Once upon a time, the folks producing DC Comics decided to take all the characters and settings the company had accumulated piecemeal over decades of publishing and give them a Fresh Start. And lo, there came a Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was a grand storytelling event, the comics blockbuster of 1985. And in the aftermath, we were told, we would get to enjoy new tales of our favorite characters in a single, integrated, consistent, comprehensible fictional universe.
Of course, things didn’t quite work out that way. The new DC Universe didn’t fit together seamlessly. In fact, quite a few of the seams began to pull apart almost immediately, as some stories (and writers) retained familiar history while others discarded it, and some characters just didn’t seem to settle into the new reality no matter how they were tweaked or reinvented. And so one Crisis begat another (Zero Hour, 1994), and another (Infinite Crisis, 2005-06)… and still another is now upon us (Final Crisis, 2008-09).
More than a few fans of DC and its characters gave in to confusion or alienation along the way, maintaining that... “continuity” and “DCU” were mutually exclusive terms.More than a few fans of DC and its characters gave in to confusion or alienation along the way, maintaining that the company achieved exactly the opposite of what it set out to do—that when all was said and done, “continuity” and “DCU” were mutually exclusive terms.
As I wrote on the homepage, I disagree. Yes, confusion has been the order of the day to one degree or another for many years now, much more confusion than any editorial strategy can validate, and many readers justifiably feel disoriented. Still, by the twentieth anniversary of the original Crisis, DCU history—the shared backstory of all those familiar characters we care about—actually had been stitched into a surprisingly coherent whole. If the seams were still visible, at least they were all part of a reasonably consistent tapestry. It wasn’t ever really communicated well to readers, because it wasn’t quite what DC editorial “officially” wanted it to be… but it worked, on its own terms. That backstory, that tapestry, is what the original version of this site was dedicated to chronicling.
Yet just when the dust finally seemed to have settled and I thought the job was done, DC decided to launch a new game of (ahem) “52 pick-up” with the “soft reboot” that was Infinite Crisis and its aftermath. Thus far one gets the sense that the “New Earth” DCU remains a work in progress, with various editorial factions pushing different and incompatible visions. To quote the reader “admwriter” posting on DC’s own message boards—at today’s DC, “there's hardly a single month that goes by when SOMETHING that was explained not so long ago is made void by the flavor of the month. Usually with no explanation and no acknowledgement.”
I’d held off on making updates for nearly two years, hoping that some ambiguities would sort themselves out… but the clock keeps ticking on, and quite a few visitors were e-mailing to ask me when I would take account of the new game. So I forged ahead and made some substantial changes to this site. I hope the results are worth the effort. If it’s not “all new,” I’m at least shooting for “improved.” (Let us hope that DC editorial at least aspires to that same standard.)
This site is all about analyzing comic-book continuity. I think that’s both a worthy endeavor and an enjoyable one.
Some comics fans, of course, don’t give two hoots about continuity. Some of them are pretty vocal about it, in fact, and would deem this whole exercise a waste of time. If you’re one of them, I don’t know why you’ve read this far… but hey, just in case, let me take a little time to explain my motivations here. (Or rationalize them, if you will. As if any hobby really makes objective sense at the end of the day…) This, for those with enough patience not to skip ahead to the timeline, is the part where I get to explain the underlying philosophy: why I think all this was worth doing, and why you should agree with me about that.
Here’s my attitude toward continuity: I like it. In fact, I find it downright fascinating, when used intelligently. Not just in comics, but in any fictional setting. Movies, television shows, novels, by a single author or “shared”—in almost every case, an attentive handling of continuity is the lagniappe, the little something extra that really grabs me and rounds out the satisfaction that should always come from losing oneself in a good story.
It’s important even in a self-contained work (in almost any narrative, future events should logically follow from present and past events, as a matter of basic causality and fair play with the audience), but it’s particularly important in serial fiction. Readers want to know about the world the characters live in, how it affects and is affected by the stories. Details accumulate from one tale to the next, building layers of depth and complexity that can’t be contained in any single story. This is especially so in fantasy or SF material (a realm that certainly contains super-hero comics), as the fictional world can be assumed to have several interesting differences from the mundane one outside the reader’s window. Indeed, those differences are often a critical part of the story.
Critics object that such things are a deterrent to “casual readers” (especially critics who seem more concerned with marketing strategy than creative integrity, the sort of people who refer to characters as “franchises”). For my part, I suspect that casual readers have never really been the main devotees of “genre” material, in any medium. From Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek, J.R.R. Tolkien to J.K. Rowling, it’s stuff that by its very nature either turns people off, or turns them into fans. And it therefore stands to reason that a publisher, in order to sustain a loyal fan base, needs to care about continuity.
This is what keeps us coming back, what turns casual readers into fans—this sense of depth and context.This is what keeps us coming back, what turns casual readers into fans—this sense of depth and context. We care about the characters and their world, and we want to know what happens to them, beyond the parameters of any single tale’s plot. (New readers should still be able to enjoy any individual story, of course—albeit not necessarily as much as fans. This isn’t a zero-sum game.) We want to see how the events and revelations of this issue, this chapter, this episode, carry over into the next, and the one after that. Conversely, it doesn’t matter how long ago something was stated to be canonical, only that it was stated within the context of the same fictional reality. Today’s story doesn’t necessarily have to rely on knowledge of what has gone before, but it shouldn’t contradict it either, not without a truly compelling reason.
That doesn’t mean turning a comics line into an endless series of big crossover “events,” although it does allow for character crossovers in a way self-contained material doesn’t. Nor does it mean telling stories devoted to mining the past rather than exploring imaginative new ideas, although it does allow new tales to be built on the foundation of old ones. Caring about continuity does mean acknowledging and respecting what has gone before in a given fictional reality, if only because you know that a significant chunk of the readership is going to notice if you don’t.
Some of us just can’t help it, in fact. Much of my perspective on this has been shaped and refined by online discussion with other thoughtful fans. As Edgar Governo (creator of the wonderful Historian of Things That Never Were site) has put it,
“I think what we’re seeing is the operation of a particular turn of mind… some readers automatically keep track of the implicit and explicit chronology. [T]hey can’t shut it off, even when it’s obvious that a narrative’s chronology is being driven by the needs of a sloppily contrived ongoing plot, rather than any underlying plan or logic. …I think people with this turn of mind (especially when they're fans of a work, but not only then) have a need for their fiction to have at least as much historical, geographic, and other consistency as the real world does. It goes beyond wanting to infer the world that lies within an ongoing plot—we need it to be a world in the first place, capable of inference.”
Granted, meeting that standard is not an easy job. The more complex a fictional universe becomes, the more crucial it becomes to determine, What is canonical and what is apocryphal?—and the more difficult it becomes to answer that question, and adhere to the answer. It’s understandable why some writers and editors, if they’re confused or uninspired by what has gone before, might prefer the creative “freedom” of ignoring or revising it on the fly. Unfortunately, this exacerbates the problem for other storytellers trying to work within the same reality, and the reader is left to sort out the results.
Such an approach ultimately places (perceived) short-term business interests ahead of longer-term ones, never mind creative ones. If the continuity critics were right, comics sales should be soaring: continuity is widely being treated as optional and disposable, with countless stories rewriting the rules for their own purposes by authorial whim. “Good stories” should be ruling the day, because writers aren’t “shackled” by what has gone before, and new “casual” readers should be flocking to them! Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Picking and choosing what’s canonical on an ad hoc basis only makes things more confusing, not less.
The DCU’s long, rich, complex history, populated by a diverse and fascinating array of characters, is one of its greatest attractions. Its long list of reboots and retcons and inconsistent origins and multiple versions of characters is one of its greatest weaknesses. The surreal sense that reality can shift around you at authorial whim is not what most readers are looking for.
The DC Universe is, in a nutshell, a bit schizophrenic about matters of continuity.
DC Comics, unfortunately, has too often tried to have its cake and eat it too—it gives lip service to continuity, but the reality has seldom lived up to the rhetoric. DC seems to use it selectively, mostly as a tool to goose sales, especially through the sort of needless crossovers mentioned above… while not actually providing the editorial attention needed in order to maintain coherent continuity up to the standards readers expect. If a story element in a murder mystery like 2004’s Identity Crisis, for instance, can be read with equal ease as a legitimate clue, or as a timeline flux, or as a simple editorial mistake, how and why should a reader care about trying to make sense of the story based on those clues?
It seems as if DC’s powers-that-be... clearly haven't learned from the mistakes of the post-Crisis DCU.Nevertheless the bad habit has continued, ever since the original Crisis. And just when things finally seemed to have settled down, they suddenly became more ambiguous than ever, with the retroactive continuity changes implicit in the aftermath of Infinite Crisis and 52, plus a whole new slew of “Year One” tales and minor retcons, and Superman: Secret Origin on the horizon. It seems as if DC’s powers-that-be have decided to supersede whole sections of the previous continuity in favor of reinventing and reintroducing concepts from the Silver Age, demonstrating that they clearly haven't learned from the mistakes of the post-Crisis DCU—from Superboy, Supergirl, the Legion, Hawkman, and countless other FUBARs over the last twenty years that must have Seemed Like Good Ideas At The Time. At the end of the day, in the years since it first “fixed” its universe, DC Comics has done a lot to leave most readers soundly confused about its characters and their history. A few great stories have been told along the way, to be sure, but some awful ones as well… and with each retcon, things get more muddled. And it’s a slippery slope: each time it’s done, the easier it becomes to do it yet again.
Continuity doesn’t mean stasis: it doesn’t mean we “continuity fans” dislike change or want to be “stuck in the past.” Quite the contrary, I submit that one of the benefits of well-handled continuity is precisely that it allows characters to experience interesting new developments, and grow and change as a result of them... and have all that become a permanent part of their backstories.
Pressing the “reset button” time and again, on the other hand, just makes things boring. It results in more rather than less “formula” fiction—easy enough to produce, if only one doesn’t mind churning out reiterations of old plots, variations on old themes, with no concern for character growth. The corporate bean-counter assumes that if something sold once, the goal is precisely to keep selling it over and over again… whereas the sincerely creative mind figures that if a story’s been told once, there’s no point in telling it over and over again. Most thoughtful readers, young or old, are expecting more than formula: they want a level of development and detail that demonstrates genuine imagination, ingenuity, originality… and if they sense that it’s not coming they’ll eventually give up and go seek their entertainment elsewhere. One doesn’t have to connect many dots to see how this is a factor in the steady attrition of comics readership stretching back many years now.
What DC is offering right now feels like a catch-22, the worst of both worlds. You can’t appreciate a lot of DC’s mainstream books today unless you’re a longtime reader, because they reflect an intimidating body of backstory. On the other hand, you also can’t appreciate a lot of DC’s mainstream books today if you are a longtime reader, because odds are you know and/or care more about that backstory than the actual writers and editors.
Curiosity about the backstory, it bears repeating, is one of the things that keeps readers coming back to serial fiction. It’s an ally, not an enemy, of creative integrity. It makes the stories something more than disposable formula fiction, something worth remembering and revisiting. Curiosity about backstory in the DCU, though, has too often become a waste of readers’ time, an exercise in futility. An inconsistent setting, just like an inconsistent character, tends to be less interesting than a consistent one.
The creators and decision-makers at DC have deliberately offered up the DC Universe (now multiverse) as a specific and distinct literary setting, and that carries with it the entirely reasonable expectation that that setting will be treated with the same care that should be afforded any other narrative element. It probably can’t be done perfectly, but it can be done well. And in this respect, today’s DCU represents a missed opportunity to meet the needs and feed the curiosity of readers old and new alike. What I aim to offer here, with this exegesis of DC’s continuity, is a fresh chance to seize that opportunity.
One of the biggest challenges of a project like this one is how to tackle the thorny issue of “comic-book time.”
There’s an Alan Moore quote I'm fond of, from his introduction to the collected edition of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight:
“[There is an] element without which all true legends are incomplete and yet which for some reason hardly seems to exist in the world depicted in the average comic book, and that element is time. All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. …In comic books, however, given the commercial fact that a given character will still have to sell to a given audience in ten years’ time, these elements are missing. The characters remain in [a] perpetual limbo.”
“Comic-book time” is the conceit, in the DC Universe (and at Marvel as well, although seldom found anywhere outside such super-hero universes—notwithstanding TV soap operas or occasional prose examples like Erle Stanley Gardner’s character Perry Mason), that all events since a given point take place on a sliding timescale that dates back only a few years from “the present,” compressed into far fewer years than it took to publish the actual stories. (For DC this point is the debut of Superman; for Marvel it’s the debut of the Fantastic Four.) In fact, DC itself has published “official” timelines establishing this—first in Zero Hour #0 (1994), insisting that all history from Superman’s debut forward began “ten years ago” at that point, then again in the ever-so-elegantly titled Guide to the DC Universe 2000 Secret Files and Origins #1 (2000), expanding the span to twelve years.
(“But wait! If DC has published official timelines, why is this project even necessary?” Well, in a sentence, because the official versions just don’t make sense. For more details, see my Silver Age intro.)
“Comic-book time” presents massive complications when trying to figure out not only when, but how, past events occurred.With or without official timelines to contend with, “comic-book time” presents massive complications when trying to figure out not only when, but how, past events occurred. Details in published stories—not only of time’s passage, but of character and setting, of trends and political events, of everything that provides depth and verisimilitude—are quietly disposed of as “topical references” in order to keep events compressed. Characters are rendered effectively ageless, operating in an ever-shifting “now.” This is supposedly done in service to the characters, to the stories, and to continuity, but in reality it does grave damage to all those things. What makes fiction interesting, resonant, meaningful, is the complexity and plausibility of the world the writer creates on the page. Consider: when was the last time you encountered any story (in print, film or TV; historical, contemporary, SF or fantasy; anything!) that succeeded without utilizing the social, cultural, or political context of the time and place it was set? Those details are essential tools of the writer—they give a story and its characters depth and context. Without them, all you have is a plot sketch, really.
For this reason and many others, I’ve long been on the record that I much prefer “real time” as the default approach to comics storytelling. (Over the long haul, of course: I'm well aware that many multi-part stories take place over short time frames, and I'm not remotely suggesting every story be set in the exact week or month it’s published.)
In storytelling terms, I think there’s an excellent case that a realistic handling of time is the way to go more often than not. For one thing, it avoids cognitive dissonance for any portion of the audience. After all, what we’re talking about here is a pretty basic logical statement: that whatever rate time moves at in a story (or series of stories), that’s the same rate at which characters experience it (and age through it). It can thus correspond to actual calendar dates and real world events, rather than being in a constant state of flux. This makes it easier for writers to reference past events (real or fictional) without being confused themselves about what happened when, or what does and doesn’t remain canonical.
As Chris Tolworthy puts it at his excellent site critiquing Marvel Time,
“With real time, continuity is simple. Events have natural and expected consequences. Events don’t happen twice. Everything fits together into a big picture that makes sense. In the real world, nobody gets the 1980s mixed up with the 1960s… Continuity is simple when the bigger story has a meaningful structure, and complicated when it has only the illusion of structure.
“Of course, [comic-book time] works fine if we don’t pay attention. But if we don’t pay attention then why bother? The answer is that [it] is supposed to preserve the essential characters of the heroes. Except that it doesn’t… [it] destroys the characters it is supposed to preserve. [It] freezes the outward signs, such as the age, the costume, the powers. But in doing so destroys the dynamic nature of a hero.”
The only true status quo for adventure characters, as he goes on to discuss, is confronting the unknown… but the loss of real time takes that away, insisting that characters return to old, familiar (yet strangely decontextualized) situations again and again. The great events that drive memorable stories wind up meaning nothing, as they are compressed relentlessly atop one another; they become just tedious business-as-usual with no real effect on anybody.
“According to Marvel Time, the origin of the Fantastic Four and all the other stuff happened less than twelve years ago. Therefore anything that took place in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s must be either denied or replaced with an altered version.
“Many of the early stories featured battles with communists—they have now gone. The older heroes fought in WWII and Korea and Vietnam—that has all gone. They wore contemporary fashions and reflected contemporary ideals—that has all gone. They met with celebrities and presidents—that has all gone. …Piece by piece all the early stories are being wiped from history.
“And if you wait another few years, all the stories you now enjoy will never have happened, or at least not how you remember them… the entire history, which means the entire universe, is being destroyed or rewritten before our eyes. And it means that you cannot trust what you see because one day it will have not happened.”
What we’re left with are stories taking place in a cultural vacuum, disconnected from any grounding in experiential reality that readers can connect to. Whatever virtue there may seemingly be in keeping stories set in the “present day” is largely lost with this approach, since the “present day” stops having meaning. It becomes just another complication that readers are “not supposed to think about.” Of course, if we’re not meant to think about the details of the stories we read… then indeed, why bother? Entertainment that says to me “just turn your brain off, it won't make sense anyway” is entertainment I don’t stick with for very long.
Look beyond comics: consider James Bond. He was perfect for the ’60s Cold War era, and both the original novels and the films from that period hold up wonderfully. In Fleming’s novels, as you may recall, he actually has a personal history—a military career, a datable birthday, the whole shebang. But as the movie series became a “franchise” and meandered up to the present day, with Bond portrayed by a shifting series of actors and thus so perpetually youthful that he logically could never have had the early adventures we recall fondly, he’s been reduced to a cipher. On film he no longer has a real personality (just a small collection of “bits”), no personal background that fleshes him out and informs his actions, and his stories became nothing more than endless reiterations of a tired formula that utterly lacks whatever cultural relevance it once had. (In retrospect it seems inevitable that the decision was eventually made to “reboot” him.)
I don’t want my favorite comics characters to suffer that same fate. A person’s—a character’s—past is what makes him who he is. Deny that, pretend that the times one was born in (or the details of one’s origin) don't matter, and what’s left isn’t so much a character as just a shell, an empty costume.
Whenever the inevitability of time and age isn’t addressed, it forces me to confront the unreality of what I’m reading or watching.Continuity, as I discussed above, works to add depth and credibility to fiction, facilitating readers’ “willing suspension of disbelief.” Comic-book time undermines that: personally, whenever the inevitability of time and age isn’t addressed, it forces me to confront the unreality of what I’m reading or watching. When I’m told (for example) that Batman has had an ever-expanding history of prior adventures, that he’s had four partners two of whom are now established adults and another verging on it, and yet that he’s somehow only in his early-to-mid 30s, it “rubs my nose” in something I can’t help thinking about. Either he can be that young, or he can have that history, but both at once just don’t add up. (By way of contrast, when Alan Moore in Tom Strong or Warren Ellis in Planetary takes the trouble to explain in “real time” terms why certain characters are unusually long-lived yet youthful, it works; we as readers accept it and move on, with no further cognitive dissonance.)
Can anyone imagine top-notch comics like Strong or Planetary or, say, Bryan K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina working without being able to ground their characters and settings in an actual historical calendar, and move them forward through it? For those very same reasons, Tim Drake really needs to get beyond high school (he’s in what, now, his sixth school since his title began?), if anyone wants to tell any genuinely fresh and interesting stories about Robin(s).
In stark contrast to the seemingly perpetually teenaged Robin, and also to the Bond example above, consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Every season of the show took the characters to new personal and thematic territory, keeping things fresh and unpredictable. They finished high school in real time, their relationships shifted, they were changed by their experiences, and over time the background mythos grew in scope and sophistication. And on these merits the show achieved phenomenal popular success—along the way generating a spin-off, tremendous merchandising, and now an in-canon comic-book sequel.
I think you open up more possibilities for quality stories if you let writers treat characters as real people moving through real lives. With real time as with continuity in general, the choice isn’t between a perpetual status quo or constant and disorienting radical change—both of those are bad options. What we need is natural, believable, interesting change.
There are comics fans who disagree with this analysis, of course. (And professionals too; in recent years they seem to be the preponderant force in the industry.) The objections seldom really go beyond “that’s just how things are done”… but when they offer actual arguments those tend to fall into two general categories.
One is nostalgia. People recall what a character or concept was like when they, personally, first started reading, and tend to think of that as the “natural” status quo for the comic, the mean to which it should eventually always revert. They’ll often express the notion that they want their “kids and grandkids” to be able to enjoy the “same,” “iconic” characters they themselves enjoyed.
Frankly, that's ridiculous. (And narcissistic.) Would it have made any sense for TV execs in the 1950s to argue, “Why shouldn't viewers in 40 or 50 years be able to discover Davy Crockett or Dragnet or Father Knows Best just the way we did?” No: thinking like that would have led to not just creative but business stagnation. The television industry understands that even the most enduring fictional concepts can’t go on forever, and wouldn’t remain popular if they could, and so keeps up a constant search for new and different ideas.
When you look at the fictional characters and concepts that genuinely are “timeless,” they often still “work” only because they're also of their time. They don’t try to be all things to all people. They have an established canon that endures without constant rewriting. Sherlock Holmes still sells books, but as a period character; no one wants to read stories of a young Holmes in the present day. The recent TV “reinvention” of Tarzan crashed and burned, and deservedly so.
The other category of thinking defending “comic-book time” can best be described as “corporate.” It’s a perfect example of the eternal conflict between art and commerce… because the corporate ideal is that even if a concept can’t be kept alive forever, the goal is still be to get as close as possible, milking it for every possible drop of profit.
This agenda is paired with an apparent fear that certain flagship characters will cease to be “marketable” if they age and change too much. (Certainly Marvel’s Joe Quesada has been very explicit about this sensibility driving the recent and infamous “One More Day” retcon in the Spider-Man books.)
(Indeed, the “nostalgia” viewpoint really just internalizes this one, with an added veneer of personal sentiment. It echoes the marketing department’s insistence that characters be kept in a status quo they perceive as commercially viable for future exploitation—which itself represents a dangerously short-sighted concept of what makes comics (and most other entertainment) appealing.)
I honestly can’t fathom this line of thinking. DC has for years been deliberately, explicitly trying to sell the concept of a shared “universe” with a diverse, multi-generational array of characters… yet at the same time it hobbles the attempt to tell stories about them by denying the passage of time.
DC certainly had a chance to implement real time linewide after the original Crisis, and actually did so in quite a few titles (Booster Gold, Captain Atom, The Question, Green Arrow, Hellblazer, and Sandman, among others), but it didn’t really stick. They’ve tried it again from time to time on a more limited basis (e.g., the Batman run from the explicitly year-long “No Man's Land” in ‘99 through about 2002... and of course last year’s 52), but then they keep sweeping it all under the rug again as if they’re afraid of the implications.
Which they probably are, even if there’s no sensible reason to be. Corporate thinking tends to be deeply risk averse.
Even seen in the best possible light, this is a business motivation only, not an artistic one at all. But when the business involves storytelling, you can’t really separate the two... and if the creative side is limited to rehashing the same basic stories over and over again about essentially static characters, it will diminish reader interest and thus eat into the business side.
The comic-book business (especially traditional super-heroes) hasn’t been attracting new young readers as fast as it loses old ones for many years now. But those loyal older readers mostly appreciate the bildungsroman aspect of comics storytelling that’s been dominant (even though in tension with the treatment of time) since at least the early 1960s. They want to see their sentimental favorites change and progress, rather than just rehash a nostalgia trip.
What then might soothe the corporate nerves? How can the company satisfy long-term readers while also attracting new ones?
What really attracts new, younger readers to comics? Well, one model is the Archie Comics line. Admittedly, they’ve been going strong for 68 years with nothing but rote repetition of plots and themes. Nothing ever changes (except the strictly superficial: fashions and slang). But I don’t read them, nor do most fans old enough to earn their own spending money, because they’re boring.
The non-boring approach is exemplified by manga, which have taken the American market by storm in recent years. The actual content isn’t always to the taste of readers raised on super-heroes, but the underlying philosophy makes eminent sense. To quote one Paul Gravett,
“Manga stay fresh and vibrant because they have to keep on finding new authors and winning over readers. Unlike in America, where Spider-Man or Superman are still wearing their underpants outside their trousers after forty, or sixty, years, in Japan not every successful series has to last forever. Manga engage you because they chart the lives and growth of characters and do actually come to a conclusion. It may take thousands of pages, but you can see genuine change going on, not just the “illusion of change” found in most superhero soap operas, where even death is temporary in order to protect and preserve valuable properties. Manga stories can really end, because that way new stories can begin.”
DC actually has its finger on the solution; it just seems to be afraid to pull the trigger. For years now it’s been developing the concept of “legacy” heroes, second- and third-generation successors to various costumed forebears. For years it’s also been developing new ideas as closed-end series that run for a few years and then wrap up, suitable for collected editions. (And indeed, most series intended to be open-ended seldom last more than a few years anyway!) In reality, then, there’s very little being published in the DCU setting that couldn’t be done perfectly well in real time.
Ultimately the greatest area of [editorial] concern seems to boil down to just the “Big Three” characters, the “icons”... Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.Ultimately the greatest area of concern seems to boil down to just the “Big Three” characters, the “icons” that have serious market recognition outside of comics: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Yet even if one wants these three characters to remain perpetually “youthful,” if only for merchandising reasons, it can be done easily enough in story terms without slowing down time and aging for the entire rest of the universe along the way. After all, both Clark and Diana are arguably immortal due to their powers and origins, as multiple stories have shown... and while Bruce is mortal, (A) he’s been immersed in a life-restoring Lazarus Pit at least once (Denny O’Neil’s Birth of the Demon graphic novel), so further aging is basically “optional,” and (B) his gradual aging, if it is used, actually offers up really interesting story potential.
So DC’s editorial team could shift at pretty much any time to a model of long-term, collectible story arcs that deliberately have beginnings, middles, and ends. They could take the approach exemplified by Buffy and by manga. They could offer longtime readers something compelling with the characters they already know and like, in the form of exciting new developments catalyzed by the effects of time on those characters’ lives… and at the same time, offer new readers something compelling, period, in the form of new characters and concepts that can go in unpredictable directions because they aren’t expected to support a franchise for endless years to come. Instead of timeless stasis the DCU could—as both a business model and a creative model—embrace the natural passage of time and gradual replacement process among a diverse, multigenerational cast of characters.
Or DC’s decision-makers could continue to buy into the same fallacy they hold now: that it’s safer to keep doing things the same old way, because real time and the changes it brings are unhealthy for comics.
The lack of it, I fear, will actually do far more harm, far sooner.
So that’s the case for real time.
However. Despite all of that, I’m well aware that DC doesn’t use it as a guiding principle at the moment, nor does it look likely to take the plunge any time soon. Hope springs eternal, of course, but in the meantime the challenge remains: how do we construct a reliable, consistent fictional timeline for the DCU while acknowledging the awkward constraints of “comic-book time”? Well, it’s not impossible, but it’s trickier than it ought to be. How exactly does one go about it? Read on!…
So, how did I do this? Despite all the disputes and confusion about DCU continuity, we can still discern some rules of thumb that make it possible to work things out.
Fan preferences remain divided in many ways, as discussed above, and as any discussion in fandom circles either in person or online will make clear. Still, there does appear to be provisional consensus on a few points. Most fans agree that:
With those general principles as a starting point (and the devout wish that DC editorial might recognize them as well), I venture forth into the breach and attempt to explain the reasoning I’ve used in constructing this chronology. It helps to recognize that DCU history can be broken down into several discrete periods:
As noted earlier, DC has twice published “official” timelines of DCU history, in Zero Hour #0 (1994) and Guide to the DC Universe 2000 Secret Files and Origins #1 (2000). For those who don’t have those comics handy, I’ve prepared a table condensing the contents of both timelines, to show how they compare. As you can see, both condense the Silver Age down to less than seven years, and both agree that the events of Zero Hour falls approximately four years after the original Crisis, but other than that they disagree quite a bit both with one another and with the actual stories from which they’re supposedly derived. (The character-specific timelines published in various Secret Files issues between these two bookends are even less consistent and more laden with problems, paradoxes, and unanswered questions.) They often flatly contradict information from even the most recent stories, even when those stories are otherwise mutually consistent.
If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, this chronology approaches the DCU from a point of view that prioritizes narrative concerns, not marketing ones. I don’t deny the very real tension between the conflicting demands of art and commerce, as discussed above. But what’s fun about the experience of reading super-hero comics is the sense of immersion in an intertextual diegesis, a shared narrative space, and that’s the sense in which this project is conceived.
An attentive reader simply can’t take DC’s “official” timelines at face value.In that light, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that an attentive reader simply can’t take DC’s “official” timelines at face value… although they are at least useful for confirming the canonicity of certain events, and sometimes for determining the sequence of those events as well, if and when more compelling evidence doesn’t contradict them. Furthermore, DC’s timelines suffer from an unavoidable limitation of their format: they’re too brief, listing only very major characters and events, and offering no explanation of their underlying reasoning. This just plants the seeds of confusion: how is one to fill the lacunae?
I couldn’t attempt to answer that question, couldn’t tackle a project like this, without establishing some ground rules for evaluating evidence. Doing so is always a balancing act, but I’ve tried hard to avoid falling victim to confirmation bias. There are no “grand theories” here; no hypothetical “ratios” of comics time to real time; no dates, ages, or numbers chosen at random or based on personal preference. Instead, the rules I settled on rank evidence in the following order of priority:
An additional complication flows from the fact that not all published stories are necessarily meant to be canonical. Some make this self-evident (e.g., “Elseworlds” books); others are more ambiguous, with some story arcs apparently canonical and others not (e.g., Legends of the Dark Knight and its various spin-offs, including Long Halloween; Legends of the DC Universe; JLA Classified; Superman Confidential; Batman Confidential.) Some books even attempt to switch gears about canonicity mid-story (e.g., the controversial Superman: Birthright.)
To account for these and other complications, I’ve introduced a new color-coding scheme to this version of the timeline to indicate provisional canonicity.
Notes and references should be fairly self-explanatory; I’ve done my best to explain any reasoning and/or source material that isn’t blatantly obvious. A brief overview:
To a very large extent, my approach is inspired by George Olshevsky’s groundbreaking work on his classic Official Marvel Index series in the 1980s, which greatly clarified the chronology of the first two decades of the Marvel Universe. Note, however, that unlike Olshevsky’s work or the current Marvel Chronology Project, this is not an attempt to describe and sequence every single story ever published by DC. That would be way beyond the scope of anything I personally have either the interest or the capability to do… nor is it really necessary.
Instead, for history up to the point of the Crisis, I’ve tried to indicate events that have been retroactively established as canonical by the rules of evidence above. In the post-Crisis sections I’ve stuck to more significant “milestone” events, though that’s unavoidably a judgment call. The result is a fairly detailed framework into which other events can be interpolated.
I don’t read every comic published by DC—doing so would conflict with my budget, my available time, and my sense of good taste—but I do try to read enough to keep the “big picture” in view. If I’ve missed a story that contains pertinent chronological evidence or casts things in a new light, by all means feel free to call it to my attention. I welcome corrections, clarifications, and any other helpful input, especially wherever you see a question mark (?) signaling incomplete or uncertain information.
Moreover, I also welcome any critique that challenges me to rethink my assumptions and defend my reasoning—after all, if you’re the sort who enjoys this, you’ve likely got a nit or two to pick with my methodology or conclusions… or if you don’t understand what all the fuss is about, perhaps you have a different opinion, on a more fundamental level, about how and why we enjoy serial fiction in general and comics in particular. It’s up to every reader to decide for him- or herself the extent to which this chronology is persuasive. So go ahead! Let the debate go on! Just drop me an e-mail.
If all this ain’t quite your cuppa tea… well, I probably lost you back at the beginning anyway. (Or maybe around the phrase “intertextual diegesis.” ;) ) But if this is something you find interesting, it can lead to endless hours of fascination and mental exercise—akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle, or a crossword, or a detective story, or even to puzzling over the unanswered questions of real-world history. So with all the groundwork laid: here’s my attempt to set the record straight, and lay out the DCU’s history as clearly and coherently as possible, as DC itself has actually chronicled it in the stories we all remember.