DCnU: The Coming of The Anti-Crisis! Continuity's Last Stand (5)

(DCnU Continuity Series:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)

The end is nigh! The skies have turned red! Worlds will live! Worlds will die! Nothing will ever be the same again!

No, it's not another post about Crisis on Infinite Earths, which I covered two entries ago. It's true, it keeps popping up, and with very good reason. No, this is the fifth and, swear-to-God, final part of my discussion of continuity in comic books prior to the midnight launch of DC Comics' "New 52" initiative with the one-two punch of Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1. Herein, I'm going to try my best to tie together all the disparate ideas I've brought up in previous sections. If you need a refresher course before we begin, well, that's what the links at the top of the page are for!

Before we pick up where we left off, I figured I'd state, as you've probably heard elsewhere, that the initial orders for DC's "New 52" are in and they are very high. SpecificallyJustice League #1 appears to have pre-orders in excess of 200,000 copies, and six other titles have pre-orders in excess of 100,000. This appears to be encouraging news for the relaunch event. My opinion? Wait six months, take a look at sales figures across the line. Then we'll talk "success" or "failure." (And then we'd probably also be talking "Marvel Relaunch," but as yet, that's neither here nor there...)

In part four, I reviewed a key issue plaguing the industry, and one that's become increasingly tied to the concept of an overall continuity: the proliferation of the "event comic," which began in the early eighties in such series as Marvel's Contest of Champions in 1982 (thought I forgot about that one, huh?) and in earnest with DC's--yes, here it is again--Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. As the years passed, the concept of doing some large event involving multiple heroes combating some larger threat became all but inextricably linked to the larger continuity, of bringing up elements from past stories. Some were meant as homages, like Marvels, while others like the Spider-Man "Clone Saga" were meant to conjure a grander mythology rooted in the past, akin to what was being done on television at the time with Fox's The X-Files. Many were editorially-driven, or even fostered at higher levels, to produce more riches for people like Marvel's then-owner, Ronald Perelman.

After the speculator boom went bust in the mid-nineties, events such as Zero Hour and The Infinity Gauntlet fell out of favor. Artist Joe Quesada, whose ironically-named-in-retrospect Event Comics had been outsourced the newly-minted "Marvel Knights" label, became Marvel's editor-in-chief in 2000. With company president Bill Jemas, he overhauled the entire line and established a four-year period with minimal crossovers. If there were events that united disparate parts of the Marvel Universe, they were in a series of their own, like Jim Starlin's Marvel Universe: The End and Infinity Abyss, or in a regular title, like Kurt Busiek's "Kang War" in Avengers. The events of the past would seem to be quite dead in favor of a more "new reader friendly" mentality that brought the company back from bankruptcy.

When Jemas left the company in 2004, Quesada must have remembered the name of his former company (the one that produced Ash and Painkiller Jane--oh, what modern-day classics everyone remembers) and events returned with a tragic vengeance. Today, it's not unusual to see three or four events occurring in the Marvel line at one time. Right now, "Spider-Island" is occurring in Amazing Spider-Man and related series and one-shots; the X-Men are going through a Schism; and everything that remains, mostly in the Avengers' corner, is at the mercy of Fear Itself. Take a look at the average month's output from Marvel, and you'll see it's an amazingly incestuous grouping. Twenty-four tie-ins to Fear Itself, eleven to "Spider-Island," and just a couple to Schism, all in the month of September.

It's hardly been any better down the street at DC, where for the last three months, the fallout from the latest crossover event, Flashpoint, has effected a record number of spinoff miniseries to tell all the extra stories in that particular "alternate-universe" story. I nearly choked while drinking a glass of milk as I looked at the double-page spread in the first issue with a checklist of the first two month's crossovers. May: two books. June: twenty-two books! (Twenty of them were the all-important, collector's-item first issues.) They decided to take it easy on poor readers the final two months, with only eighteen books in July and nineteen in August. Keep in mind, too, that this spate of new issues was released in addition to all of the books that DC regularly published, so as to not disturb those series' ongoing--er, hastily-concluding storylines.

They tell us that all of the crossovers outside of the main series aren't essential. However, if you've been following this blog, you've seen commentators like Jay Boaz say that's not precisely true, particularly in the case of discovering Loki's motivations during Marvel's Siege event that all but required fans to purchase the Siege: Loki tie-in. I've also ranted about how Marvel's Fear Itself is not written straightforwardly but rather in such a way that it directs fans to other series that are really the only way they'll even see a few of the members of the villainous ad hoc team called "The Worthy." (Not all of the members were shown obtaining their hammers in the main series, and the appearances of some in the main title have been scarce at best.) Flashpoint is a little bit better at this, but really, just take a look at how many series are out there and it's easy to see DC doesn't want you to buy "just" the core event miniseries. If they did, why publish the rest?

Most intriguing is that, outside of the uber-event called Flashpoint, DC seems to be actively attempting to distance themselves from a tightly-knit continuity, but using just that device in order to get there. Meanwhile, Marvel's new editor-in-chief Axel Alonso and his staff continue to push the idea that continuity is not only a good thing, that it's what the readers want to see. And I think to myself, when so many of Marvel's titles are now $3.99, which amounts to 1.53% of a minimum wage earner's weekly paycheck (computations derived from Von Allan's brilliant article about why the average person isn't buying comics for themselves or their kids)...is that what fans really want? Or is Marvel Comics just completely out of touch with the current economy that they want to take their fans' last dimes? What's more likely, a fan spending beyond his means to get every part of Fear Itself, or the fan looking at the number of books, looking at his budget, and saying screw it all, he's quitting comics altogether because everything's just too tied together for anyone to get one coherent narrative from one title? If you ask me, there's been far, far too much of answer "B" over the last several years that explains the very reason most of Marvel's line currently costs $3.99!

Another detail that has been glossed over in recent times is that both Marvel and DC have in fact been hard at work at "rebooting" their characters on a nigh-annual basis. If you don't believe me, take a look at Spider-Man. In Civil War he unmasked, then they kept that status quo only through "Back in Black" before clearing the decks with "One More Day," which led to the two-year-plus "Brand New Day" with its whirlwind of creative teams before one writer emerged with an altogether different status quo in "Big Time." At DC, the Flash has had more changes, with Wally West being retired during Infinite Crisis in favor of Bart Allen, who lasted all of a year before he was replaced, again, with Wally, who lasted another year-plus before the powers-that-be decided to return the previous Flash, Barry Allen, who then zigzagged around a few short series before Flashpoint hit, at which point he'll again be changed in various ways. And to use my dear old favorite character, the Hulk, after Bruce Jones crashed and burned, Peter David came in for a year, then was replaced by Greg Pak, who told a story on an alien world for a year before Greenskin returned to Earth for a big event. After that event he went away and Marvel replaced him with a Red Hulk, who remained in the spotlight for a year before the real Hulk was depowered and Banner spent nearly a year in a separate book helping to train his own son, after which for the last year Hulk's been cavorting around with a group of gamma-enhanced beings. And in October, Banner and Hulk will separate and all traces of the previous status quo will disappear. Anyone else getting whiplash?

It's like the big companies have too much happening, and that no sooner do they introduce a new status quo, than something else happens and they must abandon those elements before they have a chance to fully explore them. Sometimes it's sales-related, or sometimes it's just that seventeen different writers have dibs on a single character and they take turns pulling rank. Frankly, it's depressing and confusing.

Similarly confusing--and getting back to my key point about continuity--is Marvel's practice in recent years of splitting up their product lines and essentially cannibalizing their base. Under the guise of "providing something for everyone," they have introduced, at first, multiple Spider-Man and X-Men titles in the same universe, and then they did themselves one better by launching alternate continuities. There's the one that started it all, the Ultimate Marvel Universe, which as of this week will be home to a new, multiracial Spider-Man in the wake of Ultimate Peter Parker's death. (In this way, Marvel could have all the publicity associated with killing their most popular hero and replacing him with a minority while keeping "Joe Public" ignorant that the traditional Spider-Man was alive and well.)

There's also the "Marvel Age/Marvel Adventures" Spider-Man in a specially-designated "kids' line" of comics where every issue must be a standalone story. I could say a lot about the concept of a separate line of Marvel comics aimed at kids--it's probably a whole other article. (Although, well, I kinda like Sophia "Chat" Sanduval. We'll leave it there.) Right now I'll just say that I didn't need a kids' line of comics when growing up. I read Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four and many more at a tender age. I may not have understood every last nuance or every bit of subtext, but reading those stories, I feel, helped me reach higher and ultimately helped me in the long run. Establishing a separate line just for kids doesn't do them any favors and in fact shows a marked lack of respect toward the younger generation. Doesn't anyone remember comics, the mainstream monthly ones, were once for kids? (DC, by contrast, has their "DC Kids" line established with many Warner cartoon properties, including whatever DC animated series is currently airing. Hardly the same thing, although yes, they're dabbling with the "Earth One" series of original graphic novels.)

What's the theory behind a "kids' line," anyway? Is it that things have been going on for too long in the mainstream comics universe that it would be impossible for a child to grasp the history? That they should prefer a purified, simplified version of a character's history? Refer to the points above.

It's true that Marvel Comics in particular has done a number of things, mainly early in the company's renewed existence in the sixties, that violated established yet unspoken rules about characters in ongoing fictional series. They allowed the teenage Peter Parker to graduate high school, proceed through college, and get married. Reed Richards and Sue Storm married and had two children. Even Bruce Banner married Betty Ross, who herself became a divorcee over the intervening years. These steps aged the characters, some might say in so doing alienating the younger fanbase. Heck, Marvel editorial interfered in Peter David's tale in which Betty Banner was to give birth, instead having her suffer a miscarriage. (Later, of course, new editor-in-chief Joe Quesada would enthusiastically endorse Greg Pak's plan for the Hulk to have, essentially, an adult son in Skaar, in the aftermath of World War Hulk.)

Oddly, Marvel had it both ways for the longest time in keeping Peter Parker in his adolescent role as a photographer instead of exploiting his scientific aptitudes. Being a photographer has almost become as much a part of Peter's identity as is being Spider-Man. However, it seems he's finally doing a little growing up in Dan Slott's "Big Time." We'll see how long that lasts; it's hard fighting nearly fifty years of continuity.

Over the years, Franklin Richards, Reed and Sue's first child, would have an especially problematic history, shown at different ages at different points, and even temporarily aged to adulthood at one point! Although the Richards children reinforce the "family" status of the Fantastic Four, many of the other dramatic changes to characters have been undone, such as Spider-Man and the Hulk's non-divorce divorces. (Once, there was a plan for Spider-Man to again become a teenager under Howard Mackie & John Byrne. Thank goodness Marvel didn't go that far.) By this reasoning, it's only a matter of time until Marvel edits out Skaar, likely by killing him so nobody ever references him again. That's just the way it goes.

All of the above finally brings me to my grand statement about Flashpoint and the "New 52" initiative. It's interesting that what we've got is the marriage of one of the most complex and intrusive narrative devices in all of so-called "event" comics with sixty-one related comics over four months (or to make it appear as drastic as it is: fifty-nine books over three months), all set as prelude to a different kind of event, one not tied together with one overarching story but instead of a line-wide relaunch of characters and concepts.

Like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Flashpoint aims to reboot continuity, to simplify and streamline elements from seventy-six years of ongoing adventures. What Marv Wolfman was unsuccessful at, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee have succeeded in doing: namely, relaunching all titles under the main DC Universe umbrella with a new first issue. Although not necessarily relaunched from word one, DC has stated their intent to begin each series at an easily-accessible point. In this way and a few others, I consider Flashpoint to be most appropriately labeled an "Anti-Crisis," doing in reverse much of what the original eighties Crisis did.

Follow me here...

Two titles--Justice League and Action Comics--will both begin five years in the past, establishing new origins for the League and for Superman, respectively. With the seventh issues of those series, and the first issues of all the rest, storytellers will pick up as if the first superheroes were introduced only five years ago. Certain events will remain canonical--that is, they will still "count"--and I'd guess that they'd be the most popular storylines readily available in graphic novel collections. The stated aim is that DC wants their heroes to not seem as experienced, to be earlier in their respective careers, so they might actually risk failure.

Except in a very few cases (mainly the Batman and Green Lantern series of titles, both best-sellers prior to September), continuity will be radically changed and/or simplified. Superman's parents will both be dead, and his marriage to Lois Lane will be no more. Firestorm's component halves, Ron Raymond and Jason Rusch, will both be high school students (whereas originally Ron was a few years older than Jason, and both had graduated high school). There will as yet be no Wally West. And most strikingly, since DC announced these new heroes will be the first generation of such characters, that statement signals a substantial change, for it means the Justice Society of America must undergo a major change if they return. Last weekend at this year's FanExpo Canada, we learned just what that change was: the return of Earth-2 as a home for the earlier generation of superheroes! (Could Earth-2 be just a harbinger of alternate Earths to come?)

I'm disheartened at one major detail I haven't heard much about in the "New 52": namely, while there are 52 books out there, there's not a truly original character, team, or concept in the bunch. Even the most "original" of the group, Batwing, is predicated wholly on the existing concept of Batman. Now, really, couldn't DC have produced some original concepts that don't hinge on existing corners of their universe for the grand relaunch? Or are they out of good, new ideas? Maybe Alan Moore's right and maybe we're just retreading everything that came before ad nauseam. In which case, I say: BAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRF.

Time will tell if DC is truly successful in establishing a successful relaunch of their line and if they are able to sustain sales and reverse the trends that placed Marvel ahead of them in sales on a regular basis since the early seventies. I think the new line's success will be heavily impacted based on whether DC decides to keep having large-scale events that link the titles together. (I'm not the only one who feels this way.) Keeping the books largely unconnected and running their own storylines independent of each other would set DC clearly apart from Marvel. It'd be a battle of ideology between those who believe series should be deeply interdependent and those who believe each series should stand on its own merits. (The ideological split seems fait accompli when you ask: When's the last time DC published a "Who's Who"? When's the last time Marvel published one of their "Official Handbooks"? I rest my case.) With "event fatigue" setting in heavily down the street, I don't think I have to tell you--and it breaks my heart to say this, being a lifelong Marvel Zombie--who I'd be rooting for. (If for no other reason than it might cause my favorite company to extricate their heads from their posteriors.)

My other sincere hope is that this is the last storyline we'll ever see from DC that directly emphasizes continuity. Flashpoint was odd in that Geoff Johns & co. created a second, twisted timeline in order to facilitate a finished third timeline--heck, a whole other multiverse, if Earth-2 is any indication. It's like they had to stress how bad things could get before they settled on a happy medium! It may be too much to hope for, but I've certainly had enough of relaunches and the umpteenth attempt at retelling the origin of, say, Superman. The best continuity I can wish for in the "New 52" is akin to architect Grant Morrison's view, what he has called "super-consistency": a fidelity of the core concepts that make the characters and their accompanying situations work. Keep the same elements everyone's familiar with, but at the same time, not be slavish to every little story that's been published over eight decades. If the ongoing adventures are faithful to the spirit of the characters and entertaining in general, those two qualities go a long way toward overcoming any lapses in continuity.

With DC all but doing away with the ongoing continuities of its characters, I have to ask: can ongoing numbering schemes be far behind? Marvel is already using a variation of this idea in relaunching key series every time a creative team turns over. We've seen it with Iron Man, we've seen it with Thor and Captain America, and now we're seeing it again in coming months with Incredible Hulk and various X-Men series. What if DC decides to abandon long-running numbering schemes in favor of relaunching, either as creative teams change, or as major storylines change, or even just once a year, in the way that television shows change seasons? It's an idea some others have had, but I think it has some merit in the current sales climate, even if I disagree fundamentally with the idea of constant relaunches. (I much prefer to see a book with a high numbering scheme as it denotes a sense of history, but alas, I appear to be in the minority here.)

Over the years, fans of superhero comics have become indoctrinated to the pitfalls of continuity. When they see several events happening at one comics company at the same time, the first question asked is often "How do these things fit together?" (Take a look at some of Comic Book Resources' threads discussing what order events such as Siege, World War Hulks & other stories fit together. Or don't.) It'd be nice if the companies simplified continuity, untangled events so fans didn't have to concern themselves with how everything fit together. And maybe DC's "New 52" and this "Anti-Crisis" is the first step along that path. Truly, fans should think less about what stories fit in DC's new five-year plan, and more about just fondly remembering the stories they enjoyed, and forgetting the stories they didn't.

Bottom line: If you liked the original story, then for you, it happened. And if that fact alone doesn't allow you a sound night's sleep (or day, for the vampires in the crowd), then get in the Mark Gruenwald Omniverse frame of mind. There's gotta be a DC Universe somewhere out there where Flashpoint never happened. And maybe, just maybe, DC will return to that universe one day. But if not...!

To paraphrase MST3K: "Just repeat to yourself it's just a comic; I should really just relax."


(DCnU Continuity Series:  Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5)


  1. Great article in a great seies Gary, I've enjoyed it.

    As a reader I have definitely hit Event Fatigue. I'm a huge Thor fan and I can't even bring myself to buy Fear Itself, I've been let down by too many events. I much prefer more insular titles now, like Captain America and Alpha Flight (yes, it's crossing over, but I cannot imagine it is pivotal to Fear Itself at all...and I will buy anything Alpha).

    I think that the comics companies should look at a volume system instead of doing these constant renumberings that confuse readers new and old alike. I have a whole post at my blog dedicated to this subject at http://doeswhateveracomicsblogcan.blogspot.com/2011/08/did-anyone-get-number-of-that-book.html, check it out if you're interested.

  2. "What's the theory behind a 'kids' line,' anyway? Is it that things have been going on for too long in the mainstream comics universe that it would be impossible for a child to grasp the history? That they should prefer a purified, simplified version of a character's history?"

    hmm i believe the theory is to sell more comics. nothing to do with a child's grasp of entangled continuity(ies?). more to the point: suburban baby-boomers with higher and higher disposable incomes in the 70s and 80s had kids of their own (our "generation" if you will) which led to "kids" like me buying millions of comics during the 80s/boom years 90s. that generation, in turn, grew up and the themes in comics generally grew up with them. no way would i let my son read a quarter, much less half, of the mainstream titles out there today. tits/ass/exploding heads. there was plenty of that in the old days but now it's far more prevalent. it's different when you have children of your own. i can't wait to introduce my son to comics, and it'll be through a kid's line if one still exists in a few years. chrs again for a great read! -p.h.

  3. Of course it's about money, P.H. I think it's rather ridiculous that comics "grew up" with readers in the eighties and nineties. Now, to my mind, what replaced the Comics Code Authority, these ratings a la the ESRB, are bogus. It used to be that with the exception of the fringe imprints like Vertigo and Epic, comics were presumed to be all-ages, or at least aimed at early teens. I mentioned that I read comics from an early age, and I had my first subscriptions at the age of five. Sure, the subject matter was above my head, but I grew into it and I can't say I enjoyed the books any less because there were things I may not have immediately understood. My parents also fostered my desire to learn and understand and for that I thank them. (They weren't comic readers, FYI.)

    I'm disheartened when I see that a mainstream book like Amazing Spider-Man is rated "T+," meaning per Marvel's definition, it's suitable only for teens or those aged 13-up. There are very few books that are rated "A" or "All Ages" anymore, and those that are are often part of the "Marvel Adventures" line.

    I wish rising circulation figures were as easy as consolidating all the multiple product lines and over-diversification of the mainstream titles. It seems the idea that Marvel and DC both have to glut the market (and Marvel in particular!) is an idea from Ron Perelman's seizure of Marvel in the late eighties that never let go. (The rapid expansion is one of the reasons most often cited for the industry's collapse and Marvel's bankruptcy.) Of course, sales on one particular series just don't increase overnight, and there is the consideration that when you once had four books and now you have one, that means up to three writers, three artists, three colorists, and three letterers are out of work. (Often colorists and letterers work on more than one book, as do writers.) It's very, very difficult to recork the bottle and trap the genie anew because there are all sorts of economic considerations.


  4. Now, then, @CBL1978 from Twitter opined: "I'm in the camp that likes stories to matter." I'm inclined to answer here...

    Continuity by definition is unsustainable in the sense that most people obsessing over it desire precisely because not all writers at the Big Two are similarly obsessed, and not every writer wants to do their homework to that heightened degree.

    I think that erasing Superman's marriage to Lois absolutely sucks--because for God's sake, they chased after each other for decades before this happened, so all it means is they'll fall back into the same tropes as before, with a new "21st Century" sensibility. At the same time, see my point about marriage and children aging the characters beyond their intended audience.

    The core issue is that never before in the history of culture has there been a group of characters like Marvel's and DC's who have continued to be published in new stories while their creators have died or moved on to other projects. They're corporate constructs and the corporations are now their custodians, which means they have to find ways to keep them in the public consciousness day in and out. That flies in the face of traditional continuity constructs like topical references about who's the President, or what the weather's like, or when a character's birthday is. Marriage and children mark time, and for timeless characters, that's a no-no. It's a big reason why there's appeal in the "illusion of change, but no actual change" argument. It's why there's a revolving door of death and resurrection. It's why Age of Apocalypse era Nightcrawler will do in a pinch since they killed "our" Kurt Wagner.

    So what does it mean that you like "stories to matter"? Do you want characters to marry, have children, die? Today, events all blend together anyway. With the heightened sense of drama that each new event creates, the "nothing will ever be the same again" mentality, it's easy to become numb to the changes. And then nothing matters. So which is better?

    Take a look at "The Simpsons" or the James Bond films for standout examples of how to do consistency over continuity. (Is there anyone in public clamoring for Bart, Lisa and Maggie to grow up?) Consistency is easier to maintain over shared universes that are nearly eight decades old. To emphasize continuity after such a prolonged period doesn't make any sense because sooner or later you have to come up with elaborate explanations about compressed timelines (the "four-year rule" at Marvel, as an example, or DC's new "everything happened in 5 years" rule), alternate dimensions, rapid aging, etc. You get the question why, if Peter Parker is so smart, he doesn't just get a job using his science skills instead of taking pictures for J. Jonah. And sooner or later the only answer becomes a reboot...which only draws more continuity-obsessed people back to complain. And there we get back to the fidelity of the fictional construct.


  5. good comments gary and it's obvious that stories, if not continuities, matter to you too. agree in part with your lament about the ratings, T+ for spidey. i learned a lot of vocabulary from comics, reaching above your level as i believe you called it. i remember i used mispronounce words because i'd never heard them spoken (debris i didn't know had a silent S - my parents weren't comics readers either but my dad helped me out on that one).

    however, i was 13 or 14 reading "kraven's last hunt", basically the perfect age. that last shot(!) in the story has left an indelible mark - so i guess, from a personal standpoint (duhh), there's something to be said for mature themes for those on the cusp of adulthood. in retrospect i'm glad i'd seen some suggestive/mature things in comics before i'd seen them on tv or in movies. innocence was perhaps preserved that bit longer - in part i imagine because the central character was mythologically "good" and incorruptible, and had decades of heroic continuity behind him to prove it (whereas seeing a shotgun blast to the head in an 80s action flick while 'awesome', would've been more meaningless, disposable, confusing to my developing brain).

    with regard to continuity slavery, grant morrison's comment that you'd quoted sums it up best. guy's a bloody genius. thanks again, p.h.


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