How much ‘old’ does DC Comics need?

Keep your feet on the ground...

How much “old” do you need?

That question was more hypothetical back in the spring, before DC’s “Rebirth” initiative started quantifying it. “Rebirth” was as direct a response to the New 52 as the publisher has ever given, even bringing back specific characters from the old days to help the healing process along. “Rebirth” also up-ended the normal relaunch paradigm, which seeks to streamline a character’s presentation so as to keep what works and discard what doesn’t. By contrast, “Rebirth” took the position that the status quo generally needed fixing, and specifically could use a healthy dose of what had come before.

Regardless of its inelegance, though, the New 52’s streamlining had to come from somewhere. The old regime had been in place for at least 25 years, ever since the great cosmic streamlining of Crisis On Infinite Earths. Back then, the question of “how much old” related to what the character could do without. Today, it seems like the question is what the character needs to have put back.

* * *

Five years ago, DC Comics was in the middle of the New 52’s first month. I suspect even the casual comics fan knows the New 52’s general purpose: a line-wide relaunch which tried yet again to expand DC’s potential audience. While it offered some intriguing interpretations, boasted some impressive creative teams, and expanded the publisher’s digital footprint, it was also beset by questionable stylistic choices and the ongoing nightmare of a half-rebooted continuity.

For now, though, I want to focus on the “five years” aspect, because it recalls a particular irony about DC’s management of these characters. In 1956, five years was the amount of time which had passed since DC last published an adventure of The Flash. As such, it was also enough time for editor Julius Schwartz to feel comfortable relaunching the Flash from the ground up — because Julie knew that his target readership wouldn’t remember that far back.

Needless to say, today’s readers have much longer memories. When the New 52 messed around with continuity (keeping some things, discarding others, even eliminating entire characters and groups), readers took note. Certainly superhero comics’ aging audience remembers a lot more than five years back, and DC had been crafting this particular version of its shared universe since 1986.

Of course, every relaunch and reboot illustrates the ongoing tension between a superhero-comics publisher and its prospective readership. The publisher wants to be seen as adventurous but familiar, while readers want something new out of a setting they already know. The publisher also wants to expand its audience, so it can sell books to more people; but it doesn’t want to alienate existing readers by making things too different. In this respect bringing back the pre-Flashpoint versions of Superman, Lois Lane, and Wally West is a risk which — at least in the short term — appears to have paid off.

* * *

So how much old does DC need, really?

It’s a question which probably has to be answered on a case-by-case basis, because it depends on the durability of certain milestone events visited upon each character in the normal course of a serial narrative. In other words, when you’re in the business of spinning periodical stories, after a while you’ll probably start taking the character in a different direction; and the extent to which that sticks may end up defining that character for years to come.

Superman’s a good example. (Come to think of it, Superman’s always supposed to be a good example, but you know what I mean.) Over the years he went from being Siegel and Shuster’s all-around tough guy (and good leaper) to a demigod with super-senses who could fly through time and juggle planetoids. Alan Moore, Curt Swan, George Pérez, and Kurt Schaffenberger retired that version of Superman in 1986 with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” so that John Byrne and company could craft a more back-to-basics approach. Over the years a number of elements dropped by the 1986 revamp started cropping up again, including Supergirl, Krypto, various kinds of Kryptonite, the Bottle City of Kandor, the Superboy career, and even Lex Luthor’s time in Smallville.

However, the foundation laid by the 1986 revamp also allowed the various Superman creative teams to broaden the characters’ horizons. Most notably they killed and revived Superman, and then married him to Lois Lane. As a coda to that character’s history, writer Dan Jurgens and artist Lee Weeks used the apparently-disposable Convergence event to reveal the couple’s child. Shortly thereafter, Jurgens and Weeks’ Lois & Clark miniseries brought the Kent family into the New 52-ified universe. Today, they’ve become the “primary” Kents in the DC Universe, even though they share 25-odd years worth of comics stories which the New 52 chose specifically to ignore. It’s nice to have that sort of familiarity with these characters (assuming you’re familiar with them in the first place), but it’s still pretty weird to contemplate. Conventional wisdom seems to think that “Rebirth” will end with some sort of cosmic melding which combines the two continuity tracks into a single coherent timeline, as Crisis On Infinite Earths did back in 1985; but clearly we’re not there yet.

And when we do get there, what gets kept? Prior to Crisis, Superman’s backstory was fairly simple:

  • rocketed to Earth;
  • raised by the Kents;
  • fought villains as Superboy (sometimes with the Legion of Super-Heroes);
  • moved to Metropolis after the Kents died; and
  • works for the Daily Planet (and/or WGBS-TV, in the ’70s).

The only other milestone which comes to mind was the relocation of the Bottle City of Kandor to the Krypton-like planet Rokyn, but that’s hardly something major. The Silver Age Lana Lang probably had more character milestones than the Kandorians.

Anyway, compare that to the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint Supes, who not only died and got married (in that order), but was turned into two energy beings, grew a mullet, spent a good bit of time in self-imposed space exile (after killing three Phantom Zone criminals and developing a split personality), had two different Fortresses of Solitude and met at least three different Supergirls. Now, much of that has to do with a serial narrative on steroids, since the Superman titles of 1986-2011 were published collectively anywhere from twice a month to four or even five times a month, and they all built on each other week in and week out. No wonder the New 52 wanted to start over.

(Even so, the New 52 still felt the need to have a Doomsday story. In fact, it had two: one formed out of allusions and flashbacks, where Superman actually did die and return; and “Doomed,” where Supes himself turned into a version of the monster.)

Naturally, one factor in this analysis is the marketability of certain milestones. DC’s list of “25 Essential Graphic Novels” includes the Death of Superman collection, which was also the subject of DC/Warner Brothers’ first direct-to-video animated movie, and (as if you needed to be reminded) a pretty big part of Batman v. Superman‘s climax. If I remember correctly, the New 52 version of the story came mostly out of Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics, and Morrison famously loves to reference disparate aspects of a character’s history. By repurposing it, he might have wanted to add a little suspense to an arc which dabbled with a nonlinear timeline — but it probably didn’t hurt to reference one of the better-hyped Superman storylines of all time.

Marketability probably also plays a part in the persistence of The Killing Joke. First published in 1988 at a time when DC wasn’t really consistent about the “continuity authority” of graphic novels, it became part of Barbara Gordon’s history when she started showing up as “Amy Beddoes” in Suicide Squad. Even after the New 52 put Babs back in action as Batgirl, Killing Joke was still deemed to have happened, despite the rest of the Bat-timeline being compressed into five comic-book years. Eventually, as part of the “Batgirl of Burnside’s” final few issues, Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr set up a situation where TKJ could be seen plausibly as just a bad memory designed to weaken Barbara.

Regardless, DC hasn’t budged (perhaps because there’s a new TKJ animated movie) and the graphic novel remains in continuity. I could go on about the Bat-timeline (four Robins in five years!), but I want to get to a couple more characters given varying treatments by the New 52 and/or “Rebirth.”

* * *

First, Green Lantern; and specifically GL Hal Jordan. Generally speaking, Hal’s two big pre-Flashpoint milestones were a) Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “hard-traveling heroes” adventures with Green Arrow and Black Canary; and b) the “Emerald Twilight” fall from grace and subsequent redemption. Indeed, in Geoff Johns’ view of the character, the first led to the second, because when Green Arrow shook Hal’s self-confidence, that allowed the Parallax entity to influence his special emotional area. (I don’t know the technical term.)

As it happened, though, Johns shepherded Green Lantern from 2004 through 2013, including across the great Flashpoint divide. Not only was the series’ continuity supposedly protected from any reboot, it picked up where the pre-Flashpoint series left off. Thus, the same writer was continuing to tell the story he (apparently) wanted to tell about the same characters — which started with his lead character being revived (in Green Lantern: Rebirth) after having served as the host for the Spectre.

Let’s walk this back: Hal wouldn’t have been the Spectre if he hadn’t died. He died as Parallax, reigniting the Sun at the end of 1996’s Final Night miniseries. He became Parallax in 1994’s “Emerald Twilight” because the evil space-bug had gotten into his head over the years (actually in 1986’s Green Lantern Corps #224, but let’s move on); and as mentioned above, Parallax was able to get in because Hal doubted himself after talking to Green Arrow back in GL #76. Nevertheless, according to the New 52, Hal never took that trip with Green Arrow and might not have become the Spectre — so how’d he become Parallax? We may never know.

Again, though, Hal’s history invites us to ask about the continuing viability of the hard-traveling trip and “Emerald Twilight” (the latter of which, lest we forget, gave the world Kyle Rayner). Certainly the O’Neil/Adams stories might be reconfigured so that Hal has his consciousness expanded on his own, without Ollie or Dinah. Newer versions of John Stewart’s and Guy Gardner’s origins have done this, since they both depended originally on an O’Neil/Adams story. Likewise, while Hal might be able to live (as it were) without being the Spectre’s host, “Twilight” is probably still necessary for Kyle Rayner’s origin.

While older readers might see these examples as workarounds or continuity patches, others (including comics professionals) might prefer more up-to-date versions which can serve the needs of modern stories. It goes back to that tension I mentioned earlier.

Second, I’ll close today by talking about Barry “Flash” Allen. After dying in Crisis, Barry became the Patron Saint of the DC Universe and chief inspiration to his nephew and successor Wally West. For over 20 years that was pretty much it for Barry, outside of period pieces like Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s JLA: Year One or Waid’s use of him as a hero out of time in Wally’s Flash series. He was famous for making an heroic sacrifice … and then, in 2008, he was brought back. Wally was the main Flash for a little while longer, but Barry was in the spotlight in 2009’s Flash: Rebirth and 2010’s Blackest Night: The Flash miniseries. After that Barry was the star of the relaunched Flash series, which ended up leading into Flashpoint.

Naturally, the lightning-fast elephant in the room was the fact that Barry had been dead for several years’ worth of comic-book time; and all of his subsequent appearances at least acknowledged that event. Regardless, according to the New 52 timeline, Barry had never died. (Similarly, I don’t think there was ever a New 52 “Crisis,” but I’m not 100% sure about that.)

Now, though, the “Rebirthed” Flash series is starting to have Barry remember his old life, including his death in Crisis. This isn’t altogether surprising, since Barry remembers Wally’s Kid Flash career and other aspects of the pre-Flashpoint timeline. What’s curious to me is how Barry and Wally-Classic will deal with the “inevitability” of Barry’s death. If the Rebirth process will end with a blended timeline (as was the case post-Crisis), will Barry be a part of it going forward? Will Wally-Classic?

* * *

Accordingly, “how much old” remains an open question, at least until the parameters of “Rebirth” become clearer. The exact varieties of “old” also depend on the particulars of each character and the extent to which a particular milestone has been ingrained in that character’s history.

On a more practical level, though, DC can’t afford simply to satisfy only the longtime fans. While the older versions of Superman and Lois represent “the good old days” for some, for others they’re potentially a four-color learning curve. So far the various creative teams have emphasized how they’re fitting into the current DC Universe, as opposed to dwelling on past highlights. That’s an encouraging approach, because it helps hypothetical new and returning readers identify more with these characters. Supes and Lois are making new memories in a new setting, and so are the readers.

The post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint DC Universe used a similar approach as it grew and expanded over the course of 25 years. For the “Rebirthed” DC to continue that development, it will need that sort of forward motion, not just to keep its books fresh but to give its new readers developments they can call their own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *