Warning: this article includes spoilers for Action Comics #1-18 and Black Canary/Zatanna: Bloodspell
It has become nearly impossible to talk about DC Comics without bringing up the New 52 and its effects on continuity. In fact, it’s hard to talk about comics in general without continuity popping up as a discussion topic. Fans have become such sticklers for detail that the quality of a story can be discounted because it did not take into account the events of another title. William Congreve coined the (paraphrased) expression “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” only because he never met a comic book fan. Let’s face it: we as a fan community can be pretty ruthless. Even those of us that have a calmer temperament can point to something which they find beyond maddening. For some, they question Tim Drake’s backstory. For others, it’s the “Lights Out” storyline in Green Lantern titles. The heavy dose of Greek drama in Wonder Woman rubs certain people the wrong way. No matter what it is, it always comes back to continuity and how this story element throws a wrench into an otherwise fine comic book canon.
When DC launched the New 52 in August 2011 with Justice League #1, it marked the beginning of a new, exciting era of comics – particularly in the universe starring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice Leaguers. The initial arc of Justice League told of the super-team’s formation and first battle together. With superstar creators Geoff Johns and Jim Lee on board, this “Origin” was the comic equivalent of a popcorn action movie. Three years later, one element of that story has stuck with readers and the comics’ press: five years.
Superhero comics, by their very nature, feature serialized storytelling in perpetuity. Batman has been featured in over 10,000 comics alone. Between his multiple solo titles, appearances in Justice League comics and guest starring in others, he has had quite an accomplished publication history. Before the New 52, hardly anyone questioned the practicality of his superhero career compared to the length of time he’d likely been an active crimefighter. All people cared about was the fact that the reading order of stories were Year One, The Man Who Laughs, The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, and so on. The fact that Batman was always portrayed as in his early-to-mid 30s despite the passage of time never bothered anyone. Dick Grayson goes from around 10 years old to mid-20s? That seems fair. Bane cripples Bruce and therefore Azrael and then Dick take over the cowl for a period of time? No big deal. Batman and his protégés take a year off after Infinite Crisis? Not a problem. Now that the DC universe (beginning with Justice League #1) is explicitly five years old, many are upset that not everything fits just right.
Grant Morrison’s much hyped run on Action Comics attempts to address fan concerns about continuity by presenting a different approach – keep the stories you want in your own, personal canon. The approach is not at all new. Fans of the Star Wars franchise have taken it upon themselves to pick and choose their own continuity thanks to contradictions between the Prequel Trilogy and the Expanded Universe (stories from various novels, comic books, etc.) With his 18 issue run on Action, Morrison presented fans with the same approach to the new DC universe. In the opening arc, we are treated to the “Springsteen Superman” – clad in a t-shirt, jeans and work boots. This is the Superman of original creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – a champion of the oppressed, working class citizens repackaged for the 21st century. Morrison never specifies when the story takes place, but it can be inferred from context that the events of Action Comics #1 take place before Justice League #1.
As Morrison’s Action run progressed, fans became increasingly confounded by the narrative presented before them. The stories themselves were quality, Superman stories filled with plenty of action and character moments, but as their place in the DC canon grew muddier, so did fan reaction. It was genuinely bothersome to many that Morrison’s saga could not fit cleanly into the DC Universe – a problem which was compounded as each succeeding issue embraced more abstract concepts.
One of the greater points of fan consternation came from the resurrection of the Doomsday concept. Doomsday (or “Super-Doom” as fans would call him) first appeared in the Earth-23 issue #9, while Action Comics #16 is subtitled “The Second Death of Superman.” Though many dismissed the alternate Earth issue as a fun one-shot, that subtitle caused much head-scratching. Referring to Superman’s second death would imply that he has already died before. Morrison’s Superman was young and early in his career, whereas he was a seasoned veteran in his initial death. He was in a strong and committed relationship with Lois, but in Morrison’s Action they are barely acquainted. Considering these changes among the many others, how could the original Death of Superman story happen? The answer lies in another element of strong prominence in Morrison’s 19 issues: the Fifth Dimension.
The Fifth Dimension’s presence is evident from the beginning, as Clark’s landlord is given the consonant heavy name Mrs. Nyxly. The key to understanding Morrison’s loose continuity rules is not Superman’s battle with the imps of the Fifth Dimension, but rather the Fifth Dimension itself. According to the storyline Batman: RIP, Batman (mind-hacked into “Zur-en-Arrh” mode) is told by the illusion of Bat-Mite (yes, that Bat-Mite) that the Fifth Dimension is the imagination. By framing his Action Comics run in this manner, Morrison is challenging readers to break their preconceived notions on comic book continuity and judge stories on their own merits, rather than their place in a character’s life.
DC Comics recently published Paul Dini and Joe Quinones’ Black Canary/Zatanna: Bloodspell. First, if you have yet to read it, do so immediately. It’s fantastic. Secondly, the story clearly takes place outside of the current DC continuity. The old and bearded Oliver Queen and watchtower atmosphere akin to the celebrated Justice League Unlimited are among several obvious giveaways. Yet it is never explicitly stated as out of continuity as the Earth One titles are, and fans were generally not angered. The original graphic novel format was a contributing factor, but it was accepted that this is a story, and it did not matter how it fit into the characters’ histories. If some wanted it squeezed into the future of the New 52 universe or keep it in the pre-Flashpoint DC Universe, they could depending on the direction their imagination.
Ultimately, comics are borne from the imagination of creators, but their enjoyment and success is contingent on the imagination of readers. Perhaps it’s time to open up our imagination and enjoy the stories on their own merits. We may discover once more that, in the world of comics, that nothing is impossible. That includes great stories.
Note: this opinion piece was originally published at DC Infinite.