Give ‘Em Elle: The Golden Age and DC’s Reboot Habit
Welcome to Give 'Em Elle, a new weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture. In the future, I plan to take questions from readers and answer them in this column. I’ll solicit them on Twitter, where I’m @anotherelle if you want to go ahead and follow me. But since this is the very first edition, I’m on my own. So in the absence of a direct question, I want to talk about something that I hear discussed in comics all the time, and offer an explanation that I’ve never quite heard from anyone else.
Specifically, I want to talk about the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe, and what makes them different. The big difference, in terms of continuity and structure, is that the DC Universe has been rebooted several times, with drastic changes to its history, and the Marvel Universe never really has. To be sure, the Marvel timeline gets messed with now and again (most recently with 2015’s Secret Wars), but it always defaults back to “things happened the way you remember, but nobody’s getting old.”
DC on the other hand, likes to reset and renew. The first time it happened (although it wasn’t discussed in the same terms back then) was in the Silver Age, when all the Golden Age characters were established as existing on an alternate Earth. It started with just the Flash, in “Flash of Two Worlds,” but the implications were huge, and would go on to be explored for years to come. After all, if Jay Garrick lives on Earth Two, then all of his teammates from the Justice Society must live there too. And that means that even the heroes who never had a break in publication must somehow exist in two incarnations on the two Earths.
Before then there had only been one Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but the ones who were in the JSA with Jay now had to be different characters than the ones in the JLA with Barry. And sure enough, stories to come would establish that there were indeed two Clarks, two Bruces, and two Dianas.
Things went on like that for twenty years, and then the whole premise was blown apart in Crisis on Infinite Earths. It sort of had to be. The Silver Age stories had established that the age of superheroes came twenty years later on Earth One than Earth Two. Now that another two decades had passed, Earth One’s time in the spotlight would seem to be over. But you can’t sideline the universe where almost all your stories take place, so everything was streamlined onto one Earth.
But the reboots certainly didn’t stop there. Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, Convergence, and other stories all tweaked DC’s history, while Flashpoint blew it apart and rewrote it even more drastically than Crisis on Infinite Earths had. DC currently insists that DC Rebirth does not involve a reboot, but there are bound to be some tweaks. One of the biggest rumors is that the classic Justice Society will return from non-existence, although we don’t know which Earth they might live on.
Meanwhile the Marvel Universe just marches on. The passage of time may not always make sense, but the past is rarely erased (Spider-Man’s marriage aside). What happened in the first issues of Fantastic Four and X-Men still happened basically that way, it just happened 10 or 15 years ago instead of in the early 1960s. The idea that the Fantastic Four’s origin could have happened long after the end of the Space Age is ridiculous, but that’s a whole other column.
But why has Marvel never felt the need for the historical revisionism that so defines DC? The answer to that question goes back farther than the multiverse, all the way back to the Golden Age.
DC was really two companies back then: Detective Comics and All-American, and they later bought characters from other Golden Age publishers like Fawcett and Quality as well. Marvel was just one company, Timely Comics. Timely’s biggest superheroes were of course Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch. After that, things drop off pretty steeply in the prestige department. Timely published heroes like the Whizzer, the Destroyer, the Angel (who didn’t have wings), and the Vision (who was an inter-dimensional alien, not an android).
Meanwhile, DC’s big three heroes were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, but they were also publishing the Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Dr. Fate, Sandman, Black Canary, and more heroes whose names still resonate. Quality published Plastic Man, and of course Fawcett had a huge hit with Captain Marvel, and DC would eventually own those characters too.
So once superheroes died out for a few years, and then came roaring back in the late '50s and early '60s, the question would inevitably arise at both companies about which older heroes to revive. In the pages of Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did with the Human Torch what DC had already done with the Flash and Green Lantern --- take the name and the concept and give them to a completely different character. A few issues later, they brought back the original Sub-Mariner. He wasn’t any older than he’d been 20 years earlier, but he didn’t need to be. Namor wasn’t human, after all, and had no reason to age like we do. When Captain America returned in the pages of Avengers, he was discovered frozen in a block of ice, which had preserved him since the end of World War II.
And here’s the thing about the Golden Age Marvel characters: Once you have those three, you’re pretty much done. Sure, the Golden Age Human Torch would eventually return, but he’s a robot, so aging isn’t a factor. Bucky eventually came back as the Winter Soldier, but his story involved suspended animation just as Cap’s did.
Other characters would be re-introduced here and there, but none of them ever took the spotlight. The original Vision turns up occasionally, but as a weird alien he doesn’t have to age either. The original Blonde Phantom was portrayed as a woman in her 60s in John Byrne’s 1980s Sensational She-Hulk book. The Whizzer stayed relevant just long enough to briefly be revealed as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch’s father, and then turn out not to be.
But back at DC, things were destined to be more complicated. Even with new Silver Age versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom around, the Golden Age versions were different enough, and fondly remembered enough, for people to want to see them again. And then there were all these other unique and interesting Golden Age characters, like Black Canary, Dr. Fate, Wildcat, Sandman, Starman, and so on. So while Marvel only revived a handful of Golden Age heroes, DC eventually brought back basically all of them.
And the thing about Golden Age superheroes is that they’re always going to be tied to that era. The perpetual pulling forward in time that happens with characters like the Fantastic Four just doesn’t work on a bunch of characters who spent half their time fighting Nazis. So once you have all these characters around that are tied to a specific point in history, you have to constantly work to keep your superhero world plausible without filling it with old folks. You can put the previous generation on another Earth. You can say they were instilled with age-slowing chronal energy by a shadowman named Ian Karkull. You can have them go off to Asgard to fight Ragnorak for a while. But the problem never quite goes away.
And it affects the younger heroes too. If Barry Allen was directly inspired by his childhood hero, Jay Garrick (whether in dimension-spanning comic books or on the same Earth), how old does that make Barry? If Zatanna of the Justice League is the daughter of Golden Age hero Zatara, how old does that make Zatanna? You can revise history (as DC did in the 1980s) so that the Black Canary who joined the League and fell for Green Arrow is the daughter of the Justice Society’s Canary, rather than the same woman, but at what point do you have to decide she’s the granddaughter instead? The prominence of Golden Age heroes has destabilized the DC Universe timeline for at least fifty years now, and it’s gotten worse as those heroes have gotten older.
Marvel has simply never had that problem. All Marvel has got is a couple of super-soldiers who’ve been frozen, an android or two, and Atlanteans who don’t age. When other characters are revived (like in J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve) they come with their own explanations for still being around. The vast legion of Golden Age heroes casting shadows over the present has simply never existed for Marvel like it has for DC. And frankly, that’s because most Golden Age Marvel heroes are guys like the Fin and Blue Diamond.
So why does DC repeatedly reboot its universe while Marvel doesn’t? Obviously the answer is complicated, but it’s also simple: DC has more and better heroes who’ve survived from the Golden Age of Comics. You could argue that Marvel’s Golden Age wasn’t even the 1940s like it was for the rest of the industry. Marvel’s own Golden Age started in 1961, which enabled its heroes to march unhindered into the future, while many of DC’s remain tied to the past.
We can only hope that if the 1940s Justice Society heroes are brought back into continuity (and I hope they are), their connections to the modern world are kept loose enough to avoid this problem in the future. Which is certainly not to say that DC will never reboot again. It seems to have gotten in the habit.