I started collecting comic books in late 1984. The first series I collected was Green Lantern, which was a good intro to the wider DC Comics’ Universe. Five or six months into collecting it, DC launched the maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths which re-booted (though the term hadn’t been coined yet) the continuity of most DC titles, many of them starting back at issue number one. Characters like Superman and Wonder Woman were modernized/humanized while Batman got his edge back.
This week, DC announced they are trying this experiment again. Now back in 1985, the internet wasn’t there for people to freak out on. It’s a different story in 2011.
For those of you not familiar with comic book jargon, continuity in super hero books refers to the shared history between characters living in the same universe. The DC Universe is the place where the mainstream characters the company owns (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc) all exist.
Back when the DC Universe was first created, no one paid much attention to continuity. Sure Batman and Superman bumped into each other from time to time and the Justice Society of America gathered a multitude of characters under one roof but no one cared much if there were contradictions in who did what when. It was during the Silver Age (the late fifties through the early seventies) that it became something readers paid attention to, especially after Marvel made it a cornerstone of their books.
DC’s continuity breaks down as follows:
1938-1985: Original continuity, featuring the multiverse (a large number of parallel Earths with alternate histories). This is often referred to as pre-Crisis continuity.
1986-1994: Post crisis continuity. The multiverse is condensed into one universe. Characters are modernized and several long-running series are re-booted.
1994-2005: Post-post crisis continuity. The series Zero Hour tweaks the post crisis continuity to make up for inconsistencies.
2005-2011: Post-post-post crisis continuity. The series Infinite Crisis brings back the multiverse (now referred to as The 52, as it features 52 Earths). While this doesn’t lead to a trend of re-booting like the original crisis, books at DC slowly creep back to their Silver Age status quo as Superman’s flying dog returns, the wild Fifties Batman stories make their way back into his history, Barry Allen returns as The Flash, etc.
2011-?: Upcoming re-boot.
You might notice the length of time between resets keeps shrinking. Modern comic book readers are adults. Adults pay more attention to how the puzzle fits together than kids do. We notice facts like the Batman who exists now is only about five years older than when he was protecting President Reagan from the KGBeast (that’s right, the KGBeast). It’s also impossible for a multitude of creators working on a multitude of books to make all of their stories fit together perfectly. The “soft” reboots after the original Crisis were attempts to do that.
Keeping track of continuity through multiple Crises can get tiresome. Let’s say you’re a writer and you have a great idea for The Red Bee, a 1940s character who fought crime with trained bees. I didn’t make that up, by the way. So you pitch it to an editor and the book comes out and it’s a success. Problem is, your story takes place two years after the events in The Golden Age mini-series, where The Red Bee is killed. So your story “didn’t really happen.” After this verdict is laid down, someone else points out that The Golden Age was an “Elseworlds” book, taking place outside of continuity, so your story does make sense. The people with the original point of view contend events in Starman and JSA brought The Golden Age into the main continuity. And so on and so on.
Continuity is a big part of the fun of reading superhero books. It’s also an anchor weighing them down.
This is why I don’t care about the re-launch/boot/watchamacallit as much as many of the other fans. I love the complaints that washing out what’s happened until now makes what they’ve been reading “not matter.” As if the stories were real events now rendered meaningless. If you had fun reading them and still do, they matter.
The key issue is this: when continuity has gotten so thick it inhibits the creators’ abilities to tell good stories, you scrap the continuity. The most celebrated Superman book of the last ten years has been All Star Superman, where Grant Morrison was given free reign to tell stories with his ideal version of the character, free of the regular books’ continuity. Now I don’t know if the new books will hit that same level. I’m sure most of them won’t. The bottom line is DC’s lineup is getting tired and their sales are the proof. They had to do something to inject life into their characters again, as fun has been a missing element for some time now.
I hope they have the guts to really follow through on this. If some characters get re-launched and others stay the same, the doors are left open to cluttered attempts to reconcile the two (Hypertime!). All I care about is being entertained and if they can line up the right people to do that, I’m good.