Grumpy Old Fan | The Power Girl problem

For a while now, it’s been hard to avoid talking about some sort of Multiverse.

Between Forever Evil, Futures End and World’s End, The Multiversity, Convergence, and recent looks back at Crisis on Infinite Earths, the grand structure of DC Comics’ cosmos has come back into the spotlight. Even Marvel is jumping into the deep end of the infinitely varied pool. (All things being equal, there will be another Crisis post next week, so the talk will continue at least in this space.)  While I’m inclined to leave Battleworld and its ramifications to the experts, it’s all been reminding me of a “Power Girl Problem” -- and no, it’s not costume-related. This week we’ll talk Kara Zor-L and a few other continuity tangles, with an eye towards avoiding future pitfalls.

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Paul O’Brien sums up the basic difficulties nicely:

... Crisis was not conceived specifically as a reboot, but as a folding of multiple continuities into one. The problems started mounting up when DC decided to completely rewrite the history of several major characters, screwing up the histories of those books that were trying to continue as before, ultimately resulting in a continuity train wreck that DC never really managed to sort out before eventually dynamiting the whole thing and starting over.

Essentially, this is what happened to Power Girl. Conceived in the mid-‘70s as Earth-Two’s answer to Supergirl, she ended up surviving COIE when her adopted world (and her Earth-One counterpart) didn’t. Complicating matters further was a new edict making Superman Krypton’s sole survivor, and preventing PG from any claim on the doomed planet. Accordingly, for the next 20 years various creative teams struggled with workable revisions to Power Girl’s origins. Eventually she became the descendant of Arion, the master mage of ancient Atlantis, and things seemed settled -- until 2005's Infinite Crisis restored her (parallel) Kryptonian background.

Indeed, this revelation’s implications were part of Infinite Crisis’ overall plot, because the miniseries’ antagonists were all survivors of the pre-COIE Multiverse: Earth-Three’s Alex Luthor, Earth-Prime’s Superboy, and PG’s cousin himself, the Earth-Two Superman. Since these characters hadn’t really been seen for the better part of twenty years, and since DC’s single-universe history had been rewritten at least once in the meantime (via 1994's Zero Hour), it was only reasonable to assume they’d been consigned to the limbo of obsolete ideas. Not only did Infinite Crisis say otherwise, it also helped usher in a whole new Multiverse, including a new Earth-2 ... with, yes, its own Power Girl. Thus, while the “real” Power Girl was once again acknowledged as the original unadulterated version, she came from a Krypton that was about two steps removed from the then-current Krypton, and an Earth that was at least one step removed from the then-current DC-Earth.

Now, none of this would make any difference as long as nobody talked about it, which is pretty much what we could say about any continuity concern. DC’s problem, obviously, was that it couldn’t simply stop talking about where Power Girl came from. Thanks mostly to the differences in their respective Supermen, Power Girl wasn’t a one-for-one Supergirl replacement. In fact, DC probably didn’t want a Supergirl replacement, seeing as how it had killed off the Earth-One Girl of Steel and limited the legacy of the revised Krypton. Nevertheless, as an Earth-Two survivor, Power Girl was a constant reminder that the post-COIE DC Universe had tried not to leave anyone behind. Besides, Power Girl’s distance from the Super-folk could let her develop in ways that didn’t depend on the Superman family. (Meanwhile, DC also developed a new Supergirl who had no Kryptonian background whatsoever.)

Accordingly, DC couldn’t just get rid of Power Girl, but for a long time it struggled with a place for her. Other Justice Society colleagues were integrated more easily, because their histories didn’t depend on troublesome ties to the Multiverse. The primal cosmic forces which supported Doctor Fate and the Spectre just shifted over to the new DC-Earth, while the rest of the Golden Agers’ collective history became part of the new timeline’s 20th Century. Ultimately, the New 52 relaunch -- which created an entirely new Power Girl, from an entirely new Earth-2 -- essentially restored the character to her pre-COIE status as an alternate universe’s second-generation Super-person. Still, Power Girl’s decades of tribulation show the difficulties of trying to clean house without throwing too much away.

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The Power Girl problem is a byproduct of the tweaks, relaunches, and/or reboots visited upon more prominent characters. The 1986 Superman reboot directly affected the histories of the Justice League (by making him a reservist instead of a founding member) and Legion of Super-Heroes (by getting rid of the “Superboy” career). The 1986 Wonder Woman reboot -- which had Diana debut in the present day, instead of “Year One” -- had an even bigger impact on League history, and also blew a substantial hole in the origin of Donna “Wonder Girl” Troy. Tim Truman’s 1989 Hawkworld reboot was so disruptive it required the invention of a “substitute” Hawkman and Hawkwoman as sort of continuity placeholders. Even “Batman: Year One,” which was designed only to supplement the basic Bat-origin, changed Jim Gordon and his spouse in ways that required a continuity patch for erstwhile daughter Barbara.

Other characters’ revisions were more self-contained. The 1987 Captain Marvel reboot (by Roy and Dann Thomas and Tom Mandrake) had been received poorly, so when Jerry Ordway relaunched the character in 1994, he virtually ignored 1987's changes. After a few years of continuity shuffling (including its own substitute Superboy), the Legion recovered from the hassles of the Superman revisions, and then went through two more reboots (in 1994 and 2004) and a 2009 relaunch. However, these tended to affect only the features themselves, without rippling out into the wider shared universe. For the most part the New 52 relaunch helped smooth over these sorts of things, although in some cases (like Donna’s) it simply eliminated the troublesome character. Conversely, the decision to leave the Batman and Green Lantern books relatively untouched, while the New 52 relaunch affected the rest of the superhero line, created its own set of continuity wrinkles.

I’ve drifted off into a catalog of reboots and need to head back toward the subject of multiverses. A reboot is a fresh start, but a multiverse is a library -- not just of all the previous fresh starts, but of directions not normally taken. In other words, a reboot puts the bad ol’ days behind you, but a multiverse lets you relive them. The saying that “every character is someone’s favorite” fits perfectly into the idea of a multiverse, where every story (and, theoretically, every permutation of a story) can live up to its potential. The grass is always greener on the other side of the vibrational barrier. How could it not be?

This was the particular appeal of Hypertime, the catch-all construct created by Mark Waid and Grant Morrison in the late 1990s. Introduced in 1998's The Kingdom miniseries, Hypertime explained that all the old stories still existed somewhere in the vast DC cosmos, like aging pets sent to live on idyllic -- but highly inaccessible and fairly well-hidden -- farms in the country. From time to time the other realities bled into the main one, producing brief continuity glitches that would go away if you just didn’t think about them for too long. Indeed, few in the real world really thought too long about Hypertime, which is why the Multiverse returned in the mid-2000s.

Regardless, Hypertime facilitated the plot of Infinite Crisis, by revealing that the Earth-Two Superman was still alive, and still trying to break through the dimensional barrier behind which he’d spent the past several years. The universe that contained Earth-Two might have been reduced to a swirling eternity of unfriendly energies (as seen in Crisis On Infinite Earths issue 11), but it had not been forgotten.

Just because something hasn’t been forgotten, though, doesn’t mean it’s going to be used regularly. If anyone’s Multiverse is actually going to become an ongoing concern again -- or, more importantly, if it’s going to provide the ingredients for another attempt at mashed-up continuity -- it probably needs some planning on the front end. The Power Girl problem demonstrates that you can’t just plop a character from a prior timeline into a revised timeline if the character’s background depended on that prior timeline. To a certain extent, this is what happened with the “grandfathered” Batman and Green Lantern continuity in the New 52. Those were each ten pounds of stories shoved into a five-pound bag.

See, it’s not enough just to remember. A Multiverse is the weaponizing of memory (as Morrison would no doubt put it), or, perhaps more accurately, the distillation of memory. Every multiversal alternative is the practical expression of a setting, or perhaps just a story, that might never have been meant to support such expression. However, odds are it’s those practicalities -- and not so much the details of the stories which inspired them -- which will dictate the direction of that particular universe. Better to leave things open-ended and allow for creativity than advertise a world dominated by one irrevocable change.

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That brings us back to The Multiversity and Convergence, the two current approaches to DC’s parallel-world framework. So far, The Multiversity has been largely about exploring a variety of storytelling styles across several parallel worlds; while Convergence will apparently pit different versions of characters against each other in the same basic setting. Based on this week’s Multiversity Guidebook, there seems to be some overlap between the universes listed in the Orrery of Worlds and those participating in Convergence’s battles. However, that may be where the commonalities end. The Multiversity was conceived long before the New 52, and I suspect it will exist on its own terms regardless of what DC does either this summer, or later on. By contrast, Convergence seems to be testing the waters for potential changes to the superhero books, perhaps guided by the pre-Flashpoint realities it intends to feature.

Accordingly, the Power Girl problem is much more of a concern for whatever comes out of Convergence. If DC really is going to tweak the New 52 by bringing back details and characters from the pre-Flashpoint days, it needs to make sure that the post-Convergence setting can accommodate them. Creative teams can always use the old stories for Easter egg farms. (This week’s Batman #38 is chock-full of references to longtime Bat-villains who have barely been seen, if at all, in the New 52.) Likewise, creative teams can usually streamline character backstories to focus on what’s essential for the story at hand, as Batman Eternal has done with the Spoiler.

Regardless, acknowledging that those old stories are still controlling -- i.e., are more than just namechecks -- can have a real power. Even readers who might know only that a story is old can still be drawn in by the pull of history. You don’t need to have seen Goldfinger or Thunderball to appreciate a certain bit of vintage gear that shows up toward the end of Skyfall. It’s as much about the staying power of these characters as it is the twists and turns of their adventures, and it can promote a strong connection between the reader and the work. I still think the New 52's truncated five-year timeline was one of its biggest mistakes, because it rationalized running away from all that history. If you’re going to commit to new comics every week, or new collections every six months, odds are you’re open to that sort of deeper involvement with the characters and their world.

In the end, that’s what makes the Power Girl problem so compelling. When the dust had settled and PG had re-learned the truth about Earth-Two (and come to grips with the other Earth-2), those losses and her need for a fresh start fueled the early issues of her short-lived ongoing series. The Power Girl problem cautions creative teams to make sure a character still works, but it also challenges them to fight for characters that are worth it. The eventual Power Girl solution involved facing the problem head-on and crafting character moments from her reaction to it. That’s not going to work for every character (and the fact that PG’s solution took over 20 years isn’t encouraging either), but it does show how flexible superhero comics can be in such situations.

It all comes down to what presents the best storytelling environment going forward. Power Girl’s post-Crisis history may be an extreme example, but it’s one worth studying. Whether the post-Convergence DC is going to include a mosaic of elements from decades past, or whether it’ll just be the New 52 with a healthy awareness of alternate-universe diversity, DC’s choices need to be made with an eye towards what serves its creative teams best. Here’s hoping the publisher is inspired by the depth and breadth of its history to craft an expansive environment where its characters can thrive.


And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 38.

  • Story pages: 20
  • Firestorm/Polaris pages: 5 (4 at the beginning, plus the final page)
  • Las Vegas/Fifty Sue pages: 5
  • Superman/Constantine pages: 5
  • Frankenstein/Amethyst pages: 5
  • Number of sequences which show some signs of movement towards a resolution: 3 (the Justice League sees Brainiac, Superman speeds off to stop Brainiac, Frankenstein decides to die rather than become a Brother Eye soldier)
  • Number of sequences which include some backstory information: 3 (Firestorm reminds us of her and Yamazake’s motivations, Constantine alludes to Batman’s “con,” Dr. Frankenstein and Frank discuss the latter’s origins)
  • Number of those sequences which contain new information: 2 (Constantine, Frankenstein)

NOTES: While I was glad that the Firestorm/Polaris sequence was something more than four pages of setup for a subsequent issue, I am still frustrated by the writers’ apparent compulsion to go over Madison’s and Yamazake’s subplots again and again. We read the book every week. We remember who these folks are.

That said, I can’t remember when Frankenstein got the glimpse of the future, but I’m glad he did. Anything which shows the Five Years From Now timeline diverging from its thirty-years-after-that nightmare is progress, even if it’s incremental.

Seeing a bearded Superman in country-boy clothes next to a cornfield naturally reminds me of Kingdom Come, and specifically the early scene when Wonder Woman tries to coax him out of retirement. In theory it was a good choice to pair Superman’s wounded idealism with Constantine’s cynicism, because that’s a natural source of conflict. It also invites comparisons to Constantine’s initial role in Swamp Thing all those years ago, although Swampy’s outlook was probably slightly different from Superman’s. Anyway, this issue it hit me that Superman -- Kal-El, mind you, not Billy Batson -- hasn’t had a lot of meaningful interaction (if any) with Lois Lane, despite both having their share of exposure at various points in the miniseries. Kingdom Come was one of many Superman stories which used Lois’ absence to justify radical changes in Supes’ behavior. Here, it’s Batman’s apparent betrayal, with Lois only a detached observer of Supes’ career. Under other circumstances, I’d expect Lois’ influence to set Supes back on track, but here I don’t know if it’ll take something similar, or if Constantine’s needling has done the trick already.

With nine issues to go, you’d think things would start moving more quickly. However, it looks like we still need to find out how Fifty Sue and company will use the safe, and we’ll probably learn more of Frankenstein’s origins. There are also a few other subplots to update, including the various Batmen and Plastique; the rollout of Mister Terrific’s latest product; Stormwatch’s defense of Earth; and whether there’s anything new with Team Arrow. It’s crunch time, folks -- Futures End needs to make us feel it.

NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Boar’s head! Brainiac head! Heads up! And ... purple rain?

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