Into DC and Marvel’s ongoing game of compare-and-contrast comes the just-announced Legacies miniseries, ten issues starting in May 2010 which will guide the reader from the Depression to the mid-21st Century. It’s the history of the DC Universe -- not to be confused with another upcoming DC project -- as seen through the eyes of a normal family.
In other words, it’s DC’s version of Marvels.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Although Marvels was intended to give readers a different, more street-level perspective on its super-characters, it returned inevitably to one of Marvel’s overarching superhero themes: whether those super-folk had earned the public’s trust. Accordingly, it reinforced the sensibility which Marvel had been cultivating pretty much from its beginnings.
By contrast, as I’ve said before, no such global sensibility (beyond simple good-versus-evil ideas) has been put forth by DC’s superhero comics. Where Marvel’s early superhero books were produced by a very small group of writers and artists, DC’s came from many different comics professionals, including rivals whose work the publisher would eventually buy wholesale. Thus, Marvel’s superhero comics traded heavily on their interconnections, while DC’s were produced in relative isolation from each other, with no expectation that, say, the Flash and Plastic Man, or Wonder Woman and Captain Atom, would ever meet.
Now that DC’s characters all share the same timeline, and their various meetings are not only possible but matters of public record, all of their similarities must be reconciled and all their differences amplified. These may be small details -- for example, All-Star Squadron #66 (February 1987) explained (among other things) why the original Sandman and Tarantula wore the exact same costume -- or they may be significant, like the arcs connecting the Golden Age Green Lantern to the Guardians of the Universe and the GL Corps. DC has definitely done its share of gap-filling, nitpick-explaining stories over the years. The problem is, ironically, that all the smoothing and consolidating has rendered the final product somewhat shapeless. So much time was spent on the trees that the forest was allowed to sprawl.
What’s more, DC’s idea of legacies is a rather artificial one which doesn’t quite describe many of the relationships involved. In the old Multiversal days, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan weren’t successors to Jay Garrick or Alan Scott, they were counterparts; and the Justice League was the counterpart of the Justice Society. Even in the revised timeline, Barry wasn’t really Jay’s protégé in the way that Wally West was Barry’s. Instead, Barry was inspired by Jay. If a certain scene in JLA: Year One is still in continuity, the Justice League was inspired (thanks to Black Canary) by the Justice Society. However, there’s no direct line of succession from Alan to Hal, or from the Al Pratt Atom to the Ray Palmer Atom. Maybe I am defining “legacy” too narrowly, but today they are much more clear-cut.
For those reasons I am glad that DC will try to pull everything together into something approaching coherence. At this point the “legacies” angle is the most prominent plot element, although Wein told CBR that “each arc [will end] with a pivotal moment in the history of the DCU.” I’m not sure how that aspect will play out, since DC history doesn’t have that many “arrival of Galactus”-level stories. Oh sure, there are big-crossover events and prominent deaths, but by and large we won’t see those until the last few issues. Generally, though, I expect Legacies to segue from real-world events of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s into a nebulous period of fictional DC history.
The early years would be pretty easy, because generally the major DC-Earth events during the Golden Age reflected the major events of “our” Earth-Prime: the Depression, World War II, postwar paranoia, etc. The Justice Society operated from 1941 through 1951, and groups like the Blackhawks and Suicide Squad/Task Force X were active into the 1950s. Probably the next big event was J’Onn J’Onzz’s arrival on Earth in the mid-‘50s, although the general public definitely didn’t know about that.
This puts us into that nebulous period of DC history where firm dates work against our heroes’ longevity and we must use the “X Years Ago” notation. We’re still not up to the Silver Age, but things weren’t terribly quiet: during this time Keystone City disappeared, the take-no-prisoners Reaper was active in Gotham City (and was run out of town by the JSA), and obscure groups like the Justice Experience and Echoes of Justice tried to make their marks. Finally, just before the next big wave of superheroes hit, non-super adventurers like the Challengers of the Unknown battled weird menaces. I’m eager to see Legacies explore this period, because I suspect it will reinforce DC’s stratified approach.
The early Silver Age doesn’t strike me as particularly good for narrative, because it’s just a bunch of debuts: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow; and the new Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom. Later come the Justice League and the Teen Titans, blah blah blah. I’m sure there are rah-rah moments in all of that, and I am particularly curious to see how and when Legacies brings in Wonder Woman, but it’s not like the Silver Age doesn’t get good press.
Again, this idea of “legacies” is only -- I say only because I have been reading these things for so damn long -- twenty or so years old. In the pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths days the Multiversal timelines came down essentially to Superman. The Big Red S was the first super-hero on Earth-2, and a few decades later he (well, Superboy) was the first big superhero on Earth-1. There might have been costumed super-folk before him, but he was the milestone. His legacy on Earth-2 was Power Girl, and his legacy on Earth-1 was Supergirl (and, farther in the future, the Legion of Super-Heroes*). After the post-COIE merge, the Superman of the new timeline was still pretty special, but not because he was first.
No, in the merged timeline Superman became a more messianic figure -- not just the herald of a new “heroic age” but the ultimate expression of superheroics almost literally for all time. It’s hard really to go anywhere from that point, which is why being one of Superman’s protégés is also pretty much a plateau. By extension, the generation to which Superman belongs has also become DC’s most prominent, and therefore its hardest to dislodge. As some of us know from Trinity, DC’s Big Three are so critical to the Earth’s proper development that it took the equivalent of God’s own crowbar to dislodge them.
Following this conventional wisdom would make Legacies Silver Age-centric, with the Golden Agers as precursors and the younger heroes as reflections. Although sidekicks had been around since the Golden Age (and Marvel teamed Bucky and Toro in the Young Allies), the Teen Titans laid the foundation for them to someday collectively succeed their mentors. The process started in earnest some twenty years later, when Dick Grayson retired as Robin and Wally West became the new Flash. That may be why Legacies will end (in real-world time) in early 2005, when Wally and Kyle Rayner were still the main Flash and Green Lantern. Although one of DC’s current goals is to show how all the generations can work together harmoniously (and without causing new readers too much confusion), Legacies will be less complicated if it can focus on straight-line successions.**
Perhaps the real trick will be coming up with a good reason why some characters have legacies and some don’t; and why some characters (like many of the original Infinity, Inc.) tend to “graduate” to more senior heroic identities. What does it mean for Jesse Chambers to honor her dad with her original Jesse Quick identity, as opposed to honoring her mom as Liberty Belle? Does Dick Grayson ever envy his Robin successors? Does it bother Donna Troy that she no longer has any codename, or does it just mean she’s fully self-actualized? DC makes a lot of hay out of new characters in old clothes, old characters in new clothes, and various combinations thereof. Among all its other goals, Legacies should convincingly justify all of that. Hey, it's got ten issues--!
* [By the way, wouldn’t it be great to see an evil Earth-3 Legion? There’s your next JLA/JSA/LSH crossover....]
** [Again, compare Trinity, which presented a world where the original generation of Golden Agers never relinquished its leadership role.]