I stole the Gray Man joke from Bully the Little Stuffed Bull, I admit it.

§ August 8th, 2022 § Filed under dc comics, multiverse talk § 14 Comments

I’m trying to put together this whole thing re: DC’s multiverse and it’s requiring me digging up scans left and right and frankly, I’m not the young, energetic blogger I used to be, staying up well past the witching hour with the hum of a scanner my only company. I’m still working on it, but in the meantime, let’s get back to your comments and questions and such:

Matthew Murray points out, in regards to the semi-fake out of Action #484 and the marriage of Earth-2 Lois and Supes

“The other tip off for that Action Comics cover is that it features the Daily Star newspaper.”

That’s fair enough, and it’s a fairly prominent background detail featured in the corner of the cover there. But — and this is a big but, I cannot lie about liking those — your average person not mired in DC’s parallel-Earth shenanigans isn’t going to recognize that as meaning anything. They might think, if they even notice it, “shouldn’t it be Daily Planet?” and if they think that represents any kind of in-story problem, there’s no natural way for them to expect the resolution to be “Superman from another universe, y’all.”

So my judgement remains “dick move,” at least as it stands in regards to the general public. And just slightly less of a dick move to folks more familiar with the milieu and observant enough to catch that detail. Plus, I don’t think DC itself ever emphasized that this was going to be not regular Superman taking a bride. Anyway, take that, 44-year-old Superman comic!

• • •

Hal Shipman sails in with

“The parallel universes were never confusing to me and my friends – they were explained in one, maybe two panels. I never got the references in COIE stories about them being a problem.”

Yes, exactly…it was solving a problem that, at least internally, in comic book fandom, didn’t really exist. It didn’t take much to explain, like in this panel from Justice League of America #219 (1983) by Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Chuck Patton, and Romeo Tanghal:


…and it was just off to the races. But I think it was a problem of public perception and confusion, as per that Action #484, that egged along a desire to streamline and get rid of potentially confusing elements such as “two Wonder Women” and the like. (Oh, and that specific letter published in New Teen Titans that inspired Marv Wolfman, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.)

Or as you say:

“The ONE thing I kind of liked about the consolidated world was that it did make it easier to team up or make groups like the Giffen JL. But the constant retelling of pre-Crisis stories (especially in the Superman titles) to basically reintroduce elements was tiring.”

It did spare DC having to jump through hoops (or, you know, run a panel like the one above) in order to have the original Captain Marvel on a team with Guy Gardner without having to explain that he has to commute from Earth-S via the Rock of Eternity so he can help the Justice League fight the Gray Man. (No, not that Gray Man.)

The problem DC ran into with this sudden overhauling of their multiverse into one universe is that the readership from one era carried over into a new era. It wasn’t like the gap between the Golden Age and the Silver Age, where DC could introduce a new version of Hawkman as a space cop, and a new version of Green Lantern as…er, a space cop, and there was enough readership turnover in the meantime that they didn’t have a bunch of fans writing in demanding this new Hawkman and GL be reconciled with the previous versions of the characters. I mean, I’m sure some did, but a lot of those eight year old kids who rode out the end of the initial Golden Age superhero era probably didn’t come back at 16, pick up that issue of Showcase and suddenly go on a tear on 1940s Twitter with #notmyflash.

Or maybe they did. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I suspect that publishing gap gave DC enough of a clean break that they could essentially start over again with a minimum of reader confusion. The Crisis on Infinite Earths rejiggering had no such gap, and the folks reading before were told “forget everything you knew” and were along for the ride as DC tried to figure out in real time how this new fictional set-up was going to work.

The original plan of just restarting everything from scratch at the conclusion of Crisis might have been sufficient enough of a firebreak between What Came Before and What We’ve Got Now (well, Then-Now, you know what I mean), since DC putting everything on hold for five or six years obviously isn’t practical. ‘Course, they chickened out on that, and now (real now, not Then-Now) we’ve got what we’ve got. They did eventually sort of try that out with their New 52 publishing initiative, but even, like, Green Lantern comics just kinda carried on as usual, so the break wasn’t as clean as it should have been.

Crisis on Infinite Earths (like New 52 later) did serve its purpose, which was “get more eyeballs on DC Comics,” at least for a while. People have said in my comments and elsewhere that Crisis goosed them into trying out DC’s other titles, which is the ultimate goal of any superhero universe crossover event, even more so than DC’s annual attempts at redefining what “DC Universe” actually means.

Next time: more question response or that parallel Earth post I’m gathering panels for. We’ll see!

14 Responses to “I stole the Gray Man joke from Bully the Little Stuffed Bull, I admit it.”

  • Daniel says:

    “But the constant retelling of pre-Crisis stories (especially in the Superman titles) to basically reintroduce elements was tiring.”

    Contrarian point-of-view: I LOVED that aspect of the post-Crisis universe (especially in the Superman titles). I liked being there at the beginning, seeing this stuff happen in “real time,” and not simply be events that are referred to as having happened sometime in the past. I also loved the deconstructionist aspect of retelling these stories in the then-present, but putting a modern twist on it (Byrne’s first meeting of Superman and Luthor in Mos #4 was soooo much more interesting than the pre-Crisis Superboy-causes-Lex-to-lose-his-hair-in-a-lab-accident).

    The one thing that I *didn’t* like about the post-Crisis universe was how anxious DC management (as well as a certain vocal contingent of the DC fanbase) was to get the characters back to the status quo as quickly as possible. Instead of just letting the characters and scenarios play out in real time on a month to month basis and letting the characters make mistakes along the way as they learned to be heroes (as happened in the MCU, The Dark Knight Trilogy, and The Justice League Trilogy movies), DC seemed to be in a rush to get the characters back to being perpetually 30-years-old and perfect as quickly as possible.

    I have a strong bias towards the DC characters over the Marvel characters, but the one area where I disagree with my fellow DC fans is over this idea of how flawed these characters should be presented. I like the idea of heroes with feet of clay, heroes who are flawed and who make mistakes but who also (and this is the important part) learn from those mistakes (case in point: BvS). But most of my fellow DC fans seem to abhor that. They want these characters to be in a state of perpetual perfection, always doing the right thing at the right time and never doubting themselves or making a mistake. But to me, that is dramatically and narratively inert. The perfect Superman is a boring Superman.

  • David Conner says:

    I wonder if there was a *particular* important audience for whom the parallel universe stuff was confusing.

    I could see this stuff really confusing ’80s Hollywood people. OTOH, I think then as now, if Hollywood wanted to make a movie with both Doctor Fate and Shazam! characters, they’d just do it and ignore the “different Earth” stuff.

  • Michael Grabowski says:

    I feel like this is a problem only comic book nerds have, as in the general public diesn’t particularly care. There are all the different movie & TV conceptions of Superman/Superboy and Batman of the last 50 years, and the people who watch those don’t seem to let continuity conflicts (or casting changes) get in the way of enjoying what they’re watching.

    (Speaking as someone who appreciated both Crisis and Secret Wars as culminations of ten years of youthful engagement with hero comics that also brought about perfect jumping off points when I didn’t like the new changes.)

  • Green Luthor says:

    The one thing I could see that could cause confusion is when you have something that relies on the multiverse, but not an adequate reason to give that one-panel explanation as to what it means. Say you’re a fairly new reader, but you know the basics of who DC’s characters are. You decide to check out Infinity Inc. And you see that they’re referring to characters you know, but they’re all older now, and these are their children? Wait, Batman’s dead? Is this in the future? It seems like the present, though. What’s going on? But the characters aren’t likely to sit around saying “here on Earth-2, which is a parallel world with a different timeline” or whatever.

    Maybe you can figure it out, and maybe as soon as they do a crossover everything will be made clear. But I could see DC thinking it was a potential problem, and one that might just get worse the longer it goes on.

    Or maybe it wouldn’t have been a problem at all, I dunno. I’m just guessing here.

  • Chris V says:

    Of course not that Gray Man. You obviously meant the Big Gray Man of Ben MacDhui.

  • Thom H. says:

    Those self-referential explanatory panels seem very old-fashioned now, and were probably starting to seem that way even in the late ’80s. I have no proof of that theory, but we were moving away from copious amounts of exposition in dialogue and toward inner-state caption boxes with Batman, Wolverine, Punisher, etc.

    That doesn’t mean the exposition panels couldn’t be brought back, but there are more elegant solutions like an “Earth-2” icon on the front cover and/or a text page at the beginning of the story.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    Green Luthor, the thing is, Roy Thomas was on a roll with All-Star Squadron (the Earth-2-based retroactive continuity comic set during WW II and featuring DC’s Golden Age superheroes). He had already introduced Infinity, Inc. in All-Star Squadron no. 25 (Sep. 1983) in a time travel adventure. Sales on All-Star Squadron in the early ’80s must have been fairly decent because DC Comics agreed to let Thomas launch Infinity, Inc. in its own Baxter paper series in 1984 (probably hoping for an Earth-2-based young adult team that, like DC’s two top sellers of the early ’80s the New Teen Titans and The Legion of Super Heroes, could help DC to catch up to Marvel’s X-Men sales). DC’s Baxter series were only sold at comic book shops, and most people who went to comic book shops in the early ’80s were familiar with DC’s multiverse concept…at least as far as Earth-1 and Earth-2 were concerned. If not, one would just ask the local comic shop owner or employee what this new Infinity, Inc. comic was all about and would get a quick explanation about the concept of Earth-2. Also, by issue no. 2 of Infinity, Inc. there was a panel blurb on page three which stated: “Fury! The Silver Scarab! Nuklon! Northwind! Jade! Obsidian! New names for a new generation of Earth-Two heroes. they don’t know it yet, but they’re about to become a group to rival even the mighty Justice Society of America in lore and legend. They are about to become…Infinity Inc.” By issue no. 6 of Infinity, Inc. the page one panel blurb had been simplified to read: “They are the sons…the daughters…the proteges…of the immortal Justice Society of America. They are the new generation of Earth-2 super-heroes. They are…Infinity Inc.” For me as an early teenager at the time there was no problem understanding that these stories were set on a different Earth–but then I probably first became aware of Earth-2 when I was five or six and just always thought the Earth-2 characters were super cool and I looked forward to the annual JLA-JSA team ups. I was also able to pick up a few of the last issues of All-Star Comics run from the late ’70s before the series folded and thought Paul Levitz and Joe Staton were doing an amazing job with the whole Psycho Pirate story arc. By contrast a lot of the JLA stories being published concurrently were a bit boring. What was also cool about Infinity, Inc. was that it was a legacy comic expanding on what DC had first done in the late ’70s by creating the “Super-Squad” of Earth-2–Power Girl, Star-Spangled Kid, and the original Robin–as junior JSA members over in the short-lived All-Star Comics revival. Also, Roy Thomas was pretty good about addressing any Earth-2 questions or comments or readers’ concerns in his letter columns in both All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc., in case anybody was confused. Here’s a topic to consider for discussion–“Deaths of Earth-2 Golden Age DC Superheroes in the Bronze Age.” Gerry Conway killed off the original Mister Terrific (in JLA no. 171-172, in 1979)–a character who was admittedly probably the least known and least popular JSA member(and, of course, Conway’s most controversial death of a character was Gwen Stacy, but I believe he also killed off Zatana’s mother in a JLA story arc…and maybe more characters); and then Paul Levitz killed off the original, Earth-2 Golden Age Batman in Adventure comics no. 462, in 1979)–how do Earth-2 fans feel about these stories? Personally, I found it distasteful that Conway had the Spirit King take over Jay Garrick’s body so that Garrick literally killed Terry Sloane–the G.A. Mister Terrific. As far as the original Batman’s death, I found the story well-written but thought it odd that G.A. Batman didn’t meet his demise fighting one–or many–of his classic villains. Also worth noting that Len Wein killed off two members of the Earth-2 original iteration of The Seven Soldiers of Victory: The Crimson Avenger’s sidekick, Wing (in JLA no. and the old Crimson Avenger himself, in a backup story in DC Comics Presents no. 38 (1981). Off topic of Earth-2, but Levitz, like Conway, was rackin’ ’em up–he also killed off Chemical King in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. DC also had Aquababy perish in 1978…I think either David Michelinie or Paul Kupperberg scripted that story arc. Cary Bates also killed off the first Invisible Kid back in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes no. 203 (in 1974); and, of course, Jim Shooter killed off Ferro Lad back in 1967–technically late Silver Age–in Adventure Comics no. 353. Levitz would go on to kill off Karate Kid as well, in 1984, but I suppose by then we are in that gray zone of is it the Bronze Age or the Copper Age of comics?
    Anyway, for Earth-2 superheroes pre-COIE deaths, I still think the Wing’s death story arc in J.L.A. no. 100-103 is the most poignant–and the Earth-2 Batman’s death was well-written as well. But for Earth-1 DC pre-COIE, Ferro Lad’s death was probably the most impactfully written and unexpected, as it happened in the Silver Age. Anyone else care to share their thoughts on any of these characters’ deaths?

  • Sean Mageean says:

    I think one of the big problems post-COIE was that in some cases DC just stopped being good stewards of some of their characters and IP some of which had been around for close to fifty years. Then they also took recently acquired IP from other companies –like the Charlton Comics characters–and basically wasted them, altered them or watered them down. The best use DC made of the Charlton Characters was in letting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons adapt them as The Watchmen. Grant Morrison finally did something decent with them in Multiversity “Pax Americana” no. 1 (2015). But over in mainstream DC Comics in the mid ’80s, Captain Atom was reworked and given a hideous chrome look–when either of Steve Ditko’s costumes for the character were much preferable. Denny O’Neil took The Question in a much different direction than what Ditko had intended the character to be…and, although those stories were well-illustrated by Denys Cowan, The Question was given a freaking mullet! Ugh! And then we got a whole wave of ugly mullets on Night Wing, Superman, Beast Boy/Changeling…and Aquaman cosplaying as Poseidon and getting a hook hand…why??? Jim Aparo’s Bronze Age Aquaman was the best depiction of Aquaman…the way he drew Aquaman’s hair underwater
    actually made sense and looked cool. Underwater Conan-Aquaman I just find to be rather goofy as a concept. DC should tap into the Aparo Aquaman energy, and also the Golden Age Aquaman, where he is shown to have super strength and is chucking an angry polar bear at some freaked out poachers. But back to The Charlton characters…imagine if Frank Miller or Jim Starlin had been tapped by DC to write and draw a series that actually had all of the Charlton characters on a team together. Or what if Steve Ditko could have been allowed to draw The Question or The Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) since they were his characters? I actually think it would be funny to read a Silver Age-style pisstake on The Watchmen characters as Earth-3 style Crime Syndicate-type villains who fight and are defeated by their Earth-Charlton counterparts.

    As to DC’s main characters, Perez’s handling of Wonder Woman was great–better than any of her stories had been for decades, but John Byrne was given too much control with Superman because he was a superstar artist of the era. Sure, it was great to see him illustrating the character after the comparatively static art of Curt Swan, and the team ups with other characters(Metal Men, Hawkman and Hawkwoman, Orion, Phantom Stranger, The Demon, etc.,) in Action Comics were fun, but having Ma and Pa Kent still be alive, and discounting Superboy being the impetus for the formation of the Legion of Super-Heroes, was not cool. Also, over in the New Teen Titans comic, the mess that was eventually made of Donna Troy’s origin and life was not cool. She should have remained as Wonder Girl with the cool red jumpsuit costume. Now DC has more Wonder Girls than they know what to do with…

    And, speaking of DC allowing bad stewardship of its characters, one of the worst things that I came to realize after getting back into comics roughly a decade ago after sitting out most of the previous two decades, was learning what had been done to Ralph and Sue Dibny in Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis. I’m also not a fan of Bendis aging up Jon Kent —he wrecked a good thing that Tomasi was developing.

  • Sean Mageean says:

    Re: Daniel’s
    “I have a strong bias towards the DC characters over the Marvel characters, but the one area where I disagree with my fellow DC fans is over this idea of how flawed these characters should be presented. I like the idea of heroes with feet of clay, heroes who are flawed and who make mistakes but who also (and this is the important part) learn from those mistakes (case in point: BvS). But most of my fellow DC fans seem to abhor that. They want these characters to be in a state of perpetual perfection, always doing the right thing at the right time and never doubting themselves or making a mistake. But to me, that is dramatically and narratively inert. The perfect Superman is a boring Superman.”

    Agreed! And I think late Bronze Age DC was starting to move more in that direction…especially in titles like New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes where you had story arcs and character developments, self-doubt and growth for characters including Wally West, Gar Logan, Dick Grayson, and Donna Troy on the Titans team; and Brainiac 5, and Princess Projectra, among other Legionnaires. Even Batman deciding to quit the JLA (because the team would not come to war-ravaged Markovia’s aid) and form The Outsiders was huge at the time (1983). Also, in Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron there was character growth when Amazing-Man was retroactively introduced as DC’s first Golden Age African American superhero (in Amazing-Man no. 23, in 1983); and The All-Star Squadron shortly thereafter have to come to grips with real-world racism in the 1940s when they help Amazing-Man fight for the rights of African Americans in Detroit (All-Star Comics no. 38-40). There is a line of dialogue–I think between Liberty Belle and Johnny Quick–where they mention that even though they are busy fighting the fascism of the Axis powers, they now see up close that there are plenty of homegrown fascists and racists in the U.S. that need to be defeated as well. There is also an intriguing story arc in All-Star Squadron no. 19 and 20 where Brain Wave captures some of the JSA and All-Star Squadron members and creates an illusion that they are fighting in Japan…Alan Scott–also trapped in Brain Wave’s simulated reality but thinking it is actual reality– sees his comrades “dying” in combat one by one and finally freaks out and basically uses his power ring and will power to go Atomic on the simulated Japan in Brain Wave’s simulated reality–and destroys everything. Then he goes into a state of shock and suffers a nervous breakdown for what he did.

    Even dipping back to the cusp of the Silver Age turning into the Bronze Age you have the story arc where the Teen Titans ( Donna Troy, Wally West, Roy Harper, Hank and Don Hall–in TT vol. 1, no. 25, from 1970) renounce their costumes and powers temporarily due to their involvement in the accidental death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Swenson during a riot. And, of course, Denny O’Neil really tapped into the whole “heroes with feet of clay” trope with his and Neal Adams’ legendary run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow at the start of the Bronze Age. And Elliot S. Maggin! and Steve Englehart and others continued developing Green Arrow into one of DC’s best Bronze Age characters…especially in the stories “What Can One Man Do?” and “The Origin of the Justice League–Minus One!”

    But, to Daniel’s point, yeah, Bronze Age Superman stories can be pretty boring–although some of his DC Comics Presents team up stories were fun reads.

  • Mike Loughlin says:

    While there were headaches and growing pains post-Crisis, DC produced diverse, experimental, and impressive comics in that time period. After the dust settled, DC published: Batman: Year One, JLI, Suicide Squad, Sandman, Perez WW, Byrne Superman followed by the triangle years, Grell’s Green Arrow, O’Neil’ & Cowan’s Question, 5YL Legion, Hawkworld, Legends of the Dark Knight, Helfer/Sienkiewicz/Baker Shadow, the Paradox Press books, Morrison on Animal Man & Doom Patrol, Hellblazer, Shade, Wasteland, Grant/Breyfogle Batman, etc. In the meantime, there were a ton of offbeat sci-fi mini-series, D&D comics, and attempts to breathe life into stagnant characters that might not have worked but were usually interesting.

    The company’s output and fortunes ebbed and flowed after the initial creative boom, but the ’90s were full of great DC comics to offset most of the crap. I think 1997-2002 is another creative high point in DC’s history one which ended around the time of Identity Crisis. They’ve published good comics since, of course, but the troubles with timelines and characters that cropped up post-Crisis have only gotten worse. I thought 2016’s Rebirth initiative was the best era that they’ve had since about 2002, but the good times couldn’t last. They don’t seem to want to reboot again, but the constant soft-reboots and timeline mergings haven’t worked out.

  • Snark Shark says:

    Daniel: “Byrne’s first meeting of Superman and Luthor in Mos #4 was soooo much more interesting than the pre-Crisis Superboy-causes-Lex-to-lose-his-hair-in-a-lab-accident).”

    Agreed! That was always a stupid origin, Byrne’s was certainly better. A rich and powerful a-hole NATURALLY doesn’t like a powerful guy who’s actually DECENT and uses his power for good.

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