9.8.11

DCnU: Obsessive Continuity Disorder (2)
(How 'Crisis' Changed Everything)

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

Continuing the fifth in a series of articles inspired by DC Comics' September relaunch, we return to a discussion of the perils of continuity on comics. Last time, I analyzed DC's accidental creation of their own multiverse, and Marvel's considered development of their own, as well as fans' creation of the umbrella term "omniverse." This time out, we emphasize one company's decision to scale back their own multiverse.


Before I go too deeply, I really have to say I owe both the extended break I've had since writing the first section of this series--and the additional insights I believe I've gleaned--to a few books any self-respecting comic book fan owes it to him or herself to pick up. Do yourself a favor and track down Grant Morrison's Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Krypton Can Teach Us About Being Human (Spiegel & Grau, $28USD) for an excellent overview of the history, in-world and out, of the comics medium courtesy of one of its very finest writers. The other books are out-of-print, and were never really all that well-circulated to begin with. Mark Gruenwald's Omniverse fanzine, in only two volumes released in 1977 and 1979, is known more by reputation than by anyone in current comics culture having actually read them. Read them I have, and impart to you their lessons I must, and good God, beginning to speak just like Yoda I am, rrrr! Somebody stop me!

While I'm at it, if anybody out there has the text of Gruenwald's 1976 opus A Treatise on Reality in Comic Literature, or the follow-up co-written by Myron Gruenwald A Primer on Reality in Comic Books, hit me up with a message to delusionalhonesty [at] gmail [dot] com, willya? The former--not Omniverse as alluded in my last post--was where the "omniverse" term was first coined. Muchas gracias!


Now then: Omniverse expanded on trends established by Marvel during the 1960s when they created their "shared universe" brought together by close continuity between their titles. Little things happened at first, like Spider-Man wanting to join the Fantastic Four, or the FF being recruited by General Ross to take down the Hulk. The introduction of Rama-Tut, followed by Kang, followed in turn by Immortus and even the Scarlet Centurion established a complex, unifying continuity whereby all ended up being variant versions of the same being! The folks at Marvel were experts at bringing disparate bits of continuity up as catalysts for interesting stories.

For the longest time, DC struggled to keep up with Marvel's "new" way of telling stories. In the sixties, not seeing Marvel as much of a threat, they stayed "continuity-light," with one story not mattering much in context of the next. The important things stayed the same: Superman was still from the planet Krypton (although not so much the "sole survivor"), and Batman's parents were murdered in Crime Alley, but it didn't matter that last month everyone in Metropolis was turned into Bizarros, or that Batman turned into a giant, King Kong-like creature and terrorized Gotham.


Eventually, DC seemed quaint in light of Marvel's bold approach to an ongoing continuity, and bit by bit they started coming around. Green Lantern & Green Arrow was a step in the right direction, and Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' renovated Batman was another. Those successes still couldn't stop Marvel from becoming #1 above DC in the early seventies. Still, instead of slavishly echoing the kind of continuity that made Marvel successful, DC seemed to emphasize their multiple continuities, with books like Batman Family focusing on Batmen and Robins and Catwomen from across the multiverse, and Superman Family shedding light on Kryptonians. They birthed the first Huntress, they birthed Duela Dent, they carried on adventures of the elder "Mr. and Mrs. Superman."

Then, somebody over at DC evidently noticed Gruenwald & co.'s repeated postulations regarding alternate realities in Omniverse. In the first issue alone, the fans treated DC's icons in their multiple continuities more seriously than the company itself had ever dared do, concluding the existence of a third generation of Superman and Batman in between the two extant versions--a "World's Finest" duo (the appellation coming from their sharing one of DC's longest-running series) who had "super-sons" who were teens in the seventies, who didn't fit with either generation already out there. Somewhere out there, somebody got worried that DC's multiple continuities were growing too complex.


Meanwhile, Gruenwald took up a staff position down the street at Marvel, where he edited some books and wrote others--some of which even starred those analogues of DC's own Justice League, the Squadron Supreme. One of his earliest successes at conveying his unique ideology in the Marvel system is Marvel Two-In-One #50, a tale written and drawn by John Byrne wherein the Thing cures his past self, and in so doing creates a divergent timeline instead of curing himself in the present. In general, Gruenwald posited that major events led to crossroads in reality, where new realities were created that explored each path of divergence. Time travel could cause divergence, such as in the MTIO example, but also there were divergences the like of which were seen in What If...? regularly.

While Marvel kept rolling forward with Gruenwald's revolutionary theories, down the street at DC writer Marv Wolfman was plotting to implode it all. And when Gruenwald's brainchild, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, debuted in 1982, DC followed in late 1984 with Who's Who in the DC Universe. Meanwhile, Wolfman and artist George Perez, who'd renovated DC's teen characters in The New Teen Titans in 1980, started work on a series that would, for better or worse, bring continuity to the forefront and pave the way for everything else that's been published since. In 1985, the year of DC's fiftieth anniversary, the twelve-issue Crisis on Infinite Earths was published. And nothing in comics would be the same again.


Wolfman's Crisis one-upped Marvel's newly-created "everybody versus the big bad" event series (1984's Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars) by applying several bits of DC continuity in the mix, including Krona's inadvertent creation of the DC Multiverse in Green Lantern #40 and all the various storylines with a "Crisis" moniker over the previous two decades, including "Crisis on Earth-Two," "Crisis on Earth-Three," et al. The company took the series as an initiative to renovate what management saw as a convoluted continuity, and set about showing what a convoluted continuity it was by giving art duties to the most detail-oriented artist in the business, who loved jamming in tens of characters in every panel, and concocting a storyline that featured--no kidding--virtually every major and minor character to ever have been featured in any DC Comic ever published. It was like Wolfman and Perez were screaming, "See? See how complicated it all is? See how many characters we're jamming into every issue? We have to clean all this shit up, right? See! Are we right or are we right?"

Of course, I don't really think DC proved anything of the sort regarding the Multiverse. Even Grant Morrison in Supergods stated Crisis "began...as an elegiac continuity audit made to purge all story meat that was seen as too strong for the tender palates of an imagined new generation who would need believable and grounded hero books. There were complaints that the parallel-worlds system was too unwieldy and hard to understand, when in fact it was systematic, logical, and incredibly easy to navigate, particularly for young minds that were made for this kind of careful categorization of facts and figures." DC refuted the very concept of the multiverse as Gruenwald had defined it, with the end result of Crisis that virtually all of the "infinite Earths" (someone do the math, quick!) were destroyed, and bits and pieces of the five Earths that remained congealed into one Earth and one Earth only. This one Earth represented the entire post-Crisis DC Universe continuity in all its plain, vanilla glory.


And then, with a few notable exceptions, DC's spate of regular series went on and on. Oh, sure, a few titles were canceled, but mostly it was business as usual. Originally I've heard the intent was to relaunch every DC title with a new #1, similar to what they're doing next month after the finale of Flashpoint, but they couldn't make it work logistically. Instead, Superman and Wonder Woman enjoyed relaunches under superstar talents John Byrne and George Perez, respectively. Wally West took on the role of the Flash in the wake of his predecessor Barry Allen's demise. Batman's origin was renovated by Frank Miller a bit later, and Justice League of America was relaunched with a new team (as if there'd never been a league in the first place).

Without a solid coordinated effort, several continuity gaffes arose in a short amount of time, particularly surrounding characters like Hawkman and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Superman made critical "post-Crisis" appearances before Byrne's Man of Steel relaunched the character--and the series was to have been the formal introduction of the character in the new continuity. In addition, the Legion of Super-Heroes created a big problem just by existing, as they'd palled with Superboy back in the day. Problem was, Clark Kent never became Superboy in post-Crisis history! Oops. (So then, DC created a "pocket universe" to solve the issue--tantamount to invalidating their own "one universe only" rule. Double oops.)

Even more interestingly, a company that was so adamant about telling stories only set in one universe soon published a few stories clearly set outside that universe--and all the better for it. Yes, friends, I'm talking about Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen.

Make of that what you will.


In spite of apparently doing away with the Multiverse, the plain fact behind Crisis on Infinite Earths was that Marvel's cultivated attitude toward continuity finally pervaded DC. Everything had to be connected, simplified and pre-categorized in guides like Who's Who to appease fans also immersed in role playing game lore (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, hitting its stride in the early eighties). Such categorization only reinforced the skew of comics demographics toward older fans as result of the proliferation of comics specialty shops from the late seventies and throughout the eighties.

From here on, continuity was never not the focus. And, of course, anything DC did, Marvel had to do better.

Next: Continuity3 (All You Need Is Pr0n)

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

~G.

2 comments:

  1. great stuff. i'd love to read pt. 3 if/when it comes out. -peter h

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