quite like that because it too would be predictable, filled with first appearances and Big Events.
Ironically, though, DC has always seemed rather short on shared-universe-style events which define it as a superhero publisher. Marvel has the coming of Galactus, the Kree-Skrull War, the Secret Empire, and the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Phoenix. DC has comparable milestones, but they don’t come as readily to mind. Off the top of my head I might list “Flash of Two Worlds,” the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, and “The Judas Contract,” before getting into various Crises, disasters, and alien invasions. I think you have to dig a bit deeper into the DC titles to pull out things like a second Moon wreaking havoc (JLA #155, June 1978) or Trigon taking over the world (New Teen Titans vol. 2 #s 1-5, August 1984-February 1985). Therefore, while projects like the original History of the DC Universe and the current DC Universe: Legacies have their hearts in the right place, they must deal with DC’s scattershot approach to world-building.
Naturally, the scope of world- (or universe-) building varies with the scope of the particular book. An educated guess (and a quick glance at Chris Miller’s Unauthorized Chronology of the DC Universe) suggests that much of “what we know” about broad DC cosmology comes mainly from the pages of Green Lantern and New Gods, with bits of Vertigo, Doctor Fate, and the Spectre thrown in for good measure. The Unauthorized Chronology notes that the Lords of Order (13 billion years ago) and the Maltusians (10 billion years ago) could each claim to be the universe’s first sentient beings. The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago, “shortly” before the Maltusian named Krona attempted his catastrophic studies of the dawn of time. Krona’s peers subsequently left Maltus for the planet Oa, and I think you probably know how that relocation worked out. Not surprisingly, the Blackest Night crossover (actually, an issue of Green Lantern) recently expanded DC’s cosmology to include the development of various emotional-spectrum entities. (Laura Hudson's excellent analysis is here.) I haven’t quite worked it all out myself, but apparently some of these revelations fit with established DC history better than others do.
Now, if you read Green Lantern, Brightest Day, or similarly-themed titles, that kind of knowledge might well be helpful, even if it doesn’t appear initially to make sense. (If the Earth is the source of all life in DC’s universe, how can the Maltusians’ achievement of sentience predate the Earth’s very existence by about six billion years? Just how reliable a narrator is Sinestro?) However, clearly you don’t need to know about the Emotional Spectrum to enjoy, say, Zatanna, Doom Patrol, or even Superman. Again, the history of the DC Universe looks different from the perspective of each different title.
One such perspective centers on Superman as the focal point of DC’s superhero history. This approach was a lot more simple in the pre-Crisis Multiverse days, when the superhero history of each parallel Earth started in earnest with Superman’s first public appearance. With the post-Crisis unified timeline, though, “our” Superman’s first appearance came several decades after the wartime Golden Age of superheroes had ended. Therefore, since Supes can’t be first chronologically, he must be first symbolically; and so conventional DC wisdom states that he is the purest example of superheroics ... well, pretty much ever. It’s not an unreasonable conceit, but it does tend to affect the narrative flow of DC’s history. If everything builds up to Superman (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Silver Age generally), everything which follows must fight that much harder to keep a reader’s interest. Of course, the fact that DC’s current superhero history has no definite end-point doesn’t help.
This is not to say that DC can’t do meaningful examinations of its highest-profile characters. The year-long Trinity weekly series made Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman integral parts of DC-Earth’s development. That fit fairly well with 52’s conceit that “our” Earth, in Universe Designate Zero, was the key to the 52-world Multiverse. Indeed, Trinity gave DC the new “Earth One,” complete with its own Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Put them all together and it is -- surprise! -- perhaps the most Earth-centric view of the universe since the Church put Galileo on trial. Okay, it’s not that bad; especially since any number of sci-fi/fantasy settings similarly find Earth so special. It does makes me wonder whether the “broken Trinity” might have affected Blackest Night in some subtle way; or whether the return of Bruce Wayne (which would restore the Trinity) has some role to play in Brightest Day. Probably not -- right now Geoff Johns seems most concerned with building up Green Lantern, the Flash, and the other “revivees,” and Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are each going in different directions. Still, it seems like a story’s in there somewhere....
For now, though, the larger story of the DC Universe is apparently its self-perpetuation. Superheroes emerge in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, just in time for World War II. They choose up teams -- the Justice Society, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the Freedom Fighters -- and for about ten years they run around righting wrongs and beating back evildoers. Postwar paranoia does them in, though; and rather than take off their masks they retire. So from 1951 to “twelve to fifteen years ago,” the costumed-adventurer void is filled by various isolated groups like the Challengers of the Unknown, the Blackhawks, Task Force X, and the Justice Experience.
On a bright, clear day in Metropolis, however, it all changes. Maybe Lois Lane is falling from a helicopter, maybe she’s on the maiden voyage of a new space shuttle; but she meets the love of her life -- although she might not realize it -- and introduces him to the world as Superman. (See? There’s the historical narrative’s big dramatic moment.) Soon there’s Batman and Aquaman and Wonder Woman and a new Green Lantern and Flash and they’re all a Justice League and their kid partners are Teen Titans and there’s a group of weird Doom Patrollers and Metal Men and New Gods and a new crop of Teen Titans and the Justice Society comes out of retirement ... and there’s a Crisis ...
... and you can fill in the blanks, right? It’s not about the events at all -- it’s about the characters. There is an historical record which informs history-minded books like All-Star Squadron and Starman, but for the most part it’s window dressing. Although Marvels was very careful to weave its plot out of threads from the comics themselves, Marvel has always been more conscious of its connectivity. Legacies is superficially very similar to Marvels, but it just can’t be as faithful to the comics, because the comics were never that faithful to each other. Writer Len Wein certainly understands how to draw good stories out of old continuity, having written (among other things) 1980's needs-to-be-reprinted Untold Legend Of The Batman miniseries. However, modern DC miniseries like Legacies and Superman: Secret Origin, and the “Secret Origin” flashback arc in Green Lantern, are more like prospective retrospectives. They pick and choose elements from a character’s history -- apparently without regard for longtime readers’ memories -- in order to lay foundations for future stories. So Cat Grant shows up in S:SO despite “really” having come to the Daily Planet long after Clark Kent did; and the first arc from George Pérez’s Wonder Woman (co-written by Wein, in fact) gets moved a similar distance back in time.
If I sound snide or indignant about these things, I’m not -- not really, that is. It’d be nice to see DC build on the immediate post-Crisis continuity I still remember from high school; but those memories are almost 25 years old themselves by now. Heck, Tim Drake’s first set of long pants turns 20 this fall. DC’s future is in selling its characters, not its past.
Although -- speaking of “future,” I think there’s room for Legacies to take at least a couple of side trips to the 31st and 853rd Centuries, where the legacies of Superman et al. are honored daily. If Mr. Wein and his artists really want to write the end of the DC Universe’s story, the Time Trapper will likely be there waiting....