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Grumpy Old Fan | To Grandmother's Earth we go?

(NOTE: The Futures Index is on Thanksgiving vacation, so you’ll get a double dose next week.)

It doesn’t look good for the current Universe Designate 2. If the title of the miniseries Earth 2: World’s End weren’t enough of a clue, the setup of its companion Futures End tells the tale: Apokoliptian troops devastate the planet, forcing the refugees into the main DC Universe (Designate Zero). Moreover, glimpses of the previous Earth-Two -- one-time home to DC’s Golden Age heroes and their legacies, like you didn’t know -- suggest that it might be making a comeback.

Considering the New 52 relaunch eliminated the original versions of the Golden Agers, their collective reinstatement isn’t without its own set of issues. A few months ago I looked at how the current Earth-2 has distinguished itself from its predecessor. Therefore, today let’s ask how the return of that predecessor might work.

* * *

Naturally, the history of Earth-Two relates directly to DC’s treatment of its Golden Age characters. In 1956, editor Julius Schwartz felt pretty comfortable relaunching The Flash, because five whole years had passed since the character’s last appearance, and he figured there was an entirely new readership. Still, in a nod to the original version, “Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt” (in October 1956's Showcase #4) had Barry Allen reading Jay Garrick’s adventures in an old issue of Flash Comics.

Five years after that, September 1961's “Flash of Two Worlds” (in The Flash vol. 1 #123) connected the two characters more explicitly. Not only was Jay real, and living on Earth-Two, but those Earth-One comics were inspired directly by the subconscious influence of his Earth-Two life. That allowed the Earth-One Gardner Fox to write fairly accurately about the Earth-Two Jay Garrick; and in stories like May 1968's “The Flash: Fact or Fiction” (Flash #179), it explained how Barry’s adventures inspired the comics of “our” Earth-Prime. Of course, the current Multiversity miniseries continues the tradition.

Such a metatextual conceit not only established how the worlds of the Multiverse related to one another, it helped define each of them. The original Earth-Two wasn’t a repository for all of DC’s Golden Age comics, but a place where those characters existed in forms that were as close as practicable to their more-distinct original versions. If that sounds weaselly and complicated, it’s because those distinctions get into some fine hair-splitting.

For example, the first Superboy story appeared in January 1945's More Fun Comics #101, about seven years into Superman’s career. This didn’t match up with previous accounts of Superman’s origin, so “Superboy” became part of the Earth-One Supes’ biography. Now, that’s a significant difference. Not so with Clark, Lois, et al., working at the Daily Planet since 1940's Superman #5 and for Perry White since Superman #7. Originally, their employer was the Daily Star and their boss was George Taylor. Accordingly, on Earth-Two that never changed.

Likewise, on Earth-Two Dick Grayson became Robin in 1940 and kept that identity until his death in 1985. This would have put him in college in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. However, at that time the Robin of the comics was still an adolescent, so those comics couldn’t have taken place on Earth-Two. In 1977, trying to figure out what to do with the “Super-Sons” adventures of early-1970s World’s Finest Comics, a young fan named Mark Gruenwald assigned many of those stories to “Earth-E” -- E for either Extraneous, or E. Nelson Bridwell, the DC editor who first suggested this solution.

Put another way, Earth-Two (along with the rest of the Multiverse) developed at least in part as a sort of storage space for whatever didn’t fit on Earth-One. I suppose that was inevitable, given that DC’s focus had shifted away from those characters. In that respect, Crisis On Infinite Earths’ consolidations arguably raised the Golden Agers’ collective profile, by making them part of the singular Earth’s superheroic history. It was a tradeoff, exchanging Earth-Two’s freedom to develop independently for greater visibility as part of the post-COIE timeline.

* * *

Whatever DC does with whichever version of this universe, the same tradeoff still exists. Both the pre-COIE Earth-Two and the New 52's Earth-2 have featured a number of choices designed to distinguish themselves clearly from the main universe. This is hardly surprising, since the New 52's Earth-2 was designed to remind longtime readers of its predecessor. The difference has been the absence of those Golden Age stories and settings -- which makes me wonder why DC would want to reinstate them, whether as part of the main DC-Earth’s history or as yet another Earth-2. Indeed, that’s the overarching question for any of the pre-New 52 settings we’ve seen in the various Convergence teasers.

However, it’s worth noting that DC faced a similar question when it brought back Jay Garrick in “Flash of Two Worlds.” Barry’s origin had reduced Jay to “just” a fictional character, but “FO2W” upended that, validating Jay’s existence while laying the groundwork for future appearances. Subsequent stories re-introducing the Justice Society, both in Flash and Justice League, opened the floodgates. Earth-Two developed steadily over the next 20-plus years, and (after several years in Limbo) they carved out a comfortable niche in the post-COIE legacy structure. It came down to DC’s readership proving Julius Schwartz wrong: plenty of fans remembered Jay Garrick and friends, even though they’d been gone for a while. Five years had passed between the last JSA story and Showcase #4, and five more years would go by before “Flash of Two Worlds.” By contrast, it’ll be less than four years between the end of Flashpoint and the beginning of Convergence -- and today’s fans are supposed to have much longer memories.

Accordingly, if the Golden Agers will be returning as part of the New 52, they’d probably do best with their own Earth. Being tied to the 1930s and ‘40s is fine, and those old stories can still form a decent narrative foundation; but by now they’re in their 90s. While some are no doubt naturally long-lived (thanks to the Green Flame of Life, being a Lord of Order, tapping the Speed Force, judicious reincarnation, etc.), you’d expect others to have produced one or two generations’ worth of successors. Needless to say, that’d also be in keeping with Earth-Two’s tradition of independence. Power Girl and the Huntress were legacy characters several years before anyone had even thought of Jason Todd.

A separate Earth would also avoid any more confusion with the New 52's main timeline. The only hinky aspects of the old Earth-One timeline involved relatively-obscure characters like Zatara and Captain Comet interacting with a certain omnipotent teenager flying around the Midwest. Despite all his exploits, DC seems to have treated Superboy as not that big of a deal -- at least not compared to his adult self -- and its heroic history really begins with Superman and the rest of the Justice League. As a practical matter, that’s not much different from the New 52's setup; so I wouldn’t expect the re-emergence of an appreciably “older” Earth-2 to have much of an effect either.

* * *

One thing I don’t expect is a full-scale mashup of the New 52 and all the realities reflected in Convergence -- but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The notion of characters from separate timelines trapped together and forced to fight reminds me of -- what else? -- Crisis On Infinite Earths. For six issues (which was half the miniseries), the universes of Earths One, Two, Four, S and X coexisted in a sort of cosmic quilt, stitched together by unimaginable super-science. Eventually this proved too tempting for the villains of five Earths, who united under the leadership of Earth-One’s Luthor and Brainiac and conquered three Earths before being stopped. The Spectre’s victory over the Anti-Monitor at the Dawn of Time then rewrote history into a singular path (as far as anyone knew). It’s not hard to think that if World’s End blows up Earth-2, and thereby ruins Universe Designate Zero through Futures End, that something equally radical -- say, something involving merging Convergence’s realities -- might be needed to get back on a more positive track.

For now, though, to me it seems most practical just to relaunch the original Earth-Two, and see what it might look like after 80 years’ worth of superhero stories. When DC first tried that, it led to steady exposure across a range of series, eventually including a relaunched All Star Comics in the ‘70s, and All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc. in the ‘80s.

After all, these are the characters which first put DC on the map. Without the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Justice Society in the Golden Age, there might not have been a Flash, Green Lantern, or Justice League in the Silver Age. That sense of history -- or, perhaps more particularly, the roles of those features in that history -- is clearly a powerful draw for many fans, and it’s most potent when those characters are allowed to “be themselves.” It sustained Earth-Two for almost a quarter-century, and it informed the singular Earth for almost twenty years after that. So far the New 52 has gotten two ongoing series and a weekly miniseries out of its own Earth-2. Even if all three books seem to be going out in a giant blaze of glory, I don’t think the concept is dead. It might just need to rediscover its roots.

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