Thursday, July 05, 2012

Crisis On Earth Prime Part 1: The Birth, Death, Rebirth, And Re-Rebirth Of The Multiverse

By the time it reached the ripe old age of 50, the fictional shared universe of DC Comics had become a cluttered, confusing place that was, in the minds of those in charge, inaccessible to new readers.
It had started out simply enough with a handful of colorful characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, most of whom had their own self-contained adventures, but who occasionally teamed up, either in pairs, the way Superman and Batman did in World’s Finest, or en masse, as in the Justice Society of America stories that appeared in All-Star Comics.
As the novelty of super heroes wore off and other types of stories – horror, crime, western. – gained in popularity, the DC Universe was simplified even further, as it was only The Trinity (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) that managed to remain popular enough to continue their monthly adventures, while the other characters faded into obscurity.
In the minds of the general public, at least.
As DC eventually came to learn, many of the readers they had assumed had long-since given up their funny book habit in favor of more adult pursuits, had, in fact, continued their regular pilgrimages to the newsstands and drug stores to pick up the latest four-color adventures.
These older fans remembered the panoply of characters who had once dominated the sales charts, and there was a demand for their return.
While the Golden Age of Comics had ended, there were those who knew that every ending is actually a beginning, and with the re-introduction of The Flash in the pages of Showcase #4, the Silver Age began.
These new stories featuring a character called Flash were not about lab technician Jay Garrick, who wore a blue, red, and yellow costume, and an improbable helmet in the style of Mercury, the swift messenger of the gods, but rather “Police Scientist” Barry Allen, who wore a completely different costume, and actually chose the name Flash because as a boy he had thrilled to the comic book adventures of Jay Garrick.
In Barry’s world, the super heroes of the Golden Age were just as fictional as they were – and as Barry himself was – in our own.

Birth of the multiverse.

The success of this new Flash led to updated versions of other Golden Age characters.  The new Green Lantern was test pilot Hal Jordan rather than railroad engineer Alan Scott.  The new Hawkman was Katar Hol, an alien police officer, rather than archaeologist – and reincarnated Egyptian prince – Carter Hall.
Some years later, Barry found himself on another world, one that was very much like his own, with the notable exception that Jay Garrick, his childhood hero, was a real person, and it was a world in which all the adventures Barry had read about actually took place.
And with that, the DC Multiverse was born.
The Silver Age heroes, it seemed, lived on a world known as Earth 1, while the heroes of the Golden Age lived on Earth 2  (though, chronologically, it would have made more sense to number them the other way around, but Barry was the one who discovered the other Earth, so he got to choose the name).  Both worlds occupied the same space, but existed at different vibrational frequencies.
I have to admit that I’m a bit fuzzy on when it was established that the then-current adventures of The Trinity also took place on Earth 1, but it turns out that’s where they were.
(For the record, it was later established that, unlike the rest of their contemporaries, who were completely different people from their Golden Age counterparts, The Trinity were simply younger duplicates of theirs, sharing the same names, careers, powers, and origins.  There were differences – the Superman of Earth 2’s Kryptonian name was Kal-L, rather than Kal-El, and, as Clark Kent, he worked at the Daily Star, rather than the Daily Planet.  More on that in a bit.)
This, in the minds of DC executives in 1985, is where the DC Universe’s troubles began, as it spawned the notion of the multiverse.  After all, if there were two different Earths, why not three?  Or four?  Or even an infinite number?
These infinite Earths became a springboard for a lot of stories over the next two decades, and served as a convenient explanation for a lot of mistakes and errors in continuity.  “Oh, that story contradicts another story?  Umm….well, it took place on Earth B.  Yeah, that’s the ticket…”
Similarly, this was used to retroactively explain continuity errors that had taken place in the Golden Age.  For some time, for example, Clark Kent worked at the Daily Star, with a boss named George Taylor, and then, thanks to, if I recall correctly, changes to the character made on the Superman radio show, things suddenly changed in the comics, and without explanation, he suddenly worked at the Daily Planet for Perry “Don’t Call Me Chief!” White.
This also gave them the ability to explore ideas that weren’t feasible within the framework of maintaining the status quo on Earth 1, which is where all of the primary stories of the day were set.
In back-up features and crossover stories between Golden and Silver age counterparts, or the annual team-up between Earth 1’s Justice League of America and Earth 2’s Justice Society of America, we got to see glimpses of how things had played out in the time between the characters of the Golden Age disappearing (or in the case of The Trinity, retroactively disappearing) from the shelves.
Superman, for example, had finally married Lois (as seen in the Mr. and Mrs. Superman stories that appeared in Superman Family, for which I feel a certain amount of nostalgia), and Batman had married a reformed Catwoman, had a daughter, become a widower, and been murdered.
Another use for the multiverse was finding a home for many of the acquisitions of the intellectual properties of other publishers that DC engaged in over the years.  Captain Marvel – more commonly known as Shazam to the general public – had been at the center of an extended lawsuit between DC and Fawcett Publications over copyright infringement.
After his debut, Captain Marvel, with his extended Marvel Family, had soon eclipsed the popularity of Superman, which, unsurprisingly, didn’t sit well with DC, who claimed that the Big Red Cheese was a blatant rip-off of their flagship character.  Most experts (and non-experts) agree that the lawsuit lacked merit, and that the decision in DC’s favor was a miscarriage of justice, but the end result was that DC acquired the publishing rights to the character (and eventually took complete ownership).
Rather than bringing the Marvel Family as part of the DC Universe proper and setting their adventures on Earth 1, DC introduced Earth S (“S” for “Shazam”).
(Part of the reason that Cap came to be known as “Shazam” – which was the magic word that transformed him from Billy Batson into Captain Marvel – was another lawsuit launched by Marvel Comics, who successfully blocked DC from ever referring to the character by his actual name on a cover, though they could still use the name inside of comics; Marvel introduced a Captain Marvel of its own, whose name could appear as the title of a comic, and the story of the life and death of Mar-Vell might well make for another blog post sometime.)
Similarly, characters who had formerly belonged to Quality Comics, amongst other companies, inhabited a world called Earth X.
While most of the characters from other Earths weren’t able to sustain their own stories – a revival of All-Star in the 1970s, featuring the modern-day adventures of the Golden Age characters and their children didn’t last long – the annual JLA/JSA stories, which always featured a “Crisis” on one of the assorted Earths in the DC Multiverse were a venerable tradition.
One such story introduced yet another Earth, one designated as Earth Prime.
Back when Barry met Jay, which wasn’t at all like Harry meeting Sally, the explanation for how Barry had grown up reading comic books about the adventures that Jay was actually having was that there were certain people who were sensitive to the vibrational frequencies that separated the two worlds and were unconsciously aware of the events that were transpiring on the other Earth, and they made comic books from what they thought were simply ideas for fictional stories.
And so it was with Earth Prime, an Earth where the writers and artists at DC Comics were able to pick up on the vibrations from all of the Earths and write about them, and the JLA and JSA found themselves in a world without real super heroes of any kind, where each and every one of them existed only as fictional characters on the printed page, and they even had adventures with the editors, artists, and writers at DC Comics who produced the comics about the heroes of these many different worlds.
Earth Prime, in other words, was our Earth.
So, that brings us to 1985, and the 50th anniversary of the company that had been known as National Periodicals, or, more commonly, DC (the DC stood for Detective Comics, though that technically made their name Detective Comics Comics).
50 is a big number, and DC decided that they needed an equally big event to commemorate this milestone, and also needed to find a way to clear out the accumulated clutter and find a way to appeal to a new audience that had little interest in tying together the threads of fifty years of continuity.  Writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez – who were the superstar team behind The New Teen Titans, the most popular and best-selling title DC published at that time – pitched an idea called The History of the DC Universe.They envisioned a twelve-issue limited series that would catalog the vast cast of characters who had been published by DC in the past half-century, explaining how all of the stories, and all of the worlds, fit together.  Then, once that was complete, in the final issue, they would blow it all up, and the next month every comic published by DC would reset to #1 and they would start the whole thing all over again.
This was a bold move, one that DC wasn’t quite bold enough to make.  Instead, the beginning of 1985 saw the introduction of two new books.  One was called Who’s Who:  The Definitive Guide to the DC Universe, a sort of comic book encyclopedia – inspired by Marvel’s Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe – which provided the vital statistics such as the height, weight, eye color, powers, origins, significant adventures, and other vital statistics of the assorted characters in the DC stable, featuring original artwork by a, ahem, who’s who of comic book artists.

Who are these people?

The other, hearkening back to the annual JLA/JSA team-ups, was entitled Crisis on Infinite EarthsCoIE provided the payoff to a sub-plot that had been running throughout all of DC’s titles for some time, featuring a mysterious shadowy figure called the Monitor, and his lovely young assistant Lila, who could be seen observing the events of the stories they appeared in from an orbiting satellite.
The tagline for CoIE was, “Worlds will live, worlds will die, and nothing will ever be the same,” and in the very first issue we definitely saw the dying part, as alternate Earths in the DC Universe were consumed by a wall of anti-matter, with the heroes of Earths 1 – with the exception of the hero who started it all, Barry Allen – having no idea that it was happening until the Monitor finally stepped out of the shadows and summoned those he had been secretly observing for so long – both heroes and villains alike – to fight the destructive rampage of his evil counterpart, the Anti-Monitor.
Throughout its twelve-issue run, countless worlds were destroyed, and individual characters died – sometimes nobly, sometimes ignobly – and virtually every character that DC owned appeared at one point or another, even if only in the midst of a crowd in a single panel.

*Sniff*  I-I've got something in my eye.  It's tears, because I'm crying.

In the end, the multiverse was destroyed, and in its place a new, unified single DC Universe with an entirely new history emerged, one that combined elements of all that had gone before.
Most of the Earth 2 heroes, for example, managed to stick around, with the exception of the Golden Age version of The Trinity, who, in the new history, never existed, and all of their adventures in the 1940s and 1950s had taken place on this new Earth.
It wasn’t quite the fresh start Wolfman and Perez had envisioned, and it took several years of clean-up to establish anything even approaching a coherent continuity, and to figure out which stories had happened and which ones hadn’t.
Indeed, it took some time for the titles that DC was publishing to wrap up their existing storylines and be able to start fresh, and there were a lot of unintended and unanticipated consequences.
The first attempt at cleaning up the mess was 1986’s History of the DC Universe, which, while produced by Wolfman and Perez, was considerably less ambition than their first pitch, and which attempted, to explain the new status quo and serve as a springboard for the launch of new comics and the relaunch of the existing titles.
The second was a major crossover event in 1994 called Zero Hour, which attempted to streamline the new continuity.
Somewhere along the line the DC Universe kinda-sorta stabilized, but 20 years after CoIE, the DCU had managed to accumulate new clutter, and so comic fans were presented with a sequel to CoIE entitled Infinite Crisis.  This reset the DC Universe once again, and reintroduced the multiverse (though this one, rather than being infinite, was limited to 52), but ultimately it led to yet another Crisis in 2009, this one designated as Final.
Final Crisis didn’t have quite the same reality-altering consequences as either of its predecessors, but its status quo didn’t last long, as the time between resets of DC continuity seemed to be getting shorter and shorter,* and in 2011 we were presented with Flashpoint, which told the story of Barry Allen trapped in an alternate reality, and the resolution of which led to DC finally making that bold move Wolfman and Perez had called for so long before:  they blew it all up and started over again completely, launching what has been alternately called the DCnU and “The New 52.**”
Anyway, this not-so brief lesson in the birth, death, and rebirth, and re-rebirth of the DC Multiverse is ultimately leading to a point – or at least an anecdote – but I’m afraid this entry is already long enough, so that will have to wait for another entry, though I’ll bet that on Threshold 2 my Golden Age counterpart managed to get it done in one entry…

*Crisis on Infinite Earths:  1985.  Zero Hour:  1994.  Infinite Crisis:  2005.  Final Crisis:  2009.  Flashpoint:  2011.
**After the last issue of Infinite Crisis, every title published by DC jumped ahead in time one year, in the “One Year Later” event, and new titles featuring new characters were launched.  As a follow-up to IC, DC got a bunch of writers and artists together to put out a year-long weekly series entitled 52, which while containing its own narrative, filled in many of the gaps that occurred during the one year jump.  This seems to have been the source of DC’s obsession with the number 52.