EP0039: Understanding the Eras of the DC Universe

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Golden Age, Pre-Crisis, Post-Crisis, New 52, DC Rebirth. We take a look at the eras of the DC Universe.

Pre-Crisis, Post-Crisis, New Fifty-Two. DC Rebirth. What do these terms mean for the DC Universe? We’ll talk all about it straight ahead.

Welcome to the Classy Comics Podcast where we search for the best comics in the universe. From Boise, Idaho here is your host, Adam Graham.

Oftentimes these terms that I mentioned at the top of the program are thrown out without much explanation. What does it mean if a story is Pre-crisis or Post-crisis, or if it occurred after New Fifty-Two, or if this particular volume I’m reading is marked DC Rebirth? What does it all mean? Well we’ll go ahead and try and break this down into talking about the sort of broad stroke of ends in the DC Universe. And the reason why these particular advances are important is that they really do shape continuity. You might read a Superman story say from 1972 but it doesn’t have any tie-in to what Superman, as currently published by DC, has experienced today. So, when you know the eras you can also know what this particular Superman has experienced, and what is in his canon as opposed to a Superman from a previous era. I should note that this is one way in which DC is different than Marvel: if you take a character in the Marvel Universe, most events that have happened to them in comic books, wherever it was set actually happened unless it was retconned away, and they’ve done quite a bit of that. For example, in the 1950s there was a communism fighting Captain America who was introduced and was introduced as Steve Rogers, and he hung around for just a few issues and then disappeared. Marvel writers in the 1970s didn’t like this idea and so they said that that Captain America wasn’t really Steve Rogers. To be fair, that also answered a problem with continuity because Steve Rogers came out of the ice in 1964 after supposedly being there since World War II. So, if this 1950s Captain America couldn’t have been Steve Rogers, then who was he? So, the retcon tried to fix that and that is the nature of the retcon. DC uses them too, but they’ve also rebooted their universe a few times, so we’ll talk about that.

DC began the Golden Age of comics: they had Superman, they had Batman, they had Wonder Woman. In addition to that, through cooperation between All-American Comics and DC Comics we got the first superhero ever, the Justice Society of America, including the Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern. Well the Justice Society came to an end and left Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman as the only characters continuously published from the Golden Age, and that continued until the Flash emerged. The new Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, was introduced in Showcase Number Four in 1956 and he was the first of the Silver Age superheroes. And there would be the introduction of a new Silver Age Adam, a Silver Age Green Lantern, a Silver Age Hawk man and several other beloved characters. At the same time Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the characters who had carried over from the Golden Age got kind of a soft reboot. There wasn’t a conclusion, we’re starting Superman all over again, but the age and the years that have been since Superman’s lives occurred and Batman’s began to move forward a bit. Wonder Woman got a brand new origin story that was not tied to World War II, and she met many enemies for the first time that she had fought for years during the Golden Age of comics. And this was to make these heroes be contemporaries and fit in with their new Silver Age colleagues.

It would have been easy just to forget the whole Golden Age continuity, but Gardner Fox wrote for the Golden Age DC Comics, and he also wrote for the Silver Age characters and created them. So, he wrote a story called The Flash of Two Worlds which involved Barry Allen accidentally vibrating himself to Earth Two where Jay Garrick is The Flash. And the situation is that Barry had read stories about Jake Garrick’s Flash when he was a kid, and what had happened was that Jay’s adventures had been transmitted somehow to a writer named Gardner Fox who wrote these in Barry’s universe. So, there’s an alternate Earth Gardner Fox because it was also established that the Flash lives in a universe that is alternate to our own. But at any event, that story was a landmark because it introduced Earth Two and the entire idea of a multiverse; and so you then had the Justice League of America teaming up with the Justice Society of America. And these became annual team-ups between these super teams from different dimensions. It’s really weird when you think about how they treated it in the comic – going from one dimension to another was no different than flying from New York to Los Angeles, and they had more and more of these team-ups. But things got more complex: DC acquired the rights to characters who had been in Fawcett Comics and Quality Comics and so you ended up with even more universes, even more team-ups, and so many different characters, continuities, alternate futures – all of this detail worked into the DC Universe.

And this led to the idea that the DC Universe needed to be simplified, it needed to be rebooted and restarted in the modern era of the 1980s which led to the 1985-86 story, Crisis on Infinite Earths which is a grand story that manages to pay tribute to the past while setting the stage for the future with a really epic tale that, even though it kills off some heroes, it still manages to honor them and to have them die in a way that actually makes sense. There were decisions made with Crisis on Infinite Earths – one was that they wanted to get back to the idea that Superman was the last survivor of the planet Krypton, which meant an end to Supergirl. That did not last forever though it did last for a few years. The new post-crisis DC Universe had a lot of positives but also some negatives. It tended to be harder-edged and to get a bit darker than many fans liked, and some stories turned downright grim. But there were also some celebrated runs, some runs that had a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in them. One of the big changes that was made was they got rid of the idea of the multiverse, and instead you put the Justice Society as having existed during World War II, though many remained active even into the 1980s onto the 1990s with Justice Society continuing to exist and recruit new members. And so this period, the post-crisis period from 1986 to 2011 brought just a wide variety, both good and ill into the world of comics; which brings us to 2011 and the New Fifty-Two.

Once again there had been a thick continuity grown up around all of these heroes. I mean, who could imagine that having cut back all the continuity back in 1986 they just have to do it again. Once again they sought to untangle continuity but they did it in a confusing way. Rather than beginning with the origin of all of these heroes all over again, the New Fifty-Two set things up so that the characters didn’t have all the baggage of their past continuity, but when you read Issue One they’d all been at this for about five years. There were some series such as Action Comics which actually was restarted to tell the story of Superman’s early career, while the main Superman title told the story of his present career. Part of the reason, I think, why they continued to keep on so much continuity was because there were some great stories particularly with Batman, and The Green Lantern stories that they wanted to hang on to those bits of continuity and so they could slot it in. And so, some things that happened during the post-crisis era may have happened for characters in the DC Fifty-Two Universe or they may not have. This is so much less confusing than having just the post-crisis continuity.

There were several books in the New Fifty-Two that really were praised for working. Scott Snyder’s run on Batman, as well as the Green Lantern books continued to perform strongly. I personally enjoyed Francis Manapul’s run on The Flash though this one isn’t quite as discussed by others, so perhaps I’m in a minority on this point. However, the New Fifty-Two was criticized for getting a lot of characters wrong, making dubious changes such as having Dick Grayson become a secret agent and no longer being Nightwing and pretend to be dead to his friends. And also there was the thought that they didn’t really get Superman right either. In one story they had him quit his job at the Daily Planet to become a somewhat disgruntled blogger. Another big issue were characters that had been popular who DC had stopped using. Among them was Cassandra Cain who we’ve talked about as Batgirl and she’d also been the Black Bat later once she had relinquished her Batgirl title; and perhaps most notably Wally West. Wally West had banned The Flash for most of the post-process era. He was the character that a lot of people grew up thinking of as The Flash, and if you watched the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoon series this was your Flash, and he just totally disappeared from the DC Universe. Speaking of the Flash they introduced another character named Wally West who was a young, mixed race teen who would eventually acquire speed force powers. However, he didn’t have Wally’s personality, he didn’t have what people had really gotten used to with the character in the post-crisis world.

And that actually brings us to DC Rebirth. DC Rebirth, the original deluxe comic, is about Wally trying to reclaim his place in the DC Universe. He is displaced and he needs someone to remember him, somebody who cares about him to actually be able to recall him in order for him to escape, in order for him to survive. And it is an incredibly emotional story that ends with Wally returning, and this sets up the DC Rebirth Universe because Wally is cognizant of the old post-crisis universe, and he’s also aware that somebody has been messing with the DC Universe, and at the end of DC Rebirth it’s revealed to be Geoff Johns. No, no, no. Not the actual writer who wrote some of these stories that we wouldn’t blame him. It was – spoiler alert – Doctor Midnight from the Watchmen Comics by Alan Moore; and throughout DC Rebirth there are these hints that the Universe has been tampered with, years have been taken away from people’s lives. Memory, spouses have been taken away, and Rebirth kind of resets things. I kind of like to say it was a bit of a soft reboot of the Universe. It wasn’t that the New Fifty-Two didn’t happen – rather things are returning to a way that fans tend to like the DC Universe. Dick Grayson became Nightwing and returned to Bludaven.

It turned out that the post-crisis Superman survived the destruction of his universe and went to the New Fifty-Two Universe and worked underground while that universe’s Superman did his work, and then took over for him. And since then the timelines have been combined, but still he is married to Lois Lane as was the case since 1993 prior to the New Fifty-Two, and he also has a son. And really that hopeful, bright super-family has been such a center through so much of the new DC Rebirth Universe with the idea of getting things back on track, onto the way that the DC Universe should be. Other examples of this include the return of fan favorite characters such as Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown, two former Batgirls who have appeared in the pages of Detective Comics. And it’s a really good era for DC Comics – I don’t think that there has been a period where there have been so many worthwhile books being put out by DC because there really is a sense about trying to get it right to capture their heroic tone and use tell-good stories; and I think that they’ve been mostly successful. Whether it will continue to be that way remains to be seen, but at any rate I hope that you’ve got a better understanding of what these different phrases mean when people say things like New Fifty-Two and pre-crisis and post-crisis that you’ll know what they’re talking about, and you also kind of know what you’re looking for when you go out and look for a comic. You can see what era it was from and that may give you a clue as to whether this is a book that you’re going to want to read.

Alright, well that will do it for now. If you do have a comment e-mail it to me: classycomicsguy@gmail.com and check out the website classycomicsguy.com, and follow us on Twitter @ClassyComicsGuy. From Boise, Idaho this is your host, Adam Graham, signing off.

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