Ever since the 1938 introduction of Superman, DC Comics has been known for its vast array of costumed crimefighters and interconnected, densely populated fictional narratives.
For decades, continuity was played fast and loose; Superman evolved from being a moderately powerful superhuman who could leap over tall buildings into a God-like figure who could turn back time, possessed a super-human intellect, and could tow entire worlds through space with ease. Similarly, Batman was depicted as being as youthful as ever despite having been active since 1939 and having taken part in World War Two.
Some of these issues were resolved when, in the 123rd issue of The Flash, DC Comics introduced the concept of the multiverse. The issue postulated that there were an infinite number of parallel worlds co-existing in the same space and time but slightly out of synch with our own world due to being on a different vibrational frequency.
The fallout from The Flash of Two Worlds (Fox, et al) was the revelation that DC’s Golden Age superheroes, such as the Justice Society of America and older versions of Superman and Batman, existed on the parallel world known as Earth-Two while their Silver Age contemporaries (Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, and the like) in the Justice League of America existed on Earth-One.
This concept allowed DC Comics to portray multiple iterations of their most popular characters as existing side-by-side, as well as numerous alternative worlds; Earth-Three, for example, was home to the Crime Syndicate, made up of villainous versions of the Justice League, while Earth-S was home to Captain Marvel and other characters DC acquired from their purchase of Fawcett Comics.
Unfortunately, decades of over-reliance of the multiverse concept meant that, by the 1980s, DC continuity was extremely difficult to keep track of and DC Comics were virtually inaccessible to new readers who had no idea what the multiverse was, much less how it worked. As a result, DC embarked on their most ambitious inter-company crossover yet; Crisis on Infinite Earths (Wolfman, et al, 1985) saw the entirety of the DC multiverse under threat from the malevolent Anti-Monitor.
Seeking to rule in the desolation of nothingness, the Anti-Monitor begins destroying entire parallel worlds with an anti-matter wave, reducing their number from infinite to a mere five and causing the deaths of the Flash (Barry Allen) and Supergirl. In the end, Kal-L/Superman of Earth-Two, Alexander Luthor of Earth-Three, and Superboy of Earth-Prime end the Anti-Monitor’s threat and retreat to a “pocket dimension”, alongside the Lois Lane of Earth-Two, where they are protected from the merging of the remaining worlds.
It seemed like DC had come up with the perfect way to consolidate their continuity; the concept of parallel worlds was done away with and one singular reality was established. Stories like Superman: The Man of Steel (Byrne, et al, 1986) and Batman: Year One (Miller, et al, 1987) re-established the origins of DC’s flagship characters and, over the next few years, DC established that, while the events prior to the Crisis had occurred, very few of the characters who survived remembered much beyond vagaries (Wally West, for example, was now the Flash and knew, like everyone else, that Barry had died saving the world but not the exact specifics of how and why). Additionally, DC Comics began emphasising the idea of legacy superheroes; the Justice Society of America was established as having been active during World War Two and, while some of their members were active in present day continuity, they were noticeable aged and took on more of a mentorship role.
Unfortunately, DC dropped the ball with Crisis. Rather than simply end every existing comic they published and reboot with brand new issue one’s and origin stories, some characters (such as Wonder Woman) were not reintroduced into the new canon until much later. Others, like the Legion of Superheroes, had their entire origins altered forever by the removal of Superboy from the new canon (something that could have easily been remedied had DC simply rebooted the Legion and had them be inspired by Superman; instead, writers hastily incorporated an alternative Superboy from a pocket dimension or substituted him with Mon-El).
In an effort to address some of these lingering issues, and further incorporate some of the popular Pre-Crisis characters and ideas into modern continuity, DC capitalised on Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s recent descent into madness, genocide, and villainy with another massive inter-company event. Zero Hour: Crisis in Time (Jurgens, et al, 1994) saw Jordan, as Parallax, absorbing vast amounts of cosmic and chronal energy with which he planned to remake reality and undo all the wrongs that had happened since the death of Superman.
Due to Parallax messing about with time, many continuity changes were forced into DC canon; Superman was explicitly described as having debuted “ten years ago”, the Legion of Superheroes were (finally) completely rebooted, Batman’s killer became anonymous and at large, and all conflicting versions of Hawkman were consolidated into one singular character since DC never really bothered to reboot his origin story following the original Crisis.
With the bulk of Zero Hour’s five-issue run being made up primarily of exposition from Waverider or Parallax, many of the consequences of Parallax’s actions were told in DC’s individual comics. In the end, despite the insanity of time literally being ripped apart around them, the heroes were able to thwart Parallax’s efforts and allow time and reality to unfold naturally, albeit with many changes. Zero Hour resulted in many changes to popular DC characters; Guy Gardner suddenly became a shape-changing Vuldarian, many of the Justice Society were rapidly aged or killed off, Connor Hawke was introduced as the new Green Arrow, and Aquaman now sported an unkempt look and a harpoon for a hand.
However, Zero Hour actually created more problems than it solved; Hawkman’s origins were no more clearer now than they had been before. Eventually, The Return of Hawkman (Goyer, et al, 2002) returned the character to mainstream continuity, explaining that the character was locked in a constant cycle of death and rebirth. Additionally, DC sought to address their ongoing continuity issues (and tell out of continuity stories) through the concept of Hypertime, which, much like the previous infinite Earths concept, allowed for alternative versions of events to be played out.
Eventually, and with the twentieth anniversary of the original Crisis looming, DC decided to commission their biggest inter-company crossover yet. Consisting of multiple ongoing stories all building up to its central narrative, Infinite Crisis (John, et al, 2006) aimed to not only re-establish the multiverse concept and finally tie-up all of the lingering continuity issues left in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour, but also move the company away from the dark stories that had dominated during the mid-nineties.
After numerous event-scale storylines, the DC trinity (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) were divided and the DC universe was in turmoil. Frustrated with how bad Earth heroes have let things get and perceiving that they have squandered their new world, Kal-L, Alexander Luthor, and Superboy-Prime break free from their pocket dimension and set about cannibalising the Anti-Monitor’s corpse to re-establish the multiverse and return peace and order to the universe.
However, it turns out that seeing his world destroyed and having his youth ripped away from him, coupled with living in isolation and the machinations of Alexander Luthor, have driven Superboy-Prime mad. While Alexander straps various heroes and villains to an inter-dimensional tuning fork, Superboy-Prime goes on an accidental murder spree before Kid Flash (Bart Allen) forces him into the Speed Force itself, at the cost of Wally West and his family. However, Superboy-Prime escapes, sporting a modified version of the Anti-Monitor’s armour and driven completely insane. With no regard for himself or others, he goes on a rampage; although Superboy (Kon-El) destroys Alexander’s inter-dimensional tower, it costs him his life and, finally convinced that Alexander’s plan would mean the genocide of countless lives, Kal-L joins forces with Superman to end Superboy-Prime’s threat.
Infinite Crisis ends with the multiverse restored; though instead of there being an infinite number of parallel worlds, there were now a much more easy to wield fifty-two alternate Earths. In the aftermath, DC’s titles all jumped forward one year later, while the weekly 52 series explored the fallout of the events from the main crossover. This New Earth restored Superboy to Superman’s origin, depicted multiple non-canon stories as existing on the alternative Earths, introduced a new all-powerful villain in the form of Superboy-Prime, and resulted in Batman becoming far more trusting and open with his allies and family.
For me, this was a great time to be reading DC comics. Unlike previous Crisis-level events, Infinite Crisis felt like a soft reboot that would be accessible to new readers; the multiverse existed but rarely impacted mainstream DC continuity and it felt like DC had finally closed the door of the events of the original Crisis and had finally moved on.
And then Grant Morrison happened.
Morrison spearheaded an inter-company crossover that would change the DC universe forever. Unfortunately, DC decided to spend an entire year building up to this event with the weekly Countdown (later Countdown to Final Crisis) series, in addition to numerous tie-in and spin-off titles. As Countdown was of far less writing and artistic quality compared to 52, and due to the fact that many of its events contradicted what was happening in the associated titles, the build up towards Final Crisis (Morrison, et al, 2009) was lacklustre and confusing, to say the least.
The basic premise, as far as I can understand it (Morrison’s writing is confusing and disjointed at the best of times) is that the New Gods have all died and been reincarnated on New Earth, causing a tear in space, time, and reality. Reborn, Darkseid finally solves the Anti-Life Equation and enslaves the planet; however, using a radion bullet, Batman mortally wounds Darkseid, before being erased from existence. As his essence dies, Darkseid attempts to obliterate all of reality until he is finally thwarted by Superman; Superman, and an army of his counterparts from across the multiverse then restore Earth and reality before it can be destroyed by Darkseid and Mandrakk, the Dark Monitor.
Once you got past the mess of Morrison’s writing and the mess of a build-up to the main event, the fallout from Final Crisis made for very accessible stories. DC also focused on using the Green Lantern titles to expand their universe through sprawling, inter-connected stories. However, rather than fully capitalise on this (by, say, returning Bruce Wayne to life as an aged man, killing off Alfred, and having an elderly Wayne take his place as mentor to the new Batman and Robin), DC instead decided to undo all of their recent efforts a mere two years after the end of Final Crisis.
The best thing about Final Crisis was the fallout; Batman, thought dead, actually embarked on a trip through time and space that threatened all reality until he was safely returned home by the Justice League. However, in the meantime, his duties were performed by Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne as an all-new, fresh take on the Batman and Robin duo. Additionally, both Kon-El and Bart Allen were resurrected and, for fans of the Silver Age, Barry Allen finally returned to the land of the living to become the Flash once more (though, personally, I am more of a fan of Wally West).
In Flashpoint (Johns, et al, 2011), Barry Allen’s grief apparently got the better of him, causing him to go back in time and save his mother’s life. This results in a vastly altered timeline, which threatens to solidify itself as the true reality unless Barry can set things right. Teaming up with a violent version of Batman (Thomas Wayne) and amidst an ongoing war between Atlantis and the Amazons, the Reverse-Flash reveals the key to restoring reality to Barry, allowing him to undo his actions.
However, instead, we got what DC marketed as the “New 52” reality for the better part of five years. In this radically altered version of events, the DC universe has only existed for five years (meaning that Batman burned through one Robin every year-and-a-half or so), Barbara Gordon controversially recovered from the Joker’s attack and continued to fight crime as Batgirl, and many characters got entirely new origin stories (Superboy, Supergirl, and, in particular, Superman was changed so drastically that I swear he was a completely different character).
Additionally, Wildstorm and Vertigo publications were officially absorbed into the DC universe, while many recent events, particularly in Batman and Green Lantern titles, continued with very little alteration, truly begging the question as to why DC even bothered to reboot their continuity so severely just as their titles had become engaging and accessible for new and long-term readers.
The biggest problem with the New 52, however, was that while DC still incorporated a version of the multiverse (complete with slightly different versions of Earth-Two and Earth-Three), it took DC almost a year to properly establish their new continuity; many characters went without detailed revised origins until this time, causing a great deal of confusion as to what events and characters were still canon, and largely alienating me in the process.
Eventually, though, DC decided to bring the New 52 to a close and restart everything…again…using the Convergence (King, et al, 2015) storyline to kick-start their Rebirth titles. In Convergence, Brainiac has collected numerous cities and their inhabitants from across the multiverse (even some from prior to the original Crisis) and deposited them on Telos, a sentient planet that forces them to fight each other to see which is superior. Amidst the chaos and the fighting, the sorcerer Deimos usurps Telos and declares himself ruler and protector of this imprisoned on there. Eventually, Deimos is defeated by Parallax (drawn straight out of Zero Hour), which causes a chain reaction that threatens to annihilate the entire multiverse (…again). Brainiac, seeking to atone for his misdeeds, intervenes and sends pre-Flashpoint Superman and Zero Hour-Parallax back to the original Crisis to change its outcome and save the multiverse from collapsing.
Convergence concluded with the return of the multiverse proper, with a potentially infinite number of worlds once again present in DC comics, while absorbing yet more commonly displaced titles into DC continuity; an ongoing theme throughout the resultant Rebirth-branded comics has been the introduction of characters from Watchmen (Moore, et al, 1987) into the larger DC universe for the first time.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of Convergence and the resultant Rebirth titles was not only the death of the New 52-Superman but the return of the pre-Flashpoint Superman and the true Wally West. The pre-Flashpoint Superman is revealed to have been living a quiet family life with his version of Lois Lane and their young son and, despite starting as a separate character, has recently been amalgamated with and replaced the new 52-Superman entirely. Additionally, Wally now exists alongside his biracial counterpart, retconned as being his cousin, and even explains that Flashpoint was actually caused by Doctor Manhattan rather than Barry Allen.
So, once again, DC Comics have been softly rebooted to attract new readers while reintroducing numerous popular concepts and characters into mainstream continuity. The return of the pre-Flashpoint Superman, a confidant married man with a superpowered child, is enough to bring me back to DC after the debacle of the New 52 yet their ongoing titles (particularly, again, Batman and Green Lantern, and even The Flash) continue the stories from the New 52 and with little consequence from the events of Convergence save for Batman and the Flash’s investigation of the Comedian’s button.
One of the things I love about DC Comics is that they’ll cook up a massive story whenever they want to make major continuity changes (as opposed to Marvel, who usually just quietly retcon stuff away, ignore it completely, or constantly update their sliding timescale to keep everything within an approximate five year timeline). While this means that everything can be canon at any one time, DC have notoriously dropped the ball with every Crisis-level event they produce.
After Crisis, every title should have reset to zero and all continuity should have been rewritten and reset to accommodate the major changes they had made; to only have a few titles do this is ludicrous and created a knock-on effect that led to the disastrous Zero Hour event. It wasn’t until Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis that DC finally resolved the fallout from the original Crisis, and then they went and threw it all away with Flashpoint in an obvious attempt to bring in new readers unfamiliar with the events that had already transpired.
Ironically, as a long-time comics fan, even I sometimes struggle with these massive Crisis events because they require a lot of background reading. As I mentioned, the New 52 publications alienated me completely and it’s only recently, now that DC has moved on to the Rebirth branding, that I have bothered to collect some key New 52 graphic novels. The worst part is that DC and Warner Bros. apparently would rather reference and incorporate elements from the multiverse concept in their movies and television shows. For example, the Flash seen in The Flash television show is not the Flash we see in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016). This goes even further though as the Superman seen in Supergirl is not the Henry Cavill version of the character and Supergirl is not only separate the DC movies but also from The Flash, Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow television shows (The Flash even goes to great lengths to introduce and explore the concept of the multiverse, again represented as 52 parallel worlds).
This basically means that we will never see Stephen Amell appear as Green Arrow alongside Ben Affleck’s Batman and has resulted in two versions of the Flash, two wildly different versions of Batman’s origin between Batman v Superman and Gotham, two iterations of the Suicide Squad, and many more all existing simultaneously on television and in movies. DC and Warner Bros. then compound things even further by constantly talking about the multiverse and hinting that their movies are not all connected all with the intention of presenting themselves as doing things differently from Marvel Studios.
However, the multiverse concept is incredibly complex and something only die-hard fanboys really understand. The general audience might not quite be ready for it and, besides that, it seems really stupid to want to have three different versions of Superman on screen at any one time, especially as DC have previously placed an embargo on Batman crossing over into other television properties.
The multiverse has worked in comics because it has existed for so long and been explored to death; The Flash has done a great job of introducing the concept but that had three entire seasons to explore and discuss it at length. For a movie to do it would surely be far more trouble than it’s worth beyond simplifying it to a great degree, perhaps by introducing the Crime Syndicate or stating that a villain such as Darkseid has devoured parallel worlds or something. Hopefully, however, DC has learned to better manage their Crisis-level events from now on, and also to limit them to one every ten or fifteen years or so; having massive inter-connected plots where the fate of the multiverse is at stake (and sticking guys like Batman at the centre of them!) occur every two to five years is just overkill, in my opinion, especially if DC screw the pooch as badly as the did with the New 52.