Since the end of Infinite Crisis, the DCU has been a very busy place looking both forward and backward. On the one hand we’ve had the week-by-week events of 52, leading into the regular titles that jumped ahead “One Year Later” (although published simultaneously); on the other hand we’ve had changes to the backstory of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Justice League, and a number of other characters.
In neither case are these events as easy to sort out as they may seem at first glance, however.
Before we even turn to recent events, let’s address the open questions that remain about the pre-IC past of the DCU. Between the fallout from Alex Luthor’s manipulations as described in IC #6 <5.06>, and the timeline manipulations that created the new Multiverse as revealed in 52 #52 <5.07>, the past just isn’t what it used to be. The “OYL” jump could and to some extent should have been about exploring the new status quo, but it didn’t really rise to the challenge. Thus far only a few tidbits have been revealed in scattered flashbacks.
Thus, two years on at this writing, there are still two contrasting attitudes about where things stand:
One of the most outspoken advocates for the first view has been writer Kurt Busiek, who has said online that “It’s a new continuity. It’s not the old one with changes… it’s about what the new history is on its own terms... the past is an open question, and if you give us time we’ll fill in some bits and pieces of it, but don’t assume you actually know anything.” It’s not a renovation of the current house, he says, so much as “it’s a whole new house.”
However, Kurt himself acknowledged in the same context that this was his own personal view; fans were “asking for a universe-wide policy statement from someone who doesn't set policy.” In point of fact, most other writers’ offerings have clearly rested on the assumption that the shared backstory remains fundamentally intact as we remember it.
The nature of the change portrayed in IC #5-6 itself supports this view—it wasn’t a wholesale destruction and reconstruction of the universe with a clean line of demarcation, as in the original Crisis; instead it was a moment of disrupted reality after which everyone and everything remained exactly as they had been a moment before. To borrow Kurt’s “house” metaphor, when “New Earth” was created we looked around, and the view out the window was the same, and the room around us had the same decor, and the people in the room were all in the same places. A little furniture had been rearranged in another room, as it were, based on what Alex Luthor said about the changes, but otherwise it was clearly the same place.
Thus it’s implausible to be told, No, we just thought it was the same place—actually the whole house was torn down and rebuilt around us without anyone noticing, and the rest of the floorplan is completely different. (At least with the original Crisis, DC had the decency to usher everyone out the front door to watch the building being torn down and the new foundation being laid.)
For that matter, the full structure may never actually be revealed. DC doesn’t seem to be trying very hard. New details of Superman’s backstory, for instance, have thus far only been doled out piecemeal in scattered flashbacks and dialogue references everywhere from Annuals to issues of Justice League. So if we assume aspects of his past not specifically addressed are not still canonical, that just leaves most of his history in the murky equivalent of a quantum superposition, hovering between “maybe” and “maybe not” without ever collapsing into a clearly defined state.
As a reader, I simply can’t buy that proposition. There’s this thing called “causality,” after all, meaning that present circumstances depend on past events, and if you change the past the present is highly unlikely to remain identical to what it was. Lots of comics stories (and SF stories in general) hinge upon this basic logic. It’s irrational to accept that the past has changed dramatically—different characters doing different things in different ways at different times!—yet not only does the present remain the same, but the details of what changed are actually so cosmically inconsequential that we don’t even need to know them all.
It rubs our faces in the artifice of the thing, making the all-important willing suspension of disbelief next to impossible, and draining any real dramatic tension out of new stories in which, one presumes, the writers want the details to matter.
Most readers are justifiably skeptical about retcons in general. They tend to be lazy writing, unfair to readers, and they’ve become far too common in recent years. To retcon and just change the past, instead of writing one’s way out of the challenges a story presents, is cheating—a shortcut that violates readers’ trust and expectations.
Moreover, the “whole new house” approach would be an unwise decision from both a storytelling and a marketing point of view. DC has already faced the challenge of retelling most of its history, just 20 years earlier, and one might hope the company learned something about the difficulties of such a move. It took years of confusion, with tons of flashback stories, additional retcons, and “reintroductions” of old story elements, before DCU history really made any sense. Some great stories were told along the way and eventually most of it did get sorted out, but it was frustrating for readers and creators both, and quite a few fans defected along the way.
Some readers have characterized DC’s current approach to continuity as “picking at a scab,” when they should just let it heal, and I’m inclined to agree. The company keeps promising to move forward, but they don’t actually do it much, instead revisiting and rehashing the same old stuff again and again. The company’s flagship character, Superman, doesn’t have an origin right now—not in the sense of any detailed, consistent backstory, at least (although a full-scale retelling is reportedly slated for 2010). We can't trust the history we've read in the 20+ years since Man of Steel, since bits and pieces have clearly been revised—but we can’t just discard it either, since there was no clean reboot and other bits and pieces keep being referred to. This is inexcusable.As for the other “changes” arising from Infinite Crisis—honestly, who cares whether Wonder Woman was a JLA founder again, or Joe Chill was captured—unless someone has a new story to tell about these things, something good enough to justify the changes? But we’ve seen no new stories about those bits of backstory at all, good or otherwise, and it’s been more than three years. As such, the whole thing comes across as bad fanfic, change with no point except the ego-gratification of the writers or editors.
Even if it were done clearly and effectively, spending that kind of time and effort on redoing the past is exactly the opposite of focusing on the future, as was promised after IC—so why on earth would DC want to put us (and themselves) through it all again? Flashbacks are a good storytelling device when used sparingly, but in quantity they go against people’s natural inclination to move forward. When we read, we want to find out what happens next, not what already happened—especially not for such an extended period of time.
For all these reasons, I’m a firm advocate of the second approach. I interpret the result of IC as just a piecemeal reboot, a “tweakboot” as it’s been called, and thus (as described in the Introduction) consider all post-Crisis stories to remain canonical, except to the extent that they have been specifically superseded by new flashback stories (e.g., Clark Kent’s youth as portrayed in Action Annual #10 <2007>). The big picture is far from resolved yet—and at the moment we’re still mired in more death, disaster, and universe-spanning crossovers—but to the extent New Earth’s new history has been revealed, I’ve documented it here.
Placing the events since IC should be a piece of cake, right? Heck, 52 started right after IC, and proceeded to spell things out in real time from week to week, didn’t it?
Well, not quite. First of all, contrary to appearances in 52 #1, describing the chaos of IC as only days past, there’s actually about a month separating the climax of IC #6 and the farewell scene for Bruce, Clark, and Diana on the Gotham docks in that same issue, which clearly precedes the start of 52. Events chronicled in Green Arrow #54-59 and 66 <11.05-4.06, 11.06>, Batman #653 <7.06>, and Nightwing Annual #2 <2007>, among other places, make this month unavoidable. However, not all writers seem to have recognized this. While positive-numbered weeks obviously count forward from the start of 52, then, things are more complicated when we encounter “negative weeks” (e.g., as seen occasionally in Booster Gold v2); for their purposes I treat this interim month as a “zero period” and count backward from the end of IC itself.
Second, the writing and editing team on 52 seems not to have consulted an actual calendar—or at least not the same one. The most concrete date in the entire series is December 31, New Year’s Eve, which marks the dramatic cliffhanger in 52 Week #34. Yet none of the other datable holidays are placed accurately relative to that one—even Christmas itself, obviously December 25, is placed eight days earlier rather than six, presumably so as to keep it in an issue of its own. Halloween in Week #25 is a full week early, showing trick-or-treaters on what works out to October 25. Thanksgiving is shown on Day 2 of Week #29 (i.e., November 21), suggesting that each week begins on a Wednesday—yet not only does New Year’s Eve not fall on a Tuesday in 2006 (as portrayed in Week #34) nor any other year between 2002 and 2013—but for any year in which it does, Thanksgiving would actually fall a week later, on November 28.
And that’s just scratching the surface of the anachronisms; attentive readers have noticed many others. In other words, while 52 can provide an approximate guide for what happened when during the year it chronicles, certainly a better one than most DCU years, it still can’t be relied upon for complete accuracy or precision.
Meanwhile, as many readers have complained, many events alluded to in various “One Year Later” stories were not followed up in the course of 52, winding up either crammed into the backstory of “World War III” during Week #50, or just ignored entirely. While 52 told a number of good and interesting stories of its own, this does make figuring out what happened when “behind the scenes” for other characters considerably more complicated.
(Let it be noted, though: for all these caveats, I actually enjoyed reading 52, and several of DC’s new and relaunched titles as well. Waid’s Brave & Bold and Giffen & Rogers’ Blue Beetle, for example, were sterling examples of how to do tight, compelling, imaginative, character-driven comics that successfully leverage all the rich background the DCU has to offer. BUT. To really piece all this together, I’ve also had to read things like Amazons Attack. And Salvation Run. And Death of the New Gods. And, may my tortured brain forgive me, every issue of Countdown. And then Final Crisis itself, which was supposed to be the payoff but which wound up being more of an exercise in metanarrative. Really, anyone who cares about the underlying fabric of the DCU, its warp and weft, has to feel more than a little jerked around at this point. All we can do is hope and pray that DC’s editorial direction will trend upward again from here. It’s hard to imagine it getting worse…)
52 is a model of clarity compared to Countdown to Final Crisis.
It was billed as the “spine” of the DCU for its year of publication, linking together a wide range of other stories. In other words, the whole point of this series was to show how the DCU interconnects. That’s a project that pretty much by definition only appeals to continuity geeks—that’s the market. Which is okay: I don't mind that. I am a continuity geek; I don't deny it.
The thing is, it didn’t do that remotely competently. Okay, we all understand that storylines published simultaneously aren't necessarily supposed to take place simultaneously; that characters can't literally be in two places at the same time. One of the problems with Countdown, however (not the only one, by far, but a recurring one), is that it tells us that these parallel storylines are taking place simultaneously.
(For example: if you read “The Lightning Saga” in JLA #8-10/JSA #5-6 <6-8.07>, it appears to take place as an unbroken sequence of events. Likewise, if you read Amazons Attack (and if so you deserve great sympathy), it appears to take place as an unbroken sequence as well, dominating everyone’s attention for several days.
But if you read Countdown, and assume (not unreasonably) that it relates events in at least roughly sequential order, then based on when it chooses to have scenes tying in to these other storylines one would have to conclude that the JLA and JSA teamed up and set out to find the Legionnaires... then put that on hold when Diana got kidnapped and the Amazons attacked DC... then (somehow) put that on hold to get together again for the climax of “Lightning Saga” and Wally West's return (which All-Flash #1 <9.07> tells us corresponds with Bart Allen’s death), and then all headed off to Keystone City for Bart’s funeral... before returning to DC and turning their attention to the Amazons again... and then left that alone again (with no sign of any resolution) and turned to other business like, e.g., going to work at the Daily Planet or spying on Mary Marvel... all before the final scene of “Lightning Saga” in which the Legionnaires leave our era.
Oh, and all in the space of about four days.
Make sense to you?)
The only way I found to make even moderate sense of the series is to assume that the separate story threads in Countdown are quite simply not contemporary with one another. There are a handful of issues where they do synchronize (e.g., Bart’s funeral), but between these points they’re completely independent. Unsurprisingly, this made comprehending several months’ worth of events in the DCU far more confusing, not less. Indeed, one of Countdown’s (very) few saving graces is that it finally stopped even trying to link to other titles, and let them go off and do their own thing.
(And let’s not even start on how spectacularly it failed to lead into Final Crisis itself!…)
Grant Morrison’s storytelling often has the curious quality that it relies intimately upon details of years-old continuity that many if not most readers have never encountered… yet simultaneously disregards the goings-on in comics published contemporary with it.
This is certainly the case with his most recent projects at DC, notably the extended storyline culminating in 2008’s “Batman R.I.P.” and the quixotic “event story” Final Crisis. Some readers, for instance, have suggested that Morrison’s entire run on Batman should come after the return of the villains (notably Joker and Catwoman) from Salvation Run, but I can’t buy into that… it causes more problems than it solves in terms of delaying other events, especially when the return of Rā’s al Ghūl is factored in. Even with careful ordering of events, though, his treatment of the Joker still leaves several unanswered questions.
Meanwhile, the interaction between “R.I.P.” and FC itself wasn’t clear until almost the very end… nor can it even be as simple as intimated in Batman #683 <2.09>, since certain crossovers require him to be missing for at least a couple of days.
Then there’s the question of how the Superman titles intersect Morrisonian events—e.g., since the presence of 100,000 fully-powered Kryptonians would seem to have some impact on Darkseid’s attack, one might be tempted to place the whole “New Krypton” arc after FC. However, that arc leads directly out of the Brainiac story in which Pa Kent dies… and Bruce Wayne, no longer available after FC, is present at his funeral. It’s possible to sift through it all and find a plausible continuity break that accommodates FC, but it’s certainly not obvious.
Further complications abound. (Let’s just set aside the editorial two-step over how to handle Aquaman and Hawkman. And I haven’t even mentioned Battle for the Cowl!…) Suffice it to say that the DCU of the present moment is an intricately interconnected place… but there’s little evidence that all of those interconnections are being planned, or even recognized, before they see print. A lot of it only makes sense in hindsight, from months down the line, a situation which demands a remarkable degree of patience and diligence from readers.
So: some of what follows requires creative speculation, and will inevitably be subject to later revisions. Be open-minded. (Of note, for instance: since updating this section for Countdown a few months ago I’ve reversed my thinking on certain early events, and now have the JLA/JSA “Lightning Saga” before Amazons Attack rather than after. It took a while to weigh all the variables, but the whole combined sequence takes a bit less time that way, and in particular Supergirl's run-in with Karate Kid and Una in Supergirl #21-22 <11-12.07> makes more sense if there’s less of a delay after AA.)
Still, with some concerted effort it does all fits together, and I hope the latest additions to this section will make a convincing case for how.
With that foundation laid, here’s the highlight reel. Many, many details follow!…