In my last column, I explained how I didn’t like trying to make all of my comics from Marvel or DC fit together, as the array of diverse approaches to not only continuity but characterization felt jarring to me as a reader, as well as the sense that various stories by various writers would often be retconned away or just plain ignored, and a general sense of reader dissatisfaction when trying to put them all together. With that in mind, let us proceed to the next step.
So: If I was to come up with a system that would allow for (1) a sense of satisfying closure, (2) a consistent sense of character “voice,” (3) various authors’ ideas to stand mainly on their own within (4) a “shared universe” framework whose (5) plot-beats and events aren’t always undermined by later retcons and events undoing major past events… how to proceed?
For some time I experimented with different approaches, such as by sorting things completely by writers — for example, all of James Robinson’s DC stories (not onlyStarman but Legends of the Dark Knight and the like) would make up a Robinsonverse, and all of Alan Moore’s DC stories would be a Mooreverse, etc. But what to do with crossovers or continuity-altering events? Or the sparse (five or less, I think) number of stories by Alan Brennert, which while (in my opinion) excellent, are hardly enough to make up a Brennertverse? And then I noticed that often — not always — the creative teams on various titles changed when the editorial tone across the lines did, which often (again, not always) would also coincide with a new spate of big events and retcons, and suddenly it hit me.
What I came up with was this: Divide the comics that DC and Marvel have published into different universes or continuities based primarily on publishing eras. Now, by “universes” or “continuities,” I don’t strictly mean things like DC’s Earth-One and Earth-Two, or Marvel’s Earth-616 and, say, Age of Apocalypse; a Silver-Age story involving an Earth-One/Earth-Two crossover, in my scheme, would be in a separate continuum from one written in, say, 1982, as would a similar pair of Marvel stories involving the Avengers fighting the Squadron Supreme. Stories set in a semi-apocalyptic future written in, say, 1974, would not have to be forced to fit the visions of the future written circa 1961 or the cyberpunk 1985. (Of course, there have usually been retcons of one or another kind dealing with this at both companies, but it leaves a hollow taste in my mouth to have read someone’s years-long future epic only to have it deleted by some one-shot event. One exception to this could be the Dystopic Future Which Must Be Averted, like Days of Future Past, but that deserves its own column, so stay tuned.)
What this means is, for example, the DC Silver Age stories (more or less bright and heroic, albeit a bit simplistic) are treated as being in a different universe/continuity altogether from the Bronze Age or Iron Age stories. Marvel’s stories from the mid-1970s (whether set in the past, like Invaders, the then-present, or the future, like Killraven) are on one “Earth,” while the 1990s stories (Untold Tales of Spider-Man and the “minus one” issues across the line from the past, the then-present, and stories set in the future (which here is a special case, more on that later)) are on another.
This scheme allows for satisfying closure — because often (though not always) there have usually been some array of stories set in whatever future was imagined during the time those books were written. Character “voice” does not vary very much over a period of a few years, usually. Various writers’ runs on different titles can be kept within one framework, usually, and while there may be retcons during a particular period which undo stories written in the last few years (for example, the return of Jean Grey after the death of Phoenix), they are much fewer than between longer periods.
How does this generally get divided up? Here’s a basic list of the eras I’ve devised so far, with some exceptions that will come later (for instance, I have the Universe X material all on its own).
First, we have the Golden Age. This was more or less a period in which there just wasn’t a lot of focus on continuity, at least when compared with what came out later. I’m perfectly happy to lump all Golden Age comics (pretty much up through the mid-1950s) together. Sure, there was the Powerstone storyline in the Superman books, the Monster Society storyline in the Captain Marvel books, and references to past meetings between the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, but even compared with the Silver Age, things were almost continuity-free. There was a Superboy title, but characters or events in it would not be reflected or referenced in the Superman books, unlike later in the Silver Age (such as the Kryptonite Kid/Man, Master/Mr. Mxyzptlk, Bizarro, and so on — especially the Legion of Super-Heroes).
At DC, at this point, up until Crisis, I postulate three distinct ages: the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. This is more or less a division we’re already familiar with, although some would put them all together, some would leave out the distinction between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, and so on, but this is my scheme and it works for me; your own mileage may vary. This is for reading enjoyment purposes, remember, and different folks have different tastes.
In this setup, Silver includes the JLA, the invention of Earth-Two, and pretty much all of the jet-age elements from the mid-1950s up till at least near the end of the 1960s. Other than the Legion and occasional “imaginary stories” there’s not a lot of “future history” here.
Bronze is when things really start changing. DC’s books, especially those written by Denny O’Neil or drawn by Neal Adams, start exploring social consciousness, “relevant” themes, more fallible heroes and the like. I have also noticed that there is often a clear “before” and “after” moment in each title between Silver and Bronze Age, and once that line is crossed, then things never go back to the way they were before. There might be a sort of “camp” involved, but it’s a very different kind of camp, more of an over-the-top self-conscious attempt at being “socially relevant,” than the 1960s. While the exact line varies from book to book, the moment of change is generally between 1969 and 1971.
Iron I put almost precisely at the beginning of 1976 and continuing up until a couple of years before Crisis on Infinite Earths, depending on the series. The social-awareness focus calms down a bit, with a lot more focus on characterization, multi-issue plotlines, relationships between characters, and continuity history.
And then there’s Crisis on Infinite Earths itself. For a long time I thought of the Iron Age as concluding with Crisis, but there are problems with that that I’ll address later. Basically I put Crisis and those issues which lead into it, plus some others, in as a prelude to the first few years of the combined Earth, which one source (the Infinite Atlas) calls Earth-Sigma, or Earth-Σ, the Greek letter sigma meaning “sum.” However, I differ from that in that I only have Earth-Sigma lasting for a few years, up till about 1989/1990/1991 (depending on the series). Why? Because after that, there was an exodus of post-Crisis creators from those books, and things in DC’s bright new continuity started changing in other ways (most notably, Hawkman’s entire history). In here goes John Byrne’s Superman, George Perez’ Wonder Woman, everything up until Invasion, Roy Thomas’ Young All-Stars, Secret Origins, and Paul Levitz’ post-Crisis Legion.
Hence the next era I call Earth-Delta, or Earth-Δ, the Greek letter delta meaning “change.” In here goes Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the “Five Years Later” Legion, and all the alterations in continuity which drove many fanboys (including me) nuts, all the way up to Zero Hour, including the confusing reboot of Hawkman and the restoration to life of Dian Belmont in Sandman Mystery Theatre.
Earth-0 goes all the way from Zero Hour up to The Kingdom and the introduction of Hypertime. It includes James Robinson’s Starman, probably a sizable amount of The Golden Age, various miniseries focusing on historical periods such as The Kents, the rebooted Legion, and DC One Million.
Earth-K (for Kingdom) is a rather quirky, experimental period from The Kingdom up till shortly before the current era. This was a period in which DC appeared to be trying to bring back various concepts, especially updated Silver Age ideas. We started seeing a Silver-Age-style Krypton, Krypto the Superdog, Kara Zor-El in “Many Happy Returns” in Peter David’s Supergirl, and some lighter (or even trippy) crossover events like JLApe and Sins of Youth.
Earth-Omega, or Earth-Ω, includes the prelude to Infinite Crisis, Infinite Crisis itself, 52, Final Crisis, and everything DC is doing now. The Greek letteromega works nicely, as it ties together the five and the two from 52 (5 + 2 = Ω), the omega symbolism in Final Crisis itself, and so on.
Meanwhile, over at Marvel, we have ages I pretty much tie to changes in editors.
Earth-L (for Stan Lee) includes all of Marvel up until around 1972. We have the explosion of the Marvel Age itself, and the whole “Marvel style.” ‘Nuff said (for now). The characters actually aged in real time back then, too.
Earth-T (for Roy Thomas) includes not only Roy’s tenure as editor but Archie Goodwin’s and such up until the time of Jim Shooter. Here we have more of a firm chronology stretching back to Kull and Conan, through the mid-1970s Sgt. Fury and the Invaders, the new X-Men up till around the time Phoenix saved the universe, and a future which arguably goes from Deathlok in the then-future of 1984 to Killraven in the 21st century and later the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Earth-S (for Jim Shooter) covers Jim’s reign from 1978 to 1987. It of course includes the Dark Phoenix Saga, Secret Wars I and II, and so on.
Earth-D (for Tom DeFalco) includes Tom’s reign and that of Bob Harras, etc., until Joe Quesada came in. It includes Untold Tales of Spider-Man, Marvel: The Lost Generation, X-Men: The Hidden Years, all of the 1990s, and interestingly (in my scheme) is still going on in the MC-2 titles, notablySpider-Girl.
I’ve divided up Joe Quesada’s regime (which otherwise would have been Earth-Q) into two: Earth-J (for Bill Jemas) and Earth-B (for DanBuckley), splitting around mid-2004 with Avengers Disassembled. On one side of the split (Earth-J) are largely an array of creators who have mostly gone over to DC: Judd Winick, Gail Simone, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid (who has since returned), and Geoff Johns; on the other (Earth-B) is pretty much current mainstream 616 Marvel. When a story is set in the past, or is continuity-free, I often just put it in Earth-J; I feel that, for example, the X-Men First Class titles (including Uncanny FC and Wolverine FC) fit better thematically with Earth-J than with Earth-B. Earth-J is also where I put X-Men: The End and GeNext, plus a few other stories set in the future (the FF 40th Wedding Anniversary one-shot, Iron Man: The End, Silver Surfer: Requiem). Earth-B, of course, includes Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Siege, etc.
In addition to these, there is the new Marvel Adventures continuity (Earth-M, perhaps?), and several other “universes” which I treat as their own self-contained worlds rather than appending them to one or another of the other listed worlds — X-Men Forever, X-Factor Forever, the Earth X array of series, etc. More details on all — as well as possible anomalies and where they might fit for maximum reading enjoyment — shall be forthcoming as well, of course.
This system is not perfect in some absolute way — indeed, I think part of what makes this work is a willingness to accept that these are, after all, fictional stories, and to read them in the most satisfying way for oneself. And, again, this is my way of reading them which I recommend as an approach, but anyone else’s mileage may vary. I think very much, for example, that a story like Avengers Disassembled or Civil War just feels like a different universe than, say, Kurt Busiek’s run on Iron Man or Geoff Johns’ run on Avengers — that Mark Waid’s Reed Richards is some sort of different character than J. Michael Straczynski’s — but someone else may feel totally differently. There are also bits and bobs that don’t wholly fit, or necessarily have to fit, in any given “universe,” though in some cases they can be made to — and either way, that’s okay. One thing on which I half-agree — but half-utterly-disagree — with some of my fellow fans is how important non-contradictory continuity is. I think my system solves most of the potential problems, but those problems are ultimately concerned with one’s own idiosyncratic reading satisfaction. The sense I have from some people — that their whole inner world will be upended if two contradictory stories can’t be made to fit together, or that a story written by some present (or future) writer will make them unable to re-read and enjoy all the prior issues in their collection — is one I don’t think very healthy (and, indeed, I speak as someone who has felt that way at times). The system I have gets around that issue entirely, and — I believe — provides a satisfying sense of closure for the different takes on the characters’ myriad adventures.
Next: The detailed saga begins in earnest!