When did it start? For me it must have been an old issue of the Justice League of America, probably a summertime team up of the JLA and the Justice Society of America (that was back before the summer ‘special’ issues that now flood the market). It would happen every year, the old heroes of the Justice Society meeting the young turks of the Justice League of America. Kids waited for this each summer. It was a ritual. I would devour each and every hero crowded issue. It was through these (and the reprints in the sacred one hundred pagers, 100 pages for 50 cents, and then 60 cents, and then...) that I first learned of that magical, continuity-crunching place, Earth 2, home of the Justice Society and other 40’s DC heroes (and heroes that they bought from other companies, like the CBS network buying up whatever the ailing Dumont network had that was decent). These annual crossovers were and still are some of my favorite comics ever, and a favorite of the other poor suckers out there that collected and cataloged the DC Earths.
That’s right, I said Earths, plural.
There were several costumed character crammed worlds out there in the DC ether, but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, there was editor Julie Schwartz, writer Gardner Fox, and a novel idea.
When DC revived the Flash in 1956, they took the name and the powers from the older 1940’s character, and revamped him, giving him a more ‘scientific’ basis and a modern, fifties spin. Instead of Jay Garrick college student who breathed in hard water in a lab accident, he was Barry Allen a police scientist who is bathed with a collection of electrified chemicals... in a lab accident. Some things don’t really change. Thus re-started the still continuing adventures of the Flash (in one form or another) and with it, the silver age of comics. But wait, what about Jay, the first Flash? Where is he in the scheme of the new Flash?
Well, that’s what a lot of the older readers wanted to know also. People like Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas, older fans that remembered the great days of the Justice Society, and wrote letter campaigns to Julie Schwartz asking for their return.
But that was the past, and Schwartz was too busy re-inventing the present.
Julie and company next revamped Green Lantern from 40s broadcaster Alan Scott into test pilot Hal Jordan, with plans for others to follow. Before they brought back more he wanted to bring back the ultimate team, the JSA. This would be a revamped JSA, using the new Flash and Green Lantern. The Justice League of America premiered in Brave and the Bold, #28. Flash and Green Lantern, along with Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and J’onn J’onz, battle Starro the starfish hell-bent on world domination (First thing I’d do, if I was a giant Starfish? Try to take over the world.) The JLA was fine and fans bought it out, but still no JSA and no explanation as to what happened to them. Until 1961, Flash # 123, to be exact. In the story “Flash of Two Worlds”, Schwartz and Gardner Fox decided to answer that question.
By 1961, other golden age heroes had been revived in new forms. Hawkman and the Atom rejoined the DC line up in new Silver Age forms. The golden age of comics had proved a valuable source of viable characters; why not bring back the originals?
In Flash #123, Flash learns by accident that there is another dimension, (beyond that which is known to man) similar to ours but In this other dimension Jay Garrick, only an old comic book character on Barry Allen’s earth, is real. This new earth, dubbed Earth Two (although, it should by all rights be Earth One, I mean, it was first, right?) is the home of the JSA, though they are not mentioned. The two Flashes team up to put a stop to a crime wave on Earth Two by several just released villains out to get even with the Flash (of Earth Two, that is). The Flashes make short work of The Thinker, The Shade, and the Fiddler, (yes, that’s right, they picked the three lamest villains for this historic team up. Well, remember the villain Barry fought in his first story? The Turtle? Coulda been worse) then shook hands and promised to see each other again.
Almost. The issue was a big success with older and newer readers alike. They wanted more! So, in Flash #137, the original Green Lantern, Flash, Atom, Hawkman, Black Canary, and Dr. Mid-Night are brought back as captives of Earth 2 villain Vandal Savage. The team defeats Savage, and starts to talk about the good old days. Fox and Schwartz leave us hanging there, dang them. Readers still wanted more than a casual, “Oh here we are again, thrown by happenstance and a villain hell-bent on world domination, together in an adventure..” No, it wasn’t enough. They wanted the JSA.
Justice League Of America #21, Aug. 1963 brought ‘em back; Doctor Fate, Hawkman, Hourman, Black Canary, and the original Atom, Green Lantern and Flash. In a coincidence, the Fiddler, the Icicle, and the Wizard all make an escape from jail. In the getaway, the Fiddler and his cronies are transported to Earth One, meet up with the Earth Two villains Chronos, Felix Faust, and Dr. Alchemy. Both trios find out that there is yet another earth to conquer and decide to join forces against the JLA and JSA in order to do just that. (Sidebar: Why would you want to take over the earth? Any earth? Can you imagine the work it’d take to run the thing? You’d be the worlds’ biggest landlord, with the population of the world as your tenants. Think of the calls for more heat alone! Staggering.)
Anyway, the Justice Society teams up with the Justice League and whup villain butt. Took two issues, but they do it. Now we know much more about Earth Two. Basically, every hero after the creation of The Martian Manhunter (Detective Comics #255, 1955) was on Earth One, every hero before that was a resident of Earth Two. Pretty much (with some backsliding.) There were two of some heroes, like Superman, Batman (and Robin) and Wonder Woman, and special problems, like Black Canary.
Black Canary was around in the forties, bringing up the back of Flash Comics, and co-starring in All Star with the JSA. When she was brought back she decided, with the death of her husband Larry Lance, to come to Earth One. So she did, and joined the JLA, where she began a relationship with Green Arrow. Now Green Arrow it was pointed out, must be at least twenty years younger than Black Canary, so, a ‘fix’ was in order. The writers stopped referring to her Earth Two past, and after a while, she became her own daughter. There! All fixed.
With Great Power Comes Great Wealth!
Things could go on like this forever. But, DC kept adding earths! The next, (yeah, it’s debatable, but hey! Write your own article) was Earth Three. In JLA #29-30, the JLA team up with JSA (it had become an annual thing) against the villains of Earth Three, where every super-powered being became a villain. No, no mind controlling thing, they weren't under some spell; they just found out they had super powers and decided to get rich. Seems a bit more natural than fighting criminals, but I might be cynical. Or we're living on Earth 3.
The villains called themselves the Crime Syndicate, and featured Ultraman, Superwoman, Owlman, Jonny Quick, and Power Ring. More JLA knockoffs than Squadron Supreme. So, our heroes win, and the Crime Syndicate is vanquished, and another earth is added to the growing pantheon.
(Another Sidebar here. Another earth introduced about this time is ‘Earth-Prime’ in Flash #179. In this story, Flash is stranded on, that’s right, THIS earth. In order to get home, he enlists the help of DC editor Julie Schwartz to build a cosmic treadmill, Flash’s time and dimension travel machine. I guess you just pop down to the local Radio Shack for parts.)
Now DC started adding earths as they went on a buying spree. The editors were buying the defunct superheroes of other companies, so with each new purchase, a new earth was born. The Quality Comics Superheroes of the 1940s (Uncle Sam, The Ray, Dollman, Phantom Lady, Black Condor, the Human Bomb) were re-introduced in JLA 107-108 fighting the Nazi’s who, on their earth had won WW2. The JLA/JSA helped turn the tide and won the war on what became Earth X. (Later they came to Earth One and became the Freedom Fighters.)
Then there was Earth 4, the home to the Charlton heroes, like Blue Beetle, Capt. Atom, and the Question, (what about Dr. Graves?) Earth S, the home of the Fawcett heroes, The Marvel Family, Spy Smasher, Minute Man, Bulletman, Bulletgirl, Mr. Scarlet, et all.
And did I mention the pocket reality? The one where DC’s also-ran JSA of the 40s the Seven Soldiers of Victory ended up? They were attacked by The Hand and sent back into several past eras and all memory of them erased? Whew! JLA 100-103 told the story. The heroes ended up on Earth’s One and Two.
Into the Multi-Verse!
Each new group that didn’t quite fit into the continuity could fit into its own earth. New earths sprang up everywhere. The Inferior Five had their earth (Earth 12), Captain Carrot had his (Earth C), and many, many more. Comics writer and historian J. K. Carrier sent me a five page list of the earths he counted before he gave up. I may dispute a few, but man, I admire the work and ingenuity.
Did DC have an ‘Earth’ problem? Maybe. Certainly it was getting mighty convoluted, but what to do about it? Most of the old hands, the writers and editors at DC didn’t worry too much about how the stories were to fit together, they just wanted to come up with a good story for the next issue. If it contradicted a story told ten years ago, they simply ignored it. As long as it sounded good and the hero won in the end, great, write that puppy up! No problem there.
Does DC have a problem with its continuity now? Yes. Whatever that continuity is on whatever day this happens to be.
The current DC continuity crisis I trace back to the early 70’s, when the young fans started getting jobs as writers and artists in the comics. Now I don’t mean to dump on the fans who turned pro, but I will. A little.
Now fans are some of the best people to preserve tradition and take care of its heroes. But, they can also be some of the worst when it comes playing connect the dots of continuity. People like Roy Thomas, Paul Levitz, Cary Bates, and Marv Wolfman now had the chance to ‘fix’ all those mistakes, to explain away all the little inconsistencies, and big screw-ups, that existed (such as where Wonder Girl came from, how Wonder Woman got her powers and old costume back after losing both in the 60s, how Superman can fool people with the glasses bit, The Super Sons...etc.).
All this explaining became an end unto itself, filling in the missing pieces, writing the issues between the issues; trying to connect that which was never really meant to be connected. Finally came the BIG EXPLANATION, the end of all those nagging continuity questions, the Crisis on Infinite Earths. People thought it was needed.
In fact the way things were going, people would look to Marvel’s Universe, and say “Gee. I wish we had that cool, no multi-Earths continuity.” So the fans, and the writers, spoke, and the Crisis was met.
(Yet another sidebar. The person who really helped start this whole ‘continuity is all important’ thing was Stan Lee. Yup, Mr. Stan Lee Presents himself. In order to build interest and readership, Stan would constantly refer to other Marvel comics, and most importantly, for this article, refer to back issues of the comics. Soon people sought out those issues, and kept track of what was going on, and giving of the famous ‘no prizes’ when Stan would forget what had happened. So there you have it, It all starts innocently enough...)
The Crisis was hailed as a solution, a straightening out of all those silly mistakes, all that heavy, hard-to-follow continuity.
So DC, (I’m sure they put a lot of thought into it) wiped clean fifty years of history, Put a year long mini-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” that also killed the Flash (Barry Allen) and Supergirl outright then cut and pasted what was left. The new continuity was celebrated it with a book (written by Roy Thomas) called“The History of the DC Universe”. They thought it was done. The continuity was clean, lean and straight, and now the problems would be gone.
Problems started almost immediately. No one was sure what was in the continuity anymore, plus several titles and characters were re-launched after the crisis (Superman, Batman, Hawkman) and no one knew what was still the history of these characters and what wasn’t. They also decided that they could no longer keep the original Justice Society around. Yes, the very group that started the multi-verse to save for obscurity. DC seemed embarrassed to have these old WW2 era characters around. They must go. The characters took a side trip into a Valhalla, yet another dimension where they would spend eternity fighting the good fight. So they were gone.
The Hawkman reboot didn’t take as well as the Superman one did. The new Hawkman (of Hawkworld) became today's Hawkman, the golden age Hawkman was enlisted to take the place of the silver age Hawkman, and the silver age Hawkman? Never existed. You were only dreaming.
And Crisis didn’t take. So then they launched Zero Hour, to fix the messes that which was Crisis had wrought. DC tried to straighten it again, and ended up messing it up more (see Hawkman). They tried to fix, ignore and meddle with what was left for years, launching one multi-series after another, each claiming it was going to fix problems and sort things out. Characters were killed, re-booted, killed, replaced, killed, brought back. Each time the universe was scrubbed it somehow came back darker - as if a bad copy of itself, dimming around the edges until it disappears.
So after all that comes another theory. The pre-crisis DC still exists, the multi-verse is still intact, still out there, a cosmic treadmill run away, waiting to be discovered. What we have now is one of those annoying pocket universes, one of those terrible comic writer’s cop- outs, the comics equivalent of the unknown twin brother. Someday the one earth will explode, releasing the characters back to the worn treads of their old Earths. Hey. It could happen.
What do I think about it all? Well.
DC needs more respect for it’s heritage, and needs, REALLY needs to realize that a quick fix (if a year long mini-series is quick) is not what is needed, and is just what won’t work.
If DC would look long haul at it’s characters, figure out their place in the universe, and also respect the long history of it’s characters, things will be much better than the constant revamping we’ve been seeing.
Of course, if someone has a good idea for a story, we might find a way around history...
But hey, that’s just my opinion.
As a postscript since this article was first written some years back, DC has brought back the mulit-verse, making all versions of all the DC characters available for their creators. This is either genius or desperation. Who knows? But it is interesting. There are still worlds within worlds... or are there?