Last week on What Were They Thinking? (the place where we look at all of the stupidest, most ill-advised things in comic book history) we looked at the Marvel cycle, where Marvel eroded reader investment in their storytelling by overuse of large scale comic book events to change the status quo of their comics universe only to change the status quo back within a short period of time. This week though, we are looking at Detective Comics Comics Incorperated and their own, equally destructive variation, the DC cycle.
So, to understand the DC cycle, we first need to look at what makes the DC universe so fundamentally different from the Marvel universe, what approach each company took to get to where they are today. And it is honestly quite simple. Though Marvel started as a publisher later than DC by 4 years (with DC setting themselves up as a comic book publisher by producing Adventure and Funnies comic strips before stumbling upon and creating the Superhero genre, whilst Marvel would jump on the Superhero band wagon and expand their reach afterwards) there isn't much to differentiate the two throughout the Golden Age. Both mainly published Superheros throughout the early 40's before focusing more-so on other genres in the post-war years of the late 40's- early 50's (though DC would maintain publishing Superman and Batman consistantly, whilst Marvel would flounder and switch genre focus with each passing trend). However, the big split came in May of 1962. As most people with a passing interest in comic book history will know, in 1956 DC relaunched the stagnant superhero genre in Showcase #4 by introducing Barry Allen, the second man to take the name of The Flash. In this origin story, Barry was shown to have read comics containing the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, as a child and in 1961's The Flash #123 he would meet Jay Garrick and this would establish the DC multiverse, where the Golden Age heros continuity would take place on Earth-2, whilst the Silver Age heroes continuity would take place on Earth-1.
So, what happened in May 1962. Well, Fantastic Four #4 was published. Marvel had relaunched their Superhero line by only reinventing one of their heroes, The Human Torch, who was their original hero. In Fantastic Four #4 they reintroduced The Sub-Mariner, the same Sub-Mariner from the Golden Age, establishing that the Golden Age and Silver Age Marvel heroes lived in the same universe, hence setting the precident. DC had a multiverse continuity whilst Marvel had a single universe. DC would reboot whilst Marvel would continue.
And there in begins the problems for both. For Marvel, their history and ideology dictates that everything stays within their established continuity, even things that happen outside of the main Marvel universe continuity (such as the Ultimate Universe) eventually get folded into the main continuity. And, as we discussed last week, that can create problems when you are afraid to let go of an established status quo. However, DC's idealogy is both more intelligent and more dangerous.
DC allow their characters to grow much more than Marvel. Younger characters age and grow into roles that they can inherit from older heroes (see Wally West), but DC still have the problem that Marvel have in that their oldest characters have a history stretching back to the 1930's and very few of their readers (if any) have been reading for that long. So where is a good entry point? Well, the DC solution is the same as they used back in the 1950's, they stop, wipe the slate clean and start again. Well, when I say wipe the slate clean...
After the Silver Age began, the DC universe trundled along quite nicely for the next quarter of a century. However, by the time they were reaching their 50th anniversary in 1985, things had become a little complicated. DC had an almost 50 year continuity for the JSA and a 25 year contiuity for the JLA, but they also had an Earth-3 that contained evil versions of the JLA, they had universes for characters they accquired from other companies (such as Captain Marvel or The Freedom Fighters) with their own seperate continuities. They had a universe for the adventures of their resident funny animal, Captain Carrot and they had a universe where superheroes didn't exist outside comics. All in all, continuity in the DC multi-verse was a mess, so they gave Marv Wolfman and George Perez the job of cleaning it up. The result was Crisis On Infinite Earths, the best crossover of all time. The did away with the multiverse, gave Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Hawkman and Batman new origin stories (the later being Batman: Year One) and melded all of the continuities together into one universe.
Yeah, it didn't work. The JSA were left out in the cold following a special that wrote them out of existance, but they were back in print within 5 years and Doctor Fate was already in the Justice League by that point. Meanwhile Power Girl and Huntress were given new origin stories and folded into the main universe in a somewhat sensible manner, but Supergirl got shafted (and Supergirl's post-crisis story is worth it's own WWTT) and Hawkman underwent a second relaunch a few years after his revamped origin. But don't worry, 9 years after Crisis, DC would do Zero Hour, their second attempt at clearing up their continuity mess. They'd turn Hal Jordan (the Silver Age Green Lantern) evil and have him erase time, but it only seemed to affect Green Arrow (who now had a son), Legion of Super-Heroes (who had 40 years worth of continuity reset) and Hawkman, who's continuity had become somewhat of a joke by this point.
In fact, Hawkman is the best example of the problem with DC's reboot stratagy. To sum up, he was originally a museum curator who found he was the reincarnation of an Egyptian Prince and could fly using a wing harness. Then in the Silver Age he became an alien cop. His first post-crisis relaunch saw him keep the alien policeman origin, but brought his arrival on Earth to the present but the Silver Age version of the character had been used since Crisis anyway, so... continuity hole. They then went on a messy twist fest to explain all the continuity errors by introducing imposters and retconning things. And then Zero Hour shoved all the continuities into one body and said screw it. Oh and then they cleared it all up by including a reincarnation theme, so all of his origin stories are correct. Yeah, when I said cleared up, I kinda meant the opposite.
Of course, DC would mess with continuity again in 2005, bringing back the multiverse in Infinite Crisis before launching everyone's favourite, the New 52, off the back of Flashpoint. The New 52, where the Justice League had a different origin and then there was a time skip so everything in DC history could happen except Wally West, because the Green Lantern and Batman storylines (amongst others) had continued from pre-Flashpoint.
And there in lies the problem. In theory, rebooting is a great idea to give new readers a chance to enter into a previously inaccessable world. Look at Marvel's Ultimate Universe. The problem with DC is that they never go all in, so you just have a half-assed mess. And they're in a cycle. Continutity is messy-> half-ass reboot-> continiuity is messy-> half-ass reboot and repeat. But what makes it so much worse than the Marvel cycle is that it is actively counter-productive. It is completely contrary to it's intended aim. When I did a WWTT on the backroom problems within DC concerning the New 52, one of the prevelent occurances was that of the writers and editors not knowing what the continuity was meant to be. And if the people who are writing the stuff don't have a clue, how are the readers meant to know? It's a cycle of active self-destruction. If each reboot was a clean break then it wouldn't be half as bad (it would still be really annoying for long term fans, but at least it would be somewhat justifiable). But instead they just can't quite let go of the past for long enough to fix their problems. And I'm not saying that rebooting every 10 years is even a good idea. In hindsight, DC continuity was pretty much broken at the point the created the multiverse and when they put emphasis on it with the first JLA/JSA crossover. It could have been salvaged with some better descision making (encorperating new aquisitions straight into an established universe may have cause some initial problems, but may have paid off in the long run). DC let it get out of hand and have perpetuated the problem ever since. And it's funny, because as good as Crisis was, it made the problem even worse by pulling all of the multiverse strands together, kinda like putting spaghetti in a blender, you take individual strands that are a bit tangled and turn it into indistinguishable mush. And each time they tried to fix the problem, they just made more mush.
And the losers in this whole thing? Well, as with the Marvel cycle there's only really one big loser in all of this, the fans. Old fans lose because DC wipes out some continuity, new fans lose because the don't wipe out the rest. Old fans lose characters and plot developments that they love, whilst new fans can't find an easy access point because continuity is still a jumbled mess. Damned if they do, damned if the don't and DC manage to hit both sides twice over.
But what else can we expect from Derp Comics? I mean, we are talking about the guys who thought it was a good idea to run an art contest to find the person who can best depict Harly Quinn commiting suicide, and the guys who let Frank Miller turn Batman into a child abuser.
And with that