Continuity is an interesting concept in comic books. The idea that you can take stories that span decades, are told across different titles, and completed by various creative teams and tie them to the same world and timeline is an ambitious approach to storytelling. The way that the big two companies, Marvel and DC, approach the issue within their superhero books is rather unique. It’s one of the best things about superhero comics but it can also be a bit of a curse. Having to conform to a set continuity can be restricting to creators and can be an enormously difficult task that becomes harder the longer that continuity stays in motion and the more stories it engulfs. DC originally solved this problem by having a multiverse. When the existence of the Golden Age versions of their heroes threatened to invalidate their Silver Age counterparts, Earth Two was created so the Golden Age heroes could continue their adventures without changing Earth One’s continuity. From then on, every story that was told outside continuity or didn’t fit the status quo was set on an alternate Earth. However, these different worlds eventually became hard to keep track of and fans started to complain that they created confusing redundancies. In response, DC released Crisis on Infinite Earths which was a universe-wide crossover that effectively did away with the Multiverse and consolidated all of their characters and continuity into one world and timeline.
Crisis on Infinite Earths solved the problems created by the multiverse but set them up for further continuity problems. It also created a rift in the creative community and fan base. To explain this rift, allow me to quote Alan Moore from his lost crossover pitch to DC, Twilight of the Superheroes:
“…I'd also like to put right something that has bothered me since the resolution of Crisis, namely the fact that I actually like parallel world stories and that a lot of other creative people enjoy the freedom that gives them too. Some of the better stories in DC's history have been those directly related to the idea of alternate Earths (including Crisis itself, paradoxically enough), and there are a lot of brilliant imaginary stories which display the same urges and the same ideas at work, albeit outside mainstream continuity.”
Alan wanted to point out that many creators don’t like being restricted by tight continuity and that alternate worlds allow them a way to circumvent this while still using the characters. Many classic stories published by DC have been told this way: The Amazing Story of Superman Red and Superman Blue, The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, and Justice League: The New Frontier. These stories profited from not having to follow a set timeline or continue characterizations set by other writers. Yet, many fans complain that tight continuity is what makes comic books worth following. It allows the reader to feel like the stories they read before are leading somewhere and that the plots that follow will be an organic continuation of this. DC, Post Crisis on Infinite Earths, gave their best shot at a strict, continuous timeline to try and make their universe feel as real as possible.
Following Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC still had a number of loose ends and inconsistencies that the editorial staff felt they needed to resolve. The task of solving these problems fell to Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway in their 1994 crossover Zero Hour. Zero Hour’s agenda included cleaning up Hawkman’s history in the wake of problems created by Hawkworld, gracefully retiring the Justice Society of America since new continuity put them far past crime fighting age, and introducing a number of new characters and series that would be released following the crossover. I also believe that Zero Hour is structured as a piece of propaganda in favor of a set continuity and timeline barring any deviation. First, let me point out that Dan Jurgens was the creator of both Waverider and the Linear Men who acted as the DC Universe’s “time cops.” They worked as a continuity check that hunted down inconsistencies, time anomalies, and warned in Zero Hour that alternate time streams could unravel time itself. Zero Hour also contained an alternate version of Barbara Gordon who was still active as Batgirl while the Barbara of that era’s DC Universe was confined to a wheelchair after being shot by the Joker. Many fans and creators clamored for the mainstream Barbara to return to her days as Batgirl despite continuity, so I believe this alternate Batgirl’s inclusion was done to close the door on this request. Finally, I’m rather intrigued by this monologue given by Hal Jordan, Zero Hour’s prime villain, in the final issue as he’s explaining his plan to create ALTERNATE WORLDS:
“I’m erasing the Coast City tragedy, and all our misfortunes, forever! …I can bring back most everyone who died… And why stop there?—Why not Two Earths? One for us—and one for the JSA, where they can stay eternally young! …Everybody Wins!”
This speech was put in Hal’s mouth because it represents the arguments of those in favor of bringing back the Multiverse and the concept of alternate worlds. I believe Hal was set up here as the villain that needs to be defeated because his wish to bring back the Multiverse would invalidate the tight continuity that was being built by Jurgens and DC at the time. The Waverider chastises Jordan for his “twisted” vision of reality, Superman scolds him for selfishly playing God, and Hal’s plans are eventually halted. The part of this crossover the really cements my belief that this story was a piece of continuity propaganda is the fold-out timeline at the end of issue #0. It’s a fun piece of DC memorabilia, sure, but it also set the Post-Crisis continuity in stone. Anyone looking to write a DC comic book after that would be forced to follow that timeline or would be subject to judgment by The Linear Men.
If Zero Hour was a piece of Continuity Propaganda, then its ideological retort would follow about five years later. As Alan Moore pointed out, many creators liked the freedom presented by alternate worlds and timelines. Some of these creators worked hard throughout the 90’s to come up for a solution that would allow for this freedom while keeping most of the Post-Crisis continuity in place. Mark Waid and Grant Morrison came up with Hypertime as the answer. In a nutshell, Hypertime was the idea that every alternate world was a different time stream and these time streams flowed parallel to one another. At any point in time, these streams could seamlessly merge allowing alternate worlds to exist as one if only temporarily. It meant that every story that was ever told actually happened and could become part of the main continuity at any time. Waid introduced Hypertime to the DC Universe through his Kingdom Come sequel: The Kingdom. A main plot point to The Kingdom had Rip Hunter rebel from the Linear Men in an effort to hide the existence of Hypertime from them and their anti-alternate timeline policy. Hypertime’s reveal contains a Rip Hunter monologue that is just as illuminating as Hal’s was in Zero Hour. It goes:
“The problem with the Linear Men is that they’re too linear. They’re vested in enforcing an inflexible view of reality… They think orderly, catalogued continuity is preferable to a kingdom of wonder. Their sense of control would be splintered by the truth that the universe they oversee is actually part of an unpredictable Multiverse… Where fallen allies can live on… where tragedies can be turned to triumph.”
It’s obvious to me, and I hope now to you, that these two stories are speaking to one another. They are two sides to the same debate. Zero Hour argues that only a single world and timeline should exist because it gives things a sense of order. The Kingdom argues for alternate worlds and time streams because it allows for infinite possibility and wonder. I enjoy both Zero Hour and The Kingdom. My blog is meant to be a critique of neither. Yet, I do fall on one, clear side of this debate. I’m with The Kingdom. I believe in the existence of multiple worlds to give the full amount of freedom and possibility to the stories we read.
First off, let me point out that Zero Hour failed to iron out the continuity errors it set to correct, and, much like Crisis on Infinite Earths, created new problems for the future. For instance, the fact that they combined every version of Hawkman into a “Hawk god” didn’t solve the character’s history problems. It actually made him more confusing than ever and led to DC banning the character from use for a number of years. Then there’s the case of Guy Gardner who, during Zero Hour, became “The Warrior.” He was given alien DNA and shape-shifting powers that allowed him to turn his body parts into weapons. This was a deviation so far from his original character that it’s barely even mentioned now that he’s back with the Green Lantern Corps. Finally, I need to mention Power Girl’s baby who was rapidly aged into adulthood and shuffled out of sight as quickly as possible. Zero Hour illustrates that one of the main problems with strict continuity is that sometimes you make mistakes and do things that alter characters beyond the point of recognition. Without the freedom to change these things there would probably still be a ban on Hawkman and Karen would be attending PTA meetings.
In fact, much of what Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour did to DC’s continuity has been successfully overturned. Funny enough, much of it has been accomplished, in part, by one of Hypertime’s architects Grant Morrison. Grant brought the Justice Society of America out of retirement in “Crisis Times Five” (JLA #28-31) which helped them get their own series by David Goyer, James Robinson, and an emerging Geoff Johns. When the team’s moon headquarters was destroyed in JLA, Morrison “forgot” to remove the frozen Triumph who was introduced to Justice League history by Zero Hour which effectively killed him. He was a member of the writing staff for the 52 weekly series that brought back the Multiverse. His Batman run even brought back the plot point of Bruce confronting his parent’s murderer, Joe Chill, which had been retconned out of continuity by Zero Hour. This may all be coincidence. However, Grant has always maintained that Hypertime is still relevant even long after DC stopped mentioning it in continuity. Could this all actually be calculated to repair the sins of the 90’s?
Now we have the New 52 which has rebooted the DC Universe once again. It’s been relatively successful in sales and in bringing new readers into the DC line of books. However, it’s also been criticized by long time readers who bemoan the loss of continuity and their favorite characters changing. Yet, these things have changed before and will probably change again. Isn’t this further proof that alternate realities and timelines should exist? Doesn’t the fact that things change mean that comic history is fluid and should be loose? Many want John Byrne’s Post-Crisis version of Superman to return while I favor the new character created by Grant Morrison in Action Comics. Why can’t Byrne’s Superman be preserved in an alternate world so everybody wins? I urge every comic book fan to ignore the voice in their head that makes them demand tight continuity and their hang-ups about alternate time streams. Join me in the Kingdom of Wonder where everything is possible. It’s a lot of fun here.