Chicago, IL – Is it another Crisis on Infinite Earths or just a paltry Zero Hour? Comic book fans gave cautious greeting to yesterday’s announcement that Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern publisher DC Comics, a subsidiary of Time Warner, Inc., is set to reboot the continuity of their entire DC Universe line in August. A plethora of titles will be cancelled, revamped, and hit stands with #1 issues in August and September.
Unlike competitor Marvel Comics, DC has a history of rebooting. Marvel prefers to gloss over inconsistencies or provide mild retcons (a “retcon” replaces established continuity with new story elements) to perfect problems such as character age, history, and other troublesome elements that pop up after decades of publishing history. Marvel’s own continuity has been going strong since the 1960s when Fantastic Four #1 marked what is known as Marvel’s “616 Universe;” many stories from as early as 1940 are also canonical. Sure, it is problematic that Iron Man’s origins are in the Vietnam War, making his 35-year-old appearance ridiculous (Marvel fixed this problem by creating retellings placing Tony Stark in a more timely conflict that appears to be the Gulf War). Sure, Captain America returned in the 1950s, prior to his famous Silver Age revival in 1963, but that is easily explained away as an imposter or imitator. Sure, some of the X-Men are about 25 years old and have been so since 1970. Marvel’s stories reflect the time period and current events of the world in which they take place, allowing for a multitude of adventures, but slowing down their characters ages, establishing perhaps that only 10 years have passed since Marvel’s 616 Universe commenced. Figuring out all those little (and big) contradictions could drive a full force of editors nuts, so Marvel just leaves a lot of it open to the reader to figure out.
DC Comics, on the other hand, rebooted their entire comic book line continuity in 1985 with Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s classic Crisis on Infinite Earths. DC was the first publisher to create a “shared universe” for their characters. Late in connecting all the dots, the DC Universe was almost immediately mired in contradictions and paradoxes. DC briefly solved the problem by creating an infinite number of worlds for their stories to take place on. A story doesn’t jive with continuity? It happened on Earth 3, silly. Don’t you know your multiverse? Of course, Crisis was only partially successful; in 1994 DC Comics did a less substantial reboot with their Zero Hour event. While DC Comics has the richest publishing history of any major comic book publisher, the DC Universe is much younger than Marvel’s.
Any determination of who has the better method of shared universe publishing is purely based on opinion. One method does not lead to more innovation or originality than the other. Marvel chooses to publish additional shared universes, such as their Ultimate Comics line, fulfilling a gateway for new readers. The only consensus between the two publishers is that storytelling needs to be refreshed every once in a while.
In August, DC Comics is set to reboot continuity yet again in a controversial move accompanied by day-and-date digital release. Day-and-date release means periodicals hit retailer shelves on the same day that the same content becomes available for purchase by electronic means. The announcement has been met with frustration and anger from many fans, retailers, and creators. For now, the nature of DC’s reboot is mostly a mystery. Fans have some tantalizing hints, such as a new Superman series by Grant Morrison and a Justice League series by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, but DC has yet to put many of their cards out on the table.
Is a rebooted universe a bad thing? I don’t think I have enough information yet to make that decision. It is certainly exciting! Do all previous stories become exit continuity? Are there any drastic changes to characters? Are the new stories a step up from the old ones? The best part of the announcement is also the most difficult for many industry leaders to accept. DC plans day-and-date release of their periodicals by electronic means, cutting out the necessity for comic book retailers. Retail specialty shops have been the lifeblood of the comic book industry since the mid 1980s, but it is a tough reminder for the industry that comics used to be sold to a much wider audience via newsstand distribution. Newsstand interest subsided (I would argue that the audience stopped buying via newsstands) and the best gateway for new comic book readers disappeared. Digital distribution offers the best chance for comic book readership to grow. Will retailers suffer? Down the road, I forecast a continuing decline in retail-based sales, but I am not sure any evidence exists that the current comic book readership will stop purchasing comics at stores and choose to do so electronically. There may even be benefits for retailers, such as new foot traffic for products not available for direct download such as action figures. Electronic distribution will garner a new audience –possibly the massive audience downloading comics torrents every day. I’m excited to see a publisher embracing potential new readership. Free Comic Book Day just doesn’t hit new readers in the way it does casual and obsessed ones. Digital distribution isn’t the enemy.
What do you think of DC Comics plans? Should Marvel follow suit? Is this the end of shared universe or a great step aimed at new readers? Check out USA Today’s article.