We’re six months into Marvel’s post-Secret Wars comic book world and DC’s Rebirth has just begun, so I’d like to take a moment to talk about comic book reboots. They can get a bit tricky, but sometimes it’s necessary for companies like DC and Marvel to wipe the slate clean on characters with decades of back story and continuity issues. DC takes these opportunities to have huge events that rewrite whole realities, after which nothing will ever be the same! Marvel’s greatest reboot tool is denial. Marvel claims not to do reboots like Blockbuster claimed to eliminate late fees by renaming them restocking fees. Call it what you like, Marvel, restarting the numbering and story lines in your books every six months and ignoring continuity sound pretty rebooty to me. Statistically, a #1 issue sells exponentially better than any following issue because fans will buy it for collection and speculation purposes. This makes sense because, statistically, #1 issues are among the most valuable historically. However, Marvel was getting to a point where they were renumbering their books faster than they could be collected in trade paperbacks. This trend will hopefully end following their last non-reboot, Secret Wars, which we will get to in Part 2 of this article.
By the mid ’80’s, many characters had accumulated almost 50 years of stories created by dozens of writers who, frankly, were not respected or paid enough to care about maintaining continuity between hundreds of issues that, most likely, were not even available for them to read. That’s how we get discrepancies like Superboy existing only intermittently, Batgirl being Commissioner Gordon’s daughter—no, niece—no, adopted daughter—and Clark Kent’s mother being named “Mary” or “Sarah” in early stories, depending on who wrote them, which would have required Batman v. Superman to come up with an ending that made sense. In the early days of comics, the editors didn’t really care about these mistakes, because comics were for kids who didn’t ask that many questions. A new generation of children would be around every few years and there weren’t Internet forums for nerds to lampoon creators. However, by the late ’70’s and ’80’s, the stories had evolved and readership had shifted to an older audience, who had access to paper and stamps. Stamps were kind of like medieval, easily forged slobber-stickers for sending primitive e-mails written with sticks on dead trees that took days to get anywhere. Anyway, readers would send mail to comic companies pointing out these continuity errors and these letters would get printed in the back of issues. Marvel gave a coveted No-Prize (an empty envelope) to anyone who pointed out an error and successfully explained how it could be rationalized in the story. Well, in 1985, DC had had quite enough of these bitchy letters and decided to fix their historical inaccuracies once and for all.
The first major reboot in comics history came with Crisis on Infinite Earth, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Previously, many continuity errors had been explained away by placing stories in separate universes, compartmentalizing certain characters on Earth-2, Earth-X, or Earth-Prime, but even this had proven unsuccessful, as writers were using these Earth designations for stories without researching which Earths had which stories in them. DC’s solution was to create the Anti-Monitor, who attempts to destroy the multiverse, leaving the heroes to salvage what reality they can by collapsing every world and characters into a single universe. Redundant characters were killed off (Supergirl), replaced (Mon-El), or exiled, and the remaining heroes gained new back stories consistent with their most accepted versions. The Golden Age Superman and Lois Lane, Alexander Luthor (the son of Earth-3 Lex Luthor and Lois Lane), and Superboy of Earth-Prime are removed from reality and disinherited from in-universe continuity. This event also folded other DC owned properties like Charlton (Captain Atom and The Question) and Fawcett (Captain Marvel/Shazam) into the main universe. And to wrap things up in a neat little package, no one in the new universe can remember anything or anyone from pre-Crisis (except Psycho Pirate, but that’s unimportant). Problem solved! Commence with the back-patting and pass out the cigars! Right? Well, slow down, because in creating this brave and bold new world, editorial didn’t really oversee the changes going forward, so characters like Power Girl, Hawkman, Wonder Girl, and the Legion of Superheroes have conflicting and paradoxical back stories. Post-Crisis continuity is brittle, and it only gets messier in the ’90’s.
Enter: Zero Hour. If Crisis was what we refer to as a hard reboot, Zero Hour is the obligatory soft reboot follow-up to compensate for the issues that necessarily crop up following a universe changing event. The main plot of Zero Hour is that Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) has gone crazy following the destruction of Coast City, and become the entity Parallax. Parallax attempts to undo and remake reality as he sees fit, reversing all the horrible events of his past. The heroes stop him, but reality has been slightly altered in all the ways necessary to fix or maintain the story lines of characters that didn’t make any sense or contradicted themselves. This resulted in the compression of time, explaining why the Golden Age heroes were still alive and not over a hundred years old, having fought in World Wars and living through the Great Depression. All-in-all, Zero Hour was not well received, but it served as a Band-Aid for continuity until Infinite Crisis.
What is Infinite Crisis, you ask? Well, DC (and specifically Geoff Johns) decided that this one-universe-to-rule-them-all nonsense was never going to work. Any real oversight on several dozen monthly books that cross over constantly and are written and edited by a constantly changing staff is virtually impossible, and even if that much control were possible, it would hamstring creative teams, making them slaves to continuity instead of freeing them to create new and interesting stories. So, remember in the original Crisis when Golden Age Superman, Lois, Earth-3 Alexander Luthor, and Superboy Prime were exiled from reality for being plot nightmares? They’re bored and pissed. Lots of things happen in this series, but most importantly, they break out and Alexander Luthor revives several previously extinct worlds, trying to amalgamate them in order to remake reality in his singular vision. While the world’s heroes are trying to stop him, Superboy goes nuts and lashes out, eventually destroying the focal point of Alexander’s world manipulation, and essentially punching a hole in reality, causing these multiple universes to, yet again, collapse into one slightly altered “New Earth.” The immediate follow-up to Infinite Crisis is a series called, simply, 52. This was a weekly series that went on for a year of publication history which reveals that the finale of Infinite Crisis secretly created 52 separate worlds, restoring the multiverse to an editorially manageable number of earths.
Final Crisis, although bearing the “Crisis” tag, is not a reboot event and is very nearly unreadable, but it is writer Grant Morrison’s vehicle to show characters discovering the multiverse again and opening the door for future dimension-hopping shenanigans. Or, it would have been, if Flashpoint hadn’t come along and erased all of reality again. The (retconned) main history of Barry Allen (The Flash) involves his mother being murdered when Barry was young and his father being blamed for it and sent to prison. This results in Barry becoming a forensic scientist and being involved in the accident that gives him superhuman speed, which he uses to help save all of reality in Crisis on Infinite Earths at the cost of his life. The premise of Flashpoint is that Barry travels back in time to save his mother, and by doing this, alters the timeline so that the planet is locked in a World War between the Amazons and the Atlanteans. Bruce Wayne was killed in Crime Alley instead of his parents, which resulted in Thomas Wayne becoming Batman and Martha Wayne turning into the Joker. Instead of the Kents finding Kal-El, the government obtained Superman as a baby and has kept him locked in a bunker away from the sun for his entire life, and therefore powerless. Barry realizes that in order to put things right, he must go back in time and allow his mother to be killed, which he heartbreakingly does. When he gets back to his own time, everything is close to normal, but slightly altered…
This leads into the largest reboot in the history of comics. Dubbed The New 52, this was a company-wide relaunch of every single title—52 series, all starting at issue #1, including the Superman and Batman titles. The premise was that the superhero community had been superheroing for about 5 years. The idea was for a fresh jumping on point for new readers without retelling another mind-numbing origin story, and also to distill convoluted back stories into a coherent canon. Editorial mandated that no one could be over 29 years old, married, or have trunks as part of their costumes (underwear on the outside), but they didn’t outline much of anything else. The major issue created here is that writers didn’t know which parts of each character’s history remained intact. For instance, Dan Jurgens, who wrote and penciled both The Death and Return of Superman in the ’90’s, and also Superman in the New 52, was not told whether or not The Death of Superman was still canon, which makes it difficult to write a book that involves characters like Doomsday, Hank Henshaw, Superboy (Kon-El), and Steel, who exist primarily as a result of that story. Wally West (the third Flash) was eliminated entirely from the Flash books, despite his being the Flash for almost 20 years in the pre-New 52 continuity. Batman has militants fans of his rich history and strong supporting cast, so his continuity was kept almost entirely intact. However, now writers have to explain why there are four Robins and one of them is Bruce Wayne’s 10-year-old son whom he conceived as Batman. This necessitated editorial to state that Batman had been operating for 10 years, making him older and more seasoned than his Justice League companions. Barbara Gordon’s spine also received a reboot, placing her in the role of Batgirl after her 20+ year hiatus. Martian Manhunter was eliminated from the founding members of the Justice League and replaced by Cyborg. DC-owned imprints Wildstorm and Vertigo were also absorbed into main DC continuity, placing characters like John Constantine, Swamp Thing, and Grifter alongside the capes and tights.
The New 52 has received criticism from longtime comic book fans and continuity buffs, but it did what DC wanted it to do, which was refresh their line and bring new readers into the fold. They introduced their Earth One titles to tell alternate stories of Batman, Superman, Teen Titans, and, most recently, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Aquaman, but for the most part, DC had eliminated the multiverse. That is, until Grant Morrison’s Multiversity. Without going into the same painstaking effort that Morrison put into the series, Multiversity can be explained as an encyclopedia of the 52 worlds that came out of the 52 series. Fans were excited at the prospect of, yet again, having a multiverse. Morrison is a master storyteller and comics history fountain of knowledge, so the craftsmanship of this proposed new multiverse is incredibly detailed and was handed to DC on a silver platter. Instead of taking advantage of this universal bible, DC decided to ignore it to do a series called Convergence, which I will not attempt to explain because it is terrible. The salient point is that Convergence, again, opens up the multiverse, albeit a different and much less coherent version than Morrison’s. This story was basically a stop-gap while DC moved its office from New York to California.
This bring us to Rebirth—DC’s latest attempt to reboot and refresh their titles. To recap, after the series 52, DC introduced The New 52, which started as 52 ongoing issues, and the ones that have survived this long have all just ended with issue #52. So, Rebirth will kick off with the release of how many ongoing series? You guessed it! 31. Wait…what? DC’s love affair with the number 52 is finally over, but I imagine there will be a few summertime booty calls when the chips are down. DC has stated that this is not a reboot, but a return to their roots. Rebirth will focus on story over continuity and allow creators to explore different aspects of characters without as much restriction as The New 52. Several costumes will be redesigned, taking the ridiculously over-textured styles down a notch. Technology is not always a friend of art, and it should be used sparingly. The New 52 costumes were rendered within an inch of their lives, with a plethora unnecessary lines and more light sources than a movie set. Rebirth will also see a return of some pre-New 52 characters. Action Comics will put pre-New 52 Superman alongside the current Clark Kent. There will also be several more team/ensemble books in a move to eliminate having two dozens solo books that don’t sell, and allowing stories to be more varied with a larger cast of characters from which to mine. Their main titles will be shipped twice a month instead of monthly, but they will have a $2.99 cover price, as opposed to the pre-Rebirth price of $3.99-$4.99. All of the titles will start over with issue #1 except Action Comics and Detective Comics, which will revert to their original numbering in an attempt to break the 1000 issue barrier. Time will tell whether this will be a successful move on DC’s part, but as a fan, I think it’s a move in the right direction.
And with that, we are up-to-date in the DC Universe. I realize that is a lot to digest, so we’ll save the rest for next week, when we will be discussing Marvel and why they consider “reboot” to be a four-letter word. Until then, go read some comics!